He rubbed at his face while he walked back to his tent, fingers catching on his gretkewq, the facets of the jewel scraping softly against the pads of his fingers, feet dragging through the sand. It felt like any other day before the disaster, before the event were it not for the nearly cacophonous silence that filled the place where Azriel’s qahllyn had been; were it not for the emptiness left behind by the loss of Rhyshladlyn’s magickal signature covering the Worlds like morning dewdrops. It was just like any other day except he didn’t want to go back to the solitude of his tent, didn’t want to stare at the same white canvas walls that only served to remind him of the cabin he couldn’t go back to, to remind him of the loss of the laughter and soft moaning sighs that used to thicken the air.
It would have felt like any other day before everything had gone so incredibly wrong if he weren’t leaving the General’s tent after Thyl had summoned the Grey Court in to take a call from Thayne. If he hadn’t had to sit and hear Thayne tell them why every merchant that passed by them from Hagirqi Metropolis and Ikqir gave the camp a wide berth, why only a few in the caravans broke off to exchange supplies with the Court and the warriors and soldiers that still occupied the camp. If he hadn’t watched the expressions of hope and elation give way to shock and hurt and confusion, it would have felt like any other day.
That is if any other day before his life went irrevocably horrible, was a mess of sleepless nights and guilt and hatred at himself and innocent parties and wishing to die while feeling truly murderous all at the exact same time. Which wasn’t the case for how things used to be. Though the Many only knows I wish things were the way they used to be…even if I know they never will be again.
It was still hard to believe that not only was Rhyshladlyn alive but he had killed the Eighth Qishir. And in front of a packed Hall before the Taking Ritual could be completely properly, no less. Thayne had contacted Thyl as swiftly as she could, the news having arrived nearly a week late as it had taken her that long to keep what remained of her mother’s Court from amassing a search of the Worlds to hunt every single member of the Grey Court down and kill them in retribution. While the details of how she had managed to keep that from happening hadn’t been shared, she’d done it. But that hadn’t been all.
Soon as Rhyshladlyn had dealt the death blow, severing the connections between Lulphé and her Triad and Sacred Three before his power had burned out her Self much like he had done to Azhuri, the Qishir had disappeared. Thayne said she had no idea where he’d gone or how he’d gotten out of the Eigth Palace, let alone Bondye World, but she hadn’t had the chance to try and search for him herself, she’d been too busy trying to deal with the aftermath. Had spent the last week meeting with the diplomatic heads of every one of the twenty races and each World Qishir, trying to see if there was any way to prevent all out physical war. She had reached out to let them know that those talks had failed and that the Worlds were definitely at war now, on a level none of them had anticipated. Because Rhyshladlyn had killed the highest sitting Qishir in the Worlds, had done it as retribution for the death of his Companion, had done it as retribution for himself and his sister who had been abused by their father. And because of that, both the Anglë race and the Ancient race viewed it as him acting on behalf of the entire Sinner Demon race for with the death of Anislanzir he was the only living technical male heir to the Sinner Demon throne.
“Naturally, there’s many in the Worlds who agree with what he did, said it was a long time in coming, so there’s threats of civil war throughout the Worlds. It isn’t just the Sinners against the Anglëtineans and Ancients, is every race against every other race. It’s a shit show and I’m doing my best to contain it as much as possible. But I suggest that all of you dismantle the camp, find a safe place to bunk down, and wait for me to contact you again.”
He had no idea where Thayne believed they would find safe shelter, how she expected them to scatter to the winds knowing their Qishir was not only alive but was being hunted, that he was the subject of a Worlds War that was likely to be catastrophic in the damage it wrought before it was over. Never mind what was he supposed to do? He couldn’t just leave. His fellow qahllynshæ was buried here, his Qishir was the Many only knew where, was alone, and likely blaming all of this on himself. And after Thae’a had confessed everything she’d known before the disaster of Shiran City and the event? He definitely didn’t want Rhyshladlyn to be alone. He didn’t want to leave the one place that he knew Rhyshladlyn would always be able to find. He didn’t want to leave the cabin that they’d made their home.
Sure, he had his own selfish reasons. The main one being that now that he had realized that he was in love with Azriel and Rhyshladlyn, he didn’t want to lose the only survivor of the two. Could hardly handle the way his qahllyn’qir burned under his skin at night, could hardly stand the whispers that told him he didn’t deserve them, that he needed to rip them out. But he also knew that Rhyshladlyn shouldn’t be alone. Relyt didn’t want him to be alone anymore than he wanted to be alone himself. He knew that Rhyshladlyn needed to Oath him but after what had happened to Azriel? He also knew that the Qishir would likely fight doing harder than he ever had before. And he couldn’t blame him for it.
With a heavy sigh he brushed his fingers over the bandages that still wound around his hands and up his forearms, a not so subtle reminder to himself of the mistake he’d nearly made the first time those dangerous whispers had prodded at his mind. Stopping just outside his tent he turned and looked towards the emptiness, towards those unassuming, quiet obelisks. He took in the way the setting sun glinted red and orange off their sleek black surfaces, how they seemed to cast more shadows than there were obelisks. Some days he would swear he could almost see the ghosts of the City that had stood where they now did; that he could see the phantoms of the Dhaoine whose graves those seven Watchtowers marked.
Every day was a lesson in patience and control as he fought the urge to walk among those Watchtowers, to search for any sign of his Qishir, of his Anglëtinean. To walk where they had, to see if he could feel even a hint of their magick, of their presence. Was a lesson in patience and control not to hunt down his Key, to be there by his side when he needed him most; after all, he’d done it once before though admittedly not when Rhyshladlyn was purposefully hiding his signature. It took every ounce of will power he had left to remain in the camp, to wait for Rhyshladlyn to come home to him when the Qishir was ready.
Will he ever be ready though? He growled low under his breath.
“Get yourself together, Relyt,” he muttered with a derisive chuckle, “your prayer was answered, the Many gave him a reason to live. Stop rushing him.” With a huff he pushed the flap of his tent aside roughly and stepped inside only to stop short at the sight of someone sitting on his cot, their profile facing him, elbows resting on their knees, hands loosely clasped in front of them. The flap fell back into place behind him with a rustle that sounded almost like it was laughing at him provided he believed inanimate objects could do such a thing.
He wished that he didn’t keep his tent so dimly lit as the flickering shadows hid any details of his visitor’s face and he couldn’t detect any hint of a magickal signature. Just as he was about to open his mouth and demand to know who the fuck it was had invaded his private space, the Dhaoine turned their head and his breath caught in his throat. He would know those eyes anywhere.
“Rhys?” he gasped out, terrified to speak his name, as though this were just another dream that would see him waking in tears, awkwardly aroused, and hating that everything had gone so wrong so quickly.
Rhyshladlyn smiled at him, the action barely touching his eyes and the heavy dark circles that hung like bruises beneath them. His heart broke to see it. That was a smile he knew too well, despite only having seen it a handful of times. It was the smile Rhyshladlyn wore when he was at his absolute limit, when his ability to even attempt to have hope was gone. It was the smile he’d seen just after he and Jylen and Chebnir had managed to disengage the Healing curse Anislanzir had put on him what felt like a lifetime ago. Back when things had been so simple.
“Heya, Rel,” his eyes fluttered closed at that voice, a whimper escaping his throat before he could really stop it. “Sorry to drop in unannounced, but I can’t really walk in here like I used to.”
“I would say that you apparently can, your Majesty,” he replied with a snort, opening his eyes in time to see the blush that darkened Rhyshladlyn’s cheeks as the Qishir looked away.
“I’m also sorry if I startled you. I had to mask my magickal signature,” he mumbled, sounding apologetic, and if Relyt wasn’t so afraid this were a dream he’d find the way the other male rubbed at the back of his neck endearing.
“I would imagine so, your Majesty,” he replied, smirking when Rhyshladlyn’s blush darkened only further. “Killing the sitting Eighth Qishir would certainly make that necessary.”
“Bitch had it coming,” the other male muttered almost petulantly and Relyt knew he shouldn’t but he laughed, feeling like a huge weight had lifted from his shoulders.
“Aye, she did,” he smiled when those expressive eyes turned to him and he slowly, carefully crossed the tent, stopping at the end of his cot, left hand idly stroking over the bandages on his right forearm as his qahllyn’qir squirmed beneath his skin. After a few heartbeats of tense silence, hating how awkward he felt, he gestured at the cot and asked, “May I join you?”
Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes. “It’s your fucking cot, Rel.”
“Aye,” he remarked as he sat gingerly on the cot, careful not to jostle the other male. “But I am not so rude as to assume that you were okay with me sitting next to you.”
A frown that made his heart ache was tossed his way and he was reminded just how young his Qishir was. How despite his incredible power, despite what he was capable of doing and surviving, he wasn’t even a century old. Was reminded that under the hard façade of do not fuck with me and the nearly overbearing confidence that dripped from every pore, Rhyshladlyn was hardly more than a scared teenager who had lost everything and was set up to lose even more.
“I’m not going to shatter because you sit beside me,” he spoke with a confused lilt to the words, as though they were spoken like a question.
Relyt just shrugged and mimicked Rhyshladlyn’s pose, staring at the packed sand beneath his feet, fingers twisting over themselves as he fought not to reach out and touch, fought not to press against the Shields that still thrummed with insistence in his mind across their connection. Fought not to bombard the Qishir with questions until he was blue in the face, not letting Rhyshladlyn get a single word in edgewise until Relyt had exhausted himself. Fought not to run himself in ragged circles trying to figure out what was allowable in this moment, in the aftermath of what had happened, of his realization.
With no idea what else to do, he just sat there, basking in the reality that Rhyshladlyn was alive and he was here. Even if Azriel wasn’t at least he still had Rhyshladlyn.
“I don’t have much time. There’s no telling if I was spotted,” Rhyshladlyn spoke after several long minutes of silence. “I came to s–… to let you know that his bo–” He cut off with a harsh sigh, hands lifting to rake through his hair. “I put him in our bedroom in the cabin,” the words sounded rushed, as though if he didn’t rush them he wouldn’t say them at all.
He didn’t need to ask who the Qishir meant.
“Is he…?” he trailed off, unable to ask whether Azriel was dead or alive. Even though he already knew the answer, there was still a sick, twisted hope that the Anglëtinean was still alive. Couldn’t ask if Rhyshladlyn had prepared him for the burial rites or not. Couldn’t ask if the Anglëtinean looked anything like the male he remembered.
They were all questions he had the answers to, in some way or another, so he swallowed hard around them; bit them back and tried to wait with as much patience as he could while Rhyshladlyn gathered the strength to answer the one question Relyt had been able to partially ask.
“I c-couldn’t bring myself to…” Rhyshladlyn swallowed hard and Relyt watched out of the corner of his eye as he wiped at his eyes with trembling hands. “I couldn’t perform the rites. I tried. But it… I kept messing them up and he deserves better. And I didn’t want to risk drawing attention to myself any more than what I managed to do already.”
“So you brought him home,” it wasn’t a question but Rhyshladlyn answered it like it was.
“Yeah, I brought him home.”
Relyt nodded and reached out slowly, watching as his Qishir turned his head and watched Relyt’s bandaged hand approach him. He hesitated for only a moment before he brushed the tips of his fingers against the male’s bare shoulder. The touch seemed to strike a fault line and Rhyshladlyn let out a sound that was so full of grief that his heart seized and his lungs burned. Then suddenly he had his lap full of brokenly sobbing Qishir.
His sobs were terrifying to hear, body-wracking they were so powerful. Rhyshladlyn’s nails dug crescents into his arms until he felt blood trickle down his biceps and gather in the crooks of his elbows, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know how anyone should respond to grief this profound; grief that stole the breath, boiled the blood, and made one beg for death to strike them for anything was better than living without the Dhaoine one had lost.
He knew that there was nothing to say to make this better because he knew this kind of loss. Knew it as well as he knew his gretluos and every freckle on Rhyshladlyn’s face. Knew it as well as the homeland he would likely never see again. Knew it because he, too, had buried someone he loved, had said last goodbyes far sooner than he wanted to. So he just rested his back against a support pole behind him and wrapped his arms around the shaking body of his Qishir, tucking Rhyshladlyn’s face against his neck, fingers drawing soothing patterns on his bare back, humming soft sounds that had no meaning and no rhythm.
All the while his heart broke to pieces as the Qishir repeated over and over in a voice that was so small, “He’s gone. How can he be gone, Rel? Please… I can’t… he can’t be g-gone. Please.”
He would give his wings, his gretluos, and his gretkewq if it meant that he could take this agony away. He would bring the Worlds to their collective knees if it meant that he would never have to hear these sounds, these anguished whispers and pleas sobbed into the air of his tent again. He would wage a one Dhaoine war against the very gods if it meant that he was able to assure Rhyshladlyn that this was the last time he’d ever feel this way.
But he couldn’t take it all away, he would hear them again, because it wasn’t going to be the last time. All because the male in his lap was Fated to restore Balance to the Worlds and with that came exceptional losses and pain and while he thought it was bullshit, the gods and Fate didn’t ask his opinion.
Relyt had no idea how long they sat there: him holding Rhyshladlyn and Rhyshladlyn breaking apart, sobbing against his chest, tears soaking through his tunic to the skin below, but he didn’t ask him to move. Didn’t complain even when his knees began to throb and his feet went numb. Didn’t speak up even when the bones of his spine began to protest resting against the unforgiving surface of the pole. Because Rhyshladlyn needed this and if he couldn’t provide anything else, he could provide this. He would provide comfort in the only way he could; he’d be the shoulder that kept him standing, the back that braced the weight Rhyshladlyn couldn’t carry, the hands that made sure he was in one piece, the heart that sought him out over all others each and every time.
“I’ll make sure he gets proper rites, g’mii g’Shieke,” he whispered into Rhyshladlyn’s hair when the Qishir finally began to quiet down. “I’ll make sure he’s cleaned up and dressed right. I’ll bury him with full honors for all of our peoples’ customs, especially his own. I will see that he is given a true warrior’s send off.”
“He doesn’t look like himself…it’s-it’s really bad…” the Qishir tried to say, tried to warn him.
But Relyt just shushed him because he had suspected. After all, he had seen what Rhyshladlyn had looked like the second time they’d met in that dingy back alley of Shiran City. He knew what Anislanzir was capable of and he would handle it.
“Peace, g’Shieke. I will handle it. I promise you.”
No response came besides a kiss pressed to the skin of his neck above his tunic collar and a slight nod of his head, but he knew Rhyshladlyn had heard him, knew that he was giving him thanks for doing what he couldn’t. As Rhyshladlyn rested his cheek on his chest, settling more comfortably in his lap, Relyt let his head drop back against the pole. Let his own tears fall, let his own walls down, let his own grief show in the space of his tent, wrapped in the arms of his Qishir. The air grew still as they fell silent, content to hold each other, to quietly remember the male they had shared, the male they had lost.
When Rhyshladlyn finally pulled away what felt like hours later, Relyt let him go. When the Qishir stood and stretched, eyes averted from him as he faced the entrance to his tent, Relyt frowned but pushed aside the flash of hurt. He had known Rhyshladlyn wasn’t going to stay but he hadn’t imagined the visit would have been this short.
“I can’t stay, Rel,” Rhyshladlyn said, shattering the silence that had grown thick with things left unsaid. “I can’t. I’m putting all of you in danger just being here. But I… I had to bring him home.”
“I understand.” And he did. Even if he didn’t like it, even if he wanted to argue, he understood. “But do know that I will follow you. Wherever you go, I will not be far behind.” Rhyshladlyn turned on him sharply, mouth open to argue but he held up a hand to silence him. “No, Rhys, please. You are not the only one who lost a love of your life,” his throat grew tight speaking those words out loud and he looked away from the expression of shock that shifted Rhyshladlyn’s face. “But I still have one of them, I still have you, and I will be damned if you are left alone in the Worlds again. So long as I draw breath you will never be alone again.”
He scrambled off the cot, ignoring the way his knees wobbled and his feet shrieked at him as blood rushed back into them, ignored the way his heart beat hard and fast against his ribcage. Ignored the way Rhyshladlyn’s face fell when he took a step towards him but aborted it before he could even complete the stride.
“I will not argue with you on you not staying,” he interrupted, meeting that intense gaze even when he wanted to look anywhere but there, even though he was afraid of seeing a rejection that didn’t exist, “but I ask that in return you do not ask that I not follow you.”
Rhyshladlyn snapped his mouth shut with an audible click of his teeth and nodded. Silence fell again and Relyt stuffed his hands in the pockets of his pants to keep from reaching out and pulling Rhyshladlyn against him, to keep from wrapping him up in a hug, terrified that he wouldn’t get to do so again for an incredibly long time. Clenched his hands into fists until his nails dug against his palms to keep from begging the Qishir to change his mind.
“He’ll be reborn again, you know,” Rhyshladlyn said apropos of nothing, making him jump slightly. The Qishir’s voice quivered as he looked at him with a soft smile that made Relyt’s heartbeat speed up all the more. “I just have to wait for him. We just have to wait for him.” That soft smile turned careless and by the Many he wanted to kiss it right off his face, to see if tasted as sweet as he remembered it being, but he held himself in check, barely.
He tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “How can you be so sure he’ll be reborn?”
Rhyshladlyn closed the distance between them, hands coming up to cup his face, before he kissed him gently. It was a goodbye without the words and while Relyt was not proud of the sound he made at it, he was proud of himself for not stopping the Qishir as he stepped back and walked to the tent’s entrance.
“Faith isn’t just for the gods, Rel,” he said with another careless, soft smile, and then he was gone.
And in his wake, Relyt fell to his knees, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed.
END BOOK ONE