“This isn’t possible,” his voice didn’t sound right, like he was hearing it through water or from a great distance. “I watched you die, I felt it. There wasn’t anything left of you or Majik World.”
The thing that wore his brother’s skin shrugged, arms held out expressively with all the flare Anis had always had, that smile that wasn’t quite a smile pulling at his lips. “You know as well as I, lil’it bròtr, that our people have the ability to bring back the dead before their time. We’ve had it for eons.”
“Shut up, there wasn’t any body left to bury let alone to put your Self back into,” he snapped, feeling like he couldn’t breathe. Like there was a Hound sat on his chest, teeth-riddled mouth salivating inches from his face, just waiting to eat him alive. “So cut the shit and tell me who the fuck you really are.”
Clear blue eyes sparked and danced just like Anis’ used to when he was amused with him and it made Rhyshladlyn’s skin crawl because there is no way this is possible. He had watched his brother die, had had to choose between saving his Steward and Companion (and himself) or letting his brother and the entirety of Majik World die. The choice then had been simple: save himself and what little of his Court he had. He had already accepted the mantle Fate had carved for his shoulders that any other choice was just… it wasn’t doable. Never mind that the mere idea that his father would have gone on for longer killing and raping and torturing innocents until Fate’s next choice was born and raised and old enough to understand had been unacceptable even as a hypothetical. When faced with it becoming real? It had become a hard stop fuck that.
But this…this thing bearing his elder brother’s face, his skin, his hair and eyes and voice? This was wrong. This had to be a trick, some magick sent to punish him. This was a specter intent on torturing him in a way that no physical torture had ever done before.
This held the very real potential to break him where everything else he’d face hadn’t.
“Tell me who you are!” he hollered, voice echoing off the dunes and the Watchtowers in the distance, a delayed whisper of sound that made something tickle at the back of his mind; some thought that tried to form but didn’t have enough sustenance to succeed. Not yet.
“Lil’it bròtr, you know who I am.”
“Stop fucking calling me that and tell me who you are!”
For a long, thickly silent moment he feared it wouldn’t answer. But then it did and somehow that was worse than if it hadn’t.
Nully…? I need you here.
“I am Anisfajir Faolan Ka’ahne, blooded first son of Anislanzir Faolan Ka’ahne, Lord King of the Sinner Demons, twin of Alaïs Rin’zhur Ka’ahne and elder brother of Rhyshladlyn Nhulynolyn GreySong Ka’ahne. I am–”
“–stop!” he demanded, shaking his head as he took a step back, the thing wearing his brother’s face following him with a grace he couldn’t remember if Anis had had or not. “Stop! This isn’t real. It can’t be real. You’re dead.”
“–first in line to inherit the throne of my father and my father’s father.” It just kept talking as though Rhyshladlyn hadn’t interrupted it, kept pace with him as he shuffled backwards down the sand dune towards where his second set of Shields enclosed Shiran’s Watchtowers. “I have two sets of wings that I cannot display for doing so would kill me because of an injury I suffered at the hands of our father. I have spoken to a literal–”
“–no, you are not my brother. This is a trick! This is a lie!” He yelled, voice echoing all around him as he slipped through the Shields and fought to keep from falling down the sand dune as the sands shifted and swayed underfoot. Why is it so easy to hear each other? The wind was howling when I got here.
“–Old One, the Nameless, first of three total Patrons of you, Rhyshladlyn,” it stepped easily through the Shields after him, pace even and calm. “I buried the ashes of my mother, killed at your hand because you deemed that she had betrayed you to Father.”
That niggling thought grew more insistent and he tried desperately to listen to it, to let it take root and bloom, but with this impostor wearing Anis’ face advancing on him with the measured steps only the long lived races tended to have, he couldn’t. The only thing he could do was look closer. So he fell silent, focusing in on the thing before him. Focused on the small things, like the way it tilted its head, the way it enunciated certain words versus others, the syntax of its speech. Because if this was really his older brother reborn, it would act exactly like Anis down the smallest tick of the muscles along his jaw when he spoke of their father.
Because knowing all the tiny details of things meant shit if the reactions were off.
But for all that he tried to find discrepancies he came up with nothing for the effort. Which just made this entire thing all the worse, but he refused to believe that Anis was stalking him down the dunes towards where Shiran City had once been. That his voice held an edge only their father’s had ever had, that eyes that had always been filled with dancing mischief and a smile, even if neither had shown on his face, were looking at him with an emotion that was far too close to contempt to be anything but that.
“I searched far and wide for you at my twin’s side, looked for answers to questions I didn’t want to ask, and I died before I got them. I died,” it continued, advancing step after step, but Rhyshladlyn found himself rooted to the spot; found himself incapable of running anymore from this thing, this nightmare of his mind given flesh and blood to face him down at the site of his greatest sin, “because of you. Because you just couldn’t control yourself. Because you were selfish and saved three Dhaoine instead of hundreds of millions.”
“I…” he swallowed thickly, his voice utterly giving out on him in that moment. He didn’t even know what he would say even if his voice was working.
“If you had just been good, our lives wouldn’t have gotten fucked with and torn apart. But you just couldn’t stay in your place and leave well enough alone, could you?” It was nearly on him and every instinct screamed at him to run but he was rooted in place. Azriel! Nully! Please. “You just couldn’t be the dutiful second heir and behave, could you?”
Anis had never spoken to him like this outside of his own thoughts, outside of his own nightmares when the Ysborogh he’d drink his body weight of before passing out did nothing to silence his depression and the spiral it brought along for the ride.
“I would still be alive if it weren’t for you. All of Majik World would still be alive if you hadn’t run away like the coward that you are. Why the Old Ones saw fit to Mark you is beyond me.” Contempt bordering on hatred flashed across those clear eyes and Rhyshladlyn felt his heart break a little. This can’t be real. “Why didn’t you stay, Rhys? Why did you run and leave me to die?”
But knowing that his brother had never said that shit to him in reality didn’t stop him from responding just as he did in those nightmares, like he did under the crushing weight of his guilt and his failures, “I… I’m sorry. I tried to be good but… I… but I was doing what I thought was right, what I thought was honorable. I didn’t have any other choice. I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t nearly good enough and it never would be.
“You aren’t sorry,” it answered, face twisting with the words just like Anis’ always had when Rhyshladlyn had done something to piss off the older male. When he had crossed a line that was so monumental that a simple apology, no matter how sincere, just wasn’t enough to make amends, to earn him the forgiveness he sought. “But you will be.”
With a scream that danced loudly back at him from the sands, he sank to his knees at the edge of the valley’s base, his back to Shiran’s Watchtowers and dropped his face into his hands, body wracked with sobs.
“Rhys!” The sound of Azriel calling his name should have been a comfort but it wasn’t. Not really. Because when his Companion reached him, the bile threatening to vacate his body via his throat rose with greater force.
All he could say when the Anglëtinean reached him was, “Please tell me you saw him, too.”
“Saw who?” Azriel’s voice sounded wrong but Rhyshladlyn couldn’t place how. “There is no one here but us and the dead.”
“Anis,” he answered as Azriel took his hands and pulled them away from his face. “You saw him, right? He was just here.”
The silence that answered him was profound.
“Yo! Azriel! I found him!”
He jumped, finding himself blinking up at Nhulynolyn who was waving at something behind him. Tried not to flinch when his twin turned to face him and squatted down to be at eye level, face a riot of emotion that moved too fast for Rhyshladlyn to track. The Other’s magick was a riot of movement, too, at once too warm and too cold, casting shadows where they shouldn’t be as his shadowfire shimmered to life beneath his skin.
“Twin a’mine?” Nhulynolyn asked, the unspoken are you alright? clear as the worry that colored the edges of his voice.
Rhyshladlyn didn’t answer, just listened for the Other’s magickal signature that was only one note off from his own, letting out a shaky sigh of relief when he heard it. Berating himself even as that relief spread warmth through him for not doing the same to the thing that had worn Anis’ likeness.
But hindsight was always clearer.
“Rhys!” Azriel’s voice was filled with a flash of anxiety that made his skin prickle. “There you are, we’ve been looking everywhere for yo–”
His Companion stopped mid-word, eyes widening when he met the other male’s eyes. Rhyshladlyn didn’t know the look on his face but he imagined it wasn’t all too dissimilar to the one he’d given the Anglëtinean when he’d come stumbling out of the Forest after the Oiki attack on the Steward Corps’ camp. When he’d spoken to and been held by something that was Azriel but wasn’t. Much like whatever the fuck the thing that had been wearing Anis’ likeness had been his brother but not.
By the Scythe, Hourglass, and Scales, what is going on anymore?
“It happened again.” Azriel said, tone sharp-edged but none of it was directed at him.
“Yes, I don’t… I…” he huffed out a frustrated breath and waggled his fingers at Azriel who closed the distance between them without a moment’s hesitation. Always unafraid of him, always running to him even when others ran away. “Is this real?”
“Why d’you question if this is real?” Nhulynolyn asked in the way one does when they already suspect the answer and know that it’s one they definitely aren’t going to like.
Rhyshladlyn sighed softly when he felt Azriel’s power slip along his own, when he heard the notes of the Anglëtinean’s signature entwined with those of his own; a melody that sang home and safety. He answered while he relaxed back against the thrumming Heart Watchtower, not remembering how he’d gotten there and at that moment, not remotely caring. Because at least this, hopefully, was real.
“Because I saw An–” he cut himself off, not willing to speak his brother’s name and make the possibility of him having a mental break any more real, “–something, I saw something… and immediately after, I saw Azriel.”
“But I found you first.”
The emotion in those five words made Rhyshladlyn open his eyes and smile up at the Other but he knew it didn’t really even touch his lips by the way Nhulynolyn squinted at him.