63

He remembered this hallway with its ghosts and its horrors and the memories he wished fervently and always that he didn’t have. But for all that he remembered he didn’t stop walking. Didn’t think he could even if he wanted to, even if he tried.

For every single time he found himself here, staring at the ornately carved, silver dragon-handled black oak doors something major happened. There was some new catastrophe afoot, some machination of fate that he was to play a major role in in some form or another. After all the first time he’d been here had been the day his father had ripped three sets of his wings from his back and nearly killed him. The second had been the day the entire Court had Heard a Steward’s Oath that Relyt hadn’t spoken. And now…

Now he had no idea why he was here again. Had no idea what would happen as he walked closer to those doors and the warning they held and the desolation that leaked from behind them; the death and agony that pressed against the wood until it creaked and whined softly, a muted protest and nothing more. For these doors were strong enough to withstand months’ worth of magickal siege and not give way. Had been strong enough that when he’d rendered the room unlivable, an instant death sentence to anyone who stepped foot inside, they had kept him from escaping. Had held him confined no matter how much power he’d flung to the winds until he’d found his voice to call back to Anis who had run by screaming his name as his older brother had desperately tried to find him.

But it wasn’t that he feared what lay beyond them would get out but rather that he had to go in. Because he knew what the room looked like, remembered it more vividly than he remembered anything else, so there was nothing inside he needed or wanted to see. Despite that, he was compelled to wrap his fingers around those handles, to pull open those doors, and look inside as though what he would find was not what he’d left behind.

And by the Nameless’ cock, he so very much wanted to do anything but that.

Only this wasn’t a dream like the last time, this wasn’t reality like the first time. This was something else, something worse and every instinct came alive and shrieking with it as he gave into that compulsion. He curled his hands around each handle and bowed his head to stare at the carpet beneath his feet, his breath pushing out of him in a whoosh that sounded way too loud in the quiet hallway. His chest grew tight, his stomach revolted, and bile climbed up his throat as he swallowed hard around a lump in his throat and his eyes burned with tears he refused to shed.

He didn’t know why he was here just that he was supposed to be. Just that whatever the purpose of seeing this cursed place for a third time, with a whole new type of wrongness making the air around him unbreathable, was necessary.

So he steeled his all too shaky resolve, clenched his jaw, and pulled on those handles as he stood up straight. As his eyes focused on the room that lay beyond, he frowned at how pristine and perfect it looked. It was if nothing had ever happened here, as though his magick hadn’t scorched the walls and scarred the floor, as though his blood hadn’t stained the carpet until it was sticky with it, until it dried and crunched underfoot like fresh snow.

“What the fuck?”

Then like someone had put a film over his eyes, everything went blurry and shook and when it settled, when his vision cleared, he swallowed thickly. Because sat in the middle of the room was a small fledgling with a pair of wings draped limply to either side of em, eyes staring unseeing at the floor, at the carnage that surrounded em. Ey looked up at the sound of his voice and he cursed, one hand coming up in front of him as he staggered back a step because the eyes that looked at him where his own. Well his and Nhulynolyn’s, mixed perfectly and yet separate, staring from a face that was just young enough that the oldness in those eyes rattled him. Did I always look like that? 

“Why didn’t you kill him when you had the chance?” eir voice was soft but it carried, held the intensity of an orator speaking to a crowd and he blinked. He knew this was himself, knew he was looking at the fledgling he had been when Anislanzir had ripped his wings out by hand and left him for dead, but it felt… he didn’t know how to describe it. It was him but not him. As though the Self behind those eyes was him had he not been subjected to the torture he had in this very room.

“Kill who?”

Him,” ey replied as though the added emphasis alone was answer enough. Which it fucking wasn’t.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Those orange-amber eyes shot through with electric blue rolled hard and eir face seemed to ripple with the motion as though eir entire body rolled its collective eyes at him. Gods aplenty, that is one weird ass thought. 

Yes, you do. You just don’t wanna admit it yet.” Ey rose to eir feet and made a dusting motion at the blood that stained eir pants from the knees down but all it did was smear that precious life liquid and the goopier, thicker things that swam in it. If ey cared or noticed, ey didn’t make it obvious. “It’s okay though, you will eventually. I just hope when you do that it isn’t too late for you like it was for me.”

He frowned again, shaking his head to try and clear the singular thought of what in the entire fuck is going on right now.

“What do you mean?”

Those eyes turned to him and stared with a weight that he felt against every inch of his skin and his breath hitched at the feeling.

“He came for us sooner than he did for you. He found us before we were old enough to recognize what was behind his eyes, what lay beneath his perfect masks. We weren’t old enough to know the danger and how to prevent it, how to stop it,” ey sighed and looked around the room. “We weren’t old enough for a lot of things, not that it mattered. Not that it ever mattered.” Ey looked back at him and he took another step back because the emotion that filled those eyes was not that of a fledgling but rather of a warrior, one old and scarred. It was a look he had seen often enough in the mirror to recognize as his own. “But you are old enough, strong enough. You have seen the truth behind the mask, Rhyshladlyn. Now all you have to do is kill him before he kills you.”

He blinked was standing in the hallway again staring down at where his hands were curled around those dragon door handles, alone, and so very confused.

What the fuck,” he muttered as he let go of the handles and stepped back until he was nearly on the other side of the hallway. Shaking his head he ran a hand he refused to acknowledge was shaking through his hair.

“You cannot ignore it forever, Rhyshladlyn. You will die if you do, they will all die.” He whipped around to face em and came awake with a jerk, eyes staring up at the ceiling of a room he didn’t recognize but judging by the way his skin felt like it was covered in dried blood and aches and pains marched every inch of his body, he figured he was still in Xitlali’s compound.

“You need to stop doing that or one of these days I’m going to be the one who accidentally punches you,” Xefras said testily and he snickered, unable to help it, not caring that the action made his lungs burn and his ribs feel like every nerve ending along them was on fire. “It isn’t funny,” the slave grumbled which only made him laugh harder.

“Oh but it is tho, Xeffy,” he commented around his laughter. “It so very much is. Because how many times have I startled you when I flying or jerking away?”

“Too many times to count. And regardless, you need to stop it. My heart is weak enough as it is, it’s just cruel to be so rude to it,” the slave replied, his own laughter coloring his voice as he did so.

Rhyshladlyn chuckled as he relaxed back on the pallet of blankets he’d been moved to and sank into the repetition of Xefras wiping the blood from his skin. In the easy quiet that fell over them he let his mind wander back to the hallway of his childhood home and the room where his life had changed forever. Tried to make sense of the fledgling who had worn his face and a mixture of his and Nhulynolyn’s eyes and just… couldn’t. Nothing he could think of explained that. No lore, no magickal theory, no history, nothing. And weird sure as shit didn’t begin to cover it.

Yet, it felt like the message the fledgling had given him was more important than any Dream or Vision he’d ever had. Its weight was greater than the mantle of Fate still resting upon his shoulders, for all that he couldn’t feel it as strongly given that he was Imènian-blind.

“How shall you Answer the Call of Fate?”

His answer all those long centuries ago had been yes, same as it was now, but why did it feel like there was a time when he hadn’t answered that way? Why did it feel like that fledgling had been such a time? And that was to say nothing of whoever the he was that he was supposed to kill. Just once when I’m given a vision or some shit I wish these fucks would not be cryptic and just straight out tell me what it is that needs to happen. Honestly. 

“How did you end up here?”

He startled out of his reverie at the sound of Xefras’ voice and blinked at the other male. Watched him work for a heartbeat more in silence as he tried to focus back on reality and not the World his mind had meandered off to.

“Well Xitlali and Lílrt are assholes, for one,” he replied with a grin as Xefras snorted and rolled his eyes.

“That is not what I meant and you know it,” the slave glanced at him, lips quirked in a half smile before he looked away and seriousness and concentration replaced the mirth that had lit up his face moments before. “I meant how did you come to be here, power locked away, with that thing around your neck?”

“How did I allow myself to be forced into slavery given who I am and how powerful I was?”

Xefras blushed, bit his lip and nodded. Rhyshladlyn sighed heavily, laying back down as he did so.

How did he even begin to answer that question? The truth seemed too real, too much. He hadn’t spoken it in all the centuries he’d been enslaved. It was like it hadn’t mattered in the grand scheme of things; only his escape had. But then things had gone from being sideways to being that and on fire and now they were here, wherever here even was and he didn’t know what to think. Now escape didn’t seem as important as survival did because now Nhulynolyn was back, was alive, and if Rhyshladlyn died now? So would his twin.

Plus, he didn’t know what was safe to say and what wasn’t. But really, that wasn’t entirely truthful, was it? Xefras had seen him without the glamours that hid his identity and said nothing. The slave had kept Rhyshladlyn’s secret, saved him from the Hound in the hallway and kept silent on the forbidden knowledge he carried. If nothing else told Rhyshladlyn that he could trust Xefras, that did. Sure Xefras could very well be doing so out of fear for his own safety as well as Rhyshladlyn’s but it didn’t feel like it.

But knowing who he really was and knowing why he was caught by the collar around his neck and rendered weak and useless at Xitlali and Lílrt’s feet and mercy were two different things. And he didn’t lie, not even when doing so would save the receiver a World of pain. No matter if that receiver was himself or someone else. And he wasn’t about to start now. He hadn’t nearly lost himself enough for that. Not yet at least.

“I was betrayed by someone I trusted explicitly.” He closed his eyes and let out a breath that shook and had nothing to do with the way Xefras was catching at the edges of wounds as he wiped the blood and other nastiness off his body. “It was towards the end of the war and I had…” he swallowed thickly and tried again. “I had gotten intel that some major shit was going down, that someone in my Court had known and kept it to himself. So I went after him.”

The silence was so thick he could have cut it with a knife as Xefras’ eyes landed like a weight on the side of his face but he didn’t open his eyes and he didn’t focus on it. Because the slave never once faltered in his work to clean Rhyshladlyn’s body and if he could be so perfectly focused then so could Rhyshladlyn. Gods this is harder to speak of than I thought it would be. 

“It didn’t go well. Actually that is an understatement. It went horribly. I called him out in front of the entire camp and virtually all of my Court. And he just… he acted like he had done nothing wrong. That yeah sure shit had gone bad and people had gotten hurt, had gotten hurt and nearly killed, but no one had actually died and everyone was fine so it wasn’t a big deal. Because his feelings had been hurt so while he hadn’t intended for things to go so badly, he wasn’t responsible for the fact that they had. I was.”

There was a wet plop as Xefras tossed the rag into the bucket and then the slave’s hands were curled around his left one and Rhyshladlyn swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and the fury that made his blood feel like it was boiling.

“Rh–”

Don’t,” he snapped and blew out a breath, counted to ten and tried again. “Sorry… but just–just don’t. Okay? Don’t tell me you’re sorry. Don’t tell me that was fucked of him, don’t do any of.. just don’t.”

“Okay. I am sorry, please continue.”

He nodded and opened his eyes but he didn’t see the ceiling above him. Instead he saw the Steward Corps’ camp, saw Relyt walking out of his tent as Rhyshladlyn came for him. Saw the hope and the shock right before his fist had shattered the Soul Healer’s nose and sent fractures across his cheekbones before the force of the blow flung the traitorous shit back into his tent. Saw the way Relyt hadn’t looked scared or even pissed. He’d looked resigned, like he had expected that response, as though he had been waiting for it. But under that resignation had been something else, something brighter and yet darker all at once.

There had been love and hope and a type of jealousy that should never be allowed to see the light of day once discovered because it always turned into hate.

“I would have killed him. I wanted to kill him. By the Cliffs, I had every right to.”

“But you didn’t.”

He chuckled but it was cold and empty. “But I didn’t,” he confirmed.

“If I may ask,” Xefras’ voice was careful, soft, as though he knew how shaky Rhyshladlyn’s World was at the moment and he appreciated the caution. “Why didn’t you kill him? If you wanted to so badly and there wouldn’t have been repercussions for it, why did you hesitate? From what little I know of you from our conversations and such over the years, if you have it in mind to do something, very little will keep you from doing so.”

The question caught him entirely off guard and really it shouldn’t have. It was one he’d mulled over in his more clear moments over the years but he’d never really gotten far. And if he was willing to be fully honest with himself it was probably because the answer, the real answer, was more painful than the betrayal itself was. And that was why he spoke it now because the only way he could regain control over it all was to give it a voice, to take that control back, to own what had happened and refuse to forget.

“I love him,” he whispered the words and the first tear fell down his face to pool in his ear but he didn’t move to stop it or any of the others that followed now that the dam had been broken. “And even though I had proof that he had done some horrible shit, I allowed Azriel to stop me. Allowed myself to be sent to cool off and gods but I wish I hadn’t.”

“Why?” Xefras sounded scared and he didn’t blame him. He knew this story, he’d lived it after all, but no one else in the Worlds seemed to remember like he did. By the Cliffs, Xefras had thought he was dead. And some days he wished he were because anything was preferable to this.

He turned and looked at the slave then, looked at the male who had become his friend, who had kept him alive in one form or another over the last couple centuries and spoke another hard truth that he had barely admitted to himself. And in doing so made his entire situation far more real than it had felt since the day it happened.

“Because he’s the one who put this collar around my neck and spoke the words that activated it.”

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