It felt like his skin was being melted off, like he was boiling alive from the inside out. Felt like his bones had already liquefied as his muscles gave up on trying to keep him functional and everything tilted with a sharp crack that may have been something breaking or dislocating but he didn’t feel anything except the burning, except the agony that made every single inch of him from the hairs all over his body to the Self he could see like an afterimage but couldn’t feel shake and scream.
And because the sound had go to somewhere, he dropped his jaw and released that internal sound into the vocal range as fast as he could draw air. Over and over and over.
“–fuck is happening now?”
“I’m not sure, my Lord, he just stopped moving and–”
“Drag him if you have to! We have to–”
His whole body moved and his screams hit a pitch that made the air itself catch fire and sear his throat and lungs when he sucked it back in so he could keep screaming. And still he screamed because no matter what he tried to do, no matter what he actually did, it didn’t make the pain ease up. Didn’t take away the sense that something was so incredibly, terribly wrong and gods I need to fix it and fix it now why does it hurt so much please make it stop make it stop make it sto–
There was yelling that wasn’t his own, words he caught snippets of but couldn’t focus on because the pain just kept growing as though the longer he stayed awake, the longer he stayed alive, the harder whatever was causing this would work to make him wish he was dead.
And by the Hourglass, Scythe, and Scales, he was so close to that point already and it had only just started.
“–Anointed One, allow me to–”
“–why can’t we pick him up?”
“What did you expect, Lílrt? You collared the motherfucking Grey–”
“Watch your tongue, Xitlali, before I feed it to you.”
“And how do you know that, slave?”
“I have seen this happen before, Qishir Xitlali. We need to get him calmed do–”
It felt like the air had been sucked out of the room, as though he were in a vacuum where nothing lived, nothing died. It was so eerily similar to when he stood at the banks of the River and ensured that a Dhaoine had made it safely across to their intended destination that it gave him pause. Let enough of him swim back to the surface, allowed one hand and part of his face to break above the pure agony. Something caught his hand and gripped hard but it didn’t hurt. He used it like the lifeline it was, gripped just as hard back, just as tightly, and refused to let go.
He blinked and saw Xefras staring down at him, brown eyes glowing with his power, face a riotous mix of fury, fear, and concern. Nameless have mercy, how the fuck do you manage to mix such different emotions and not look like you’re having a seizure?
“Well you seem to have that covered well enough.”
He frowned, trying to place where he knew that voice, tried to recall the name that accompanied it. Xefras’ eyes slid away to look at something over his shoulder, behind him, am I laying on the floor or sitting in a chair I don’t know, and the fury on the slave’s pale face became more concentrated. Became something that shimmered above his skin as though if Rhyshladlyn reached out his hand he could touch the warmth of it.
“Only because I’m holding the tide of it at bay, High General, but even I am not strong enough to block this kind of thing from him for long.”
“And how do you know whatever is causing this can be–”
“With all due respect to you, High General, if you don’t have anything helpful to contribute to keeping slave yshlad stable enough to be helped, stop distracting me.”
Oh you sassy fuck you.
He convulsed, back bowing so hard and so fast that his face sank beneath the surface of the pain again and he was screaming without air to pull in to make the sound. But still he screamed because that sound would rip him apart if he didn’t let it out. Distantly he felt Xefras struggling to keep a hold of the one hand the slave had managed to grab. But the rest of him moved in fits and jerks and starts and then the pain intensified and he felt reality shake around him, saw the trees of the Forest sprout with a thunderous creaking of old, thick bark and settling foliage in the hallway. No one seemed to notice but him or they did but he couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t sense anything, except his own screams, his own pain and the rushing sound of a river broken lose of its banks at the start of the spring thaws.
“–stop engaging the col–”
He gave one last attempt to break the surface again, to catch air, to see Xefras’ face because he recognized this pain finally. Though the first and only time he’d felt it before had been centuries ago and not nearly this bad. After all, he’d managed to get to his twin in time to keep him alive long enough for the rest of the Court who had been present to save him completely.
But this time he was too far away. Was too limited, too contained. This time he wasn’t going to make it. Gods if ever there was a time for us to be like every other set of twins in the Worlds, it would be now.
“Rhyshladlyn, if you can hear me, break the first layer of spellwork. I know you know how to, I know you can do it. Fuck what everyone else will do here. Save Nhulynolyn before his death kills you, too.”
He pulled air into his lungs with a great heaving gulp and listened to Xefras’ voice where the slave had whispered urgently in his ear. Took in the scent of vanilla and cold mountain water and hot desert wind and blood and sand and fire smoke, used it to kick for the surface again, to try and escape, even if for only a moment.
“Please, yshlad,” my Qishir, “do what you need to survive. No matter what it takes.”
His face broke free of the pain again, enough that he saw Xefras with both eyes, was able to see the steady eye contact the slave gave him. The way that while he was afraid it wasn’t of what he was asking Rhyshladlyn to do but rather what would happen if Rhyshladlyn didn’t listen. Xefras’ unshakable faith was evident in the way he stared down at him, the way his hands gripped Rhyshladlyn’s left one as though if he left go they’d both drown. The way he urged and pleaded with his expression, with his eyes, for Rhyshladlyn to just this once, will you listen to reason, will you do what you need to take care of yourself, everyone else be damned?
He hesitated for a half second but then gave the barest nods. And this time when he sank back into the pain, he did it purposefully. This time when he screamed and rattled the foundation of reality around him, around them all, he didn’t fight it. Didn’t worry. Didn’t care about anything but reaching Nhulynolyn in the only way he could.
He felt the snap of the spellwork’s first layer at the same time as his link with his Otherborn twin solidified and gods everything hurt, he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t breathe there’s no air I’m dying we’re all dying please someone help someone fuck fuck can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe help us please.
With an effort, he opened his eyes and saw chaos had landed at the old cabin. Saw Xheshmaryú tear the spine out of a thing of nightmares, some creature Rhyshladlyn had never seen before in his life, watched the Other use that spine like a whip to take down five more of the things. He watched Thae’a throw one trident into one of the fuckers’ chest just as it leapt for Alaïs, slashing out at another with her back up. Watched his older sister glow with power so strong he could taste it like fine wine on his tongue.
Then he looked down and found Azriel crawling across the grassy sand, through blood and other things, his Companion’s legs twisted and useless as he dragged them behind him. Followed Azriel’s gaze to where Nhulynolyn lay in a heap, body nothing more than a ruined mass of red meat. His heart pumped fiercely in the open air, the lung that was visible behind the too white, too dry rib bones below it flat, one leg bent at an odd angle–
Rhyshladlyn closed his eyes with a soft, swallowed sound. He stopped looking because if he didn’t he’d vomit and he’d lose what control he had, he’d waste the chance to save his twin, to save them all. He had no idea what had happened, why those things had shown up at the cabin, why Nhulynolyn and the rest were even there at all, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he save them, that he find help to send when what he could do right then ended up not being enough.
How do you kill what cannot die?
“Send your Shadow, Xefras,” he whispered and knew by the way he felt Azriel’s gaze touch him, felt the weight of his Companion’s attention on the side of his face, that he’d said it out loud, was heard in both places.
“Make me not say it aloud,” he retorted. “I know you have him, I know he isn’t the only one. So send him before they die. Tell him to get as many more of his fellows to join him as he can.” The slave gave a sharp breath, swallowed, and then like the brush of silk against his skin, Rhyshladlyn felt the Shadow Other separate and aim for the cabin.
He pulled his attention from Xefras and the compound where his body lay back to the battlefield the cabin had become. Stepped fully into his presence there and opened his eyes to look down at his twin, his mirror and felt a pang of pure hatred slip across his heart, tighten his chest in a way that had nothing to do with the fact that Nhulynolyn was dying and taking him along for the ride. We wouldn’t be in this mess, I wouldn’t have failed to keep you all safe, if I had just trusted my gut about Relyt from the fuckin’ start. But for all that he wanted to sink into that emotion, that he wanted to drown in it, to pick it apart and understand where he went wrong, he couldn’t. Not yet. Later when he had a spare moment, if he had a spare moment, he would figure it out.
Right now he had to get Nhulynolyn stable so that when Xefras’ Other arrived with the cavalry they had living Dhaoine to save.
“Rhys?” His heart broke at the hope, at the surprise, at the disbelief in his Companion’s voice. Broke further at the fact that he couldn’t answer even while everything in him demanded he reach out and touch the male, trace his fingers along the tattoos that physically showed his qahllyn’qir. But he couldn’t, gods forgive me, because he as out of time.
“Rise, Nhulynolyn, your kè commands it of you,” he spoke the words as an attend, squatting down to lay his hands on the body of his twin, making contact just as the air turned stagnant, just as their heart stuttered, seized. Pulled his power to the surface and thrust it into the dying, mangled body beneath him, Willed it to reform, Willed it to live. “Rise, Nhulynolyn Otherborn, your kè commands it of yo–”
Pain blossomed along his face, stealing his concentration as he was slammed back into reality, brought forcibly back where his body lay in a tangled heap on the floor in Xitlali’s compound. Lílrt’s grey-black eyes were inches from his face, the Soul Healer’s teeth bared in a snarl, one fist cocked back to no doubt punch him again. But Rhyshladlyn just laughed.
“Did you seriously think I would remain contained forever?” he asked, still laughing. “You really should have known better.”
Lílrt’s fist landed again and his eyes rolled as unconsciousness claimed him.