81

It was cold. So cold the air felt frozen, broken into tiny shards of ice that sliced the throat and slid down in a wash of too-hot blood. Choked and tore and gagged until they hit the stomach and the acid there dissolved them into a sloshing, slushy mess that threatened to come back up just as violently as they had gone down. Fear burned nearly as hot as the blood in his throat at that mental image but it didn’t stop him from swallowing convulsively and gulping in ragged breaths of that painfully cold air. Even if he wanted to stop, he couldn’t. His body and the Self that powered it was determined to survive even if his mind strained under the weight of those continuous attempts.

Looking around was just as pointless as trying not to breathe the too cold air. It was like he was surrounded by darkness incarnate; a primordial version of the Element the Worlds knew as darkness. Something alive just as he was but not yet something infinitely better, stronger, than him. It moved and shifted like the tides of the ocean, pulling and pushing, a gentle tug and tap that was almost a lullaby. But he felt the attention behind it. The unseen eyes, the hands that twitched with a yearning to touch that was so strong his own fingers wiggled in sympathy even if it never moved. He still hadn’t decided if he was thankful for that or annoyed, because the waiting was driving him insane.

The only sense that worked reliably for him was hearing. And even that was iffy because sometimes he heard voices, distant enough that he couldn’t make out the words but far enough away that he didn’t chance calling out to them for help. Scenting the air for magickal signatures, Dhaoine, anything gave him a hodgepodge of emotional scents, skin touched by the midday summer sun, hair tousled by the winter winds at first hint of spring. There was nothing to taste but his own blood and the cold air that seemed to exist out of spite rather than purpose. And touch was… it was hard to know what he felt beneath his knees and against his skin. Didn’t know if it was stone or something else. And it was the else that worried him most. Reminded him of the last thing he remembered, of the Else that had walked the halls of the compound he had shared with Xitlali in N’phier City. It had that same feeling as Rhyshladlyn’s magick did when he dropped all pretense, dropped all his masks, and let the Worlds truly See what he was, what he had always been.

And if the entirety of the place he was kneeling in had that same feel to it only all encompassing? Well he had no idea what to make of it besides the fact that it terrified him and froze him in place simultaneously. Because how could one fight something so powerful when surrounded by it?

And what was worse was that time was immaterial. He had no idea how long he’d been here in this Dark place with its whisper-distant voices and the briefest hints of far off screams that made him jump hard enough the air smacked his face like a scorned lover. All he knew was he’d woken up here, rose out of the embrace of unconsciousness to this purgatory of sorts with its pressing primordial watchful Darkness and a Sentience that made his skin crawl, what little remained of it. That was something else he knew: he didn’t have all of his skin but yet he wasn’t bleeding out, wasn’t dying. Just… existed. Caught between the extremes of the Wheel of Existence, unable to tip himself one direction or the other. Unable to tell which one he even wanted anymore.

All he knew he wanted was for Rhyshladlyn to still be alive. For him to have survived the activation of the Shiëtzir in Ansyen Lontän. Wanted it so strongly it was nearly a Need, one that made his skinless body itch as though the qahllyn’qir he only had by virtue of the Blood Oath he’d Spoken and had Accepted were real in the sense that his little brother’s were real. Remembered the sight of that enormous shadow rising behind the Qishir as the Lines he held shook him around like he wasn’t nearly six and a half feet of pure muscle. Remembered that what he’d believed had been his dying thought was that the Qishir survive. No matter what happened to himself, to any other Dhaoine on the Lines, shit in the Worlds, so long as Rhyshladlyn survived, he would die without fight, without fuss.

Another ragged breath of that too-cold air reminded him of when he’d watched Relyt wake Anis from the eldest Ka’ahne sibling’s death slumber in the Iryduu Mountains back before he’d completed the collar. Reminded him of the cold fury that had burned away the Qishir’s masks the moment he realized what Relyt had put around his neck, when he learned the truth depth of his Steward’s betrayal. He coughed and shook, trembled like the cold touched his skin even though it didn’t. And for the first time in centuries, longer than that even, he prayed with the fervor only a true believer had. Just not to the god he had been raised to believe in.

“Can you hear me?” His voice sounded so wrong. Twisted, scratchy. A sloshed, slushy thing. Like his stomach had replaced his vocal cords and tongue. leaving his voice ripped and shredded at the edges until the integrity of the center was haphazard at best, a hard breath from unraveling entirely at worst. “Rhys, if you survived… please… Hear me.”

If asked why he called to the Qishir he had violated and controlled and forcibly enslaved for salvation in a place that made the nightmares of the Old Stories sound tame, he couldn’t say. Not really. One would think in that moment, mind hovering at the edge of the permanent abyss, riddled with cracks like a frozen lake’s surface right before it gave way, that he would call out to the Many, to any god really Who would still Hear him. But he didn’t call to any of Them. They weren’t real, weren’t touchable to him. Not the way his Qishir was. He reached to Rhyshladlyn because he had a faith in the Grey Qishir that no god and no Dhaoine had ever gotten him to have. Not the way the Bond he’d spoken freely and gladly, even if under false pretenses, had been real. Not the way Rhyshladlyn had gotten him to believe.

And in that moment he realized the full extent of the danger he’d placed the Worlds in. That by making two active Shiëtzirs and tying them to things he hadn’t made sure were properly permanent, he’d ensured the destruction of everything, even his beloved Rhyshladlyn. The moment of clarity had a sobering effect far stronger than the cold air around him did, than feeling of Rhyshladlyn demanding to know where the disaster was before showing up like a god of the Old Stories, shining bright and bristling with righteous power and fury. Rhyshladlyn was alone, he was the only actively Awakened Greywalker in the Worlds and for as powerful as he was, he couldn’t take on one Shiëtzir let alone ten. It took at least five Greywalkers to combat one of the cursed things: one to keep Balance maintained, one to distract the Shiëtzir, one to destroy it, one to ensure that if the first three got corrupted they didn’t survive the event, and one to warn the rest of the Worlds of their failure.

Regret burned hotter than the blood sliding down his throat with each swallow. Made his mind race to find a solution. Anything to help the Qishir he had never wanted to kill, not really, not even when he realized in N’phier that the only chance of his own survival was to take out the threat before Rhyshladlyn could free himself.

“Why did Azriel have to die, though?” Relyt asked, sitting down heavily on the couch, grey eyes staring down at his hands like they held the answers he needed.

Lílrt struggled to find an answer that would satisfy his little brother and comfort him at the same time but nothing came to mind. He was no good at this consoling thing. Never had been. Ahdyfe said it was a byproduct of his childhood, that young learned how to provide comfort by being comforted and he’d never had that.

But when Relyt cursed softly in Gretlök and ran his shaking hands through his hair Lílrt decided it didn’t matter if the answer was comforting and satisfying. Just so long as there was one, that would ultimately be what mattered. Or at least, that was what he hoped.

“Azriel had to die,” he began and sat down on the low table in front of the couch, ducking his head so he could catch his little brother’s slate grey eyes, so much darker than his own despite being an entirely different color, “because his death was considered a sacrifice. Rhyshladlyn had to give up something equally as powerful as himself in order to have enough power to Awaken.”

“But Az wasn’t as strong as Rhys, none of us are,” Relyt countered.

He chuckled. “Aye, that’s true. But it wasn’t Azriel’s life that Rhys sacrificed, Relly. It was the Bond that only a qahllyn and a Qishir share by way of a Blood Oath that was sacrificed. It is the only thing that on its own is as strong as an unAwakened Greywalker.”

“So… it could have literally been either of us?” Relyt asked, no small amount of shock coloring his words. Lílrt wisely didn’t point out the amount of emotion the male was showing and how blasphemous it was.

“Yes. If it hadn’t been Azriel, it would have been you. Fate works in stupid, mysterious ways, and none of us ever know what those ways are,” he answered. “Though I suspect Rhyshladlyn knew before that day what was going to happen, just not how or why or when. Because if it had caught him entirely off guard, more Dhaoine than those trapped in Shiran City would have died.”

His laughter sounded just as twisted as his voice. But he didn’t focus on it because he had his answer. One that was so simple he felt stupid for not thinking of it sooner. Took a deeper breath of the ice-sharp cold air and dove into himself. Dove until he saw the dimming light of his Self and the greyish silver filigree and dots and looping script of what remained of his qahllyn’qir, of the Bond he shared with Rhyshladlyn. Reached for them with a desperation that told him how little time he had left. Plucked the largest strand and gave voice to the Working with a silently Spoken, Allow me to make amends for my transgressions by returning the gift of Acceptance I never deserved from you thrice-fold. Take the Sacrifice of me so that your strength is magnified, your knowledge heightened, your surety made unshakable. What you gave to me, I now freely return with my sincerest thanks and apologies.

The Darkness around him trembled as his words bounced off the unseen walls around him with a ringing finality. It emitted a Sound that tore his ear drums and brought the faint screams and whisper-distant voices so close he could practically taste them. Dispelled the shroud his psyche had given him that hid that those sounds had been him the entire time. He looked down and watched as his hands dug into the meat of his abdomen and pulled, tearing long strings of his intestines out as they broke free of his bleeding, torn flesh. He coughed up blood, choking on the razor sharp icy air, and kept screaming. Felt his mind fill with more cracks, now desperately holding on to the ledge that overlooked the permanent abyss but couldn’t bring himself to feel afraid, to regret his decision. Even if he screamed until that Darkness shifted and moved, coalescing into a shape that wasn’t all encompassing but more humanoid. Fell silent in a mixture of shock and horror that only registered on the surface when it had finished because, gods aplenty, he wished vehemently that it hadn’t.

Because he knew now where he was and knew, too, the one in charge of the domain he had been pulled to before the Nameless could claim him properly.

“You Call to the one to whom you did grievous harm,” millions of voices said, off sync of each other, like ripples in a pond. “You Call as though he is your Patron and offer your very Self as a sacrifice to him. Why?”

He looked up at the god that stood before him with its after-image of faces and its discordant, multiple voices and trembled. Wished he didn’t feel the brush of an attend thirty times more power than Rhyshladlyn’s own. Because he had the feeling that if he answered this god with the truth that the Grey Qishir would not survive it.

“Answer,” the god demanded.

But just as that thought formed, he realized it didn’t matter how strong this god’s attend was, he would never be able to answer it. The Blood Oath between Qishir and qahllyn was sacred, one not even the Ahlüt nes Nühnet would meddle with. And while he had never been truly qahllyn to Rhyshladlyn, his Oath carried no less weight than it would have if he had been. And because of that it protected him just as much as it protected his Qishir.

So he stared up at that god and with a defiance he couldn’t believe he was still capable of in that moment whispered, “Hear me, Rhyshladlyn Ka’ahne. Hear my words and know my life, my Self, is, has been, and will always be yours and yours alone.” Spoke the words around blood bubbles and coughing fits he only barely kept contained. Slowly raised his hands and watched as the god before him realized what he meant to do but it wouldn’t move fast enough to stop him. And even if it could, it wouldn’t matter. What he’d started couldn’t be interrupted now, couldn’t be stopped.

He smiled, whispered Rhyshladlyn’s name one last time in breathless prayer, hoped his Qishir wasn’t too far gone from him to not receive his sacrifice and his prayers and his apologies. Took one last steadying breath and tore out his throat and heart at the same time. As the domain around him tilted as his body slowly fell, he wasn’t afraid. When he saw the qahllyn’qir born of the Blood Oath he’d spoken burn into the visible spectrum with a brightness that would blind the sun, he wasn’t sad, wasn’t disappointed, didn’t feel lost. When his lungs seized and his brain caught up with the fact that this was the literal end, he felt content. Closed his eyes as the impact of his body hitting the floor registered with a dull thud that was drowned out by the howled fury of the god before him.

Lílrt’s last thought before the magick of his sacrifice shattered him was Make sure you fucking beat them all, Rhyshladlyn.

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