84

Agony. Burning, itching, slowly taking over everything. Spreading sure and steady like the incoming tide, inevitable like death and just as powerful. Debilitating as it hit the lungs and filled them with no space for the air needed to keep vision clear. Inhale, exhale. A shudder that ran from head to toe and back again, stopping at the chest, wrapping around a heart desperately trying to keep beating. Seared nerve-endings crying for a mercy that wasn’t coming as power hotter than fire and colder than ice replaced the blood in veins that had burst.

Hands that trembled like the ground during an earthquake lifted into sight, fingers glowing like the sun was held beneath skin spread too tightly over bones, threatening to split under the strain. Right filled with the burnt after image of filigree and dotted knotwork and looping script, the remnants of qahllyn’qir that shouldn’t exist because the Oath they Spoke of hadn’t been spoken by a legitimate qahllyn Dhaoine but rather one who had been masquerading as one. Left bereft of any markings except scars that faded with each passing second, leaving only the god-Mark that rested just below where wrist met palm-heel. It was wrong, so wrong. Because that Mark was less the divinely glowing thing it had always been and more like ink that had settled beneath sun-kissed garden soil-colored skin.

The agony reached a fever pitch with a sound like fury and loss and desperation as light replaced everything, including the air, and already struggling lungs failed entirely. The distinct sound of shattering glass and tearing metal, splintered stonework, and ripped mortar wrapped around a sound so ancient it made the marrow in the old, aching bones holding up a body that felt too big and too small and wrong so very, very wrong ripple like the disturbed surface of a death-still lake. That agony hit a throat already raw from making a sound that never hit hearing range and ripped a howl that bordered on a wail out between lips torn by fangs that punched down from a palette that throbbed with their emergence. That light flared again, swirled around a wind that tore long, bloody gashes in exposed and non-exposed skin alike before reality bent and then dropped. The settling of it all jarring in a way nothing else was.

A pause, like the Faceless Himself had frozen Time again, given the barest brush of His fingers to the fabric that shrouded the mortal mind from the true reality of Existence and gave teasing glimpses of what lay behind and beneath that fabric. Then eight words spoken in a prayer that never should have reached ears that rang with Song and unSpoken yet Known truths, Make sure you fucking beat them all, Rhyshladlyn, and Time sped back to normal, caught up as lips and tongue and vocal chords formed the only words that could be said in response, “You have my word.”

Sight evaporated like dispersed smoke, agony filling eyes that were both too wet and too dry until there was nothing but it and a darkness so absolute it was as though light had never existed in the first place. As though the Ahlüt nes Nühnet had never lifted its hand and Spoke such a thing into being. Balance shuddered, tipped and swayed, a threatening whisper of unsureness, as though it had no more grasp than reality did on stability. Knees wobbled, weakened under the strain of a body they weren’t made to hold to the weight of, the stone floor beneath weary feet groaning as it bowed under that sudden extra weight. As though muscle and bone and sinew and feathers and armor and steel weren’t the only things that made up the body that stood upon them. As though there was more, else, that filled a Dhaoinic body suit until it leaked out around the edges, until it smeared the lines and blurred the colors that made it up. Something that never should have existed, that wasn’t supposed to exist outside of myth and legend and nightmares, given breath and life and sentience.

Movement brought sightless eyes swinging round, brought the face they sat in turning towards a warmth that could only be sunlight, drawn like the proverbial moth to the flame. Called to it and the safety it promised, even if that promise was a half-truth, even if there was no such thing as safety not for something that shouldn’t be alive. But it was better to fall for a known half-truth, a promise that didn’t carry enough weight to calm torn, screaming nerves, to sooth a heart that didn’t know how to function properly anymore, than to make a choice between a death-dealing option and a life-ruining one.

“But you must choose.” The voice was soft, gentle, understanding almost and cold fury filled a body that didn’t follow orders to move like it should, as though it operated independently of the Self that filled it. Burned away just enough of the agony that incapacitated it so that vision cleared and the barest sound of shuffling leather boots on stone could be heard over the screams of terror and pain that plucked at the air like the fingers of a bard plucked at fiddle strings.

“There are always more than two options,” a voice like molten glass ripped across a tongue that felt too thick, too long, for the mouth that housed it, “and I am sick of being a pawn drawn and quartered between two impossible options.”

“There are no other options,” that voice was less gentle but still as understanding. It sounded familiar but the why was as elusive as the tiny hummingbird in a lush garden: recognized by sound but unknown despite that.

Laughter like a million blades sank deep into skin already so incredibly tender, mirthless and full of disillusionment and malcontent. Unease dripped from that owner of that understanding voice, bringing another bark of that bladed laughter, this time with an undercurrent of shadowed delight that was neither safe nor healthy.

“If you really believe that, then you obviously don’t know me that well.”

“You have to choose, Rhyshladlyn,” that voice was sharp, angry, no longer understanding, and the way it wrapped around his name made him flinch but not out of anything save fury at the way it spat his truth like a disgusting food it hadn’t wanted to eat. At the way it gave his name the proper pronunciation no one else ever had, defiling it in a way not even his body had been. “Either you accept the Sacrifice in full and the responsibilities that come with it or you reject it and face the future without the aid of it.”

He laughed again and rolled his head on his neck, eyes falling closed as he did so, feeling his joints pop and settle, getting a feel for the body that he couldn’t fill comfortably anymore, for the power that now outshone anything he had ever commanded in the nearly nine centuries he’d been alive. Tasted the air, so full of the unease of the thing speaking with him, of the terror and shock and pain of the Dhaoine he hadn’t been able to evacuate. Licked his fangs and the lips that curled back over them when he caught the retreating scent of Thayne, knew she’d seen him, knew by the way her terror, disgust, and grief mixed that she knew what had happened and knew the only viable options. Took a deep breath and let it out slowly, letting it ground him, center him, because he knew he was speaking to a god, knew instinctively that his next words would not be well received. And he really didn’t give a shit.

“With all due respect, fuck you and fuck that.”

“So be it,” that voice snarled. “Remember when things fall apart that you were warned, that you were given the option to choose.”

He loosed a sound that burned the air, rent long gashes in reality, and shook the fabric of Existence as that agony from before came back a thousand fold. He stumbled and fell to his knees under the onslaught but didn’t care too much. Just closed his eyes and let it wash over and through him, let it fill him up until it spilled out of his mouth and his eyes. Until his nails dug into the stone floor beneath him, until his skin bubbled and split and the all too familiar feeling of blood dripping down his skin told him things had gone from unpleasantly worrisome to really fucking bad in a heartbeat. But he still didn’t give in. Because he’d never been given the option to chose, had always been told that he had one purpose and one purpose only. And he had fulfilled that purpose a million times over and by his god-Marks and magick, he was done being the gods’ pawn. He was done cowering under Their gaze.

As he pulled his hands from the stone beneath him, he vowed that regardless of what, or how long, it took, he would ensure They never forgot why it was his shoulders that Fate had crafted Their mantle for. He made an indescribable sound as he clapped his hands and evacuated the remaining Dhaoine in the Palace right before he buckled the walls and brought the whole thing down around him.

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