Threads of Fate
In the end, she did come to them - a ways, anyway. They stopped for the afternoon, and then continued on at night, before coming to a cluster of rocks and earth that vaguely resembled some of the mounds Patrick had seen scattered about the scenery as he traveled. It was more earthy, though - it looked less constructed and perfect. More like something that had occurred naturally.
It was also much smaller, and nearly concealed by the underbrush.
And she came walking up from it, almost seeming to appear from out of nowhere, cloaked in red, with long dark hair that reached to her feet, and a face of pale, unhealthy beauty. She was tall, statuesque, and she seemed somehow to hold wisdom, disdain, and sufferance in her face all at once, without a real expression.
"Come with me," she said when they came closer. Her voice was cold - like the Huntress, but with indifference rather than cruelty. She made no move to attack or force them, but turned again and strode back toward the mound. She seemed to float as she did, as if she had no legs but glided on air underneath that brilliant, crimson cloak.
Alex and Patrick exchanged another worried glance.
Marc didn't seem to be afraid - maybe he felt the risk wasn't worth worrying about, or maybe he was too out of it to feel fear at that point. "Well," he said, voice distant and a bit foggy. "This is what we came for, right? Let's go."
"I don't like this," Alex muttered, but he followed his brother's lead, and Patrick moved on after him.
The air was unnaturally quiet.
She stopped near a small patch of roots and rocks, and stared intently at the cluster. Under her gaze, the roots abruptly pulled back, tugging stone and obstacle out of place until Patrick saw an opening - big enough for them to pass through easily - revealed. There was a faint glow coming from inside, and he could see stairs leading down into the earth.
"Go in," she said, once again regarding them with that impassive stare.
Alex grabbed his brother's arm before he could move to obey. "You first," the younger twin demanded, glaring. Only the slight nervous twitching of his fingers betrayed his unease.
Patrick sympathized. This is… really, really creepy.
A slight smile played on their guide's face - without a word she turned and entered the passageway, disappearing down into its depths.
"I'll go ahead," Alex told his brother, fiercely, and moved to follow her without waiting for an answer or argument. Marc went after him, and Patrick - by unspoken consensus - brought up the rear.
And behind them, the stones and roots crept swiftly back in to cover the place where they had entered.
The stairs didn't wind. Patrick could see both twins ahead of him, and the red-cloaked faerie beyond that. There was no visible source of light, but somehow it always seemed as if there was something glowing just up ahead. It wasn't the best light - it cast shadows and didn't supply enough brightness that a person could read by it - but it was good enough to keep them from stumbling on the stairs.
Which seemed to go on forever.
Patrick checked his watch. It was probably useless, but he couldn't help it. It read 10:12, but it was probably later than that. He hadn't checked it at the top, so it didn't help to measure the passage of time.
He guessed about twenty minutes.
Patrick started counting stairs.
One. Two. Three…
The light seemed to grow stronger, flickering - but then it stopped, fading out again.
Sixty-four. Sixty-five. Sixty-six…
Alex and Marc's footsteps echoed in strange counterparts to his. There was no fourth set.
One-hundred-twenty-seven. One-hundred-twenty-eight. One-hundred-twenty-nine…
"We are here."
At the bottom of the stairs, she waited for them. The passageway blocked Patrick's view of the rest of the room - he had to wait until he got all the way down before he could see it. What he did see was somehow not what he'd expected.
There were three other passageways leading from the chamber - one on each of the four walls, including the one they'd come in through. The doorways were dark, and he couldn't see beyond them. Inside the room, there was no decoration, and the only visible source of light was at the center of the room - a large, ornate red cauldron with contents giving off a soft, sickly yellow glow. The rest of the room was brown and earthy-looking, as if made from compressed soil.
And it probably is.
"I am Leansidhe," the red-cloaked faerie announced, as if they didn't know. She spoke almost with indifference, approaching the cauldron. Then, Patrick saw more emotion from her - she touched the sides of the thing almost lovingly, although her expression did not change. "You came to seek me out."
"Are you planning to suck out our blood?" Alex put himself between her and the other two, expression determined.
She turned to face him, again without expression. "I have as much as I need at the moment - you cannot tempt me with more."
"I didn't say it to tempt you!" The younger twin glared again. "We're here to ask if you - "
"I know why you are here." The Leansidhe abruptly cut him off, waving one hand indifferently. "To be released from a claim twice-fold."
Alex frowned, eyes narrowing with familiar suspicion. "Can you do it?"
The answer was like some electric shock - it wasn't completely unexpected, but Patrick felt a jolt run down his spine all the same, making him shiver a bit. This was it. This was the end of the quest, the answer to their problem… It could all end with this.
"And will you?" Alex went on, relentlessly. His fingers were shaking again - Patrick could see it even from where he stood. He must have been excited, but was trying not to let it show or get his hopes up.
The Leansidhe regarded him steadily. "You understand that there will be a price."
Marc stepped up to his brother's side at that point. "What is the price?"
"It won't be I who asks it." She stood unmoving - and unmoved. "I practice the arts for those who seek me out, and take blood from the vain and foolish when it is required. Fate determines what price you pay for my aide, and I care little for what that price might be. Do you accept?"
Alex took a quick look at each of the others - probably just to make sure neither of them wanted to back out - and then said, "We accept. What do we do now?"
The Leansidhe slid her gaze toward Marc. "Come here," she said.
He did as she asked. Patrick could feel his own heart racing, and wondered how Marc managed to look so calm. I'm probably scared enough for both of us, I guess.
Without another word, the red-cloaked faerie held out one slim, pale hand, and Marc collapsed bonelessly forward into her arms.
Alex let out a cry of alarm and started forward. "What are you - ?"
"Do not interfere!" Her voice was like a whip snapping; she held up the other hand, and the younger twin froze. "It has already begun." And then Patrick saw the wafts of misty smoke drifting out from the depths of the cauldron, bringing an opaque light with them.
The hair rose on the back of his neck - all he could do was watch silently.
"This child," the Leansidhe said, voice almost seeming to echo as if they stood in some immense chamber, "stands at the center of contention. Bring him to face what destiny has to offer." She drew back her arms, but Marc didn't fall. He hovered instead, still for a moment where she had left him, and then he began to rise as well, carried up by unseen hands.
Patrick held his breath. The atmosphere was - if anything - even creepier.
This is our best chance, though…
The Leansidhe moved to stand in front of the cauldron, her back to them as she faced Marc. The massing of drifting smoke formed into more of a whirling mass, rising up infinitely from its source to circle around the unconscious blond, not quite blocking him from view. It sounded like wind on a furious stormy day, but not even so much as a breeze disturbed the air.
Alex crept over to Patrick's side, and reached out for his hand. His own fingers were shaking. Patrick squeezed back reassuringly, trying to pretend that he wasn't almost as worried and frightened himself.
"Allow me to spin," the Leansidhe declared suddenly, and out of that chaotic mix, a thin tendril slid out. As she held out her hand, it curled in on itself, spinning rapidly, out of the mist and into an even ball of what looked like thread.
Once again, Patrick was lost. What…?
"This child's life is thin," she went on, voice clear - vibrant and proud. "No thread of mortal existence can be split between two worlds and not break. Come." She reached out, and the free end of the roll of thread uncoiled to move slowly toward her.
Marc made a small, distressed noise, and his fingers curled loosely, as if he was fighting something. The thread's progress slowed further, and it hovered, quivering, as if it weren't certain whether to move forward or flinch back.
"Come," the Leansidhe repeated, more firmly, and the thread shivered violently. Marc's face twisted, and he tossed a bit - Alex's fingers clenched tightly around Patrick's as he did. "Come to me if you would be freed from the restraints that bind you."
The quivering stopped - the thread wound back slowly into its coil. Ignoring the outstretched hand, it began to slide backwards into the swirling mist, unraveling and vanishing as it did.
The Leansidhe sighed.
"What?" Alex let go of Patrick's hand, finally finding the courage to demand to know what was going on. "What just happened? Was it supposed to do that?"
Patrick swallowed, and bit his lower lip, wincing. He had a sneaking suspicion…
She turned to face them, lowering her arm, and raised calm eyes to study Alex with that impassive stare. "I cannot help him."
"But you said that you could!" Alex's voice was accusing - disbelieving. His expression was desperate. "You said you'd do it, and it'd be fine if we were willing to pay the price! And we are!"
The Leansidhe regarded him steadily. "I can do nothing if he does not wish to be helped."
Alex opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
I thought so… Patrick could feel an ache building in his chest as he watched the younger twin's face fall from determined to devastated. "Alex," he said, after a moment of seeing his lover struggle for words that weren't going to come. He wanted to say something - anything - that could make it all better.
"No." Alex shook his head, recoiling as Patrick reached out hesitantly toward him. "No." He shook his head, and repeated the word again - as if he wasn't even sure what he was denying, exactly, just that he needed to voice that denial. "No. No, it's not - he wouldn't - he can't - " His gaze shifted from Patrick to the sidhe woman again, imploringly.
She shut her eyes, and turned her head away.
That seemed to be enough for Alex - with a strangled half-cry, he ran for the door and back up the stairs, footsteps carrying back heavily as he went.
Patrick started after him, and then stopped in mid-stride. Can't just leave Marc… Alex, at least, would be able to take care of himself, even distraught as he was. Marc was unconscious, and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to leave him with a faerie who stole people's blood. I'll have to find Alex later.
The Leansidhe appeared to have anticipated his thought process - when he turned around, she was holding Marc's unconscious form out toward him. "Take him," she said.
Patrick did, and hesitated for a moment. "Um. Thank you."
She did not speak, or even smile, in return.
All right then… Shifting Marc onto his back so that he could be carried more easily, Patrick started for the stairs.
It was going to be a long climb.
He had no idea what time it was when they came back out - it was useless checking his watch, in any case. Alex was long-since gone, and Marc still hadn't stirred.
Patrick carried him far enough from the mound so that they couldn't see the entrance to the Leansidhe's underground staircase any more, and then slid the younger boy onto the ground and flopped down beside him, sweating and exhausted.
That was a long climb…
The grass felt nice and cool. There was a tree root digging into his back, but he didn't mind too much - for some length of time, he just laid there, eyes shut, muscles lax, mind too busy to allow him to sleep.
Then he pushed himself up painfully and went about trying to build a fire.
Dad should see me now. Patrick smiled wearily to himself. He would never have managed to make any kind of flame before he'd got caught up in this quest. My survival skills have improved, anyway - that's something.
Once the fire was lit, he went over to move Marc closer and get him into a more comfortable position.
And then, all there was left to do was wait.
Waiting took considerably longer than doing things had.
Patrick sat staring at the fire. It was a bit chilly, so he'd wrapped himself in a blanket, and then eaten some of their food, careful to leave enough for the other two. Marc was still out of it, and some part of him found that vaguely worrying, but for the most part, his thoughts were with Alex.
Where was he? Did he plan on coming back? What was he doing?
Was he too upset by this to let either of them try to help?
"Mm…" On the other side of the fire, Marc stirred.
Patrick blinked, jarred out of his thoughts, and then let out a long breath. One worry taken care of, at least…
"Did… ? What…?" Marc looked around, blurry-eyed and confused. He pushed himself up with shaky-looking arms, and his eyes found Patrick. "What happened? Why are we out here?"
"It didn't work," Patrick told him, simply.
"It didn't?" The blond frowned, and then seemed to notice something that alarmed him. "Where's Alex?"
Patrick sighed. Probably better to tell him right out… "The Leansidhe told us that it didn't work because you didn't want it to."
Immediately, he could see that Marc understood - his eyes went very wide, and he stared back at Patrick mutely for a moment. Then a sort of dull unhappiness settled over him. "I see," he said, very quietly, and fell silent again.
"He'll… probably find us again eventually," Patrick said a bit awkwardly, trying to be optimistic. "I just - I don't know how well he'll deal with all this." With losing you, I mean - since that's what's going to happen now, isn't it?
Marc stared down at his hands. "Was he very angry?"
"Not angry." Patrick shook his head. This whole thing was almost painful to watch - Alex suffering, and Marc suffering, and no way to stop any of it. "He was… upset."
"Oh." And that wasn't a very helpful answer, either.
Patrick let the silence take over then. It wasn't like he could say anything to make it better anyway.
It wasn't like he could help either of them at the moment.
Alex wasn't back by the next morning. Marc didn't say anything about it, and Patrick tried to follow his example, although he was terribly worried. The island didn't seem like much of a safe place, after all, and if he was that upset, he might not notice if something was -
"We should go," Marc said quietly.
Patrick stared at him, somehow having trouble comprehending that.
"Back to the place Etain left us at," the blond confirmed. His eyes were shadowed, but he managed to speak calmly. "Alex will find us there. It would be a better place to wait."
"Oh." There wasn't much he could say to that.
They walked in silence. Without Alex to complain or grumble or engage in conversation with, Patrick found the journey not only strange but also disconcerting. It seemed to take a lot longer to walk back than it had to get there in the first place.
And there was no one waiting when they arrived. Just an empty space, open water stretching out in front of them, and the sound of waves hitting the rocks. The tide was in.
Marc set down his bag, with a sigh. "You know," he began, and then paused, as if thinking more about his words. "I won't make you choose," he said, after a moment, watching Patrick carefully.
Patrick blinked. "Sorry?"
"The choice that Midhir gave us." Marc shrugged, awkwardly. "You don't have to make it. I'll take it back. Anyway," he added, and suddenly his jaw seemed to set, as if with determination, "it's pointless to carry on with this. I can't stay here."
That was more or less what Patrick had expected, so he nodded in return. "Do you even want to stay here?"
"I'll miss Alex." The grey eyes that rose up again to meet his were wistful. "I don't want to be separated from him, but other than that, no, I don't want to be here." His gaze lowered, and he spoke softly, more to the ground than to Patrick. "I want to be with Etain. I want eternity with her. That's what I've always wanted."
"I know," Patrick agreed, and shoved his hands into his pockets, looking away again.
"That… that's really what you wanted?" The voice that came unexpected from behind him was choked.
Patrick spun around quickly. Alex stood near the edge of the trees, and he was staring right past him, toward his brother. There was a kind of numb, resigned grief written all over his expression.
"That's what you want," he said again, and stepped forward, shakily.
Marc's answering expression was terribly sad. "I'm sorry, Alex."
"What are you sorry for?" Alex's face contorted a bit, and he shook his head violently, making the attempt to look and sound annoyed. It didn't quite work. "I'm the one who kept you here. You didn't even want to be here, and I was trying to - to - " His voice broke.
"I did want to be here." Marc shook his head as well, blinking rapidly. "I just wanted to be there, too. I wanted you, and Etain, and everything else…" He let that trail off, and smiled, eyes looking suspiciously shiny. "I wish you could come, too - that would make everything perfect!"
"I can't," Alex said immediately, and then he shut his eyes, swallowing audibly. "I can't. I know I can't. But I… wish…" He opened his eyes again and turned them toward Patrick suddenly, and his breath caught.
"Or maybe it wouldn't, would it?" Marc ran his arm across his eyes with a quick swipe, and tried again to smile. "Because you're tied here in the same sort of way I'm tied there."
Alex's eyes squeezed shut again, and he slapped a hand over his mouth not quite soon enough to cover a choked sob.
Patrick felt as if he'd been released from some sort of enforced stillness - at that sound, he strode forward hastily and pulled Alex into a steady, comforting hug.
The younger boy lost it completely at that point; leaning heavily against his lover, he broke down in tears.
I'm so sorry, Alex. Shutting his eyes, Patrick tightened his hold. I knew it was going to happen, but I wish it didn't have to.
"I'm sorry." That echoed his thoughts, but it didn't sound like his voice. Patrick opened his eyes, still rocking Alex carefully, and saw Etain standing by the edge of the rocks, the outline of her ship clear behind her. "It has to be like this," she said, voice soft, and held out a hand to Marc solemnly.
"It didn’t have to be." Alex's voice was muffled against Patrick's shirt, and thick with tears. He pushed himself up, not bothering to try and loosen the arms around him, and stared back at her without smiling, wiping the tears from his face. It was a futile effort - they kept being replaced. "But it is." In a small, tired voice, he added, "I'm ready to accept it now."
"Alex…" For a moment, Marc ignored Etain's outstretched hand, stepping toward his brother instead. He looked ready to start crying too, Patrick noticed.
The younger twin pulled himself free and jumped forward to catch Marc in a fierce hug, fingers fisting in his shirt as if it meant his life to let go.
"I don't know what I'll do without you." Marc sounded like he wasn't sure if he was rueful or amused or crying - or an odd sort of mix of the three. "Who's going to make my decisions for me?"
"Etain will take care of that, probably." Alex's voice was definitely wry - he was doing a decent job of controlling the shaking. "I'll bet she'll be awfully good at it, too."
The girl smiled a bit, but said nothing.
They broke apart after a minute, and Alex glared at her, this time without any real malice. "You take care of my brother," he told her, voice just the slightest bit challenging.
"I will," she promised, without hesitation.
"You," Marc said, addressing Patrick, "take care of mine."
Patrick nodded, and meant it. "I will."
"Goodbye," Alex added then, almost in a whisper. He freed his hands from his brother's shirt and stepped back, squeezing his eyes shut tightly.
"Goodbye, Alex." Marc's voice didn't seem any less emotional. He backed up the same way, toward Etain's waiting hand. "I'll see you."
"You bet." The younger twin managed a shaky grin for him. "Count on it."
Marc's fingers closed over Etain's and a brilliant white light rose up in front of Patrick's eyes, almost blinding. And, somehow, he still couldn't look away from it.
When it cleared, he and Alex stood on the shore where they'd originally boarded Etain's ship.