There was a reason Ethari lived so close to the heartbloom pond. His husband was the leader of the Silvergrove assassins, how could he not?
The heartblooms had been created for him. For Runaan.
He was always off on missions, always coming and going, and every time he left, Ethari had to wonder if this would be their last goodbye, their last kiss, the last time he’d ever see Runaan again.
He wouldn’t sleep. Of course, he tried, but it always ended the same. Pacing the room, twisting his scarf in his hands. Waiting. Worrying.
Often Runaan would arrive home in the dead of night, but Ethari was always, always awake.
It took a toll on him, though. With Runaan’s new promotion - and thus more frequent and more dangerous missions - came more sleepless nights for Ethari. It brought with it more exhaustion, more fatigue, more sickness.
But Runaan would return. Sometimes injured, yes, but alive and (mostly) whole. Ethari would get better for a while. He would sleep, he would eat. And so the cycle continued.
Runaan began to give Ethari the specifics of missions. Where they were going, what they were there for, and most importantly, when they’d return. This helped. Yes, he still worried, but it helped. Runaan was always punctual, always true to his word, arriving back exactly when he promised he would.
Until one day, he didn’t.
“Seven days!” Ethari cried. “You promised you’d be back seven days ago!”
“Ethari, my love-” Runaan had barely stepped through the door, bowblades bent and clothing torn.
“Do you have ANY idea how worried I’ve been?! Any at all?” Tears were blurring Ethari’s vision, burning his eyes. He ignored them, storming towards Runaan.
Another face peeked around the door; Rayla, only ten, her parents barely ever home.
“You’re back!” She threw herself at Runaan, who caught her with a small ‘oomph’ and stumbled back a step or two.
“I’m happy to see you too, Rayla. But now isn’t the best time. I’ll come find you later, okay?” He put her down, smiling apologetically as she sped off, taking the stairs two or three at a time.
“You promised me.” Ethari’s voice was shaking, dangerously quiet. “You promised me you’d be back a week ago.”
“I know, and I’m sorry, I really am.” Runaan reached out a hand, but Ethari smacked it away.
“No message! No signal! Nothing! I thought… I didn’t know… Runaan, you could have at least found a way to tell me!” The tears were dripping steadily onto the floor now, no matter how many times he wiped them away.
“I tried, Ethari. I really did.”
“I thought you were dead!” He shoved Runaan’s chest with both hands, pushing him backwards enough that he was forced outside. “I thought I’d never see you again. That you were gone, forever. Then you waltz in a week late and expect everything to be alright?!”
“I don’t want to hear it.” He pulled the doors closed with a finalising boom .
He hated him. Hated how he never knew if he was okay, hated how he was always so damn selfless, throwing himself headfirst into life threatening missions. Hated how he made his heart feel like this, the ache, the worry. He hated what he did to him, but he loved him even more.
The end of his scarf was already sodden from futile attempts to dry his eyes, but he continued rubbing at them nonetheless. Too mad to sit down, Ethari was tracing angry circles into the floor, sobbing. He almost didn’t hear the knock.
“Ethari. You don’t have to let me in.” Runaan’s voice was soft. “Just let me say this one thing. I am beyond sorry. I cannot even begin to imagine what you - what I put you through, and I-” His words were cut off by the door swinging open. “Ethari?”
He didn’t dare speak, knowing that if he opened his mouth for even a second, he would crumble.
“Oh, Ethari…” Runaan surged forwards, arms encircling Ethari as they sunk to the ground, doors swinging closed behind them. “My love, I am so, so sorry.”
Any reply was lost in the sobs that he could no longer restrain, muffled by the fabric of Runaan’s tunic to which he clung as if his very life depended on it. Together they remained there until the tears stopped, until he was no longer gasping for breath, until the moon was high and ripe in the sky.
Runaan didn’t go on another mission for three months.
It was during those three months that the heartblooms were created. Well, the first prototypes, anyway.
Ethari was a weaponsmith, not experienced in the ways of combining magic and metal. Sure, he could make little trinkets, he often did, but they served no purpose. The heartblooms however, they took a while until they were functional, and he was always perfecting them, every single day.
He had had to learn magic beyond his realm of knowledge, had to learn how to enchant, to weave the moon’s power throughout his creations. And it took a lot of effort. He was never as strong as the others in the first place.
“Ethari!” Someone was shaking him lightly. Runaan.
“Yes?” Ethari tore his gaze from the mounted crystal he was currently working on.
“I said your name three times and you didn’t hear me.” Runaan slipped his arm over his chest, hugging him from behind and kissing his temple.
“I apologise, I was… concentrating.” He put his tools down, intertwining his fingers with his husband’s. “What did you need me for?”
“Am I not allowed to simply say hello to my husband?” Runaan chuckled. “But I was just making sure you’d eaten today.”
Ethari swallowed, looking away.
“I’m sorry! I just forgot!” Come to think of it, he was quite hungry.
“Then come, we can have dinner together. All three of us.”
The first heartbloom had sunk half an hour after they put it in the water. Ethari knew it was faulty as he could hear Runaan’s breathing from where they were leaning against each other next to the pond.
Runaan had started to laugh, asking Ethari to double and triple check that he was still alive.
“How do you know? I could be a very very good illusion! The real Runaan could be dead miles away!”
“Oh do shut up, pillock.” Ethari sat up, unamused.
“Or I could be a ghost! Not a Ghost, you can still see me, but a ghost! Or-or a zombie!”
“Runaan, you’re not dead.” He couldn’t help the smile breaking free from the deadpan expression he had been trying so hard to maintain. “And if you don’t shut up, I will throw you in the pond.”
“What if I’m dead inside? Does that count? Wait, Ethari! What are you-!”
“I warned you.” He grinned down at the now sodden Runaan, who splashed him with the cold water. “Hey! That’s not fair!”
“You pushed me in!” Runaan countered.
“You’re not wrong. But while you’re there, could you grab the heartbloom? Thanks so much, moonshine.” And with that he turned and began the ascent home.
Ten minutes later, the doors burst open, quickly followed by Runaan scooping him up in a dripping hug, soaking Ethari as he struggled to free himself.
But after the three months had passed, the heartbloom was functional. There was only one as of then, but plans for more.
He remembered the first time it was used; Runaan’s first mission after the scare. They had enchanted the heartbloom the night of departure, setting it out onto the water together and watching it drift.
Runaan had promised to return, and Ethari had sent him off with a pendant made from one of the discarded heartbloom petals. Something to remind Runaan of him, no matter where he was.
The party left with no fanfare, thus beginning the wait. Ethari barely moved from beside the pond, falling asleep with his head in his arms on the side. Unsurprisingly, he woke up with an incredibly stiff neck.
The heartbloom stayed afloat the entire time. The light stayed strong, and four days later, Runaan returned to find his husband camped out at the foot of the tree.
Over time, the heartblooms became better, more reliable, easier to enchant. Ethari made eleven - ten to be assigned at the beginning of dangerous missions to whoever was going, and one for Runaan.
Runaan’s was more than a regular heartbloom though. The crystal at its centre had a match, embedded into Ethari’s horn cuff. It didn’t glow, at least, it barely did, but it served the same purpose. To tell him if the love of his life still walked the earth.
There were scares, of course there was. The light would flicker - once, twice - the heartbloom would wobble, but it only lasted a moment.
And there were deaths. Ethari had been there for the first one - her name had been Tiral, she was a strong fighter, skilled with an axe. Her light - glowing the same green as the lily pads that gathered around the edge - had been flickering for a minute or two, before it faded completely, and the heartbloom sank out of sight.
Only four of the five assassins sent returned.
It was always Runaan’s job to swim down and retrieve the sunken heartblooms. He would bring them back up to the house, where Ethari would release the spirit of the dead assassin with a heavy heart.
Each bloom would be wiped clean to be reused next mission, except Runaan’s. His stayed alive, even when he was home. Ethari found a way to dampen the glow, to make the heartbloom dormant until it was next needed.
They were only used for dangerous missions, the heartblooms. For risky assassinations, ventures out of Xadia, anything with a high chance of death. Not for reconnaissance missions, supply runs, diplomacies. Apart from Runaan’s.
Call it paranoia, worry - call it whatever you want, but every time Runaan was to be gone for more than a couple of days, Ethari released his bloom. It never sank.
Rayla was coming of age now, reaching such heights with her twin blades that she was soon going to be called for a mission. Thus, Ethari crafted another heartbloom for her, one like Runaan’s. She was, after all, family. He loved her like a daughter, had practically raised her. The matching crystal sat on his workbench, awaiting the right materials for a new horn cuff.
It wasn’t long until the inevitable happened.
Five months ago, Avizandum had been slain, murdered by the Katolian ruler out of spite and vengeance, and his only egg destroyed. Something had to be done, the death of a being so great could not go without retribution. The one responsible would pay for their crimes, suffer just as Avizandum did.
A team of Silvergove’s six best assassins had been put together, and in it, both Runaan and Rayla. Ethari’s mismatched family.
This was a task like no other. The border had been breached before, but never like this. Never to kill one with such power. Both the king and the heir were supposed to die, if all went to plan. It was the single most dangerous mission Ethari had ever witnessed.
He warned Runaan, he knew Rayla wasn’t strong enough. He did everything he could to keep his family safe, but it was all in vain.
“She won’t be able to do it, Runaan, you know that.” Ethari was sitting at his workbench, head in his hands, Rayla’s heartbloom between his elbows.
“You’ve seen her in action, she’s more than capable.” Runaan rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “She won’t even be in the midst of the battle, she’ll be fine.”
“It’s not about how capable she is, she still won’t be able to do it.” Ethari shook his head. “She’s not strong enough.”
“She’s the strongest fighter we have besides myself. She’s resourceful, her form is perfect, she’s determined.” The hand left Ethari’s shoulder.
“She’s never killed.” Ethari sighed, letting his head slip from his hands. “She won’t be able to do it, not to another person.”
“I have confidence in her, I didn’t choose her for nothing.” Runaan sounded almost annoyed at the conversation. Almost scared, almost as if he was reassuring himself, not convincing Ethari.
“Then maybe your confidence is misplaced. She has a good heart, Runaan. When the time comes, she’ll falter. Hesitate. She’ll fail.” He turned to look at his husband, pleading with his eyes.
“No she won’t. She’s strong, she’ll push through.” Runaan clenched his fists, jaw set. “I know she will.”
“Runaan please!” Ethari stood, pushing his seat backwards. “It’s not about physical strength and you know that. Being an assassin is more mental strength than anything, and Rayla… she doesn’t have it. She’s not right for this life, no matter how much she wants to be.” Reaching out, he took Runaan’s hands in his, feeling them unclench, drawing him closer. “Please. We promised we’d look after her.”
“Ethari, don’t.” Runaan looked away. “Don’t make me feel guilty, it only makes it harder. I had my doubts, you know I did. But she said she could do it, she promised she could. And besides, it’s too late now. We leave tomorrow at moonrise.”
The six assassins had gathered around the pond at sunset the next day. One by one, the heartblooms had been enchanted, given out, then set onto the water. All the while, Ethari had stood close to Runaan. To Rayla. To his family.
They’d shared one last kiss before they left, when Ethari gave Runaan his heartbloom. He’d promised to return, that he’d be okay. Another pendant hung at his neck, this time, a moon opal.
Ethari had been saving them for something important, and that had certainly counted.
He hadn’t been as worried as he was then in a very long time. He would only be able to spend five minutes away from the pond before he was back.
Of course, nothing happened, not for days. All six blooms were glowing just as brightly as ever. That reassured him - they were okay. They must have been in Katolis by then, setting up camp and taking watch. The full moon was due the night after next.
With a blanket around his shoulders, Ethari took up position at the pond’s edge. He wasn’t letting the most dangerous battle he’d ever known go on without his watch.
The first heartbloom sank as the moon began her descent. Kaladi. Her sister would be devastated. But they would push on.
It wasn’t long until another bloom began to take on water, Luthee’s life extinguishing before Ethari’s eyes. Another soul that would never see the light of day again. Each time it happened, it took a chip out of his heart.
Only four left now. Runaan, Rayla, the other two, still fighting, still living, still able to return. Still hoping.
The moon was low now, her last light fading, giving way to the sun. Giving way to day, to danger, to what could become despair.
Another bloom sank. But it wasn’t Runaan. It wasn’t Rayla.
He felt guilty in his relief. This was someone who had given their life, someone with people who love them, and those people would never get to see them again. And here he was, a sick sense of relief and happiness that it wan’t Runaan or Rayla. That his family was okay, that it was good because it was someone else. He hated it.
He hated how the knot in his stomach unclenched momentarily when the next bloom sank, leaving only two still resting on the water. This was it. The sun had risen, the protection the moon offered gone. They would either live, or they would die along with the rest of the party.
Rayla’s bloom was strong. Glowing fiercely in the light, looking to be in no danger of sinking. But when he dragged his eyes to Runaan’s… it was dim. Not dim enough to sink, barely dim enough to distinguish that it wasn’t right, but it was dim.
Ethari drew a shaking breath, pleading in his head.
Hold on, please, I know you can do it. Don’t leave me, Runaan, you promised.
It didn’t sink, it didn’t wobble, but it didn’t change at all.
Something in the reflection of the water caught his eye. A bird of smoke and blood, streaking red across the sky as it carried a message to the Storm Spire. A message of death.
It was done.
The king dead, along with four of the assassins.
It was only then that Ethari let himself sleep.
His rest was fitful, short, plagued by nightmares of what could have happened. He woke not five hours later, and what he saw made sure he would not sleep again.
While Rayla was fine, Runaan… Ethari choked back a sob and clamped his hand over his mouth. His light was flickering, the heartbloom sending ripples to the edge like some sort of sick, morbid message.
But it did not sink. It continued to flicker, it continued to wobble, but it did not sink.
“Runaan!” The blanket fell to the floor as Ethari rushed to the edge of the pond. “Runaan, please. You can do it, please, I have to see you again.”
It continued to wobble. For days.
Ethari didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, barely even moved. He watched as water began to trickle through the metal filigree of the petals, as the light faded steadily, day by day, hour by hour, second by second.
“You can do it, Runaan, I know you can.” There were tearstains running down his cheeks, days old, but he didn’t have the energy to do anything about them. “Please. Please, you can’t die. You have to hold on!”
All the while, Rayla’s bloom floated in the corner of his eye, gloating in its perfect life.
The families of those lost had been and gone. They all spent a few hours with Ethari, crying, mourning, but they all left after a while.
Whispers began to spring up surrounding Rayla’s perfect flower. A team of the five best assassins Silvergrove had to offer were all dead or dying, how was it that she, a child, was alive? Perhaps she was lucky, that was what Ethari hoped, in some small part of his mind that wasn’t occupied with thoughts of his dying husband.
But that seemed unlikely. The team had died quickly, and Rayla had survived. Only one conclusion made sense. Betrayal.
But Rayla would never do that, surely. Surely? She would never sell out her own kind, she would never . Ethari refused to believe it. Refused to perform the ghosting ritual.
Then something changed. Something big.
He didn’t know how many days he’d been out, how long it had been since the battle, and he barely cared. Runaan’s heartbloom was half engulfed by the water, the light flickering dangerously close to death. He could feel it, too. He could feel it in his very being, how close Runaan was to passing over.
It pulled at his heart, at his soul, it ached like nothing else ever had.
It pulled until it snapped.
Ethari could only watch as the light stopped flickering and faded, as the last point of the last petal succumbed to the water’s grasp, as his husband died so far from home, in a land stained with blood and dark magic.
“No.” Somehow, he managed to stand, legs shaking and hoarse voice barely above a whisper. “No!”
The last vestiges of the glow faded as the bloom dropped out of sight.
“Runaan! No!” Desperate, he clawed out, as if that would bring him back. “No! You promised! Runaan!”
He’d never cried like this in his life before. Not even when he thought Runaan was dead all those years ago. Never had the sobs wracked his entire body in the way they were now, never had his breaths been so insufficient, never had the tears been so blinding.
“You promised you’d be back! You can’t- you can’t be dead! Please! Please !” He was screaming now. He didn’t care who heard him, if anyone at all. Because Runaan was gone.
“RUNAAN!” The name tore at his throat and through the night air.
And the worst thing? It was his fault.
Runaan was using weapons he made, hidden armour he crafted. If it had only been stronger, better, sharper, Runaan wouldn’t be dead.
His husband, the love of his life, was gone, and it was his fault.
Ethari performed the ghost ritual two days later.
He still didn’t fully believe it, he didn’t want to fully believe it, but putting the blame on someone else lifted a fraction of the weight that had crushed - and was still crushing - his heart.
He locked himself away with his tools, working relentlessly, day in, day out. He forgot to eat - Runaan wasn’t there to remind him. He forgot how to smile - Runaan wasn’t there to make him do so.
People came, people knocked, but Ethari never answered. If they wanted weaponry, they could go somewhere else. He didn’t want to speak to them.
A new weapon began to take shape. A bow, like… like his. But different. Better.
All the mistakes of the one he’d left with, gone. It was sharper, stronger, it surpassed anything Ethari had ever made by miles. It would have saved his life.
Because he was gone, and he was never coming back.