He watched them as they slept. Guard duty was usually his first, so Corundar was used to being awake while everyone else caught what precious rest they could find. He didn't really need to sleep and he preferred the quiet of the lookout's post. He loved watching the sun rise each day so this arrangement actually worked out well.
Or at least, it used to work out well. Now, when all was silent around him, the voice of his own conscience was anything but.
And tonight, he had company for his guilt. Azure was 'meditating', which was to say he was wide awake and staring at him with his unwavering, sea green eyes. So. Unnerving.
"They all blame me, don't they?"
The elf's answer was quick, almost automatic. "Shouldn't they?"
"I did what I had to do."
"The typical defense of the despot."
Corundar sighed. "You blame me too?"
"I don't blame anyone. Blame and fault are frames of reference, signposts on the road to truth."
"And that means?" He was in no mood for the sea elf's riddles.
"It means you are responsible for what occurred marginally more than the rest of us. Nothing more, nothing less."
Corundar seized on that. "So I am not the only one to blame here?"
Azure nodded slightly, his arms and legs still folded in deep thought. "Of course. Diverting the godly energies of Athas was not something we could have done without a consensus. Vertrius undoubtedly knows that as well, which is why he rightly finds us all at fault for his condition."
"Hey now!" Corundar's raised voice caused Nyx, sleeping nearby, to shift uncomfortably and Byrne, lying next to her, to lash out in her sleep with an imaginary axe. He stayed quiet long enough for them to both settle down before continuing. "I didn't make the white-haired bastard join up with V. He did that all on his own."
"On that, my boulder-skulled companion, I cannot dispute your point."
"Bloody hells, Az. Can't you ever just say, 'you're right'?"
The pale blue fae looked at him curiously. "I thought I just did."
Corundar passed his hand dismissively in the air between them. "Bah. Skip it." In return, Azure nodded and settled back into a contemplative state. After watching him for a moment and not feeling relaxed or consoled in the slightest, he spoke again. "Az?"
The elf, showing only the dimmest expression of annoyance, opened one eye again. "Yes, Corundar?"
"If I am not at fault here, why is everyone so damn mad at me?"
Azure looked at him fully and spread his hands in a 'look here' gesture. "You seem to misunderstand, my stony counterpart. I said you were not the reason our former ally has turned to serving a dark power. But to say that you are faultless in this situation would be a grave overstatement."
It took Corundar a while to digest that and make sense of Azure's words. The Lord of Earth was by no means unintelligent, but his mind worked at a different speed than the Scion of the Seas. It took him longer to think things through. He wasn't stupid, but he could be slow. "Wait. Then what am I at fault for, blue boy?"
"I can only tell you what I perceive, Corundar."
The big man shrugged. "It would be a whole lot more than anyone else is telling me."
Azure nodded. "An accurate statement, to be sure. All right, but keep in mind that this is my opinion based on observations and previous conversations. It may be partially or even wholly incorrect. Are we agreed on that?"
Another dismissive wave. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Just spill."
Azure shifted into a more relaxed posture, one that only required a slight amount of contortion. "On Athas, when the power of that world's long-slain deities was released following our sundering of the Primal Ziggaraut, you took hold of that energy first and chose to be the one responsible for its guidance."
Corundar nodded. "It was mostly Earth energy; I figured I was the best choice."
"No argument, but when you learned that you could not internalize the power yourself without binding your essence to Athas, you decided to send it elsewhere."
He nodded again. "I had to do something. It would have faded and been wasted forever if I'd waited much longer."
"Also no argument. But when you came to us for help in directing the energies, you failed to inform us of something very important, didn't you?"
Corundar visibly cringed. It wasn't common expression on a face as massive and stoic as his; it seemed utterly out of place. "You... you know about that? How could you know about that, Azure?"
The elf with sea-foam tresses shifted to gaze directly up into Corundar's averted gaze. "Come now. The flow of energy is my domain. Did you really think I wouldn't see that it had somewhere else it could go besides a living host?"
Now he looked worried. "Damn it, Az; I was afraid the power would disappear if I sent it into Athas itself. That much energy with that planet so ruined and wasted... It could have been disastrous! It could have been the end of that world! I couldn't let that happen, not when there was someone else to contain it, someone who could keep my homeworld safe!"
Azure raised an eyebrow even as Corundar's louder voice made the others stir once more. They waited, eyes locked and breath held, as sleep reclaimed their friends. Then, when it was safe to converse again, the Lord of Water spoke softly, "Your world? So we are out with it at last."
Corundar grumbled. Damn the sea flit and his word games. "Fine. Yeah, I admit it. I didn't want the planet I came from destroyed. We all gave up a lot for what's happened to us. Why couldn't Vertrius do the same?" Then, one fist clenching tightly, "He's been nothing but undead weight since we met him."
The elf sighed and reached up to lay one hand on the big man's much larger one, closed in silent violence as it was. "You do not really mean that."
Corundar's shoulders slumped in defeat. "What does it matter? I screwed up good this time, Az. They aren't going to trust me any more. Not after this."
Blue face expressionless as he spoke, Azure answered in a quiet whisper. "Should they?"
There was no immediate answer. Before Azure could prompt him again, the heavy silence was broken by Corundar's voice, sounding far more subdued than he'd ever heard it before. "Do you?"
Azure thought a long time before replying. "I trust your heart, Corundar. I trust your bravery and I trust your willingness to give all you have to the task before us. I trust that you would fight and die before seeing any one of us hurt."
After a few moments, the same voice said wearily, "But?"
"But I cannot say honestly that I trust your judgment. You did not lie to us but you withheld information for your own ends. If we had all known the full truth, it is doubtful Vertrius would be our enemy now and we could have worked together to prevent Athas from collapsing under the weight of all that divine energy."
Corundar started to protest and found himself utterly without something to say. He'd simply not thought of that possibility; he had never considered using their combined powers to keep his home stable while it absorbed the godly essence he'd forced into Vertrius. It... it was such a simple idea. Elegant. Effective. Why hadn't he thought of it?
As if he was reading Corundar's mind, Azure continued. "You have always guarded us, Corundar, but you do not see us as equals. We are your little siblings, to be protected and guided through the travails of your dangerous life." The hand on his never wavered; Azure's tone was neither condemning nor harsh - just ruthlessly candid. "You still think like the warlord you used to be."
The Lord of Earth sat down heavily, his massive frame all but giving out. There was only one thing left to say. "You're... right."
No, there was something else. "And I'm sorry."
Azure shook his head and returned to his own sleeping mat. "I do not need your apology, though I appreciate the effort you have gone through to reach the point where you could offer it."
Corundar looked up at him. "But..."
His aqueous friend favored him with a rare half-smile. "I do not require it, but the others most certainly do. I suggest you use the rest of your guard shift to practice. I doubt the words will come easily."
He nodded, breathing deeply. "Az? Do you think they'll listen? Do you really think it'll matter what I say?"
Just before slipping into a deep trance, Azure replied with his last words of the night. "Honestly, Corundar. Does that make a difference?"
And for the first time in his short life, Corundar found himself fearing the coming dawn more than he did the possibility of attack by Vecna's forces. A rampaging army of bloodthirsty, unstoppable creatures could be just past the edge of their campfire and he wouldn't have been concerned.
Hells, compared to facing his friends int he morning? They'd have been welcome.