He can interface with the network.
Not that he tried, not before Mithos and Martel—the Aegises, the new ones, the ones he created in the likeness of a family he missed despite any better judgement—were stolen. He knows he cannot go after them, but the least he can do is check on them, right? See where they are?
So he reaches into the mass of ether, and closes his eyes against the roar of data in his mind.
It’s all meaningless and goes by too quick—the data collected and discarded almost immediately—but he grits his teeth and searches the writhing blurring network for a mana signature—an ether signature, a pair of them—that he could never forget.
He’s slightly more familiar with Mithos’, so he finds him first.
Kratos—the man those on the surface call the Architect, though he does not yet know this—the man the Aegises call Father—is overwhelmed instantly with terrible pain, strong enough to make the connection he’d established snap entirely.
He scowls. Tries again, cautiously, though he is certain nothing went wrong on his end.
Pain greets him again, but expecting it, he holds on tighter, and keeps holding as it fills him and fills him and doesn’t let him go. He can feel screaming in his bones, feel his own mana roar in his blood as it reacts to the phantom sensation of—
It stops abruptly, and then the images come to him.
He is seeing things as Mithos sees them. Eyes blinking against fading brightness, the blue glow of ether lines remaining in the following darkness, residual pain and heaving gasps for air as Mithos bites his tongue and does not scream aloud, anger—hot and furious—slides down Kratos’ throat and he chokes on it, chokes on his own horror, as the scene plays out.
Mithos breathes, one, two, three, careful breaths, and then he speaks:
“Is that all today, huh?” he spits and it’s fire on his tongue and pain in his throat. “You sure you humans don’t want to burn even more of the world, first? Obviously, Sylvarant deserves it—”
He gets no response. Bound wrists struggle against their chains. Something burns behind Mithos’ eyes.
“You’re going to regret this!” he screams. Tears soak his face. “You won’t get away with it forever! My father—he’ll come for me, for us, and then you’ll get what you deserve! My father will—”
Kratos lets go of the connection.
He sinks to his knees, tears rolling down his cheeks. They don’t stop. He’s not sure they’ll ever stop.
Mithos expects him to come to the rescue, and he cannot, he cannot, he cannot cannot cannot cannot cannot—
(The taste of failure is one Kratos is very familiar with, but truthfully, it has never tasted as foul as it does right now.)
He doesn’t stop looking. Perhaps he should, but he cannot.
They’re doing the same to Martel. Each country has a different Aegis, and both Aegises are trapped and tortured on the daily, ether stolen from them to raze the planet. It’s Thor’s Hammer all over again, except it’s in a world he built, a world that wasn’t supposed to be this awful.
(But his hands will never be clean, and perhaps something horrid is all his brokenness could have created.
This would not be the first horrid world he created, anyway, even if the first one was not entirely his fault.)
He watches it, every day.
Hooks himself up to the network and finds one of the siblings and endures their pain with them. Any sane man would call him a masochist. But only a masochist would send himself off hurtling on a comet through space and condemn himself to thousands of years of loneliness, so:
He lets their pain and their anger and their fear and their despair fill him to the brim and boil inside of him, because he cannot save them. He cannot even contact them, to apologize, to send them words of encouragement.
He can only watch.
He can only watch.
He can only watch.
(If he had the power to burn the world, he might have.
Give up entirely
It’s about time for that, isn’t it?)
He finds Yuan.
He doesn’t mean to, it just happens.
He’s monitoring Martel at the time—thankfully, the cannon is not on, though apparently they just leave her in the terrible machine—when he feels a change in the network. This happens frequently. Blades going online and offline all the time that it’s just distant background noise, especially since he does not recognize who the signals belong to.
But this signal, he recognizes.
It’s another mana signature he could never forget. Sharp and electric and blue.
Or, a reflection of him, anyway.
He drops Martel’s connection and latches onto Yuan’s signal instead, curious, confused. A part of him is happy to see Yuan, but he does not understand why Yuan is here. There is no reason for Yuan to be here.
(There is nothing interesting, truthfully, to be seen through Yuan’s eyes. Carefully decorated walls and fancy carpets, the hallway of what looks to be a castle, a low conversation that’s meaningless if a nice distraction.
Hearing Yuan’s laugh restores a few lost years to his soul.)
It isn’t until long after he’s disconnected from the network and wandered Derris-Kharlan aimlessly for a while until he understands what likely happened.
His Cruxis Crystal is storing his consciousness, after all, and it’s serving as the anchor for the network. This was likely inevitable.
(He fears who else he’ll find, fears it enough that he doesn’t dare look.)
Martel goes offline.
He only notices it because he goes to find her and cannot. He fears for her safety, but then, death is not permanent for blades, so long as their core crystal remains intact.
(And even if it was death, wouldn’t that be better than endless suffering?)
It’s three days before he can find her signal again.
He’s so startled to see his own face through Martel’s eyes that he drops the connection and doesn’t touch the network for a week.
Yuan goes offline, comes back.
Mithos goes offline, comes back.
It seems they’ve all found each other.
He’s… happy, for them. Fond. Unsurprised and grateful. Deeply nostalgic. He watches less and less, because it feels forbidden, feels like he’s intruding. This is their life, not his.
(He watches it through eyes that are not his own. He refuses to make any connection with his reflection, the blade that shares his face and name and all of his bad habits.
He’s afraid of looking through his own eyes.
Besides, then he might be tempted to pretend that this is some kind of life he’s living, and that he’s not up here on a cold lonely rock in space of his own volition, might forget that he willingly burned every bridge he had home.
He knows better than anyone except perhaps Mithos—his Mithos—and his Yuan that clinging to the past will only inevitably destroy you. So he doesn’t even allow himself room to start.
Making the Aegises as they are was already bad enough.)
Truthfully, from there, everything goes as expected.
He finds Zelos and Colette, both of them online all of a sudden some hundreds of years after Martel dies.
Curious and surprised (because the only other mana signatures he’s recognized before now have belonged to Genis and Raine and they, like all other blades, go online and offline throughout the years in a constant cycle), Kratos reaches for Colette.
He sees the inside of a cannon, and mouth sour and stomach churning breaks the connection before anything else can happen.
He discovers, over the years, the nature of their existence. Predictable. Sickening. Humanity never changes, never gets any less selfish, any less willing to do horrible things for foolish gains.
The Chosens—the Artificial Aegises—they go online and offline over the years, and he observes them, watches them coddled and praised in the downtimes. Zelos is the only one he ever finds in a cannon, but he’s not checking daily, so maybe he’s just missing Colette.
(He can’t say he’s upset.)
This, too, was probably inevitable, though it fills him with some weird kind of bitterness to know that even artificial blades are affected by his memories. Will other familiar faces pop up? Certainly if Lloyd were here, or Anna, they would have been a blade by now. Unless the world is waiting, waiting for more artificials, waiting for…
He isn’t sure.
He’s afraid of seeing them.
The blade Kratos says Anna’s name.
He’s watching through Mithos’ eyes at the time, a quiet conversation, something about Kratos coming back from being somewhere and this Kratos is much looser with his tongue (but isn’t that a good thing?), so he tells Mithos where he was and who he met.
A human named Anna Irving.
He shouldn’t, really-
He has to know, has to see her, has to see how this world he created is treating her.
So he connects to the blade Kratos.
And he stays connected.
(Truthfully, it is easy to get lost in.)
He doesn’t know when Kratos is going to go back—and he will go back, of course he will, it, like everything else, is inevitable—and he cannot miss it so he sits connected to his reflection for… days.
It gives him a long time to think about things.
This reflection of himself…
Despite being a reflection of the biggest coward in all of existence…
Is a much braver man than he could ever dream to be.
Truthfully, he’s proud.
Anna is happy. Healthier than he’s ever seen her. She has a large family that has found her and loves her, she has a cause she’s fighting for and he earnestly believes that given enough time and resources she will see it succeed. Her passion is brighter—unrestrained by trauma—and her wit is a little sharper, a little cruder. She still burns as fiercely as he remembers.
He… nearly falls in love all over again.
But most of all, he’s glad. Even if this world is strange, twisted, a distorted echo of his past with familiar faces playing out new roles on a new stage… not all of it is horrible. Not all of it is the same.
It seems that in this world, some of these reflections are living lives much happier than they were able to in the previous. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that enough?
(After he sees Anna, he never connects with the blade Kratos again, though. He memorizes Anna’s blade’s ether signal—Anna’s blade is not a man he recognizes—and uses that connection to watch, instead.
It’s just safer this way, he thinks.
He refuses to get lost in pretending.)
An Aegis cannon goes off.
It’s hard not to feel it, when he’s already connected to the network. The sudden painful explosion of ether that makes the whole network shudder under its intensity and weight. It feels like… Zelos. But there’s something Mithos about it, too? The sensation makes his heart lodge in his throat and he reaches for Mithos’ ether signature—he shouldn’t but—except then something else catches his attention.
A flickering of another signal he recognizes. Like a heart struggling to keep beating. Anna’s blade…
He hooks onto the signal before he can spend another second thinking about it, not sure what he’s going to do but worry sitting in his throat too thickly to do anything else but at least watch—
Pain floods his senses as he sees through the blade’s eyes, everything slotting into place after that; a shield, ether bombarding him, the ether tastes like Zelos and it won’t stop, and it hurts, his hand in someone else’s squeezing it tight as frustrated tears burn in his eyes, he’s on the last of his energy, he can feel Anna dying behind him…
He’s not sure it’s going to work but he finds the node for Anna’s blade in the network and grabs it with his hands. He can’t leave Derris-Kharlan. He can’t swoop down to the planet he created for a rescue.
But all Anna’s blade needs is energy, energy to keep going, for just a little longer.
He can do that.
He pours his own mana into the node, slowly at first because he’s not sure what the threshold is. He feels it out. Sees how much they can take. Calculates how much they need. The numbers aren’t good but they’ll die if he does nothing so he pours more mana in, pours it and uses Anna’s blade as a conduit, focusing the mana through pathways already established. Strengthen the shield. Hold fast.
(He’s not sure what he’ll do, if he’s the one that kills them.)
Zelos suddenly goes offline.
The roar of the cannon stops.
He loses visual connection, everything lost to pain the sensation of hitting the ground then the clouds of exhaustion, but…
Anna’s heart still beats.
And her blade remains online.
(Well, actually, he connects with the blade Kratos one more time, attempting fruitlessly to send a message.
Kratos, the blade, thinks Anna died.
Kratos, the Architect, knows she didn’t.)
Martel comes online.
He reaches for her ether signal and almost misses it, because it doesn’t quite feel like hers. He grips it anyway though, confused, curious—
Is startled by Colette’s face in the mirror when visual connection establishes, and then immediately breaks with his horror.
They… wouldn’t have.
(But of course they did.)
He knows Mithos had no hand in it, which is a strange realization if a small comfort. But the reality of what humanity did to Colette to resurrect a woman he selfishly raised almost to godhood fills him with guilt. He does not know how they thought of it, or why they went through with it, or how it worked, but—
He supposes, likely, Colette’s and Martel’s ether signatures were similar enough that it worked. (And maybe even, it would not have worked with any other pair of blades.)
He supposes, also, that it was inevitable, but that just makes him feel sick.
The lives of the artificial Aegises reflect the lives of the Chosens they reflect in too many ways.
(And it wasn’t even directly his fault.)
Martel-and-Colette go offline, come back online.
He sees Lloyd—all grown up and how he remembers him best—and forgets how to breathe.
From there, Lloyd saves the world.
He’d expected nothing less.