Everything sounded like it was warped; melting into a bubble, covering his ears thickly with the distortion of sound. The once-esteemed prince of Doma was reduced to a bloodied mess on the soot-stained ground: defeated in battle, and left for dead by the attacking forces. His compatriots were either dead or gone; if they were lucky to be alive, they would’ve fled this unholy scene of carnage only to rush into a merciful death by some unknown means.
His fingers felt numb. But still, he tried to seize the grip of his sword; to try to stand up, one more time.
Unsteady eyes captured the soggy, sooty dirt of the earth and when it traveled upwards, the frame of the woman who was still standing valiantly against all odds. She was battle-torn and weary-looking, but still; she stood.
With her spear poised in her hands, she readied herself against the menace known as Zenos yae Galvus. She shouted something as she turned around to face him, but Hien Rijin did not hear; he was losing grip over his senses, and they were failing him fast…
Her face, terrified at the costs that she had incurred – that they had incurred – and the costs yet to come.
And that was when the forceful roar of a firearm discharging could be heard, and she stumbled back a few paces showering a warm spatter over his face. His heart coiled and tightened, a sudden fear seizing it in an icy grip –
And then the Garlean usurper moved in with his sword, cutting her down in a single, brief stroke. That one, last rending wave sliced away polearm, armour, skin, flesh, bone.
Crumpling into a soundless heap, she fell before his eyes and blossomed into a crimson flower. At the same time, an unbearable pain excised itself into his own torso; an excruciating agony rippling and searing into his very being as if he had been struck down in her place. He crawled forwards indignantly before falling down in parallel to her lifeless body, and he stared at her face hoping that some sort of sign would stir her back to life.
There was nothing, but the flickering of yellow lights from the fires that raged around them, and their ghostly whites danced in her glassy, blue marbles.
“Ah… the hunt is over.” The low-toned rasp of her killer hissed from above, exhilaration seeping through his voice. “It is… finally over…”
The burning smoke and the seeping cold of death swirled together and was drowned out by the last throes of his nightmare, as it washed away from the early morning sunlight. The Doman prince bolted upright from his tumble of bed garments; palms pressing against the tatami mat floor in the assurance that this was real, and not a continuation of his dream. Sounds of the Kienkan Manor’s servants going about their chores for the day could be heard quietly in the distance.
A sigh of relief passed Hien’s lips, and he opted to wipe his perspiration off his face with a hand. That dream felt too real; the pain felt too tangible.
A sharp knock rapped against the door of his bedchambers. Judging by the early morning punctuality that was characteristic of a certain vassal, he surmised it was Yugiri. Hien hastily got up, pulling fresh robes over his frame.
The loyal Raen shinobi’s voice could be heard from the other side of the sliding partition. “Yes, Lord Hien.” Carefully entering his chambers but naught more than a bent knee forward, Yugiri kept her head low and eyes trained on the ground out of respect for her liege. “I've got an urgent report. Regarding Eorzea.”
Yugiri paused for a short moment, wondering how to phrase her words. “‘Tis a matter regarding… Eorzea’s champion.”
Hien froze, as memories of his nightmare came snapping back at his heels once more.
“What of– what of her?” He cleared his throat uneasily as he carried on with his task of getting dressed; fingers fumbling over the cord that held his breastplate together. Yugiri tensed slightly.
“Vanished, my lord. Roughly a fortnight ago, on an expedition to the Crystal Tower in Mor Dhona to seek answers and possibly a cure for the slumbering Scions, she had vanished. As if she was spirited away by some greater force beyond our current comprehension.”
The first thought that came into his mind was a cruel, iron-grip fear of the threat of Garlean invasion. No doubt if the enemy caught wind that the Warrior of Light was missing, they would seize the opportunity to spearhead a strategic assault on their borders. The second thought that followed immediately after was the raw, burning feeling of dread. It was vague and yet, Hien could feel it clearly; twisting in the pit of his stomach like a wreath of snakes.
“Vanished? And this was a fortnight ago? Have we heard anything from the Scion’s esteemed bookkeeper?” Hien spoke, though his words might as well be muttered out as he began to march past the partitions obscuring the inner folds of his chambers, towards Yugiri. Fully dressed in his stately clothing, he stared at her, glowering for a moment, before relinquishing his stoic glare with a worried sigh.
“Aye, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn are working closely with the Sons of Saint Coinach and Garlond Ironworks to encover some method of… bringing her back.” Yugiri spoke softly, her fist hardening into a tight coil as she pressed her knuckles harder into the wooden floorboards.
“I see. We should make haste, as well.” He responded roughly and immediately gathered his things, including his sword which laid ready and waiting by the arms rack at the wayside. Yugiri broke her contact with the floor and her head flew upwards in unrestrained surprise, thus severing her impeccable image of subservience.
“M-My lord?! What of Othard, o-of Doma? The people need you here, and rightly so!” She protested now, and despite the heavy aches she too, carried in her own heart of the ill news she had to bear, she knew where her duty was, and where it lied. And it was with Doma.
“The Garleans have withdrawn their troops, and with the barrier constructed at the Burn the Garleans would be hard-pressed to try to send any bodies to Othard.” Hien responded stubbornly, and had thrown wide the doors of his chambers and began to noisily make his way down the hall. Yugiri followed after him quickly; a furious look of panic on her face.
“ My lord!” She protested once more, heavier this time, as she raced after the Doman heir. “Even if you did want to do something, what can you do?”
A heavy exhale came from Hien; its sound rumbling with melancholy. He could not afford to unravel into a mess, not even in front of Yugiri. And she was right; what could he possibly hope to achieve? He, who was raised only to lead a nation and to use a sword. He wasn’t gifted in knowledge of the properties of aether, or anything remotely scientific. It was impossible for someone like him to conjure up a method to bring back the Warrior of Light; the liberator of Doma. His friend.
“I need some air.” He muttered, audible only to his vassal, and quickly walked away and out of the Kienkan Manor’s premises.
He took his yol out for a ride out in Yanxia’s breeze, flying low along the banks of the One river before soaring high amidst the mountainous peaks of the Gensui Chain. Golden sunlight was filtering throughout the valley, and as the rays angled a little higher it struck the shimmering waters below. Rice paddies lined the hills surrounding Namai; the stalks of fresh green heavy laden with a bountiful harvest. All was at peace in the still-early hours of Doma, and the sound of nothing but water, birds, and the wind whistling through his ears calmed Hien’s heart, even if it was a little.
First, it was Alphinaud. Hien held himself responsible for his disappearance since he had sent the lad as an emissary of Doma. And even when he was returned safely, he had fallen into the inexplicable slumber. Then it was the Scions; one after another. Until only she was left, and he could do nothing but watch her slave away to find cause or remedy for her slumber-locked companions.
Despite everything, she still rode with him into battle, at Ghimlyt Dark, to face their oppressors in this seemingly never-ending, bloody campaign. Despite the dangers, she still stood her ground when he was already bested, face down in the dirt.
That glimpse of her back as she came into his view to guard him against Zenos yae Galvus’s inhuman onslaught.
When that memory slipped into his waking mind, scenes of his nightmare began to replay themselves and he subconsciously gripped the reins of his yol harder. The creature let out a pained screech, and tumbled down, dropping him out of flight. Thankfully, he had been passing over the Glittering Basin and the deep waters caught his fall. He tumbled into the waters with a loud splash, for no one to hear.
He watched that blue halo of light drifting farther and farther as he sank deeper into the cold depths. A part of him felt resigned to just fade into the darkness, but the basin’s waters were shallow and, soon he felt his back brush against the sandy ground. Sediments stirred and swirled as the lights from above glimmered brightly, as if to beckon him back up to the surface.
The last of the air in his lungs was threatening to expire, and he reluctantly swam back up and breached past the rippling waters to take in a gasp of air. His dark locks clung to his face thickly, and pushing a bunch of bangs that come undone from his ponytail out of his eyes, he began the swim back to shore.
Coughing and spluttering like a mad fool as he dragged himself up on the gravelly shores, Hien took a moment to catch his breath; chest heaving as he felt the morning rays slowly warm the expanse of his back. He hauled himself up, stumbling against the grass before he dropped to his knees in a strange fit of exhaustion.
The smell of gunpowder, smoke, and blood burning filled his senses. His hands found purchase in the form of the soft earth, and he gripped it tightly, uprooting blades of grass as he did so.
“I won’t let Doma fall. I won’t let you fall.” Once, not too long ago, she had promised him with those words. The quiet determination in her eyes, and the faintest hint of melancholy on her stoic face was evidence of how strongly she felt. The way how her touch warmed him when she found the rare opportunities to hold him, in however small of a gesture – or how often she would smile, laugh, or even a gaze left lingering too long – how could he had been so foolish?
A sigh, and he rubbed his eyes. Yes, how foolish of them.
And now she was gone, leaving him behind.