The world is quiet, once the party has ended, the night settling into sleep. Tomorrow the news of your return will be spread to the remaining settlements. Tomorrow, the First will truly begin to heal.
You sit in the dark, alone, unable to sleep. In your hands is -
It should be just a crystal. No more than a shard. And yet you felt the compulsion to take it, the same as you once plucked a soul crystal from the ground in the Brume, the same as -
It's not the same. You recognize the nature of this crystal, which you carried home, hidden against your chest. The others would surely recognize it too, if they saw.
Once, unfortunately, Thancred wore one very like it, though through no will of his own.
It's warm now, against your fingers. The way it responds to you reminds you of a sleeping kitten, curling up for warmth. It has fed, gently, on your aether since the moment you picked it up, a single rootlike tendril of darkness against your strength.
Here, now, in the dark, you finally have the time to examine it thoroughly. Unlike the choker Lahabrea wrapped around Thancred, this crystal isn't set as part of anything. You're lucky you didn't lose it on your swim back.
Nothing reacts, as you gently tap it with a fingernail. But when you touch it with aether, it blooms in your hand, roiling darkness like a cloud spilling out of it. It seizes hold of you, your body frozen, as what was a tiny root of aether becomes a growing, trapping vine.
Instinct demands that you struggle, reclaim yourself against the growing dark. And you know that you could do it, could shatter the hooks in your aether and that would be the end.
But your will, and growing suspicions of the nature of the binding you are in, hold back. And, with a slowness that is agonizing as you are, trapped in his hold, he wakes.
Simply can't leave well enough alone, can you?
His voice is beyond exhausted, pained, and almost fond. It speaks directly into your mind, his aether vibrating against yours, noiseless and formed not of the words you know, but the densely packed tongue of Amaurot. It's enough to send a shiver up your spine.
His grip on your body relaxes, the swirl of aether containing itself to frothing around your hand and the crystal therein. You can't let go of it, but right now wouldn't even if that were an option.
"You're alive," you whisper.
In some manner of speaking, yes, he replies, straight to your thoughts, still in that meaning-packed language. It passes through your mind like the words in a dream, where you comprehend the meaning regardless of whether or not you can understand the sound.
Your heart aches to respond in kind, something deep and nostalgic bubbling up. The words are on the tip of your tongue, if only you could reach them.
Don't push yourself, hero, he says, still with that pained, fond exhaustion. You weren't built to remember such things.
It sounds as though he wishes you were. You reach for him, another tendril of aether wrapping around the crystal as you pull it into your chest. In spite of everything, you're glad that he survived. You just wish you understood why those feelings have welled up inside so suddenly, why they appeared only after Ardbert.
...The soul remembers what the mind forgets, he says, responding directly to your thoughts. It's not quite the same as having a conversation; there's less time spent choosing your words, more time spent in concepts and ideas.
He knows something. You press him, in a more literal sense than most of the time, forgoing words for your questions in favor of a continuous sort of pressure. His presence against your mind grows more chill, more sad, and you can feel the grief in him like a well.
Once upon a time, he starts, like a narrator opening a play (that's exactly how he thinks of it, enough that you can feel the stage). The world of his memories spins around you as you close your eyes - Amaurot, not quite the same as the one you saw, the eternal twilight of the sea bed giving way to sunny streets and starry nights. In his memories, the scale of the people isn't so gigantic, because why would it be?
You lean into it all, the feeling of nostalgia, less tinged now by the weight of the loss and more of a fond recollection. In comparison, the Echo feels cold and objective, where Emet-Selch's memories wrap you up in half-familiar warmth, with the weight of a hooded cloak on your shoulders.
You were younger than I, but not by much, he says. Less than a decade, when our kind didn't consider coming of age until a century. Children were rare and precious; perhaps half a dozen in Amaurot at any given time.
Children, laughing. A variation of tag that relied on sensing each others' aether throughout the whole of the city, picking each other out from among the crowd of adults. Creating together, making strange imaginings as children are wont to do, but using aether to manifest them into reality instead of simply playing pretend.
(A stray thought that you recognize as belonging to him, not to you, that children are closer to Amaurot than adults, with their unfettered imagininations.)
You were magnificent, he says. A competitive streak that was rare in our people, brought on no doubt by having grown up actually having a peer to compete with. But never malicious, and never smug about your victories -
You were the smug one, you say, unbidden. You don't know how you know it, but it feels like a truth, like the same sort of inescapable reality that you grasped the last time Ardbert held his hand out to you.
Emet-Selch's thoughts stop suddenly, like a lost linkpearl connection. When they start again, there's a chill to them, as though he's just experienced the feeling of someone walking over his grave.
(You expressly don't think, 'like he's seen a ghost,' because that's exactly what it was.)
I was, he says at length. Only among friends, of course, but oh, how you and Hythlodaeus used to ease me for it. And yet how you celebrated with me, when I was sponsored for a position at the Convocation...
He trails off, but you can see the edges of the memory through him, enough to see that while the robes may have been public wear, in this private celebratory space for the three of you, you were all wearing much more personalized clothes. Indeed, it's enough that you pause and open your eyes to finger the hem of your shirt.
Feeling your attention shift, Emet-Selch chuckles, and a swirl of aether from the crystal held against your chest unfurls to brush over your cheek. I admit, there are certain... similarities.
And that wasn't your first clue? you think at him, some level of warm amusement inescapable.
If it were possible to huff, you know that he would. After seeing as many fashion trends come and go as I have, I dismissed it as mere coincidence. Even from Her chosen, it seemed too impossible.
And the thought of Hydaelyn makes the entire tone of his thoughts shift, and what is there is not simply the hatred that you have seen in him and every other Ascian at the mention of Her. It's a feeling of betrayal, more intimate and personal than that.
But beyond the feeling, his thoughts go silent, nothing escaping the void of his presence. You prod at him, and still there is no response, like he's gotten lost in that abyss.
Hades, you say, and then suddenly all of his attention is on you, still silent but waiting. The crystal in your grasp blooms with visible aether again, blocking out your vision of the room. And still he doesn't answer, so you steel yourself, like stepping up in battle, like facing down so very many enemies. Who was I?
...Can't you guess? he responds, finally, his mental voice quiet and small with old pains. The very architect of Her summoning.
And suddenly it all fits, the anger, the betrayal, the special kind of loathing. Not only for what you did, but also for the feelings underneath.
Where there is an abyss, you will find a flame. Even an Ascian, it seems, is no different in that regard.
And who was I to you? you ask.
Again, he is silent, roiling with thoughts, and then some small handful of words in that ancient tongue. Not as much as I wish you had been.
And that does make all the pieces fit, doesn't it? You close your eyes and pull the crystal against your chest, resting it against your sternum, wishing you could hold his shoulders instead.
You're not the person that he lost. You never will be, never can be, but you've had enough -
You've had enough of loss.
And you feel his answer in return, not only a dead city, a dead planet, not only what you might have been, but - lifetimes, of grief he doesn't want to acknowledge bearing, for broken dolls, wives and husbands and children, loved in some way nonetheless, and then the recent capstone on it all, the grief of a companion loved without being liked, a friend of circumstance alone.
Age made him a fool where it might have made any other wiser, Emet-Selch says. But Lahabrea was never patient.
I didn't kill him, you say, the memory rising unbidden to the surface, of being faced with two Ascians with only one piece of auracite at your command, and then Thordan sweeping in to consume his one-time ally.
Spare me the sympathy, Emet-Selch says, his tone all bored distaste over the pain. You would have. That is what enemies do to each other, not offer succor such as this. The tendril of aether rooted into your own twitches, simply to remind you that it's there, still leeching a touch of your energy away.
You consider that tendril for a moment, and then open yourself to it, a swell of aether in offering. And for the first time, Emet-Selch is the one to flinch away, refusing, drawing back.
You can't, he says. You're Hers, you can't intend to simply -
Something hot in you sparks, your aether flaring nearly as black as his, tinged with red instead of violet. The flame rolls forth -
I'm not that person, you say, with all the anger in the abyss, reflecting it back at him the same way he bared it at you, masks falling away. I don't belong to Hydaelyn or anyone but myself. Take the damned aether, Hades.
You can feel the way he would stare at you if he had eyes, the way he'd draw his fingertips along your jaw if he had hands. The thoughts of what he'd do to you hang unacknowledged, as your darkside and your defiance stare him down.
Do you understand what is it you offer? he says, thoughts switching to the Eorzean tongue purely, you think, to draw the words out as long as possible. For one who claims to belong to no one, would you so easily make a vessel of yourself, to one such as I?
Not 'to one such as you,' you reply. To you.
There is a moment, where you feel him hesitate, his perception of the world hanging over the edge of a cliff.
And then he plunges, his abyss filling yours, the single root splitting and intertwining itself with the core of your aether. You expect pain, are prepared for pain, but what comes instead is a feeling of overwhelming power, a pleasure that twists inside you to make your back arch and your toes curl.
And when it is done, his thoughts, still separate from yours by a paper-thin barrier, whisper, Thank you.
And then, he feeds, hungry for aether as any voidsent, drinking of your offering like a man dying of thirst. You let it happen, head rolling back onto your pillows, and it isn't nearly as unpleasant as you expected it to be. Emet-Selch is almost tender as he claims your energy through the tendrils you've welcomed into you, and when he's done, there's no feeling of overfullness in your body, the way there was after even the first Lightwarden.
He chuckles, into your mind. Just wait, he says. If you continue to offer yourself like this, with no reason to leave, I'll swell like a tick.
And he is acutely aware of his comparative weakness, as he settles more thoroughly into your body, sinking into your nerves like he belongs there. Your grip on the fragment of crystal falls loose, leaving it to fall out of your grip onto your sheets as you curl up on your side.
You don't need to be touching it. He's just as present, now that you've let him in, allowed him to use your body for a vessel. There's a faint stinging, where your blessing of light brushes against a part of him that must be Zodiark's tempering, but otherwise you feel merely tired.
You poke a question gently against his consciousness.
If you hadn't been willing, I couldn't have hoped to overpower you, he says simply. Or much of any host at all, with my strength what it is. Not enough power to animate a corpse, overcome a living host, or even leave this shard of my own accord.
I'm glad I picked you up, then, you say.
Elidibus would have come looking eventually, he says. To confirm or refute my death with his own eyes, and then I would have merely owed him yet another favor. Fortunate for me that he does not often call them in.
You consider asking him something else, but the thoughts scatter from your mind as you try to catch them. Emet-selch gives you what amounts to a shake of his head and an unimpressed look.
Go to sleep, dear hero, he says. I will, I assure you, still be here in the morning.
It has been a long day. Just before you slip under, a thought occurs to you.
The last thing you need is to wake to discover that your body has been wandering around without your awareness.
Another chuckle. No joyriding, he agrees.
Then, you sleep.