It’s too much.
Blinding white worse than sun glare on the snowfields of Coerthas fills Kara’s mind with a cacophony of noise and light. She clutches her head as if trying to keep it from breaking open. The damned thing feels like an eggshell, shuddering as the monster inside grows too large for it to hold, pecking and clawing at it from within. Bile churns in her stomach and sears the back of her throat.
Yet within the white-hot agony that surges through her, there’s a faint undercurrent of grey softness just at the edge of consciousness. Anything but this white hell! She reaches for it, fingers straining and scrabbling for purchase, every muscle in her body taut, aching. There!
The moment Kara’s hand brushes up against it at last, that brief point of contact draws her in.
The cold is a stark contrast to the fire that filled her moments ago, so she pulls her blanket up to her chin, nuzzling into its plush comfort. She lets out a sigh as exhaustion falls from her form, leaving behind the familiar weight of peaceful sleepiness.
Oh, but she should be getting out of bed soon. Starting tomorrow, she’ll no longer have the luxury of staving off waking for as long as possible to chase the remnants of her dreams. Dreaming has always been one of her great pleasures. The jumbled images and conversations frequently gave her inspiration for new concepts. She’ll miss sleeping in, but it is a small loss compared to the new chances to make a difference in this world. Hundreds of years of joyous work and study have culminated into an opportunity she’d never dared to hope for.
A sudden flash of light invades her dim room - surely a breeze has just shifted her curtains. But despite the logical explanation that leaps to her mind, her heart hammers within her breast. She bolts out of bed, and runs to the window. The shadow of a once-forgotten nightmare tells her if she dares to look outside, she will find naught but ash and blood where once stood…
Kara’s heavy eyes open to a blurry vista of black and green. It's not quite right but she can't pinpoint why. With every blink, the image grows clearer. With every breath she begins to take stock of her body. The city is sideways. No. She’s laying on the hard ground but her head is propped up on something soft and warm. Unconsciously, she nuzzles against her pillow to make herself more comfortable. Shafts of distant light pierce the sky beyond the city, muted and undulating as if through... By the Twelve ! That can only be water, and vast amounts of it! Is she under the sea? As Kara stirs, she feels movement beneath her head.
A wave of embarrassed panic spurs her body into motion, ready to bolt and get away from whomever she’s fallen asleep on and as quickly as possible. Strong hands stop her and guide her to sit up gently instead. She wants to fight off the unneeded help. Of course, she can sit up on her own! Her fiercest attempts to shove this interloper away amount to one weak slap against his leather-clad arm.
Once satisfied that the Warrior is no longer in danger of toppling over, Emet-Selch lets go of her and dusts off the front of his robes in a huff. “Fool woman! You nearly leapt off the ledge before us. Surely no headache can be so bad that death seems like the better choice?”
She turns to the irritated man next to her as he brushes that shock of white hair back out of his face. Curse every last one of the Twelve. She’d just been laying with her head in Emet-Selch’s lap. At least this time the obnoxious sensations rolling around in her stomach had nothing to do with aether sickness, and everything to do with him. She’d almost prefer the headaches to giving those thoughts any space in her head. “Good morning to you, too,” she snarks.
Emet-Selch snorts at her quip. “How many lives must I save in order to earn the boon of common courtesy from you, oh illustrious Warrior? My acts of generosity are as crumbs to be cast aside after a meal, it seems. Such a waste.”
“Shush, you.” Having grown somewhat used to his dramatic soliloquies, Kara chuckles and elbows the man in his ribs with no real force. She earns a single huff of a laugh, something she’s never heard from him before. In all her time fighting against them, Kara had never considered that an Ascian might have a sense of humor, or be capable of emotions beyond malice and hatred of men. Until she met him. Did Emet-Selch have a favorite book, perhaps? A favorite meal? What memories drove him to become the tired man at her side? Gods , what idle thoughts swam through her head here at the precipice between certain death and a city beneath the sea.
With a sidelong glance, she watches him gaze out at the metropolis. His brow is furrowed, and she can’t help but wonder what vexes him so. There’s a tiredness to him that he never seems to be able to shake off those broad shoulders, always hunching under its weight. Her eyes trace the curve of his jaw to the subtle architecture of his neck before she realizes what she's doing. Just then he turns to her with a questioning look, so she asks the only thing that she should have been trying to figure out since waking. “What is this place?”
Either she hadn’t heard his earlier words, or they lie forgotten and decaying here amid the ruins. He feels his shoulders slump and runs a hand through his hair, tugging at the ends of it. This is not… He had a plan, and this wasn’t it. In his fit of… whatever that was at Mt. Gulg, he’d skipped an entire act, and now the curtains would drop and the audience laugh as he scrambles to pick up the pieces.
Should he have left while she was unconscious, leaving her to wander his construct as he meant for her to originally? To learn from the ghosts of the past? After thousands of years, he knows he should have patience, but when he glimpses the hue of her soul, it’s nigh impossible to focus on anything else.
He grits his teeth against the building fury within, at himself, at Hydaelyn. Barely restrained magic percolates under his skin, ready to leap to his command. How easy it would be to destroy this ignorant, irritating shell and release her sacred soul. He would find her again, even if it took a millennia. Why, of all the…
But of course, there’s a kind of poetic justice to her being cast as his foil, isn’t there?
He’s spent too much time lost in thought without answering her, and he realizes she’s watching him, eager for an answer. Emet-Selch shrugs off her confusion and concern, amused by the little frown it provokes from her. “Come now. Where’s the fun in telling you when I could show you instead?” Stiff from sitting for so long, he stands up with less grace and more noise than he’d like. He rolls his neck to and fro before offering her help standing. After a moment’s hesitation, she reaches out and takes his hand. He pulls her up as if she’s weightless, yet with enough care that she swiftly finds her footing.
“Shall we?” And as though there’s nothing strange about walking so with her foe, she takes his proffered arm. It’s impossible to glimpse the expression she wears, her hair veiling her face as she walks beside him. He’ll have to get her talking then - not that she’s usually lost for words. Nor is he, but he finds himself unwilling to break the silent sanctity here yet.
Arm in arm, they travel along a natural slope that winds this way and that, down past craggy outcroppings and softly glowing flora. “Are we truly...” She looks around in awe, brushing her hand over a cluster of waving leaves. It’s dry, yet it still flutters in currents she can’t sense. “...Underwater?”
“Indeed, we are. Very perceptive, Warrior .” He can’t help being proud of his creation. Before crafting the city itself, he created a vast magical barrier over the skeletal ruins. One of its unique properties is that the sea life in the area are mostly unaffected by it. Most instinctually recognize the immense concentration of aether in the area and keep their distance, but every so often a wavekin will pass through the shield, or a plant will spring up unexpectedly. They pick up enough water aether on their way through to survive as though they were still submerged, entirely unaware of their strange predicament.
The finer points of this sophisticated magic are apparently lost on the woman walking next to him. She stops, subsequently causing him to jerk backwards thanks to her death grip on his arm. “Yes?”
“Even now, when I’ve chosen to leave my friends behind and follow you to the Twelve knows where, you still delight in your non-answers and again you refuse to call me by my real name?”
Real name , he fumes internally. “I answered exactly what you asked. We are underwater, yes. As to the how, which you did not ask, magic, obviously.”
“And about my name? I’m not just a warrior, you know. I’m... “
Now this is interesting. Her bluster had fizzled out, leaving her staring at the ground while still clinging to his arm. “You’re what, hmm? A legendary Warrior of Light and Darkness? Slayer of Primals? A Mage unparalleled among halfmen ? What shall I call you then? You don’t know my name and I can’t be bothered to recall yours at the moment.” He’s enjoying the way she squirms under his intentionally obtuse line of questioning, and stands at his full height for a change.
She steels herself again, meeting his gaze with practiced defiance. “My name, which you conveniently remembered when you convinced me to follow you, is Kara.”
He folds back into his usual slouch, shrugging with his free hand. “Ah, yes. Kara . Must have slipped my mind.” As amusing as it is to annoy her like this, he decides to let this game go. The truth is that every time he says that name, Kara , he feels her true name grow more distant, until he fears it will slip out of his grasp entirely. “Shall we continue?”
With a curt nod, she falls in line next to him again, and they walk in silence until stone gives way to intricately carved tile. He lets himself be subtly led towards the edge of the walkway so she can peer down upon the pathways below. “This city is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s amazing! Are there people living here?”
The awe in her voice seems to brush off some of the weight he’s carried for so long, leaving him feeling lighter than he has in ages. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“ Emet .” Those two syllables carry a note of warning, as if she were speaking to a naughty child or a pet. Had he not just sworn off bickering over names, he might take offense at having his title shortened so.
“Patience is a virtue, dear. But, coincidentally, an answer to your question stands not far from here. Why don’t you introduce yourself?” He slips his arm from hers and, with a hand at the small of her back, gently pushes her towards one of the phantoms that inhabit this place. A brief chill runs through his arm at the loss of her touch.
She gasps at the sight of the robed giant, drawing its attention. “Oh! Greetings, little one. I hope I didn’t startle you.” Kara’s mind reels as the being’s unearthly speech reaches her ears. The fact that she understands every word can only be due to the Echo, surely. Deep familiarity sparks within her at those gentle and resonant tones. She’s heard this language before, yet tinged with malice and spoken with harder edges - The tongue of the Ascians. “Are you quite alright?”
How in Hydaelyn? The being before her must be more than twice her height, but nothing about its appearance or bowed posture speaks of danger, but rather mystery and strange comfort. “Oh. Yes. I’m fine.” She glanced back at Emet-Selch, who’s neutral face gave her no clue as to how to proceed. Well, if he refuses to answer her questions... “Though, I think I might be a bit lost. Where am I, exactly?”
The massive robed figure knelt before her until his featureless mask was nearly at eye level with her. “Oh you poor thing! Don’t be frightened. We are just above the heart of the Polyleritae District, and rather close to the Capitol building itself! It’s no surprise that you got turned around as there is quite a crowd there as of late. We’re all waiting to find out what the Convocation of Fourteen decides to do about… Goodness. You are too young to have to worry about all this. I have complete faith that the Convocation will keep safe our city and our star.”
With a sigh, the being before her stands up, albeit still hunched over in a way that reminds her of the suspiciously silent man behind her. The large… Ascian? pats her on the head with great care before continuing, “The elevator right there will take you to the ground level. I can go with you if you wish for help locating your guardian.”
“Thank you, but I think I can find my way home from there. It was nice to meet you.”
“And you as well, little one!” The robed and masked figure walks away from her, vanishing into nothing a few feet away.
Kara blinks a few times, trying to understand what had just happened. Full of more questions than answers, she looks to Emet-Selch, though the likelihood of him clearing anything up is abysmally low. He gestures to the elevator that the tall fellow had mentioned as if directing an audience’s attention to the next stage. As she nears it, she hears a voice speaking in that same language, though there is no obvious source.
“Welcome back to Amaurot, beloved citizen. Shall I take you to the ground floor?”
After looking around in puzzlement, she replies, “Yes, please?” At her voice, the doors open and, with another glance at her companion, the two of them step inside. It’s so quiet within the gilded chamber that she has trouble finding her voice. A myriad of questions flit through her head so fast they seem to collide with each other so that no one takes the lead.
Emet-Selch looks to her and she sees none of the smug confidence she expects. His face is almost neutral but she can see something mournful behind his stoic facade. Finally, her words find her, though not the ones she expected. “This place. Amaurot? It’s not real, is it?”
He takes a deep breath, and she wonders if she’s ever noticed him breathe before Does he even need to? “You are correct. This may sound overly sentimental to you perhaps, but yes, I created it atop the ruins of what was once my home.”
“So that’s why he spoke the same language as…”
“Yes, as Nabriales, and as Lahabrea, who was once the speaker of our Convocation. The names you know us by are the titles that we became synonymous with, so vital was our work to the continuation of our utopian world.” He feels her soul pulse, flaring brightly for only a moment. There’s a sadness in her eyes, and he wonders if she regrets having put his - their - kin to the sword.
The elevator stops and the doors open without a sound, revealing an elevated walkway. More of the robed Amaroutines are milling about a courtyard under beautiful violet boughs. Graceful and unfathomably tall buildings surround them, glowing windows filling the city with a sense of life. A heavy sensation of loss clutches at her heart, tightening its grip with each step. How can she miss a place she’s only just learned of? How can her heart know this place of illusions and ruin? “Why…” Emet-Selch guides her to take his arm again, telling himself it’s only because she looks on the verge of fainting. He wants to speak her name once more, but he needs her to remember for herself or he’ll be left worrying that she’s merely playing a role he’d inadvertently written for her.
“I had planned for you to learn of this on your own, wandering this lonely city and speaking to the other Amaurotines.” As he speaks, he leads her down a long pathway toward what looks from here like a garden. She’s listening, but she can’t help craning her neck to gaze up at the towers, or leaning toward a gathering of people to try to catch some of their conversations.
He pats her arm without thinking about it, as he sometimes did when they walked together and their conversation turned to heavier subjects. “They would have told you about distant cities where a terrible keening was heard from within the star. Our people could create anything we wished, so no one ever went without. This event though, preceded our creation magics running wild, allowing the spontaneous generation of malformed beasts that ran rampant.”
Their steps have slowed and she’s listening with rapt attention. If only he could reach out and touch that soul to know what she’s thinking. There’s a hint of sadness there, perhaps pity, but the touch of a frown she wears tells him she’s not ready to believe him in full. Emet-Selch runs his free hand along one of the buildings of his creation. Even through his glove and the passage of time he can feel the heat from the great fires that consumed nearly everything. “We felt the press of the Final Days upon us, and the likely death of our star.”
“That’s why you summoned Zodiark, then.”
“Eventually, yes.” They are drawing very near the garden, and he pauses a few steps away from those entwining bowers and vibrant trellises. Not yet . “We discussed and debated, considered and contemplated. Was it our duty to send some of our greatest phantomologists to help these cities in distress or would we have been imposing? Or should we turtle in and protect ourselves? In the end, the horror reached our city before we made a decision. We would engender the very will of the star so it might save itself.”
Kara weighs the tale he weaves against her prior understanding of the world and:
...the Warrior has heard enough of Ascian lies. (Go to chapter 2)
...a vision overtakes her, of meteors and savage beasts. (Go to chapter 3 - In Progress)