Edenhall was a comfort, in every sense of the word. Its architecture floated like a steel bubble in the clouds, woven from metal lattices that had been interspersed with transplanted greenery, nurturing layers upon layers of gardens. Glass panels showed the bounty of Cocoon stretching out in lush curves, a living tapestry in place of empty sky. Embedded scrollwork gleamed in golden complexity, mirroring the precise machinery that ticked away within, keeping everything running in perfect harmony.
Organic and inorganic, welded together into a form that transcended the definitions of both, Edenhall illustrated everything that a fal'Cie truly was. The humans that walked it daily never seemed to appreciate the explanation. Like so much else, they ignored the deeper meaning, regardless of how gently it had been spelled out around them.
Even on mortal legs, the structure was pleasant to travel. Barthandelus's robes whispered as he paced across its length, making his way steadily towards the innermost hall. Most of the Sanctum officials knew better than to disturb Primarch Dysley when he walked by himself: it was a sign that he was en route to commune with Eden. Speaking with the fal'Cie directly was an honor allowed only to the Primarch, a sacred duty that he possessed by virtue of his rank.
In reality, Barthandelus never visited to hear Eden's commands. The truth was entirely the opposite.
The pathways that afternoon were peaceful enough, filled by only a few humans, and they thinned out the closer he came to Eden's inner chambers. Yet, as he reached the final platform, he was startled by one last visitor. She was a Sanctum official, though of relatively low rank; he'd seen her before, often in business involving the fal'Cie. She was fervently devoted to them, always mentioning them first in any matter of governmental policy. Her type of faith was useful, if periodically inconvenient.
Such a time was now. "Your Eminence," she said, emerging from the shadows of the archway and venturing towards him. "I beg of you, just once more. I would not dare to impose, but -- but could you request from Eden for me, for the benefit of my child -- "
"Your child was born weak," he remarked, remembering her petition. It had been memorable for its reminder of futility. The child would be able to walk, though never well, and would require routine care for the rest of its natural lifespan. Her offspring was like Cocoon itself: trapped in a partial existence, it should be allowed to die. "I grieve for your concerns, but there is nothing more that can be done."
Without looking back, he stepped through the intricately whorled gate, eager to shed himself of a fruitless conversation -- but the official followed him, over the doorway and into the chamber itself. A tendril of shock wound through his chest as he stared at her. She didn't retreat.
"Science and medicine have done all they can," he informed her sternly. "Be grateful for what you do have."
She pressed forward a step, until he could see the lines creased into her face from frowning. "There is experimental research into fully integrated prosthetics and replacement organs, for damage that manadrives cannot regenerate," she insisted. "Surely they would benefit us all if fully developed. Surely Eden sees this -- and Eden cares for the people of Cocoon. Eden would be wiling to pursue this, I am certain. Eden is willing to show mercy -- "
Mercy. The official's willing ignorance fractured his mood, his precious serenity wasted on human neediness. He slammed the doors behind them with a gesture, watching the woman's eyes go wide; there was no one around who would see, but he did not want to endure the futility of having her try to run.
"Mercy it is," he declared. "Mercy is what you shall have."
Harsh light flared in the chamber, radiating from his hand. It washed over her in an instant, there and gone while she was still gasping at its touch. She hit the ground, already unconscious; he did not give her time to recover, lifting her back to her feet with a thought, giving her a rough shake to encourage her to wake up. He had granted her no powers, and so there was no need for her body to adjust. He did not have the attention to waste upon her.
"Go back to your child," he ordered once she stirred, not waiting for her to puzzle through the vision by herself. "Kill it. Do this and you will be blessed by the divine -- proof of your obedience to Cocoon. Fail, and you will become a Cie'th, parted forever from grace. Go."
With that, he released his mental grip on her, letting her collapse to the floor. The gateway rippled, a dark eye that lay waiting for him to open it; it yielded instantly to his presence, and allowed him into the Tesseracts.
The whispers of the fal'Cie rose around him as the dimension opened into an unfurling fractal of hues. Raw data slid past in millions of different function calls; the language of his brethren suffused his body, bypassing the limitations of physical ears and pouring directly into his core. As he stood there, relishing the sensation, one of Eden's avatars detached itself from the void and drifted towards him. It was her palest face, pearl-white, sheer enough that it caught the colors of the Cradle and embraced them until she reflected back crimson and rose.
She directed her features towards him in silent disapproval.
"It was necessary," he snapped aloud. "Would you have wanted the human knocking on the gateway itself next?"
Eden's chin dipped in consent, but she hovered in place, delinquent in calling up the Bodhum datastreams for review. "Yet how will you prevent her from revealing her geas?" she countered, the melody of her trebled voice reverberating all around him, deep into his bones. "Or if her will should shatter, and she turns l'Cie where all can witness?"
"Menrva will be my long-reaching hand," he replied harshly. He felt restless, his skin too tight -- the wrong skin, the wrong form, the wrong everything for a visit to the Tesseracts. "And I will not give her long to decide. The brand -- and Menrva -- will ensure it." Receiving only silence in reply, he defended himself once more. "Though she feels it unjust, it is far better than enduring the chaos to come. Should I have allowed her dreams to take deeper root, only to crush them later?"
Eden did not protest further. She lifted herself up and spread her arms, rolling out the current week's measurements from the Bodhum Vestige, and waited for his next command.
Vexed, Barthandelus stripped himself of mortal flesh with a thought, stretching out his power with a full-throated roar, flexing shoulders and claws that dug into the platforms of the Tesseracts and crumbled them like dried clay. But even that felt off somehow, dissonant in a way that cracked through his being and left him unsettled down to his core. He wished suddenly for the cool, soothing sterility of the Narthex; he wished to sit and glower and cast unfriendly glances at the sky, as he would have done on his seat in Sanctum's Council.
Eden obliged his transformation by widening the display screens, calling up auxiliary databases to stack the information in towers, branching off into smaller and smaller categories of specialization. Barthandelus shifted his weight, settling down to review the results. Dutifully, she floated aside to pause and parse the most current results, and he rumbled in appreciation to her.
Her. It was the more respectful word, for the fal'Cie had no innate assignment. Humans had to associate a gender with the creatures they interacted with most, or else they thought of such things as objects, beneath them in value. As a result, he and Eden both had to suffer the indignities of arbitrary gender, saddled with pronouns that meant nothing to them -- but which were somehow meant to lend definition to their natures.
But such habits were infectious. The more that Barthandelus was forced to associate with humans, the more they grew on him, until he used their pronouns for his own, thinking within the boundaries they set for themselves. Until he wore their flesh in place of his own bones, and forgot how liberating it felt to take it off.
After Dysley -- if the l'Cie failed yet again, yet again, and if all of Cocoon could not destroy itself even without fal'Cie help -- there would eventually have to be future Primarchs to prepare for. The mere thought of assuming yet another human's guise was exhausting. He could not do it. There would have to be an alternative. He was sick of wearing skin.
He flicked through the screens, marking the ones that involved lowered levels of food, infrastructure, and commerce. Even though it only prolonged the world's suffering, he could not entirely ignore his assigned duties towards Cocoon. The Maker's orders were absolute. He could feel the contradictions whittling away at him, reducing his ability to act; it reduced them all, forcing the children of Lindzei to coddle Cocoon while those of Pulse lost themselves in the minutia of ecological cultivation. Their earthbound brethren had given up on humans entirely, gifting them with Focii that were pointless and paradoxical, until their portion of Etro's brood had withered away unmourned -- and still, there was no answer from the creators.
It did not matter. Without their respective Makers, there was no purpose in the world -- and as the fal'Cie slowly lost their way, so too did humanity falter, without even being aware of their tragedy.
Surely they could not be expected to continue on like this forever.
The last attempt to break free had been thwarted, Anima's l'Cie neutralized even as Cocoon's shell had cracked. But this time, Barthandelus was not solely relying on the resources of Pulse fal'Cie. He had had five hundred years to establish backup plans on every level of Cocoon society. Anima had been willing to make another attempt; their earthborn cousin had joined its harmony with their own, allying with its Sanctum brethren. He could feel its presence, even from Edenhall: its whispers were a frustrated thread of song. It, too, desired release.
The reported data from Bodhum was favorable. Anima had freed its two defective l'Cie, tossing them loose as bait and drawing in a third. Kujata had served faithfully when it had sensed hostiles, tasking another tool with the ability to hunt out the Pulse l'Cie. More humans had been driven to Anima's grasp, allowing the fal'Cie to create additional agents to carry out its will: strength in numbers, using the human's own assets in fal'Cie favor. The original two failures were themselves of limited value -- but the l'Cie that they had helped create were stronger, and could potentially rise to the task. If not, the original two could be tested again to see if Ragnarok could be birthed from their bones.
It was a subtle, but masterful interplay of Focii. Anima's l'Cie would be forced to stay on the run. Kujata's l'Cie provided the Sanctum with the illusion of insight. PSICOM's own attempts to defend Cocoon would help whip its people into a self-induced panic. The soldiers had always been encouraged to fight the l'Cie -- to protect Cocoon against Pulse, and scorn anyone unlucky enough to be made into a living tool. PSICOM's disdain for l'Cie had been ingrained, deliberately fostered: taught to think of l'Cie as monsters, none of the PSICOM officers would think twice about battle. They would throw themselves willingly at the sparsest of shadows, no matter how loudly the l'Cie might claim innocence.
Humanity's souls would serve as the lever to open Etro's Gate, and bring salvation to the world at last.
Barthandelus had built a menagerie of failsafes. One way or another, Cocoon would fall.
He clenched his fingers as the data reports ended, noting dimly that he had already reverted back into a human form without realizing it. He was wearing Dysley's face too often now, suppressing his full nature like an adamantoise crammed into a wooden box. It was making him short-tempered with his brethren. It was staining his very core.
He forced his hands to relax. Only a little more patience would be necessary. The world was so close to finally being broken. The Makers would return.
They could not come soon enough.