"Oh my, how careless of our Azem."
Thus spoke Hythlodaeus, having ambled into his office at the Bureau of the Architect to find a crystal sitting rather conspicuously on a chair reserved for guests. Slipped from a singularly adventurous pocket, no doubt. He marveled at the way the light played on its facets, like the surface of a tranquil lake, and recalled the first visitor he had received that morning.
Azem had sought the chief's assistance with the refinement of the fourteenth in his series of concepts to help ease the burdens of travel, which was contained within the palm-sized crystal. But as was so often the case, the conversation concerning the escapades that inspired said concept's creation had spiraled into a full-blown recounting, leaving Hythlodaeus insufficient time to evaluate it before Azem had to hasten to a meeting with the Convocation. Hythlodaeus was not without his own pressing obligations─the formal evaluation of a massive living-being concept, for one─and had only just returned to the bureau a moment before.
"And absent such comforts, how unbearable your wanderings will surely be," he mused aloud as he collected his friend's crystal.
Turning to the nearby window, Hythlodaeus cast his gaze over the great Capitol where the Convocation gathered and, with a practiced act of will, viewed the world in a different light. While many could feel the flow of aether, only those with experience could perceive its currents with their eyes. Rarer still were those born with the ability to do so as keenly as Hythlodaeus─Emet-Selch being another such natural talent.
So it was that Hythlodaeus effortlessly descried Azem's strand amidst the weave. Though he could not be certain of his quarry's exact position at such a distance, he was confident it lay somewhere within the Capitol.
Blinking, he beheld the world as others did once more. Far beyond the panes, the sun was poised to kiss the horizon, and in its ardor bathed the city streets in rose and gold. The Convocation's business would be concluded shortly, making this an ideal moment to deliver the forgotten crystal. His course decided, Hythlodaeus departed the bureau, taking only the briefest of moments to mention his plans to the senior secretary. While the industrious soul was accustomed to his superior's carefree nature, he nevertheless attempted to detain him, only to be defeated by the tried and trusted tactic of politely nodding and pretending not to hear.
Outside the bureau doors, Amaurot basked in the evening light. Never was a city more magnificent.
From the humblest streets to the highest spires...
Hythlodaeus's feet carried him up the gentle rise leading to the institution's grand doors, past which he spied two women he recognized, their cheerful banter a familiar duet.
"Mitron, Loghrif. A pleasure as always. I gather the meeting is concluded?"
"Well met, Hythlodaeus. It ended but a moment ago, yes," replied Mitron, before flashing a knowing smile. "I believe they're both still inside."
I am indeed a creature of habit. "Azem left a concept crystal in my office."
With a chuckle and a shrug, Mitron turned to make for the Macarenses Angle. Loghrif offered some parting pleasantries before jogging to catch up.
"So, Mitron. What shall we do this evening?"
"Exactly what we discussed earlier─at length. Ever the forgetful one, aren't you..."
Hythlodaeus could not help but chuckle to himself as he heard their voices fade into the general hubbub. Unchanging in their dynamic, be it in labor or leisure. Mitron created life to thrive in the sea, and Loghrif life to thrive upon terra firma. Neighboring realms inextricably linked, and as the waves were forever drawn to the shore, so too were the pair inseparable. Hythlodaeus enjoyed their warmth, listening until he could hear them no longer, before returning to his task.
Not a single speck of dust marred the Capitol's vast and elegant foyer. Deeper within were two figures engaged in what appeared to be a rather serious discussion. As it was customary for the Convocation to debate matters of grave import with neither mask nor hood to obscure their features, it was plain from their unconcealed faces that the meeting had only recently ended─and that some points had not been settled to the satisfaction of all. Or mayhap cousins know better than to try and hide their intentions from their own kin.
Taking care not to disturb Lahabrea and Igeyorhm, Hythlodaeus passed through a nearby set of doors and stepped softly as he proceeded down the hall. Shifting his perception of the world, he picked up Azem's trail once more. Closer now─the garden, most like. Which means I'll need to take the long way around.
He recognized another strand of aether. Well, since there's no need to rush...
Clasping his hands behind his back, Hythlodaeus began to stroll, humming softly as he imagined his next encounter.
A short while later, he arrived at the entrance to the Convocation's meeting chambers. With impeccable timing, the heavy doors groaned and began to open, allowing a young man of modest stature to emerge. Affixed to his white robe was a red mask like no other.
"Good Elidibus, I thank and commend you for your service on this fine day."
"Oh. Hythlodaeus. As ever, you are too kind. If you're looking for Azem and Emet-Selch, they left not long ago..."
Truly, our proclivities are known to one and all. Elidibus and Mitron were no exception─indeed, when Azem or Emet-Selch visited the Bureau of the Architect, the staff usually refrained from asking their business and led them straight to Hythlodaeus. Only the redoubtable senior secretary and those not long in employment followed protocol to the letter.
After informing Elidibus that he had already deduced Azem's location, Hythlodaeus's curiosity compelled him to ask about the cousins' earlier conversation.
"Were the matters brought before the Convocation today particularly thorny? Lahabrea and Igeyorhm seemed to be at loggerheads."
"No, no... I would say that the situation is more or less resolved. However, it has been of great concern to Lahabrea, contributing to his intermittent attendance of late. I expect Igeyorhm is merely worried for his well-being."
"I see. What I witnessed was not an argument but a scolding, then. Even so, I cannot fathom what dreadful crisis could warrant the constant attention of the esteemed Lahabrea."
Elidibus's pained expression came as a surprise. For one so brilliant to struggle to put his thoughts into words... It must be a delicate situation indeed.
"I confess...the danger is not...inconsiderable, and there are aspects I have yet to fully comprehend," he mumbled, averting his gaze.
For a long moment they stood in silence, until Elidibus took a breath and stood a little straighter.
"But we have gained much from this episode, too. And I new friendship." A wisp of a smile played on his lips. "Other blessings as well, descending from the heavens to aid us... A veritable guiding star... " There was a faraway look in his eyes, as if reflecting on a half-remembered dream.
"It sounds as if you have fond memories of the affair."
Elidibus blinked. "Yes...yes, I believe I do. And I shall cherish them for as long as I live."
Resolved to speak no further on the matter, Elidibus put up his hood and excused himself. Hythlodaeus thanked him for his time and watched as the emissary strode away, regaining a little more of his composure with every step, until an altogether different man left the Capitol behind. Curious.
With a small shake of the head, Hythlodaeus resumed his relaxed pursuit, sauntering towards the next bend. In that instant, a sable soul came barreling around the corner, and it was all Hythlodaeus could do to avoid a collision. Regaining his balance, he turned to ascertain the harried individual's identity and found himself looking into a pair of jade eyes.
"I'm so sorry. That was thoughtless and rude and inconsiderate of me..."
Our new Fandaniel. Having known the man quite well prior to his recent appointment, Hythlodaeus still thought of him as Hermes. Like the other Convocation members, he had neglected to raise his hood and don his mask following their meeting, and so his deathly pallor and the bags beneath his eyes were impossible to ignore.
"No need to apologize, my friend, I am quite unharmed. Yet if I may be blunt─you look all but spent. Have you been neglecting your sleep?"
"I... I have responsibilities. Things that must be understood. That I must understand."
Vague though the reply was, Hermes's reluctance to meet his gaze spoke volumes. Burying himself in his work, just as Emet-Selch said. Such behavior was not unheard of for the man, but this episode was notable for its intensity and duration. Though perhaps that is to be expected...
Hythlodaeus and Emet-Selch had been dispatched to Elpis to assess the then-chief overseer's fitness for a seat on the Convocation, but their visit had coincided with an accident. Seemingly without warning, a collective of familiars into which Hermes had poured years of effort had grown unstable and spontaneously dissipated, producing a shockwave that in turn triggered the activation of a memory reconfiguration system. In the aftermath, Hythlodaeus and Emet-Selch found they had no recollection of the period following their arrival in Elpis, while Hermes possessed only fragments with which he pieced together the circumstances.
While undoubtedly inconvenient, Hythlodaeus had taken the episode in his stride, and it soon became a topic for amusing anecdotes among the staff. But not Hermes. "I killed her─murdered her," he lamented─a passing strange sentiment Hythlodaeus had never heard anyone utter of a familiar─and as if he had been stripped of the wings he so often conferred upon his concepts, he could never again bring himself to make another flying creation.
Ever since, embracing his duties as Fandaniel, Hermes had spent his every waking moment conducting observation and study of extant phenomena.
"Far be it from me to deter you from your chosen pursuit, but might you consider taking a moment to rest─or eat, even? I'd be happy to bring you a snack. Do you have any particular preferences? A favorite fruit, perhaps? Something you might enjoy?"
Hermes shrank, his eyes quivering, as he stared through Hythlodaeus. Lost and searching...
"I don't... I don't know."
"Then I fear your fatigue has reached an alarming level. Then again, I don't have any strong preferences myself, for it is the pleasure of good company from which I derive the most nourishment. If it would move the implacable Emet-Selch to chortle, I might just devour my own mask!"
The corner of the dispirited man's mouth twitched ever so slightly. Progress! Hythlodaeus pressed the attack, this time more directly.
"My friend, what moves you to devote yourself so wholly to your work? I should like to think there is no problem so impenetrable that one of your considerable talents would need to sacrifice his health to solve it."
His question was met with silence, as Hermes again withdrew into himself to search for an answer. Adrift in a starless sea, grappling with a dilemma all his own. Alone. Emerging at last, he whispered.
"We can but go on."
Hythlodaeus regarded him carefully. "May I ask what you mean?"
"I can't explain it, but...I know not what awaits, or what will become of us...yet we live. We are here and alive, and...and because of that, I know─I feel that we must...keep moving..."
Adrift in a starless sea, gasping for air as the currents threaten to pull him under. There is a truth here, but he does not see it. He senses its presence and flails desperately to understand even as the words tumble from his mouth.
As Emet-Selch was the keeper of the aetherial realm, Fandaniel was his counterpart for the physical. The affairs of the living were naturally of primary concern to him. But are these mere philosophical musings, or something more...?
Hythlodaeus held his tongue while he pondered the curious words. With a start, Hermes realized his outpouring had elicited no response and mumbled a reflexive apology.
"Sorry, that was... Ahem. Your concern is much appreciated, Hythlodaeus. I think I shall heed your advice and retire to my quarters for some rest."
"A wise decision. Emet-Selch said the other day─and I quote─'If he's determined to keel over where he stands, he might at least carry a cushion.'"
Failing to fight back an embarrassed grimace, Hermes thanked him again and went on his way. Though he appeared to slow his steps to mitigate the risk of crashing into unexpected passersby, Hythlodaeus noted that he nevertheless brushed against the walls several times as he stumbled out of sight. May your nap be a long one.
The hunt recommenced, Hythlodaeus walked on, drawing ever closer to the garden. Just to be certain, he adjusted his perspective once more. "Hah!" Azem's thread endured, dancing in the air before his eyes. His pace quickened as he strode into the garden.
Much like the larger spaces of Anagnorisis, the humble sanctuary was plainly the beneficiary of constant care and affection. While surrounded by corridors, it offered an unobstructed view of the sky, meaning a traveler eager to get underway could call upon a familiar to carry them heavensward in a trice...
I suppose I should not be surprised. Azem was gone. A second familiar thread of aether terminated at a loitering Emet-Selch, who was craning his neck and gazing into the distance. In the privacy of this moment, his oft-furrowed brow was relaxed, and oft-downturned lips threatened to curl into something disconcertingly genuine.
"I daresay your smile is never so sincere as when you see Azem off."
No sooner had the words been spoken than the dour curtain fell. So precious and ephemeral, your unguarded expressions.
"Save for that one exception, you are rarely to be seen without your customary scowl─unless there are fools to mock."
"I presume you did not seek me out solely to etch new lines upon my forehead."
Sure enough, the skin above Emet-Selch's eyes was forming impressive canyons of annoyance. Hythlodaeus glided to his side and attempted to retrace the path of his earlier gaze. A heartbeat before it vanished, he managed to make out the shape of Azem.
There was nothing left to see, yet he kept watch. "It's a compliment. I find your smile quite charming, and only wish that you would grace us with it more often."
"Now who's mocking who? But I will admit, I find these occasions...rousing. Invigorating, even. To be present as our friend embarks on another journey with no destination and say, 'Go forth and seek discovery,' or some such."
"Yes, yes. And...?"
So formidable was Emet-Selch's glower that it could compel almighty gods to cower in shame. Hythlodaeus, however, was unperturbed, having consorted with the indomitable figure since childhood. Two troublemaking brats born with aethersight. It was their longstanding association that guaranteed Emet-Selch knew his playful jests were simply that─and that Hythlodaeus need only wait patiently for honesty to triumph over pride.
"...And I take comfort in the knowledge that whatever tribulations he may face, he will overcome. That whatever the future may hold, it will be livelier for his part in it."
Hythlodaeus could not contain his laughter. Our friend the force of nature! "Well said, well said!" he sputtered before succumbing to amusement once more. Emet-Selch sighed in exasperation and muttered a few words of reproach, but they were as leaves in the wind, a musical rustling that warmed the cockles of his heart.
And now, in that boundless sky where our friend sought infinite possibilities, I see only death.
There were no lands untouched by the Final Days. Not even Amaurot, over which the heavens now burned.
Emet-Selch had found him─after some effort, judging from his breathless, disheveled state.
"You mustn't... With your wisdom and skill, surely you could do more for our people if you remained..."
"I was wise enough to recruit others who surpass me in every respect. Enough will survive me to ensure our work can continue."
It hadn't been a concern voiced on behalf of the Amaurotines. Better to pretend otherwise, though.
To forestall the Final Days, the will of the star would be given shape and form. An offering of life unprecedented in scale would be required. The Convocation themselves had called for willing participants, and so Emet-Selch was in no position to deny any the right to volunteer. He could but dance around the unspeakable request and clench his fists in frustration when refused.
Hythlodaeus was not a fighter. It was the pragmatic choice to sacrifice himself. To be reduced to aether and serve as fuel for the great summoning─Hythlodaeus did not fear this. He understood death, and the terror which had come to grip many when it drew near, but that understanding only emboldened him to embrace it. Once, he would have died to perpetuate the cycle. Now, he would die to preserve a myriad lives that might yet be saved.
Even so, it pained him deeply to see Emet-Selch reduced to such a state. Though he knew full well he was not the sole cause of his distress.
"Azem has not forsaken us. He follows his heart, as he ever has, and seeks to defy this fate in his own way."
"Don't you think I know that!? There is no time, Hythlodaeus! We need solutions now. We have a duty to this star!"
The words were as a guttural howl, so terrible was his fury. He who held out hope for Azem's return longer than any. He whose anger and frustration and pain I see writ plain in his pleading eyes. He who has ever been constant and true and who I am proud to call my dearest friend.
"You are right, Emet-Selch. You are right, and that is why I must place my faith in the Convocation's plan."
The hour of Zodiark's summoning was at hand.
He speaks again, but there is nothing left to say.
I raise my hand in apology and farewell, and I leave him behind.
I do not turn to look. I remember a garden, and a sky, and a man, and it is enough.
It is enough.
It ends...and yet it goes on...
How capricious fate─and tenacious Venat─to see two souls, at the edge of the universe, called to the stage once more. Thus did Hythlodaeus and Emet-Selch find themselves in the presence of the inheritor of Azem's legacy. Thus did mankind issue its answer to the question borne on the wings of oblivion.
And thus did we wield the power to create.
Duty at last fulfilled, Emet-Selch took a bow, departing not with hackneyed platitudes but a challenge to the traveler to go forth and seek discovery, adding with that most precious and ephemeral of expressions, "I certainly did."
I remember a garden, and a sky, and a man.
The excitement and expectation in his eyes. The pride in his breast. The unwavering faith in his heart. The joy on his lips as he wished Azem well on his journey.
Thus ends the encore. The players exit to take their place among the dead, and the living board their marble ship that they may be ferried back to where they belong. We surrender to the gentle currents that call us home.
Long awaited, yet sudden and surprising still.
From shimmering waters beyond the beyond, the multitude raise their voices in song.
Welcome, welcome─in unison, in celebration. The day is won.
It ends and it goes on.
Beside me, his eyes are closed, his ears bent to the distant gaiety. In the privacy of this moment, he smiles, for all that we had and all that they will.
I do not know the shape of his pain, nor how it shaped him into the man he became. But I know that when man first tasted loneliness and fear, bitterness and despair, he shared in their torment.
And now, as we are called to sleep, he beams. And I know─I know it is because of you.
He lifts his head to gaze into the waters.
He gifts me a final grin and a kind word, and he closes his eyes.
O star, two weary travelers are returning
We are thee, and thou art us
Flesh and soul and memory to unravel and entwine with thy flow
To weave anew and cast upon the shore
I imagine that day, and my pulse quickens.
As does yours, does it not, Hades?
Thus does life return to life.
And beneath dreaming eyelids, our final fantasy goes on.