Through His Eyes
In a time long forgotten, men and gods were one and the same. And upon the star that was their home, men ruled supreme over the corporeal world, within and without which existed an aetherial realm.
Throughout the ages, this realm has been called many names, but in the beginning it was known as the Underworld─the place to which departed souls returned. As water flows to the sea and rises to the sky before raining upon the land once more, the Underworld was a fundamental part of the circle of life. And for this reason, it was regarded at once with familiarity and reverence by men, who, despite their godlike powers, could not claim dominion over it. Wise though they were, they could catch only fleeting glimpses of the realm, channel but a sliver of its power, and do naught to control its ceaseless flow.
However, among those who abided in that age, there were a chosen few who possessed an affinity with the Underworld. And among their number, one stood tall...
Another idyllic evening had descended upon Amaurot. Citizens strolled carelessly along the streets of the gleaming capital, identical black-robed figures bathed in gentle torchlight. Some would while the night away in agreeable company, others retire early to their beds─the illumination served equally well for both.
But he had chosen to spend the time alone at a park, reclining upon the manicured lawn. The cowl of his robe had fallen back to reveal locks of white hair, which framed the unique red mask covering the upper half of his face─the sole item among his apparel that was his and his alone. To see him lazing there, most would have assumed he was simply gazing up at the stars, or perhaps the glittering towers that seemed to reach for them. The sights that were reflected in his eyes, however, were a far cry from any seen by most men.
What he beheld was the aether that comprised all things, radiating life. From the depths of the land to the heights of the firmament, its light shone bright. Here and there, lives that had served their purpose drifted upon the current before suddenly plunging down unto the Underworld.
That he could behold these wonders was not a wonder in itself. Many were blessed with the sight. Yet very few indeed were as strong in the gift as him. As a man focuses his gaze upon the object of his interest, he needed but to direct his attention towards the aether to behold all the lives borne upon the currents. So acute was his vision, he could make out not only the soul─the heart of life─but also discern subtle differences in the hue of each, telling individual lives apart. And by virtue of this transcendent skill, he had often been likened to a denizen of the Underworld.
For a while he continued gazing up at the sky, watching the dance of aether alone with his thoughts, until the soft rustling of grass announced the approach of another. Noticing this, he shut his eyes tight as if to will away the din, but the steps only drew nearer, growing louder and louder, before finally becoming a voice overhead.
"I heard the tidings. Congratulations, Hades...or should I say the honorable Emet-Selch of the Convocation of Fourteen?"
If I pretend not to notice, perhaps he will leave me in peace, he thought without much hope. And, as expected, but no less to his disappointment, the owner of the voice did not make to leave. Resigned, he grudgingly rolled over and heaved himself to his feet. Having repositioned his cowl, he addressed the grinning visitor with unconcealed displeasure.
"There is naught to congratulate─I merely filled a void. One which, I would remind you, only existed because you refused the honor."
"Come now, it went to the candidate best suited to the office. You find practical use for that which you see, while I enjoy the seeing for its own sake."
"And what does that say about your suitability for your own office? Perhaps I shall raise the subject at the Hall of Rhetoric."
As he said these words, he glared daggers through his mask, but the threat─idle, as they both knew─served only to elicit a snort of amusement from the Chief of the Bureau of the Architect, his close friend Hythlodaeus. Attired in a black robe and a white mask, the man looked entirely unremarkable. Yet like Hades, he was eminently gifted in the ability to behold the Underworld. As a matter of fact, were it purely a question of vision, his was the keener of the two. Precious little escaped his eyes, which could discern essence and appearance as plainly as night and day. This made him amply qualified for the highest office of the Bureau of the Architect, the institution which oversaw the creation of concepts. And incurably smug.
Irked by Hythlodaeus’s unshakable good cheer, he snapped, "Was there something else?" And immediately regretted it when he saw the man’s grin broaden.
"As a matter of fact, yes. Have you informed a certain someone of your appointment?"
"Hardly necessary. The memorandum will see to it, if the gossips in the street haven’t already. News pertaining to the Fourteen is wont to spread quickly."
"Were you to ask my opinion, I would tell you such a momentous message warrants a personal delivery. Shall I ascertain our friend’s whereabouts? It will take but a moment."
"I did not ask for your opinion, nor less your help. I understand you have pressing tasks and would not keep you from them."
For the first time since Hythlodaeus arrived, the grin faded from his lips, the tilt of the man's head all but asking how Hades could have known. And though he was certain he would regret answering the unspoken question, in the end he found himself yielding to the interminable silence. With a sigh, he continued.
"A short while ago, you received a visitor from the Words of Lahabrea. This invariably means you have been tasked with an inspection of considerable import, and by rights should not have time to spend in idleness. That you should seek me out at such a juncture suggests you have a consultation or─the mind boggles─a request."
For a moment, Hythlodaeus said nothing, as if mulling over the words. Then his shoulders began to shake with laughter.
"You wound me, old friend! I merely chanced to notice you lying here and wished to offer my congratulations." As he continued, his voice took on an impish tone. "And I daresay, given your new responsibilities, you've even less time than me to spend in idleness. Of course, you were never one to rouse yourself, save when you deemed a matter worthy of your attention."
Though said in jest, the uninvited observation did not improve his mood. "You have offered your congratulations," he said testily. "If there is naught else, I shall be on my way."
Seeing him turn to leave, Hythlodaeus hastily changed his tone. "Wait. As you say, I have a consultation for you...and a request. Will you not hear me out, most eminent Emet-Selch?"
"An immortal bird?" Hades repeated as they made their way through the restricted area of the Bureau of the Architect.
Hythlodaeus nodded. "To be precise, it is not a living being, but magick woven in the likeness of a bird. One possessed of puissant healing powers. And as befits a masterwork of the Words of Lahabrea, it is a thing of beauty."
"I don’t doubt it. So what, then, is the problem?"
"As I said, it is not a living being. The concept proposed was a magick in avian guise. With this in mind..."
Hythlodaeus stretched out a hand to the enormous gate that stood before them. Soundlessly, the towering doors swung open...and Hades found himself wincing at the ear-rending cry that emanated from within. Furrowing his brow, he stepped across the threshold to be greeted with the sight of a magnificent bird, its plumes fairly afire, circling high in the vaulted hall. Having marked the creature's undeniable beauty, it took him but another moment to identify the problem─an unmistakable light shining in its heart. His breath caught in his throat.
"A soul... How?"
Through their mastery of creation magicks, men could weave anything into existence. Anything they could imagine, they could bring forth─anything, that is, except a soul. As Hades well knew, souls spontaneously manifested within creatures that were born in accordance with the laws of nature. It was a gift from the star itself, long held to be impossible to recreate. No artificial being, no matter how subtly sculpted in the image of nature, could come to possess a soul. Such creations occupied a separate classification known as arcane entities.
"There was an accident," Hythlodaeus began. "During the concept's examination, a drifting soul merged with it─a soul burdened with regret, judging by the being's behavior. It rages against the pull of the Underworld."
As he listened, Hades kept his gaze fixed on the creature, which flew about in a frenzy. No sooner would it dash itself against the wall in an explosion of broken feathers than it would heal itself and repeat the grisly feat. This self-destructive dance unfolded again and again, with the creature occasionally giving vent to its overflowing magical reserves─or fury, as it seemed to him─as fiery breath.
Witnessing the excruciating display, his thoughts poured forth unbidden from his lips. "Consumed by the fear of death, it thrashes blindly about. It will know only pain and suffering and inflict the same upon others. A pitiful existence."
"Such moving empathy. It's as if you wore the feathers yourself."
He waved a dismissive hand. "Yes, yes. But what do you intend to do with it? Masterwork or no, we cannot well leave it as it is."
There, Hythlodaeus turned to face him, that irritating smile having returned, and again he knew a pang of regret. "As it is immortal after a fashion, we here have not the ability to return it to the Underworld─our efforts would only cause it pain. Nay, we require the services of a powerful mage, and I know of none more powerful than you."
Once more he found himself glaring daggers at his friend, whose grin had become broader than ever. But rather than give him the satisfaction of a complaint, he decided that he would make a debt of it. Without another word, he focused his mind, and as he did, his silhouette wavered and danced. Then all of a sudden, like a shadow lengthening, his form began to swell.
Through the thrum of gathering aether, he heard Hythlodaeus remark, "Never ceases to impress me..."
He knew well what his friend beheld─the unbridled power of the Underworld, pouring forth into his being. In such moments, he felt as if he was one with its flow. Though mages were plentiful, not even among the rest of the Fourteen could one find another capable of wielding such power.
Ere long, his transformation was complete, and Hythlodaeus was left to crane his neck up at him. "Indeed, there is no better candidate. Allow me to congratulate you again, Emet-Selch."
He let out a quiet breath, a sigh mingled with laughter. Then he faced the bird and set about his task.
"...Your Radiance? Your Radiance."
The voice rumbled from a distance, impatient and insistent. Drowsily, he opened his eyes, and through the haze of sleep, inadvertently focused upon the flow of aether─the habit of eons. Unlike eons ago, however, there was no brilliant shine to greet his sight, but a wan, sickly glow. A guttering candle where once a signal flame blazed. His face reflexively contorted in disgust. Gathering his scattered thoughts, he finally remembered where he was. Dozed off in the chair again. Ah, the joys of old age.
"Your Radiance. It is the appointed hour."
The voice rumbled from right before him. He cast a bleary gaze towards the sound to see a young man, tall and strapping and golden-haired, regarding him anxiously. Though he was still well shy of his twentieth nameday, the crease which adorned his forehead added years to his grandson's appearance. This body's grandson, he corrected himself. Then he remembered─the boy, Varis, had been eager to report on his recent suppression of unrest in some forsaken province or other. Scarcely a matter warranting a formal audience, let alone rousing me for. Perhaps the boy had finally scraped together the courage to crow about his accomplishments. Perhaps he was put up to it by ambitious courtiers. Regardless, it was naught but the feeble plotting of malformed creatures. Wearily, he hauled himself to his feet and shuffled past the youth towards the door. He had barely taken half a dozen steps, however, when Varis found his tongue.
"What is it about me that displeases you so?"
He stopped at the unexpected address. Casting a glance over his shoulder, he saw the boy wearing an expression of pure anguish, and in that moment, he looked every bit as young as he was. To let this question spill forth, his frustration towards his grandsire must be great indeed. After a moment's pause, he replied under his breath.
"What...?" the boy's face was a picture of confusion, but he offered him not a word more, turning away and slowly taking his leave of the room.
As he made his way to the audience chamber, a self-deprecating smile rose to his lips. Though Garleans are known for their large frames, the body he wore was by no means exceptional in that regard, nor was that of the woman he took for his wife. Yet their firstborn son was a prodigiously tall and robust specimen, unprecedented even among his kind. As the boy grew, his physique was held in awe and admiration by all, though to him it was a source of great vexation.
In the end, they were all just malformed creatures. Feeble, frail, and foolish. Thrashing blindly about in their fleeting, fragmented lives, repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Never could they replace his brethren. Yet in spite of himself, when he cradled the newborn in his arms and stroked that downy hair, he could not help but hope. For what, he could not be certain, but he hoped nonetheless. It made little difference in the end, for his son had succumbed to some absurd illness and returned to the Underworld long before his time. Not without leaving behind a legacy, however─a living, breathing, and ever-present reminder of that momentary lapse.
At length, his frail body brought him to his destination. He paused before the door, took a deep breath, and shut his eyes tight─as if to will away the din.