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Dawn Lily, Dusk Rose

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No. He wouldn’t do it. He was bluffing. The bastard had to be bluffing! The Warrior of Light watched, shocked to see her enemy draw his katana to his own throat. He held it there and she shook her head in disbelief. The devil that wore the face of an angel. His pale blue eyes met hers and a knot formed in her chest, hard like a block of ice. Sympathy? Grief? Horrified, she pushed those feelings away as hard as she could only for them to crawl back. Those emotions were not meant for a deluded monster like Zenos yae Galvus.

His bloodied lips were drawn into a gentle smile. It was one unlike any she’d seen from the crown prince before. This was no subtle smirk touched with a hint of malice. This was a true smile, probably the first and last to ever touch his face. It was a smile meant only for her. A thank you. The hero had given him what he wanted.

"Coward!" Alphinaud yelled.

“Stop!” Lyse charged, fist raised to strike, but the Warrior of Light knew it was already too late.

“Farewell, my first friend. My enemy.” 

Time slowed down and each second dragged almost as if the cold, unforgiving metal was set against her own neck. Zenos’s gaze remained fixated on her as he pressed down, immediately drawing blood along his skin. Her head began to ache and she brought a hand to her temple. There was a flash of white across her vision. Whatever the hero saw, it happened too fast. Her mind couldn’t grasp the pictures. The Echo? A wave of nausea struck her and she wavered on her feet. It ended just as quickly as it had begun and her thoughts were pulled straight back to reality.

The Warrior of Light reached out in vain, teeth bared as the blade dug deeper into his flesh and severed his jugular with one swift stroke. Zenos looked content as his eyes closed. The sword slipped from his grasp. His life force spilled out, spraying his dark armor and golden strands in crimson. He collapsed to the ground, stirring up petals in his wake, and laid still. The scions gaped in silence. That was it. He was gone. How quickly life could be taken or surrendered. Zenos was a cold, unfeeling demon; and yet, witnessing his death by his own hand left the Warrior of Light uneasy.

A flurry of footsteps came from behind and the Warrior of Light heard a buzz of voices. She didn’t turn around to see who it was, but she thought she heard General Aldynn. The hyur couldn’t find the willpower to draw her eyes away from her fallen foe. All she could do was stare at Zenos’s body, dumbfounded. The prince had really taken his own life and looked right at her the entire time. More than that, he had stared into her soul, savoring whatever connection he thought there was with the woman before departing for the eternal flames. It was crazy, she knew that, and yet, the adventurer’s heart ached all the same for her hunter. She had never felt so conflicted in her life.

The Warrior of Light stepped closer, her crakows scrape against the patterned stone before they sunk into the soft soil of the flower bed. Slowly, she knelt down next to to the prince. On his back, he looked as peaceful and serene as he probably did sleeping. That Zenos would look so beautiful even in death irked her. He should be burned and his ashes tossed into a sewage pipe. Even that send off was too good for him.

Thinking back, she recalled his words. It had been a convincing act, or so she wanted to believe. The hyur wondered if- no, she knew he had been genuine. Zenos never struck her as a liar. At the very least the lunatic had been honest. All that he said he believed. The Warrior of Light was the only one he thought understood him in his sad, boring, world. The only prey that gave him pause and stole his attention from the mundane life that suffocated him. For Zenos, she had been a kindred spirit and prey, an equal and savage, a friend and enemy. How such contradictions meshed she didn’t know, but the Garlean had not questioned it. 

Zenos had thrust the Warrior of Light into a storm of complex emotions from the start. Weeks ago, she laid defeated and broken at his feet. After all the challenges that stood in her way, Zenos struck her down so ruthlessly that it broke his sword clean in half. She still wasn’t sure how she survived such a blow. Just thinking about it made the scar burn across her chest. Pathetic . Pathetic, he had called her. That word lit a fire in the warrior’s soul, a raging inferno that hadn’t dimmed until, well, this moment. She was infuriated, embarrassed, distraught, and, although reluctantly, impressed by his strength. It was a humbling experience. Since that moment, she couldn’t keep her mind off of him. 

What was his technique? How did he do this? What could I have done better? How in the seven hells did he do that and why can’t I avoid it?! 

In her down time, out of sight from the scions and her allies, the Warrior of Light obsessed over the battles she lost. She analyzed the memories so many times that it plagued her dreams. She wanted to beat him; she had to beat him! Too much lay on the line. The people placed their faith in her. When the woman had failed those that looked up to her, it tore the adventurer apart to see the glimmer in their eyes fade to hopelessness. She was their hero. She didn’t lose. She didn’t give up. She overcame the impossible and won. She was the Warrior of Light, hope incarnate. She had to live up to that title. She had to. For Eorzea, for her friends and family, and, as petty as it sounded, because she wanted to get back at Zenos and prove she wasn't pathetic.

The deed was done. The hero had won. Her task was accomplished and Ala Mhgio was liberated from tyranny; and yet, as the Warrior of Light knelt there next to her rival, she was numb to joy. This was a victory. So, why did she feel like she had lost something? It scared her. If the hunter is nothing without the hunt then what was the prey without her hunter? A hunter that could push its prey to grow and evolve so that it may strike back stronger than before. After her adventures in Ishgard, the hyur had thought her might had reached its limit. Zenos showed her that was not so. There was far more that she could learn, and learn she did. The Warrior of Light gained the strength she needed to protect what she loved.

Finding new power didn’t come as fast to her as it once did. Tumbling a few primals wasn’t enough anymore, which in itself was a frightening prospect. Tower above the gods, indeed. That thought sent a shiver through the woman. Losing to Zenos gave her the push and drive she needed. That realization disgusted her. He couldn’t be that responsible for the power she had worked so hard for. She wouldn’t accept it, but alas it could not be denied.

The Warrior of Light lowered her gaze. At his side laid one of his three infamous katanas: Ame-no-Habakiri. Its name came to her mind instantly, although she couldn’t remember from where she’d heard it. No doubt she’d caught wind of the Domans whispering of it in Yanxia. Who knows. Shaking slightly, her fingers wrapped around the hilt, drawing the blade up only to lower it right back down as the prince’s blood rolled down along its edge. Wiping it off in the grass, she held the katana between her hands, peering into the reflection of her own eyes. All of this chaos because he longed to feel something. To find the perfect beast for his hunt. A soul with whom he could share a kinship. She wasn’t sure whether it was right to be happy about his death or feel pity. Perhaps she was weak of heart, too forgiving, or her complex as the Warrior of Light simply made her yearn to help everyone, even someone as irredeemable as the crown prince of Garlemald. 

The viceroy had been so wrapped up in his rant and the warrior had hung on his every word. “Man should fight for the joy of it. To live, to eat, to breed--lesser beasts snap and howl at one another for this. Only man has the wisdom and the clarity to embrace violence for its own sake. For we who are born into this merciless, meaningless, world, have but one candle of light to burn. I know you understand this. You and I are one and the same. Together, we could while away the quiet hours as friend and confidant… if you would accept me.” 

Gone was that bored and apathetic expression. This was who he really was. The man buried beneath that indifferent persona he chose to wear. He had been so excited, almost like he was a child retelling a dream. By Rhalgar, it had been creepy, but what was worse was that the Warrior of Light couldn’t help but find his enthusiasm contagious despite the insanity of his words. Thankfully, none of her allies had been around during the final confrontation. Swept up in the frenzy of his speech, the highlander had, against her better judgement, accepted him as a friend. Life wasn’t that easy. A good heart to heart wasn’t going to work with Zenos. He had laughed at the woman for it and rightfully so. Who wouldn’t? He at least respected the honesty, grinning all the while. The Warrior of Light couldn’t just… Eorzea and Doma couldn’t let bygones be bygones. A hug wasn’t going to erase all the death and destruction that had been sown by the Empire. The viceroy knew how ridiculous it was to cast all that aside as did she, but the adventurer had always tried to be an optimist even in the face of impossible odds. That’s what had gotten her so far. One side of her wanted to try and be diplomatic while the other had been hungry-no, starving for this final battle. Kami forefend, she’d been drooling at the mere thought of being locked in combat with the garlean again and he knew.

“You live for these moments. When all hangs in the balance… when the difference between life and death is but a single stroke.” her heart had been racing as he spoke and those eyes of his turned wild once more. “I live for them too! This is who we are, my friend! This is all we are! Ala Mhigo, Doma, and Garlemald be damned!” it was then he broke Omega’s bindings holding the Eikon. 

Yes! Bring it on! she’d thought. Let’s do this! Don’t hold back! This time, I refuse to lose. I will royally kick your ass, princeling. Go on and possess Shinryu. See how far it gets you.

Like Zenos said, he and the hero of Eorzea were warriors and there was only one way their encounter could end. And end it did. She wanted to believe she was not like him. That’s what her mind screamed, but her heart couldn’t refuse all that Zenos said. She did live for those moments between the seconds. That’s why she had become an adventurer. It was fun! Fighting monsters and bad guys was fun. It was as simple as that. Learning new abilities, exploring new places, and battling bigger and stronger enemies was a rush she was addicted to. Then it got a lot more complicated, but she clung to her mantle as Warrior of Light with pride. She enjoyed making others happy, helping and protecting those that could not help themselves. Both the Warrior of Light and the Garlean prince enjoyed the thrill of battle; it was true, but for her it was more than just that. It was so much more. The key difference was that Zenos had no regard for human life while the Warrior of Light strove to save it. That one aspect made all the difference.

A hand touched her shoulder and the Warrior of Light flinched. Lyse gave the hyur a kind, but concerned smile. “Hien is right, Wysteria.”

Wysteria had no idea what the prince of Doma had said, but she nodded anyway. Rising to her feet, she noticed the viceroy’s infamous sword revolver at his side. A sudden urge seized Wysteria and she unhooked the large device from his armor. It wasn’t as heavy as she thought it would be or maybe she was just too strong to realize it was. The others watched their hero, curiously. It wasn’t unknown that the Warrior of Light looted the corpses of her fallen foes, but the prize she was taking could be seen as controversial. They did not act opposed to her actions, however. After all, she just saved them. If the Warrior of Light wanted to wield Zenos’s swords as her own, they weren’t going to start a dispute.

“Those cursed blades have caused more suffering than I dare to imagine.” Raubahn said. “However, I know you will use them to save more lives than Zenos ever took.”

The Warrior of Light smiled and nodded to the Flame General. That’s right. That was the intention. Yes, of course. It wasn’t just a sudden whim or because they looked neat. Everything she did had some kind of poetic and meaningful intention behind it. Yep… she sincerely hoped they’d keep believing that she was that clever. It certainly made her feel better.

Hooking the revolver sheath to her side, Wysteria slid Ame-no-Habakiri into its proper place and was surprised how smooth and natural it felt. No wonder the prince had carried this ridiculous contraption around. There was something satisfying about having the katanas gathered like that. There was a switch to activate the rotator, and although she was very tempted to push the button, she held off. Now was not the time.

Arenvald and his companions arrived, looking over the scene. Without a word, he took the horn at his side and blew. A roar of cheers erupted in the distance. The war wasn’t over, not by far, but they were finally free. Everyone followed Lyse to meet up with the Resistance and Alliance leaders. They lined the path and saluted before falling in behind. They looked so happy and it touched Wysteria. No longer was she a failure. In the end, she had come through for the Ala Mhigan people. Her people. It was strange to think of it like that. Growing up in Kugane with her Hingan father and Ala Mhigan mother, so far removed from her kin, she never truly felt like she was one of them. In Thanalan, she’d been spit on by other highlanders. Now, they smiled at her as one of their own.

The pain from before returned to Wysteria’s head, growing more acute with each step. The Echo again? That didn’t seem right because nothing was happening. This had been a stressful day and her nerves were shot. That’s probably all it was. She tried to ignore it, but it was only getting worse. The Warrior of Light wanted to stop and rest, but she wouldn’t allow that. The people wanted to see their saviors and she was one of them. Once they were done greeting the people, she could go sit down and sip on some cold water. Yes, that sounded great. She just had to hang in there a little longer.

As Lyse stepped forward, overlooking the ramparts, the people broke into song. It was vaguely familiar to the Warrior of Light, but she did not know the lyrics of the Ala Mhigo anthem by heart. Not that her headache would let her try to join in even if she did.

“Oh come ye wayward brothers, 

Bereft of hearth and home,”

It was getting worse. How could it be getting worse? The light of the desert sun was agony on her eyes, scorching her mind. She reached up, acting as if she were merely wiping sweat from her brow, but in truth she desired just a few moments of darkness. It did little to help. 

“Beneath yon burning star there lies

A haven for the bold.”

A cold sweat began to form on the back of her neck and spread to her palms. Her already fair skin now looked like plaster. Sick. Oh gods, she felt sick. Her stomach wanted to dump all of its contents over the balcony. No! Seven Hells, that would be the worst and most embarrassing thing she could do in a moment like this. Move to the back? No, she needed to stand there next to Lyse and bathe in the glory of their triumph.

"Behold the boundless legions,

Whose wings embrace the sun,

Their fire rains down upon the land,

Until their course is run.”

That… that was not right. The Warrior of Light was no expert on the lyrics of the anthem, but those words she just heard definitely did not sound correct. The voices became louder and distorted, a near screech. The throbbing in her head transcended into what felt like a dagger being jabbed into the back of her skull. Wysteria couldn’t stand it any longer and held her head. Hopefully, no one would take notice and worry.

“By mercy of Lord Galvus,”

The Warrior of Light could barely comprehend the words that sunk into her mind like talons. Lord Galvus? As in the Emperor? Wysteria was confused, but she couldn’t focus. The pain was becoming too much. She had to keep herself together just a little longer. It had to almost be over.

“The pride within us all.

Shall we be granted victory,”

Opening her eyes again, a film of red covered her vision and she could nearly see the veins of her own eyeballs pulsing. A hand grabbed her arm and she heard someone speak, but the song was too loud. Its crescendo was building and with it so did the agony as it coursed out from her brain and through her body like fire and levin.  

“FOR GLORY, GARLEMALD!”

Her knees gave out as the last verse was sung. Darkness swallowed her and she knew no more.

Chapter Text

The world was gone and with the absence of light, the darkness was quick to take its place. The lion’s gluttony knew no bounds. He had devoured and gorged on everything and everyone, including his own. She was all that was left. The last spark of light. The spark was not unscathed, however. Her memories were gone. She knew not her past or who she was. The hunter had taken that from her too. He pursued her relentlessly. She tried to hide, but he found her. She ran, but he snapped at her heels. This hell was all she knew. All she was. This lion, this shadow that followed her every step was not the void. By the Twelve, she wished it was voidsent that was after her. The voidsent could be killed. This thing? No matter how many times she raised her fists, no matter how many times she flung her chakrams, the monster kept coming, and he only grew stronger. The hunter wanted to completely consume her as he had everything else. She refused. Fighting and fleeing was all she could do. His assault was non stop and although she had been doing this for as long as she could remember, she was growing weaker. Her punches did not strike as hard as they once did and her blades missed their mark more often than not. It was only a matter of time until he caught her.

Once again, she was running. Well, limping was more accurate. The lion had wounded her too badly and she had no choice but to make a tactical retreat. She feared it wasn’t going to get her very far this time. Blood covered her skin and dripped behind her, leaving an easy trail to follow. His fangs had ripped so much flesh from her body she could see shiny gleam of bone. How she found the willpower to move, she didn’t know. She wanted to believe it was determination, but that wasn't entirely true. The spark was scared. Eventually, she was going to bleed out and die. Maybe it would be best to stop and let him eat her. No, she couldn’t allow that. Even if she was too weak to keep up the fight, she wasn’t going to just give herself over to monster. 

The last spark stumbled and tripped, falling to her hands and knees. She tried to continue on, crawling and pulling herself along the grime, but the ground itself decided to lash out at her. It melted, turning into a pit of tar with an oily sheen that glowed scarlet. Tendrils emerged, wrapping around her arms and legs to trap her down. A roar echoed through the abyss. The lion was coming. He was here. She was going to die. There was no hope of escape, but she tried anyway. The spark wasn’t one to give up just like the lion that stalked her.  

Orbs of ice blue peered through the darkness, slowly drawing closer. He must have been savoring this moment. His prey had fallen into his trap. The long hunt was almost complete. As he came closer, her body gave her a new burst of adrenaline and probably the last. Her veins popped out of her skin as she strained to break free of her bindings. The shadows did not give. His paws sunk into the muck and she felt his claws barely drag across her skin in a mocking caress. The lion was huge; a hulking beast of champagne fur and gnashing teeth. That a creature so beautiful and wicked could exist was terrifying. Saliva dripped from his maw and peppered her face as he growled. It took everything in her not to cry. Not like this. It couldn’t end like this.

Hear… came a muffled but familiar voice.

A light emerged from her chest, dim but alive. The predator hissed and took a step back. Hydaelyn? Yes! She remembered Her. The spark recalled her memories back as the Warrior of Light. Her name was Wysteria, an adventurer from the Far East that had longed to see the lands of her mother. She’d met the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, and through them she discovered her true purpose. Wysteria tried to call out to the Mother Crystal for aid, but the hunter pounced, attempting to clamp his jaws around her neck. The force submerged them beneath the surface of the tar, sending them into a tumble. Punching, kicking, scratching, and biting. Wysteria was snarling like a rabid animal. Just like him. She could feel his immense joy to see her in such a state. The fur of the lion was gone and replaced by ironclad limbs that wrapped around and pinned her arms to her side. The lion tugged the Warrior of Light farther below the surface. The light that had brought her to her senses was fading, becoming only a pinpoint. The moment it vanished, she panicked as the memories she just regained began to slip away from her. Wysteria screamed and squirmed; her back was pulled up against his chestplate. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe! The darkness was filling her mouth and nose like water. Her lungs burned and cried out for air.

Finally. I have you. He spoke for the first time. The arms grew tighter around her and inky air bubbles emerged from her mouth. The fiend’s hold was crushing. It hurt so much. She wanted to beg him to stop, but only gurgles came out. 'Twould seem I misjudged our last battle. A marvelous fight we shared, but I see now that it was only a precursor. An opening act. This? The lion laughed, shaking with giddiness. This is far more interesting. ‘Tis a dance unlike any I have partaken in, but I am eager to continue. To where will it lead I wonder. The Warrior of Light’s movements grew more frantic. If she fell any deeper she’d never be able to get out. She had to get away, but her captor held fast. Let us find out, together. But first… she could feel his breath against her ear as he whispered. As much as I admire your spirit, and would much prefer you continue fighting like the savage mongrel you are, I must ask you to yield. Unfortunate, I know, but you must relent. He squeezed tighter. How was that even possible? Gods, she just knew he was going to break her in two. Her bones were crunching under his might and she feared he was going to shatter her rib cage like glass. All she could do was whimper. She had not the strength left to scream. Give up, beast. Cease your struggles. Rest. Close your eyes and surrender to the depths. 

The further they sank into the shadows, the colder it became. She was freezing and she quickly realized the lion was the only source of heat. What kept a monster like him so warm in this layer of hell? His grip lessened, but she didn’t try to escape. Even if she wanted to her limbs would no longer heed her will. The warrior turned into a limp doll in his hands. Her pain was fading, giving way to numbness. That was far more preferable to the agony she’d endured. Their battle had gone on for ages. She was exhausted and desperately wanted to go to sleep like he asked. It was tempting to listen. She wanted to let go. The lion was tearing down the last barrier.

Good. Very good. His thumb brushed across her bottom lip. You said it once before. I need you to say it again. Listen carefully and repeat after me. Let us get this right the first time, shall we? He paused for a brief moment. Zenos .

So, that’s what he wanted. It was a simple enough request. What consequences would she yield by obeying him? What had they been before? She would see. Yes, she could remain silent and defy him, but she didn’t want to anymore. It would be easier to listen. It would be less painful to give in like he asked. He was the hunter and she was the prey. The chase had been long and hard, but it was over. Her life was his. 

Wysteria knew not how, especially after all the damage that had been wrought to her body, but she was finally able to speak. Z...Zenos. 

I accept… he gave her the next line.

Her tongue had problems forming the words as her mouth began to feel like it was stuffed with cotton. He let out a frustrated sigh. His fingers pinch her cheeks together, pursing her lips. The clawed gauntlets dug hard into her skin.

Say, “I accept”.

I-I... accept…  

Strands of gold draped across her shoulder as he leaned in closer. His lips curled into a grin against her cheek. You.

Beloved Daughter…

Her voice returned, no longer faint but loud and clear. Mother Hydaelyn was not going to let her child be taken. The spark reignited like a dazzling jewel from the hyur’s heart. One by one, the elemental crystals formed around them as the five pointed rune took shape. The wounds on her body began to mend and the light shone brighter. This caused the lion to growl and begin crushing her again.

With haste! We are so close now. Oh so very close, my friend.

Wysteria glared back at Zenos from over her shoulder, fire gleaming in her eyes. An expression between displeasure and amusement crossed his face before it settled into a frown.

Hear… Hydaelyn called out.

Say it. He demanded.

Feel…

Say it. Now! 

Think…

With the last word, the light condensed before it exploded from the woman, forcing the wicked lion and his darkness away. The world returned as it once was. The aetherial sea of the Mother Crystal lay before her, sparkling and bright with a thousand stars. Its warmth welcomed her home and she was taken in by Her embrace.

**************

The Warrior of Light opened her eyes and was immediately met with a spinning scenery of a bedroom. It was too much for her stomach and she started to gag, startling someone awake in the process. Before they even had a chance to speak, Wysteria leaned over the side of the cot and puked, scarcely missing Alphinaud in the process. The young elezen scrambled to grab her ebony locks and pull them back away from her face. A turquoise liquid gushed from the adventurer’s mouth and it glittered like gemstones upon the stone. At least it wasn’t carpet.

“...Sorry.” Wysteria croaked out.

“It’s fine! It’s fine. There is no need for you to apologize.” he was quick to say. 

The elezen helped Wysteria lie back down and covered her with a blanket. “Praise the Twelve,” her dizziness began to slow and she was able to see Alphinaud somewhat clearly. His eyes were watering and she felt a pang of guilt. It reminded her of his reaction when Estinien awoke after securing his freedom from Nidhogg. The Warrior of Light placed a hand on his head like he was her kid brother, gently ruffling his snowy locks. After all the trials and tribulations they had been through, he pretty much was. Normally, he’d object to such affection.

I must have really scared him. She thought. What happened?

She blinked, realizing she had thick mittens taped down over her hands. The Warrior of Light quirked an eyebrow at the teenager. 

“Ah, yes. The mittens. You were, ahem, scratching yourself all over.”

That didn’t sound good. After the nightmare she just had, however, she could easily see why she might have done that. Just thinking about it made her tremble. It was just a bad dream. None of it was real, she had to remind herself.

“Do you recall what happened before you fell unconscious?”

The last thing she remembered was following Lyse out of the menagerie. Then, she started to get a headache. It was all fuzzy from there. She shrugged.

“One moment.” the boy rushed to the door and flung it open. “Y’shtola! Krile! She’s awake!”

The Warrior of Light heard far more shuffling than just two people beyond the door. The walls muffled the voices, but she could tell there was a crowd gathering outside. 

“Shoo! Move, you lot. Let them through. I know you’re concerned, but the last thing she needs is to be hovered over by everyone in the Rising Stones. Just be patient.” that sounded like Tataru. Thank the gods. She couldn’t handle a dozen eyes on her right now. The two scions made it into the room and hurried over to her bedside. 

“Can you hear me?” Y’shtola asked.

Wysteria nodded. 

“Dizzy?”

“Yes.” It wasn’t often that the Warrior of Light talked, but she was very soft spoken.

The miqo’te grimaced as she turned her attention to the mess on the floor. “Still vomiting up aether, I see, but I do not see blood this time. That’s a relief.” stretching out her hand, she summoned one of her minions: a tiny, sentient broom like the ones the Warrior of Light had seen in Madam Matoya’s cave. It cleaned up the blue bile with a few sweeps and vanished. 

Y’shtola began to check the highlander’s vitals. “Your fever is gone, but it may return. That you were able to awaken at all is no less than a miracle. I’ve never seen such an advanced case of aether sickness.”

Aether sickness was something Wysteria vaguely heard about when she first arrived in Eorzea. Other than that she didn’t know much about it. Well, other than she knew it made her feel like crap at the moment. 

“H-how long-” Wysteria broke into a cough and realized just how dry and sore her mouth and throat was. Alphinaud poured her a glass of water and she was eager to chug it down. The coolness helped soothe the burning the aether had left behind.

“You have been in a coma more or less for about a moon.” He said.

The hyur’s eyes widened so far it made her earthy irises appear like tiny dots. She nearly spit out her drink. A moon?!

“You’re not out of the woods yet, I fear.” Krile spoke up, raising her Sharlayan goggles up to her eyes. She flipped a few switches and the device hummed to life. “Your aether levels are still dangerously high.” Krile shook her head. "I'm shocked you are not paralyzed. Anyone else would be, to put it bluntly, a husk. The Echo must have protected you from the full effect of the poisoning. I see no other explanation."

“Will she fully recover?” Alphinaud asked.

“‘Tis too soon to tell.” Y’shtola said.

That wasn’t comforting to hear and the highlander clenched her blanket through the mittens. The conjurer looked back to the Warrior of Light. “Witnesses say that the primal took you above the clouds and disappeared. Can you explain what happened?”

“It's a little more complicated than that.” The woman sighed. “Zenos used the Resonant to control Shinryu-to become Shinryu.” Alphinaud’s eyes bulged out of his head and he started to question further, but he stopped himself. It wasn’t the first time they had encountered a person taking the form of a primal. However, Ysayle had been a child of light. Zenos yae Galvus was not. To learn that even a reproduction of the Echo could give one the ability to bend Eikons to their will was unsettling.

Wysteria took another sip of water before she continued. “I’m not sure how he did it, but he took us to another plane of existence. Everything was blue and shimmered like- oh.” 

“And there is our answer.” Y’shtola said. “The very air of that plane must have contained exponentially high amounts of aether. ‘Tis a wonder you did not pass out sooner from the overexposure.”

“It makes your defeat of Zenos and the primal all the more impressive.” Alphinaud said.

The Warrior of Light looked down at her covered hands. Heh. It was a wonder she wasn’t dead. To think she could have died after winning merely due to poison. That would have been a sad way to go out for a fighter like herself. Perhaps that’s what Zenos had intended all along. Then again, probably not. That wasn’t his style. He didn’t play completely fair, but he still had his own list of weird standards on how one should conduct the hunt. She winced as she took another sip of water before reaching up to massage her throat. It felt so raw and her voice sounded worse than a Poro Rogo.

“Your screaming was nearly non-stop.” the lalafell said. “We had to put you into a deeper sleep so you could find peace. I do not know if it helped, but your crying ceased and we could only assume it did.” It didn’t, but Wysteria did not say otherwise. “Nightmares are normal for those afflicted with aether sickness, but yours must have been especially horrible to make you wail so.”

Horrible was putting it lightly. Wysteria didn’t want to think about it. She started to take the mittens off, but Y’shtola stopped her. “I know you must feel ridiculous, but I implore you to keep them on. Just in case.” the miqo’te said, giving her a sympathetic look.

The Warrior of Light held back a groan. It was embarrassing, but if it was for her own good she’d put up with it. At least no one else had seen her like this, yet. Y’shtola and Krile ran a number of tests on her before she was allowed to relax again. Even though she wasn’t hungry, she forced down some soup that was brought to her along with a few doses medicine. Her body was eager to return to sleep to her dismay. If she truly had slept for a moon, she'd had her fill of it, but her body didn't care and desired it all the same. The healers encouraged her to rest before the scions departed the room, giving Wysteria her privacy.

A month...  she blew out air between her lips.

For a while, she stared at the ceiling, counting the curves and bends in the wooden panels. Closing her eyes, she started to drift back to sleep. Clink, clink. The sound of armored footsteps brought her back to awareness. Scanning the room, she saw no one, but caught something dark in the corner of her eye. She could sense a presence lurking behind the headboard. Here she was: hardly able to move, hands bound in cloth, and no weapon nearby. She wanted to spin around and confront whoever was there, but her body protested against sudden movements. Slowly, she shifted to see behind her and was met with the sight of stone blocks. Oh. She forgot the bed was pushed up against the wall. No one could be standing over her like that. She felt silly for overreacting and she concluded that it was the fault of the aether sickness. No one was going to hurt her here. She was safe in the Rising Stones, surrounded by friends and allies. Relieved, she settled back into bed and soon fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Standing in the Royal Menagerie, the Ala Mhgian sun was burning bright and hot down upon her skin. There was enough of a breeze to help keep her cool and for that she was thankful. She never did like the heat. How the natives could stand living here in this wasteland, the Warrior of Light didn’t know. Her mother had spoken so fondly of Gyr Abania, and when the adventurer had arrived with the Alliance after taking Castrum Oriens, she’d been disappointed. This was the land her mother gushed about? This was what the Resistance was fighting for? The Empire had taken over a pile of dirt and rocks. If it were her, she would have thanked them for it and gone off to live somewhere better. 

Of course, she knew it was disrespectful to her heritage to think like that. The highlander clan hadn’t settled here for the environment, after all. Gyr Abania was blessed; it was the promised land. Rhalgar the Destroyer had guided her kin here at the end of the Fifth Astral Era, when all of the world was flooded. 

Ala Mhigans weren’t meager farmers and artisans; the earth wasn’t generous enough for that. They were a nation born of blood. Only a barren country like this could forge such a strong and resilient people. Wysteria would never call that side of her weak. Hell, it’s probably where her lust for battle came from. It flowed through her veins and beckoned her to adventure.

Besides trying to “save the world from the eikons” by conquering, the Empire must have desired these fearless, savage, warriors to be absorbed into their own army. That was the country’s real treasure. With fighters like that, taking over the rest of Eorzea would be a cinch. After all, a hundred years ago during the Autumn War, it took the combined might of the Alliance to take down one city-state. A city-state with limited resources, at that. That had been Ala Mhigo.

It didn’t play out like that for the imperials. Being the Empire, they had to beat the spirit out of their new subjects, and thus, destroyed the very source of the Ala Mhigan’s fighting poweress. By Rhalgar, Garleans were so stupid. She didn’t doubt that they had been surprised that their hyur and roegadyn soldiers were just as weak and plain as any other “savage”. It was no different than a child breaking a toy intentionally and then crying about.

The Warrior of Light sat down in the flowerbed and plucked a pink daisy. She rolled the stem between her fingers before she took a sniff. The scent of blood met her nose and she gasped. Wysteria realized this was the spot where he fell.

“Taking a moment to stop and smell the flowers, are we?”

Wysteria didn’t answer nor did she turn to look. This was her quiet time and she would not let him steal that away from her. She was enjoying this dream, and yet, it seemed determined to shift into a nightmare. She wished she could stop thinking about him. Why else would he be here if he wasn’t on her mind?

“Come. Entertain me. After how our last bout ended, you owe me that much.” his voice held spite. 

The Warrior of Light only vaguely recalled her last dream to her relief. Several days had passed since then and the aether sickness had done a number on her short term memory and she was struggling to remember the most basic things when she was awake. Y’shtola had assured her that was a normal symptom. So far, this one was different than the others. It was lucid and she was aware she was dreaming, or so she thought.

“‘Twas a pitiful climax. That you would resort to calling on that overgrown crystal... pathetic.” 

That word again. Oh, how she hated that word. The highlander clenched her jaw. If she wasn’t trying so hard to ignore him, she would have balled with laughter. She didn’t owe him anything, she was not scared of him, and she was not pathetic. Zenos must have forgotten that he was dead. He needed to go crawl back into his grave or go through the incinerator again.

“You’re dead.” she said, softly. She tried to keep her voice void of emotion. The Warrior of Light didn’t want him to know that he succeeded in antagonizing her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “You are nothing but a bad memory. Begone.” Wysteria closed her eyes and took a deep breath before trying to ease into a meditative trance. She believed her own negative thoughts had taken the form of the garlean prince. If she focused hard enough, maybe she could make him disappear.

Zenos continued to exist much to her dismay. “Such lies. I am your most treasured memory. Your equal. Even now, you grieve for me, grieving for all the battles you think we shall never have. It is why you cling to me. It is why I am here before you now. Do you believe I am here of my own volition? A ghost come to haunt you?”

Wysteria nodded, still refusing to look at him.

 “Heh heh... No, my friend. You called me. I merely answered your plea.” he suddenly barked out a laugh. “Does that make me your god? Am I your summoned eikon? Your salvation?” The Warrior of Light released a quivering breath, struggling to hold back a growl. The bastard was too good at this. He knew just how to twist her arm. She’d expect no less from a master manipulator like him. “‘Tis clear to me now that surviving our battle was the consolation. Imagine. You will carry on in this hollow existence and forever remain unfulfilled, desperately searching for another that sets your blood ablaze as I did. You never will.” his next words came out as a menacing purr. “Only I can make your heart race like that. Only I can give you the thrills you seek. Only I can satisfy that insurmountable bloodlust so like my own!”

A shiver went through Wyseria. This was her inner darkness speaking to her. She had no doubt. “Delusions of a madman.” she whispered.

“Oh? Then prove me wrong. Deny me.” he challenged.

The scraping of metal met her ears as a blade was pulled from a scabbard, or rather, sword revolver. The hyur gripped harder onto the flower. Kami why? Couldn’t they just let her have one minute to herself? Perhaps they put this upon her because they knew that wasn’t entirely true. Wysteria told herself that she wanted to sit and admire the daisies, and yet, she could not refute that his proposal was tempting. To reexperience their battles, to be filled with adrenaline and the rush of blood, to indulge in the thrill of dancing on the razor’s edge between life and death… it was so much fun. Conflicted, she decided to let fate decide. The Warrior of Light began plucking the petals off the flower.

I want to fight.

The prince began to move, his massive armor clinking which each step.

I don’t want to fight.

He circled to face her and she could see his boots in her peripheral vision as she remained fully focused on the bloom.

I want to fight.

The flat edge of his blade touched her chin; its tip just barely poked her skin and caused a small amount of blood to trickle down her neck.

I don’t want to fight.

Pressure forced her to look up as the katana pressed in deeper. Wysteria already knew he was a monster of a man, but down here on the ground she felt like a flea. Her eyes met his; they were cold but held a hint of mirth. He already knew that she couldn’t resist. After all, they were- he thought they were the same. The Warrior of Light hated that he was right. Her body wanted to relax, but her heart screamed for battle. It was true. She could not deny him and the final petal agreed. 

I want to fight!

A smirk touched the prince’s lips. The last petal fluttered into the palm of Wysteria’s hand. It blazed like a ring of fire and split into two chakrams. The Warrior of Light rolled backwards away from his blade and kicked forward with both feet, knocking his weapon up just long enough to slip his grasp before he swung back down. The earth and stone crumbled under his might and the dancer was forced back by a shockwave. 

“Yes… yes! At last, the ferocious beast awakens. I knew you could not resist your true nature.” he smiled and held out his hand. “My friend. My enemy. Come and let us embrace violence as only true warriors can!” Ame-no-Habakiri was returned to its sheath and Zenos waited as he continued to hold onto the hilt, reminding her of the samurai.

If he wanted a beast the Warrior of Light would give him all that and more. What better way to rid one’s self of negative energy than by literally beating it out of your own head? That’s what she assumed this was, a conglomeration of her darkest thoughts.

She dashed forward just as he did. Their weapons clashed, spraying sparks. The force of their immense speed caused the flowers to be ripped from the soil and swirl around them in a cyclone. Excitement flushed through Wysteria’s chest and a giggle was building up in her throat. Gods, they had just begun and her spirit was already singing. Her mouth formed into a hard line to prevent herself from grinning, but her eyes betrayed her. It was impossible to hide her feelings. The Warrior of Light loved this. She loved fighting this man with the skill that rivaled her own. Zenos was a raving lunatic, and yet he understood a side of her like no one else could. Warriors like them needed few to no words to bond. Their actions spoke for them.

Zenos met her strike for strike, knocking away her discs as she pranced and twirled out of his reach. Rotating her weapons on her fingers, she tossed them at every position and angle she could think of to try and get an edge over her opponent. The most difficult part was finishing the last few steps of her special dances. The viceroy caught on quickly that certain moves allowed her to perform other actions. If she wasn’t careful, she’d become too predictable and so she had to rely on a lot of feints and trick shots to keep ahead of him. 

Count the steps. Keep to the beat. Don’t forget the fan. Watch out for the other swords and destroy them quickly. 

Her laughter finally slipped through as she started literally spinning circles around him. Combat wise, she still hadn’t landed a hit on him, but he had not scored one on her either. It was almost like she was mocking him with every step and that’s why she adored the art of Kriegstanz. You could fight, inspire, and feel pretty while doing it! Not to mention, it might make your more airheaded enemies confused or underestimate you. Of course, she hadn’t had that effect on the legatus. He gave her no advantage, attacking just as hard and fast regardless of what discipline she used.

The tension in the air grew heavier as electricity began to surround the garlean, creating a pool that crackled beneath his feet. The warm up was over. Zenos didn’t give her half a second to react and the Warrior of Light was in too close. She tried to sprint out of range of his oncoming attack, but he charged after her and came down upon the dancer in one fell swoop. To the common eye, it looked like Zenos had only swung his sword once. The blast from his concentrated slash sent the woman flying backwards in a burst of energy. A dozen cuts erupted from Wysteria’s body and she seized up in pain. She had a vague idea where she was going to land and braced herself. This was going to hurt. Glass shattered as she bursts through the window of the palace, slicing her up even further. Rather than crashing into the throne room like she expected, she found herself in the wilderness of Yanxia. At least things still weren’t making sense.

Wysteria didn’t have time to assess her injuries. Zenos was right on top of her, katana aimed for her chest. She tumbled out of the way just in time and scampered back to her feet. The sword sunk down into the dirt and he easily yanked it back out. “Tsk. Do not dare disappoint me, woman. You shall regret you ever drew breath if you do.”

“I don’t intend to.” Wysteria switched her crystals. It was time to try another strategy and she took on the power of the monk. Her body flashed with light as her gear changed from her dancer attire to a lilac chensogam. The Warrior of Light settled into Opo-Opo form and flexed her fingers. “I’m going to take that head from your shoulders and hang it from the gates of Garlemald!”

“So violent!” he walked towards her, taking his time as if she were not a threat to him at all. “Good. Use those claws to desecrate me however your savage heart desires.” The Warrior of Light charged in shoulder first but only met air. It amazed her how fast he could move and how little effort it took him. As she got in close, she ducked and pivoted on her heels to avoid his strikes. Every clear swish of his blade reminded her just how close she was to getting stabbed. Her heart leaped, drunk on the risk. “That is if you can sink them in. You’ve yet to lay a hand on me, hero. What are you waiting for?”

An opening. She half wanted to say, but he’d given her plenty. The problem was that she wasn’t fast enough to reach them in time. His current fighting style was contradictory, both swift and lazy. Wysteria would blame it on the bizarreness of her dream if that wasn’t how he actually fought, at least when he was- her face suddenly flushed bright red with anger. He was acting like he did when he was bored with his opponent. 

Crystal Lotuses appeared around her and burst into flames as she called upon more chakra. Weaving trails of fire that flared from her hands and feet, the Warrior of Light punched harder and moved faster, quickly gaining more speed. She spun around to give him a proper dragon kick to the face, but Zenos caught her by the ankle. Wysteria lost her balance and was airborne once more. The Warrior of Light cried out in surprise as the legatus whips her around with one swing. Wysteria rights herself in the air just in time to plant her feet against what was now a stone tablet. A violet meteor was carved into its surface. As she pushed off the stone, she realized their location had changed again. The ancient statue of Rhalgar towered above them. This was the first place she and Zenos had fought. This was where she had been defeated. She wouldn’t let there be a repeat.

The Warrior of Light and Zenos were becoming little more than blurs upon the battlefield. Since this wasn’t real, the monk could admire their fight for what it was. They complimented one another nicely. The way the garlean moved, able to turn his body on a dime, Wysteria thought he would be a fantastic dancer or even monk if he tried. Zenos yae Galvus as a dancer. That’d be one show she wouldn’t miss. The outfit with his fair complexion and hair would look stunning on him, no doubt. 

She allowed herself to get too distracted with that fantasy and was nicked on the arm. The Warrior of Light grit her teeth and finally made contact with his face. The feel of her fist colliding with his cheek was so satisfying. The crown prince skidded backwards and gave his head a brisk shake before he grinned.

“Mm... Yes, just so, my prey.” 

Gods, he was a masochist. They continued for hours, exchanging more blows, cuts, and bruises. The Warrior of Light was panting and so was the crown prince; although, hers was far more exaggerated. Her heart was getting a work out and her body ached for it, but it felt good. Zenos reared his sword back and cut her right across the chest, flinging her back similarly to how he had done in their first battle. Wysteria fell to one knee. Zenos crouched, sheathing Ame-no-Habakiri as a swirl of energy began to build around his body. The sword revolver whirled to life. 

“A good attempt, but still disappointing. I am ending this.” he said.

No! Wysteria glared daggers at him. He thought this was over. How cute. Her mouth broke into a wicked grin. That strike had given her the last push she needed to build up the aether of her limit break. The Warrior of Light got back on her feet and took a deep breath. She called upon the power she had gathered throughout their battle. One by one, she began to open the chakra gates of light and shadow. Emerald electricity pulsed around her as she drew her fist back. Her palm burned as it grew brighter with aether. The viceroy’s power continued to surge alongside hers, causing the environment to wave and distort like ripples in a pool. 

With a roar, the Warrior of Light punched forward just as Zenos unleashed his own attack. Final Heaven smashed with Concentrativity. The sound was deafening and the monk could not even hear her own thoughts. Both were consumed by the flare of aether as it devoured all of Rhalgar’s Reach. Wysteria felt her flesh being burned and ripped asunder. She crossed her arms to block as much energy as she could, but it was too much. A huge force pushed her off her feet and one of her arms was completely torn off and disappeared in the light. There was so much happening that she couldn’t even notice the pain of losing a limb. Wysteria tumbled and rolled until finally coming to a stop, lying on her belly. When she came to, the air was still crackling with magic. Rhalgar’s Reach was gone. She was now in the throne room of Ala Mhigo’s palace. 

Wysteria saw Zenos across from her, face to the floor. He appeared just as damaged as she was. The Warrior of Light let out a yelp as a metal covered arm clattered to the stone in front of her. A snicker met her ears and Zenos lifted his head, giving her that insane smile where the whites of his eyes took up more space than his irises. That was his arm. They had both lost an arm. She was amazed that was the worst of their injuries. Even more so that she wasn’t  hurting. The adventurer found herself chuckling at him, herself, and this whole bizarre situation. The warriors rose to their feet and laughed. It was heartwarming, at first, but it soon devolved into hysteria. It wasn’t that funny, but they cackled all the same.

Their amusement eventually subsided and Wysteria smiled up at Zenos. “You know, maybe in another life we could have been friends: sparring together, pushing each other to our absolute limits, going off on wild adventures. The world wouldn’t know how to handle us. We’d stop evil before it even got started!” Zenos remained silent and aloof. “You’re just an ideal. I know Zenos is really dead. This must be my way of coping with it, or the aether sickness is giving me weird dreams again, or both.” her brows knitted together. “Watching you die bothered me more than I thought it would. I won’t miss the horrible things you did, but I’ll miss this weird connection we had. As insane as it is.”

He smirked ever so slightly. “Because you are a woman after my own heart.”

The Warrior of Light looked down at her feet. “In some ways, but not at the core.”

“Like me, your desire for a challenge is what drives you. It dictates every aspect of your life.” his icy eyes narrowed. “What more is there?”

Wysteria scoffed and jerked her head back up to glare at him. “There is more to me than that. I have other interests besides fighting, you know. Like dance, and theater, and fluffy critters. I really like animals, Zenos! Don’t you have a hobby that doesn’t involve fighting? Do you like cats?”

“No.” came the most deadpan word ever uttered on the face of Hydaelyn.

“Aww, why not?” 

Wysteria went off into a ramble, and in doing so, revealed who she really was under that shy and quiet demeanor. When she opened up and let herself relax, she was a bubbly person. Zenos had not seen this side of Wysteria and he definitely looked confused. About as confused as Wysteria was when Zenos had shown his true colors. Few knew the Warrior of Light well enough for her to get that comfortable. Most saw her as the silent adventurer who would just nod and rarely speak unless spoken to, which was usually true to be fair. Wysteria didn’t have a lot to say. People didn’t ask. Eorzeans liked to talk about themselves, and their problems, and she didn’t mind listening. Plus, she felt rude interrupting people. Half the time, she’d try to say something and get talked over. She eventually just gave up. It was easy to be aggressive in combat. It wasn’t easy to be assertive in social conversations. However, this was a dream. She could do whatever she wanted here!

The longer she babbled on, the higher Zenos quirked an eyebrow. Wysteria had never seen that kind of expression on him before. She just went on and on and on... “They’re so cute, and fluffy, and you can squeeze them, and love on them, but they’re also jerks, and knock your stuff off the table, or spaz out for no reason whatsoever.” The Warrior of Light had never imagined she’d have a dream where she’d be talking to her nemesis about her love for felines. “You know, you’re kind of like a cat, Z. Cool nickname, right?” The garlean prince stared her down. The Warrior of Light grinned and then stuck out her tongue. “Right, back to the cat comparison-” She was interrupted as Zenos drew “The Swell” and thrust it towards her. The monk let out a yelp and jumped back, sucking in her belly to avoid the blow. That was too close. She had to stop relaxing around this guy. That shouldn’t be difficult for her, but it was. The situation had been too serious in real life, but she could tease the prince in this illusion with no consequences. She could just pour her heart out with no embarrassments. “That was rude! Anyway, you’re pretty and your hair must be soft and nice to pet. I mean, it looks like it would be. But you’re also a jerk. You were so calm and indifferent when we first met then out of nowhere--bam!--you just went bonkers! Totally bonkers. Although, I suppose you were always bonkers.”

“If you say that word one more-” his right eye started to twitch. She’d never seen him do that before either.

“You were all like, look at my dragon of pure violence.” she spoke in a deep dramatic voice. “Oooh, scary! Are you going to kill it savage? Huh? Are you going to kill it because you’re s-s-s-savvvvvvvaggggeeee? I know you’re going to kill it! Look at me! I’m Shinryu! Rawr! The power of the gods are mine to command!” she giggled. She saw no reason why she couldn’t let her silly side out here in her wonderland.

“Are you finished rambling? You’re boring me.” it was the closest she’d ever heard him to sounding annoyed.

“Yes.” she lowered her fist. Her single fist since the other one was fried up in the combined limit breaks or shot to the moon. Thank the gods it wasn’t hurting for some weird reason. She wasn’t going to question it. “I’m done. Thank you for the fight.”

“You’re walking away from our battle? Why?”

“Because I…” Wysteria blinked. She was at a loss for words, but she eventually stuttered her way to some kind of coherent sentence. “Well, you don’t have, you know-and I also… we both lost an arm! I think that’s a good sign to end it there.”

“‘Tis only a minor inconvenience.” he rolled his eyes before striding over to his decapitated limb.

“A minor inconvenience?!” she gallked.

The garlean placed the end of his arm up against his bleeding socket and jabbed it back in. “Regardless of what may come, a hunter must learn to adapt. Are you so incompetent that you need both arms to fight?” to her surprise, the arm connected and stuck to its proper place. Zenos rolled his shoulder. “And this is your so called dream, correct? Shouldn’t you have the power to do as you like?”

“Um, I suppose?”

“Then you have no reason to stop. I will give you five seconds to prepare. Use it wisely.” he retrieved his favored katana as he began counting. “One.”

“I…” she held up a finger.

“Two.”

 She gave her head a firm shake, causing her pigtails to swing. 

“Three.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not fighting anymore. It’s out of my system.”

“Four.”

“We’re done here. Goodbye. I’m going to find something else to do in this dream.” 

“Five.”

The Warrior of Light began to walk away, planning to leave the garlean alone so that she could get some time to herself. She knew there was more fun to be had in this dream and she was going to find it! Wysteria was brought to a sudden halt before she was shoved up face first against the wall. Her cheek was scuffed by the rough sandstone. Pain. Horrible, horrible pain flushed through her abdomen and a gush of blood sprayed from her mouth. She looked down and winced as she caught the gleam of Zenos’ sword poking out of her stomach. The bastard had got her from behind. The Warrior of Light stood there in shock. Her mind locked up. Every inch of her began to hurt, including the damage left from her arm being blown off. It all hit her at once.

“Fool.” he ripped the blade out, spun the woman around to face him and jabbed it straight back in. She was trapped between him and the wall.

“W-we… but, I was done…” she gasped. 

“I was not,” he replied. There wasn’t a hint of regret in his voice.

“Cheater...” Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes.

“Cheater?” he scoffed and gave his sword a harsh twist, causing her to cough. “That you would use such a childish term to refer to me is appalling. How can a bloodthirsty savage like you be so innocent? Or are you simply an imbecile? ‘Tis sickening how sweetly you act. You remind me of those tiny, desert, foxes that run all over Ala Mhigo, yapping and sprinting about like idiots. I am not amused. Renounce this ruse at once, or you will suffer.” 

The woman sobbed and wrapped her fingers around the stained metal, trying to force it out. Even with one hand, she still put up a good fight in her attempt to escape, and Zenos had to struggle to keep her impaled. “I-it’s not a ruse!” she nearly gurgled on the last word as more of her life essence was hacked up. 

Zenos did not like that answer. He followed up on his promise. Power flowed through his blade, intense and hot. It caused the Warrior of Light immense pain. The throne room began to fade, giving way to a familiar darkness. His eyes turned crimson and black. He raised his free hand and it melted into a tarry substance before taking the shape of a monstrous claw. A scarlet aura throbbed around it and the Warrior of Light shivered. Without warning, he grabbed her face, completely covering it. A hoarse scream erupted from her mouth as agony consumed her senses. It was like he was taking his claws and raking them across her brain, stealing away her mind. 

“Hold still, wretch.” he ordered and the anguish increased tenfold. 

Fire was running through her veins. Getting hit in the face with meteor couldn’t be as bad as this; she was convinced. Wysteria did not comply with his demand, scratching and clawing at him in whatever manner she could. Her hand was just out of reach of this angelic features, a beautiful face she wanted to tear to shreds. This torture continued for what felt like an eternity to the Warrior of Light until finally he released her. She slumped forward, sobbing and Zenos scoffed.

“Your control over your gift is weak. You are nothing to me here.” The needle like digits reverted back to their true form and he flexed them. “Still, that does not explain why I could not overcome you before. I had you within my grasp and you managed to escape.” he mused. “I am positive that my strength far exceeds yours with the Resonant. Puzzling. I will assume that crystal’s interference was a fluke and try again. However, I do not believe we have recovered enough strength to make a second attempt so soon. A pity, but I can wait.”

 A frustrated sigh passed the prince’s lips and he began to drum his fingers against Wysteria’s shoulder. Nothing he said was making sense to her.The Resonant? That horrible, godawful, pain was the Resonant!?  With her head pounding like it was, she didn’t comprehend exactly what he was saying. What she did know was that she had to get Zenos away from her. The highlander attempted to impale herself further onto his sword just so she could reach his face. If she could break his damn nose and shatter it into a thousand pieces, she’d be a little satisfied. She wanted revenge for this humiliation. Her skull was promptly shoved into the wall and she saw stars.

“‘Twould seem I owe you an apology. Be grateful, savage. You are the first to receive such an honor from me. Alas, you were indeed honest. You are not playing the fool just to test my patience. You just are. I loathe you a little knowing I was defeated by an utter, annoying, dumbass, but worry not. ‘Tis only a fraction, my dear. Only a fraction. he chuckled and stroked her cheek, wiping her tears away. His eyes were that cool blue once again. The hyur wished he wouldn’t taunt her like that. If he was going to be cruel, she didn’t want these confusing signals added in for spite. He cupped her chin. “Of all the beasts on this star, you hold the most value to me.” Zenos smiled. It was the same expression he’d worn before taking his own life. The same smile that made her heart ache. “You are precious, Wysteria.”

The Warrior of Light took back everything she said to him earlier. They could not be friends. Not in this world or the next. She hated him. She hated him so much. Dream Zenos, nightmare Zenos, dead Zenos--she hated all of him! She wasn’t an idiot. He was toying with her, mocking how weak that smile made her feel. The Warrior of Light wouldn’t fall for it. But, kami forefend, her name upon his lips was a beautiful sound. Still, how dare he use her name. He had no right to use it. Zenos didn’t get that privilege. 

 “As compensation, allow me to explain why you are in such a sad predicament." he started. "First and foremost, yes, you conceded the battle. However, your concedence does not mean I am obliged to accept. A hunter does not yield to his prey. We may spare our target temporarily if we see fit, play with our food, let them grow fat, but we finish ,” he gave his sword another twist to emphasize the word and she groaned. “what we started. You do not simply get to walk away from me.” he leaned in to hiss in her ear. “We will fight and we will fight until we are but mangled piles of flesh upon the soil--until I am satisfied!”

Her teeth were chattering. “F-friends don’t... They don’t… gurk!” she couldn’t finish, spitting up more blood.

“I am your friend. That is why I was merciful enough to teach you this lesson. I am your enemy. That is why I attacked you with your back turned. I gave you fair warning. Remember that.” in one brutal motion, he ripped the katana from Wysteria, flinging visceral into the air. “Lest you suffer this mistake again.”

The Warrior of Light slid down the wall, a flood of crimson and entrails soaking her back and front. She fell and landed in a bed of flowers as the scenery changed back to the Royal Menagerie. Her vision began fading in and out. Zenos knelt down next to her. 

“You’re... you’re mean.” she whimpered. There was far more she wanted to call him, but that’s all her mind could grab.

To her surprise, Zenos gave her an incredulous look and tilted his head. Did he find that so surprising or was it something else that made him react that way? Whatever. She didn’t care. She just wanted to die.

The Warrior of Light opened her mouth to speak but it wasn’t her voice that emerged. Her eyes were drawn to his lips and they mirrored her own. “This feeling. So dark… so cold… this… Is this death?”

The darkness began to fade and it was replaced with a blinding light. It banished the shadows, only leaving the garlean prince untouched.The last thing she saw was Zenos baring his teeth and wincing as he placed a hand to his head.

Chapter Text

The pulse of a heartbeat, a clear sign that the Warrior of Light knew all too well. The Echo stole her away from the devil and she was submerged into the mind of another. Vague sensations flowed through her. The Warrior of Light would call them emotions, but they were so muted, so gray. It was like she wanted desperately to feel something but was physically incapable; a barrier she could not break down. Then a sudden exhilarating bliss filled her chest, or rather, his chest.

********

In a glow of wind aether, Zenos fell from the sky like a comet and crashed into the earth. When he came to, he blindly grabbed for Ame-no-Habakiri and coughed up blood. Ha. He was bleeding. He could bleed. He could be harmed. That wonderful, radiant beast had torn him to ribbons with her fists and blades. The Eikon Slayer had not disappointed. Zenos laughed and his ribs ached, to his delight. 

“Hah...hah...hah. The hunter has indeed become the hunted.”

The heavens were painted gold and scarlet as the sun dipped below the horizon, and he admired its beauty in a way he never could before. He ignored the worthless pests that had invaded this private time with his new friend. This was their moment. His moment. How dare they—no matter. It didn’t matter. It didn’t change how he felt. His chest fluttered, his throat grew tight, and his eyes burned. How odd. This was alien to him. He had felt snippets of this sensation before their battle; and that alone had caused him to act more expressive than usual, but now they had been amplified tenfold. How beautiful and divine their dance had been. It was a tale for the ages.

This was true emotion. Everything he had done suffering through a lifetime of boredom, it was worth it just for this. This one minute of truly being alive.

“And yet… there is only joy… transcendent joy that I have never known. How invigorating, how… pure this feeling.” He said.

“Is that what this was all about? All this meaningless death and destruction? So you could feel something?!” the Resistance leader, yelled.

As if an insignificant worm like her could understand. He had nothing. Nothing at all inside him but a ravenous void; a lion that wanted to devour the world in its desperate need to fill it. Zenos could not be sated. He had tried. He wanted to feel but it eluded him. Damnit, it’s all he ever wanted for as long as he could remember. Engaging in violence and high risk games allowed him to feel a drop of those emotions he yearned for. When he discovered this, he became obsessed with the search for individuals whose skills would rival his own. Thus, his desire for the hunt was born. 

Observing his prey, he learned that hatred and rage was what pushed the common man to turn into a bloodthirsty beast. All he needed to do was draw it out, pressing and prodding until one worthy of his attention lunged from the shadows. The wait had been long, but he had found her— a weak pup fit for nothing when they first met that then grew into the animal that became his reflection.

“Meaningless? Men die that others may live. Those who survive are stronger for it.” he looked at the woman with a dull expression, as if what he said was common knowledge.

Survival of the fittest. Natural selection is what dictated their lives from birth. That was the game and one he had mastered. At their core, men were base creatures, but they had one thing he did not. They could feel. They could experience life in a way he could not. They could find joy and purpose. It wasn’t fair. The common swine was not cursed with this numbness that infected every fiber of his being. 

It didn’t bother Zenos if others were caught in the crossfire of his hunt. If they didn’t use the time they had in this empty world wisely that wasn’t his fault. If they were not strong enough then nature would judge them fairly and their lives would be forfeit. That was the way it had been since time immemorial. It was their truth. This woman, like so many others, was in denial. How many men had she put down to get to this point? More than she’d admit, he was certain, and probably ashamed of the blood she had spilled. How weak. 

She probably believed he killed for pure malice alone. That wasn’t so. He took no satisfaction in death but the fight itself. Sure, he would prefer to win, but he wanted to earn that victory, to be covered in blood, sweat, and tears like he was now. The prince didn’t want to slog through a battle with ease. There was no satisfaction in it, no pleasure.

He had never valued the lives of his enemies or his own men, indifferent to their fates. They were simply tools or prey to do with as he saw fit. If he wanted to allow a savage to live so it may nourish itself on its own hate, he would. He wanted better sport for the hunt. If a Pilus’s unit failed a mission, he struck them down. The XIIth was no place for the weak. It all balanced itself out.

He didn’t hate them; he merely lacked the ability to care. It was impossible for him to empathize with others and imagine himself in their place. He grasped the concept and often used it to manipulate others, but he didn’t know what it was truly like himself. There was only one person he could confidently say he felt “hatred” for and even then it was a dull throb, not a blazing inferno a normal person would feel, he imagined.

The crown prince accepted the blood on his hands, but he believed he did what he had to to keep some semblance of sanity and the hunt provided that. It was a reward system that kept him grounded. He would not apologize for it. They would do the same were they in his place and they’d be more cruel than he. Even in that regard, he was still better than everyone. 

“Not that you could ever understand. To have stood upon this great stage of fools… to have played my part to perfection… Oh, this… this moment...let it be enshrined in eternity. My heart… beating out of time… So clear, so vivid, so real… so real.”

This happiness… he realized he would do anything to keep it. Anything. This emotion meant more to him than life itself. Zenos loved the way the warmth flowed through his veins and made him tingle. A pressure gently squeezed his racing heart that he found to be quite pleasant. This must be what it was like to be whole. For the first time in his life, he could confidently say he was a human being. It was more than he could have hoped for. His long hunt had finally paid off.

However, like all things this wouldn’t last. The color would bleed out and the warmth would fade, leaving him with only a cold and sepia toned life. Zenos couldn’t go back to that perpetual boredom that plagued his every waking moment; that numbness that rarely released him from its grip. Not again. He was a powerful warrior, a hunter stronger than the gods themselves, but he was not strong enough to let this emotion fade. That was asking too much. The Warrior of Light had given him what he wanted. It was okay, now. It was okay to let go. The show was over. His part was completed. This was his curtain call. The only thing left to do was to depart from the stage...

 His hand quivered slightly, but not enough to notice. Zenos closed his eyes and brought the treasured kojin blade to his throat.

“Coward!”

“Stop!”

Zenos looked to the Warrior of Light. Her brows were furrowed, teeth bared, but her eyes did not match the rest of her expression. Those dark eyes were too glossy almost as if she were ready to weep. The beast was sad. How touching. He almost wanted to laugh. Silly woman. His lips curved softly into a natural smile.

“Farewell, my first friend. My enemy.”

One stroke was all it took. One stroke to end it all. It hurt but only briefly. The life drained from his body and he didn’t even feel himself fall to the flowerbed. He was freezing. The harshest winters of Ilsabard were not this cold. The light of the setting sun fizzled out and he was sucked into the void and falling… falling into darkness.

This feeling. So dark… so cold… this… is this death? 

 

********************

 

The sound of static filled her ears as Zenos died. Through the Echo or fever dream, the Warrior of Light heard a crowd of distorted voices, but she couldn’t make out anything except a few muffled words. It was like fragments of memories compressed on top of one another.

 ...is wrong with that boy… Please smile… Smile for me… all my fault… I couldn’t protect you… I’m sorry… I can’t… I just can’t do this anymore… progress is astounding… This will revolutionize… There isn’t a swordmaster in all of Ilsabard that can… They’re all dead, sir… He survived but… What have you done, Zenos?! What have you… your own unit... Why did you… shut it down… we can’t have anymore… the program is... only the fiend remains… stabilized but if he… we can control… You were a mistake… you killed her... Regardless, I will serve your radiance as long as I have the freedom to pursue what I desire… you are efficient but that does not…  you do have the eyes of a monster… A ravenous, insatiable fiend… I want to make them pay! All of them… Zenos, I accept you... So you could feel something… a valuable test subject… too unpredictable… a weapon we can’t let… how did you… how often men’s hearts lead to their… I have no need of… take… know that when you… your light will… he will be your...

The static became too much and Wysteria was pushed out of the vision as she heard the sound of clay breaking. The Warrior of Light faintly felt the back of her hand touch the pitcher as she flailed about in the bed. It shattered on the floor, jarring her from her sleep as it sent shards of ceramic and water all over the room. The door swung open a second later and Tataru rushed in, wide eyed and panicking. 

“What was that?! Oh no! Are you okay? Did you cut yourself?”

Wysteria groaned, shaking her head. Her head and stomach were killing her. Gods, she really didn’t want to throw up again. She was so tired of feeling weak and gross. The woman sat up in bed, hoping the change in position would ease her nausea. The room was trying to rock from side to side.

“Another nightmare?” the lalafell asked. The Warrior of Light nodded and Tataru gave her a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry. Everything is alright. I’ll clean this up. Is there anything I can get you? You’re looking a bit green. Would you like a cup of chamomile tea?”

“Yes, please.” her voice was hoarse.

If only that tea could be solid food. If it couldn’t be sucked through a straw, Wysteria couldn’t handle it. Liquid diets sucked. What she wouldn’t give if she could keep down a good home cooked meal. Alas, that wasn’t happening anytime soon. 

Tataru hurried out to brew the tea and left the Warrior of Light alone again. She tried not to think about it, but her thoughts eventually drifted back to the man who was at the center of her dream.

“Zenos…” she grumbled. “Why won’t he leave me alone?”

Wysteria wished she could erase him from her memory. It was only two nightmares she’d had with the prince, but that was too many and both had left an impact. It stressed her out and made her afraid to go back to sleep. How fitting that her aether fried brain would grasp the one thing that made it difficult for her to rest and recover. Maybe she just liked to torture herself. 

Even when she didn’t dream he was the first thing that came to her mind. Sometimes she would wake herself up whimpering his name. It happened enough within the past few days that the scions had taken notice. They reassured her that Zenos was dead, he was buried far underground in the Lochs, and that she was safe. That may have been true in the waking world, but in her sleep logic didn’t matter. Her own mind was the enemy, manifesting the viceroy in her thoughts and giving him free reign to torment her. 

Her recent dream had been fun for a while, really fun, in fact. Wysteria loved fighting the garlean and it was nice to do that again even if it wasn’t real. The way they moved, striking, evading, and blocking… a delicate dance, indeed. Then her imagination had to ruin it by placing a foot in reality and remind her that Zenos was an evil person whom she could never be friends with. Maybe it all turned sour in the end because she started to get sick to her stomach and it forced the fantasy to shift negatively. Zenos had stabbed her straight through the back and out the other side, after all. It seemed likely. 

The Warror of Light wanted to punch her own brain, tell it to quit being stupid, and stop thinking about him. She’d had enough of his dumb, apathetic, beautiful face. He didn’t even like cats! Well, the dream Zenos didn’t. Maybe the real one actually did like cats when he was alive and that was his only redeeming quality. Who knows.

She mulled over the things he said and they bothered her. Wysteria wanted to scoff at the claims the Zenos in her dream had made, but she couldn’t. When she analysed his words, it made sense. Her subconscious, or so she assumed, made a good case. Since his death, Wysteria could not get the garlean off her mind, thereby, she was symbolically calling him back to her. She was grieving for a kindred spirit that loved fighting just as much as she did; a person who longed to feel something that he believed could only be obtained by facing a worthy opponent. It was honestly sad. Would she be the same way if she was numb to emotion and unable to care about others? That was a scary thought. They were so alike and yet so different.  

That Echo vision near the end couldn’t have been real. Then again, we have no idea what the gift’s limits are. Maybe the Echo caught a glimpse of his last thoughts before he died and it was just now able to show me? I have been sick so perhaps my body didn’t have the strength to see it just yet. That might be possible, but I can’t be sure. It could have just as easily been the aether sickness manifesting all that in my head, creating a version of Zenos I wanted to be real. One that I could sympathize with. 

The adventurer closed her eyes. She imagined him standing alone in the darkness, his back facing her. 

A Zenos that was human. A Zenos that was lonely. A Zenos that was lost. A Zenos that was suffering. A Zenos that was desperate to feel. A Zenos who longed for a connection. A Zenos who thought only the hunt could give him emotion. A Zenos who believed I was like him. A Zenos that was crying out for help. A Zenos I failed to save... 

Those thoughts hit her hard and she felt ashamed. Wysteria slapped a palm to her forehead and growled, frustrated with herself. 

I’m so stupid! I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for or romanticizing that imperial bastard! What’s wrong with me?  He was irredeemable. After everything he did, he is the last person that deserves forgiveness. It was all a game to him. We weren’t even people in his eyes. He wasn’t sorry for anything. All those innocents he hurt and killed, he didn’t repent for any of it! He was evil. That’s it. He was an evil, nihilist, arrogant, selfish, devil. It’s good that he killed himself. I’m glad! 

The Warrior of Light sighed as her brows knitted together. If that was true, then why did she feel guilty thinking it? Why did she always end up feeling bad for her enemies with fallible, mortal, hearts? People who were just misled or lost. Zenos was a psycho, but there had been something there inside him at the end. There was a glimmer of humanity. His last smile haunted her. 

I’m too soft, too sensitive, too compassionate for all of this. How do I even function as an adventurer? This would be easier if I could only see in black and white. How can I love punching faces and then turn around and feel sorry for my enemies? Every time! Every time I just… ugh! And why do I feel bad for Zenos at all? Because he didn’t know any better, or couldn’t, or because I enjoyed testing myself against him and it was fun and… I don’t know. I don’t know!

She wanted to throw something, but nothing was in range to throw besides her pillow and she didn’t want to sacrifice it to the wet floor.  

I want to be a hero. I want to save everyone, but I can’t. It’s an impossible wish. Gaius, Thordan, Regula, and even Nidhogg to an extent... People fall to darkness believing in their own lies and they can’t see the light either because they’re blind or refuse to look. No one can force them to see the truth, and if you can’t make them see… You have to defend your own beliefs. I can’t rescue those who don’t want help. I can’t save anyone from themselves. Kami, if Zenos needed saving from anyone it was definitely himself and that crazed mind of his. He was in such a dark place. What made him so twisted? I’m with Lyse. I won’t believe he was born that way.

Wysteria felt a soft whisper tickle the inside of her ear. ...too nice for your own good. 

The woman just barely it heard. Sticking a finger into her earhole, she checked to see if there was anything there. A smooth rounded surface met her pinky Her friends forgot to remove her linkshell. The Warrior of Light pulled out the pearl, which wasn’t easy with her hands covered, but she managed. What she heard was probably nothing. Mor Dhona was bad for causing malfunctions and inference with its aether storms. The dancer squinted as she looked the object over. There was a crack down the middle and the gold casing was about to fall apart. It must have taken damage during her fight with Zenos. Honestly, she was surprised it hadn’t completely shattered. Those attacks Zenos had used as Shinryu had been a doozy. This one was beyond repair. It wouldn’t be the first time she needed a replacement.

Tataru returned and Wysteria was grateful to have an excuse not to linger on her inner turmoil. The lalafell handed her a cup of tea and Wysteria eagerly accepted it, handling it with care. The warm liquid slowly began to soothe her upset stomach and she sighed with relief. She nearly dropped it as the mittens she was forced to wear didn’t have much friction.

“Don’t spill it!”

Wysteria hadn’t convinced the Scions to let her remove them, but she did get close once. A hallucination ruined that. The dancer nearly bit her own fingers off a few days ago. They’d turned into snakes and her aether addled mind went berserk as she tried to gnaw them off. Now, there was no hope in getting them removed until she was completely well. Gods, she felt like a baby. The Warrior of Light hated them. It was hard to hold things and her hands got all hot and sweaty. She’d be determined to burn them once she was done with them, but Tataru had made them for her. They were annoying in her current situation, but in truth, they were adorable. They looked like emerald carbuncles with little fluffy tails. Wysteria loved cutesy things like that. At least when she got really bored she could make her own puppet show. Yes, she was that desperate for entertainment. 

Mop in hand, the lalafell began to soak up the water on the floor. “So, have you had any good dreams lately?”

“Hm...”

Wysteria took a minute to think, clearing her mind of the crown prince of Garlemald. There was one she’d had right before the last one that was alright. It was pretty domestic, but it was peaceful and loving— a far cry from what she had just suffered through. She got to go home to Kugane and visit her parents and see her little brother. Besides Zenos, she had been thinking about her family a lot. The adventurer wanted nothing more than to be curled up on her futon with her mother caring for her, serving her ginger tea and rice porridge. 

When she and the scions first came to the port city looking for a way to Doma, Wysteria made sure to hide who she was from anyone who might recognize her. Imperial spies were everywhere and she didn’t want to put her family in danger. Now, however, it wasn’t such a problem. 

“Yes. I was in Kugane with my family. We were going to see a new kabuki play my father was in.” She paused briefly as an idea came to her. “Tataru, would you mind writing a letter for me?”

“Not at all! Do you want to contact your folks?”

“Yes. If Y’shtola or Krile will allow it, I’d like to return home. I… I miss them. I haven’t seen them in years and with the way I’m feeling I just really want to go home.”

“Oh, of course.” Tataru gave her a sad look. “I remember you mentioning them when we first arrived in Kugane. You didn’t want us to mention to anyone it was your hometown.” she nodded. “I think that would be for the best. You deserve a vacation and I’m sure you’ll do much better in your recovery at home.”

The Warrior of Light gave the young woman a smile. She raised her cup to take another drink and her vision was obscured by a rich amber hue. Through the glass, she could see Tataru cleaning, setting her mop aside to pick up some clay shards, and directly behind her was the outline of something that wasn’t there before. Wysteria’s eyes suddenly widened as she recognized that tall, imposing shadow. There was no way. Her blood pressure shot up and a cold chill crawled up her spine. Wysteria gasped, causing hot tea to run out her nose and she started to cough. It burned! Her sinuses were not happy and she sneezed. Snot dripped out her nose and she gagged.

“What happened?!” Tataru dropped the shards in shock.

The hyur quickly wiped her nose clean with the back of her hand. “There’s someone— ” the Warrior of Light blinked. No one was there. It was only her and the receptionist in the room. “But he was…” Her cheeks flushed scarlet. “I thought I saw someone behind you.”

The lalafell turned to see for herself, facing the empty corner. “I don’t see anyone. Wait. You don’t think it was a ghost, do you?!” The Warrior of Light shook her head. “Right. I’m being silly. It must have just been a hallucination. Well, don’t worry your pretty little head. It’s just you and me here today. Everyone else is out.” She looked back to Wysteria and held up a finger. “Y’shtola should be returning soon. At least, she better be. She’s still recovering herself.”

The Warrior of Light winced. The miqo’te had nearly died to Zenos when he broke through her magical barrier. First the hallucination and now the conversation had to come around full circle and make her think of him again.  

Grabbing the handkerchief on the nightstand, she worked on cleaning herself up. If only she could have a nice hot bath, but with her luck she’d have a delusion of Leviathan coming up out of the water she’d slip trying to escape and break her neck. What a way for the Warrior of Light to end. 

**************

While waiting for Y’shtola to return, Wysteria had to entertain herself with books, which wasn’t easy for someone as active as her. It was nice to read now and then, but it was no replacement for finding your own adventure. Outside the stone walls of the infirmary were people to help, ruins to explore, monsters to slay, and villains to thwart. Knowing that her friends were out there helping the Resistance order the newly liberated Ala Mhigo gave the Warrior of Light an itch that she couldn’t scratch. There had to be someone causing issues other there. Some stubborn garleans that didn’t want to move that needed to be taught a lesson by her. Kami forefend, she’d settle on doing the most basic tasks like walking an old lady across the street at this point. Wysteria just wanted to do something that involved moving, but her sick body wouldn’t have it. If only Zenos hadn’t taken her up to that other plane saturated in aether. This was all his fault.

...you alone are…  blame for…

Another buzz of faint words. Hadn’t she removed her linkshell? Just as Wysteria reached up to double check, the door opened. The white haired miqo’te gave her a smile and entered the room.

“Feeling better, I hope?” The highlander nodded. “Tataru said that you wish to return home.” she approached the dancer’s bedside and took a closer look at the woman, squinting. Unlike the other scions, Y’shtola did not need to use her Sharlayan goggles to see the flow of aether. The forbidden spell she had used to escape the Bloody Banquet had rendered her blind, but she could still “see” through magic. “You still have too much aether in your system, but you are stable. For that, we must be grateful.” Y’shtola quirked a brow. “Oh? Pray tell what is this?”

“W-what?”

 The conjurer hovered her palm over Wysteria’s forehead and cast a spell. “Forgive me for startling you. The spot there appeared Ascian in nature at first, but it’s not.” 

“Huh!?”

“Don’t panic.” She gave Wysteria a pat on her hand. “I assure you, it’s not. ‘Tis only a small anomaly. Upon closer inspection, I believe it is harmless.” Wysteria tilts her head, confused. “There is an amalgamation of void aspected aether that is not entirely attuned to your being. Right...” she points to the center of the woman’s chest. “There. It’s condensed tightly in your heart.”

“Was it not there before?” Wysteria asked.

“It most likely was. When I first saw you, your body was consumed in so much aether that I could hardly look upon you. Every element under the sun was present. You had enough aether to make up two people— maybe three. It was like gazing upon a mini calamity. Krile had to have her Sharlayn specs replaced after she examined you the first time. It obliterated the meter and cracked the lens.” the miqo’te looked somber. “You have no idea how close you came to leaving us, my friend. For several minutes, you were clinically dead, but the gods were generous, and we were able to revive you.”

The Warrior of Light paled. She didn’t know that. “Oh… wow.” she wrapped her arms around herself. “Is the void spot going to be a problem?”

The scion shook her head. “No, not necessarily. It is one of many aspected aethers that you absorbed. Imagine a house being flooded. The current sweeps up much in its flow and leaves a mess behind. Slow and careful, you must search through the damage to find what can be kept and what must be tossed out until you can start repairing your abode.” The Warrior of Light rubs the back of her head. That made sense, kind of. She decided to just nod and pretend like she understood. “That’s the right of it. Your immune system will set you straight in time. You need only be patient.” she crossed her arms across her chest. “As for you returning to Kugane, in your current condition you cannot teleport there by Aetheryte. There is too much risk involved. At best you would get infused with more aether, and at worst, you would fade into the Lifestream forever. The only option is to travel by boat or airship. I would recommend the latter. Do you believe you can handle the journey?”

That was a lot of malms to travel, but the Warrior of Light thought that she could manage if she had her mount. “Yes. I’ll walk or ride my— “

“Absolutely not! I will escort you to Gridania myself. I’ll procure a carriage and wheelchair for you.”

A wheelchair? The Warrior of Light being rolled around in a wheelchair? Her pride wasn’t going to allow for that. Nuh-uh. Nope. She was not going to do that. “Um, that’s not necessary. I think I can—”

Y’shtola would not hear it. “Or you can remain here at the Rising Stones.”

There was no point in arguing with the scion. She knew well enough that the woman wouldn’t budge once she had dug in her heels. The healer was right, anyway. The dancer sunk back deeper into the pillows.

“You’ve made your point.” she said, softly.

“Good. Tataru and I will start making preparations. Let’s see. You are going to need…”

Wysteria began to zone out and Y’shtola’s voice became a faint murmur. The adventurer’s eyes began to wander as she heard a familiar rattle of metal. Ice was injected into her veins as she slowly turned her head to face the sound. It was another hallucination; it had to be, but this time it was too vivid. His visage was clear and there wasn’t the faintest hint of a haze that might indicate that what she saw was fake. No longer was he a shadow, but fully formed, armor and all. Appearing in the same corner she had seen him in earlier, Zenos was leaned back against the wall, eyes half lidded and utterly bored. The moment he realized she had taken notice of him the faintest, sinister smile found his face. One foot in front of the other, slow and confident like a predator, he drew closer. Real or not, she couldn’t help herself; Wysteria wanted to scream. The crown prince placed a finger to his lips and her vocal chords suddenly felt like they were being squeezed. Not a single sound would emerge from her mouth. The Warrior of Light turned to try and get Y’shtola’s attention, but the healer had vanished. It was only her and Zenos.

“Shh…” The cool touch of metal met her skin as he took her chin, lifting it up. Her heart felt like it stuttered. How was that possible? She remembered feeling the faint wriggling of the snakes when her fingers had turned, but it wasn’t like this. The viceroy’s touch was too real. “Do you feel this? Look at me.”

Wysteria would not comply and looked away. This isn’t real. This isn’t real. Ignore him. She told herself.

“‘It is real enough.” The man could hear her thoughts and that scared her all the more. The sharp end of his gauntlet poked her lower lip and Wysteria winced. It didn’t hurt, but there was a faint pressure. Regardless, it terrified her. Zenos scoffed. “Calm yourself, beast. You are no hollowed eyed prey that cowers. Now, can you feel that or no? Answer me.”

Wysteria gave him a subtle nod, praying her answer would make the specter disappear.

“Not so much, hm? I wonder if you will become more sensitive to me over time. How I loathe waiting, but your fragile body is determined to make me do so. Tell me.” He leaned in closer and jerked her head towards him, forcing the woman to meet his eyes. They were cold and intense. “What did you—”

“Wysteria?” The Warrior of Light ripped herself away from his hold and looked to Y’shtola. When she turned back to the garlean, he was gone. “Are you well?”

The dancer reached up to touch her neck as the pressure against her vocal chords faded. “I’m… I’m fine.” she croaked.

“You are certain?”

“Yes. It’s nothing.”

“Very well. Call for me if you need anything. Pray, get some rest.”

Wysteria nodded and Y’shtola left the room, closing the door behind her. Swallowing a lump that had formed in her throat, the Warrior of Light placed a hand over her heart. It felt like it was going to burst out of her chest, hammering away and just begging to fracture bone. That hallucination was the worst one yet. 

Don’t think about it. Do not think about him.

She closed her eyes and tried to think good thoughts. Soon, she would be back in her homeland. Tataru was right. A vacation would be good for her. At the very least, being around her family would get her mind off of Zenos. Rhalgar willing, he would fade from the list of her recurring thoughts. Wysteria took a deep breath before she looked back at the corner. It was empty. With a sigh, she turned over on her side and pulled the covers up over her head.

Chapter Text

The Twelveswood was lovely this time of year and the Warrior of Light was sad she couldn’t stay longer to admire it. Autumn was well on its way as noted by a chill breeze that swept up the fallen leaves in its wake. The forest canopy had been transformed from vibrant green into a lovely collage of red, yellow, and orange as if they had been kissed by the sun. The people of Gridania were dressed in shawls and light jackets as they bustled about the newest district of their city. Crops such as pumpkins, maize, and squash were on display that were sold by local merchants at the market as well as All Saints Wake decorations. The fall holiday would start in a few days, and Wysteria was disappointed that she couldn’t stay to celebrate. As much as she wanted to browse the festive goods, she had an appointment to keep, nor did she want to be noticed by the locals.

The highlander had opted to wear a hood that day so as not to be recognized at a glance. To most onlookers, she appeared as nothing more than a sickly young woman being pushed around in a wheelchair with carbuncle slippers. The scions had promised her that they’d done their best to keep the news of her condition under wraps, but rumors still spread that the Warrior of Light was unwell. The last thing Wysteria wanted was to confirm the gossip. Worry, fear, panic— she did not want the people to feel any of that and she knew they would if they became aware of her condition. If they stressed then so would she which would only serve to delay her recovery. It was best to keep the matter private. Not to mention, she didn’t want word getting out to the local beast tribes who may think to take this opportunity to summon their gods now that the Eikon Slayer was incapacitated. For now, Eorzea would have to unknowingly rely on others with Her blessing. It was Wysteria’s hope that a certain half Garlean, half Ala Mhigan would rise up to take her mantle. Hells, maybe he would wear it better than she ever did. Arenvald was a good lad and deserved a moment to shine.

At the airship landing, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn gathered to see the Warrior of Light off. Not all could make it, of course, but Wysteria was flattered nonetheless. Lyse was dealing with Resistance matters and had retired from the scions which was no surprise to her. It was understandable. Ala Mhigo needed a strong and steady leader in these tumultuous times, and Commander Kemp had placed his faith in the young woman. Once Wysteria was healed up, the dancer was determined to return and assist Commander Hext in any way that she could. As for Thancred, the rogue was supposedly looking into rumors concerning the empire, but Wysteria didn’t know the details. Since her illness, she hadn’t been included in the Scion’s discussions concerning business. They wanted their hero to focus on getting better and not worry about conflict. Half of her was sad they didn’t while the other was relieved. If they did keep her in the know, her adventurer’s itch would become unbearable. It was probably better that they spared her the misery.

The Warrior of Light wrapped her wool blanket tighter around herself. It wasn’t that cold, but she was shivering from a slight fever, feeling too hot and too cold at the same time and finding little relief. This trip had not been easy on her, but on the other side of the world her family was waiting. It would be worth the discomfort and she was eager to get home as much as she dreaded leaving her Eorzean friends. 

“Rest easy, friend, and take comfort in knowing that we will handle everything during your absence.” Y’shtola said.

“Aye!” Arenvald smacked his fist against his open palm. “If a primal decides to show up, I’ll smack it twice as hard for you, Wysteria. I may not be as strong in the Echo as you, but the buggers can’t temper me.”

“I believe in you, Arenvald.” The young woman said and the half-garlean beamed at the compliment.

“Drink plenty of liquids.” Krile spoke up, wagging a finger. “That will help you pass the excess aether more quickly. I would recommend you soak in a hot bath or spring as well to ease your aching muscles. Oh, and do not worry if you have a chain of low grade fevers for a while. As long as they only last a few hours, you should be fine.”

“We’re ready to depart, Scions.” 

Alphinaud nodded to the attendant before he looked to those that had come to say their farewells. “I will be returning to Rhalgar’s Reach once I’ve escorted our friend to Kugane.”

“I will be coming along as well.” Alisaie said, stepping up next to her twin. “It is a long journey and I do not want our Warrior of Light to be bored out of her mind.”

“Why would she be bored?” 

“Because I know you, brother. It will be thrice as hard on her if she only has you to listen to, prattling on about organizations and politics until her ears bleed. ‘Twould be a sin if I allowed that.”

Alphinaud was taken aback. “Hmph. ” He looked to the Warrior of Light for back up but she only giggled. “I am sure Wysteria is curious about current events given that she was unconscious for a moon. A lot has happened.”

“Yes, yes. Just try not to make it sound too mundane.”

With their final farewells given. Alphinaud began rolling the Warrior of Light towards the docking bay. 

“Wait! Hold that airship!” 

A rumble of feet sounded above them, causing the floorboards to shake. A flash of red silk and sheer fabric rushed down the stairs and skidded to a stop in front of the group. The woman slumped forward, resting her hands on her knees as she struggled to catch her breath. “Just in time!” Lyse smiled and approached the Warrior of Light. Her azure eyes began to water and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. “Ack! I said I wouldn’t do this. I’m so happy you’re awake. Don’t scare me like that again.”

“Lyse…” Wysteria said, softly. Please don’t cry. I can’t keep myself from crying when others do. She thought, biting her lower lip.

“Sorry I’m late. I came to visit you several times, but you were still asleep.”

“It’s okay. I understand. Ala Mhigo needs you. I promise I will come back as soon—“

“No!” Lyse scolded, pointing at her fellow Highlander. “You’re going to rest and get better. Do you hear me? You better not so much as lift a bloody finger.” She sighed, calming down. “I lost Papalymo. I won’t lose you too. When I heard you were heading home, I came as fast as I could. I couldn’t let you leave without saying goodbye and thanking you for all that you’ve done. You put your life on the line for Ala Mhigo and even lost it for a few minutes. We can never repay you for all that you’ve done.”

Wysteria shook her head. “I wanted to see my mother’s homeland free from tyranny. That is enough.”

“Not just your mother’s. It’s your home too. It always will be.”

“Thank you, Lyse.” The Warrior of Light smiled.

The flight attendant cleared her throat, quirking a brow at Lyse. The woman gave her an apologetic wave. “Oh. Right. I should let you go. If you need anything, anything at all, you let me know. Gods, I should have brought you a get-well-soon present or something. Why didn’t I—tell me what you want, Wysteria, and it’s yours.”

The dancer was surprised, leaning back in the wheelchair. “You don’t have to do that.”

“Look, it will make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside if you let me.”

“Uh…” 

“Come on! Be selfish. Reasonably selfish, but still selfish. It can’t be that hard for you. Scratch that. It probably is, but try anyway.”

The adventurer held up a hand. “It’s fine. Really. I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Don’t be stubborn. Pick something! Before the flight attendant gives me another dirty look.”

“Okay, okay. Let me think.” She hated being put on the spot, but the former Scion was determined. Her eyes fall to the woman’s outfit and she remembered how floored she was when Hext had first donned the attire. It was a beautiful piece of clothing that was both flowing and practical for a fighter like a monk or dancer. Wysteria found her answer. “Well, I would love an Ala Mhigan folk dress like yours…”

“Done. I have just the style in mind for you.”

With that, Wysteria, Alphinaud, and Alisaie waved goodbye to everyone before they went beyond the gate to board the ship. It wasn’t often that the Warrior of Light chose to fly over teleporting by aetheryte, but she enjoyed it when she did. This would be the longest flight she would be taking to date, passing over all three of the great continents of Hydaelyn. According to Alphinaud, they would have to make a short stop at Radz-at-Han on the isle of Thavnair to refuel. It was a rarity that the city-states would allow an airship to travel so far. Garlean hostilities and their superior aircrafts was the major concern, but Alphinaud had managed to pull some strings. Wysteria guessed it was due to the youth’s clever tongue, her condition, and the fact that the empire was pulling back resources to defend rather than invade lands as of late. 

This particular airship was more fortified and a bit larger than the norm. It looked like it could make it over the sea with no issues. Whether it actually could remained to be seen. This was the airship’s maiden voyage over the ocean and Wysteria couldn’t help but feel just a little bit nervous about that. Surely, it couldn’t be that bad. Garlond Ironworks had put the beauty together and the Warrior of Light knew from experience just how sturdy the Excelsior was. That airship had been to the seven hells and back, and it could still fly with ease. Cid just kept improving the thing. The dancer wouldn’t be surprised if he installed a machine that served hot chocolate and gave you massage. That wasn’t a bad suggestion and she made a note to ask Cid. If anything, it’d make a nice joke if he didn’t take it seriously.

Such a primitive vessel. Zenos’ voice rang clear in the hyur’s mind as they boarded the airship. To think that you savages have the gall to call this piece of scrap metal and wood chips an airship. Revolutionary technology? How laughable. The nativity of your kind astounds me.

The Warrior of Light winced and tried to ignore him. At least she wasn’t hallucinating an image of crown prince as well. Once everyone was on board and settled, the ship began its long journey towards the Far East.

 

******************

 

Secured below deck in a warm bed, the Warrior of Light took the opportunity to sleep. For once, her dreams were peaceful and free of the Garlean that had come to haunt her all too often as of late. When she awoke, she felt more refreshed than she had in days. Her fever had broken and her body no longer ached as badly as it had a few hours prior. It would come back, but for now, she felt much better. She sat up in bed and peered out the porthole. Night had fallen and all she could see was the glimmer of stars and the darkness down below. Beyond that, she couldn’t tell much else.

Did we make it over the sea already?  She wondered.

The Warrior of Light grabbed a hairbrush off the nightstand and ran it through her dark locks a few times before finding the strength to scoot to the edge of the bed. It probably wasn’t a good idea to try and walk on her own just yet, but she was tired of being coddled and wanted to make the attempt. Going updeck to go stargazing shouldn’t be that hard, she figured. Whether that was true or not, she was about to find out. Slow and careful, she rose from the bed and her legs protested all the way. They were as weak as jelly and the dancer lost her balance right away and plopped back onto the bed.

The hyur growled as she sat back up, out of breath. That had been harder than she thought. Although it stung her pride, she was going to have to ask for help. Her body was not well enough to be independent just yet. Wysteria placed her fingers against the new linkpearl Tatatru had given her.

“Alphinaud?” she said, softly. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Hello, Wysteria. No, I was just reading. Do you need something?” He asked.

“Sorry. I was wondering what time it was and if we were over the ocean.”

“We reached open water a few hours ago. ‘Tis almost midnight. You sound like you slept well.”

The Warrior of Light nodded then remembered the elezen couldn’t see her. “Yes. I hate to ask, but I would like some fresh air. Would you mind helping me? Unless you’re going to bed then it’s fine. I understand that it’s late.”

“I will be there in just a moment.”

Five minutes later, the Leveillueur twin arrived and assisted the Warrior of Light into the wheelchair and took her above deck. It was cool out, but Wysteria had been bundled up pretty tightly thanks to her friend. The wheelchair was parked and the woman was moved to a plush bench that was more comfortable. Wysteria looked over the side to gaze down below to the pure blackness of the sea and faint clouds that drifted by. Hydaelen was like a completely different world this high above and the Warrior of Light was eager to see the view once the sunlight returned. For now, the only company she and the scion had was the waxing moon.

The Warrior of Light and Alphinaud talked for a while, discussing what she had missed during the time she had been in a coma. Not too much had happened. The nations had been pretty peaceful and the empire hadn’t tried any counter measures to reclaim their lost provinces. Doma was slowly rebuilding under Lord Hien’s leadership and Ala Mhigo was focused on bringing all its people together. A date was set to discuss what kind of government the city-state would have. Naturally, the people had had their fill of kings, so Wysteria assumed they were going to establish some kind of republic. She was just sad she would not be able to attend with the rest of the Scions. That was the way it would have to be, though. It wasn’t like she could trust herself to give a good opinion in her condition. Her aether fried brain might make her ability to reason faulty. 

The Arcanist dozed off after about an hour, leaving the Warrior of Light alone on the deck— besides the pilot, anyway. Wysteria started to look back at the ocean again when a lurking figure caught her attention. His posture was relaxed with one hand holding onto the walnut rail. His back was facing her and his gaze was focused straight ahead. The wind generated by their travel and the propellers whipped his golden locks into flowing waves, reminding her of satin. There was no way to tell that it was fake. Truly, her mind had memorized the man to a T. There wasn’t a detail out of place that she could tell. She supposed it made sense considering how focused she’d been on defeating the legatus. Wysteria knew she had drunk in his appearance, but this was more like drowning.

Zenos finally spoke. “What did you see, Warrior of Light?” He remained where he was, not even sparing her a glance.

She turned her head away and tried to ignore him. That was a difficult task, but she knew that’s what she needed to do. Giving into the hallucination would only make it worse. It wasn’t like she knew what he was talking about anyway.

“Not inclined to share, I see.” 

Chillbumps rose along her skin as the Garlean suddenly appeared next to her. His hand touched the top of her head, surprisingly gentle, and spanning most of the crown. Wysteria could not get over how huge he was. This man was a unit. Had he really been that tall or was she misremembering? It would have been easy for him to crush her head like a grape if he so desired. The metal clad digits ruffled through her hair and she could swear she could feel the strands being tousled. However, checking for herself, she knew that was false. Nothing was on her head and yet the sensation remained. 

“I could rip the answer from you. The same way I delved into your mind to discern the truth of your personality. Would you like that?” At that, she visibly tensed, but she remained determined to ignore the viceroy. The sight made him chuckle. “Ah, fear not, beast. I do not care enough to do so. You may keep what you saw to yourself and I shall do the same.”

He saw what?  She thought. No. He didn’t see anything because he’s not real. Just a figment of my imagination. I don’t know what he is talking about, anyway.

Zenos responded to her thoughts as he did once before. “The Echo, hero. I know you are ill, but do try to pay attention.” His hand left her head and she relaxed. “As you stole into my memories, unintentionally I wager, so too was mine triggered. Against my will, I might add.” He leaned in closer to try and meet her eyes, but she promptly looked away. From the corner of her vision, she could see his brow was furrowed. “I am a master of the Resonant. I do not lose control. How did you accomplish that?”

I don’t know. The young woman huffed and gave her head a brisk shake. Stop. I can’t give into this madness.

“You may not be a master of your abilities, but the strength behind your gift is phenomenal. Of course, strength counts for little if you cannot control it. You are unable to activate the Echo of your own free will. So much wasted potential.”

Oh, she was aware of that. The Warrior of Light wished she had more control. Over the years, she had tried different techniques in an attempt to hone and grasp a handle on her blessing, but with no results. The Echo worked when it felt like it and she had no say. There was always a risk it could be triggered at the worst possible moment and leave her vulnerable, and it had. In Doma, she’d nearly been stabbed by an old imperial soldier as she was forced to see his memories. If Alisaie had not been there, she would have been skewered on his blade. 

After seeing his memories, she was disappointed that she didn’t get to kill the bastard herself. It was all too clear what had been implied. Yotsuyu’s actions were inexcusable, just like Zenos’s, but she felt sorry for the woman. No one deserved to be treated like that, especially a child. 

I get by. She thought.

“The stubbornness to survive is not without merit. However, relying on that alone will only aid you so far. Did I not teach you this very lesson? Determination is no substitute for true might.” He said.

The Warrior of Light couldn’t dispute that. Zenos had indeed taught her that determination was only half of what made a great warrior. It had been a painful and humiliating lesson, but she got the message. Do not rest on your laurels. There is always someone out there who is bigger and badder than you. Keep pushing yourself, strive to gain more strength, build your courage, and don’t give up until you win or die.  

Right. We’ll see what— she rolled her eyes and corrected herself. It was easy to forget he wasn’t actually standing there. I will see what comes. 

We shall. Pray to whatever false gods you have that this climb to reclaim your strength is but a short one.” He smirked. “Or, if you are desperate, you may worship me. Perhaps if you pray hard enough, I may deliver you from your torment.” The adventurer scoffed at the suggestion. Worshipping a primal would be more preferable to his arrogant ass. It was clear he only said this in jest due to the mirth in his eyes. His tone and expression shifted to a serious one soon after. “When the time is right, we shall resume our roles in this play of fools. We will act out the true conclusion to our legend. Let it be a finale worth waiting for, my enemy.”

I’ll pass, figment-of-my-imagination.

“It will come whether you will it or not. The wheels are already in motion. Enjoy the intermission whilst you can. We have naught else to do.” 

Then, the oddest thing happened. Zenos suddenly yawned. Wysteria tilted her head to the side and stared at the tiny spectacle. It proved to her all the more that this was indeed an illusion. Zenos had been a well oiled machine. He did not express weariness and he took pain in stride. To see him yawn was too normal, too human. Surely, he did from time to time in his life, but it still looked unnatural. Even he seemed surprised by the action.

“Pah!” the Garlean frowned. “This fatigue... I’m not well acquainted with the feeling. It seems I have you to blame for the proper introduction.”

I’m so sick even my hallucinations are tired? It could be the medicine or just the trip in general. This has taken a lot out of me. 

“Return to slumber.” Zenos ordered and the Warrior of Light glared at him. Go to sleep? She had just woken up, but her body did not oppose the idea. The hyur had only been awake a little over an hour and yet her eyes grew heavy. That refreshed feeling was long gone. “We shall…” Wysteria watched as he began to fade, taking on a translucent form. His voice became faint, leaving her ears and entering her mind. We shall meet anon… His words held an odd ring to them. For once, the man sounded uncertain. Strange indeed that she would hallucinate the fallen prince like that. 

We better not. She thought as he vanished.

The Warrior of Light attempted to stay awake longer, but her hallucination of the prince was not wrong. Exhaustion was setting in again. Her ail form could not handle much after such a big day and yearned for more rest. Still, the dancer remained stubborn. When she dozed off, she bumped into Alphinaud, rousing the twin from his sleep.

“Ah! Oh… that was quite rude of me. I nodded off. My apologies. ‘Twould be best to retire for the evening. What say you?” Wysteria agreed and the elezen stood up to stretch before helping the Warrior of Light back into the wheelchair. 

Back in her cabin, Alphinaud reminded her of the potions that Krile and Y’shtola had instructed her to take and did so with dread. They were bitter and the cherry flavor the alchemists had added in did little to subdue the awful taste. If it helped her recovery then she would endure. Thankfully, she had some apple cider packed for her to chase it down; otherwise she’d be hacking the stuff back up. 

Once her head hit the pillow, the Warrior of Light was out within moments.

 

**************

The ground was soft, a bed of daisies that she never wanted to leave. Her eyes fluttered open for a spell only to squint shut. It was dusk, but the sun was still too bright for her liking. Unlike the last time she had ventured into this lucid dream, the Warrior of Light had no desire to explore or move. All she wanted was to rest. What felt like hours passed. The sun fell below the horizon and darkness consumed the sky as stars flickered to life. Someone stirred beside her and she tried to remember if they had been there the whole time.

“This is… not the meeting I had intended… you have clearly overexerted yourself.” He sighed. “Your wounds are great, my beast, but you shall endure as you always have. That is what you do.” Zenos mumbled, but it was so low she hardly made out the words. It sounded like he was half asleep. “Curse you for infecting me with this weakness. I did not suffer this before. Why now? The connection…” He trailed off. “Yes, I suppose we are making progress, after all. The crystal cannot protect you from the inevitable. You willed this.” And with that, he fell silent. 

The Warrior of Light winced and rolled over onto her side towards the voice. Her brain just kept spouting insanity at her. Perhaps another fever was coming on. The plots of her dreams were becoming so intricate, she could almost believe what he said. Her and Zenos were connected. Was that another weird message from her subconscious? Wysteria didn’t know and she was too tired to care. Opening her eyes, she saw a blurry image of the crown prince lying next to her. The bulk and ebony of his imperial armor could not be made out and the dancer soon found out why when her vision cleared. Zenos wasn’t wearing it. Amazingly, his general size hadn’t diminished in the slightest. It was a sight to behold the man in plain clothes: a cotton kimono of crimson trimmed with gold. Wysteria had to give her mind props. It was a simple outfit that looked stunning on the prince and probably wasn’t out of place. He had been the viceroy of Doma, after all. 

The view was infatuating and that alone made her feel sick and ashamed. It wasn’t right. Zenos was too evil to look so beautiful. The Twelve and the kami were cruel to gift him with such radiance. Couldn’t his appearance reflect the ugliness inside? The Warrior of Light didn’t want to admit that the sight of him lying there was enticing. She may as well have been a fly being drawn in by the sweet scent of a venus flytrap. One second she wanted him to go away and the next she wanted to hold him. It had to be the aether because last she checked she wasn’t this crazy. 

Lying on his back with the marguerites surrounding him, Wysteria felt a pang of solitude. Although she was right next to him, he looked lonely. If only she could touch him. Just one time. Wait. Why couldn’t she? This was her dream and she could do as she pleased. It wasn’t like the world was privy to what she did here. She would have never desired this with the actual Zenos. That’s what was important, right? 

Wysteria began to scoot closer, slow and careful— partly for stealth, but mostly because she couldn’t move faster than that. His chest rose and fell in a gentle rhythm, undisturbed by her movement. So close. He must have been in a very deep sleep to not realize how near she was. How very out of character, but he did say she had “infected” him with fatigue, whatever that meant. She wondered what he smelled like. That was a weird thought to have. Oh well. One sniff wouldn’t hurt. Taking a deep breath through her nose, she could confidently say that he smelled nice. Rosewood and musk. It was intoxicating. Her eyes trailed up to his lips. They looked soft. One taste? Gods, no! That was too far even for a dream and her cheeks burned red at the sinful thought. 

The Garlean was within reach and all she had to do was make her move. The Warrior of Light hesitated before resting her head on his shoulder and wrapping an arm around his chest. He was warm, which surprised her. She knew she shouldn’t have been. The Garlean was human, but the way he acted made her think of him as more of a machine and she half expected the hard, cold exterior of his armor to meet her skin. 

Zenos’s eyes snapped open immediately. She may as well have pulled a sleeping lion’s tail. Wam! Wysteria was slammed onto her back so quickly that it knocked the breath out of her and left her silly. The stars could practically be seen swirling around her eyes. Zenos easily bound her wrists above her head with one hand.

“Savage.” He drawled.

Wysteria coughed and sucked in a deep breath. “Y-yes?” She cursed herself for answering to that name.

“Explain yourself.”

“I um… well...” Her mind was blank and only the sound of her pounding heart took up the empty space.

“Ah…” He quirked a brow. “I see the hunger in your eyes.”

“Hungry? No. Not me.” She shook her head.

“Were you hoping to claw out my heart and drink of my blood? To take advantage of this weakness you’ve subdued me with?”

“Yes? Yes!” She lied. It was a way out of this awkward predicament she had gotten herself into and she took it. 

“It was a sad attempt.” His eyes narrowed. “Very, very disappointing. You should be ashamed, my friend.”

“I’ll try harder next time.” She chirped, happy that he didn’t catch on to the truth. 

“You had better. If you do not,” His long fingers curled around her neck, drawing chill bumps upon the adventurer’s skin. “I may have to give you a demonstration.”

The Warrior of Light steeled herself. She would not show fear and she welcomed the challenge. “I’d love to see you try.”

“Of course, you would.” He gave her a wicked grin. “Rest savage; so we may be more productive next time.”

Zenos released his prey and she sighed, sinking into the flowers until she slipped through the earth itself. Alone and floating through the void was exactly where she wanted to be.

 

**********

The sun was filtering through the porthole when Wysteria awoke, bathing her cabin in waves of light that danced around the room. Her cheeks were hot and that was enough to tell her they were red with embarrassment. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so flustered; At least, not in this sort of way. She was bewildered that she had allowed her repressed, physical attraction to the Garlean get the best of her. How could she refute that she wasn’t after that event? The thought of kissing him had crossed her mind. She wanted to swap spit with that imperial son of a bitch! The guilt was crushing and the Warrior of Light wanted to slap herself. How could such a depraved thought cross her mind? Stupid. That had been an extremely stupid move on her part. Maybe the lucid dreams responded to her will, but the echo of Zenos clearly did not. As if being impaled on his sword after walking away from their battle wasn’t enough to prove that.

There had to be an explanation to this. It wasn’t fair to be so hard on herself. Maybe Zenos wasn’t at the core of the problem and the event merely spoke of her sexual frustration in general. Being a twenty-five year old virgin felt pretty pathetic, honestly. She was nervous about giving herself over fully like that. Some people were fine with exploring their options and were mature enough to handle it. Wysteria envied those people. Her problem could be fixed as easily as walking into a brothel. She could have her pick of a pretty, male miqo’te and go have a wild ride, but no. The Warrior of Light couldn’t bring herself to do that. Her body would be satisfied, but her hopeless, romantic heart would weep. It wasn’t random sex she wanted, but physical pleasure tied with an emotional bond. Until she found what she desired, all she had to rely on was her hand and it wasn’t a satisfying lover. It's not like she felt doing that in her condition, anyway. Just in dumb dreamland. 

Convincing herself that was the true issue eased her guilt. Still, why did it have to be Zenos? If she could have replaced him with someone else, she would have quickly picked Hien. The prince of Doma was noble, kind, honorable, and handsome. She valued his friendship and knew she could trust him. Hien would be someone who would take care of her. That was someone you’d want to cuddle with. Not Zenos. Never Zenos. It couldn’t be helped. It was what it was and she’d be better off forgetting it happened. That wasn't easy, though. The Warrior of Light felt a faint tickle against her cheek where his hair had grazed her, and she could still smell a hint of his rosewood scent.   

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Chapter Text

Several uneventful days passed, and with each one Wysteria felt a little better. The flame of her spirit was casting sparks and slowly breathing life back into her ill body. The hallucinations were still going strong. The Warrior of Light continued to see Zenos around the airship either wandering or observing her from nearby. The former was always preferred because then those azure eyes of his were not boring into her soul like a dagger. It was worse when she was socializing with Alphinaud and/or Alisaise. Zenos watched Wysteria far more intently, a hunter stalking his prey. It unnerved her enough that the twins took notice and asked if she was okay often. She’d always assure them that it was nothing. They were worried enough already and learning that she was hallucinating the Garlean prince nigh on a constant was not going to set their hearts at ease. It was fine. Sooner or later this bad spell of illusions would end. She just had to keep telling herself that. 

Zenos was relatively quiet and Wysteria thanked the Kami for that. It was a small blessing, but one she did not take for granted. Every now and then he’d make a comment, perhaps trying to start a conversation or get under her skin, but she refrained from indulging him; no matter how badly she wanted to. 

Sometimes, oddly enough, he was helpful. At one point, he reminded her to take her medicine when her memory was clouded with a thick fog. The crown prince directed her to the precise bottle and told her the correct dosage without hesitation. Wysteria had been very tempted to ask him why he’d helped her, but there was no point. Zenos wasn’t there. This was just a phantom conjured by her feverish mind. That’s what she wanted to believe, however, Wysteria was beginning to have her doubts. 

The hallucinations and nightmares were not getting better as she improved. In fact, she could swear they had increased. There was an eerie thought that began to creep through her head, seizing her with fear every time it came to the forefront of her mind. What if the aether sickness caused too much damage to her brain and these visions of Zenos were permanent? Y’shtola had said that it was too soon to tell if she would make a full recovery, and so the possibility lingered. The only solution to that would be to keep ignoring him, she assumed, but that was becoming difficult. When she heard that smooth, elegant voice, she wanted to respond—retort, sass, tease—anything to fill that void of awkward silence he left behind. And the staring! Oh gods, the staring was almost unbearable. Wysteria was tolerating an assortment of hallucinations, but Zenos was the worst by far. Still, she wasn’t going to let it ruin her day.

From her cabin room, she peered down below as they arrived at the half-way point of their journey. Years ago, the Warrior of Light had seen Thavnair from a distance on her first trip to Eorzea. On the boat, she couldn’t see a lot, but she had been fascinated by it all the same. The view from the airship was a different story. A beautiful mystery from afar was now a magnificent wonder from above. She had feared looking out the small window would hamper the experience, but that wasn’t the case. The sight exceeded her expectations. All the stories her father had told her paled in comparison to the real thing. Radz-at-Han was similar to Ul’dah, being a desert city-state, but it had its own unique architecture and culture. If anything, it would appear that Thanalan architecture took inspiration from Thavnair’s domed structures and tall, crested towers.

When the airship was docked, the pilot informed the Scions that the refueling process would take a while to complete. Until then, they were free to roam the city. The Warrior of Light was practically bouncing in her seat. This was the birthplace of Kreigstanz, the combatic dancing style that she utilized. It was here that her father learned the dance during his travels with his kabuki theater troupe and later taught her. There would be weapons and armor here specifically crafted by masters of the art, and she wanted to see as much of it as possible. 

The street was crowded with bodies of various races. Everyone was bustling about and seemed to be in a hurry, pushing and shoving past the group that was unsure of their steps in this strange, exotic land. Vendors called out from their stalls, trying to grab the attention of potential customers and the Warrior of Light would have been reeled in like a fish to each one if she could walk. It was probably a good thing Alisaie had to roll her around, otherwise she’d wander around the market for days and piss off the pilot for being late.

“Perhaps we should take this opportunity to discover what the empire has been up to in the Near East.” Alphinaud said as they walked through the market district. “This region is relatively neutral regarding the imperials. Rumors may flow more freely here than in other provinces.”

Alisaie nodded. “People are apt to remember a Garlean in the throes of his drink, spouting things he should not.” 

“The Alliance and the Resistance would appreciate any information the locals could provide, I’m sure.”

“We can ill afford to draw attention to ourselves, brother.” Alisaie looked down at the hyur as she pushed the wheelchair. Wysteria was trying to pay attention to the conversation, but there were so many distractions. “Especially with the Warrior of Light in her current condition. If the Garleans discover what kind of shape she is in, they will pounce upon her like rabid dogs.” 

“We can be sneaky.” The Warrior of Light spoke up. “Ask innocent questions. Play dumb.” 

It always seemed to work out for her during her lowly adventuring days. She played the part well… mostly because Wysteria wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. There was a reason she wasn’t a practitioner of  fancy magicks. It required too much thinking. The Warrior of Light functioned on experience and instinct. Intelligence was not her strong suit. Forming careful plans and carrying out subterfuge was hard. Not that she couldn’t do it, but she preferred the smarter folk handle that kind of business and the Scions were good at that. Wysteria was the hero that hit things until they went away. The end. Who needs big brains for that? Others did most of the thinking and Wysteria was just glad she could be the one to carry out their plans. If something or someone needed to be punched, you could count on her to see the task done.

“Right. Let us be cautious. I will head to the inn and see what I can find. You two should continue here. I will meet you back at the airship landing by sundown.”

The two waved Alphinaud off before they continued down the strip. It didn’t take Wysteria much time to convince the red mage to let them shop and hunt for information on the Garleans. They found a shop that specialized in dancer equipment and Wysteria nearly giggled like a maniac as they entered. The air was ripe with incense and fancy perfumes that made her sneeze, but she didn’t mind. This was her kind of place. There were so many lovely garbs on display that she could see herself prancing around. It was a dreamland of pastel fabrics wrapped in metallic shimmer, jeweled tiaras, sheer veils weaved with pearls, crystal encrusted gold and silver jewelry, lace up sandals and high heels, and best of all, chakrams— chakrams of all shapes and sizes lined the wall like a piece of artwork. The Warrior of Light was in heaven. If only they weren’t so expensive, she’d buy the entire place out.

“Wysteria, with all due respect… does it not terrify you to wear these dresses as armor? I can sense enchantments on the threads, but I would hardly think that would offer enough protection.”

The Warrior of Light was rubbing the silk of a peacock green skirt between her fingers. It was beyond what she could afford, but she was going to commit the soft texture to memory. Upon hearing the twin’s concern, she shrugged. “Uh, I don’t think too hard about it.” The elezen said something under her breath that she didn’t catch. “They’re easy to move in.” That was partly the truth. The other half was simply because wearing dancer attire made her feel like a princess and got her all giddy. Of course, she didn’t do so in public, but when she was alone, she enjoyed spinning and twirling just for the sake of feeling the swish of the fabric and to feel cool. Wysteria felt like it was childish and silly, but that was her secret. Also, less armor meant less boob sweat. Boob sweat was evil.

“I see.” Alisaie wore a face that said: how in the seven hells are you still alive?

“I really want this one, but it’s 200,000 gil. If this doesn’t have gold woven into it—oh, the tag says it does. Whadya know.” She giggled.

“That is ridiculous!”

“Hm… This pink one would be pretty on you, Alisaie. Look,” 

The Warrior of Light pointed to a mannequin that had a sultry flamingo dress on display. At a glance, the highlander knew it was way too small for her. Her body would rip through it like tissue paper. Just the thought of attempting to put it on irritated her. Wysteria envied the women who could pull whatever they desired off the rack, try it on, and buy it. Wysteria had to get her clothes and equipment customized more often than not: Slacks were too long and dragged on the ground, leggings were too narrow for her thighs, the waist was almost always just right and yet the backside was somehow either too tight or too loose, the chest wasn’t wide enough and made creases in her tops, and sleeves were big and awkward looking. She felt like her body was shaped in the weirdest way. Maybe it had something to do with being a hyur of two different clans. The woman appeared, and basically was a full highlander, taking completely after her mother, but somehow she got stuffed into a body that was only five feet and three inches tall. One of the few and worse genes she took from her midlander father—being short. If she was just three inches taller maybe she would fill out her outfits better. 

“The sleeves are cute and puffy. It would look great with your fair complexion.” She smiled.

Alisaie’s brows knitted together. “No offense, but I do not see the difference between that dress and small clothes.”

Ouch. Fair enough. That was a bit harsh, but the red mage wasn’t known for sugar coating her opinion. Alisaie was as blunt as they came. The Warrior of Light turned her head to hide her pout. What was that girl implying? That the Warrior of Light looked like she was running around in her undies? Typically, she wore a frilly pink top with a decorative loincloth and carcrows. The closest thing she had to protective headgear was a bright lily and silver clasps on her pigtails. Okay! Maybe Alisaie had a point…

The elezen stepped away to examine a collection crystals nearby while Wysteria continued to look through a rack of clothes. A shimmer caught the Warrior of Light’s eye and drew her in like a moth to a flame. So entranced she was by this object, that the dancer used every bit of strength in her arms to roll herself towards it alone. Her sore muscles protested the act vehemently. In a glass case on a pedestal was the most lovely pair of chakrams she had ever seen. They were made of silver and forged with two rings each. The outer rings were shaped and molded into the central circle like the petals of a flower, while the inner ring had intricate,filigree designs of lilies and roses represented by rubies, diamonds and gold. Their vines twisted and twirled together like an intimate dance and were joined together at the top by another blossom entirely. Each chakram had one pink spinel gemstone, crafted to look like a mix between the rose and the lily. The Warrior of Light had never seen a flower like that before, but it was gorgeous, and exceeded the beauty of the other two. 

“Ohh…” Wysteria pressed her face against the glass, creating a fog on the surface. These weapons called to her very soul with a song that echoed her own. Perfect. They looked perfect, but did they feel that way? If only she could touch them. 

“Do you like them?” 

The Hyur turned her head and met the smiling face of a miqo’te woman with long flame colored hair. Judging by her attire, she was a dancer too as her body was wrapped in form fitting Tharvian threads of the deepest crimson and adorned with feathers. The pink ribbons in her hair were especially cute, Wysteria thought.

“I’ve never seen chakrams like this before. They’re so pretty!” She struggled to keep her voice from squeaking in excitement.

“Would you like to hold them.” The woman grinned.

“Yes!” The highlander cried out before clearing her throat and saying more gently. “I mean, yes, please. If that’s okay.” 

The miqo’te took a key from around her neck and unlocked the display case. With delicate care, she retrieved the chakrams gave them a little spin before throwing them up in the air and catching them. They looked perfectly balanced and a joy to wield. Wysteria was drooling by the time she was handed the weapons. They were better than she imagined. The chakrams were light and comfortable in her hands, far more so than what she had been wielding. In comparison, the chakrams she had been using felt like garbage, but these discs felt like they were made specifically for her hands, a slice of her own soul she could hold.

“The Chakrams of the Dawn Lily, Dusk Rose.”

“Huh?” The Warrior of Light tilted her head.

“Their name. They’re based off a bedtime story. It’s a favorite here in Radz-at-Han. You don’t know it?” The Warrior of Light shook her head. “Ah! I always love telling this one to foreigners. Let’s see, so…” the miqo’te began to tell the story, making hand gestures as she went along. “There once was a lovely garden filled with all kinds of flowers. The flowers came in all different shapes, colors, and sizes, but they lived together in relative harmony. One day, weeds appeared and invaded the garden. At first, the native flora was strong and resisted their influence, but over time their strength waned and they were consumed. Many flowers died and many more became weeds themselves. Among them was a wild rose, their leader. It devoured and corrupted the other flowers with ease, stealing their life straight from their roots. He was the Dusk Rose, a very lonely bloom for many feared him, and with good reason. Eventually, the Dusk Rose had taken over the entire garden, except for one plot of soil. These flowers were led by the Dawn Lily, and she would not yield to him. They fought for years. His vines sunk into the earth, trying to choke the life out of her, but she refused to yield. Never had the Dusk Rose endured such a challenge. He found himself growing fond of the Dawn Lily the more they fought as she too grew close to him. When the Dusk Rose became sick, the Dawn Lily offered him sustenance, merging her roots with his. Promising to one day repay the debt, he commanded the weeds to leave and the garden returned to normal. The flowers were happy, but that wasn’t the end of their troubles. One cold morning, a frost came. The Dusk Rose was strong enough to endure, but this time the Dawn Lily became ill. The ice nearly consumed her, but the Dusk Rose kept his promise. To save her, he gave his life fully, feeding himself to her through their combined roots. This was not without sacrifice. The two flowers withered away, but in their place grew a new one.” The miqo’te pointed to the pink crystals embedded in the blades. “They were reborn and became one life, one flower: a Rose-Lily. The garden flourished after the frost, filling it with these new flowers. Now, they could be together forever.” She clasped her hands together. “And that is supposedly the origin of that flower, or maybe it’s a metaphor for an ancient war and love story, or it’s just a children’s story to teach love and forgiveness? No one is really sure. Everyone has their own interpretation.”

“It was a great story. Thank you.” Wysteria smiled.

An interesting tale for a fine weapon. Zenos’s voice filled her mind. Take them. 

“How much?” She asked.

“500,000 gil.” The red headed miqo’te said.

The Warrior of Light nearly choked. Her dark eyes grew wide as she donned a grimace. That was worth more than an apartment in Eorzea! 

“That sounds like robbery.” Alisaie said, stepping up next to the highlander. 

The miqo’te frowned at the young elezen. “These chakrams are made of the finest metals and most precious gems that Thavnir has to offer. They were originally owned by my teacher, Mistress Nashmeira.”

“N-Nashmeira?!” The Warrior of Light knew that name. Her father had mentioned the woman often during her dancing lessons. 

“Mhm! The leader of Troupe Falsiam.”

The Troupe Falsiam? This is their shop!?”

“That’s right.”

 “Gods… now the extravagant prices make sense.” She looked at the weapons. “That these chakrams bear the name and approval of the troupe alone is well worth 500,000 gil.”

“Come now, Wysteria. You should at least attempt to haggle. That’s an outrageous price.”

“To pay anything less would be an insult.” The Warrior of Light said. She wished she could agree with Alisaie, if only so it wouldn’t hit her purse so hard, but if she paid anything less for a Troupe Falsiam item, she’d feel guilty. The stories her father had told her about the group were inspiring and she looked up to them. They traveled the world, dancing for people down on their luck and raised their spirits. How could she not want to support them?

“I have enough.” 

Wysteria did indeed have the funds, but it would almost completely empty her wallet. She’d only have 1000 gil left, and one couldn’t get a lot with that much money. To think that all her adventuring efforts, all that money she had saved up for years would all be going into this one pair of chakrams.

I’ve never wanted a weapon so badly. They’re calling to me! Not literally, thank Rhalgar. No hallucinations like that, yet. Knock on wood. She thought.

You are passionate about violence. Zenos said.

Speaking of hallucinations… She resisted rolling her eyes. But they cost so much. I’m crazy for considering this. I’ll be broke! 

This is but one tool you wish to use to embrace what you enjoy. There is no shame in that. They show potential: finely crafted, history with a master of the art, and based on a legend. However, to truly judge their worth they need be put to the proof.

For once, his words were kind of reassuring. If the hallucination that usually tormented her was pushing her to buy the chakrams, it spoke of how deeply she craved them. The only problem was that she wouldn’t be able to use them any time soon. It could be weeks or months before she could test the chakrams out. They just had to come across her path at the most inconvenient time.

Fishing out her gil purse, Wysteria counted the coins required before handing them to the miqo’te. “Thank you for your patronage!” She giggled as the highlander nuzzled the inner ring of the chakrams against her cheek. “My name is Ranna, by the way. I’ll be dancing later this evening so if you’d like to come watch Troupe Falsiam in action, I’ll be sure to save you a front row seat.”

Wysteria took a deep breath, charging up a squeal loud enough to shatter glass, but was cut off by Alisaie. Many ears were saved that day.

“Thank you, but unfortunately we will be departing for Kugane soon. Our airship should be about ready.”

The hyur deflated as if the elezen had taken a needle and popped her like a balloon.

“Aw. That’s too bad.” Ranna said. “Well, if you ever find yourself back here or just happen to be in Eorzea in the next few months, seek us out.”

“You’re going to Eorzea?” Wysteria asked.

“Mhm! Mistress Nashmeira is planning a tour. I’m so excited! It will be my first time visiting the west.”

The young woman smiled and nodded. “I definitely will. Thank you, Ranna.” 

“Of course. It’s always nice to meet a fellow dancer. Take care and I hope your trip goes well.”

After a full day of shopping and hunting for information on Garlean activities, Alisaie and the Warrior of Light headed back to the airship landing. They didn’t have any luck finding info on the empire and could only hope Alphinaud‘s venture proved more fruitful. The other twin was waiting for them when they arrived and waved them over. There was a grim look on his face and Wysteria felt dread clench in her gut. Bad news was coming. They were about to return the Warrior of Light to her cabin before they spoke about the rumors, but Wysteria begged them to let her join. She was so tired of being out of the loop. They considered it for a moment before they reluctantly agreed.

“What did you discover?” Alisaie asked her brother.

“Grim news, sadly.” Alphinaud crossed his arms. “Dalmasca was one of the many imperial provinces that rose up in defiance of their masters after the successful revolutions in Doma and Ala Mhgio.” He looked down. “I spoke with a group of rough looking people that turned out to be refugees. The royal city of Rabanastre... was razed to the ground.”

“What!? When?” 

“Recently. About a day or two ago.”

“That explains how an event so disastrous hasn’t reached us yet. The intel from our spies are probably still in transit.”Alisaie said.

 “They say it was a massacre. Men, women, and children… no one was spared the empire’s wrath. There was nary a soldier on the ground. The Garleans bombed and gunned them down from the skies.”

Wysteria covered her mouth as she gasped. The shock soon turned into fury and she clenched her fists. She didn’t know what to say. All this time, she thought that the Garleans were backpedaling. They recovered quicker than she expected, and she was still pretty much confined to a chair and a bed.

“I have to get better.” She whispered. “As soon as possible.”

Alisaie lowered her voice. “By the Twelve…” she sighed and shook her head.

“I’m afraid this will have far reaching consequences, and quell other rebellions brewing in the empire.” Alphinaud continued. “They’ll know that Varis zos Galvus is not above slaughtering a whole city of innocents. With Doma free, he needs a new nation to hold up as an example as to what happens if you defy the empire.”

“I had dared to hope that if enough provinces rebelled, the Garleans would be spread too thin and the empire would crumble.”

“They wavered, if only for a moment, but it seems they’ve tightened their iron hold once more.” Alphinaud sighed.

The desperate struggling of a pompous fool. Zenos said and Wysteria found herself nodding in agreement. He cannot possibly make a more obvious display that he is terrified of losing the throne. Such a needless and excessive show of force is hardly flattering. There is no pleasure in slaughtering docile and domesticated beasts. Of course, his Radiance would resort to such a cowardly solution, never meeting his prey in battle, never staring into the whites of their eyes. He has no respect for the hunt and would see this entire star devoid of proper sport. Oh, father, how weak and empty you are.

Varis was a coward. Wow. Wysteria realized that she and the Zenos hallucination had agreed on two things today. That was impressive. Had she ever imagined the crown prince with daddy issues? She supposed it was likely. He did kind of seem like the guy who wouldn’t get along with his father. Varis was all about saving the world from eikons in the worst way possible while Zenos just wanted to find a worthy challenger to cure his boredom. They probably did butt heads a lot. The father and son appeared similar in a lot of ways, but Varis seemed like the type that didn’t want to dirty his hands. Zenos went all in with no gloves on.

“All those poor people.” Stupid Garleans. How did they think? Did they truly believe that slaughtering innocents helped their war against the primals? All their actions did was encourage summoning. How could they not comprehend that? It bewildered the woman. “Can we go help them?”

“The Scions are split between two fronts already. The warfare may have died down in both the west and east, but it won’t remain that way for much longer.” The scholar said.

“Then what do we do?” Wysteria asked. 

“We keep moving forward.” Alisaie said. “We keep fighting. Doma was once drained of hope before you and Yugiri reinvigorated their spirits.”

“Reviving hope isn’t easy, but it can be done.” Alphinaud said. “We cannot help Dalmasca directly, but if Lord Hien’s shinobi can continue to spread information of Ala Mhigo’s and Doma’s progress, perhaps they will find the strength to rise up again.”

“One step at a time.” Alisaie said. 

Silence fell upon the Scions as they reflected on what they had learned. For the next hour or so, they didn’t say much to each other, each one contending with their own thoughts. With their prince gone, Wysteria had hoped that strike had been a heavy enough blow to seriously wound the empire’s morale. The Garleans stumbled, but they didn’t fall. They arose from the ashes and came back for another challenge as they always did. Like their intimidating machina, they marched on, never growing weary. Those that showed weakness were merely replaced like another part in an engine. The empire felt more akin to a force of nature than a union of nations.

The Warrior of Light closed her eyes and tried to push the distressing news away with meditation. Taking a deep breath, she focused on the crisp, cool breeze that swept through her hair and kissed her face with gentle pecks. She imagined she was a leaf at the mercy of the wind, fluttering to and fro above the seas, dipping into the cresting waves only to be blown right back into the air. For a moment, she truly felt weightless and free from the confines of her flesh. That daydream was promptly shattered when his voice invaded her thoughts again. Her muscles tensed and every hair raised along her arms like a cat getting ready to hiss. Zenos was going to say something snarky. She could feel it coming.

Were this a Garlean vessel, we would have arrived at our destination days ago. Zenos had been out of sight all day and she hoped it would remain that way. Perhaps she was finally making progress and she just had his voice to contend with now. To think that your other forms of transportation are even slower. I would call it pathetic, but ‘tis far worse than that. What is the word I search for? Tragic? No, that is still too kind. Disgraceful? Hm, not quite that either. Ah! I know. Abysmal. 

He drawled out the last word in such an arrogant manner that the dancer couldn’t help but grind her teeth. What he said was nails against a chalkboard annoying. The woman released a quivering breath. His little comments like that really got to her. Was he trying to irk her? Either way, she’d had enough. It was useless to talk to a figment of her imagination, sure, but she didn’t care anymore. If she didn’t snap back Wysteria felt like she was going to lose it. 

Were I in a better condition, I’d teleport to Kugane. She thought. Do you know what teleportation is, Zenos? I’m sure you’ve done it plenty of times being so powerful and superior to us savages. Oh wait. Garleans can’t manipulate aether, can they? You can’t even summon an onze from your pinky. That’s abysmal! 

The Warrior of Light waited to hear his reaction, hoping to press his buttons like he had done hers. She was already patting herself on the back for that comeback. Usually, she sucked at insults, but she felt that one was pretty good. The tension was rising while she waited with only the sound of the propellers whirling. Zenos said nothing. There was only silence. Wysteria was about to take the encounter as a victory when pressure firmly gripped her shoulders. She squealed, nearly tumbling off the bench in her panic. Alisaie was the first to react, grabbing the highlander by the back of her haori before she fell into the floor. The elezen pulled her back and the twins rushed to her aid. Her heart was trying to run away with her. Had something so little startled her that badly? She was ashamed. It wasn’t the worst jumpscare of hallucinations, but the anticipation forced her to have a bigger reaction.

“Are you alright?” Alisaie asked.

“I… I think so.” Wysteria said, straightening out her robes.

“Another hallucination?” Alphinaud questioned. The Warrior of Light nodded. “I see. Perhaps it would be best to return to your cabin. It is late.”

“We certainly wouldn’t want you flailing off the airship.”

That was just great, and she had been enjoying the fresh air too. Now it was back to that small, stuffy cabin. “Okay.” She said, trying not to sound too disappointed. 

Back below deck, the Warrior of Light was tucked into bed, given an elixir that supposedly stemmed the flow of hallucinations, and then left alone to rest. When Alphinaud shut the door, the legatus of the XIIth Legion appeared right behind it, making the Warrior of Light jump and clutch at her heart. 

“‘Tis not nearly as abysmal compared to how skittish you are of me.” He said, walking towards her with a frown. The dancer sighed and met his glare with one of her own. “Pray tell, where is the ferocious beast I fought before? I see nothing here but a frightened rabbit worthy nought of my attention.”

Good. I don’t want it! And scared? Ha! I am not scared of you, Zenos. You’re not even real. You’re an illusion, a fake conjured up by my sickness.

“Are you so sure?” He stopped at her bedside and Wysteria couldn’t help but bring the covers up above her nose.

Yes.

Zenos reached out for the hyur and her muscles tensed. “Then why are you flinching?”

I-I’m not. Her determination grew weak and she avoided his eyes, lowering her gaze. He had a good point. Why was she so scared if he wasn’t real? Because he felt real?

“You’re shying away from nothing then?” He asked.

No! Yes? I just… don’t touch me. 

“If I am nothing more than a phantom of your illness then why does it matter?”

Stop. Please, stop.

“Thus does the prey begin to flee, dodging the question.”

“Shut up!” She growled, unable to keep her frustration silent any longer.

Zenos continued, clawing his way through her head. “Do you know why?”

Wysteria covered her face. “Go away. Stop talking.”

“Because you doubt. You doubt that this is an illusion.”

The highlander shook her head. “You’re not real.”

“I am real.”

“You’re not real!” She yelled. If the twins didn’t hear that, she’d be surprised.

“You know I am real.” He leaned in closer.

The shaking of her head grew brisker, turning her thick locks into a mess as they were tousled about. “Zenos is dead. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead! You’re rotting in an unmarked grave with your stupid head barely hanging onto your neck!” She hissed.

“Dead I may be, but I have endured thanks to you. I am right here, my dear friend. My enemy, and I am not going anywhere. Look at me.” 

He snatched her hands away from her face. Wysteria tried to draw them back, knew that she should have been able to if this was fake, and yet, she could clearly feel her hands being held in place. It didn’t hurt. Like before it was just a dull pressure, an almost numb like sensation that followed the viceroy’s touch. How did the aether sickness explain this phenomenon? It could be temporary paralysis, but that seemed like a stretch. No, that had to be it. The other possibility was too terrifying to acknowledge. Not to mention insane. 

“We are one.” Zenos whispered. “We are the same.” His grip tightened, briefly, a gentle squeeze. His hands were massive compared to her own. Wysteria’s thumb alone could fit inside his pinky. For a while, he said nothing as he looked over the pale digits. His armored fingers brushed over the weathered skin, feeling of the hard calluses Wysteria had developed over her years of adventuring. It made her shiver, a light tickle that filled her with warmth. He was warm. “You know this, and yet, you refuse to accept it. ‘Tis becoming irksome, even if it would eventually prove to my benefit. There is no enjoyment to be had in keeping you in the dark, however.” 

His icy blue eyes crinkled at the corners ever so slightly as he smiled. That was one of the sharpest weapons the illusion had in his arsenal. Her mind was really holding Zenos’s smile against her. It did things to her that she didn’t like. Her heart dove into her stomach only to jump back up into her throat. The burn came slowly, at first, until it spread from ear to ear. Damnit, she was blushing! This handsome, evil, bastard. Gods, she hated him. How could a hallucination be so detailed and pretty? What if he was right? Did that make him a ghost? No, that was utterly ridiculous. She was not going to believe something so silly. It was vivid, yes, but she refused to accept that what he said as truth. Wysteria could explain it away by pointing to the aether sickness. This kind of stuff wasn’t unusual. Her fear of the hallucinations never going away was manifesting in Zenos, making him say these things. That’s all.

“Stop smiling like that.” She said, trying desperately to keep her voice from quivering, and failing.

“This is the smile you adore, is it not?” The prince sounded amused. He knew what it did to her. It made sense with him being a figment of her imagination, Wysteria supposed. If Zenos had actually known how that look made her tingle, she’d ask for a shovel and bury herself alive.

“That’s exactly why I want you to stop.”

“Tch. Very well.” His face returned to that infamous bored expression. “You are being quite stubborn. Although, I suppose I should not be surprised. How shall I prove myself to you, hm? You are already denying the obvious like a fool.” He released her and Wysteria brought her hands back under the safety of the blankets. “This may take some thought. How much longer can you blind yourself to the truth, I wonder.” 

Wysteria shook her head. “Do as you will, but leave me alone. Please?” She asked as nicely as she could and to her relief, it worked. 

Zenos crossed his arms over his chest and the Warrior of Light sighed. Propped up against the headboard, she grabbed a book from the nightstand to start reading. The Garlean remained in her room, but he said nothing more for the rest of the evening. He leaned back against the wall with his eyes to the floor— thinking, scheming.  

Chapter Text

A few hours after the airship had departed, it started to rain. Wysteria looked out the window, watching as the droplets rolled down the glass and merged with the curve of the metal pane. A gentle rhythm tapped softly above her, luring the adventurer to sleep despite her attempts to stay awake. The woman needed to rest, she knew, but she was fed up with sleeping so much. Y’shtola and Krile had assured her that was normal, and to embrace her drowsy spells. Still, the Warrior of Light felt like she was slumbering her life away. She hated how the aether sickness made her so tired and, like the journey from Mor Dhona to Gridania, the trip into Radz-at-Han had her more fatigued than usual. All she wanted was to be active again. Sitting still, doing nothing, and watching the world go on without her was torture. There was no book that could substitute real adventure, and she was desperately chomping at the bit for some real action.

In her boredom, her mind began to wander. It drifted through the fog to a person she was trying so hard not to think about; a man who had been standing before her a few hours ago, clear and vivid enough to almost feel. It was no use. His claws sank in and dragged her to him—to Zenos and the battles they had shared. Few as they were, they left an impression on the woman that would never fade. Their final confrontation had been so fulfilling. His Echo was a replicant, a fake, a copy, but Zenos yae Galvus had in a very short amount of time mastered his new power. The man had effortlessly merged with a primal considered to be on par with the ancient eikons. It was a test of her strength so challenging that the Warrior of Light nearly lost. Yet, through determination and strength, she prevailed. Rhalgar, who was she kidding? It was also the result of a lot of dumb luck. 

To her knowledge, the prince had not had the gift very long; so, how did he master it so quickly? The princeling was a genius and a natural seemingly at everything. Except for magic. However, she had little doubt that if he had really wanted to bend aether to his will, the bastard would have found a way to become an archmage within a day or less. Gods, she despised how much she envied him: his intelligence, strength, and though she was sad to admit it, charm. Zenos knew exactly what to say to get his way. She’d been expecting it and still fell for his honey and blood sprinkled words, far too spicy with violence and yet she drooled all the same. How shameful.

As she pondered upon the source of his power, she realized there was a desire that burned in the depths of her heart, one that she was ashamed of. Wysteria wished that she too could of had a primal to control. Eikon versus Eikon! Echo against Resonant! Just the thought made her chest tickle with excitement. That was an ability still under lock and key, but if she did learn how to do it, she wondered if she would be able to resist using that power; and she easily knew what primal she would choose if she had her pick: Bahamut. Elder primal against the primal born of pure rage and hatred. It was wrong to lust after such a scenario. So many people and the star would be put at risk… oh, but how glorious that fight would have been in an ideal fantasy world.

“Ow....” The highlander grumbled, curling up into a ball as a migraine came to life, knocking against her temple. Maybe it was punishment from the Twelve and Kami for idealizing a fight so dangerous. It was fitting and she’d accept it. 

Not long after the headache started, a chill coursed through her body, infecting her bones and muscles with a deep, throbbing ache. Another fever was coming on and it never made its entrance alone. An array of weird shapes and twisted creatures lurked in the corner of her eye, disappearing every time she looked in their direction. Delirium was stealing her sanity away, holding her consciousness hostage as it unleashed a horde of hallucinations upon her. They were always worse during the fever spikes as her mind was practically boiling from the heat. 

A rather hard throb in her head caused the woman to whimper pitifully. It felt like shards of glass were growing from inside her skull, piercing into the pink, wrinkled meat of her brain with such malice that she wondered if she was being electrocuted. Her eyelids became heavy and she could no longer stand to keep them open. The dim light of dusk that spilled into her room was too much, a hammer that struck with more force each time she blinked. Squinting them shut, she found some comfort, but it did not last. A low murmuring met her ears, a voice that she could barely understand that was steadily becoming louder and clearer.

...every nerve is alight with pain… every move… down to your very breath… your heartbeat… faster now… slamming against your sternum as this delectable agony fills your bones... I can feel all of it as if it were my own flesh…  for it is mine as it is yours, my friend. Ours.

“Zenos…” She groaned, falling deeper into a dementia like state as her temperature escalated. The aching intensified until it bloomed into pure agony. It was as if acid was rushing through her veins. Her brain was melting and what sanity she had left vanished. Wysteria could no longer tell how much time had passed, but she said the Garlean’s name in distress constantly. As for why she called out to him— her enemy, a man who would sooner stab her than help her— she didn’t know. Not a breath passed her lips that didn’t possess those two syllables. “Zenos… Zenos… Zenos… Zenos, it hurts.” She tossed her head from side to side.

Indeed, but such is the way of these things. The crown prince sounded oh so very bored and a touch drowsy. Stitch by stitch we are woven closer together by molten thread. This needle you wield is the spark upon our souls, causing our aether to flare as an inferno. Do not fight against the pain. The more you struggle, the more you tax our strength.

“Gah… Zenos…” She wriggled around, unable to get comfortable.

You’re liable to conbust if you keep squirming. As entertaining as that would be, it would benefit neither of us. Sleep.

“I don’t wanna sleep. I can’t sleep like this!” She whined like a toddler on the verge of a temper tantrum. Irritable didn’t begin to describe her mood. “Make the pain stop. Make it stop, now!” The Warrior of Light gripped her own hair, arched her back, and squalled. “Please!”

You asked for this, savage. Willed it to be so. It cannot be undone. 

“I didn’t ask for this.”

“Oh, but you did, Bringer of Light.”

The woman’s eyes snapped open as another voice met her ears. Her cabin room was gone, replaced with a dark, swirling torrent of void energy. Gone was the safety of her blankets and pillows her bed offered. Wysteria was on the ground with nary a piece of clothing. The highlander scrambled to cover herself and stay on guard. Sick, weaponless, and naked, she couldn't feel more exposed. There was not a light to be seen in this abyss other than the glow of a red mask—a mark of an Ascian, and one that she knew well.

The Warrior of Light shook her head in disbelief. “Lahabrea… what are you—No, you can’t be here. You were destroyed. I saw it!” Another foe back from the grave. Just what she needed. The woman clenched her jaw. “Why does this keep happening to me?” She nearly sobbed. It was like every enemy from her past was coming to haunt her. Who was next? Gaius van Baelsar? Nidhogg? Archbishop Thordan VII? Hells, throw Illberd in there too.

The Ascian stood there, an intimidating, arrogant figure that bathed in the sin of darkness. “It has been a long time, my old enemy. Your Mother has neglected you, left you vulnerable. Ha! You’re nothing more than a defenseless infant. What an opportune moment to finally pluck this thorn from His side.” He grinned. “Did you think a mortal pawn like the archbishop could truly destroy an Ascian? Please. That idealistic thinking will only disappoint you.” Lahabrea suddenly appeared in front of Wysteria and grabbed her by the throat and she squeaked. His taloned gloves sunk into her bare skin, drawing blood that trickled down her chest. He lifted her up into the air and her feet kicked wildly as she dangled, trying to escape.

“Hydaelyn!” She cried out. "Mother!"

“She cannot save you. No one can. You’ve doomed yourself, hero.”

The dancer gurgled and coughed, digging her nails into his arms as she tried to keep herself from suffocating. Although she could not see his eyes, Wysteria could feel the pure malice that radiated from those dark sockets. Rarely did the Ascians dirty their own hands. This was more than just taking out an obstacle for his malevolent god. This was personal. Lahabrea hated her. “How I longed for this moment!” He spat, his words dripping like venom from his lips. “To snuff out your pestilent, little light by my own hand. You have failed, mortal. You’re a failure!" He cackled. 

“Nngh!” She tried to deny it, to scream in his face, but it was taking everything in her to keep him from snapping her neck.

“You're a failure.” He said again, only this time his voice had changed. It was feminine. The demonic mask slipped from his face and beneath it was the visage of a fair skinned woman with eyes that glowed crystal blue and had hair spun of sunlight.

“Min...filla?” The Warrior of Light hacked out, ceasing her struggle momentarily as she was hit with the shock of the reveal. It was quickly resumed as Minfilla’s grip tightened.

“You could have stopped me.” The antecedent accused, scolding her in that gentle, motherly voice. It cut the highlander straight to the core and her eyes watered.

“I… I tried! Gah!” At the Bloody Banquet, Wysteria had grabbed Minfilla’s hand and tried to reason with the woman as hard as she could. Stay. We'll find another way. Don't go back there! I'm begging you! In the end, her pleading fell on deaf ears and the Warrior of Light came out of the Sil’dih ruins alone. 

“To be taken over by the Mother Crystal, my life stolen away, whisked off to a world I know not... I am as good as dead. You allowed this. How could you do this to me, Wysteria?”

“I’m s-sorry. Forgive me!” She begged.

“Are you really?” The figure’s voice shifted again as did the face. Minfilla’s blonde locks turned snow white and shriveled up above her shoulders as feline ears sprouted from the top of her head. “Because of your carelessness, your weakness… you allowed yourself to fall into monterist trap and hurt all of us. I used the ancient spell, Flow, because I could not depend on you. You may as well have blinded me by your own hand. My life dwindles away as I must use mine own aether to see. You gave me this death sentence.” The archon glared at the Warrior of Light, white eyes gleaming with fury.

“Y’shtola...” Wysteria whimpered, but she did not stop struggling.

The miqo’te’s frown deepened before she transformed into someone else. As the man manifested before the hyur, she lost all her will to fight in an instant. Her legs ceased their swinging and she stared at the elezen wide eyed. He was just as she remembered him… the last time she saw him. His lips were stained with blood, a hole in his chest that glowed with arcane light, his spiky, silver hair disheveled from his fall, and his blue eyes were glazed over with death.

“I trusted you. You were supposed to be hope incarnate.” Haurchefant said. Rather than being angry like the other phantoms, the knight sounded crushed, hurt that she had allowed Ser Zephirin to kill him. That his friend, his hero, had not saved him. He was right. They were all right. She had failed. She was a failure. “You should die. ‘Tis only fair. You are no hero but a dog, a symbol that the world vainly place their faith in. They will know their folly as should you. How many will die because you allowed yourself to fall ill?

The woman was strong, but she wasn’t invincible, and she made mistakes. Too many. For one, she was more reactive than she was active, waiting to be directed by the Scions or some other authority before she did something more often than not. When it came to plain adventuring, the hyur was very active, making her own choices and sticking to them. Not so much when it came to national affairs. “Go here. Go there. This is where you need to be. This is what you need to do to save the world! Kill this. Find that. Go! Go! Go!” And the highlander obeyed. It worked out, but she saw the flaws in that subservience and it hinted at a deeper problem. The woman had no confidence in her own critical decision making, and so she came when beckoned, spoke when spoken to, and did whatever was asked of her. It was then she realized that she really was like a dog, a happy and pleasantly rewarded dog, but a dog nonetheless. 

The Warrior of Light told herself it was because the Scions and the city state leaders knew better than she, but that was just an excuse. The adventurer thought she lacked intelligence. She didn’t like to be wrong. She didn’t want to be a screw up. The easiest way to avoid that? Don’t lead, follow, and so she did. The Warrior of Light was convinced that it was her inability to act that had killed Haurchefant. Rather than charge in and help him like she should have, she froze up and watched in horror. In that moment, when Sir Zephirin's spear struck the knight’s shield, Wysteria couldn’t think or move. It all happened so fast and by the time she found the strength to do something, it was too late. Now, he was dead and it was her fault. The Warrior of Light had allowed herself to be moved by the hand of others so much that she didn’t react when it mattered. She wasn't a hero, but a sword that could hardly think for itself.

Many mistakes haunted her, but none so much as the elezen’s death. There was so much she could have done better. Her friend’s accusations whittled away her hope and self esteem. Maybe they were right. Yes, they were. She did deserve this fate. How fitting that she would die by the hand of the one person she let down the hardest. The hyur closed her eyes and was resolved to pass on. Just as her own darkness was about to consume her, a cheery voice chimed in her mind.

You… you are unharmed? F-Forgive me… I could not bear the thought of… of…

“You deserve to die. You must die.” The Haurchefant before her said. “Give up. Let the aether erase you.”

Oh, do not look at me so. A smile better suits a hero.

Light began to radiate from the woman and she was reinvigorated, filling her with hope. What was she thinking? She couldn’t give up and just die. Not like this. There were still people that believed and depended on her. Haurchefant wouldn’t stand for her to give up. It would be an insult to his memory. So, she messed up. Damnit, everyone did. She was human and with that came imperfection. No one said the Warrior of Light was flawless. Her friends, her real friends, would never say these things. This was her own inner darkness doing this to her. How did she not see it before? With her light burning bright, it illuminated the truth of this nightmare. The fever's madness was kept at bay, for now.

“Shut up.” The dancer growled at the shade, forcing a grin. Yes, she would smile. She would smile for him. Her best friend. Her knight. “Getting sick wasn’t my fault. I won’t die here. I won’t let this illness kill me!”

The Warrior of LIght began fighting with all her might to get the phantom of Haurchefant off of her. Rather than become hope incarnate, Wysteria became something else, much to the delight of a hidden spectator. The Warrior of Light turned into a true savage. The woman drew blood from the elezen and he gasped, holding the hyur away from him like a cat by the scruff.

“You’re not Lahabrea... you’re not Minfilla or Y’shtola… and you’re definitely not Haurchefant!” Wysteria snarled.

“Die.” His conviction had shrunk, voice quivering with the word.

Her nails grew long like claws, hooking into the dead elezen’s flesh and ripping it out as she spat and growled like a rabid fox. Gods, she even sounded like one, making weird, high pitched barking. The face of the phantom shifted again and she stared back into her own brown eyes. 

“Vanish!” Her doppelgänger screeched as her dark irises flamed scarlet. 

Wysteria slipped free of her shadow's hands, digging her clawed feet into her stomach. The Warrior of Light dropped to all fours and she gasped for air. She received only a few before her airway was mysteriously cut off again. Pressure gripped her neck, but there was no source. Wysteria reasoned she had to destroy her shadow to do so, and she had to do it before she suffocated.

The shadow glowed purple, drawing forth chakrams that swirled with unholy energy. She began to move in a strange way, a dance that was insidious and flowing, drawing more power from the void. A memory was coming back to Wysteria, one of the many dancing lessons her father had given her. 

“The Totentanz. The Dance of the Damned.” A manifestation of darkness, negative emotions that took control of their victim and forced them into a violent dance that stole the lives of those around them and eventually their own. When survival was not at the forefront and someone was left alone to soak in their own negativity, that’s when the Totentanz could strike. The Warrior of Light had the perfect storm of maladies and experiences to be assaulted by this force. Although she had never encountered it before, her father had given her an example of what it looked like. It was eerie and cultish, a dance derived of joy. The only way to save someone from the Totentanz was by fighting back with its antithesis. If Totentanz was darkness then Kriegstanz was light.

Wysteria held her hands aloft and her body began to shine with a radiant sheen, covering her in a white dancer gown. Her new, beloved chakrams flashed into her hands and she got into position. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. No one else on board was a dancer and so it was up to her to exorcise herself of this menace. Of course this would happen after they left Thavnair. What rotten luck she had. This was a strange scenario and she was worried. If she defeated her darkness, would it be cast out of her body and attack someone on the airship? Whatever. She couldn’t worry about that now. If she did nothing, she was going to perish.

“I am the Warrior of Light. I am hope incarnate.” She winced as she heard herself speak. It sounded way cooler when Haurchefant said it. In comparison, she was like a little kid playing make believe. Wysteria pointed a chakram at her copy. Welp, she had gotten this far and she figured she may as well fully commit to the cheese. “I’m not giving up. I’m not going to fade into the shadows. Besides, black isn’t really my style. I’m more of a pastel kind of gal.” She smiled.

Her body ached with each step she performed, but the hyur was just grateful that she could move at all. She charged, threw her chakrams at her shadow, and missed. Her copy twirled, dashing around her in a zig-zag. Dark energy followed her like ribbons fluttering in the wind. It would have been an almost lovely dance if it wasn’t made to kill her. The shadow’s movements were bizarre and unpredictable, keeping the Warrior of Light on her toes at all times. Every subtle motion was registered by Wysteria as she searched for an opening. She couldn’t let any opportunity slip by. As her enemy bent backwards, kicking up her leg in such a way it looked like her spine would break, Wysteria flung her chakrams overhead, one after the other. Brimming with holy energy, they spun straight for their target. 

“There can be no forgiveness.” Her shadow cried out, dodging again. Her enemy was proving to be the slippery sort. Was she this annoying to her enemies?

A blast of void surged forth from her other self in a cone, far too quickly for the Warrior of Light to evade. However, she beared the brunt of the attack and survived, using her light to keep the darkness at bay.

“You willingly gaze into the light, blinding yourself to the truth.” Her copy said.

The Warrior of Light didn’t respond, couldn’t as her lungs were starting to burn again. She had to preserve every ounce of oxygen she had left and blowing out hot air wasn’t going to help. The dancer got in close to her enemy, swinging her blades all around her that created waves of colorful beams as she performed a standard step, empowering her abilities before letting out a blast of magic. Her doppelgänger was struck and flung backwards, giving the Warrior of Light the opening she needed. Metal sank into flesh and sliced right across her enemy’s neck. Rather than blood, purple smoke and black ichor oozed from the wound like a fountain. The woman collapsed and disappeared, but the inky substance she had spilled began to stir. Like mercury, the substance formed into tiny balls and moved to form a perfectly round puddle. Four arms burst forth from the goo, followed by two heads and two bodies. Where she had felled one, two more copies rose up to take its place.

“You’re too weak to do what needs to be done.” One giggled.

“Embrace oblivion, little spark.” Said the other.

My lungs can’t take much more of this… Wysteria thought.

The Warrior of Light prayed that by eliminating these shadows that it would not result in a repeat of multiplying more. She didn’t know what else to do and it was clear these shades weren’t in a diplomatic talking mood. They were here to kill her. The copies inched towards her, grinning with their arms outstretched. The Warrior of Light struck them down and dread filled her belly. Four more Wysteria shades came to life. This wasn’t working. A tint of blue was beginning to spread over the Highlander’s face. She couldn't afford for this fight to drag out much longer. 

I have to finish this with the Crimson Lotus. It’s my only chance. Wysteria thought.

Her shadows knew what she was up to and they pounced upon her before she could begin the limit break. The Warrior of Light pushed them back, slicing and dicing as she spun around with her chakrams, but it only made things worse. She hit both her targets and four more copies emerged from the broken corpses. They all began to taunt her, circling the highlander.

“Ignorant of your sin but it eats away at your heart all the same.” 

“The bat-eared fox licks the great lion's paw.”

“The prey longs for her hunter.”

“The thrill of being chased.”

“You want to be devoured.”

“Traitor.”

Zenos. Of course, they would talk about him. Was this all the guilt she had built up for pitying the man? She didn’t know; she couldn’t think! What she needed was to breathe and she couldn’t. The dancer leaped out of the way before they could all dog pile on top of her. Wysteria was specifically trying not to kill them before she could gather them into a group and fell them with one stroke, but they inconveniently decided to become more fragile. Every cut she dealt out brought more dark copies until Wysteria was up against an army.

“You envy his freedom.”

“He envies your heart.”

Wysteria began to fight with such savagery that she knew that the crown prince would have been proud. Desperate to keep her clones away, she dealt brutal strike after brutal strike, cleaving limbs and breaking teeth. At one point, she went so far as to bite the throat out of one shadow that tried to hold her down, staining her pure white gown in blood, a mark of her sin. Thankfully, Zenos wasn’t there to taunt her too. He would have loved this.

The Warrior of Light cut through another dozen copies, causing more to spring up. There were too many. She couldn’t fight them all. They tried to restrain her and Wysteria fought them off for a while, but their numbers eventually overwhelmed her. The doppelgängers forced her to the ground, pinning her limbs. They gathered around, beating and insulting her with vicious glee. The group parts to let another shadow through, and it was different from the others. This one was not garbed in Ascian robes but a Tharvian gown like hers. The only difference was in the colors, a black that contrasted to Wysteria’s white. This was the source of the Totentanz. She was the Totentanz. This was the one Wysteria needed to destroy and the others would fall like dominos.

“You went too far this time. You’re too weak. Too forgiving. Don’t you understand? Some sins can never be washed away. You spit in the face of the fallen for what you’ve done!” The Totentanz growled.

The other shadows began speaking up, talking over top of each other, echoing across the void.

“You’re a weakling.”

“We’ll end you and him.”

“Right here and now.” 

“Only then can we restore our honor.”

“This sin is unforgivable.”

“But we must try to repent.”

“You must pay the price!”

“Cleansed through harakiri!”

“Kami forgive me!”

“Rhalgar forgive me!”

They all started to scream and cry, pulling at their hair and ripping it out. It was terrifying. Even more so to see just how fucked up she was on the inside. This was all pent up emotions at their worst. 

Wysteria broke free of one of her captors, swinging her leg around to kick the Totentanz right in the nose. The leader gasped, covering her bloodied face before promptly slamming her foot on the Warrior of Light’s stomach. The highlander released a deep grunt and her eyes rolled back, causing her to cry out in torment. The Totentanz brandished a short blade, a dagger that swirled with the purplish hue of the void. 

“I’m sorry, Alphy, Ali… everyone, but I can’t trust myself. I’ll die before I become a puppet! I won’t play his game!” Her darkness shed a tear as she bared her blood stained teeth. The Warrior of Light’s eyes widened as she watched the Totentanz raise the blade up above her head with both hands. The shadow paused for heartbeat before unleashing a shriek, bringing down the dagger upon the woman’s heart.  

Motion suddenly flashed before Wysteria’s eyes, appearing as nothing more than a beam of crimson light. The Totentanz froze, the dagger resting an inch above Wysteria’s heart. Her face locked into a shocked grimace as a line split her down the middle, creeping through her as a crack would stone. “Don’t… do this.” Tears streamed down her cheeks as her head split open, releasing a miasma into the air that clouded the warrior’s vision. “Don’t replace me with this fiend! You need me!” The Totentanz fell back, parting the mists to reveal the one who had dealt the fatal blow. “You will regret this… traitor… traitor!” 

The Totentanz dispersed, swirling around the Warrior of Light as it returned to her, using what strength she had left in a vain attempt to kill her. Pain followed quickly after and the hyur seized up, wriggling around and grinding her teeth. Her savior knelt down next to her, hand hovering over her chest. His eyes turned red and began to glow as he channeled the power of the Resonant. Slowly, the darkness was drawn from the Warrior of Light and into Zenos, giving her immediate relief. The aura that Wysteria had seen when he possessed Shinryu appeared, causing her eyes to water, or maybe she was just crying. It was hard to tell. 

Stars began to flicker to life around the Garlean, bathing him in a soft, golden glow. Without thinking, Wysteria reached out for his heart. The light answered her call and was pulled into her body. It felt no different than attuning to an aetheryte. It felt... right. This needed to be done; although she didn't know why. Zenos didn’t try to stop her, watching her intently.

The streams of light and darkness eventually dwindled and the prince stared down at his hand, flexing his fingers. “And so the flow abates. For now.” He looked to his prey on the ground who was turning purple and sputtering about on the floor, gasping like a fish on land. “Enough.” Zenos ordered, throwing out his arm to the side.

The endless abyss was pushed aside, fading in a swirl that revealed the airship cabin room once more. Free from the void, Wysteria realized that she was being strangled by her own hand. Wincing, she released herself and coughed, nearly puking. Bruises would certainly be left behind and she’d have to think of some story to tell the twins so they didn’t tie her arms to the bed. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what they needed to do.

“Bravo!” Zenos offered her a mocking, slow clap. “Bravo, my friend. Such a glorious show, a feast for my eyes in this dull, hollow place.” He grinned, wickedly. “What a feral beast you are when pushed to the edge. My only regret is that it was not I that triggered you.”

She stared up at the man, brows knitted in confusion. “Why?”

“I refuse to allow another to steal my quarry. That includes you.” Zenos said. “The fires of your spirit are dim, but they yet burn hot even under pressure. You shall become that blaze of ferocity I desire to see once more. My perfect beast, my prey.” He studied his blade that dripped with black ichor. “‘Tis curious that your hallucinations can now be banished by my hand. Yes, this must be the second key he spoke of. We’ve made more progress. Lovely.” Zenos said before he sheathed his weapon. “I must draw that darkness out of you again. You need but do the opposite.”

“Draw out… draw out your light?” She asked, squinting her eyes.

“Precisely.”

The Warrior of Light wiped her face with her sleeve. Her lower lip quivered as she gave him puppy dog eyes. “Z… why… I don’t—” She burped and caught the scent of magic and chicken broth. Her head swayed like her brain was sagging on her spine. There were two princes now, blurred and wavy.

“Do try to watch your—“ Zenos was interrupted by Wysteria vomiting over the side of the bed. “Aim.”

Sapphire dribbled down her chin as she looked up at Zenos, tongue hanging out and stained with aether. At least the vomit itself was neat to look at it. You couldn’t ask for more aesthetically pleasing puke. Still, Wysteria was a pretty pathetic sight and the Garlean flared his nostrils in disgust.

“Thank you.” She whispered. “If you weren’t here…” 

The man chuckled dryly. “Funny. You fervently deny me only to turn around and profess gratitude for my presence?” The Warrior of Light responded by curling up into a ball and breaking into an ugly cry. Zenos rolled his eyes at the pitiful warrior. “I almost prefer you in your feverish delirium. At least in this state, you are honest with yourself and take me seriously. It will not last. Nay, you will go straight back to clinging to your delusions.” He let out a soft sigh. “Your light has faded and the madness of this fever grips you once more. You’re too exhausted to think, and by extension, so am I. Cease your howling. Close your eyes. Relax. This spell will pass and when it does, you will compensate me.”

“How?”

“With violence, naturally, and you will fight as savagely as you did just now. Understood?” She nodded. In her condition, she probably would have said yes to anything. “Very good.” Zenos covered a yawn and gave his head a light shake. “How I loathe this weakness, but it cannot be helped. Come. We shall embrace slumber together.”

His form vanished, leaving the highlander alone. The woman, out of her mind, continued to fight sleep a little longer until she felt as if a hand grabbed her by the back of the head. With a firm tug, she was pulled through the mattress and somehow ended up underwater. The last thing she remembered was a soothing warmth wrapping around her body before she passed out. 

 

When Wysteria awoke in the morning, her brow was slick with sweat and her hair stuck to her skin. Finally, her fever had broke and she was herself again. The woman groaned, rubbing the back of her neck as she looked around. She spied the vomit in the wastebasket and winced. At least she hit her target this time. Her memory of the dream was vague. She remembered fighting herself and Zenos helping her, but the details were hazy. It was a fogged mirror that smeared with each wipe of her hand against its surface, growing more and more blurry.

"Draw out my darkness. Draw out his light. Why? What does that mean?" She huffed. "Nothing. It's dumb. Stupid, weird nightmares. Why do I humor this crap?" She stretched her arms above her head.

It was more wishful thinking, yearning that things had been different... that she and Zenos could have been friends, that he hadn't been the evil man he was. If he could have just been a great fighter and not a lunatic, he would have been a great friend. The perfect, best friend. She shrugged it off as nothing more than another crazy nightmare.

Chapter Text

As was their observant nature, the Leveilleur twins noticed the bruises on their primal slayer’s neck almost immediately. The mittens were back and would stay on for the foreseeable future. This led to a long discussion between the three, one where Wysteria barely got a word in. They debated whether one of them should stay behind in Kugane to watch her. Being the best of the two when it came to healing, Alisaie quickly pointed out Alphinaud would be the best candidate. The brother countered that it was the red mage who would have a better chance of stopping the Warrior of Light should she try to cause herself harm. She took no offense, but the hyur could tell that neither one of them really wanted to stay behind. Not that she could blame them. Sitting at home, being domestic, not fighting monsters and fiends, gods, the horror… the boring, mundane horror. Maybe she could at least talk her brother into arm wrestling. That might hold her over for a whole three seconds.

Wysteria tried to place a hand to her neck only for it to be repelled by the enchantment Alphinaud had recently placed upon her necklace. It reacted to the magic within the threads of her mittens, creating an effect similar to pushing magnets of the same poles together to provide her extra safety. Of course, it was itchy, and she couldn’t scratch it. This was the seventh layer of hell. 

“Um, isn’t this a teeny tiny bit exces—“ She was abruptly cut off.

“No!” The elezen said in unison.

“—sive? Okay.” Wysteria said before biting her lower lip. 

“Just when it seems like you’re improving, you take another setback.” Alisaie said, pinching the bridge of her nose. The elezen gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, Wysteria. We cannot risk anymore incidents like this. I want to trust you, I really do, but these bruises prove that we should continue to take precautions, no matter how well you might be feeling.” If the risk taker of the two was wanting to be careful it conveyed how much she was worried for the hyur. It wasn’t often that Alisaie showed her affection and Wysteria cherished those little moments.

“How does she look?” Alisaie asked her brother.

Alphinaud was inspecting the Warrior of Light with the Sharlayan goggles. Twisting the knob on the side, he removed them and let them hang around his neck. “Better than when we left Eorzea.” He looked to the patient. “Considering the tint of blue that was on bedsheets and the bile crystallizing as we speak, your body has purged a good amount of aether. How are you feeling?”

Wysteria pondered upon the question before she answered. “It’s hard to tell. I'm still drowsy from the medicine, and I’m not a morning person.” She placed a hand on her stomach as it rumbled, far too loudly not to be noticed. “Oh uh… well, then again, this is the first time I’ve felt hungry since waking up from the coma.”

“You have definitely improved.”

“Even the void spot Y’shtola mentioned?” The dancer asked.

The young elezen cupped his chin in thought. “Out of all the elemental aspects, your void and light aether appear to be in the best condition. They are almost at healthy levels and attuned to your spirit. They are blending quite well and…” Alphinaud continued, but the hyur was distracted by another voice that decided to speak his thoughts and she zoned out as the room emptied, the twins vanishing much like Y’shtola had back at the Rising Stones. 

“Willing flesh to blend the souls.” Zenos mused as if quoting a poem. Turning her head she saw that the Garlean was at the foot of the bed, sitting with his back to her. He reached out and grasped the air. “Cast out half to become—“

Are you okay?” The elezen’s voice yanked her back into reality. 

The hyur blinked several times and looked up at Alphinaud. “Yes. What were you saying?”

The boy gave her a concerned look but didn’t press her. “I said the levin and gravity aether weakening your legs and disrupting your balance has dwindled exponentially. If it continues to do so, you should be walking again in a week.”

“Twelve and kami be praised!” She said, clasping her hands together. The thought of walking down a short corridor excited her at this point. The adventurer just wanted to move ; it didn’t matter where. 

Alphinaud gave her a wry smile. “I know being cooped up like this isn’t the most thrilling.”

“I would have lost my sanity already if it were me.” Alisaie said before a grimace took over her face. “If only it was me lying here instead of you.”

“N-no! Please don’t say things like that.” Wysteria said. “I was reckless that day. You know how much I was itching to fight Zenos, and he dragged me up to that aetherial plane willingly… kinda. I would have chased him down even if he hadn’t. Now, I’m paying for it.” She shrugged. “My luck was bound to run out eventually. I’m going to be okay. It’s not a big deal.”

“Yes, it is!” The Warrior of Light flinched at her words. “You died, Wysteria. Do you understand? You were dead. I saw you. We all saw you...” Alisaie had raised her voice, growing more emotional with each word until she took a deep breath to control herself. “Forgive me, I just…” The elezen spoke softer. “When it happened it felt like the world came to a crashing halt. Precious seconds were wasted because we couldn’t believe or accept that you were gone. Not you. Not our Warrior of Light. It couldn’t be possible. That’s what we were thinking, slack jawed and dumbfounded like the fools we are.”  She clenched her fists and Alphinaud placed a hand on her shoulder. “We asked too much of you— Pushed too hard and this is the end result.”

The highlander shook her head. “The empire forced all of us to push ourselves beyond the limit. Liberty or death. I was prepared to put my life on the line just like everyone else—to free Ala Mhigo.” She said. “Even if I had foreseen getting sick, I still would have pursued Zenos. I had to fight him alone. Any other way would have put more lives at risk. Besides,” She gave Alisaie a wry smile. ”Zenos decided to make it personal when he dared to lay a hand on my friends.”

“I know. I know that. If the bastard could sacrifice his own men in the name of his so called hunt then he was capable of anything. I only wish we could have done more.” She said.

The room grew quiet. Awkwardly quiet, and Wysteria felt like she had to break the silence. “Was I really dead?”

The elezen shared a look before Alphinaud spoke. “The aether you absorbed continued to build, swirling around your chest until it burst. It surged throughout your body, forcing you into cardiac arrest. By all logic, it should have destroyed your organs. That you are even awake should have been impossible. It took the combined magic of Y’shtola, Krile, and myself to revive you, and hours of channeling to stabilize your body thereafter.”

The Warrior of Light gripped at the fabric covering her chest. “Thank you. You’ve taken such good care of me. I can’t tell you all enough.” She said and winced. “It’s hard to believe. I’ve fought so many battles and enemies. Hehe… It’s kind of funny. Of all the things that could have killed me, it was aether poisoning.” She began to laugh, but the two didn’t join in on her laughter. “Dying at the hands of Zenos would have left me with some dignity.” Her attempt at lightening the mood ended failure. The twins didn’t even offer a fake chuckle. It was probably too soon to jest about her death, and most of the Scions weren’t a fan of dark humor, except maybe Thancred.

“We are glad you’re still with us, Wysteria.” Alphinaud said. The woman’s stomach rumbled again, and she wrapped her arms around it. “Oh, right. I almost forgot. What would you like to eat?” He asked.

“Something solid would be nice for a change.”

“If you think you can handle it. What did you have in mind?”

“Dango and mochi.”

“That’s too sweet! At least make a moderately healthy choice.”

“Please, brother. I think she’s more than capable of keeping down a treat or two.”

“Then you won’t mind cleaning up the vomit that will surely be inevitable.”

“‘Twould be best. My senses are like iron. You are the sqemish one, gagging at the slightest whiff of an unpleasant smell. You would only add to the mess.” Poor Alphinaud never could get a sassy remark over on his sister.

Wysteria stifled a laugh for the boy’s sake and told him what she actually wanted to eat: ogura toast—not an Eorzean dish, but it couldn’t be too hard for a westerner to throw bean paste and butter on bread. It was solid, but simple which seemed like the perfect reintroduction to real food. When it came to getting nauseous Wysteria wasn’t adventurous walking that line. She hated the sensation of a sick stomach and vomiting was a rough experience she’d trade over for a primal punch any day. 

Alphinaud approved of the choice and he left to put the order in to the cook. In the meantime, she conversed with Alisaie. They poked fun at the scholar behind his back, innocent and in good jest until he returned. Once they were gone and she finished her meal, she picked up the small toy chest on the nightstand. She decided to play Slide 1+14 even though she wasn’t particularly good at it. The goal was to rearrange a set of mixed numbers from one to fourteen and put them in order. The hyur wanted a challenge, any kind of challenge to sate her thirst for adventure. It wasn’t an exciting one, but she’d take what she could get. She had only moved three tiles when Zenos spoke.

“If you had failed but entertained me, rest assured the finest taxidermist would have seen to your corpse.” The highlander snorted and looked up to give him a glare. He stood by her beside, towering in all his fully armored glory. The hallucination always wanted to remind her how small and inconsequential she felt next to him. The corners of his mouth twitched, pleased with her reaction. “On display in my villa; forever pristine and young. I would gaze upon you and reminiscence, dwelling on the potential you had for a beast worthy of the hunt. You would have made an interesting conversation piece.”

His words alone caused a flurry of goosebumps to travel down her skin. That did seem like something the freak would do. Oh, joy. I feel much better and not creeped out at all. She thought, looking back down at her game. Maybe the vision would take the hint and go away. That tactic hadn’t worked yet, but she wasn’t going to give up on it either.

“I thought you might like that.” He said. 

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as the bed sank down with the man’s weight or seemingly did so. Observing from the corner of her vision, she reached out and smoothed her hand along the surface of the clean sheet. It phased right through him. There wasn’t a tingle or even the slightest hint of pressure. Maybe she was getting better, and she reassured herself that the fallen prince was an illusion and nothing more. Zenos watched her, rolling his eyes as the dancer went straight back to ignoring him. She tried to focus on Slide 1+14, but the Garlean was distracting her. He was too close, and she did not like him watching her play over her shoulder. The bastard was practically breathing down her neck with that intense gaze boring into her, scrutinizing her every move. Zenos was quiet, and only spoke up to comment on how abysmal she was at the puzzle. He wasn’t wrong, but it made the Warrior of Light all the more determined to beat her next time and prove him wrong.

“You have rearranged those same four tiles around the board ten times with no results. Does it hurt being so incompetent?” He asked.

The highlander pursed her lips into a pout before sticking out her tongue and blowing a raspberry. Unfortunately, she blew a little too much and caused a string of spit to fall onto her gown. The woman let out an eep and covered her mouth as her cheeks burned red with embarrassment. Embarrassed over nothing. She knew there was no one there.

Zenos quirked a brow. “You can barely stand yourself. Mayhap I should have killed you when we first met, after all. As a mercy.”

Gods, he was the most insufferable hallucination. If the son of a bitch was real, she would have happily wiped her slobber all over him. That thought made her snicker. 

 

*************

 

Wysteria kept her mind busy throughout the rest of their journey. During the day she read books, talked with the twins, or played mini games. At night, she exclusively fought with Zenos yae Galvus. Just as before, it was fun, and their battles ended in a tie or with him or her barely winning. She also made sure not to turn her back on him while they fought, ever. She’d learned her lesson from before and a harsh one it had been. The results of their battle didn’t seem to matter to either of them. Zenos wanted her to fight like a beast consumed with fury, and she indulged him, striking with all the bloodthirsty fervor she could muster. Although it was all fake, it felt good to move and swing her weapon. The only bad thing was that when she wanted to rest, the hallucination of Zenos would never give her the opportunity to do so.

In the menagerie, they fought. The Warrior of Light spun and twirled out of the way of his strikes— if only barely, but that’s what made it so thrilling. He was so close to hitting her that it made her heart leap each time she felt the breeze created by his blade skimming a centimeter above her flesh.

Zenos lunged and caught her by the wrist as she came in too close, swinging her around towards the palace wall with seemingly little effort. Soaring through the air, she grabbed onto a ledge and pulled herself to safety. Had she fallen, a tarry substance that glowed red awaited her below. Whether it was connected to Ame-no-Habakiri’s power or the Resonant, the dancer didn’t know. She just knew she did not want to touch the stuff. 

“I have to stop setting him up to do that.” She said. Rather than hop back down into the action to take her revenge, Wysteria decided to take a breather instead. She needed it. This man didn’t stop. “One minute.” She said, holding up her index finger. “My lungs are on fire.”

“No. We have only just begun.” He said with a soft pant accompanying his words. Wysteria, on the other hand, was a huffy, sweaty, and red faced mess. “Can you not feel it, hero? This euphoria! Oh, how it fills me. ‘Tis an addictive sensation: the rush of blood, my heart pounding with such fervor I feel as if I can hardly draw breath!” He sighed, relishing the moment before he continued. “This arrangement of ours has proven to be obnoxious; ‘tis true, but I do so enjoy the dances we have shared thus far. You love it just as much as I do. Your savage instinct will not allow you to be idle while there is still more blood to shed.”

Wysteria’s brow knitted together. “You’re right. I do love fighting you. It’s so much fun! I admit it, but we are four hours into this, Z. Kami forefend, don’t you ever get, you know, tired?”

He approached the column she was perched upon, an intricate slab of stone that extended out from the castle. “I am exhilarated!” The Garlean wore that maniac smile that did not make her heart flutter, but uneasy.

“You’re bonkers.” She said under her breath before she called down. “Come on. Let’s take five. You have a strand of hair out of place, my lord . Shouldn’t you fix that?” Wysteria said as sweetly as she could. It didn’t last as she grumbled soon after. “You perfect, angelic looking son of a biscuit eater. It’s not fair.” She caught a look at her disheveled self in the reflection of a nearby window and groaned at the sight. She was a wet paper bag next to Zenos, the artistic masterpiece. 

The man continued to stare at her as he tucked the misplaced lock behind his ear. “We have all night to perform, and I intend to make every second count. Come! Let us continue.”

A smirk curled upon her lips. She had the high ground and she was going to take advantage of it. “Hmm… nah.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

“Come down here and face me, savage.” He ordered.

The Warrior of Light faked a yawn. “I don’t really feel like it.” The adventurer reclined, crossing her legs as she folded her arms behind her head. It was fun to play with him like this. Telling him no really brought out how much of a spoiled brat he was. No doubt he didn’t hear it often because he could easily kill those who dared to utter it. 

“Then I will make you.”

Shocked, she bolted up. “You better n—”

With a single strike of his sword, the pillar Wysteria was perched upon came tumbling down. Zenos was ready for her, sheathing his katana as he prepared to make a deadly blow. The bastard would surely impale her if she didn’t think fast. Using a shield was her best option— a shield she should have used when their first dream battle ended with her arm being incinerated. Unfortunately, she would not be able to create another one for a while so she had to pray whatever he pulled out next she could traditionally block or evade. Making a swaying motion with her arms, a shield crystallized around her as the viceroy lashed out. The shield made a “tink” sound as it made contact with the metal and bounced her back and away from her enemy. The Warrior of Light slid and gathering scuffs on her palms as she fought to change the state of her inertia. 

“No more distractions. Give me something to remember! Give me more!” Zenos bellowed. The prince was nearly frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog hungry for blood.

The highlander sighed, wiping away the sheen of dust from her sweat slick forehead. She smirked. “You really are bonkers, Z. So very bonkers.” 

Their steal clashed once more and the warriors pushed against each other, eyes alight with violent ardor.

“That word grates on my ears.” He said.

“What word?” She said, fluttering her lashes to give herself that innocent babydoll look. Not that she was very good at it; her midlander blood cried for it to succeed, but it wasn’t pronounced enough in her highlanderequse features to do so. Not that it would effect Zenos either way.

“Don’t play coy with me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She said.

Zenos frowned. “Bonkers. Stop saying it.”

“But you just said bonkers.” The Warrior of Light giggled. “Silly goose.”

“You are testing my patience, beast.” With a single heave of his sword, Wysteria was shoved away. She blocked and weaved through his multitude of strikes, most too close for comfort until he eventually nicked her across the cheek.

Wysteria hissed out through a smile, refusing to let off on her assault. “Yep! And you have a C minus which is passing, but I know you can do better. I may even give you bonus points if you meow like a cat.” Another strike and another twirl to evade death. “Come on! This is my dream. Be a little kitty-cat, Z. Purr pretty boy! Purr!” The highlander ducked under the katana again before she performed an arabesque and attempted to tickle him under his chin with her finger. “Or should I give you a little scritch-scratch under your chin first?”

She barely grazed his skin before she was pushed backwards by a burst of powerful energy. Ame-no-Habakiri glowed with that creepy crimson aura she had come to know all too well. Zenos was enraptured in this fight and clearly had no desire to endure his beast’s silly antics. Not that she wasn’t having loads of fun herself; Wysteria was having a blast! Each fight she shared with dream Zenos was better than the last, and this one was the best yet. Even so, it was very exhausting to keep up with him. How she could even feel exhaustion was another mystery. Maybe her brain was just tired of coming up with all the excessive details, and this was how it was translated. Wysteria didn’t exactly know the details of how lucid dreaming worked.

Their battle continued, and the menagerie suffered for it. Flowers were trampled and ripped from the ground, the stone floor cracked, and the fountains were destroyed and drained dry. Throwing her chakrams over her head, she dashed towards Zenos. He blocked both faster than she anticipated, and she was forced to duck and slide under his katana. Her discs returned to her hands, and she performed the last of her current dance steps, breaking into a spin that created a burst of magic. Gold, red, and green ribbons of light flowed out from her and spun. The legatus was struck, digging his heels into the dirt, but that didn’t stop him from sliding into the rail that separated him from a very long fall into the Lochs. The Warrior of Light kept up the pressure, taking more nicks than she would have if she had been more careful, but she couldn’t let this opportunity slip. He was so close to the edge, and if she could hit him just right, Zenos would go flying over the edge. 

It would hardly be easy. The viceroy had plenty of tricks up his sleeve and was all too eager to show her. Zenos kicked his opponent in the chest, and Wysteria cursed as the bastard got her right in the nipple. It nearly took the breath out of her. The Garlean prince stepped up on the rail and held out his arms, challenging her to come for him. He already knew the idea she had, and he was dangling the chance before her like a piece of candy. The Warrior of Light took the bait, launching herself at him when she heard a mechanical click that brought her skidding to a stop. Zenos sheathed Ame-no-Habakiri, and her gaze was immediately drawn to the sword holster. It spun for a good two seconds, and the highlander retreated, aiming to avoid whatever he was about to dish out. Zenos predicted her move and as the device came to a stop, he drew and launched the Storm and Swell both. Fully charged with a mysterious power or technology, they landed at Wysteria’s left and right. She flipped backwards before they could explode with wind and levin only to realize too late that he had herded her right where he wanted. As if one Zenos wasn’t bad enough, there were now two more added to the fight. She forgot that he could manifest reflections of his power. They struck her from both sides and far too quickly for her to consider evasion as an option. She blocked, one chakram holding off the left attacker and the other the right. Now, she was wide open for the true hunter who had vanished. Wysteria growled and cursed herself for letting him lead her into an obvious trap. Losing sight of Zenos in battle was the worst thing she could do. Dread welled up in her stomach.

Hardly the well rounded beast, are you?

Although Wysteria was neither a tank nor a glass cannon, her disciplines did lean lower on the defensive spectrum with hints of supportive capabilities. That was what her parents had taught her, and her experience adventuring cemented that fighting style within her. The Warrior of Light was all about offense. Block only when you can’t run was her philosophy.

Your agility is impressive; there is no debating that, but relying on it over much has placed you in a precarious position. I am curious to see if you can prance your way out of this one. His voice echoed in her mind, and therefore she could not pinpoint his location. 

“Cheater.” She grunted out as she looked up, struggling to keep the two shadows at bay. “Bring it on, princeling! I’m so.... so ready that I... c-could break my teeth smiling at the mere... thought of smashing your face in!”

She heard his sword drawn, though she could not discern its location. He was going to cleave her in half if she stood still or did the predictable thing which was to dash away. There wasn’t enough aether in her to perform another shield samba so soon. Wysteria would have to step outside of her comfort zone and respond differently. Dream Zenos knew her well enough to know her go to for survival. So, she had to pick something he wouldn’t expect. Her arms shook as they strained to hold the reflections off. Her mind remained blank. The Warrior didn’t know what to do.

“Nothing to show me, warrior? Hmph. A pity. I suppose it was too much to ask an idiot like you to think creatively. Alas.”

Zenos stepped out from behind one of the pillars and casually made his way towards her before raising his blade and breaking into a run. The air sung as the sharp point of Ame-no-Habakiri cut through it. Adrenaline snapped the reins on her blue screened brain and an idea suddenly came to her. It wasn’t the safest bet, but it was the best the highlander could come up with. The dancer began to channel aether into her chakrams. The metal that formed her weapons snapped straight and bloomed with peacock feathers. Both swords held by his reflections were trapped between the slits of her fans as she snapped them shut. Zenos was right in front of her now, blade racing straight for her chest. With an unladylike grunt, she twirled and exerted all the strength she could into a fan dance. Zenos lost sight of her as she was obscured in a whirlwind of feathers, destroying his shadows as the aetheric feathers cut through them. Ame-no-Habakiri came within an inch of her face as she raised her fan to snap the blade between it. Wysteria went cross eyed as she stared at the tip. These close calls were getting to be a bit too much for her anxiety.

The Warrior of Light followed up with another attack, swinging her other bladed fan for his throat. He drew another katana from his scabbard and deflected the strike.

Zenos chuckled. “Well done, my beast. I am proud of you.”

Wysteria felt her cheeks turn red and momentarily lost her focus. “O-oh. Well, thank—“ foolishly, she released some slack on her fan.

Zenos did not hesitate to take advantage of this. His second blade swung for her throat as she briefly let her guard down. Her other cheek was nicked as she scarcely dodged a deadly blow.

“So easily flustered by praise.” The viceroy scolded.

The Warrior of Light growled something incomprehensible, frustrated by the truth of what he said. That a little compliment could throw her off her game so much was humiliating. She would not fall for that again. The warriors pushed back against one another, releasing the lock on their weapons. Wysteria’s fans shifted back into chakrams, and she released a barrage of attacks against the prince so intense and brutal that she was inching him back towards the rail again. 

Zenos grinned wickedly as he saw the fury that filled his beast. “Troubled?” He asked as he continued to step back, blocking every attack she made which only irritated the woman further.

“You… y-you manipulated me!” She yelled. “Getting inside my head and just—gah! I should have known better.”

“‘Twas not my intent. Yes, your reaction did play out to my advantage, but make no mistake;  I spoke true, my friend.” Zenos sounded genuine, but truth or not, she wouldn’t fall for his flattery a second time. “That you deflected in such a manner rather than running away did impress me. It seems you are capable of critical thinking when put under pressure; despite your lack of intelligence.”

“Grr…  save it! I’m not going to blush at your flowery words again.”

“Good. Then you have learned from your mistake.”

“You’ll regret toying with me.”

“Then show me your true power. Take all your anger, all your hatred, and strike out against me!”

That’s exactly what she gave him. The warriors fought and circled one another on the edge of the menagerie for some time. Zenos eventually decided to limit that edge further by stepping up on the rail once more. Wysteria followed him, accepting the challenge. She figured a foot wide of stone was all the space she needed to stand toe to toe with the Garlean. It was harder than he made it look, though. How someone so big could be so balanced, she had no idea. Envy burned in her chest as she watched him seamlessly blend grace with ferocity. She wondered why she couldn’t make it look that easy. 

The Garlean made a feint, drawing the Warrior of Light in before swinging his katana in the opposite direction in a crescent. Wysteria jumped back to evade, and in doing so lost her balance. She gasped as her arms swung around in a circle, fighting to regain her footing. Zenos sighed and raised Ame-no-Habakiri over his head as he prepared to take his victory. She could either let herself fall and lose, or be stabbed and lose. The highlander did the only thing she could think of as her focus shifted to the loose, golden locks that lay upon his armor. Just before the prince could bring his full weight to bear on the katana, Wysteria latched onto his hair with both hands and yanked as hard as she could. If she couldn’t win tonight, the Warrior of Light was going to make sure Zenos didn’t either! 

“Clev—“ He didn’t get to finish what he was saying as he fell head over heels off the balcony with Wysteria. There was a rock jutting out of the mountain that smashed right into his temple before he could even think to stop his descent. The man went limp instantly. Had she not been falling as well, Wysteria would have been in awe to see Zenos yae Galvus unconscious. Everything went black as she met a similar fate.

Groaning, the Warrior of Light came to and took in her surroundings. It was dark and steadily growing more so. The sun was shining down from above, its rays struggling to penetrate through the water. At first, she assumed she was in the salt filled lake, but the glow of colorful fish and corals debunked that. This was the Ruby Sea, and judging by the huge abyss beneath her, she was sinking into the deepest part of it—the Turquoise Trench. Her vision was blurry, but she could barely make out Zenos below her. With armor as bulky and heavy as his she was surprised he wasn’t already at the bottom of the ocean. 

Although she was dizzy and weak, the hyur began to swim towards her enemy. It took a while, but she eventually reached him. As her hands wrapped around his neck, his eyes flew open. She took a deep breath, relieved that she could, and rasped out the words. 

“I… win…”

His hands clutched around her wrists so fast she hardly saw them move. He was not accepting defeat so easily. Their weapons were gone, stranded on the mountain side or on the seafloor beyond reach. The warriors devolved into animals: grappling, scratching, and biting at one another. They struggled for a while, stirring up bubbles and algae as they did so until Zenos finally heaved a sigh—or tried to. The adventurer squeezed his throat harder and cut him off, not allowing a single air bubble to escape him. She leaned in closer to his face and growled.

“I said I win!”

His vocal chords vibrated beneath her palms, and she relaxed her grip just enough so he could talk. Zenos laughed and beamed up at the hyur. “Good. Very good, my friend. I yield.” The warm metal of his gloves trailed down to bare ones, holding them gently to his throat. “Take your victory. You have earned it.”

The Warrior of Light bit her lower lip. He did this every time she won. Zenos was asking her to kill him. She could feel his pulse racing, accelerating beneath her fingertips. Did this really excite him? It made her feel uneasy and it only got worse each time he asked. Wysteria had taken many lives in her adventuring career and not a feat she was particularly proud of. Defeating villans, putting them in their place, and fulfilling justice, yes; she was proud of that, but not the life she had taken. Sometimes there was no other way. More often than not, her enemies left her no choice. As much as she wanted to it was impossible to incapacitate every foe with a few good smacks and convert them to the side of good with a motivating speech.

When Wysteria did nothing, Zenos frowned. “Why will you not grant me this one, simple request? This is but a so-called simulacrum to you, yes? If you refuse to accept I am real then at least give me this.” He said, trying to manipulate the hyur to get his twisted way. “It will not be a true death just as yours was not. There is nothing to lose. Do it.”

The woman took a few seconds to figure out how to respond. “Y-you’re right. This isn’t real. You aren’t real. I know it’s a dream and it doesn’t affect the waking world, but I won’t do it. It’s not right. I will not kill you, Zenos. Never.”

His lips turned down in a snarl. “Tighten your grip and watch the light fades from my eyes.” It amazed her how he could say that so calmly. “Sink those fangs into my jugular, drink deep and savor the blood upon your tongue—“

“Please, don’t say things like that, Z. It makes me sad.”

The Garlean scoffed. “It makes you sad? You denied me the death I wanted, that I deserved.”

The Warrior of Light tilted her head. “What?”

“A warrior’s death, to be slain by my equal in combat. To drop the curtain on our performance with a barbaric execution, my head under your foot or waved around before the savage masses. Oh, it would have been a grand display. Perfect. And yet, you stood there, ever the noble hero and refusing to claim your prey. You left me no choice but to take matters into my own hands. It was too much to hope that you would have the stones to kill me.”

Had the man truly been cursed with such a sick mind or was it just an exaggeration fueled by her illness? She couldn’t be sure. Wysteria remembered the blade being set against his throat, the resolve and sadness she saw in his expression as he took his own life. Then there was the vision, one she wasn’t sure whether it was a fever dream or the Echo. What she did know was that Zenos believed there was nothing more to life than violence. It was violence he obsessed over and loved, but to think that was all life had to offer must have been depressing. His life ended without truly experiencing it. He couldn’t. He was incapable of it despite striving to obtain it. Even after everything he had done, she couldn’t help but pity him. In the end, Zenos had been the one that was pathetic. 

Her lower lip quivered before she spoke. “You didn’t have to do that. I didn’t want you to! I… You didn’t deserve to die.”

“Ah, so it was spite that stayed your hand. Were you hoping to torture me yourself?” He asked.

The Warrior of Light shook her head. “Nothing like that. Killing you would solve nothing. It would be a waste. It was a waste. Watching you take your own life… i-it was rough. It showed me how much you were suffering.” 

“Suffering? It was joy and relief that I felt. My hunt was finally at an end. I did not fear death. I welcomed it.”

“Gods, Zenos.”

The Warrior of Light didn’t like to think back on the details of the viceroy’s death. There had been so much blood spraying out of his throat; it was like a fountain and covered the flowerbed and white stone path with splatters. It was something she’d seen before on her adventures, but with his fair complexion the dark scarlet hue really stood out. Not to mention the expression of satisfaction on his face made it all the more disturbing. He really thought he had nothing else to live for. Maybe the dream she had of his last moments really was a vision granted to her by the Echo. A weird, delayed vision.

She felt compelled to apologize. “I’m sorry. I should have done something. I should have tried to talk you down or rushed to tackle you like Lyse, but I just stood there, frozen and useless. I did the same thing with Haucherfaunt. I can never move when it really matters.” She glanced down to his neck, unmarked and smooth. “I wanted you to live and answer for your crimes, to use that intelligence and strength of yours to mend all the hurt you caused. It was the least you could do. I wanted to… I don’t know… I just wanted to—”

He interrupted her. “Fix me? To have me repent, lay down my blade, and swear off violence? And would you be the priestess to hear my confessions and punish me appropriately?” He spoke in his usual bored tone. “You truly are a delusional child.”

The hyur frowned. “That’s not it.” Her expression softened. “I hate the awful things you did. Just thinking about it infuriates me, but I wouldn’t force you to become a pacifist. Fighting is at the core of your being. I get that. If I could never fight again, I’d be really bummed. Hells, I’ve gone a month and a few weeks without it, and I feel like I’m dying. I know enough about you to understand that being locked up would drive you even more bonkers— ” He groaned when she said the word he’d come to hate. “Um, I mean insane. More insane than you already are—were.” She hesitated for a moment as she decided what to say next. “As selfish as it sounds, having you as a sparring partner to challenge myself and keep me in shape would have been nice. If you could have tempered your impulses and not hurt others… You could have still been you. You could’ve done some good things. We could have been real friends and not whatever screwed up idea you had. Not that any of that matters, now. Zenos—the real one—  he’s gone.” Her hands trembled slightly against his skin as she drew them up and away from his neck to cup his face. He watched her intently, tensing at the contact. “I meant what I said. I accept you, Zenos.” A faint glow ignited under her fingertips as she spoke, and the corner of the viceroy’s mouth twitched. Like before, the need to draw out his light was instinctual and she pulled the aether into herself, not really knowing or questioning what she was doing. She didn’t understand it, but knew she needed to do it, and so she did. Zenos did not object.

“You would have your cake and eat it too.” Zenos got a good laugh out of that. “You live in a fantasy world disconnected from reality, it seems. You’re pitifully naive and overly optimistic. Tell me. Why do you believe I am here?” He asked.

Wysteria shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I keep having these dreams and visions of you because I need closure. I saw your pain and identified with it. I know what solitude is like, longing for a connection, and finally getting one. We are alike and yet so very different. We are two sides of the same coin, yin and yang, shadow and light. I would’ve shown you that life isn’t all about violence and death. There’s plenty of good things too. Ugh, I know that all sounds so silly and cheesy.” Her face was turning red again.

“That you would willingly cast all aside to preserve and show me the “right” way to live. How foolish.” Zenos said. 

“Maybe it is, but it’s what I wish I could’ve done had you lived.” She said. “That’s what a friend would do, Z. I’d help you find a way to feel without being destructive. I um… I would be your hero. If you had let me.” As awkward as that was to say, she felt it needed to be said.

They sunk further into the abyss, and the darkness closed in around them. Zenos did not laugh like she was expecting. “That altruism will be the end of you.” He warned. 

“I don’t care. I’m just following my heart.”

“Oh, gag. Spare me the heartfelt confessions and sugary speeches.” He smirked. “‘Tis touching that you care so much for the well being of your enemy that you would endanger your reputation and self. Idiotic and misguided though it is, I do appreciate your concern. Perhaps, even relieved that you’ve kept me in your thoughts.” There was something genuine and yet sinister about his tone, but Wysteria quickly forgot it with his next action. Her body frozen as he reached up and caressed her cheek with the back of his gauntlet. As he pulled away, a shadowy essence slithered around his fingers, drawn forth from the Warrior of Light. “Do you so long for my touch? To continue our contest? For our connection to be cemented? Here you are, hiding the truth from the world and yourself. Shameless, little beast.” His voice lowered into a purr. “You have my deepest gratitude.”

An electric current surged through her body and curled into a white, throbbing heat in her core. And here she thought she wouldn’t fall for his pretty words again. Zenos could have been manipulating her or merely teasing, but she didn’t care. Wysteria could resist her instincts no longer. It was wrong. It was so very wrong, and yet, her heart screamed for her to claim his mouth. One. One innocent, dream kiss that meant nothing. That was okay, right? No. She could not allow herself to do that.

“I can sense those rusty cogs struggling to turn.” He said.

“Huh?”

“Speak your mind, or better yet, show me.”

“Show you?” She whispered. “I shouldn’t…” Slowly, ever so slowly, her hands drifted away from his face. Her fingers buried themselves into the billowy, gold, silk that was his hair and the Warrior of Light stared into his cool, azure pools. “Push me away. Tell me to stop. Tell me I’m a gross, mongrel, savage you want nothing to do with or whatever demeaning words you can come up with.” The Warrior of Light pleaded. Her desire was irrational and she felt that if Zenos opened his mouth to reveal how ugly he was, she’d be able to resist this need that was suddenly consuming her.

“As tempting as your offer is, I think not. Your voice quivers with desperation, but it is clearly not the terror which infects unworthy prey. No, I am too invested now. What is it you plan to do?”

The dancer turned her head and clenched her eyes shut. It was reckless to look away from him, especially after all the misfortune that came her way when she did so, but she had to do something. If she could hold out just a little while longer maybe the fire would go down and she could think straight. Zenos pinched her chin between his thumb and forefinger and turned her head back to face him.

 “Open your eyes.” They couldn’t find the strength to disobey because she did want to look at him. So badly. She took a peek and immediately regretted doing so. The smile, the one she loved, rested gently upon his face. “Show me...”

Don’t say my name. She thought.

As if he read her mind, he added. “Wysteria.”

That was it. She was done. Her name flowing on his eloquent voice was the hammer that shattered the cage she had locked herself inside. Cautious and gentle, her lips touch his; a quick peck. When she finished and looked down at him, his face was blank. The sea met the earth and Wysteria saw bewilderment in the deep blue. The hyur made a small gasp and gently cupped his cheek, drawing her calloused fingers along the smooth, fair skin. That look… he almost appeared vulnerable. Garleans could not use magic; it was true, but Zenos had placed a charm upon the Warrior of Light in that moment.

“Zenos…”

Dazed and infatuated, the woman was drawn to the Garlean like a moth to a flame. It was too hard for Wysteria to hold back. Moving closer and pressing her luck, the Warrior of Light kissed him again and channeled more passion. Hungry and desperate, she was a woman possessed by a desire to connect on a deeper level with her dark reflection. Zenos tensed at the rougher contact, releasing a grunt as she smashed her lips harder against his. The man’s mouth remained firmly shut for some time until barely, oh so barely, following Wysteria’s motions. She could hardly tell he was responding— if you could even call it that. That lasted for a whole three seconds because the moment Zenos showed some reciprocation, Wysteria went from kissing to full on just eating his face. He drew his lips back like he’d just sucked on a lemon, but the highlander was too absorbed in what she was doing to notice. His fingers curled and twitched, his arms rising and falling as he could not make up his mind on how to act. Eventually, he snaked one hand to the back of her head and held on firmly. Wysteria’s heart fluttered. As they kissed, she took more of his light into herself while the legatus consumed the opposing force from her. 

Wysteria wasn’t a pro kisser, but she knew enough from researching through trashy novels (she’d defend that excuse with her life before admitting otherwise) to know the process. Also, practicing with her hand and cooing, “Lord Hien” was helpful too. And now, she was kissing Zenos in her dream and not her supposed crush. Why? She could not think of an answer to that question; the only thing she knew was that the Garlean’s lips were oh so soft and that she wanted more. She had to have more. Hormones were stirring from their slumber, and they demanded that she take him right there. The Warrior of Light pushed further, trying to use her tongue to invade his mouth. It was one step too many. Zenos finally reacted with what he knew best: violence. 

“Ahh!” She cried out as Zenos’s claws dug into her scalp and ripped her head back, nearly giving the hyur whiplash.

He smacked his lips before he scoffed. A sign of disgust. To think a single sound could sting so much. Peering as hard as she could to see him with her neck arched, she saw that he held no expression, nor did he look directly at her. The man stared off into space and only tightened his grip when she attempted to slip away. He was deep in thought, and that was fine, but she wished Zenos didn’t have to pull her hair out to do it. 

This had been a bad idea. A horrible idea just like the hug. The woman had not heeded the warning from her earlier experience. Dream Zenos wasn’t going to accept her affection just like the real one would not. He wasn’t going to be morphed by her hopeless romantic desires to admit that he only wanted a hug and then he’d become a good boy. Life didn’t work that way. Her suspension of disbelief was not strong enough. Zenos yae Galvus was a murderer, a manipulator, and a tyrant. He was an evil man devoid of love. Hells, he probably didn’t comprehend the concept. Of course he would jerk her head back if she kissed him, dream or not. His life revolved around the hunt and attaining that perfect fight, chasing death. Intimacy was not on that list. 

What she hated the most was that she wasn’t really mad that he was holding her like a cat by the nape. More than anything, her feelings were hurt. His rejection sank in like a knife carving into her chest. Sure, she got a bit overzealous and basically slobbered all over his mouth, but he didn’t have to be so mean about it. Then again, she also could have taken his hints. She felt incredibly dumb and pathetic. It was the reaction she should have expected. Zenos was the prince of a racist and xenophobic empire. To him, she was a mutt while he was purebred hound with an impressive pedigree. She was lucky he didn’t puke the second she got within an inch of his face. 

Zenos eventually broke the silence. “This rush of emotion…  this warmth… a dull ache that cannot be easily soothed. Yes, that much is certain.” He furrowed his brow. “Yours or mine? These feelings are tangled; far too tangled to be sure. ‘Tis familiar yet alien. Interesting.” His voice came out softer than she thought it would. “Leave me.”

His grip loosened and the Warrior of Light tore herself away from his grasp. She pushed off of his chest with her feel to propel herself upwards. Frantically kicking her legs, she raced towards the surface. Zenos did not give chase, staring after her as he sank deeper into the trench.

The moment she broke through the ocean’s surface, she awoke back in her cabin room. Her cheeks were wet and she released a choked sob. She hated herself for shedding tears over him of all people, a fake version of him at that. “I’m so stupid.” She whimpered, rubbing her eyes. “Why the hells am I crying? He’s not worth it. He’s not even real! This is ridiculous! Dumb, stupid… stupid, dumb nightmare. Stupid Zenos. None of this matters. It’s not real.” Even though she told herself all these things, the tears kept coming and she was ashamed. “Why does it hurt so much? It makes no sense. I never knew him. Not really. He was just my enemy, an obstacle that stood in the way of peace.” The dancer could only think about her first kiss as a young teen and how her crush’s reaction had been somewhat the same as the prince’s: disgust. Being pushed away in the dream opened wounds from long ago and she tried to convince herself that was the reason she was crying. She sighed and cradled her face in her hands. “Kami, help me.”

**************

Zenos did not speak or appear before the Warrior of Light the next day, nor the one after that. For the remainder of the trip, Garlemald’s crown prince was absent. Wysteria remained alert, checking for the usual hints and tingles that he was about to show up, but no. When an entire week went by without a glimpse or snarky remark thrown her way, she began to accept that he would not return. The other hallucinations she struggled with settled down as well, leaving only squiggles and spirals she could ignore easier than the demonic visuals that once lurked about. Wysteria took it all as a good sign and was relieved that the hallucinations were going away, and yet, there was that burdensome feeling of sadness that he was gone. The Warrior of Light refused to acknowledge it. The Zenos hallucination was gone. It was over. The bastard had disappeared for good and could no longer haunt her, and that was just fine with her.

Alphinaud and Alisaise continued to check the condition of her aether. They verified how Wysteria felt and were happy to tell her that her levels were continuing to descend to normalcy. They were happy to hear that the weird dreams and hallucinations were not troubling their friend as it had before. Wysteria tried to convince them to take the mittens and necklace off, but they denied her just in case she did have another incident. It would have been sad for them to say she was fine only for her to strangle herself in her sleep again. 

After a two week journey, the airship finally reached its destination. The Scions couldn’t be happier to finally stay on solid ground, Wysteria more than all of them whom had been mostly stuck in her cabin room. The twins brought the Warrior of Light above deck as the city came into view. It was late and the soft, beautiful glow of lanterns twinkled like warm stars throughout Kugane. Passing through the port town had been bittersweet when they were searching for a way into Doma. Before, it felt like home was nearby but she couldn’t go there or reveal who she was to the locals. Now, there was no more need for deception. The Warrior of Light could finally return to her childhood home.