The first thing that registered through the haze of blissful darkness in the Exarch's mind was pain — burning, searing, cutting through his core as if he were a sin eater that had stumbled upon the wrong end of a pikeman's lance, encompassing his entire being as if he were nothing but the sensation made manifest.
Very distantly, the second thing to register was that the floor beneath his cheek seemed to be significantly softer than it had been when he'd lost consciousness, but that was quickly dismissed as a hallucinatory product of the pain.
For what felt like bells, his eyelids fluttered as he drifted in and out of that blessed darkness until he finally gained the tiny bit of strength necessary to keep them open for longer than a second. Dim and blurry though his vision was, it took no time at all for him to realize that he was no longer at the summit of Mt. Gulg, thanks in part to the low light of his immediate surroundings. For one desperately, foolishly hopeful moment, he entertained the thought that maybe — just maybe — his plan had actually worked, and maybe the pain and the memory of what caused it was his soul's effort to parse just what was happening to it, but in his heart he knew that the darkness surrounding him wasn't that of the rift at all.
Gritting his teeth against the coppery taste in his mouth, the Exarch made an effort to push himself upright, breath catching in his throat and cutting off a soft whimper as the movement aggravated torn flesh and muscle and sent darkness flashing through his vision for a moment more. To his luck, the floor beneath his hand truly was as soft as he'd thought he'd been hallucinating, and as his head swam he felt briefly thankful that he wasn’t about to collapse onto something hard and unforgiving. The moment that the vertigo settled and he made a second attempt, however, he found out just how wrong he really was; that softness seemed to abruptly end in the exact location where the heel of his hand came down, and didn’t turn to the cold of a hard floor, but to the emptiness of air. Had he been less injured and recovering from recent unconsciousness, he might have been able to catch himself. Instead, his balance tipped dangerously in the direction of the void, and off he tumbled—
On to the true floor, which was just as hard as he remembered it being, though not quite as cold. He cried out sharply, the white-hot pain that shot through his still-organic shoulder and into his back intense enough that spots of color danced behind closed eyelids. Instinct bid that he curl in on himself, and for a long moment, he indulged.
The pain never truly subsided, but once it had ebbed enough that he could breathe , the Exarch opened his eyes again and furrowed his brow as he tried desperately to focus more on his surroundings and less on the fire licking through his arm and torso. The memory of a gunshot and Emet-Selch's voice still rang loudly in his ears, and he had no doubt in his mind that he'd been taken, though the gods only knew where or how long ago. Considering what his eyes were taking in, he wasn't anywhere in the Crystarium. The light in the room was dim but oddly comfortable, as if it were a larger room lit only by candles in strategic places, setting off the natural warmth of a room painted in dark and earthy tones and reminding him oddly of the Cabinet of Curiosity. What immediately set the two apart, however, wasn't just the distinct lack of books and shelves and spiraling staircases. There were furnishings, an armchair and a square table and various other distant and dimly-lit things that he couldn’t make out, but unless his perspective was horribly off, they all almost comically dwarfed him in their size.
A slow and careful lift and turn of his head proved that he wasn't incorrect, and he'd actually fallen off of an extremely tall couch. The Exarch let his head drop the short distance back to the floor with a dull thud, the temporary flash of ache nothing in the face of that which tore through him still. The cool of the marble felt soothing against his hair and his cheek, and he was loathe to leave it, but for the moment while he allowed himself to recover it was as good a companion as any and he permitted his eyes to close for but a few seconds.
Idle as he seemed physically, however, his mind could not sit still, thoughts zipping about as bolts of lightning and his short but devastating list of failures gradually burning itself into his head as guilt wrapped its fingers around his throat and began to squeeze. For all that he’d been so careful , for the century of researching and planning and hiding secrets and coming to terms with the fact that he needed to die in order to see this through, everything had been torn asunder with one simple bullet. He’d tried so hard, withstood so much and for so long, but in the end it was all for naught. The First, the Source, the Warrior … All of them would now suffer for the fact that he had failed. A fate as a Lightwarden was far worse than the death his Warrior had suffered in his future, and in trying to save them, he’d only doomed them once more.
If only he’d been faster at drawing out the Light. If only he’d been able to remain conscious for long enough to finish his work. If only he’d kept his guard about him more. If only, if only, if only, if only .
His breath caught loudly in his throat, and in one abrupt movement he rolled to his stomach and slammed his crystalline fist into the floor, sending the sound of stone against stone ringing through the massive chamber. No, no, it wasn’t over. So long as he still drew breath, so long as the Warrior hadn’t succumbed to the Light, it wasn’t over. He would not leave this half-finished. The situation could still be mended, the First and the Source could still be saved, and the Warrior—
The Warrior . Far away from the Tower as he was, the tickle of a frankly massive amount of Light aether at the edges of his senses was difficult to miss, and only one being in all of Norvrandt could possibly contain that much Light at present. Ruby eyes shot open, and the Exarch lifted his head, looking out with somewhat clearer eyes at the large door not far from where he lay. If the Warrior was there, then he need not go far at all to complete his mission. Though he wasn’t certain how long he had been unconscious, time was absolutely of the essence if he was to have any luck in catching the Warrior before they turned. Injured as he was, he knew he couldn’t make it far. Wherever he’d been taken, it was far enough from the Tower to prohibit regeneration. But, despite his weakness, he still had the power to press on. He had to, for the sake of salvation both for this star and for his star.
Forcing himself to his knees was no easy feat, but the pain became much easier to bear once he’d managed to cast an admittedly weak healing spell on himself. Knitting skin and muscle was a simple enough task, but it did not clear the weariness from his mind and body; that was a task for his willpower alone. It only took a moment to locate his staff, standing propped against a nearby table where his captor had likely assumed he wouldn’t be able to reach, but once in his hands it served to bear his weight as much as to soothe some of his anxieties. Now that he was getting a better look at things, he noted with an air of confusion that his surroundings didn’t look much at all like a cell, but instead seemed to be some sort of sitting room — almost cozy , he thought, which seemed both odd and not. All things considered, he’d assumed his captor to be Emet-Selch, but surely the man would have thought better than to simply leave him in a sitting room unattended. A mystery, indeed, though not one that deserved his immediate attention, nor did he care much to think long on it. Not when time and the specter of hope bid him to hurry.
The fact that the door to the room was unlocked and unguarded was also baffling, but the Exarch wasn’t about to question a turn of good fortune. With urgency in his step and determination in his heart, he forced his way through large and hauntingly abandoned halls and into an equally large but far more haunted city. Never in any texts from the First had he seen a city such as this - not even on the Source had he seen a city like this — and though he didn’t stop to look around, something about it felt… wrong. Like it didn’t belong, like the seemingly benign phantoms that roamed the city’s streets were visions that shouldn’t exist, as if he were looking in on someone’s memory uninvited. Far above his head, he felt as if he could almost see the glittering of the sickly-bright Light in the sky through a veil of water, though surely that must have been his imagination. The technologies and magicks of the people of the First were not enough to be able to build and sustain an entire city underwater.
Unsettled by his surroundings, the Exarch continued to follow the pull of the Light as it grew heavier, more intense, and almost tangible. As it drew him through another large set of doors and into a corridor full of more, he could swear that he could taste it on his tongue, a sharp and bitter energy that felt like static and sat like lead. Undoubtedly, the Warrior lay past the far gates, and as they pressed open he could only hope that what awaited him wasn’t a solitary, immensely powerful Lightwarden.
The gods were certainly looking down on him in some minute amount of favor today, it seemed, for while the Exarch’s face was met with the heat of flames and the smell of calamity, there certainly was no Lightwarden present… or, at least, not immediately so. Not the best outcome from opening a door, but it was certainly better than the alternative. But, if the Warrior lay beyond this mass of broken, burning buildings, then he had no choice but to keep going regardless.
It was an illusion, of that much he was certain, but a terribly powerful one. Emet-Selch had already proven capable of much, and it briefly struck him that perhaps the city itself was nothing but one large illusion, perhaps some distant memory of the Ascian’s that had been made manifest. The stone beneath his feet felt solid enough, the heat from the flames drew genuine sweat, and the stench of burning materials made his eyes water, but he simply narrowed his eyes against the onslaught as he continued moving. It might only have been an illusion, but it felt incredibly, overwhelmingly real and was likely meant to slow any advance that the Warrior might have been making. That alone filled him with faith that it might not be too late.
The Warrior had clearly been through this place already, if the trail of defeated monsters was anything to go by. If not for the immense presence of the Light acting as a beacon in its own right, it would have been an excellent trail of bread crumbs, and through his grit and determination the Exarch allowed himself a slight curl of his lips in amusement. Even when overburdened by Light and under the strain of their soul beginning to shatter, they always kept moving, striving for what was right. There was no better inspiration than that.
From a burning pile of rubble on an adjacent street came a horrible scream, nothing the likes of which he’d ever heard before - not an animal, not a person, but somewhere between, some terrible amalgamation of rage and despair that made his fur stand on end and his crystalline fingers tighten around his staff. A creature emerged from the flames, and the first thing that sprung — startlingly clearly — to mind were the hippogryphs of Mor Dhona that he’d more than once used for target practice. This, however, was far more menacing than they had ever been, as if made of burning coals with eyes mere pinpoints of light, like something out of a nightmare. The Exarch pulled in a breath, taking a cautionary step back as the creature advanced and lifting his staff in preparation. Illusion or no, he was in no condition to fend off even the weaker creatures outside of the Crystarium, let alone something this far away from it and just as far outside his knowledge of Norvrandt fauna, but he’d be damned if he let himself die here.
He was really in no condition to fend off the handful of other creatures that followed the first one out of the flames, varying in size and shape but all somehow reminiscent of creatures he’d seen before and all looking as though they were nothing more than charred husks.
Adrenaline shot through him like an icy arrow through his heart, sending his ears swiveling back alarmingly fast and his teeth gritting together. No, no, no , he couldn’t be waylaid now, there wasn’t time . If the Warrior had managed packs of these things in their burdened state, then surely he should be able to - but reason and the drive to survive long enough to see his Warrior saved bid him to think more clearly. There was no way that he could survive this, injured and exhausted as he was. If he stood his ground here, he would go no further. Illusion or not, the creatures were likely just as real as the flames licking at his heels, and the last thing he wanted to risk was a very much real and likely grave injury for assuming his foe to be nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Bright eyes flicked to his surroundings — buildings everywhere seemed to be crumbling, and there was already evidence that some had fallen completely. One in particular nearby had some rather severe damage splitting across the face of it, and the moment he registered as much, the bud of an idea rapidly blossomed into his only hope. His body may not have the capability to withstand for long, but perhaps…
The adrenaline rush proved to be blessedly beneficial for the Exarch’s spontaneous plan, for neither ache nor weakness troubled him as he set off in as fast a run as he could possibly manage. His tactical retreat quickly proved to have worked in his favor - the pack of creatures turned to give chase, snarling and screaming as they went, and while normally this would have been the opposite of what one wanted to happen, the Exarch was not in the most normal of situations. There was enough of a distance between him and them that, so long as he kept up his pace, he would have no trouble outrunning them… but keeping up the pace was the problem. Thus, he had devised a pis aller: illusionary creatures, real as their claws might feel, could be felled by illusionary means.
The road ahead of him was relatively clear save for a bit of rubble, but despite the ease of the journey and the short distance it encompassed he could feel his short reserve of energy quickly burning out. In order for this to succeed, it would take precise timing and aim besides, and he fought against the urge to hold his breath as he counted the seconds left before he needed to act. Three. Two. One…
Not a moment after his sandals hit the floor of the round pavilion at the end of the street, the Exarch turned sharply, summoning up his aether into a ball of flame and firing it at the weakened crack lining the front of the nearby damaged building. It exploded against the stone, and for a split second he did hold his breath — until the telltale crumbling and creaking proved that he’d struck true, and the building began to topple. The creatures never stood a chance, let alone knew what was toppling down on them until it was too late. The resulting impact, however, came down only fulms from where the Exarch stood, and shaking legs could provide little support in the rush of air and debris that sent him crashing into a nearby pile of remnants from another building’s collapse.
For a moment, the Exarch’s vision went black again and his ears set to ringing out a shrill, high tone. When it finally began to subside and his vision began to clear, his head ached terribly and something wet dripped down the side of his nose, and it took a few seconds for him to register that the redness he could see was blood. A quick once-over at least told him that there didn’t seem to be much blood elsewhere save for a few scrapes, though his robes were decidedly worse for wear, but considering the worst possible outcome of his encounter it could have been far, far worse. He laughed, then, short and barking and half-frantic but gods , it had worked. At least one of his plans today had gone off without a hitch.
Standing up was a laborious process, his muscles aching and screaming at him to rest and his still-flesh arm halfway to useless, but he was alive and he could still continue on and that was all that mattered. Scrapes and aches could wait; they weren’t enough of a strain on him that he needed to heal them, and he’d need his strength to pull the Light from the Warrior once he managed to catch up. Considering how the pounding in his head was accompanied by a staticky fullness that could only result from being near an abundance of aether, he wasn’t too far away.
The Exarch’s eyes narrowed against the pulsing headache, noting that the carcass of a rather large, round, bird-like creature - likely another of the Warrior’s slain marks — had initially been hiding a swirling dark portal. Either they had gone through it willingly or had been pulled through by force, but with no way to go any further, it was clearly his only option. As he staggered towards it, staff bearing more of his weight than it had been before, he let his eyes close for but a second in a moment of respite. Whatever awaited him on the other side of this portal, he had to accept it.
The portal had spat him out onto a broad, violet platform, and the sight of a planet far, far beneath him through the corners of his vision nearly made him reel with vertigo. It was an illusion, he told himself, and nothing more, and he closed his eyes tightly to steel himself against the effects. With his eyes closed, however, it seemed almost easier to tell that the overwhelming amount of aether wasn’t, in fact, just Light. No, no, there was Darkness here, too, an immense amount of Darkness—
Opening his eyes, the Exarch realized that the portal had spit him out in a rather advantageous position — Emet-Selch stood before him, back turned, but beyond him stood the Warrior, swirling with Light but as hale and whole as he’d ever seen them. Beyond them lay the Scions and Ryne, all incapacitated, and for a moment the Exarch worried that he had arrived too late to help them. No matter what had happened before his arrival, however, one thing was for certain: this left the Warrior without allies in their apparent final stand. Without any allies at all… save for him.
There was no time or opportunity to draw the Light from the Warrior now, not with Emet-Selch there and not with what was clearly an impending battle to rival the most epic of written stories. He'd come to terms with the fact that his original plan might no longer be feasible, but the fact still settled heavy and sick in his chest. The Light would consume the Warrior ere long without some sort of intervention, and only fate knew if there would be time to even finish such a fight; they could succumb before it even ended, or even before it had a chance to begin. Whatever it was that was holding back the Light could only do so for so long, and once again, there was no time to waste. Even if he couldn’t enact his original plan now , he still had options, things that only he could do. So long as the Light could be held at bay for long enough, the battle could be won and he could still draw the aether away in the aftermath. In order to ensure such a win, the Warrior would need allies. They couldn’t do this alone — a thought echoed in nearly the same moment by Emet-Selch's taunting voice.
This was it, then. No more time for calculating risks and hedging bets, and no time for mourning failures. They'd been knocked down to all-or-nothing, but who was the Warrior of Light and Darkness if not the one that gave their all? Who was he if not the one that gave his all, led by his guiding star? It would end here, one way or another, and the Exarch could only pray that the choices he'd made thus far and those that he was about to make would finally lead to success.
Gritting his teeth, he pulled in a deep, steadying breath, and took a step forward toward his destiny. The time for going alone was long past. For better or for worse, it was time to stand together.