They’re eating him.
Eating him alive.
Zenos yae Galvus lies still, glassy blue eyes fixed to a point in space unseen no matter how long or hard he stares at it. The aethers gnaw at him from within and without, a thousand thousand tiny-toothed maws nibbling at his muscles and bones and flesh.
And his mind. Emperor’s mercy, his mind.
He can’t quite remember how long it’s been, or what exactly put him here – in a bed not his own, where bright souls come and go without any recognizable faces attached. They speak his language but he does not listen. Magitek instruments blip and whine, white noise to the endless cacophony within. He can’t decipher the voices in his head either, though there are many of them that won’t stop crying and screaming in pain. He feels nothing for them, for he cannot. They are a part of him, a part too many, and he is numb.
It’s probably for the best.
When his father comes to visit him, he’s been here for a week, in a guarded room on the north-eastern side of the Palace where the Medicii do their work. He recognizes the color of Varis’s soul – molten gold, brave and strong, a pretty shell for a thrice-broken heart. Varis takes one look at his boy strapped in twenty-four places to a bed almost too thin to hold him and makes a sound no mortal throat should make.
The Medicii glance at him, purebloods all. None dare to speak for they know not what to speak of – how are they supposed to tell the Crown Prince what he can plainly see for himself? Zenos doesn’t move, not his eyes or lips or even a finger. The sheet that covers him obscures much from view, though Varis’s frantic gaze flicks over odd lumps and curves that shouldn’t be there, not on his rail-thin little boy. Zenos, at all of fifteen years, should not be so broad of shoulder as to eclipse his own father who now leans over him, shaking.
Varis snaps his whole body to face the nurse, one Domitia jen Civilis who nearly voids her bowels in fright. He stares into her sheet-white face and sucks in a ragged breath to control himself, keep from sobbing, screaming, anything.
“What… did you do to him?”
Domitia wrings her thin, gloved hands together with a nervous glance to the other Medicii. “B…by your orders, Sir, kir Docilus performed the-”
“WHERE IS HE?” Varis roars and his soul blazes anew, rage and grief and denial crashing together. Domitia flinches and skitters out of the room, while the others just stand there, frozen. Varis turns again to face his son, his baby, fingers clenched to keep from ripping the sheets off and seeing just what horrible disfigurement awaits. Zenos was never so still, so lifeless, though the steady beep of a monitor indicates his heart yet beats. Rapidly.
Zenos vaguely registers Varis talking to him, though he does not hear. Rather, he feels the meaning behind each word, the weight of something he can’t quite place. All the better for his overburdened mind. They are eating him, and soon he will have nothing left.
But he has never truly been his own.
The door creaks open and in walks a man seven fulms high and just two wide, lab coat fluttering around his ankles. The minute Varis lays eyes on Xander kir Docilus, head surgeon of the Imperial Palace, he pins him to the wall with a clawed grasp. The wall dents, and Xander’s vision blurs.
“WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM?” Varis screams, and half the Palace hears him interrogating the man he trusted with his son’s life – and his own, evidently. “You ASSURED me you- you-” He can hardly speak for the tightness in his throat, and eloquent words do not come to his brilliant, orderly mind. “YOU KILLED MY SON!”
Xander gasps for breath, Varis’s hand nearly twice the size of his head choking him within an inch of his life. He holds up one finger and Varis releases him, throwing him just far enough into the nearby cabinet that he doesn’t fall to the ground. “Y-Your Highness, if you, aah, give me a minute to exp, explain…”
There’s a metallic click as Varis cocks his pistol and points it at the man, the nurses bolting out the room in a flurry of scrubs and coats. “You’d FUCKING BETTER.”
Xander puts his hands in the air, glasses crooked and soft grey hair plastered to his sweating forehead. He can’t even see from his third eye, but doesn’t need to with Varis’s blurry image facing towards him, the glint of his pistol clear as day. “We, we ah, hoo. Let’s see. The preliminary readings of his aethers were all good, as we said, and the infusion was precisely calculated to settle his disordered flow. Now we thought it would make him stronger, and that it has, but the mental side of things-” He gestures vaguely to the side of his head and Varis’s outstretched arm wavers. “As he wasn’t exactly talking to us before, we didn’t have much of an analysis on the psychological side of things. But the scans were good! Healthy brain, good connections, as far as we could see!”
“You fucking quack,” Varis snarls, placing his finger on the trigger. Xander at least has the decency to look offended, and raises his brows. “Healthy brain my ass, he won’t even LOOK at me!” A thought comes screaming to the forefront of his mind – does Zenos know Varis did this to him? Sanctioned the surgery and aether-infusion to stabilize his unstable energy flow, to fix whatever the hell he did to himself with that crystal and his weapons trainer? “He was a child! A stupid, greedy child, who played with magic and hurt himself! And you were supposed to fix it!” His consonants grow increasingly clipped, he’s spitting, he doesn’t care. “Did you talk to him? Did you ask him if he was in pain? Did you do ANYTHING at all beyond your scans and your… documents and put him to sleep for good?!”
“That’s not how it works, your Highness, if you’d please put down the gun…”
A shot buries itself into the wall beside Xander’s head and he jumps, covering his face with both arms. Varis chambers another round and the pistol clicks again.
“You broke him.” Varis’s voice cracks like a piece of chalk bitten off the block, left to crumble into dust and ruin. “He can’t even close his eyes.”
“He can!” Xander cries, “We close them and he just keeps opening them! You- you have to give me more time, he’s still in there, somewhere.”
“Somewhere?” Varis’s trigger finger twitches, as do his jowls. “Where is your data? Where is your proof? SHOW ME A SCAN THAT SAYS MY BOY IS ALIVE!”
Xander goes to point to the heart monitor and pray that he won’t be shot, but just as he lifts his arm, heavy footsteps come through the door accompanied by the swish of fabric, clinking armor and slightly labored breath.
“What’s all this brouhaha?” Solus shifts in sideways so his pauldrons fit through the doorframe and Xander drops to one knee, leaving Varis pointing his gun at the wall with unshed tears in his eyes. Solus’s thick white brows descend to shadow his golden gaze, and he goes from looking curious to mightily unimpressed. “Put that down, boy, you’re scaring the servants. And you woke me up! Tch.” He shakes his head and the gun hits the floor – mercifully, it doesn’t go off. “Varis. Go outside. I’ll take care of this, alright?”
“He killed him,” Varis cries, gesturing at nothing and everything at once. “My… my…”
“Oh, stop it. He’s not dead.” Solus crosses the room to stand beside Zenos, idly petting the boy’s forehead. Zenos’s lashes flutter as the cold touch sweeps his third eye. “Are you? Are you dead, Zenos? Nn-nn. I don’t think so.”
Varis gawks at him, trembling. Xander starts creeping towards the door and makes it out while Varis is stood there frozen, eyes on the Emperor’s elegant fingers. He’s smoothing Zenos’s hair back and speaking softly to him, when Varis can do nothing but succumb to blind fear. Solus, as if detecting his grandson’s struggle, lifts his gaze. It burns right through Varis.
“Go on.” His tone brooks no argument – Varis will depart or dearly regret lingering, and so he leaves, closing the door behind him. It’s just Solus and Zenos, now – and Zenos’s eyes flick to His Radiance's smiling face. The smile fades to annoyance, which seems to be Solus's default as of late. “Tch. What a mess.”
Zenos stares. Solus’s soul is purple, the glow turned inwards and black rather than radiant and white. He’s never seen a soul like this before and it intrigues him, the first real emotion of his own he’s felt since he became conscious. Had he truly been conscious before, living the half-life of a lost soul performing humanity and understanding not a piece of it? He does not know. He does not care. Here and now there is Solus, with his queer purple soul, and Zenos wants to touch it.
“You really should know better than to play with your aethers. Crystals, really?” Solus sits in the chair by Zenos’s bed and rests a hand on the boy’s exposed shoulder, just beside a thick leather strap keeping his arm in place by his side. “You should’ve come to me. And now you’ve mucked with your flow. Terrible, terrible thing. Be thankful you’re still alive!”
‘What does it mean, to be alive?’ Zenos thinks, and his eyes widen as the words become known to him for what feels like the first time in his life. Solus’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he smiles.
“That is the question, isn’t it, dear boy? But we’ll have to philosophize later, I’m afraid. Right now, you need to sleep.” He puts a hand over Zenos’s brow and the boy’s eyelids droop, most certainly not of their own accord. “Sleep, and I’ll take care of it. You don’t need to remember.”
‘I need to know.’
Solus pauses, and his soul drips with fresh, ancient sorrow. “Someday,” he says at last, and slides his hand down. The last thing Zenos sees is a lone purple crystal, for Solus is shaped unlike any mortal man he has yet seen. He does not understand it. But he is at peace in pure oblivion, and Solus sings to him softly in a language without words.
The Emperor’s body slumps in its seat. Solus needs no form to work his magic – he can’t in this Garlean shell – and inspects the flow of Zenos’s aethers as a formless cloud above him. He’ll have to rearrange quite a bit to get Zenos walking and talking again, and soon. He doesn’t trust Varis to stay entirely sane for much longer – for all the cool and collected act he puts on, he unravels completely when it comes to his son. Solus works quickly, redirecting the improperly infused aethers all around Zenos’s body and tying them into the core of his cells. Zenos will have to deal with the collective unconscious of the Lifestream yelling at him daily, but at least it won’t have him paralyzed and numb.
Not entirely, anyway.