With a final blow, Innocence's form shatters into particles of Light.
As always, the leftover corrupt aether flows to the nearest target - her - and she absorbs it. Everything seems... Fine. Normal. The sky dims, light recedes, and the cool darkness of the night sky emerges, stars sprinkled across it like diamonds.
And then what she had dreaded happens - the sudden sound of shattering fills her ears. There's a pounding in her head so intense that she can't help but clutch at it, nails digging into her scalp. Soul already straining to hold all the Light from the previous wardens, the Light that flows into her now is too much. Something is trying to claw its way out of her brain, each pulse in her head echoed by the sound of her soul further splintering, her gasps of agony. Despite her efforts to keep it all in, to keep her soul together, the Light is spilling through the cracks she cannot patch close. Her vision whites out from the intense pain and she stumbles. Muted pain in her knees tells her she has collapsed onto the floor though whatever pain she feels is quickly overshadowed by the sheer agony her mind is in, her body and soul unraveling at the seams.
The Scions cry out in surprise. Alisaie, ever concerned for the Warrior of Light and Darkness is shouting her name in alarm. "Are you alright?!"
The Warrior knows the girl is right behind her, had just seen her before absorbing the Light, but the elezen’s voice sounds further away than it should be. Everything sounds and feels far more distant than it should be. Panting and trying to catch her breath, she is vaguely aware of Ryne's exclamations and the brightening of the environment. The dark had shimmered back to everlasting Light.
Despite her best efforts, her struggle to keep the Light in is not working. It escapes her grip like sand from a clenched fist. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say scooping water - the Light - from a sinking boat - her soul - both pointless and useless. There are far more holes in the vessel than she can fix, the Light overflowing from its container into her body. It burns her flesh from the inside out and floods her lungs. Each inhalation is a dying gasp in her throat, choking on white-tinted bile. The blood in her is boiling, the corrupted aether incinerating the red in her veins. Everywhere the Light touches turn white. Organs sputter, trying to keep her alive even as they wither and die inside her. Her body feels far too hot, every intake of air an ice-cold shock to her system. Too hot, she's running far too hot. The aether will burn her up and consume her.
Moving is agony. It takes immense effort to raise her head at the Scions, but she does. Her gaze falls on them, pleading. Help me, she begs with her eyes. Her throat is closing up but what steals her breath away is the sheer helplessness she sees in each Scion. The pain in Urianger's eyes when Y'shtola looks to him. Alphinaud and Alisaie, both who seemed to be at a loss, looking towards their elders for guidance that they cannot provide. Thancred, out of his depth. Ryne plainly wants to do something but has no idea what.
The bitter laugh that wells up in her throat ends in a coughing fit. She wants so badly for the Scions to help her but their body language makes it obvious that they can't. Of course they couldn't.
If they could, she wouldn't have been pulled to the First.
A brief glance at her skin reveals patches of marble on it. It won't be long now.
Alisaie takes another look and runs towards her, ignoring Alphinaud's protests. A set of muffled footsteps and a voice belonging to none of the scions causes her to pause.
“The combined power of every Lightwarden in Novrandt is too much for any one soul to bear,” the familiar voice says, “And so I shall relieve you of it.”
Through the haze of white in the Warrior's vision, she sees the Crystal Exarch stride forward, standing in front of her. Where had he come from? Hadn't he been waiting below, on Kholusia land? A wave of his staff and a circle of aether surrounds them - a barrier, she thinks, to keep the Light in. The light she is expelling is flowing to him instead. He's siphoning the leaking Light to himself, teeth grit in determination.
Trapped beyond the barrier, Alisaie takes a half step forward, hackles raised. “Exarch!? What are you doing!?”
Behind the Exarch, Y'shtola falls into battle stance, ready to unleash the full force of her hellfire on the Exarch.
Some deep part of the Warrior thinks it is endearing that they won't let her come to harm even now when she was on the verge of transforming into a sin eater. What was the point, when she would become the enemy? Perhaps they believed they could fix it still.
The Warrior of Darkness knows better. The war was lost the moment Innocence had shattered under her might.
Urianger is the only one to see reason, a single hand snapping out to the side to stay the Scions.
The Crystal Exarch ignores all of them, confident - or desperate - in his barrier. He spouts some nonsense about traveling to other dimensions with it.
It is the worst lie she's ever heard. The man can't even keep his voice steady.
Her attempts to keep the Light in are for naught. It continues to pulse out from her in waves, lashing out at the barrier.
She is so close.
By her hand, all of the Light wardens had been defeated. A night unseen for a hundred years had returned to the world. Just a little more and the First would be saved. For her to fail now is unacceptable.
She will not. She cannot.
The Warrior can hear Ryne's muffled protesting at the Exarch's words. “That doesn’t even make sense!”
“Damn you!” Alisaie grips her rapier, ready to attack, taken in by the Exarch's lie. “We won’t let you do with her as you please!”
“Do not interfere!” It is the first time she has heard Urianger shout.
"Please," the elezen continues, voice equal parts pained and pleading. "I beseech you all! Let him go! "
The pain eases as the Exarch continues, the lump in her throat growing smaller. The white in her vision recedes slightly, allowing her to see the marble coating on her skin flake off. In contrast, the faintest flecks of crystal from the Exarch's arm dissipate into the air. And with growing horror, the price of the Crystal Exarch's help dawns on her. Although she's being saved, she doesn't want to release this Light of hers. Not if the cost is this.
It is through Urianger's words that Y'shtola deduces the Exarch's real intention. To take the Light unto himself and die in the Rift between worlds, never to be found again. And while the Warrior of Light (how ironic, she vaguely thinks) is immeasurably grateful that somebody is trying, she wants to tell him to leave her alone. No one else has to die for her when there are more than enough corpses at her feet.
He doesn’t give her the time to protest. “...At journey’s end, an opportunistic thief makes off with the hero’s prize. A paltry way to end a chapter, I concede,” his voice is steadier now, peaceful yet resolute. “Yet your tale will continue, and my role in it will scarcely be remembered.”
Her hand reaches out in a last-ditch attempt to stop him but it falls limply to the ground.
The Crystal Exarch notices this, a slight smile on his lips. His tone and words turn softer, trying to reassure her. “Worry not. Whatever should become of me, I will be happy and free, safe in the knowledge that I have played my part.”
With nowhere to go, the trapped aether whips about their little circle. The force of it is strong enough to blow the Exach's hood off, revealing a familiar face. A Miqo’te with red hair and fur, both faded to grey at the tips. The saturated neon red eyes of the Royal Eye of the Allagan imperial line remain bright as ever. Even with her vision clouded, she recognizes the man standing before her.
G'raha Tia stares back at her, a sad, resolute smile on his face. It is the same one he had pasted on in another life when the doors to the Crystal Tower closed long ago.
How many times has she seen similar smiles? How many times has she given it?
No. She refuses to let someone else die for her. Not again. If she turns, then so be it - she is the Warrior of Light, damnit, and no one would take her element from her. It takes all her effort to keep it in check for a moment, but she musters every emotion when she screams.
"G'raha Tia! Stop!"
G'raha Tia's face breaks into a wavering smile, a desperate final attempt at comfort before his last farewell. "Goodbye, my friend, my inspiration," he calls, voice barely above a whisper. It is only just loud enough for her alone to hear. G'raha smiles bravely through unshed tears, lips wobbling precariously.
The circle fades. The aether flowing steadily between them peters out. G'raha Tia grimaces, and slowly, her long lost friend crumples to the ground. Behind him stands Emet-Selch, a handgun raised and still smoking. She cries out both their names but without G'raha's help, the blockage in her throat is back. She chokes on it before any word leaves her lips, gasping desperately for air. With a final cough, the obstruction finally dislodges from her throat. Incandescent white blood - her blood - spills from her lips, sizzling when it hits the floor.
She should feel betrayed, but all she feels is relief. No need for another sacrifice. She may be far too weak to stop Emet-Selch from kidnapping G'raha, but it doesn't stop her from trying, pushing herself up and off the floor. She even manages to take a few steps forward before she staggers and collapses back onto her knees.
“What a disappointment you turned out to be,” Emet-Selch sneers, his feet mere ilms away. “You are not worthy of my patronage, monster.”
Emet-Selch and the Scions are exchanging words still, but she cannot bring herself to care with the pain taking over her senses. It takes all her concentration to keep the corrupted aether from escaping her and engulfing everyone, Scions included.
Finally, the Ascian disappears in a cloud of dark aether, the Exarch with him. Alphinaud, Alisaie and Ryne sprint to her the moment he's gone, Ryne’s fear forgotten in the face of someone else's pain. Ryne, always so scared but so brave. The rest of the Scions are close behind her.
Her body is too heavy to move and she is too weary to lift her head. The attempt to stop Emet-Selch had not done her any favors. If anything, she is too exhausted to even stay upright, her body teetering dangerously. Her gaze is drawn to her hand. Splayed on the floor to keep herself upright, the skin is cracking, falling apart. Light spills from the fissures, bleeding across her hands and arms. Where it touches, her skin fades in color and softness, turning pure white and marble-like.
The marble has covered her whole arm now. Beneath her boots, she can feel her feet stiffening.
Surrounded by her friends and family, she smiles, though she’s sure it comes out more of a grimace. Staying would only endanger them and the corruption is too advanced for anyone to save her now. It is for them, she thinks, forcing herself to memorize their faces. Before anyone could stop her, before Y’shtola could warn the others of her intentions, the Warrior of Light gathers her aether and flings herself into the aetherial currents, teleporting away.
In the flower fields of Il Mheg, the Warrior appears. With no one around, she is free to finally let go, screaming as she convulses painfully. The Light sears her alive, boiling away all the blood in her veins. Her skin cracks further. There is more Light than flesh now, her form almost blindingly bright as it begins to break down. Every breath feels like fire in her lungs and the air against her skin cuts like ice. Incandescent blood and rotten bits of what she suspects is organs fall to the ground when she coughs. After all, she thinks dizzily, neither of those would be needed for what she is becoming. The splintering sound of glass is louder now - the sound of her soul shattering under the pressure like a morbid fireworks show. Somehow, she feels like she's been set on fire and frozen still at the same time.
Alone in the flower fields of Il Mheg, with no energy to even lift herself from her prone position on the ground, she allows herself to cry. She is afraid, so afraid of what she would become, of what it would mean for her.
She doesn't want to turn. She doesn't want to become a sin eater. She doesn't want to be alone.
Don't make a choice that leaves you alone.
"...I'm sorry, Ardbert." For not being able to follow his advice. For leaving him alone.
Because if it wasn't her, then it would be Ryne and she would rather die than allow that to happen.
She doesn't regret any of it. And yet, some small part of her…
Before he had disappeared, Emet-Selch had called her pathetic.
When she wakes, she feels no pain, only peace. More than peaceful. Refreshed. No longer trapped in mortal flesh, she feels different.
She feels reborn.
She sits up, looking around. The site of her birth is messy. The flowers she had been lying on were squashed and burnt to ash, the Light she had vomited before her transformation leaving splatters of scorched earth behind. The cocoon of her birth was split in half from where she had emerged, scattering its feathers all over the flowers. All in all, it was a mess, but she couldn't find it in herself to care.
"Oh, my lovely sapling," a voice from behind her, "What have you done?"
The newborn Lightwarden turns around. Titania - no, Feo Ul floats above the grass, frowning at her. "Your lovely soul has been all but burnt away and corrupted by Light." There's something mournful in their gaze that the newborn Lightwarden doesn't understand.
Feo Ul, she trills a greeting. The air rings with the sound of wind chimes when she speaks. She no longer needs a voice to communicate, her thoughts made into existence through the aether.
"If you had wanted to become one of us eternal, unchanging folk, I would have given you the crown and scepter," Feo Ul sighs, her wings fluttering. "Did I not say before? The beauty of your kind is to burn bright as only a mortal can."
A chill fills the air when the new Lightwarden speaks and the fairy king cannot help but shiver. Ah, but Feo Ul, I have never been a mortal.
To the white city hidden in Mt. Gulg she returns, her new form now granting her easy access to Innocence's throne. The sea of sin eaters flocking around it, once a problem to her, made no attempt to stop and simply parted as she approached.
She walks through the city, studying what Vauthry had wrought, and finds it utterly droll. White columns and floors, each utterly smooth and decorated in gold trim. Perfectly trimmed hedges, not a leaf out of place. Innocence's throne is only marginally better, the gold and orange while a welcome change from pure white, is so gauche. Too smooth. Too perfect. Utterly and completely boring. No, this would not do.
The first order of business is to tear down the entire place. She doesn't need any of the archways or greenery, his throne or any other decoration. She tears everything down, converts them into aether she could shape at will.
When everything was a blank slate, the brown soil of Mt. Gulg beneath her feet, she starts creating. With a thought, aether turned into grey buildings that pierced the sky. For them, she created arching shapes, with glass-like windows and large, imposing doors. Walkways that wind through her creation, each interconnected and leading to her structures. Winding spires that curled around buildings. And in the place of honor where Innocence once stood, the heart of the city - the Capitol.
She brings back lovely blooms of all colors from Il Mheg. The pixies are more than happy to provide her with them. From Lakeland, she brings back several trees, unheeding of the upended earth left behind. They are planted all in her Garden, bringing color to an otherwise white existence. Feo Ul visits her once and gifts her a mask. The red is a shade lighter than her mask in her first life had been, closer to the color of Feo Ul's wings, but she likes it.
She loses track of days recreating her Garden in her image, but she cares not. What was time to a being who had eternity?
Beneath the everlasting daylight, she toils away at her Garden, tending to every block with a single-minded intensity she had been known for in all her previous lives.
Beneath the burning Light-filled sky, she recreates Amaurot.
Ardbert appears one day, strolling through the doors of the Capitol with a smile like he has not a care in the world. Though she isn't looking at him, she knows he's tense not through the set of his shoulders, but the same way he always knows what she's feeling. The bonds between the same soul.
With her ascension, the knowledge of her past lives had been revealed to her. There is no doubt in her mind that Ardbert was a shard of her.
He walks up to her and stops. There's an awkwardness in his stance like he's unsure what to say. So he settles for the only thing he can. "Hey."
Through the mask on her face, her gaze shifts from somewhere far beyond to the Hume. Ardbert looks a little resigned. He also looks a little sad. She hadn't been expecting to see him again, or anyone for a long time yet. Still, she's glad for his presence and tells him so.
He takes a step back in surprise. His eyes furrow in guilt. "But I couldn't do anything to help…"
You are a ghost, she reminds him, the aether ringing in that voiceless speech of hers. As if he needed her to point it out. And then, perhaps to comfort him, she continues. Don't blame yourself. My friends couldn't help. It's not so bad, being a sin eater. After all, she wouldn't have regained her memories if she never ascended, or her powers. She snaps her fingers, creating a chair for him to sit on.
Startled at the sudden appearance of a chair, he nonetheless sits on it, facing her. In her new-old form, she is much bigger than Ardbert. It's hard to talk to someone when you tower over them, so she pulls her aether in, folds her soul into a compact ball. It is easy enough to change her body, shrinking down to match his size.
Ardbert's brows had risen so high that they had disappeared into his hair. After a moment though, he relaxes, chuckling. "What a pair we make."
The Lightwarden cocks her head, an entirely human expression that would have been normal if she wasn't a sin eater. What do you mean?
Her friend shakes his head, smiling wryly. "Both of us, Warriors of Light, heroes... Turned to the very being we had been fighting against."
That's right. Ardbert had been this world's Warrior of Light. After being tricked into bringing about the Flood, he had given up his flesh for a desperate promise of salvation for the land, only to fail. For the same reason, she had given up her own flesh for an equally desperate plan to contain the Light, to save a world not her own, only to meet the same end.
She studies Ardbert through her mask. The man is looking at her, the boyish grin she had once thought was endearing on his face. Yes, they had both failed in their previous lives... but they need not both fail in their new one.
Her goal now is not to consume the First in Light as Emet-Selch had intended. No, she wants nothing more than for the Ascian to look at her, to see who she has once again become. And to do that - to become the Persephone he knew - her soul has to become whole.
In the city of her own making, Persephone waits. She knows not when the one she is waiting for will arrive, only that he would. Emet-Selch doesn't know how to leave things well alone.
Ardbert, dear Ardbert, who had once been apart from her, was now a part of her. With that one shard closer to being whole, she had gained more aether than ever.
Emet-Selch appears the same way he left Mt. Gulg the last time - in a warp of purple aether. He stops short the moment he steps through, eyes wide as he takes in her recreation of Amaurot. The stone grey buildings with crystal windows, tall arching doors set in their faces. The filigree that curled around each lamp post, both functional and beautiful. The trees that gave the streets color. He had arrived just outside the Capitol building, and thus had the perfect place to view her Amaurot in all its splendor.
Persephone had been waiting in the Capitol building but had sensed his arrival. Unfurling herself from where she had perched, she walks towards the doors. They open at her approach, revealing his form to her. You're here.
The grinding sound the doors make draws his attention towards her. The shock on his face has changed to an unreadable expression - or so he thinks; Persephone can read him like a book, always has - and he's studying her. "The strongest Lightwarden ever born, and you busy yourself with this." There is disdain but it feels forced to her. A strange mix of emotion lingered in his eyes, a mixture of hope and pain.
In her reborn form, she towers over Emet-Selch the way an Amaurotine would. Any Amaurotine would kneel to be on the same level as one of the mortals and though the idea is not unpleasant, it is not the message she wishes to send. Instead, she chooses to morph her body. Just as she had done when Ardbert had found her, she fits her soul into a mortal-sized shell. Sweeping her arms out, she asks the Ascian an honest question. Do you like my Garden?
Emet-Selch does not answer, changing the subject instead. "Must you always spoil my plans? Instead of sowing Light as planned, here you are, a monster playing house." He scowls at her. "A disappointment to the last."
She remains impossibly still, studying him. In contrast, Emet-Selch's scowl deepens. "Have I not told you to not shuffle your feet? I know you yet retain your memories. If you have something to say, say it."
The Ascian may act cool and unruffled, but she knows better. There is a strange turmoil in his eyes and his relaxed pose is too practiced to be real. He is unnerved by her Garden, her appearance, and most of all, by her.
You don't like it? She tilts her head quizzically. Why didn't he like the city of their past? I made it for you.
"It is a pale imitation of my homeland. An insult." Emet-Selch's every word is biting, anger and unending grief roiling beneath the forced calm. "Anything you create will never compare to it."
It is not the answer she had expected, but rather than being taken aback, her lips curve into a smile. There was no way it could not compare when it was the same, down to every minute detail she could remember. Therefore Emet-Selch must be in denial. How cute.
You don't mean that. She glances towards the streets surrounding them. They were empty, unlike the Amaurot of eld, but that was for the better. No one to share their paradise with. It looks the same as the one in my memories.
The expression on his face falters briefly. Caught off guard, his act breaks for a second, showing a sliver of his too old, too tired soul. "How cruel," he mutters to himself. "Remembering after you are already lost, bleached of all color."
The color of my soul changes nothing. The hair on the back of Emet-Selch's neck prickles at the sudden shift in mood, his survival instincts warning him of danger. The air is warm and sharp suddenly, the aether threatening to burn his flesh. It fades away as soon as it had manifested.
We can live here, together, she continues airily. The aether around her burbled cheerfully, a sound reminiscent of the happy tinkling of wind chimes. As if she hadn't been angry just moments before. Isn't it great that I've turned? I am like you now. Immortal. My love, you don't have to be alone anymore. A marble hand reaches out to touch his face. Hades, my love, I've returned to you. Persephone has returned to you.
"Do not say that name," Hades snarls, true anger twisting his voice into something inhuman. The air around him shivers, an image of a monster towering over them both flickering briefly. Aether cuts into Persephone's marble skin and white blood wells up. The cuts seal shut after a moment of her regeneration kicking in.
The barest brush of her fingers against his skin causes Hades to grab her wrist. The grip would have crushed a mortal's bones, except she is no longer one of those. As it is, the grip on her wrist is merely tight. "You are not her. You will never be her."
He doesn't understand, she realizes. That was fine. They had eternity for him to understand that she is Persephone. She would make him understand. Don't you see? Hades, I am her. With a flick of her fingers, the Convocation robes appear on her figure. Her mask morphs to the one she had eons ago when she had still been part of the Fourteen.
Pain flashed across Hades's features as she appeared the spitting image of the Persephone he remembered. Or she would be, if her soul wasn't bleached bone white, completely and totally corrupted by the Light. There wasn't even the slightest tint of its original, vibrant hue. It hurt when he looked directly at her, the pure white blinding him with more than just Light.
She could see his emotions shift wildly, going from pain to anger to despair, and finally bitter resignation in a single second. And then his face smooths into his usual poker face, emotions completely shuttered off. He is Emet-Selch, Ascian and Paragon of the Source once again. "You yet retain your senses, but you are a sin eater through and through. You have already engulfed the world in Light."
Emet-Selch steps backward, away from her. "It is only a matter of time before you succumb to your base instinct and hunt innocents to feast on their sweet aether." He looks around her recreated Amaurot, contempt clear in his eyes. "This is but a farce. You will never be Persephone, Lightwarden."
Darkness swirls behind him. A portal. With not even his usual flick of goodbye, he leaves, the portal closing behind him.
Left alone in her Garden, Persephone's lips curved into a serene smile. My love, my Hades, she speaks to the empty air that Emet-Selch had only just recently vacated, You'll be back.
After all, you belong to me.