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He makes lists for himself when no one is watching.

He started the practice after the Fifth. After the Thirteenth. It's impossible to pinpoint exactly which event precipitated it; nothing remains of the first list, not anymore. Each one is written in the shorthand of the Words of Elidibus, the stenographer's scrawl that he has inherited along with his title: a script whose abbreviations are built around linking techniques of argument and evidence, chains of logic that both open and close a debate. 

Every Convocation seat has its own skills. Each, a specialty and focus. The Emissary's seat has always honored the arts of negotiation, of compromise and dialogue, taking on the role of opposing viewpoints for the purpose of ferreting out flaws. Its shorthand reacts to other people's actions, slurring letters together in favor of marking the next steps to take.

Elidibus writes his lists in the margins of the other documents he keeps, adding his own intimate secrets to the tales of nations copied to crystal and parchment. Sometimes, they last a moon. Sometimes, a few centuries. None of them persist for as long as he needs them to. Whenever he comes back to them again -- revisiting a reflection to see how the seeds of previous conspiracies have sprouted -- he never remembers the significance of what he has written. 

Carpenter's son. Famine. Drive the herds west. They take what you have.

Maisoix. Iyrnwint. Chotan.

They are names without faces. Faces without souls. Like him, they are unmoored.

Even though he is Unsundered, Elidibus has more in common with the rest of his broken kin than with Emet-Selch and Lahabrea; the Sundered are always dazed and uncertain after their initial awakenings, trying to reconcile their newly-dispelled mortal lives with the truth of history. Most often, they seek to pretend that their new memories are little more than nightmares, and if they deny them loudly enough, then they will wake up in their own beds and homes. Others welcome the return of their facilities -- but their griefs differ. They must be told who has died in the meantime, what great losses they have endured. How much further there is yet to go.

Like them, Elidibus has been dragged between life and death multiple times in unexpected ways. Unlike the Sundered, Elidibus cannot fall back upon the excuse of rebirth to justify his lapses of memory. He feels like a man who has had to move residences several times over in less than a week; each time, something has been left behind, some crate or box neglected in a corner of an empty apartment which even now is quietly layered beneath a blanket of dust.

He destroys his lists, whenever he can no longer remember their relevance. It is the same precaution that prevents the Convocation from assembling a unified library of their deeds after the Sundering: such records will only give them cause for regret. Hydaelyn's agents will invariably use the knowledge for harm. The Sundered Ascians they recover need only hear of their victories -- not their failures. 

And, once Amaurot is restored, none of them will want their people to know the details of what was required to achieve it.

But Elidibus has another reason to erase his furtive reminders to himself. Despite the sheer volume of what he scribbles down, none of it has any lasting value without context. It is fruitless to struggle through interpretations of his own work. He is like a historian teasing out hidden meanings from a bland report scribbled on a minor border war -- a scholar making confused attempts to translate words from long-dead civilizations, seeking clarity from piecemeal bones.

His lists have expired in their usefulness. Like Elidibus, they come from a time in the past that he does not know how to make relevant to the present: they have forgotten how to be real.

 


 

He writes records of his dreams into his lists too: blurry figments which stay with him even after he opens his eyes, blearily reminding himself that he is awake. That he is alive. Each one is a curious story. They are strange fragments of histories he has never seen before, homes he has never visited. They sing their own songs, and drag him behind. 

In bells of fitful sleep, Elidibus wades through a thousand Amaurotine families laughing warmly together as they seat themselves for their evening meals. Children cling to his legs and fondly call him mother, father, cousin. He wanders through garden walkways lit by summer sunlight and joy, listening to four Amaurotines swear their love for one another, their hands clasped in delight. 

He dreams of other shards as well. Taverns on the Tenth, where sailors slam their tankards together in toasts to shark-headed gods. The Second, bathed in fire. Heroes of the Twelfth, who scaled mountains of glittering amethyst to rescue relics from sealed tombs. Nations who have directed their prayers not towards the deities covering the walls of their sacred buildings, but to the nameless one, the true god which they sense lurking beyond Hydaelyn's insipid promises: the voice in the darkness that answers them when they have no one else to turn to, no one else to believe.

Only one thing unites all of Elidibus's motley visions. In all of his dreams -- the infinite reflections of their original star -- he is always somebody else. He never sees his own face cast back in any mirror he passes. He is never himself.

 


 

Even before the Sundering had finally put an end to every last Amaurotine debate, the Convocation had not known how to speak with Elidibus after his return. Once Elidibus was himself and not himself -- as if he was little more than a shape that Zodiark had cast forth of His own aether, a smaller, crafted thing which remained tethered to its master, acting only as commanded to fight and fetch and make pleasant conversation whenever it was directly addressed. He was a concept spawned from a greater concept. The true Elidibus might still have been slumbering, his heart a smaller reverberation within the earthquake of Zodiark's pulse.

Perhaps the true Elidibus was long gone, swallowed into the darkness of Zodiark forever.

The Convocation's disorientation was more than understandable. They had grieved dearly for him, adding his name as another loss tacked onto the horrors of the Final Days -- only to find him miraculously returned after they had expected his sacrifice to last forever. His mere existence had incited the very opposite of his intentions; his presence was a point of contention now, an entire series of arguments to be made between Zodiark's supporters and His opponents. He was barred from some debate floors, made the center of others. And, even as some of them eagerly put forth that he was proof that Zodiark could similarly restore the souls which had been first given, others had refused to accept his return as a source of comfort.

"Lord Elidibus," Emet-Selch had managed to say once to him, early on. The discomfort of it was a palpable thing; Emet-Selch could not meet Elidibus's eyes. His mouth curled around the words. His jaw tightened. "If some part of Lord Zodiark is listening within you, rather. If I should address you as --"

He had broken off there, shaking his head in self-disgust for not being able to reconcile the proper form of address with the person he saw before him. Elidibus hastily held up his hand, trying to draw Emet-Selch's attention to it -- to stop Emet-Selch's words, and whatever distasteful conclusion the man was forcing himself to swallow. 

"I am your Emissary," he insisted. "Elidibus. I am unchanged."

But it had been a lie, and they had both known it.

After the Sundering, they were all reduced to the same emotional rubble: mourning themselves even as they struggled through the surreality of being alive after their physical deaths. Of having their loved ones slain, and yet having to resurrect them from the splinters of their souls, waking them out of living tombs of false flesh. It was an art that had not been practiced before in Amaurot, though they all had known the principles; in Amaurot, the dead had been allowed to die.

There were no words for ghosts to share among each other, save for the surprise of being present at all. 

In the early days, they had tentatively learned how to stumble between the shards, charting out routes that were safely out of reach from Hydaelyn's spies and the few rapacious creatures that could similarly traverse the rift. Like stitching fragile threads to patch a worn, dissolving scrap of fabric back together, they pieced a new map of creation from the wan lights they spotted in the darkness. Fourteen stars, gleaming in the night. Fourteen ruins of Amaurot, with fourteen sets of bones.

They were all poorly equipped for such explorations: by losing Azem, they also lost the greatest among them who could have predicted the minds of other races, and would have known how to influence them. Lacking their Traveler, they had been forced to learn such arts on their own. 

Like students assigned to practical field exercises, Elidibus and Emet-Selch had paired up often at the beginning, trying to make sense out of these strange new societies that Hydaelyn had used to replace their own. On one expedition to the Source -- where a fledging nation had been merrily poisoning the waters of another -- they uncovered a junction in the rivers where one of Her Warriors had laid down a makeshift dam to stem the influx of toxins. The Warrior themself was absent, likely either off searching for a cure or for someone to stab; they would likely not be away for long. 

It was the right opportunity to interfere. 

As he and Emet-Selch picked at the supports of the dam, debating if it was better to disguise the subterfuge as mortal effort or accident, Emet-Selch had paused in his labors, still trying to adjust to the stunted confines of their smaller bodies. He had glanced up, rubbing the back of his hand across his forehead. "Tell me something, Elidibus," he ventured. A smudge of mud was on his brow. "What of Lord Zodiark? Can you... sense His will, His voice? Is He able to communicate?"

It had been a question, Elidibus had imagined, that they all wanted the truth of. Their god was not the only entity locked within His newfound prison. Even divided up into fourteen parts, Zodiark still held the majority of their people's souls. Parted from the cycle of rebirth, they would be frozen forever in His grip until He could be restored, and the proper price finally exchanged.

"Enough of Him exists to be considered alive." With a massive groan of swollen wood splitting free of its nails, the river's sluggish currents finally broke loose of the dam, spewing thick, violet gobbets of fluid into the runoff below. "Though I cannot hear Him, nor any commands He may have for us. We can only act upon His last desires -- to continue surviving, that we might all do the same."

Emet-Selch had nodded, a short, clipped motion that sent the ragged ends of his hair whispering along his chin. "And you?"

"I am still here." Four words, delivered with perfect cadence: as steady as if the stones themselves had been empowered with a soul and voice. Elidibus had glanced aside, brave enough only to speak to the hem of Emet-Selch's robe and the toxin-stained riverbank. "I will remain until the end."

 


 

Emet-Selch had not been wrong in his suspicions. Elidibus has been altered after becoming part of Zodiark and then leaving Him. Merging with the god of their star would have left no one unaffected, least of all the soul chosen to be His heart.

Little of the experience itself remains in Elidibus's mind. Whenever he tries to dig for that missing part of his life, he stumbles over too many other gaps. Like hunter's traps concealed in the snow, he only discovers the pain of them when it is too late, after their teeth have already fastened around his limbs. Even when Elidibus tries to push through the murkiness of his thoughts, painstakingly walking through each event he can write down in chronological order -- Loghrif volunteering for the duty, Mitron's furious desperation as she shattered an entire set of diagrams, crystal shards spinning in the air like a blizzard of razors -- he cannot fill in the emptiness. There is only the memory of a slow, sluggish need calling him forth, like hearing voices arguing behind a closed door: their words indistinct, but the anger of their tone unmistakable.

Now, however, Elidibus can feel the balance of every spirit around him -- Sundered and Unsundered both. They gleam with a different form of radiance, an energy that adds lustre to the colors of their souls: not light, nor dark, nor the vividness that comes from layered density. It is a living iridescence which has no name, liquid rainbows splitting over every curve and coil, unifying even the most dissimilar souls together by how brilliantly they carry the same energy in all its intensity. 

He had glimpsed it in the Final Days after his return from Zodiark, reflected back to him by the eager, hopeful faces of Amaurot's people. It had been everywhere then, so bright that Elidibus had assumed the effect to be merely an aftereffect of being one with a god, like blinking away afterspots from the sun. It wasn't until afterwards -- when he had seen the same light ignited in fourteen reflections -- that he came to understand its significance. 

What he sees is the desire for salvation.

Even after the Sundering, that same power calls to Elidibus from every shard remaining. It sustains him in the same way of food and drink, replenishing his strength and restoring his energies when he is exhausted. His blood hums with the taste of it. Every prayer brings with it a connection: a faint hum of resonance from one spirit to another, in the same way that Elidibus might have reached for a Prime state with another Ascian, willingly allowing their souls to blend.

As a Primal might recognize its tempered, he thinks, and then shoves that thought aside as fiercely as the rest.

 


 

Lahabrea had been even more disturbed than the rest of the Convocation by Elidibus's return; he had squinted constantly at Elidibus as if expecting to see the lines of a concept matrix directly printed on his skin, their Emissary only a single accident away from dissolving into unformed aether. Even after the Sundering, his perpetual suspicion did not change. His questions all led backwards, rewinding years into eons, until Elidibus would find himself suddenly interrogated on a particular event in the past, an opinion he had held or design analyzed. 

Something that Elidibus would have known. Something personal, that Zodiark could not falsify. 

It was a test, Elidibus knew, and he humored it. Like a lantern's flame that would devour the very shutters that shielded it from the wind, Lahabrea's brilliance had always required the man to have stable company around him, providing structure and reassurance so that he never stumbled too far into the maze of his own imagination. Lacking the protection of Amaurot, their Speaker had already begun to veer into instability. He would never survive without support.

The Sundering had left them with only two intact souls for Elidibus to protect -- two out of an entire star. Neither could afford to be lost.

So he had answered Lahabrea, patient and painstaking with every detail that the man wished to hear. He refused to be dismayed by the newfound hostility that bit at every vulnerability it could find. He bent all of his self-control into absorbing every bitter barb that was merely a symptom of the deep, growing fury within Lahabrea's soul: the casualty of a brilliance that knew it was being manipulated, and yet could not snap the leash. 

At first, it was easy enough to keep up with their Speaker's demands. 

Then they lost the Thirteenth.

The eradication of the shard split them apart in ways that the Final Days had not. Amaurot had been their home, their lodestone to cling to. Azem had abandoned them, but the remaining members of the Convocation had stood fast together against the tides of chaos. Survival had taken precedence over any further dissent and dissatisfaction; the stakes were too high otherwise. Disagreements had been shelved, with the promise to revisit them later -- even the matter of Azem's departure, which surely had been a momentary fit of poor judgement on their part. 

But that had been before their star had been chopped up like an onion and Hydaelyn Herself had drawn a line in their ranks: Sundered and Unsundered, precious and expendable, the majority of them bound to a rapid cycle of rebirth that seemed manic in its speed. Mortal life could not die quickly enough to sate its appetite. Like a spinning wheel whirling fast enough to break, the threads of all their lives were fraying upon it. 

The Thirteenth was proof of just how far they had fallen, where consequences had become irreparable and they no longer had the strength to guide even a fraction of a star. Despair formed the roots of their new community. Failure was their doctrine. Elidibus did not know how to hold them together through it. This was new territory for the Words of the Emissary; there were no tutors to teach him how to manipulate his own people, how to force them to stay alive when life itself was utter cruelty. The seat of Elidibus had always been intended to facilitate discourse on all levels of Amaurotine governance -- but there were no debates to be had when the opposing side was death itself. 

Only one idea remained. Elidibus's previous tactics had not worked before the Sundering. He had not succeeded in restoring harmony to his people then, even after applying the whole of his talents.

Another method had to exist. 

It was a challenge he should have been fully equipped to meet. His qualification tests for becoming the Emissary had taken nearly a decade to complete as he had been assigned all manner of untenable positions to defend, and had had to hold them up in public forums. But the debaters Elidibus had now were the very worst he had ever had to work with: they were bitter, wounded, their star ripped away from them and their enemies countless without measure. Hydaelyn's constant screeching tempered every stray Ascians who awoke to their powers without Zodiark's protection in place first. If this had been a scenario laid out in Amaurot for Elidibus to practice with, he would have laughed ruefully and asked for a reprieve. 

As he stood on the moon of the Tenth, staring down on the fragile star after another failed Convocation meeting -- unable to keep from fruitless criticisms, Fandaniel had snapped at Mitron, and then Loghrif had raised her voice at him -- he found a selfish thought settling over his shoulders, weighing him down with the cloying paralysis of a robe woven from lead.

It should have been simpler to find consensus when only a few of them were left. 

The years had made Emet-Selch dour. They turned Fandaniel brittle, Nabriales vindictive. Elidibus had no idea how to convince his brethren to believe in hope, not without resorting to outright lies; even the most uneducated among their people could tell that they have been given little more than a slow death. The thought alone was distasteful. In Amaurot, deceit had been considered both pointless and offensive, a rudeness not unlike throwing one's own refuse at another's face -- the Echo alone would inevitably bear out the truth -- but they were not in Amaurot any longer.

But honesty was powerless. Rhetoric would change nothing. Mortal distaste for Ascians was non-negotiable; they had a head start on the refinement of hatred. Deceit and mistrust were the tools by which the younger races sought to slaughter the remains of their kind. 

Elidibus would simply have to use their tactics first.

 


 

After visiting the Eighth reflection, Elidibus dreams of a forest of barren trees, each one shorn of both leaf and branch. They are arranged in perfect lines, like stakes punched out of the ground. The ground is barren with frost. The only signs of life around him are the pale, petrified trunks which have been stripped of bark to clothe their innards, rising to the sky with no ceiling to bound them. 

He wakes, and hesitates over the impressions lingering like spiderwebs across his mind before writing down the basics: columns in a grid, nature, symmetry. Balance.

He comes across the note again while on the Fourth shard, paging through his records in search of what country he intends to coax into war next. It puzzles him; the words are not significant. None of them match up to his work on the Fourth, which has largely involved encouraging a fishing village to take up pearl diving, where they will soon uncover a set of stone tablets that he has hidden in the reefs, implying that they are secret descendents of some ancient warlord with a claim to the current throne.

Frowning, Elidibus erases the words with a sweep of his thumb, and moves on.

 


 

The destruction of the Thirteenth was excruciating.

The Fifth was worse. 

By the time the Darkness had completed feasting on the Thirteenth, the death toll had been just as high -- but the pace had been different. Life had been dwindling on that reflection for decades, each generation more sparse than the last. The majority of those dwelling on the Thirteenth had already given up as Darkness had gradually crawled across their land. They had become accustomed to doom, succumbing to the slow inevitability of their extermination -- understanding that no god would come for them, for gods were the very beasts which had twisted their champions into insatiable murderers.

The Fifth's ruination had come much more swiftly. There were many souls still alive and struggling when the final storms had broken free of their swollen, bulbous clouds. The luminescence of their spirits had flared like nascent suns, igniting the entire star in a blaze that left Elidibus blinking, half-blinded, afterspots dancing in his sight. And then -- after the barrier between the reflection and the Source had cracked open, and all the Fifth's aether had begun to dissolve into a livid flood -- they had all begun to die together too, their collective desperation rising in a roar that had blocked out every thought in Elidibus's mind beneath a howl so loud, it could have been the Sound reborn.

He had hoped that the Thirteenth had merely been a fluke. A byproduct of witnessing the antithesis of Zodiark's own purpose: a willful obliteration of countless prayers, rather than the salvation of them. 

Yet as the tempests began to pour across the great continents of the Fifth, and millions of souls had lifted their hearts in a plaintive offering to whatever force was willing to hear them, Elidibus had been helpless to keep from turning towards them. The part of him that had been changed by Zodiark could not keep itself from responding, as if it could hear every whispered plea, mark every tear shed. The very hopes they had strengthened him with were devouring him alive now, demanding for their compensation to be paid in full.

As the chorus of prayers had risen from the tempests, something in him had tried to reach back.

But Elidibus was no god. He had no aether to empower his petitioners with, no vast reserves of energy save that of his own soul. It was like using his hands to try and stem a splintered wine vat from leaking over the floor, blood-red trickles guttering over his palms. He was a child against a flood, as powerless against it as he was to calm his own people's cries so long ago.

He could not stop himself from hearing them. The Fifth was not dying quickly enough. Like a swarm of vilekin, their prayers latched onto his very essence, burrowing into his skin and clawing away parts of his mind. Every scrap of his spirit that he tried to give to them was another scrap that would not return. The teeth of mortal hopes ripped through the incorporeal aether of his soul, gnawing and nibbling him open, and no part of Zodiark's influence could do anything to protect him.

The Fifth died in agony, and Elidibus had screamed with it.

He was still trembling when Emet-Selch came to check upon his absence. 

The moon was gone by then; Elidibus had retreated to a safe distance when it had begun to dissolve beneath his boots, wise enough to not allow himself to be dragged into its wake. He floated in the rift without bothering to create ground to support him, staring at the gap where the shard had been. After the searing fury of its final collapse, Emet-Selch's arrival felt like a cool compress pressed against Elidibus's skin, soothing the countless invisible weals that crossed every ilm of his body. 

"A strange place to celebrate a victory," the man remarked, studying the emptiness with a curious cock to his head, as if trying to spot the merits of this particular vantage point. "Come, Elidibus. The rest of us are at the usual meeting place. We've already salvaged any effects which might come in handy later. You should join us."

He was not ready. The thought of having to pretend that he had been strengthened by the Ardor -- that he was anything other than nauseous, the wails of the dying still coating the back of his throat -- felt like a task more impossible than putting the Source back together using only river-clay and straw for mortar.

"Go," he insisted instead. "I will... stay behind to observe how the end of this plays out." 

He had fixed his gaze so firmly upon the dimming energies of the shard that the weight of Emet-Selch's hand upon his shoulder startled him; he had inhaled sharply, jerking to attention. When he turned his head towards the other Ascian, he nearly flinched away from the concern on Emet-Selch's face.

"Elidibus," the man repeated firmly. The shake he gave Elidibus was careful, but insistent. "Join your people. Your place is with us."

The offer was a generous one. Elidibus longed for it to be true. But he had no place, not like this -- not when he felt like something else entirely, half-mortal and half-god, both parts stained by death.

"Another time," he claimed diffidently, waving Emet-Selch away. "There will be other victories, after all."

 


 

The Fifth ended. The Twelfth came next. Then the Second. Each time, Elidibus felt the claws of mortal prayers rending him apart, thrashing their way eagerly into him, forcing their fingers into the soft gaps of his soul and wrenching him open with every fresh plea for succor. 

Each time, he felt new hopes trickling into him slowly afterwards as civilizations rebuilt. The wishes of mortals poured down his throat. They seeped directly into his veins, violating his soul in an unwanted cycle of supply and demand.

There was no other way to restore Zodiark. Elidibus could not stop the process, not without betraying their god a second time. Whatever he had been changed into, there was nothing he could do to shield himself from it.

Nothing.

After every shard, he put himself back together gingerly, like a wounded animal eating whatever half-decayed carcasses it could find before it could hunt on its own. The stability of his thoughts could not be restored so easily. Now that he was aware of it -- now that the Ascians were taking to the destruction of the shards in earnest -- he could feel the slow strain of his mind being pulled at from ten remaining directions as mortals pled for divine succor. They begged for their own salvation to come in a thousand different forms -- the destruction of my enemies, the grain stores to be full, my hateful cousin to trip and fall off the nearest cliff -- and each one took a new mouthful from Elidibus's soul.

Memory was part of aether, both incorporeal and corporeal. That was how it could be recorded. Shared.

That was how it could be stolen away.

The first time that Elidibus realized he could not answer one of Lahabrea's endless questions about Amaurot, he made a clumsy excuse and fled to the nearest reflection. There, he found a damp grove of trees and tucked himself against the nearest one, as if he could seek to hide like a child among the leaves. Every moment before the Final Days seemed to slide sideways whenever he attempted to trace back a coherent line of them; the past existed as a series of unconnected circles, looping Elidibus around the same handful of facts without being able to bridge them. 

I am real, he insisted to himself, pressing his thumbs against his temples. I am myself. I am not a construct recreated by Zodiark, a token thrown forth to appease His followers. I am the true Elidibus.

He leaned his head back against the tree trunk, holding fast to the sensation of the bark's roughness as a means of mooring him. A construct would believe such things of themselves as well, he knew. A summoned Elidibus would believe whatever Zodiark wished of him, and be glad of it. 

He could not confess the full truth of what was happening. Not to anyone. If the consequences were ever shared, then any detractors of Zodiark would have even more proof to wag their fingers and say, we knew that He was the wrong choice -- even when it was Hydaelyn's work that brought them here in the first place. When it was Elidibus himself who had allowed this to happen on his watch, this fatal disagreement that he had not been able to negotiate a peace between, and who had thrown his own title into the mud.

He had failed his people even after returning from Zodiark, and he had failed his god by depriving him of his own strength, and that same dread haunted him through every twist and turn of memory that he struggled to map: the real Elidibus could have solved this.

Emet-Selch gave him no mercy either. After another poor Convocation meeting -- one which Lahabrea had barely participated in, occupying himself instead with conjuring idle trails of fire on his fingers -- their Architect curtly gestured for Elidibus to wait behind the rest. He showed little sign of his intentions as the rest of the Ascians departed, all of them eager to quit each other's company; no one looked back.

Only after the rift was quiet once more did Emet-Selch finally push up his mask, exposing the furrow of his brow. "I have begun to wonder if it was wise for Lord Zodiark to have tempered Lahabrea."

This remark took Elidibus completely by surprise; the criticism seemed as useful as complaining about the breathability of air. "Was there another option that was somehow missed?"

The inherent scorn of the question thankfully did not spark another fight; the groove of Emet-Selch's mouth merely deepened. He kept his voice pitched low. "Always before, it was the Convocation who could keep Lahabrea restrained whenever he became too invested in one project or another. Now, the revival of Lord Zodiark is the only project that remains, regardless of the cost. And Lahabrea's knack of dealing with obstacles is to devote even more time and energy towards them, seeking to overcome reality itself through sheer force of will and creativity." Emet-Selch hesitated, grimacing around the shape of his next words before he finally flung them out. "You are the voice of Lord Zodiark now. You must find a way to command him."

"Impossible." Elidibus did not even need to consider his answer; in all of their quarrels since the Sundering, Lahabrea had never shown any signs of yielding authority to him. "None of us have ever managed to keep our Speaker entirely in check whenever he has a true passion in him. If Lahabrea has focused all of his energies upon a course of destruction, then the best we can do is hope we can achieve it before he burns himself to ashes first."

The refusal only lit a line of outrage in Emet-Selch's expression, narrowing his eyes before it traveled down to tighten his jaw, teeth clenched against whatever curse he might have initially spat back. "If you will not, then how am I supposed to do it alone?" he hissed, and then straightened up, yanking his mask back in place. "No, never mind. I will handle this. At least one of us still cares about the man."

A queasy mixture of disappointment and relief spread through Elidibus as he watched aether gather around Emet-Selch's hand, opening a fresh pathway through the rift. If Emet-Selch had agreed to manage the matter, then perhaps Lahabrea could be safely distracted. Lahabrea would surely listen to their Architect. If not, then Igeyorhm might be enough.

All Elidibus needed to do was remain silent. 

"Wait." It came out too quietly; he cleared his throat and called out again. "Wait, Emet-Selch. I will divert Lahabrea onto the Tenth. That will have to suffice for now."

It was clear by how Emet-Selch lingered on the threshold of his spell -- darkness lapping around his fingers, the whisper of the Source's aether seeping out like a lover's perfume on the breeze -- that even that concession had been more than he expected. Suspicion pinched his mouth tighter. 

Then, mollified, the man dipped his head in a nod, and left. 

Lahabrea yelped a laugh when Elidibus finally tracked him down: a surprised noise, distrusting the suggestion even as he gravitated towards it. He was starved for new ideas, Elidibus could tell; despite sneering dismissively at the chore, he followed up swiftly with an inquiry for more details, hungry for every shred of information Elidibus could feed him.

It was a minor task, one that even a Sundered Ascian could handle -- but Lahabrea went anyway, and for a short while, their Speaker's expression eased just enough that his jests lost some of their sharper edges. The hardness of Emet-Selch's expression faded by a fractional amount. Even Igeyorhm looked relieved.

But it was a measure that was temporary at best. The spirit of Elidibus's people continued to wane. Carelessly, he tried the same tactic too soon with Emet-Selch himself, suggesting that their Architect similarly entertain himself on the First, and their Architect gave him such a withering look of disdain that Elidibus broke off halfway through and left the idea where it lay.

One more, the tides of frustration and resentment undermined what little faith they had rebuilt in one another. Once more, they all fell apart.

With all my training, I should know how to fix this, Elidibus caught himself thinking treacherously after a particularly sour meeting, staring down at the rippling oceans of the Eleventh. He had not been replaced. He remained their Emissary. An Ascian, like the rest of the Convocation -- the same creature, at heart, as Emet-Selch or Lahabrea. 

A creature who should have been immune to any number of prayers from the dying, no matter how sincere their pleas might be.

There was no proof that Elidibus was false. The color of his soul was the same. Even a god could not create a soul from nothing. The Convocation would have recognized an imposter. 

And yet.

They had given three-quarters of their people to Zodiark, to be held within His keeping. Millions upon millions of lives. Countless souls, from such a vast range of histories and experiences that the odds alone would have found some similarities between them, even if they were not exact.

There were only so many variations of color in the world.

The Eleventh shard spun lazily in the rift beneath Elidibus's feet. At a glance, it was almost identical to its brethren, despite how its inhabitants thought themselves unique in all of existence. So confident that they were the only ones of their kind, comparable to none. Irreproducible.

Staring at the reflection, Elidibus felt a fresh swell of apprehension send its tendrils questing into his chest. Surely Emet-Selch, at least, would have said something -- but then a vision of the man's wary, hesitant expression flashed suddenly across Elidibus's mind, treacherously sharp for once in how readily it offered up that memory when all else was lost in a haze. 

Lord Elidibus. If some part of Lord Zodiark is listening within you, rather. If I should address you as --

He flung himself away from the Eleventh like a kite severed from its string, cutting through the rift recklessly without caring if he left a blaring trail behind him for others to follow. He could not run fast enough to escape from Emet-Selch's voice. It echoed around the hollowness of his skull, bouncing like a firefly whose illumination only served to emphasize the stark emptiness around it.

Tools exist for a purpose, he thought fiercely instead, trying to block it out with one of the earliest principles of creation magicks. You make them upon command, and then once their task is complete, you unmake them so that the aether can be reused later.

The principle was not a cruel one. Conservation of energies was simply practical, a sensible respect of resources. Elidibus could dimly remember undoing thousands upon thousands of gadgets in his own workrooms, calling them into being only when he needed them for one task or another.

No one ever thought to ask a paintbrush or a saw if it was happy. There was no reason to. An instrument existed to perform a specific function, its shape defined by intentional purpose and design -- and once that duty was over, the reason for its being ceased as well.

 


 

He dreams of a field after he ruins a civilization on the Tenth: the culmination of six centuries of careful planning, pitting two ancient kingdoms against one another until every single heir on both sides has been hunted down and slaughtered on the road. Only ashes remain of once-mighty family trees. There is no royalty that can inherit when all the blood is dead. 

In this dream, three figures huddle around a mound of dirt. The ground in all directions is bare; the soil is rich, freshly turned, so that Elidibus's boots sink into the loam with each step. The figures are whispering together, their robed heads huddled like nodding doves -- but their backs are to him and he does not see the lustre of their souls clearly enough to recognize them. All color has been leached out of his surroundings; he walks in a world composed entirely of black and white.

He wakes. He writes what little he can remember of it down, and then Elidibus shoves it aside and moves on to his next task.

 


 

With the shame of the Thirteenth lingering in their past, the successful recovery of even one shard back to the Source should have lifted their collective spirits. Instead -- even before the ashes from the most recent Rejoining had finished cooling down -- they were all thoroughly exhausted with each other's company. No one spoke eagerly of new projects they wished to start, or sights in Amaurot that they looked forward to seeing again. Everyone was simply too tired of it all, when they had scarcely begun.

They were too familiar with one another, Elidibus included. The other Convocation members knew all his arguments; he knew all of theirs. They had lived with each other for millennia before the Sundering, and he had stood beside them as their peer.

Never their master.

If they had still been in Amaurot, such widespread weariness would have been indication that the time had come for Elidibus to step down: to allow a new Emissary with fresh arguments and perspectives to keep the Convocation on their toes, before every argument became too stale to be effective. Renewal was crucial to a healthy flow of dialogue. Else, every conversation would have already been spoken before and every argument made, leaving only the most useless points to quibble over with no true progress.

But there was no one else for Elidibus to hand the role to. He was Unsundered. He was Zodiark's heart. Running from those responsibilities was as good as burying his people alive with his own hands, holding them down beneath the soil until the loam stopped buckling.

Their Sundered kin had every reason to resent him. By his very nature, he was more precious than they were, more powerful. Less expendable. Though they had been reduced in their strength, their minds were just as astute; he could not allow them to gain even a single angle of attack for their brewing animosity, hating him for dragging them into a war and out of the comforts of mindless oblivion. Their hearts prayed no less fiercely for salvation than any other mortal. Fandaniel blazed with it. Nabriales was a seething mass of need. They wanted to be saved, to be rescued. Their pleas were just as worthy. 

But as the eons passed, Elidibus watched that same strength begin to slowly, gradually dim -- a fire that had run out of every scrap of fuel, too weak to even feed upon itself -- and nothing he could do could call it back.

 


 

The Unsundered were equally difficult to manage, eeling out of Elidibus's more subtle attempts to lure them in. They had been the first ones to notice his sporadic memory loss; Elidibus had evaded their inquiries as best he could, dismissing their suggestions to examine him for illness. Every encounter between them brought some new form of cruelty to showcase, skirmishes which did not cease until at least one of them had drawn blood. His greatest defense was to pretend to indifference; he brushed off their questions like dust from the road, throwing out hints of other conspiracies for them to attend to, twisting aside their frustration onto other paths where they could vent their energies safely. 

They accepted his efforts anyway at times, as if pitying his attempts to trick them into obedience. Over the years, Emet-Selch had become laconic in his self-hatred, losing himself in the games of mortal civilizations as if the company of toys was better than his own people. Lahabrea -- even restrained by Igeyorhm's cooler judgement -- had given up even as he had given in, abandoning all but the most basic forms of cunning, his former elegance lost beneath recklessness.

Yet even with the shards assigned out to Convocation pairs, the greater plan still required orchestration to guide it. Each Ardor destroyed civilizations on the Source; new nations had to be encouraged to rise, cajoled to tip the balance of aether once more even as their own histories warned against such hubris. Ambition was useless without the capacity to abuse it. No nation could be afforded peace -- but neither could they all destroy each other at the same time, not without potentially losing another shard before the Source was ready to absorb it.

To stand in the middle of it all was no longer a matter of facilitating debates: it was to be hated, equally and fully by all sides, the white of Elidibus's robes made into the mark of the enemy instead of a diplomat. 

But hate was acceptable now. To be Elidibus was to be a bridge. A tether, pulling his own people along no matter how stubbornly they dug in their heels, and balked at being told to keep working towards the cause.

If it was the only role he could play to keep them all from drowning in futility, then he would perform it.

"Thanks to the widespread corruption of the religious institutions on the Source, mankind has been overwhelmingly encouraged to avoid all manner of faith and spiritual influences -- including, regretfully, magicks," he explained to Lahabrea over the dust of the man's latest victims. Impatient with the sluggish pace of Pashtarot's work, their Speaker had seen fit to escalate appropriately. "They must be coaxed to trust in it again. Nabriales cannot accomplish such a duty alone," he added politely, holding out a crystal slate with a summary of the few political powers still intact upon the star. "The assistance of you and Igeyorhm should suffice to inspire them... in some manner or another."

It was a terrible choice on Elidibus's part, of course; Lahabrea and Nabriales were guaranteed to quarrel badly enough to slow down the restoration of the Source by another few centuries. But there was enough of a challenge that it would occupy the both of them as well, eager to outdo the other. Igeyorhm would be there to keep things from getting too out of hand; in the Source's weakened state, Elidibus could easily imagine Lahabrea obliterating all sentient life that remained after the Rejoining, setting their plans back by an immeasurable amount of time as they had to start from scratch. Again.

Judging from the quirk of Lahabrea's mouth as he folded his arms in refusal, their Speaker was already contemplating the merits of mass genocide. "You don't seem displeased at how easily they've turned away from the immaterial. Strange. I would have thought that you would have regretted the loss of their willingness to believe in... nobler ideals."

The observation had all the ominous weight of a trick question behind it; Elidibus cast his thoughts back, whisper-quick, but could not pinpoint which part was the trap. His gloved fingers twitched against the slate. He longed to dig out his nearest list and scour it for a reference -- but that was impossible as long as Lahabrea was watching. 

The safest answer was to refuse to react at all. "It all amounts to the same conclusion by the end," he hedged, pushing the crystal record forward by another ilm, silently begging Lahabrea to take it.

But Lahabrea was in a fouler mood than anticipated, the man's shoulders tightening as if mortally insulted, despite how their conversation had remained calm. "I wonder," he mused aloud, refusing to break eye contact, "is there aught of emotion within you that Lord Zodiark has not placed there?"

The accusation made equally little sense; Elidibus could not tell if he should be offended. "How do you mean?"

The smile that Lahabrea returned was a ghastly mockery of teeth: a twitch of his lips drawing back into the briefest of snarls, mirror to the fangs of his mask. Then he recovered, pressing his lips together into a tamer smirk that was equally unreadable, and equally unwilling to yield.

"I don't know which is worse sometimes," he sighed, and accepted the crystal slate at last, turning it around to scan the first few lines. "That you left us -- or that you came back."

 


 

Between a rebellion on the Sixth and a famine on the Ninth, Elidibus finds a note to himself tucked between a list of officials on the Source he has yet to bribe. Or so he assumes. Half the names are checked. The rest look unrelated. Elidibus does not know if the markers mean that he has tried and succeeded with that batch, or if he has tried and killed them instead. 

He skips over to the fist of the unchecked names, resigning himself to extra time wasted on determining which one, and then moves down to a single scribbled word in the margins. 

Atrium, he reads. 

There is nothing else.

 


 

Hydaelyn did not take the defiance against Her meekly. In spite, She stole more of their own people from them, stuffing them with false stories like worms in a ripe corpse. The act of a hypocrite, Nabriales observed, and Elidibus agreed; for all that Hydaelyn had moved to preserve the lives of those who were not Ascian, She was quick enough to set them aside if there were better tools at hand. Rather than nurture the souls of other races properly as Her champions, she stole Ascian souls away in enthrallment first, turning them into living weapons against their kin.

The cruelty of it was nauseating. Then commonplace. After several thousand years, Elidibus found himself as jaded to it as the rest of the Convocation. His own outstanding obligation was no kinder; the longer Zodiark's revival went unfulfilled, the longer he needed to entrench it in his daily memory. As if in revenge for the Thirteenth, mortal hunger knew no bounds. They took from him relentlessly, snatching away moments from his mind that he did not even know were missing until it was too late. 

There was only so much about himself that Elidibus could save. He divided himself up as mercilessly as a parent choosing which of his children to feed. Habit took the place of comprehension. In his lists to himself, he scrawled the edicts he knew he had to fulfill, and watched the rationales behind them fade. 

They needed to revive Zodiark. They had to restore Amaurot. He could not hold more than that within himself. Everything else was taken away.

As the dominant civilizations on the Source finally began to veer towards complacency, the Convocation gathered to discuss which shard was also nearest to being tipped. It would do no good if multiple reflections were thrown into disarray at the same time -- whoever was furthest ahead could claim the win, and the other shards would need their energies defused in the meantime. Emet-Selch was particularly irritated to be called back; he had been off playing with his toys on the Source, preparing his latest empire to be knocked down like a city of painted blocks. He griped avidly about wasting every minute spent not coddling them towards their destruction. Lahabrea was already looking irate at having to be there at all, his attention skipping away as he stared out at the rift, and snapped at whoever was unlucky enough to draw his notice. 

The choice in shards had strong potential this time. The Third was tipping towards earth at a methodical pace, but the Eleventh was skewing faster towards water than anyone had expected. The Seventh also showed an imbalance towards earth, but it was years behind the Third, and could still be held back as necessary -- given a few strategically placed extermination events here and there.

Lahabrea flicked a bored hand towards the three gleaming spheres that floated in the middle of their gathering. "We could very well go with water and follow a conquest chain of reactions instead. It's working so nicely, after all, and we lack any form of actual creativity," he added tartly, though his smile was venomously pleasant. "As we took the Twelfth most recently, that would leave our cycle at levin, no?"

As if they had all been standing on a walkway that had suddenly pitched to the side, Elidibus felt his stomach lurch. Something about the statement was jarring. He could not pinpoint why. 

"No," he protested, unable to stop himself in time. The pieces of his logic were clumsy -- but they felt right as he laid them out, raw milestones that confirmed each step forward since the Sundering. "We took the Second after the Twelfth. The Second was claimed by fire. We should cycle either to earth or to ice."

But Lahabrea only turned his head lazily in Elidibus's direction. "Oh?" he purred, arching an eyebrow with the smug, hungry satisfaction of a lion watching an antelope snap its leg in half. "Is that how you remember it happening, Elidibus? Are you really so certain?"

The blood turned to stone in Elidibus's veins. 

Dread -- cold and heavy -- immobilized his breath along with his thoughts. Every drop of confidence evaporated on the spot. He remembered the Second. He remembered it. 

But he remembered the Twelfth as well, even more vividly: the storms which had pitted earth against sky, the vast columns of levin which had ripped open the air until it had bled in radiant streaks. Reverberations of thunder, shattering stone malms away. The whipping fury of the air had been just as strong as the tempests on the Tenth, sailors wailing in horror -- but he had just been on the Tenth, so that couldn't have been destroyed. It might have been the Ninth. He could not recall if he had witnessed the Tenth's destruction or merely foul weather, and the more Elidibus attempted to force his thoughts into some degree of order, the wider Lahabrea's smirk became.

They had begun with the Sixth. No -- it had been the Fifth. Before that, they had failed with the Thirteenth. Darkness came first, and then wind. 

Darkness. Wind. Fire. Lightning. Lightning, then -- something. Fire. Lightning. He had last been on the Ninth. The Ninth.

How many shards has it been?

Desperate, Elidibus shot a glance in Emet-Selch's direction -- but their Architect was silent, his mouth a flat line beneath the curved tracks of his mask, holding himself at wary attention as if waiting for Elidibus to prove himself false.

Every mortal prayer had hurt the same way.

But -- as unexpectedly as he had made the assault -- it was Lahabrea who spontaneously offered mercy. The man flung out his arm in a deliberately disinterested wave, purposefully drawing the Convocation's attention to himself through the flagrant grace of his gesture, and away from the tense hunch of Elidibus's shoulders. "Bah! There's hardly any sport in baiting you, Elidibus. You're too foolish to know what you've lost." Turning on his heel, Lahabrea dragged his fingers through the space around them, carving out a portal as easily as pawing through wet clay. "I'm off to get another body. This one has become intolerably boring."

A muttering of protests lifted like a flock of agitated sparrows from around the group -- the meeting was not yet over, the next shard undetermined -- but Elidibus did not join in. Paralysis muted his tongue. He could not breathe even after Lahabrea had departed; his life still hung like an unsolved equation half-finished, waiting for the last stroke to define the final value of his being.

But even as he wrenched his gaze away from the dying hum of Lahabrea's portal, trying to convince himself that he was safe again, Emet-Selch was already at his side. 

"What are you doing, Elidibus?" There was a new anger, a true one in the man's voice as he yanked on Elidibus's wrist. "How can you let Lahabrea go like this, knowing he will only destroy himself further?"

The sudden demand felt like a lurch in the opposite direction now, two warring ocean tides flinging Elidibus about like a fleck of driftwood. "How?" he hissed back; his defenses were too ransacked to grant him any form of dignity, his own frustrations leaking through both layers of his masks. "How am I to stop the man?"

He expected only further anger, and even that would have been welcomed -- if Emet-Selch had any ideas, then Elidibus could glean them from his protests. All was not lost yet.

But Emet-Selch had another weapon in his arsenal. The man's boots scuffed over the broken stone as he pulled back a step, releasing Elidibus's arm in order to stare dispassionately at him, with the same cool regard of discovering a particularly stubborn specimen on a table.

"You should know how," he answered tonelessly: condemnation and command in one. "You are our mediator."

Beaten by his own logic -- no matter how wishful or deluded it was -- Elidibus ducked his chin down, feeling as if he was thousands of years younger, accepting the criticisms of his senior in office. "I am doing the best I can," he claimed weakly. "My skills may be rusty after so many years -- but in that regard, I am hardly alone."

A fine euphemism for the sickness that they all knew he had; Emet-Selch refused to be so delicate. "Then ask one of us, if your memory ebbs! Or else look to your crystal, if you've need of inspiration. Elidibus," he added, his voice gentling into a whisper, and the mercy of it -- no, the pity of it was unbearable. "What exactly is happening to you?"

Lord Zodiark, he wanted to say, and could not; such heresy should have struck him dead on the spot. The Ardors. Our star.

But it bubbled up like acid anyway, crawling through his blood and dissolving the petrification of terror that Lahabrea had left him with -- only to replace it with a different sort of fear, one that was no less overwhelming. The very salvation of our people is killing me, he thought once, twice, over and over: a frantic litany that he could not stop, and which arrived with more clarity than anything else he had held in his mind for the last half-bell. 

Aloud, he scrabbled for enough self-control to speak. "It is difficult to keep track of so many reflections, when most of you need only manage one. If I dare look away even once, we might lose yet another shard to inadequate planning. Unsundered I may be, but it is no less tiresome to monitor both you and Hydaelyn's chosen -- and I lack Lord Zodiark's power."

Emet-Selch's frown was deep enough that it left twin furrows around the sculpture of his mouth. "That is not what you need. Elidibus," he snapped, as sharp as an incantation commanding a creation into form. "You must stop this. You need not be a god -- Lahabrea already suffers from one decree that drives him like a beast before the whip. Merely be yourself. You can do that much, can't you?"

This one last, plaintive remark had gutted the rest of Elidibus's courage. He was grateful for his mask; it took all his willpower to keep his voice steady, and his mouth flattened of emotion. "I know my own responsibilities, Emet-Selch. Be certain to follow yours as well."

 


 

He writes another list before they rejoin the Third, and destroys it immediately upon finishing. He does not bother to review it; its significance will be eradicated by the time that the Third is gone as well. Anything he does for himself now is wasted. 

It always has been.

He waits with Emet-Selch above the Source as its aether simmers closer and closer to boiling. Lahabrea is off handling the last touches on the Third; despite assigning the shards out, the Unsundered have always come and gone as they pleased, and Lahabrea does not hesitate to exert this latitude now. He has dragged Igeyorhm along with him, which may be their only saving grace. Nabriales -- whose duty was the Third, is the Third -- will be infuriated. 

Wisely enough, Elidibus and Emet-Selch have avoided that particular headache. The work on the Source is complete, thanks to their Architect's cunning. There is nothing left to do but watch.

"At last, I'll be able to get a decent nap once this is over," Emet-Selch grouses, stretching his arms with a muted grunt. The lanky height of his Allagan vessel towers over Elidibus's own host; neither one of them enjoys the strain of frivolously changing bodies, but sometimes inconveniences cannot be helped. "Since the very beginnings of this project, I don't think I've had a single night that I would consider as restful -- and that's when I've managed to fall asleep in the first place."

The comment is merely small-talk, and yet Elidibus stirs, a flicker of curiosity darting through his malaise like a fish through river silt. "Do you ever dream, Emet-Selch?"

He does not expect a response, but Emet-Selch surprises him. "Lahabrea." Refractions of aether off the Source bathe his exposed face in light. "I dream of Lahabrea, made whole."

Below them, massive clouds of dust bloom in sallow gouts upon the air. The shaft of energy connecting Dalamud to the Syrcus Tower is struggling; the earth itself buckles beneath the aether's pulse, sending tremors throughout the Tower's foundation. On the Third, Lahabrea is holding the elemental balance precariously in check. It cannot be allowed to tip either way until the pressure of the shard's aether finally ruptures the skin between it and the Source, and then it can be devoured whole.

Emet-Selch does not elaborate further. He tugs restlessly at the heavily embroidered closure of his cape, adorned with Allagan fripperies. Dalamud flares once more in a burst of incandescent fury, and an answering belch of energy bubbles up from the Source. Like dawn rising across a gallery of curtains strewn around them, the aether of the Third begins to wrench its sluggish way through the rift, cracking the darkness open piece by piece. "It is nearly time. Will you come with me for once, and usher in this Ardor together?"

The offer jerks Elidibus back to the moment, to the reminder of what is waiting for him once the shard dies -- and what he does not dare to reveal to his kin. "No. I shall keep watch here alone." 

He sees Emet-Selch exhale in disappointment: a long sigh of weariness that has fermented for thousands of years. "I wonder why I even bother anymore," he asks aloud in weary rhetoric to the air, and then resumes consideration of the destruction below.

Distant continents tremble. The ecological devastation of this Rejoining will extend far past the quakes themselves. The dust that has been thrown into the atmosphere will take years to disperse. Plants will die for lack of sun. Beasts of every stripe will starve. It will be a good way to encourage mankind to return to magicks, if only to dispel the clouds.

"Wait." 

Caught in the middle of taking his first step towards the chaos, Emet-Selch glances towards Elidibus's outstretched hand, and then regards him curiously.

"Do you... are you present within your dreams when you have them, Emet-Selch?" The question feels out of place: a hope that is thin, weak, like a youth asking for reassurance from a senior. He has to know. If similar losses are happening to the other Unsundered -- if Elidibus is normal, if he is like them after all, then all his fears have been for nothing. The Ardors might be a universal pox, some curse from Hydaelyn rather than a sign of something deeper that is wrong. Elidibus could share his experiences with them. Together, they might find a solution. "As yourself?"

Emet-Selch does not answer immediately this time. He is silent for long enough that Elidibus fears that there will be no other response -- that he has already depleted the man's willingness to speak honestly with him, and it will be centuries before the next opportunity.

Then Emet-Selch takes a deep breath. The costume of his physical form glitters with the motion, resplendent in the light of a dying reflection as it bleeds into the Source. The heavy trimming of his robes shines like molten gold. 

The desolation in his eyes is no less vivid.

"There was a forum in Amaurot that was known as the Epígaios," he begins. "Named so for the number of new ideas which would sprout from its visitors every sun. In full attendance, it could seat over one hundred Amaurotines, each with their own predilections to entertain. It was left open to the sky above, and its pillars beckoned the heavens themselves to join them. Entire constellation charts could be mapped upon the marble of its floor. More stories began in the Epígaios than could ever be measured, for its contributions to collaborative design were immeasurable -- as were the bonds of companionship that it helped foster in kind."

He falls silent there unexpectedly, watching Elidibus as if expecting him to fill in the gap -- but even as Elidibus scours the tatters of his memory, nothing matches up. "I am sorry that I never had a chance to visit it." 

"I am sorry for us both." It is a snapped phrase, like a cryptic retort to an insult that Elidibus is not even certain he made. Clearing his throat, Emet-Selch gives another sharp, angry tug of his gloves, the heavy pleat of their cuffs rubbing against his velvet sleeves. "In my dreams, I am dead," he says: an abrupt answer to a question that had nearly been avoided entirely. "Though I am still moving about, able to speak and touch my surroundings. Sometimes, those around me are aware of my condition. But the life is always gone from me."

Another shudder of fresh aether forks across the Source, splitting and splintering like a honeyed lightning bolt. Fractal rainbows burst through the rift. A chasm yawns open like a dark tongue across one of the continents, and begins to topple a mountain range into its belly.

Elidibus ignores the auroras blossoming in full majesty around them. "Which dreams?"

Emet-Selch summons his mask back into existence with a snap of his fingers, and slides it on.

"All of them," he says, and then launches himself directly into the dust storms that erupt like geysers from the star below, blotting out wide swathes of the continents like an eraser smeared over a chalkboard. Darkness wraps around the man in a protective cocoon. He leaves behind him a comet's trail of cold fire, slicing through the debris -- and then he, too, is gone.

 


 

He knows he should not look at his crystal.

Like the other Unsundered, Elidibus keeps a set. They had been crafted when he still had enough sense of himself to invest them with substance -- in the earliest days, when the Convocation had realized the need for efficiency when restoring their Sundered kin. Even the Unsundered could be lost. So long as one of the three remained alive, then it would simply be a matter finding the reborn soul, and restoring the memories that had gone dormant. His crystal had been a mere safeguard, little more.

He could not recreate the same feat now. 

He does not know if his crystal can even be used to revive him anymore, if it should come to that. Too much of his aether has been stripped away. His mind is like a plant that has been torn up by its roots, leaving no part of itself that can regrow. Every time he had allowed himself to access the record before, the gap between what he recognized and what he didn't had only seemed to widen. It had been like reading another's biography, incomprehensible in its strangeness -- stirring nothing within his soul, no matter how long he stared at it.

Reluctance had turned to aversion. Aversion had become a shield. 

This time, however, Elidibus cannot turn away. 

Fumbling through his possessions, he takes out the pouch of his crystals, parting the lacings and digging his way through the constellations. His own is all the way at the bottom. History opens up easily around him as he invokes its aether: a dazzling record of years categorized by purpose and people both. The clean, crisp indices are evidence of a mind that had once been rigorously organized, able to rattle off case after case of points for debate. Each entry is neatly annotated. There is no record that does not connect to another. 

The sheer volume of it all drowns him for a moment. Too much is unfamiliar. If not for his name shining on every entry, he would think he had accessed the wrong crystal entirely by mistake.

He forces the queasiness of fear away and searches instead for a single image: the atrium that Emet-Selch had described, vast and rich with learning. The Epígaios.

It comes to him quickly, sharpening into focus the moment he concentrates on the name -- as if a blurred piece of glass has been yanked away from his eyes, and the memory has been waiting nearby all along. Vast pillars stretch around him, living plants twining around their sculpted stone. Dozens of conversations fill the air with murmurs and laughter, shouts and friendly disputes: Amaurotines, all at ease and at peace.

In the center at one of smaller tables, Elidibus can see himself sitting with Emet-Selch. Lahabrea is between them, smiling as he spins crystal lacework in the air, a feat of such delicacy that the slightest breeze will dispel it. This memory must come from the later years of his office; Elidibus is taller than he was when he had first joined them, and the easy nudge of Lahabrea's shoulder against his is one that comes of fond familiarity. 

"I did not mean to press you so hard on your new stormwater catchment designs," he hears his own voice say ruefully. "If I have engendered any sour feelings on either one of your parts, I would understand and make amends."

In this memory, Lahabrea has his mask off, revealing his eyes as they crinkle with amusement. "Think naught of it. It was worth a bit of lively dialogue just to see that particular expression on Mitron's face! We'll adjust the designs. And the wavekin, I suppose."

Emet-Selch is more restrained in his affection, but his hand is gentle as he rests his fingertips upon Elidibus's arm. "Have no fear, Elidibus. 'Tis your duty to steer us home whenever we lose our way, and that necessitates such frictions. So long as we know you hold love for us, then it does not matter how often you stand against us -- we will always keep faith in you. That is all we need."

Elidibus jerks out of the illusion with a gasp. He flings the crystal instinctively away; it gleams as it sails across the surface of the moon, a silver pebble gleaming in the night. It bounces to a halt on the dust and lays there quiescently, like a jewel innocent of the venom it holds within.

He stares at it, panting, wishing for an Ardor to rise on the spot and wipe out all memory of the past few moments -- despite how that very same erasure was what caused the issue to begin with.

All of the tricks that he has worked upon the Convocation to tame their grief, all the deliberate indifference he has adopted in an attempt to hide his own self-decay -- it has only worsened the gap between them. He has denied them the very reassurance that they needed. He has been the one digging the trench to separate them both. Elidibus, peacemaker of their people. Final ruiner of their unity.

If only he had known. If only he had remembered. 

Except that he had. Like a fountain of boxes suddenly upended upon him, a rush of half-forgotten dreams crowds his wits, coming fast on the heels of the Epígaios. Even Elidibus's own subconscious had realized what was going wrong. Some part of him had known how to fix things once they started falling apart -- but it had been unable to piece it all together in a way he could comprehend in his battered state. Night after night, it had labored to offer him the answers it could through the wreckage that had been left to him, the splintered remains of identity that Elidibus had tried to stretch himself across like a piece of tattered canvas on broken struts.

But the solution comes far too late. His companion's trust in him has been decimated just as thoroughly as the Source. And -- like the Source -- even if he seeks to rebuild it, he will only betray them again. No matter how fiercely Elidibus tries to cling to this memory, mortals will simply tear it out. Ardor after Ardor, they will prey upon him. He may swear to Emet-Selch and Lahabrea that he will always remember to show how much they mean to him -- and then he will forget it anew with every fresh Rejoining, like a drunkard promising the very next bottle will be his last. 

He can claim as much otherwise, but even he knows the truth: if Emet-Selch had not said something, then Elidibus would have never been aware of what he was missing at all. 

There is no explanation he can give his brethren, not without utterly destroying what little faith they have left. Either he is not Elidibus, and he is a cheap simulacrum instead -- or he is, and he simply does not care enough to retain such sentimentalism.

He is too far gone now, in every sense of the word. Anything he attempts to do now will mangle whatever comfort Emet-Selch and Lahabrea can still take from the past. 

The only thing he can do with such memories is to trample on the very sanctity of them, snatching the rest of their value away with as much cruelty as if he were a mortal himself.

 


 

There is a fresh wave of prayers rising from the Sixth, coiling like pale steam from its shores. Elidibus flees from it, all the way back to the emptiness of the Thirteenth and its isolation. Even that far into the rift, he can feel the trickle of the voidsent and their own needy pleas -- these ones of a simpler nature, the bare instinct of a belly wanting to be full. 

None of them are the same people they were when it all began. Sundered Ascians are being woken by the handful and allowed to die just as swiftly, before the futility of it all can drive them to madness first. Fandaniel is a farcical imitation of the man they knew in Amaurot. Lahabrea has reinvented the notion of suicide, killing himself slowly by pouring his soul into a long stream of endless hosts, each one taking a part of their Speaker with them when they die.

And if he is merely a whisper of someone else's soul -- of the true Elidibus, still sleeping in the cradle of Zodiark's prison -- then he does not deserve to be treated as an old friend, either.

But it does not matter in the end. Once it is all over, and his people are finally healed again, then Elidibus will return to Zodiark and serve as His heart. He will surrender every scrap of whatever identity he has left by then, and he does not have the right to regret it. 

Whatever remains of himself after the final Ardor will be burned to ashes, lifted back into the mouth of their god -- and then, if he is very, very fortunate, Elidibus will never have to worry about being himself again.

The task need only be completed. The doll need only perform. 

Each time he wakes from a new dream, Elidibus struggles to reorient himself to the present. The threads of his visions slip away faster than he can understand them. Everything he builds back up in his mind -- like a miser, grubbing at coins -- leaks away like water in a rotten barrel, drop by drop. 

Remain empty, he advises in his lists. Mortals steal everything. If you remember it, they will claim it for themselves. They cannot take what you do not have. Do not keep anything you fear to lose.

He writes it down as plainly as he can risk it. It is in no shorthand save that of the sparsest words. He scrawls reminders in shorthand he barely remembers, and reads back words which had been penned by a stranger. He dutifully carries out instructions penned by versions of himself that no longer exist, that have lived and died in the space between Ardors -- if they have even existed at all.

All of them belong to him in the same way that his mismatched dreams add up: making more than enough of a tally to comprise a whole person, if only Elidibus could be certain of who that person is.

He records scraps of experiences in the wrong order, memories of shards whose ghosts still haunt him at night. He carries leftover reminders from page to page. Time robs him of their meaning too, no matter how meticulously he copies them down. They are never recorded in the constellation of his name. They form no part of the definition of Elidibus.

In the end, he can cling to only five words of his own, worn smooth like river stones in every list that he makes -- a warning to himself from himself that has lost its reasons, but none of the pain:

They take what you have.