Was it possible to dream of memories?
The Exarch’s throat tightened as he opened his eyes, met with the vaulted crystalline ceiling of his eternal abode. He was tired, so tired, though the unnatural stiffness in his limbs spoke of a prolonged slumber. His mind was sluggish and dreary, thoughts running slower than tree sap as he struggled to wake. Something had happened—or so he’d thought—but now he was back in the Tower, standing on the cusp of yet another long, weary day. Nothing awaited him beyond the endless toil of survival in a broken world. The thought filled him with a melancholy that spoke of bone-deep disappointment.
Why should it? he thought, bitterness like acid in the back of his throat. This was no different than any other morning, a routine that stretched over decades upon decades following the Flood. Nothing would change until the Tower saw fit to engulf him, body and soul. Beyond the last few wisps of a dream he was already forgetting, he had no reason to expect anything else. Oh, well. He now had a choice: continue to lay there, wallowing in self-imposed misery, or roll out of bed and continue the fight. As tempting as the first choice was, there was no sense in prolonging the inevitable.
He let his head fall to the side, feeling far too heavy for the neck it sat upon. Peering through barely parted lashes, he found himself resting not on his bed, but on a patch of gilded carpet. Motheaten and musty with age, it had somehow managed to retain a vibrant hue only a few shades lighter than his own sanguine eyes. He frowned at the sight, confusion piercing the heavy fog of sleep.
How had he ended up here, of all places? It was rare that he bothered to scale this area of the Tower. He was no longer inclined to explore its depths, nor did he want to risk waking anything that slumbered in the shadows. So why, then, had he…?
With an impatient, laboring huff, he attempted to settle his heavy limbs into a more comfortable position. Clearly he was far too old to be caught napping on the floor; everything from the tips of his ears to his toes ached as though he’d been sleeping crooked for an era. Still… as much as he’d like to attribute the soreness to aging, those pains had all but ceased to exist once blood and bone gave way to gilded crystal. This seemed different, somehow—familiar, in a sense, yet wholly unrelated to the perpetual discomfort of advanced age.
I don’t know how, but you’ve done it yourself, old man.
The Exarch shut his eyes firmly, wondering if the answer was to sleep another few bells. Perhaps his body would sort itself out in the interim? If nothing else, Lyna would eventually find him lying here. A dear girl, that one, but a spitfire if there ever was; he could already hear the echoes of her scolding ringing in the crystal rafters. It was probably deserved, especially for whatever crackpot theory had him climbing this part of the Tower alone after years of—
That voice! So soft and hesitant, little more than a hushed whisper high above him. Each syllable was a caress, a deluge of freshwater to the parched wellspring of his ancient soul. How long had it been since he’d been called by his true name? How long since he had yearned to hear it spoken by the voice that called to him in his wildest, most self-indulgent dreams? For all he knew, he could be dreaming still. Or were they her thoughts, reaching out to him across space and time?
It was as though he’d been levinstruck, a bolt of pure energy racing through him faster than his sleep-addled mind could process. Emotions ran rampant, tripping over one another in their hurry to be made known: agony, understanding, awareness… and fear. Fear that his ears might be deceiving him, that the voice was truly naught but the last dying fragments of misbegotten longing. A vision, vanquished all too easily by the eternal Light. The thought had his eyes wide, head snapping forward in a desperate attempt to find the truth. A wave of dizziness ran through him at the motion and he sucked in a sharp breath, even as his terror became relief at the sight of a kneeling thigh near his forearm.
It was not the padded armor of the Crystarium guards, nor the homespun fabric of its people. Dark cloth, white boot leather, and a tantalizing stretch of bare skin between—a century ago, the sight would have been deadly… or so he told himself, even as his traitorous heart thrummed against his breastbone. His eyes found familiar curves as they traced up her frame: broad-shouldered and honed for battle. As a former archer himself, he knew the telltale signs of a body built for the bow.
The Tower’s light cast a strange pallor over her cheeks, freckles standing out in stark relief against her pale skin. The dark strands of her cropped hair were nearly as vibrant as the carpet, bangs loosely framing either side of her brow as she bent over him. The other Scions had told him that the Warrior of Light was known across Aldenard by her signature Ishgardian cap; he, on the other hand, had held fast to the memory of those chestnut red locks, so beautiful against the green landscape of Urth’s Gift.
Eachna. He turned the syllables over in his mind, relishing the ages-old affection that bubbled up inside of him. The Warrior of Light and Darkness, a shining beacon of hope to all who had the fortune to meet her. Her deeds were the stuff of legend, a guidebook for every adventurer hoping to one day write their own name in the heavens—himself included. And though she was malms above him, bathing in the light of the Mothercrystal, she had chosen to return for him. Or was it to him?
Their eyes met and he melted beneath her uneasy gaze, heart aching at the sight of her unguarded concern. Such worry does not befit my warrior, he wanted to say, if only to watch as her frown broke into the sunny smile he knew her capable of. It would, of course, be no more than a jest, easy banter between two old friends. The thought of her being his anything was preposterous in and of itself. How could a shy, fumbling fool ever hope to lay claim to the stars?
He had no time to peruse such matters. Memories had surfaced alongside his newfound awareness; the grim reminder of his own mortality was more than enough to pull him from the admiration of that which he most adored. Those memories… they were not the product of any dream. He remembered everything now, with a vivid clarity that was frightening.
Elidibus, the mighty heart of Zodiark, reduced to a small, trembling form. Hooded and masked, he could have easily been mistaken for a lost, crying child. Eachna had cried too, tears of compassion, regret, resignation catching the dawn’s light as she tipped colored crystals into the Ascian’s palms. The glistening remnants of those tears had still clung to her lashes when she made her promise to him: her assurance that he, the Crystal Exarch, would be a welcome companion on her next adventure. It had been her parting gift to the faded echo of a man whose life had been reduced to its last flickering embers.
And then… crystal, so cold that it burned his flesh wherever it touched. Blinding him, seizing his limbs, stealing his breath, drowning—
He trembled, tail twitching anxiously at the phantom flames his lungs. That had been a most unwelcome surprise. He had not anticipated any awareness of his body once his mind had been imbued within the auracite vessel. In hindsight, however, he might have expected it. The Scions, at times, seemed to possess a rudimentary awareness of the changes being wrought on their bodies in the Source. If only there had been more time to inquire, to research!
“G’raha?” Eachna was still staring down at him, her concern morphing into an expression far more alarming. “Are… are you awake?”
“Good morning,” he managed, startled at how raspy his voice sounded. It was as though he’d not had a proper drink in years. Two, by the Source’s count. Or is it still considered two hundred? Am I… myself? It was frightening to realize he wasn’t entirely certain what he meant by the thought. For the first time since waking, he paused to take stock of himself. Was he the Crystal Exarch, or G’raha Tia? Both? Neither?
Foolishly he’d assumed that the union of his souls would be neat and efficient, one resting atop the other like stacked tomes. Each soul would house its own memories separately, and it would be a seamless effort to pull one from the other and flip through the contents. Instead it was as though someone had ripped the pages from their bindings and scattered them across the floor of his mind. He still held the Exarch’s memories and emotions—the weight of countless tribulations borne over decades of life, wisdom that can only come from experience, an intense love for the foreign land he’d learned to call home. At the same time he could feel the boundless energy, the impatience, the inexperience of the young man he’d been… or was? His head spun with the effort of trying to sort it out.
“It is you, is it not?” Eachna asked breathlessly, mirroring his thoughts. Focus, Raha. His thoughts were too tangled to muddle through at the moment, and so he pushed them aside for later consideration.
“I… I believe so?” He attempted to pull himself off the ground, and found that his limbs were more leaden than he’d first thought them to be. Getting nowhere, he let his skull thump helplessly against the carpet in defeat. Eachna leaned closer, a crease forming between her brows as she watched his face carefully.
“You do know who I am… don’t you?” Her voice brought a lump to the base of his throat. It was clear that the wrong answer would bring about a fresh outburst of tears. Thankfully, the question was an easy one to answer. He might not know himself at the moment, with his souls in the process of settling as one. But to know himself and to know her were two different things entirely. He pushed all the energy he could spare into his right hand, lifting it and marveling at the sight of unmarred, uncrystallized flesh. It fell atop her own on her thigh, the warmth of her fingers burning steadily against his clammy palm.
“How—” He stopped to clear his throat, attempting to manage something intelligible. “How could I not?” He smiled as her eyes widened in shock. “I would recognize you anywhere, my friend… my inspiration.” Theatrical, melodramatic, entirely unnecessary and even a little silly: the Exarch within him withered in embarrassment, even as the younger soul preened at the rightness of it. After all, were they not currently in Amon’s theatre?
He remembered now why she had to scale Syrcus Tower to find his body. He’d wanted to be discovered there by future adventurers, the picture of dormant Allagan royalty awaiting the generation worthy of rousing him from his slumber. In his mind, the curious explorers of that far-off age would find him seated in the theatre as its chief patron, his rest an intermission poised to last centuries. That she should be the one to find him this way, a living reminder of his own youthful folly…. Gods, how humiliating!
If his lingering mortification touched Eachna at all, she didn’t show it. Her lips parted, the unshed tears now brimming beneath her lashes. He was allowed one brief, beautiful moment to bask in her light before she surged forward, gathering him haphazardly into her arms and bringing on another nauseating bout of dizziness.
“Don’t scare me like that, y’fool!” He had seen the effects of her more… exuberant embraces on others in the First, but until now he’d never had the pleasure of experiencing one firsthand. He found himself being squeezed to within an ilm of his new-old life, lungs crushed beneath the iron grip of her arms. Each breath was a struggle, blood pooling in his cheeks as he gaped wordlessly in an effort to draw air.
What a wonderful way to die.
“My apologies,” he wheezed, needing to breathe and yet desperately wishing she would never let go. His hand found the corner of her gilet and pushed feebly, the white feather tickling his palm as he wound his fingers in the worn fabric draped across her shoulder. “I believe… I am still… gathering my wits.”
“I thought—I feared—” Her voice cracked, muffled against his hair as she cradled his limp frame to her chest. Warm breath fanned across his ear and he felt close to swooning… though perhaps that was simply another side effect from the dizziness that plagued him. “I didn’t want… another goodbye. Not so soon.” He let out a weak laugh as she loosened her grip.
“Strange—I seem to recall that the Warrior of Light wasn’t fond of NOAH’s resident historian. Not that I blame her,” he added ruefully, ears flattening as he remembered his immature behavior during their first foray into the Tower. “I wouldn’t have imagined you so keen to wake the little brat.” Her own laughed chimed in the empty theatre, a crooked smile tugging the corner of her mouth as she pulled away.
“You weren’t half as bad as you thought you were. Not at the end, anyroad.” She wiped her eyes with the heel of her palm, sniffing loudly. “I was sad to watch you leave… and even sadder when I thought I wouldn’t see you again in the First.”
“Then I’ll won’t leave your side again.” The bold assurance fell thoughtlessly from his lips, hanging awkwardly in the air between them. Her brows arched in surprise, head tilting in silent inquiry as she stared down at him. Of all the shameless impropriety! He certainly felt shame now, flames licking hotly at his cheeks as he averted his eyes. While they had worked well as a team on the First, he no longer had the Tower’s reserve of magical energy to draw from. Promises aside, he had no right to hold her to her word now that he was more hinderance than help.
“B-but what of the others?” he stammered quickly, cutting off any response she might have made. “If you’re here, then may I assume they’re all in their rightful bodies? No lasting harm done?” Eachna blinked, clearly confused at the abrupt change of pace, but nodded.
“They’re well—or they will be. With good food and rest, they’ll be up and about in no time. Don’t worry!” she insisted, catching sight of his incredulous expression. “Krile’s been taking care of them since they first collapsed. I trust her to know what she’s talking about. I was more worried about you.”
“M-me?” His blush didn’t seem to be dissipating. Or was this the start of a fever? “Whatever for? I should think your friends would be your first priority.”
“Are we not friends?” she clucked, her lips pursed in a pout. “Besides, the others had one soul to worry about. You said that yours might… curdle.” Her nose wrinkled in clear distaste at whatever mental image she’d conjured for herself. “When you opened your eyes and didn’t speak, I thought… I was worried that you might… I feared the worst.”
“I see.” One offhand comment, meant only to reinforce his own lack of knowledge, had instead sowed the seeds of doubt in her mind. To think that she’d carried that fear with her all this time…. Once again, he’d spoken without thinking. How many times must you relearn this lesson? “Forgive me,” he sighed, mentally cursing himself. “I never meant to cause you worry.”
“Doesn’t matter now,” she said kindly, smoothing back his bangs with absentminded affection. He swallowed thickly, unable—unwilling—to move. “All’s well that ends well. Everyone’s awake, there’s no Calamity, and Tataru’s put the kettle on for tea. The only thing left is to get you home.”
“H-home?” The word felt strange on his lips. There were very few places that he could call home.
“The Rising Stones, I mean. You’ve never been before, have you?” Eachna didn’t stop to wait for an answer, tears forgotten and a familiar spark lighting her eyes from within. “You’ll love it, G’raha. We have the best view of Lake Silvertear from the—” She paused, an odd look crossing her face. “There I go, roping you into my plans again,” she laughed. “I’m sure you’re probably eager to return to your old life.”
“Not… particularly.” Physically, two winters had passed; mentally, he was centuries removed from the life he’d led before his slumber. That G’raha was gone, little more than a footnote in the vast history of this star. This new G’raha, the culmination of both young and old, had nowhere to return to. Being a product of both the Source and the First meant that he no longer fully belonged in either. There was no easy path for him to claim as his own.
“That being said,” he added, realizing that he’d lapsed back into brooding silence, “I would be more than delighted to… to see the others.” He bit down hard on his tongue, willing himself to think for once before jumping into any flowery, passionate speeches. “In all honesty, though… I am not feeling my best,” he admitted with a frown. “I doubt I could take more than a few steps before collapsing. ‘Tis strange… this didn’t happen when last I woke, following the Calamity.”
“I think it’s got something to do with the white auracite.” Eachna gently lifted him into a sitting position, her arm sturdy around his shoulders. “Do you feel weak? Headache? Dizzy?” He nodded. “The others said the same thing. I wonder if it has something do with leaving your body behind? Souls aren’t made to inhabit crystals.”
“I’m sure you’re right, although I’d rather not tempt fate with further testing.” He rubbed his forehead, trying to keep from swaying on the spot. “Remind me: are the Sons of St. Coinach still studying the ruins? I remember there was a stretcher in the chirurgeon’s tent; if you go down and ask Ra—ahh!” Without warning, she looped his arms around her neck with a bright smile. He sputtered helplessly, chest flush to her spine and fingers scrambling for a modest purchase on her clothes.
“No need, I can handle it from here. Hold on tight!” Her hands found his thighs and, adjusting her grip only once, she stood up in a single fluid motion. The action left his head rolling, nails digging into the gilet as he fought a gut-wrenching wave of nausea. “You good back there?”
“I… oh, my, oh—” He groaned, closing his eyes as the theatre spun around them and cursing the Twelve with everything he had. At any other time, he would have been thoroughly lost in the admiration of her solid warmth against his chest, clinging to her shoulders for an entirely different reason. But this was worse than a bout of aether sickness after a night on the town; everything twirled in endless figures behind his eyelids, his stomach rolling in a valiant effort to keep up.
“Please, go slowly down the stairs,” he pleaded, knowing her penchant for sprinting everywhere she went. It wouldn’t surprise him at all if her first instinct was to jump from the railing and freefall to the ground floor.
“G’raha, really!” Her playful laugh vibrated against his forehead. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“This is not my idea of an adventure!” He burrowed deeper against her neck, tail flicking in subtle annoyance. She tightened her grip again and it looped itself around her nearest arm, nestling in the crook of her elbow. He found himself too tired to shake it free, even as his cheeks burned at how forthright a gesture it seemed. “I’d almost rather you went for the stretcher.”
“I’ll go slow.”
“I believe you.” He pressed his cheek into the join of her neck and shoulder, not so ill that he couldn’t take this one tiny selfish liberty. His ears perked, swiveling as he listened to the quiet Tower around them. Now that he was awake, how long until the other things slumbering in its depths began to stir? What am I to do about the seals? I’ll have to remember to ask Rammbroes.
Eachna began to descend the stairs, shifting her balance as they rounded the corner. He kept his eyes closed against the motion, which was not entirely unpleasant now that the world wasn’t circling around him faster than one of Garuda’s purported vortexes. If he didn’t focus too hard on his roiling innards, it was almost like being back on the ocean, on the ship that had carried him from Val to Eorzea so long ago….