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shifting in a second light

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Waking is a disorienting experience. Perhaps all the more so because the first thing Hythlodaeus sees is Hades.

Hades watches him intently, eyes bright and wary.

Hythlodaeus intimately recognizes every furrowed line in that beloved face, but this is not the man he remembers. 

Except for the familiar eyes and worry-etched lines, he could be an entirely different individual. He is too small, resembling the size of a child. His hair has been traded for a shorter style, brown now except for one surviving shock of white. The Amaurotine robes have been exchanged for garish clothing, trimmed with fur. His shoulders slump as if weighted by a great burden.

And yet, although the details have changed, the brilliant soul remains the same. Hythlodaeus could never doubt the color and intensity.

Of all the changes, it’s the unfiltered loneliness in Hades’ expression that takes him aback. 

Hythlodaeus wants to take him in his arms and offer a kiss of comfort. But he cannot.

He cannot because also remembers more than he should. Impossibly, Hythlodaeus has two parallel sets of knowledge. 

The first set is cultivated over long years of personal experience. He has lived and loved Hades long enough to anticipate his moods before he himself could. He knew him before he became the great Emet-Selch and watched him grow into the role with pride.

The second is more troubling: Without being told, Hythlodaeus knows that this is not Amaurot. And though this is his Hades, he also is not. Somehow, he knows Etheirys was sundered and that this Hades that stands before him has endured the weight of untold years amongst the fragments that remain of the star and its people. 

This is why Hades looks at him like someone brought to a banquet at near-starvation but who cannot partake. And this is why Hythlodaeus cannot answer the impulse to offer comfort in return.

Because he—Hythlodaeus—is not, after all, Hythlodaeus, but instead a mere shade, imbued with the ghost of memories and brought to life by Hades. The true Hythlodaeus was lost long, long ago.

It is overwhelming; his eyes begin to sting, his knees betray him, and he falters under Hades’ gaze.

Hades somehow manages to catch him, too small hands carefully supporting him at the hip and waist. He must have manipulated the aether to accomplish it. It takes every ilm of Hythlodaeus’ strength to offer a smile. He blinks back the tears, hoping he manages to look grateful and that the wetness of his eyes will go unnoticed.

“What would I do without you?” he asks.

“I hope you never have to find out,” Hades responds. He clearly feels no need to hide the edges of his own bitterness. He asks, suspicion clear in his voice, “Is there something the matter?”

It is this moment that causes a pang of realization. Hades may not have intended for Hythlodaeus to know any of this. Hades likely expects Hythlodaeus to believe it is early in the final days of the world as they knew it together. He is a creation and a creation that knows too much, which means there is no way forward that will not hurt them both.

Although he is not the original Hythlodaeus, his desires are the same as if he were. 

He wants to wipe away any of the bitterness and loneliness that plagues Hades that he can. If Hades has set a stage on which to relive Amaurot, Hythlodaeus resolves to become a master actor to play his part.

“How could there be anything wrong when I have you at my side?”

In the first days after Hythlodaeus awakens, Hades does not often visit.

Without much to do—and unable to contain his curiosity—Hythlodaeus spends much of his time inspecting the recreated Amaurot. 

“Pardon me,” he says, stopping a passerby he does not recognize. “Would you mind telling me your name?”

The shade looks at Hythlodaeus askance. He says, “Apologies, I am on an urgent errand,” before hurrying away.

Hythlodaeus supposes Hades might not have known the stranger’s name and lifted the face from a brief encounter. He wonders where Hades might have seen the stranger, why his urgency had made an impression on him, and how many individuals have been made with mere fragments of memories.

Even for a mage of the caliber of Emet-Selch, Amaurot is an impressive creation. In sheer terms of magnitude, Hythlodaeus is not sure a creation of its scale has ever been attempted. But where any other mage would have rendered in broad strokes, Hades has opted to slavishly recreate in tedious authenticity.

It is not the true Amaurot, but it is close.

There are only the slightest discrepancies. For example, a crack at the base of the stairs has long lived at the Hall of Rhetoric, managing to remain overlooked by repairs year after year. On one occasion, the debaters, in desperate need of a topic for the day, had argued about whether or not the blemish was integral to the spirit of the building. However, Hades has forgotten it entirely. The stone where it should be is smooth.

However, newer defects are accounted for faithfully. As the Final Days began, the outskirts of the city suffered damage from fire and violence. The rubble is rendered exactly as Hythlodaeus remembers. 

It seems to Hythlodaeus that Hades only worked towards the breaking of his own heart with this selective perfectionism. 

Hades could have chosen any time in the history of Amaurot. 

He could have remade the days when Hythlodaeus and he went to class together. Or the time that followed shortly after in which they learned how to love each other for the first time. Or the easy years that followed when Azem had joined them and their largest concerns were diverting the Convocation’s attention from his well-intentioned schemes. 

Instead, Hades erected a constant reminder of duty. A perpetual indictment against his perceived past failures.

Hythlodaeus finds himself walking the path to the Bureau of the Architect. Amaurot-that-is-not-Amaurot bustles around him.

Hades reappears without warning. He leans against the building in which Hythlodaeus works. 

Hythlodaeus recalls this exact ritual well. Hades had always waited for him, doing his best to appear as impatient as possible, but always brought Hythlodaeus a light meal for his midday break.

“Running late today, hm?” he asks, peevishly, as if he should have been expected. “I thought you were planning to work the day away without leaving your desk once.”

Before Hythlodaeus can respond, Hades takes him by the hand and tugs him until he falls into obedient step. Hythlodaeus shortens his stride to match Hades’ shorter legs. He wonders briefly why Hades did not recreate Amaurot to scale with his new body.

“How is work?” Hades asks.

“Perhaps you’d like to guess the newest trends in creation magicks?” Hythlodaeus asks in return. It was a question that never failed to allow Hades the room he needed to grouse about the taste of the general population. He never feels more fond of Hades than when he dedicates his considerable energy to complaint.

Hades doesn’t take the bait. He says, shrugging, “There are few motivations behind creation. We work towards the betterment of Etheirys, as always.”

Hythlodaeus tilts his head. He asks, “Do you think that’s all that drives us? What about creativity?” He pauses. “Or emotion—love, nostalgia, regret?”

“More often a lack of creativity and an abundance of regret, unfortunately,” Hades says with a huff.

They take a seat on a bench in the nearby park. Hythlodaeus does not mention the fact that they have nothing to eat, despite the obvious reenactment of their lunch meetings. The silence is companionable.

“Excuse me, Emet-Selch of the Convocation?” 

Both look up to see a man hovering over them. Hythlodaeus thinks he’s seen him before at the Bureau of the Administrator. If he remembers correctly, he thinks his name is Archilochus—but he wouldn’t be confident enough to say the guess aloud.

Archilochus does not acknowledge Hythlodaeus, bowing to Hades as if he were alone. 

“Honorable sir, I apologize for intruding, but I wanted to say—on behalf of all Amaurot—that we believe in you. These are dire times, but the Convocation will find a solution. You’ll save us all.”

Having apparently said all he wanted to, Archilochus slips away. 

He is not the only one to stop to greet Hades as they sit. The conversations largely follow the same theme.

Hades meets each declaration with a stony face, neither confirming nor denying. He acts like they are no more than wisps of air. But the set of his shoulders tightens and his jaw is prominent where he uncharacteristically bites his own tongue.

Hythlodaeus takes his hand, recognizing self-flagellation when he sees it. “You’re doing your best, Hades. Not even you can avert fate itself.”

Hades says nothing in return but disentangles his hand from Hythlodaeus’.

But he begins to spend more time in Amaurot and with Hythlodaeus. It feels like he’s waiting for something. Or someone.

One day, when Hythlodaeus sits companionably with Hades, arms across his shoulders, he decides to ask the question. It is as close to relaxed as he has seen Hades since this began.

“Where is Azem?”

Because who else could it be? There are few people who can crack through Hades’ tough exterior. He counts himself lucky to be amongst those individuals. And the other, well, he is conspicuous in his absence.

Hythlodaeus has searched Amaurot from top to bottom without finding so much as a sign of him. He cannot understand why Hades would reconstitute Hythlodaeus but avoid Azem.

Hades tenses beneath his arm. 

“Who can ever say where Azem is?” he answers, and Hythlodaeus would miss the rasp of emotion had he not been listening for it.

“I think you know his habits better than most.”

“And yet.”

“Is he not in the city?” Hythlodaeus asks, coming as close as he can to directness without admitting too much.

“No, I do not believe he is,” Hades says. After a pause, he adds, “Though perhaps it is time to extend an invitation.”

Unless he’s mistaken, Hythlodaeus begins to suspect that this elaborate stage may have been set for an audience of one.

Hades waits in Amaurot more often. The quality of his waiting has shifted.

“I think Azem will arrive soon,” Hades says.

“I’m sure you’re looking forward to his presence,” Hythlodaeus says.

Hades doesn’t answer. 

Not long after, Hythlodaeus meets another familiar soul. Although this soul is dimmer than that of Hades—presumably from having gone through the sundering—the color is unmistakable.

His old friend: Azem.

Whether it is the will of fate or Hades, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that they should meet. They converse, and it feels as easy as it ever did. Again, the body is changed—oddly to include coeurl-like ears. It is a whimsical touch that suits Azem. The personality is the same, earnest and willful.

Hythlodaeus finds himself explaining more than he anticipated to this piece of Azem. He tells him of his own situation—a shade of memory—and Hades. He says, “He will not have abandoned his course” and “he is not a man to bear his burdens lightly” but it still doesn’t seem enough. There has always been something of a communication rift between Azem and Hades, but Hades seems further now than ever before from them both. And yet, if Azem could only understand Hades’ reasons, he hopes they could find some sort of common ground.

Azem listens attentively, then he goes to find Hades.

Hades doesn’t come again.

Amaurot-that-is-not-Amaurot is very quiet in the following days without either Hades or Azem to interrupt its shallow existence.

Hythlodaeus startles when a shade of a citizen interrupts his thoughts. 

“A message for you, ser.”

He deposits into Hythlodaeus’ hands a note and fourteen distinctive crystals. The note reads nothing more than, “I’m afraid it’s my turn to abandon you, my love. If I do not return, please convey these to our mutual friend.”

Hythlodaeus smooths his finger over the face of two particular crystals. 

This time, there is no reason not to weep.