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the color of hope

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As the stranger turns away, Hythlodaeus’s smile falters, and he allows himself to grieve.

Here at the end of the beginning, two golden lights soar through the confluence and vanish, and he finds that he believes. The story they have been told is too absurd to be true and too bitter to bear, and yet every occurrence here in Elpis has been a piece of a puzzle slotting neatly into place. The image now lies completed before him, and it paints a clear picture of the future to come.

He does not want to believe in their doom. He does not want to think that nothing awaits them but ruin and destruction and twelve thousand years of tragedy. But Hythlodaeus has always been a logical man, more so than his unexpectedly sentimental friends. He studies concepts; he observes the physical underpinnings of the world on which they live; and so just as he traces the intake and expenditure of aether in a proposed lifeform, so too does he trace all that they have learned and seen through to its inevitable conclusion.

And it is in that moment of clarity and acceptance that he fully comprehends their fate. Hythlodaeus, trapped within the god they will create to save their star, a hell of their own making. Emet-Selch, left to struggle on for twelve thousand years without them. Azem, disgraced and killed and sundered and forgotten.

He mourns for Emet-Selch and the loneliness he has yet to know; he mourns for Azem, forever lost to them. They promised to return to the star together rather than ever be apart. No matter how long Emet-Selch continues to fight, and how long Hythlodaeus continues to wait, they will never bring back Azem.

It is a secret locked deep within his heart: He has come to think of the color of Azem’s soul as the color of hope. Though that hope remains, shaped into the form of a stranger, it is faint and faded. Even were the soul to be made whole, its bearer would be someone else entirely, someone without the memory of Hythlodaeus’s touch or the warmth of Emet-Selch’s arms.

Azem is gone, he thinks, and though it is not true—though his Azem, in this time, yet remains—the thought brings with it a sharp, all-encompassing pain such as he has never known.

Their future is written. He sees the same realization reflected in the two who stand with him. Hermes wears it as resignation, despair twisting his mouth into a bitter grimace and shoulders slumped with exhaustion. Emet-Selch carries it with outrage and his typical stubbornness: for him, it is unthinkable that there exists a foe against which he cannot win.

Hythlodaeus closes his eyes, and draws a deep breath, and sets his shoulders. Kairos is fully activated and there is nothing they can do to save themselves. They have only seconds before they forget all that has occurred. They will suffer. They will lose Azem. But for now, they are still here.

Hythlodaeus is not Hermes, who has given up on this star; he is not Emet-Selch, who has ever held the power of the Underworld at his disposal and has never before faced an insurmountable challenge. He is only Hythlodaeus, who knows his limits well, and so he acts as he always does.

He steps up next to Emet-Selch. Emet-Selch glances at him, the sorrow and fear in his eyes a reflection of Hythlodaeus’s own. Hythlodaeus laces his fingers through Emet-Selch’s, and squeezes his hand, and with all the strength he possesses, he summons up a smile.

Everything has already been set into motion; there is no stopping the fall of the dominoes, and they can do nothing but see what pattern is formed.

And so, even as he mourns for that bright, beloved soul, he chooses to believe in the inheritor of hope.

 


 

As the stranger turns away, Hythlodaeus’s smile falters, and he allows himself to grieve.

He has always known what has occurred in the world above. In the process of recreating Amaurot, Emet-Selch accidentally bestowed knowledge on the shade that he was never meant to have. Their star had been sundered and their lord Zodiark with it. With Zodiark incomplete, there was no retrieving the souls that had been sacrificed to give Him power. Hythlodaeus—the real Hythlodaeus, not the pale reflection of his shade—was trapped, and Emet-Selch is alone.

(Sometimes, Hythlodaeus, shade-of-Hythlodaeus, wonders if he is jealous of Hythlodaeus, trapped-soul-of-Hythlodaeus. He decides, in a most logical fashion, that he is not. Here at least he does not suffer; here at least he can still meet with Emet-Selch, broken and twisted as he has become in the intervening millennia. That he is not the target of Emet-Selch’s affections—that Emet-Selch does not look at shade-of-Hythlodaeus without seeing trapped-soul-of-Hythlodaeus—he tries not to think about.)

Hythlodaeus has always known what had occurred in the world above, and so he has always known for a certainty that Azem was sundered and Azem is dead. Emet-Selch would never tell that sort of lie, and the grief he wears like a cloak that bows his shoulders is too heavy to be feigned. Hythlodaeus knows that the bright soul the color of hope has been torn apart and broken, and he knows that the person he is modeled after loved that soul. He knows—he has always known—and yet faced with the evidence, a stranger too small and faint to be rightfully considered a person, he finds, much to his surprise, that perhaps Emet-Selch imbued him with more of the soul-of-Hythlodaeus than either of them realized.

Azem is gone, he thinks, and feels something wrench inside of him. He places a hand over where his heart should be—a still, empty space—and thinks again, with purpose, Azem is gone.

And ah, there it is again, that undeniable spear of pain.

He stops walking and bows his head. He reaches up, wiping at the dampness beneath his mask with the palm of one hand. It’s an interesting conundrum. Is it Hythlodaeus’s grief he feels, as the person he is meant to play, or is it Emet-Selch’s grief, an echo from his creator?

Hythlodaeus ponders the question with detachment. If he were to think about the reasons for the feeling rather than its source, he fears he might unravel. He is a shade, flimsy as a sheet of paper; he was never meant to be more than a flat, uninteresting puppet, a set piece on Emet-Selch’s stage. Dig too deep and he will be torn through and ruined.

The shade-of-Hythlodaeus takes a deep breath and resumes his walk. There is no point dwelling on it, nor paying much mind to the thrumming ache that has taken up new residence where his heart should be.

As he is not Hythlodaeus, so too is the Warrior of Light not Azem. Neither are as they were in the time before recorded history, in the world unsundered. Even so, his faith does not waver. Then as now, he believes in the bearer of the bright soul, his new old friend.

 


 

As the stranger turns away, Hythlodaeus’s smile falters, and he allows himself to grieve.

He has existed within Zodiark for so long that he has ceased to comprehend the passage of time. Decades might have passed since he offered himself up in sacrifice; a thousand thousand years might have elapsed and he would not have known. Surrounded by wailing souls, their individuality slowly stripped away by fear and sorrow, he has waited, his interminable imprisonment interrupted only by visits from the scant handful of unsundered remaining.

They have never seen him. Of course they have never seen him, else Emet-Selch would have apologized till his voice grew hoarse, and Hythlodaeus would have assured him, each and every moment, that he held no ill will. They have never seen him, or else perhaps Emet-Selch would not have known such loneliness, and Hythlodaeus might have even experienced happiness.

They have never seen him, and never spoken to him, and so he has only scant knowledge of what has occurred on Etheirys since his sacrifice. That their star has been sundered and Zodiark rendered helpless, he can hardly fail to have noticed; that there is nothing left of their people save for three of the Convocation, he has inferred through eavesdropping and rumors. Even then he has always had more questions than answers, but there is nothing he can do except wait and believe.

But the last thing he expects is for those answers to be provided by a familiar stranger with a faint soul the color of hope.

Only then does he learn of all that has occurred these past twelve thousand years. He laughs when he is told of the phantom Amaurot, but it is a laugh blurred by tears. Oh, Hades, how lonely you must have been, to remake our city in an attempt to soothe your heart. How much you must have missed me to create a shade in my absence and set it to helping this reincarnation of Azem, just as I always did in times near-forgotten.

(He wonders, briefly, if he is jealous of the shade-of-Hythlodaeus. The shade at least could meet with Emet-Selch, broken and twisted though he had become in the intervening millennia; the shade at least could offer comfort to his love, paltry and insufficient though it must have been. Though the shade was not the target of Emet-Selch’s affections—though the trapped-soul-of-Hythlodaeus is the one dear to Emet-Selch’s heart—Hythlodaeus hopes it was able to ease his pain.)

He learns from this faint, broken soul that Emet-Selch has at last gone to his final rest after millennia of suffering. He learns too that Azem has been gone for those same millennia, that the time between Hythlodaeus’s departure and Azem’s may as well have been a short, dying gasp for all the years that have passed since.

Hythlodaeus has never been one for wailing and gnashing of teeth. He has held on to hope and belief long after the souls around him have succumbed to their base emotions. But when his new old friend walks away, he covers his face and sinks to his knees. The loss of Azem is a knife to his chest, for all that his love has been dead and gone for countless lifetimes of men. The loss of Hades, at the hands of Azem’s remnant no less, hurts just as much.

Hythlodaeus was the first to leave them. Now he is the only one who remains.

He is the last.

It was never meant to be this way.

 


 

As Hythlodaeus turns away from the stranger, a small smile finds its way to his face.

How many times in one life can one meet the same person for the first time? Honestly. This is verging on the absurd.

As they step away, as they release their corporeal forms, Emet-Selch pauses, sending one last, lingering glance at their new old friend. Hythlodaeus does not look. Hythlodaeus smiles, tilts his head back, and says, “They’ll be fine, you know. They will put an end to the song of despair.”

Emet-Selch snorts. “They’d better. I did not allow myself to be called back from the dead for my power to be wasted.”

He laughs and places a hand on Emet-Selch’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. Though Emet-Selch’s face is contorted into its usual, much-beloved scowl, the shape of his soul gives him away. He is worried, though he will refuse to admit it.

Hythlodaeus is not worried. He has ever had the utmost faith in their dearest friend.

The gentle waves of the Underworld wash over them, warm and welcoming, enfolding them in its embrace. Hythlodaeus gives himself over to them, drifting along on the currents, though he does not release Emet-Selch. Somehow, their hands find each other and clasp tight. They will not be parted now.

He closes his eyes and remembers another ocean from another time. The water had been cooler, then. He’d floated with hair drifting loose about him, his face turned up to the sunlight, Emet-Selch’s complaints and Azem’s laughter ringing in his ears. They’d gotten into a splash fight, children that they were, and he had ignored them right up until Azem had yanked at his ankle and Emet-Selch had shoved him under.

Hythlodaeus had always believed those halcyon days would last forever. Even as the Final Days brought forth ash and ruin, he never doubted that they would return. The brightness of his memories shone even through the darkness of Zodiark, and he had ever dreamed of the day he would once again reunite with his loves.

He can say it now: It had been a fruitless dream from the very first. That very longing for the perfection of their past brought forth their end. Now, they have handed the fate of their star over to those incomplete children… and the children will be fine. They have grown stronger than those who once bore their unsundered souls.

The time for grief is over. The flame of hope shines on, lighting the way to a future brighter even than their lost past. So Hythlodaeus thinks to himself, and so he smiles.

“What now?” he says.

“Now I am overdue for a long rest,” Emet-Selch says, and though he tries to sound annoyed, there is a soft edge to his voice that cannot be denied. “I’d like some time to recover before I am forced into being reborn.”

“Let’s put that off until we can be reborn together,” Hythlodaeus says. “You are tired of being alone, I think; Azem deserved better than to die and return without us; and I am tired of grieving the both of you.”

Emet-Selch sighs. “Azem is gone,” he says, and for all that his expression is still one of long-suffering exasperation, his voice is infinitely gentle.

“I know,” Hythlodaeus says. He does know; he’s known twice over, ever since he realized what it meant to encounter someone with the fragments of Azem’s soul.

But even then, some constants remain. Even faint, broken, and sundered, that soul still glows steady and unwavering.

Emet-Selch must see something of his thoughts in his face, because he groans and rolls his eyes. “Oh, very well. If you don’t mind the wait, I suppose I can hold out a little longer.”

Hythlodaeus laughs. He brings Emet-Selch’s hand to his lips and kisses his knuckles—and oh, how long has it been since he’s seen those golden eyes widen over cheeks dusted faintly pink?

“I waited for the two of you for twelve millennia,” he murmurs. “What’s one more mortal lifetime?”

Despite himself, the corner of Emet-Selch’s lips curves up in a lopsided smile. Hythlodaeus kisses it, just as he always has, just as he’s longed to do for twelve thousand years.

They will linger. They will wait. And soon enough, they will be reunited with that soul the color of hope.