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Drink the Blood, Drink the Aether

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Despite everything that had occurred there (or, perhaps, because of it), you were drawn to Amaurot.

Beneath the waves, with paved streets and spires that fairly gleamed, the city beckoned to you with a song as silky and seductive as a siren. And, like any foolhardy sailor navigating unfamiliar tides, you couldn’t help but follow those sweet notes, trailing after whispered promises of forbidden knowledge long lost to time, of traces of a civilization that were now rendered extinct.

Of the home you never had in this lifetime.

Certainly, every one of the city states were all-too happy to have you, Ishgard eventually took you in as one of their own, legends of you would no-doubt be recited in the Far East for years to come, and the motley population of the rest of the First regaled you whenever you visited… but all those praises, all that gratitude, all that greeting you warmly by your title was for precisely that.

Your title.

Wherever you went, you were always hailed as the Warrior of Light, hero of Eorzea, ender of the Dragonsong War, the bringer of darkness, or any other myriad title the general populace thought to bestow upon you. Even in locales that were offered as places of respite for you, the topic of your many achievements was inevitably brought to the forefront or some manner of trouble came up which surely required your attention as the hero of the land. Despite the locals insisting you could consider their towns as your home, they always felt like anything but; you were always on edge, ever wary of being called away to deal with something or other at any moment. You couldn’t relax , couldn’t cast aside the mantle of hero that had grown so very heavy and tattered over the years you had worn it.

But not here.

Here, the shades that Emet-Selch created had no knowledge of your deeds, nor the titles given to you because of them. Hells, you were certain they wouldn’t believe you even if you tried to tell them the truth. They would likely just end up dismissing it as the adorable ramblings of a particularly imaginative child.

...All except one, anyway.

Hythlodaeus.

You imagined he would sit there calmly and patiently as you told him of your numerous deeds, chuckling ever-so gently, yet impishly at the humorous moments, frowning sternly at the bad ones, taking them all to be true events. Unlike the rest of the aimless shades that populated this city, he saw you for what you really were, for what you used to be. It was he who you felt most comfortable around after everything that had happened. He who was likely the only one you could ask for help about figuring out more of your former life without any judging looks or prying questions as to why, why, why you were so insistent on learning how your now-dead enemies used to live. And, even if you weren’t hunting for information, you could always offer him your presence. Surely such a thing would give him the comforting knowledge that he wasn’t the only person in this long since doomed city that knew it was all aetherial trickery and might even serve to echo how the two of you might have spent your lives together in the past, at least until you had to reluctantly return to your life in the present.

...If he weren’t so damned hard to find, that is.

Considering your previous encounters with him, you could have sworn he was purposefully hiding himself away, arriving before you only when you were in dire need of assistance. The other shades were no help —only pointing you in the direction of the Bureau of the Architect where he would have likely been located when this city was hale and whole. Of course, he was never present there, no-doubt off doing whatever a cognizant person would do in a false city composed of false, ignorant inhabitants. Performing some sort of prank on his fellow shades, probably.

However, when you finally did meet him once more, there was no trickery or whimsy to be had.

You hadn’t gotten around to visiting Amaurot lately, all your time caught up in dealing with the fall of Elidibus and everything that followed after. Ensuring the grateful residents of the Crystarium could carve their own path without the Crystal Exarch to guide them, making certain that the Scions were settling back into their own bodies without any complications, and after all that, Tataru… well, she simply did not allow you to run off for a while, fretting and fussing and claiming that you needed time to rest and recuperate. Eventually, you managed to convince her that you had enough time off and made your way back to this city that warmly welcomed you back as though you were the Traveler again, returning home after a long journey.

Though you noticed things were amiss almost immediately.

The automated voice greeting you in the long elevator ride downwards was choppy and distorted, long pauses punctuating its sentences. After it had taken you down to the ground floor, you noticed a lack of the shades bustling about their lives. There were already comparatively few of them for a city of this size before, but they were even more sparse now. Where a bench was filled, it now laid empty. Where a kindly shade previously stood beneath a lamppost and gave you directions, there was only a beam of light forlornly illuminating empty space. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, some of the shades who had been spared were now missing their conversational partners, yet still spoke and gestured as though they were still present, still clinging stubbornly to Emet-Selch’s script… but then, they never had any choice in the matter, now did they?

You hurried past them, looking for the one person who might be able to explain what had happened to you, the one person who was able to treat this cruel, repetitious play as improvisation.

You eventually found him in the most unlikely of locations, his own place of work. As soon as the doors of the Bureau of the Architect swung open before you, you noticed him standing in the ornate lobby, out of place and staring over at the countertops now unwillingly abandoned by their former occupants. It felt as though it took you an eternity to cross the expanse of tiles between the two of you even at your quickest run, but you did eventually reach him. Craning your neck up at him, you tugged at his robe which felt far more thin to the touch than one would expect. “...Hythlodaeus? That’s you, right?”

Seeming to snap out of his thoughts, he instead turned his attention to you, looking down with a ponderous tilt of his head. “Ah… my new, old friend. I am glad that you have decided to grace us with another visit in your surely-busy life.”

“Yeah, well…” You glanced over at those counters that he had been staring at, remembering the Amaurotine who had been baffled at your lack of magical prowess and the other who had spoken in length about their new automaton concept. “It looks like I picked a bad time for it. What happened here?”

“Ah… You noticed that we seem to be a touch short-staffed at the moment, I see.” Despite the joke, his lips were drawn into a thin line as his gaze followed your own. “As you well know, this city and its inhabitants were all recreated using Emet-Selch’s aether. With his defeat, the enchantment holding this place together has begun to unravel, slowly, but surely.”

Emet-Selch… It felt like an eternity since you confronted and slayed him with the powers of auracite and a whole shard’s worth of light aether. The thought that his creation was able to even last this long after his death filled you with both awe and terror at just how powerful his magicks must have been… But not anymore, of course.

“And the other shades as well, judging by how few of them I saw. Some of them seem fine, though… Well, as fine as they can get, anyway.”

Hythlodaeus tilted his head to one side, thinking over it for a moment. “I suspect it has to do with how much aether they utilize during their daily lives. Those who use quite a bit of aether exhausted whatever supply Emet-Selch gifted them to keep up the illusion of a bustling city while the ones who do not have been able to sustain themselves mostly intact.”

You squinted up at him, studying what you could see of his face, which admittedly didn’t tell you very much. “What about you, then? I imagine you use an awful lot of aether doing… whatever you do around here.”

“Oh, do not concern yourself with my well-being. I am fine.” His tone may have sounded genuine, but you noticed the way his eyes shifted to one side, how lips were curved into a forced smile. They were subtle signs, of course, but you were able to pick them out.

You had been in a similar position to Hythlodaeus enough times, after all.

"Oh, bullshite. You expect me to believe that some shades have vanished entirely and you're over here doing just peachy? I may be Sundered, but I doubt I'm 1/14th as smart as I used to be."

That false smile evaporated and he let out a vexed huff. "And Emet-Selch called me the perceptive one…" He grumbled as though the facade he attempted to put up was impossible to see right through. "Yes, well, I have certainly found myself… weakening ever since his defeat. It is almost as though my ties to this world are loosening… All my senses are becoming duller, my head feels as though it is stuffed with cotton… It is not a pleasant experience, I would say."

After that little under-exaggeration, he smiled, clearly trying, and failing, to brighten the mood a bit. "But it is also not unexpected. As a shade, I knew that this city—and my existence along with it—would only last as long as Emet-Selch required it. At any moment, he could have chosen to dispel his enchantment and this place would appear as the cold, empty ruins they truly are once more. While I believe his sentimentality prevented him from snapping his fingers and undoing this painstaking recreation of our former home on a whim, he certainly had the ability to do so."

A slow shake of the head, a sigh. "But I digress. My point is that I knew that my time would come eventually, so I have no regrets. Why, I was even able to assist you, my new, old friend. Knowing that I have done that much will serve to give me peace."

You patiently listened to all Hythlodaeus had to tell you, as you had done during your previous encounters, no matter how much you wished to interrupt him and call his speech out for the load of bullshite that it was. Throughout your travels, death followed in your wake, claiming no small amount of your allies as collateral damage, sacrifices to ensure your foes were slain. This was no sacrifice. This was a slow, lonely, insidious demise, like a dying star at the edge of the firmament, brilliant light sluggishly dimming before sputtering away into nothingness.

You had had more than your fill of needless death.

Quickly wracking your brain, you attempted to think of a way to save him, to keep from counting him among the many others who had fallen. A mere shade of an ancient being made of Emet-Selch's aether…. Aether!

"Take my aether." You blurted out, raising your hand to a now-surprised Hythlodaeus. "Some of it should at least make you feel better, buy you some time, something . I'm not gonna let you just waste away down here."

For a moment, he only blinked owlishly at your offered hand, then, "...I… I could not. You have much more need of your aether than I do." The hesitation was clear in his voice, though. However much he might claim he was alright with dying, an offer for salvation was still all-too tempting, especially for a being who was no-doubt accustomed to being essentially immortal.

"Yeah, that's why I said "some"." You explained, exasperated, shaking your hand towards him. "Just enough to tide you over until we can figure out something more permanent. And we will figure out something." A smile. "Trust me. These sorts of things have a habit of working themselves out one way or another around me."

At those words, his eyes seemed to soften, but were unfocused as they stared at you… no… through you. Piercing through flesh, blood, and bone, they beheld the aether contained within, the soul that was fragmented, but still apparently familiar enough for him to identify. He smiled then, nostalgic but secretive, as if sharing a joke with an old friend whom he hadn't seen in a long while.

And then he blinked, his gaze refocusing on your mortal body.

"...Very well."

You expected him to coax some of your aether out of your body the way you had seen some mages do, a quick, painless transference of energy. Instead, he crouched down as close to your level as he could get before leaning down, down, down, massive head dipping below your own, white hair slipping loose from his hood to tickle your skin. You then felt a couple of sharp pinpricks at the junction of your neck and shoulder before his mouth easily closed over that area and he sucked hard .

You yelped, more out of surprise than any actual pain, and made to draw back, but… that suction felt good and it soothed you enough to relax even as this shade began to sup on your blood. You should have been pushing him back, demanding what in the seven hells did he think he was doing, but you simply couldn't, especially when that large tongue lavished over both of those wounds at once without any difficulty. Goosebumps rose on your flesh and you gasped , shuddering lightly at the warm slickness of it. As your blood was drained from you, you became woozy and lightheaded, your eyelids fluttering and your thoughts growing muddled, all blending together in a murky mess.

The heat pooling in your abdomen was all-too evident, however, every lick and suck overwhelming the instinctual fear for your life with sheer pleasure. It even served to complement your arousal, in fact. Every one of your senses were alight and working in overdrive with the feeling of danger, with the thought that you weren't sure what would happen next, that this could very possibly be the end of you…

And then he released you.

Suddenly devoid of all those sensations and lightheaded from blood loss, you swayed on your feet and would very nearly have toppled over had Hythlodaeus not quickly caught you and gathered you up in his arms. His very warm arms, you foggily realized. It was as though all the heat from your blood had flowed into his own body, revitalizing him. Nestling in against his chest, you also noticed the fabric of his robes seemed thicker to the touch.

"...What was that all about…?" You mumbled as you blearily looked up at him, feeling as though you could sleep through a solid day.

His tongue flicked out to lick his lips and, oh, did he always have fangs or did he magic a pair up just for this occasion? Your mind was too foggy to even begin to think about it, but they were certainly there right now, speckled crimson with your blood.

"Ah… my apologies. You see, aether is concentrated most strongly in the blood, so I thought to… acquire it straight from the source, if you will.” A tilt of the head as worried eyes look down at you. “However, I fear that I might have consumed too much…”

Quickly, you shook your head before nuzzling it into that thick robe. “S’okay, don’t worry about it… S’long as you’re okay, that’s all that matters…” Your eyelids fluttered again, his new warmth all-too comfortable, lulling your hazy brain and quite literally drained body to an easy slumber.

However, you did have one last coherent thought before succumbing; given how that experience felt, you wouldn’t mind one bit if it turned into your permanent solution for ensuring Hythlodaeus had sufficient aether reserves…