Restoration: Heart to Heart

“YOU BIG DHALMEL!”

Amon heard Koh coming from a mile away. She was obviously not happy, and it was time to face the music. 

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Koh demanded as she burst into the room. “They told me they picked you up wandering around town in a daze and scaring people out of their wits! What’s wrong with you?”

Amon just watched her quietly, giving her time to work out the sharpest part of her frustration through words. When he didn’t respond, she resorted to grand, frustrated motions with her hands.

Then she just dropped her hands to her sides, giving him a long look.

“What?” He finally spoke.

“You…” Koh’s face struggled between relief and sadness. “You’re looking so much better. But… but how? What did they do to heal you that I couldn’t?”

He knew she was going to take this hard. And it was all his fault for doing this to her.

“’Twasn’t you, Koh,” Amon told her gently. “I wasn’t honest with you about what was going on.”

“What?” She looked a little hurt.

“Though you worked very hard to heal my symptoms, my ailment was caused by aether sickness.”

Koh froze at that statement, a silent surprise written on her face. He could see all sorts of thoughts running through her head as she stared at him. “What… does that mean?”

“Something happened at the summit of the Keeper of the Lake,” Amon still spoke evasively. She didn’t need to know all the details. “The block on my connection to aether was removed. But, unregulated, this form is still unable to maintain a balance. So…”

“Amon..!” she breathed.

“I didn’t tell you because I know you’re not fond of the idea of my magic returning and…”

Koh choked then shook her head. “I’m even less fond of the idea of you dying! You should have told me! What did you think I was going to do if I knew?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you’d decide it was better if my own magic consume me and leave you without the threat of Amon of Allag returning to Eorzea?”

Her face screwed up, then she outright smacked him on the arm.

Amon ducked in surprise. It didn’t hurt, but the cat-girl had never been gutsy enough to do something like that before.

Tears of frustration shimmered her eyes as she exclaimed, “I don’t know what your weird Allagan people do, but that’s not what we do here!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” He spread his hands to her, meaning the apology.

“Do you know how much I fretted and worried about you?”

“Yes.”

“And everyone else, too. All these people… did all these nice things… said these nice things… and all you did was lie to everyone?”

Amon looked away.

“You… you…” Koh threw her hands up and began to pace the floor to vent.

After a while of this, the Elezen tilted his head sideways with a silly face and an appealing voice, “Do you hate me?”

She stopped and turned towards him, her mouth open to say something. But then she caught on to how absolutely ridiculous he looked, and her expression changed. Letting out a long breath, it turned into a snort-laugh.

“For an Allagan, you’re so dumb.” She told him.

“I know.” He agreed and cracked a smile. “Can you forgive this dumb Allagan?”

“Ugh… Fine!” Koh pressed her fingers into her temples. “You can’t keep doing things like this! No more of this secretive stuff when someone’s life depends on it. Even your own.”

Amon sighed.

“I don’t want to hear ‘I will try’ from you, either,” she wagged a finger at him. “Tell me yes.”

He winced, but decided he owed her this much, at least. “Aye.”

“So let me get this straight. The crystals they set up in the room help control the flow of the aether for you,” Koh murmured, peering closely at one of the shimmering stones. “But we still need a more permanent solution.”

“The thought of living the rest of my life in this room is not appealing,” Amon agreed in a tone more humorous than the situation deserved.

“So… that means we need a crystal?”

“Perhaps.”

She glanced at him. “You don’t sound excited about that.”

“These crystals do the job, but the solution is imperfect.”

“What do you mean?”

“Much of my aether signature is tied to the energies of the Syrcus Tower,” he tried to explain in the simplest terms possible. She wanted the truth, then he would give it to her. “’Twas the largest and most capable focus I had to work with. It allowed me to delve into magics that I probably shouldn’t have.”

“Like putting the whole Tower into stasis for ages?” She caught on quickly.

“Aye. Like that.” Amon grinned arrogantly. Sleeping for ages wasn’t his favorite way to pass the time, but it was a clever snap-decision that he was rather proud of making… given the kind of pressure he was under to come up with a solution.

“I always wondered,” Koh murmured looking at him, just briefly, like something out of one of her story books.

“Anyhow,” he cleared his throat feeling a little awkward about sharing so much information. “A better solution would be to devise a focus using the energies of the Tower. But seeing I can’t get inside…”

Suddenly, the cat-girl’s ears shot straight up, her eyes widening until perfectly round.

Amon watched this transformation with amusement. “What?”

“What if… I brought the Tower to you?” Koh said, her voice wispy with excitement.

“Mmm?”

She jumped up, rushing to the door, in such a flurry that her tail was practically poofed out to its largest. “Just wait here! I have something!”

“Koh?” Amon called after her with a puzzled look. But she was already gone.

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Restoration: The Truth

Everything about this situation left Amon disarmed. The lack of his mask. Kan-E-Senna sitting only a room-span away. The fact that she knew him by his real name. And…

How does something like this even happen?

As if she sensed his confusion, she folded her hands and said, “You must have many and more questions.”

“A…aye.”  

“As do I,” Kan-E-Senna fixed him with an unwavering gaze. “So I propose we trade. Truth for truth.”

“The truth has never been my strong suit, My Lady,” Amon tried to regain some face with a grin.

“Perhaps this can be an exercise in strengthening it, then.” 

That was very quickly squelched. There was a little more bite to this tiny woman than he realized.

He gave a slight laugh under his breath. “Very well.”

“As a gesture of goodwill, I shall start,” Kan-E-Senna said. She took a moment to collect her words before speaking again. “’Twas no accident that you found yourself in Gridania after you awoke in Eorzea. In fact, many things are not an accident, Amon.”

The Elezen leaned back, just glad to have enough mental clarity to work through the words.

“You were rescued by the Sons of Saint Coinach when they entered Syrcus Tower, seeking what relics and research they could. They found you in a very dire condition, and quickly learned you weren’t one of the warriors who had entered to fell the threats in the Tower.” She spoke slowly, each word measured and honest. “And when they could not decipher who… or what… you were, they brought you here to be tended.”

“I see.” This made sense.

There was a huge hole in Amon’s memories from the time of his defeat until… well… just that one day when he was suddenly aware of the fact he was still alive and in Gridania. He had too much on his mind to really question it, and no one ever hassled him, so he didn’t think much of it.

“Almost immediate upon your arrival, the Spirits spoke to us of your origins,” Kan-E-Senna nodded slowly.

“Guess I’m a popular guy,” he tried to joke with a shrug.

“Indeed.” This won him a smile in return. It was like hitting first prize in the Jumbo Cactpot. “We sought advice from individuals who were gifted in the Echo to confirm and clarify what the Spirits told us. That you are, indeed, Amon of Allag.”

The Elezen swallowed down this information. “How… many people know that I’m here?”

“A select few.”

He groaned and covered his face.

“Fear not,” Kan-E-Senna reassured him. “We were very discreet.”

“Why?” He looked up and furrowed his brows at her.

“Because, there are enough people in high places who know your story.”

Amon shook his head in disbelief. “You protected my identity?”

“Yes.”

“Instead of taking me out back, and beating me like a rug or… or… hanging me or… whatever your people do to creatures like me?”

“Yes.”

Why?

“Because,” she took a deep breath. “This may sound nebulous, but the Spirits agreed. These happenings are naught at random. There is meaning and reason in your coming to Eorzea. And, all life, including your own, is something worth protecting.”

Amon looked down at his hands, feeling the heat of shame rising in his face.

“I am aware that this is not a creed you lived by in the past,” Kan-E-Senna said softly. “But perhaps, now that you’ve been spared and judged to have value, you will extend that courtesy to others.”

“This… was your choice?” he asked quietly.

“It was,” she confirmed. “Just as it was my hand that healed you when you were brought here. There were some who feared interacting with an Allagan, much less you in particular.”

This made him chuckle a bit. “Well, I’m nothing to fear anymore.”

“The strength of your aether signature in this room says otherwise.” 

Amon shook his head again. “This form is too weak to utilize it, My Lady. ‘Tis what has made me fall ill to begin with.”

“What made you fall ill is your inability to be truthful to your companions.”

He winced at that.

“Yes. I am aware that you’ve withheld information from the girl, Koh, who tends you. This set her up for failure, no matter how hard she tried. That is rather unfair of you, Amon.”

“I…” he didn’t know how to explain himself. “She would be… distressed… to learn that the aether has opened itself to me again.”

“Amon.” She gave him that look. A look similar to the one he remembered his own mother giving long, long ago when he was being dumb and unreasonable.

“Did you just give me the Mom-look?”

His candid question took her by surprise, earning another smile. “You appear to require it.”

Since he was on a roll, he decided keep going. “How are you so well-informed on my personal business?”

“’Tis my secret.”

Amon wagged a finger at her. “You said we’re talking truth. Secrecy is not truth.”

Kan-E-Senna gave a slight sigh, but looked unruffled. “As I said, many things are not by chance. This includes those who chose to be your companions.”

He froze, his eyes widening.

“Part of my bargaining to allow you to walk freely included me taking the responsibility to keep watch on your activity. That was easy to do as long as you remained in Gridania,” she admitted. “But once you wandered afar, we needed eyes on you.”

The Elezen choked in accusation. “Elder Seedseer. Are you saying you spied on me?”

She mulled over this question, glancing off in the distance for a moment, her lovely face lost in thought. Then, Kan-E-Senna turned and nodded. “Yes.”

Amon’s mouth hung open for a while, feeling completely duped. Then, he started to laugh. He couldn’t help it. Something about this was too funny.

This also explained his strange feelings… what he thought was a crush… towards Kan-E-Senna. It seemed so out of character for him. But now he realized, perhaps something in his subconscious was aware of the fact that she’d helped him… healed him… and was the one who gave him the second chance.

“Pray tell, what is so funny?” She gave him an odd look.

“All this time, I thought I was pulling the wool over everyone else,” he snickered and wiped his eyes. “My Lady, you have beaten me at my own game!”

Kan-E-Senna smiled yet again. This time, there was just the tiniest bit of pride there. “You are a strange man, Amon of Allag.”

“Indeed. And one who is in your debt.” He flashed his charm in her direction, but couldn’t tell if it had any effect. 

“Perhaps.” There was a slight twinkle in her eye. “You may yet repay that in time.”

“We shall see.” Then he prodded, “May I ask who the spy is?”

“You can ask, but I will not answer.”

He groaned. “Really?”

“You know that is not how it works, Amon.” She looked the other way with a hint of a smile still playing on her lips. “Besides, the so-called spy has been taken in by your charms, I’m afraid, and is fairly neutralized. We are lucky that we get any information at all anymore.”

“Ah…” Amon tilted his head back. Kan-E-Senna would not afford him the information, but he was pretty sure he knew who it was.

The Elder Seedseer rose to her feet, signaling that their conversation was coming to a close. She placed a tiny, cool hand on his own in a gentle motion. He felt his pulse quicken at her touch and tried to school himself to calmness.

“For now, I ask you to rest. We’ve set up crystals to regulate the flow of aether temporarily in this room. But you will need a more permanent solution. For that, I shall call on Koh.”

“You don’t have to tell her…”

“No, I won’t,” Kan-E-Senna interrupted with that Mom-look again. “You shall tell her.”

Amon groaned. There was no getting out of this.

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Descent: Jail Break

Amon couldn’t stand the insides of his apartment for one more second. Not the look. The smell. The anything. So, that day, when Koh brought him something to help him sleep, he pretended to take it and then spat it out when she wasn’t looking.

Then, after she was done administering to her heart’s content, and left him to what she thought would be a long nap, he threw off the covers and put on his boots. Sliding a secret mask from a hidden compartment in his desk, he put it on.

The Elezen was restless, fevered and still in a state of hallucination, but sitting there in that room was getting him nowhere. Each of the dreams that had visited him played in his mind, blurring and fusing into his thoughts until they were the only things he knew.

Amon didn’t have much time left. The aether was tearing him apart, and it was only a matter of time before his body could no longer withstand the abuse.

He wasn’t entirely certain what he was looking for when he made his way to the streets of Gridania. Everything reeled and twisted around him, voices sounding distant one moment and right by his ear the next. But no one seemed to mind him – his mask was commonly worn there, especially by Elezen.

So as long as they didn’t take note that he was dressed in his pajamas, he wasn’t raising many flags. Certainly, there were stories of drunk Wood Wailers who traversed the town in their night garments and mask from time to time.

Amon wandered without direction until he caught sight of something – a flash of auburn hair on a slight, petite form.

Within that moment, the world around him stopped moving. His focus fell completely on this girl, and though he only saw the back of her, he was sure. Shakily, he stumbled forward, following, trying to catch up to her.

“Clio!” He tried to call out, but the name broke on his tongue. Desperation welled in his chest as he redoubled his effort to reach her. His body was not working right, and what should have been easy for his long strides to traverse felt impossible.

“Please, wait!”

She didn’t hear him. But other people began to take notice. Sounds of concern rose as strangers watched him stagger and drop to the ground.

He got up again, choking on the words he held buried within him for so many dark years. “Clio… forgive me!

Finally, he reached her, one hand clasping her shoulder to make her aware of his presence. The girl startled with a frightened sound, rounding and staring up into his masked face with fear.

For a second of clarity, Amon could see… this wasn’t Clio.

But then, his mind convulsed and his vision blurred, showing him a terrible, twisted visage. Clio stared up at him, face white as death, the large glasses she always wore cracked beyond use. Where the executioner-blade had sliced her neck, a line of black blood clotted… very slowly spreading in a semblance of decay.

Ghastly, the dead Clio screamed.

People turned, converging on them. And in Amon’s vision, they, too, shambled towards him, faces of death. Of people from his past… torture victims, war prisoners, clone after clone after clone.

He stumbled back from the horror, too weak to run, hardly keeping his balance. They reached out for him, dead hands grabbing him as he flailed. Pulling him down.

Words sounded around him, but he could not make sense of them.

“Send for a healer! This man is terribly ill!”

“Hold him! Hold him! He’s not seeing clearly!”

“I have no idea who he is! My name isn’t Clio!”

“Someone get that mask off before he suffocates himself!”

And then the chaos collapsed into nothing.

Amon’s staggered breathing woke him. He found himself in a place of cool darkness, a damp rag placed over his burning forehead, and the peaceful sound of running water in the distance. It wasn’t clear what had happened… he only remembered going into town – why had he done that? What did he seek to find?

And now he was… where?

Wherever he was, this was the first time he’d felt relief from the bombardment of aether since leaving the Keeper of the Lake. Something… had changed.

“Are you waking?” A soft voice asked him.

The Elezen let out a long breath, pushing himself up slightly in the bed. Pulling the damp rag from his face, he squinted across the room. Then he let out a sharp gasp.

Sitting on the other side of the room was none other than the Elder Seedseer, Kan-E-Senna.

Amon swallowed down the reaction that shot through him – one of childish embarrassment and stammering doltery. All he could manage was a short nod, being very aware that his mask was gone and this picture of perfection and beauty was staring him straight in the face.

“You are suffering from the most extreme case of Aether Sickness I’ve ever seen someone survive. But, of course, you knew that, didn’t you?” Kan-E-Senna paused, tilting her head slowly. “Amon of Allag.”

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Descent: Nightmare Scape – Super Ego

Amon had come to dread the sleeping hours, which due to the sedative that Koh readily dosed him with, had become more common than his waking hours. The cat-girl continued to decipher his illness desperately, with no help from him – not that he was all that coherent to offer that kind of information anymore.

Even the Elezen had come to accept that his state was not improving, and likely would not, unless he finally divulged what Koh needed to know. But his mind was so fuzzy and his dreams bled into the waking hours until he couldn’t parse one from another.  

He found himself once more at the Crystal Tower – the only hint Amon had that this was a dream. However, this time, he stood outside the gate, at the base where the Tower met the Labyrinth. This puzzled him until he heard a pair of familiar voices hail him.

“Welcome, Maker.”

Amon turned, observing the two figures walking towards him in the distance. They spoke in unison, to an eerie effect, using the same words and expressing the same thoughts. Created things, they were. The clones of Unei and Doga.

He knew their features all too well – how many copies had he made for experimental purposes? He’d lost track a very long time ago. Being of the royal Allagan line, their genetics had been ripe for testing procedures that went into reviving Xande and unlocking the secrets that led to the desired immortality.

Not all of these experiments were successes. Time after time, he’d watched the clones take the brunt of his failure. Often, this led to terrible physical manifestations which rendered them unusable and forced him to eliminate them.

Some might have claimed that this was a form of murder… but clones were not people. That was something he always stood by. They were a stand-in and the best alternative next to experimenting on real people.

In the end, clone experimentation was the most humane way to progress Allagan society. And when the clones expired, he just replicated more.

This particular pair of clones, however, was different. They watched him with an unsettling awareness in those blood-red eyes, gifted with a lucidity that clones did not typically have. These had been imbued with a knowledge and purpose that he had not placed within them.

“Your path continues to bring you back to Syrcus Tower, it seems,” they spoke with an unemotional factuality.  

Faced with his own creations, ones that apparently wished to chit-chat, Amon wasn’t sure what to say. It was an awkward meeting.

He instinctively took a polite, but pretentious tone, “Indeed. And you as well. Why are you here?”

“Why… to see what’s become of you, Maker.” They both smiled a vacant smile that sent shivers through him.

“Don’t do that,” he muttered.

This appeared to cause them to smile all the more. As if purposefully defying him.

“You were involved in unsealing Syrcus Tower, I take it.” If they wanted chit-chat, he would give it to them.

“Indeed,” they answered in unison. “’Twas the purpose we were intended for. We lacked the strength to directly facilitate your downfall, or that of Xande’s, and break the covenant with the Void. However, we found those with the power who could.”

“Murderous little clones,” Amon crossed his arms with a scowl.

“We admit that humor is often lost upon us, but we recognize the irony of that statement, Maker.”

The Elezen cracked a grim smirk, “Yes, of course.”

“We also come with a question of personal curiosity.”

“Mmm?” This took him by surprise. But not as much as the question that followed.

“What does it feel like to be one of us now?”

Amon grounded his teeth, biting off the words in response. “Whatever do you mean?”

“A clone, Maker. A clone like us.” They observed his reaction with something akin to malicious delight. Or maybe that was just his imagination attributing actual emotion to their blank faces.

“I’m not a clone. I simply have…”

“You are an awareness and aether entity transferred into a cloned body. That still makes you a thing created, and not naturally born.”

“’Tis… preposterous.”

“And created by your own hand, too.” The clones pressed on, taking no heed of his rising unease. Or maybe they knew. Maybe this was their intent. “The Maker has made himself. So what does that make you?”

“This conversation is at an end,” Amon said sharply.

“By your own definition, that insinuates you are no longer a real person deserving of the rights that real people have. The rights we, as clones, were never granted,” their crimson eyes bore into him, unforgiving and intent. “But then, how long has it been since you were an actual real, feeling person?”

He took a step back, hissing. “I said stop.”

“You are now merely a tool of your own creation, just like we were. You have no authority over us anymore. You have no authority over anything anymore.” In one motion, they both turned to indicate the gates that were closed to them. “Even the Tower rejects you. The signature of its modified aether courses through you and threatens to tear your construct-form apart, does it not?”

He knew this was true. Words were beyond him now.

“Our dear Maker, your time is growing short. But then, such is the existence of a mere clone,” Unei and Doga spoke evenly, and unwavering. Behind the words, hovered just a hint of pity.

The irony of clones feeling sorry for him was not lost on Amon. His whole universe had turned inside out, it seemed. Why not this one more thing?

“Unless…”

His gold eyes flicked to them. “Unless?”

“We are creatures of Purpose and Intent, like our Maker,” they told him, almost gently. “Without a Reason, we are nothing. And you are a clone who has not found a Purpose.”

Amon laughed somberly at this, joking, “Are you telling me to get a job?”

The clones just looked at each other, puzzling.

Seeing his humor was lost on them, he sighed, “Nevermind.”

Unei took a step towards him, then unexpectedly reached out and took one of his hands. The motion was so unlike a clone that Amon almost pulled back. When Doga did the same, for his other hand, he was overcome with an emotion he could not describe.

These clones… these lesser creatures… were expressing actual kindness. Towards him. The uncaring Maker who saw them as nothing but fodder to feed his endless desire for knowledge.

Surely, this kindness came from the spark of their Originals. Unei and Doga – the real Unei and Doga – were perhaps some of the most rare and gentle Allagan royalty, with a true concern for humanity. They had instilled that when gifting these clones with awareness.

“We have fulfilled our duty,” Unei told him, speaking on her own now. “We broke the covenant and protected Eorzea from the Darkness that the past would see devour it.”

“You remain because your duty is not complete,” Doga added. “The Tower yet exists, though in slumber. There are other places… other means you can utilize.”

Then they spoke together again. “We cannot tell you what your Purpose is, for that is something you must seek yourself. But we do know that without that search, you rob yourself and others of what might be.”

“You know that I have never been a bringer of light,” Amon said somberly. “The things that I made… they all grew corrupt by one means or another.”

“Not all of them,” Unei and Doga smiled, a true smile. They both slowly withdrew their hands, placing their fingers upon their chests, indicating themselves.

The Elezen drew in a sharp breath of realization, his eyes widening.

Even if indirect, even if he could not take credit for it, something he created had gone on to stop the madness that he begun.

And as if that very thought was the point of it all, the image of the clones wavered, shimmered and broke apart into capering lights, their aether scattering through the chamber. Amon watched silently, and in the presence of such virtue, displayed by lowly clones of all things… the weight of humility – a very strange feeling to him – dropped across his shoulders.

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Descent: Nightmare Scape – Ego

Coupled with a constant state of mental disarray, Amon struggled to make sense between the waking and sleeping hours. He was aware of drifting in and out of troubled dreams. Unlike the recurring dreams he once had of Xande, these were different. More personal. More vilifying.

The first thing he was aware of was the feeling of soft, deep carpet under his feet. The familiar scent of a place long-known filled his mind. As his eyes adjusted, he knew where he was. The Final Curtain.

Great, ornate red carpet stretched from one edge of the stage to the other. Far up on the walls hung balconies that were placed for an audience only imagined in a fevered madness, but rarely truly used. The whole place was an indulgence gifted because others lacked the courage to deny his whims and demands.

In the center of it all, he saw himself.

Himself as he once was – towering and imposing, dripping in deranged finery, face hidden behind a skull-like mask. It had been so long since he’d thought of himself this way that he was nearly taken aback at the sight.  

Completely vulnerable, he stood before his monstrous once-self, and wondered where this nightmare would lead. He couldn’t even tell if his Other was looking at him at all.

For once, he understood the disorientation that he caused others when he watched them from behind a mask.

“So, you’ve finally taken the stage,” spoke his Other. The voice was familiar, but older, worn weary by the long years. It still held the strength of a performer, but there was no pomp in his tone.

“Why am I here?”

“You say that as if you actually left,” the tone became amused and sly.

“I did leave. ‘Twas more than you could ever do.” Amon growled.

“Don’t get self-righteous with me. Shall I remind you that under it all, we are the same?”

“I’m…” The Elezen grit his teeth. “Trying to change that.”

“He’s trying to change that, he says. What say you, good people?” His Other gave a mocking flip of his cloak, gesturing grandly to an invisible audience in the balconies. “Shall we give him a round of applause? Let’s hear it for… growing attached to the commoners! Losing sight of everything that’s important! Trading a life of kings for a life of struggle! Giving in to weakness and failure!”

Amon winced, the words slicing him. Knowing exactly where all his doubts lay.

“’Tis over with,” the Elezen’s voice was low, a sour taste in his mouth as he admitted defeat. “Xande is dead. The Tower is beyond my reach. ‘Tis no bringing any of it back.”

“Have you even tried?” His past-self loomed above him, suddenly huge and frightening.  

“I don’t think–”

“HAVE YOU EVEN TRIED?” His Other’s voice rose into a roar, echoing through the vast, empty room. 

Amon let out a ragged breath. Standing his ground, he snapped back, “NO! I haven’t! I’ve seen this new world, and ’tis no place for something like you in it.”

“Since WHEN has that ever stopped YOU?”

The Elezen winced and said nothing in response.

“You are content to let everything we built fall to dust? Our life’s work thrown to the winds! The Allagan Empire fallen without a chance of revival! All for what? Because you suddenly grow a conscience and decide to ask questions of morality?

“Perhaps everything fell apart because we asked everything except the right questions!” Amon shouted back, his voice small in the midst of what he faced.  

His Other peered down at him for a long moment, then he began to chuckle. This turned into an outright laugh. A terrible, inhuman sound without emotion or mirth. “Did that just come out of your mouth? You are so precious. Really. Do you think ‘asking the right questions’ now is going to excuse your past deeds?”

The Elezen looked away, taking a deep breath. “No. ‘Twon’t. But maybe ’tisn’t about me.” 

“’Tis always been about us,” came the retort, spoken in a melodramatic cadence. “Even our greatest schemes were always about the glory we’d achieve as we brought the Empire greatness. Argue if you want, but I know your mind. ‘Tis no logic in fighting with yourself.”

“Maybe not. But I do know one thing that you don’t.”

“Oh? Do tell.” 

“I know what life’s like outside of the Tower.” 

“Color me unimpressed.” His Other leaned back and mimed playing a violin sadly. “What sentimental drivel. Next you’ll be troping about how your fuzzy magical friendships taught you more than all your years slicing people apart in the lab.” 

The Elezen snarled in return, a vicious look twisting his face. “I also know I’m not falling back into this… this mind-clouded insanity that corrupted everything I did. Look at you! Look at how pathetic I became!”

“Mmm…. We shall see if you have the strength to back those words,” a grin touched his Other’s voice as he turned and walked away, “Or… if you’re just as pathetic as I am in the end.”

Amon stumbled as the world around him began to tilt and distort. A sign that the nightmare was breaking up, giving way to consciousness.

Just as it all faded to black, he heard the voice of his Other, a sound within his own mind. So clear and enticing came the words: “The Tower is sealed to you, but ’tis always Azys Lla.”

Amon woke suddenly, letting out a shaken breath. However, the name remained on his lips. He whispered to himself, “Azys Lla.”

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Descent: Nightmare Scape – Id

Amon’s strength had deteriorated rapidly, leaving him unable to leave bed, much less throw books at a certain offending dragon who now observed everything he did. Through it all, he could sense that Koh was there, working tirelessly to fit the pieces of the puzzle his sudden illness left in her hands.

It was impossible for him to feel much beyond his own pain at that point, but even in his weakest moments, he withheld the truth from her… knowing that if he told the cat-girl what was really happening within him, she would likely turn away.

He tried to tell himself that he did this to ease her burdens. The truth was more akin to the fact that he was afraid the only person who knew enough about him to save him might leave.

When his visions and hallucinations got too much to bear, someone must have given him something to help him sleep. This would have normally been a good idea. But in his state of mind, it only threw him into a nightmarish dreamcape.

Amon recognized the tall vaulted room as a place within Syrcus Tower. The glittering stone walls rose above him on every side, somehow seeming threatening now. His mind swam, trying to make sense of what was happening.

This wasn’t right. The Tower was closed to him. So how had he come to be there?

Looking down at his own form, he saw that he was as he remembered, dressed in scruffy bedclothes. Still very much himself. And feeling so very tiny in the vastness of the Allagan structure that housed beings much, much larger than he was now.

Last time he’d been there, it was from a very different viewpoint.

That’s when Amon heard a sound that caused every muscle in his body to tense. A terrible, vast, almost-mournful howl shattered the air around him, bringing with it a presence of something huge and threatening.

His breath caught in his chest, sending a jolt of pain through his form. It was almost enough to wake him from this predicament. Almost… but not quite.

The heavy sound of armored paws moved across the crystal floors. Amon felt his pulse quicken, as dread kept him from turning to meet what he knew was waiting there.

“Ahhh…mon,” The voice came distorted, like something speaking through a mouth never meant to utter words. “Have you come to gaze upon my beauty?”

He felt a trickle of fear, but more than that, of revulsion bordering pure hate. He knew this voice. He loathed this voice. But even when the hounds were put into place, this did not silence what he detested most.

Scylla always found a way to yap.

Amon slowly turned to face her, schooling his expression to blank away the apprehension he felt. The scent of dog was almost overpowering.

“Perhaps you’ve come to feed the hounds instead?” She taunted, looming huge above him, all claws and fangs and poorly-covered flesh. Somehow, she managed to make a TSK sound as many judgmental eyes bore down upon him. “Though seeing how pitiful you’ve become, you’d hardly make a worthy snack.”

“And you’re nothing but a fabrication of fevered dreams,” he said, trying to convince himself this wasn’t real.

“Ahhhh-mon. Are you dreaming of me?” Scylla teased, the foremost head cackling, an alarming, twisted sound of laughter mingled with barking. Then, the other heads joined in.

Amon was about done with this dream. “More like a nightmare.”

“Good.” She sounded pleased. “Be afraid. You NEED to be afraid.”

“Do you think I’ve ever been afraid of you?” he sneered.

“Oh dear. Dear, dear Ahhh-mon,” Scylla said pleasantly, though one of her heads was snarling in open contempt. “The true question is… which one of us is the real monster?”

The Elezen lowered his brows, but remained silent. He wasn’t going to allow her to bait him into this conversation.  

“You… so nice and pretty and shiny… with a new, wonderful life, walking the world once again… as if nothing ever happened,” her tone was light and airy, though slowly each head began to bristle and growl, “Or me, the creation of your malice, hate and envy… a symbol of what your knowledge and power really is? I will be locked into this twisted form for all eternity, known as nothing but a beast to the generations that come after! When my most grave crime… was to displease you.”

Amon curled his lip, almost growling at the dogs in return. But still, he fought to keep his silence.

“There is no regret in your eyes, now is there?”

“No.” He responded, though he told himself he shouldn’t.

“Of course not,” Scylla hissed, a strange sound coming from a canine form. “You would do this again in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?”

“To you. Yes.”

This elicited another chilling laugh from her. “I may have my share of sins on my hands, but the difference between you and I is… I never hid it from the people who dared to trust me.”

Amon opened his mouth, but she continued, talking right over him. She was always annoying like that.

“Here you are, parading about Eorzea, wearing your mask and acting your friendly part. Winning the hearts and minds of others – you were always good at that,” Scylla chuckled, stroking one of her heads to calm it. “So now you pretend to be the wise, benevolent Allagan, who has secretly come as a gift to the poor, ignorant children of Eorzea. There, you show them only what you want them to see… dropping tidbits of your knowledge whenever you wish to string them along… dreaming of the day when they will worship you and raise you up the way the Empire once did.”

“’Tisn’t true!” he snapped quickly.

“My… my… so defensive. Have I struck a nerve?” she tittered at him. “Or perhaps I speak the truth that you don’t want to admit to yourself.”

“These people… some of them… are my friends.” The words were hard for him to say. And they sounded fake as they hung in the air. Like a sentiment he’d borrowed from someone else, one that didn’t fit within his own vocabulary.

“Ahhhh-mon. You know very well your ‘friendship’ never came without a cost. What do you seek to take from them?”

“None of this is any of your business.”

“Of course not. But, I always did pry unwanted,” Scylla said lightly.

The hounds began to bare their fangs, like creatures that could no longer withstand the hunger within them. She started to close the ground between them. Her voice was no longer pleasant, accented with growls and snapping.

Amon backed away quickly, despite trying to prove his courage. This was not going to end well.

Howls rang out in fury as she bore down on him, “You do not deserve a second chance! You who have mangled and destroyed so many lives should not be given another! Your victims demand retribution! Why were you the lucky one?” 

The huge maws opened, an acrid scent filling his senses. And just as the fangs closed around him, Amon jolted awake, shivering in the cold silence of his own bed.

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Descent: Dragon’s Jeers

Amon knew he was suffering from heavy hallucinations among other vicious symptoms akin to withdrawal. That’s why he almost ignored the vision of the tiny dragon when it first appeared in his room.

But the snark that poured out of the creature was enough to convince him this was beyond something even his mind could conjure up. No. This was a real spirit-form of the dragon Midgardsormr. Just… much… much smaller.

It had followed him. All the way back to his apartment.

And now the wretched creature sat on the back of his chair on the other side of the room and made jeering noises at him. It was enough to force Amon to muster the strength to get out of bed, despite the fact Koh would have a fit if she caught him.

A heavy thunk sounded – not for the first time that night – as Amon hefted the largest book he could find at the thing’s face. His aim was sorely off, mostly because the world still spun and shivered around him.

The Elezen swore under his breath with every Allagan curse he could muster.

-A funny way to treat thy evaluator, Allagan.- Midgardsormr remarked, unruffled.

“Get out of my apartment!” Amon slurred and furiously threw another book. This time it hardly made it across the room.

The tiny dragon looked at the pitiful trajectory and noted. -Thou hast missed.-

“Silence! Another word and I’m going to come over there and wring your scrawny neck!”

-I shall excuse thy poor behavior for being lost in a fluster of the moment.-

“I’ll show you the fluster of the moment!” The Elezen fumed and stumbled across the room as if to make good on his threat.

This got Migardsormr to move, winging slowly into the air and re-perching on the top of a book shelf, far out of reach. –Thy mindset is worse off than I anticipated, Allagan.-

“And whose fault is that?” Amon threw yet another book. This time, it only succeeded in dropping back down on his own head.

-Thine.-

This was enough to cause the Elezen to waver and flop down in the chair next to the bookshelf. Emotionally spent, he just folded in on himself, hands covering his face. His words sounded like a childish whine. “You’re destroying everything!”

-‘Tis not my doing, Allagan. ‘Tis thine own. Until thou canst take responsibility for thy crimes, situations like this shall cycle in and out of thy life.-

“Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?”

-Thou must pay thy dues, Allagan.-

“Fine,” Amon grit his teeth, gathering himself back up again. He shot a baleful look at the dragon. “I accept that for myself. But what you’ve done is made me a danger to others. They shouldn’t get caught up in this!”

-‘Tis a simple answer to that.-

“Which is?”

-Don’t be a danger to those thou carest for.-

“’Tisn’t that easy!” Amon protested.

-Indeed. I said it was simple. Not easy.-

“You’re absolutely no help.”

-I am not here to help. I am here to judge.-

The Elezen just threw another book at the dragon, then slumped in the chair in a sign of miserable defeat.

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Descent: Dragon’s Trial Part 2

The Void closed in on him. At first, the spark was but a tickle in the back of his mind. But it grew exponentially, overwhelming him, as his awareness unfolded into the aether. A voracious inferno shot through his veins, consuming him from the inside. Threatening to erupt, though he struggled to keep it within.

The aether. The hunger. The agony he knew so well from his previous life. It had returned.

And all the things that once kept it in check – the advancements and infusions and injections – there was none of that in this world to fall back on. This was so, so much worse than he could imagine.

Why? Why had he chosen to return? Why had he not just embraced the inevitable in the Tower?

It felt as if his form was buckling under the energy, pieces of him shattering and drifting into the Void. Somewhere within the darkness, a deep laughter resounded. Midgardsormr. He sounded satisfied.

It was too much – even the vast pride of Amon of Allag could be broken. A wretched, agonized cry frothed from his lips as he crumpled to his knees. It rang across the Void, perhaps the most human sound of despair he’d uttered in so very, very long.

Echoing with it came the sound of many voices. Voices in torment and prolonged anguish, their misery mingling with his own. For a split moment, he could see them – specters of his past. Faces of countless victims. Those sacrificed for his ideal of the greater good.

Back then, he didn’t think of them as victims. Now, he knew better.

Amon clutched his head, trying to blot the faces out of his vision. Trying to drown the mournful chorus that cried out for retribution. He couldn’t give it to them. It was so far beyond him, even his death could not balance the scales of his sins.

Then, from the welling of chaos and horror he saw… a light.

A voice. A soft voice. It called his name… and where the sound drew across the surface of the Void, the gristly images of the past rippled and parted like oil on water.

He felt a touch on his shoulder. Then another. 

And with a shuddering jolt, he found himself doubled over on the mangled metal platform, the gaping maw of the Keeper of the Lake leering down at him from above. Midgardsormr’s corpse almost seemed to smile.

“Amon!” Koh shook him, concern written on her face. “What happened? Are you hurt?”

“He doesn’t look hurt,” Zuri’s voice came from behind. “But the way he shouted…”

They’d heard his scream. It’d passed from the mind-void into the waking world and drew them to him. And now they hovered over him in worry.

Panic added to the welling of pain, which still shot through his body from moment to moment. They had no idea what had just awakened. 

Amon wanted to shrug off their hands, to do anything to drive them away from him. But the flames that seethed within him seemed to calm at their presence. As if they were the only things keeping him together at the moment.

“I’m fine,” the Elezen wheezed.

“There was a bright light,” Mocho noted. “What was that?”

“A trap,” Amon half lied. “I sprung a trap. I was careless.”

“We need to get you back to the house so I can check you over,” Koh said, helping to hoist him to his feet on one side.

No. No…

He wanted to protest as he stood shakily. He could visibly see the aether energies swimming around him, like sharks waiting for him to put a toe in the water.

But Zuri held fast to his other arm, helping him along. “We’ll take it slow.”

Step by step, they walked him down the planks. The world dipped and blurred, as if he was viewing an image of the world imprinted upon another world, neither of which he could decipher was really there. It was all he could do to keep his balance.

Somewhere, from the corner of his eye he saw it. A tiny winged form flitting among the aether-tinged wreckage. Perhaps… a dragon.

But when Amon turned to look, the vision was gone. Instead, it was replaced with images of the new life he’d attempted to build, now shattering and falling apart between his cursed hands.

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Descent: Dragon’s Trial Part 1

The job was unexpected and the employer unknown, but the pay was very, very good. That, on top of Amon’s curiosity of the Keeper of the Lake, was enough for him to agree they take it. The goal itself was simple – scour what was left of the Agrius and bring back any salvageable parts or technology that hadn’t already been made off with.

So many things about this job seemed tailor-fit to Amon’s interest. He probably should have taken that as a sign to be more careful. But time and good fortune in Eorzea had whittled down his natural suspicions.

This was one day he would have been better served to follow his mistrustful instincts.

“Was this really a ship once?” Zuri gawked up at the mangled ruins of metal entwined in the carcass of the legendary beast, Midgardsormr. “It’s huge!”

“Aye,” Mocho responded, scanning the area for anything hostile. “’Twas a Garlean battleship. Such was its threat that the king of dragons himself was moved to cast it out of the sky.”

“And then he died?” The Au Ra asked mournfully.

“Well, ’tis to be determined,” Amon interjected, also squinting up into the heights of the wreckage.

“What do you mean? He looks pretty dead to me.”

“Dragons work differently than ‘mortals’,” Koh told her, jotting something down in her book. “It’s been proven that their spirit and influence can linger even after what we would consider death. No one really knows what they are or where they came from. There’s even speculation they aren’t of our world.”

Zuri’s eyes grew round. “How exciting!”

“How bothersome,” Amon muttered.

“What?” the girl tilted her head at him.

“Nothing.”

Mocho interrupted the discussion prudently. “History lessons are all good and well, but things seem to be clear of danger for now. I propose we make the best of this.”

“I agree,” Koh nodded eagerly. “Let’s see what we can find!”

-Allagan…-

At first, Amon thought it was just his imagination. Nothing more than a strange wind warping through the splintered metal and bone that made up the dragon grave. But then, the word resounded again, less a spoken word and more something almost within his mind.

-Allagan…-

It beckoned him. Coaxed him, full of a slow, sonorous patience.

Glancing over his shoulder, Amon verified that the rest of his group was focused on their own tasks. Then, he quietly slipped away from them, walking up the sloped metal incline that may have once been the ship’s deck. Or side. Or bottom. It was hard to tell.

The Elezen knew he should be more wary, but his curiosity drove him further and further towards the top. Nothing hindered him as picked his way up the wreckage, and finally emerged at the upper platform.

Looming huge over him was the proud head of the dead Dragon King, maw still open in fury and defiance of his enemy. The years had weathered away scale and hide, leaving remains that seemed stronger than the steel and stone surrounding it.

More vast than time itself.

The dragons were no strangers to his people. Like all forms of unknown power, Allagans sought to harness and enslave the dragons, and bend them to their purpose. Little doubt that should the father of dragons look upon him now, there would be no friendship extended.

And with those thoughts, something happened.

The deck beneath Amon’s feet shuddered and a brilliant light bloomed around the form of the wyrm above him. That which he’d thought inert became fiercely and dangerously alive.

-So thou hast the foolishness and pride to respondeth to mine summons, Allagan. ‘Tis irony at its most.-

Amon took a step back, head craning to face the maw of the dragon that hung, still unmoving above him. Though power and light filled the platform, the beast’s form itself did not stir. This was something well beyond the physical… and yet, very much the voice of Midgardsormr.

Tension froze the Elezen place, and he had no words to exchange.

-Does thou looketh upon me in surprise? Surely one of the finest minds of thy people knew what thou wouldst find at the summit of this place.-

“Perhaps you’ve given me too much credit,” Amon quipped, trying to lighten the situation. He didn’t know what was about to happen, but none of it could be good.

-Thou mayest hide thy truth from other mortals, Allagan. But thou cannot pass trickery and lies upon mine eyes.-

The Elezen grit his teeth, fist balling defensively at his sides. “What do you want from me?”

-A simple thing.-

When the beast did not follow up, Amon demanded, “That is?”

Demanding things of the mighty Midgardsormr wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done. However, if this was to be the end of him, he wasn’t going to let it be in a cowering whimper.

-Thou thinkest thy presence has gone unchecked in this world. ‘Tis but wishful thinking. If thou desireth the gift of new life in Eorzea, I shall have the truth of thy soul laid before me for judgement.-

“I’ve done nothing to harm the people of this world since I’ve returned,” Amon protested. “If you don’t believe me–”

-Oh. I do believe.- The dragon interrupted. -Thou hast not brought harm because thou hast not the strength to bring it. I intend to change this.-

“What?” he breathed, his stomach curdling at the prospect.

A shaft of pure gold light condensed before the dragon’s mouth, an ominous portent of what was about to happen. If Amon had half his wits about him at that moment, he would have run. But pride and arrogance, his two best friends, had locked his feet in place, even in the face of certain death.

-A man who avoideth contact with temptation only shows his ability to circumvent. This proves not the mettle of his spirit.-

As those words resounded in Amon’s mind, the shaft of light streaked through the air, striking him through the chest.

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The Greatest Treasure

It was late morning and Amon was shaking off the sleep-cobwebs with a freshly brewed cup of sweet Thanalan tea. Though several documents lay scattered over the small table, he was far too groggy to deal with any of it. The process of getting approved passage into Kugane was proving arduous, which was ironic considering their open policy for accepting trade and ships.

Had Amon been a merchant instead of a Bard, they may have let him in. Perhaps he could rope their new merchant employer into considering foreign trade ports.

In the middle of sorting through all these thoughts, the Elezen’s ears caught soft footsteps behind him as someone moved carefully through their Free Company house. The wood floors gave up sound easily, and since they still hadn’t fully decorated, noise tended to carry.

Amon knew the soft padding was from someone who didn’t wish to be noticed. He’d skulked about that way, usually unsuccessful, many times before. Though he was quite aware of what was going on, he didn’t move or make any indication he was aware until the door cracked open and the sneak was on their way out.

He caught a glimpse of soft white hair and thin white tail – instantly figuring it to be Zuri. But where she’d usually be wearing her blue bardic outfit, she was dressed in her battle gear and she carried her bow slung across her back.

The Elezen set down his tea, now fully awake. It was not at all like Zuri to be sneaking about, and more so, to simply up and leave without saying something about it. She had to have known he was sitting there, and had purposely avoided him.

All of these things compounded into something akin to worry. And much to his own surprise, Amon found himself quickly dressing in his own armor, grabbing his bow, and heading out the door after her.

It took him a moment to locate her – once the Au Ra had left the house, she’d thrown all secrecy out the window. Apparently, she was convinced no one knew of her departure. But she was also making time quickly, as one does when they don’t want their absence to be noticed too soon.

All the while, Zuri studied a faded parchment that she clasped in one hand. From time to time, she’d look out at the horizon and squint with the expression of someone trying to find something.

Amon kept his distance as he trailed the girl. As she eventually led him to the marshes in Upper La Noscea, his concern faded into curiosity. This whole thing was very peculiar, and he couldn’t quite work through what Zuri was up to or why she’d come there.

Eventually, she stopped, still staring at the parchment in her hand, and took a few paces around the area. Then, she reached back along her pack and pulled out a small shovel. She began to dig.

The Elezen remained hidden behind a stone pillar – close enough to observe, but not so close as to give himself away. He watched as the girl dug and dug, sometimes struggling with stones and ground debris, other times wiping her brow and taking a long breath in. Finally, her shovel hit something audibly solid.

Zuri stopped, leaned over the hole she created, and poked around with the shovel a bit more. Then, with an excited sound, she reached in, and hauled up what appeared to be… a small treasure chest.

Amon felt his breath catch. The girl had found a treasure map! And she’d come all the way out here to claim it? But by herself?

That didn’t add up. Zuri was never one to keep secrets or material things to herself. Why did she go through so much trouble to—

His thoughts were interrupted by the girl’s shout. Just as she’d gone to open the chest, enemies appeared. Apparently they, too, were drawn by the idea of treasure.

The raptors leap from the brush faster than the eye could blink, a blur of white, gray and fangs. Their hoarse screeches bore down upon the girl with feral ferocity.

Zuri was so taken by surprise that she fumbled to draw and position her bow. Arrows tumbled out of her quiver as she tried to nock, backing away from the raptors with shaky steps.

Immediately, Amon’s own hand grasped his weapon, readying an arrow from the secrecy behind the pillar. But then, as the girl backed closer and closer to his position, he heard something.

She was summoning a Bard song, just like he’d taught her. Zuri’s voice quavered as she struggled to find the clarity to draw on the Bardic aether, but with each note, she became more sure. The music rang about her, pure and true.

Even from where Amon hid, he could feel the symphony rush through him, a song that stilled fear and drummed up courage for battle. And he watched as the girl took a firmer, more focused grip on her bow.

The Elezen lowered his own weapon, though keeping it nocked, just in case. It was not his place to interfere in Zuri’s battle. Not now. Not yet. Not until she really needed him.

True to his hopes, she proved quite capable of working it through on her own. Her arrows flew strong, fueled by song and determination. Her feet carried her surely, and while the raptors struck a few blows in return, she was able to dispatch the creatures in short order.

The fight left Zuri winded and slightly battered. She slumped down to her knees, not far from where Amon remained concealed. Her little body shook all over from a mingled shock and exhilaration.

Amon felt warmth replace the tension he’d not even realized was gripping him. He didn’t know what the sensation signified. Relief? No… this was something more. It was the feeling one got… when a nurtured child was able to find their own strength for themselves.

Eventually, Zuri gathered her wits and walked to the chest to claim her prize. Opening it, her face fell into disappointment. He could hear her soft, discouraged voice, “Oh…”

Whatever she’d expected, it was not what she received.

It was time to make himself known. Trying to cover the pity he felt at her reaction, Amon slung his bow over his back and slowly walked into the clearing.

Zuri was so intent on her disappointment that she didn’t realize he was there until his large shadow dropped over her. She startled, clearly not expecting or knowing someone to be there, until she saw who it was.

“Amon!” the Au Ra breathed, one hand on her chest.

“I apologize. I didn’t intend to startle you.”

She got to her feet, tossing a guilty look at the treasure chest. “Wh…what are you doing here?”

“You don’t really believe anything can sneak past these big ears of mine, do you?” Amon pointed to himself, tone gently teasing.

Zuri’s mouth opened, a flush of color spreading over her cheeks. Finally, after fishing for a reply, she said, “Clearly not.”

The Elezen chuckled warmly, then looked down at the chest, too. “If you were treasure hunting, you could have invited me. I wouldn’t have taken claim of your reward.”

The girl straightened, luminous eyes flicking up to his face as she shook her head. “It wasn’t like that!”

“Oh? What’s all this about, then?”

Zuri folded her hands behind her back, head down again. “I was hoping there’d be a great treasure that I could bring back for profit.”

“Mmmm?”

“With us being in Shirogane…” the girl gave him an appealing look, hands spreading as she tried to explain. “I just want… I want to show you my homeland so much. I think you’d really like it there. It might help with…”

Amon furrowed his brows, having not expected this answer. He prompted her to continue. “With?”

“I don’t know exactly. I do know that you don’t tell me a lot of things – but that’s fine,” Zuri pursed her lips. “And I know you’re not as happy as you try to make me think you are. I think seeing Yanxia might help cheer you up… just a little.”

“Zuri,” he choked on her name, unable to find any other words in the face of such benevolence.

“But the fees to cross the Ruby Sea can get costly,” she didn’t seem to notice his internal struggle. “It wasn’t right to ask the others to fund this. I wanted to find a way to make the gil on my own.”

Amon just looked at her. He had no words.

“I wanted to surprise you.” Her face fell. “I guess I failed.”

“No.” The Elezen told her, his voice deep with suppressed emotion. “I’m very surprised.”

“You’re just saying that,” Zuri’s mouth twisted into a part-smile.

“I’m not.”

The girl came to him, and in her child-like way, hugged him. Usually, this would have caused protest, but with Zuri, he’d become accustomed to sudden affection.

“I know that Koh helps you,” the Au Ra told him. “I’m not as smart as she is, but I want to help, too.”

“You do,” he tried to reassure her, but was fighting off a welling of panic.

He was getting too close. Too attached. All the reasons he wanted to care were all the reasons he should be pushing her away.

But he didn’t. Instead, he gave her head a soft pat, then knelt down to her level. Trying to keep his voice in check, he said, “Why don’t we work on this together? Just you and I. ‘Twill be our project.”

Zuri’s face brightened at this. She brightened and brightened until Amon doubted there could be any more joy squished into one little body.

And with that, he assumed he had his answer.

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