Jullus awoke to near darkness.
He was but one of many soldiers, young and old, lying in Tertium. Every ilm of the carriage floor was covered in bedrolls, leaving no room for careless movement.
Taking care not to disturb the others, he sat up, straining to make out the hands of the old clock salvaged by who-knows-who that was hidden somewhere in the gloom. The near edge of dawn... Further down, beyond his sleeping fellows, was the wavering blue glow of the ceruleum stove.
It was not the cold that had roused him from his slumber. We're old friends now. Before accepting the Ilsabard contingent's proffered aid, his people had little materiel─and certainly no magic─to warm frozen fingers and toes. The exhaustion that often carried him to sleep still failed to prevent him from regularly stirring in the night.
Thinking he might pass the time with fresh air at least, he reached down to drag his boots and bag towards him. Conscious of every noise, he dressed stealthily, holding his breath when Publius rolled over next to him. Fortunately, there came no word of complaint, and Jullus was free to slip out and mull over the events of the previous night in peace.
They'd been huddled around a lamp in an out-of-the-way corner, the familiar scent of honey and spices wafting from their cradled mugs─one small comfort afforded by a surplus in rations. The conversation had again settled into a lull when Publius broke the silence.
"I may just leave for Sharlayan."
The grimacing youth─of an age with Jullus, though low in rank─had barely spoken a word all evening. Now that he had, none knew how to respond.
It wasn't surprising. Inevitable, really. Survive the Telophoroi and Final Days they had, but Garlemald was still in a sorry state. The Emperor was gone, the senate disbanded, and nations were hesitant to commit to any policy concerning the erstwhile empire.
There had been some hesitant steps toward forming an interim government, but neither Garlemald nor its neighbors had the means to establish one immediately. The provincial leaders were waiting to see which way the winds would blow, welcoming their countrymen home while making no moves to resurrect the Empire themselves. Rumors that this or that province was poised to formally declare independence, or had as good as seceded already, ran rampant.
It was only natural to give Garlemald up as a lost cause. Even as some returned to rebuild, others who had been tempered and taken to other nations for treatment petitioned to remain there, and these nations─Sharlayan among them─welcomed the refugees with open arms. Though Publius might be the first among present company, he would not be the last to make a new home far from the old.
Publius stared into his cup as the moment dragged on. In this nation of the fallen, what was left to say?
"...You should speak with Alphinaud or Alisaie on the morrow. They'll put you in contact with someone you can trust," Jullus ventured. The ever-helpful pair was staying at Camp Broken Glass, and like as not had plenty to be doing already, but he would be remiss not to mention it.
"I'll do that."
With that small gesture, the atmosphere changed. Publius exhaled in relief, and the others were soon offering their own words of encouragement and vows to meet again. Though their drinks had long gone cold, their cheers gave them warmth enough.
"To our brothers and our homeland!"
The brisk winds carried away sleep's warm haze as Jullus climbed the slope that led out of the station. Beyond the shaft's angular portal, the weak morning light revealed the stark outline of his reality.
The remaining spire of the once-shining Palatium Novum stood alone in the city center, amongst homes reduced to steel skeletons and grey rubble. Beyond these unnatural hills loomed the Tower of Babil, grasping for the heavens.
Tertium's surrounds had been spared out-and-out obliteration, but were dead all the same. None remained to hurry to work or school, or stagger home after a night on the town. None remained to clear snow from a neighbor's path, or rove helplessly in their dog's wake. The people who had given this place life a few short months ago were gone. How many even had the chance to say good-bye?
Jullus breathed deep of the frozen air, but though its icy pinpricks grounded him in the present, it was powerless to dispel the long nightmare. The vision endured, implacable, without regard for the dreamers. To the shrewdest of minds and the purest of hearts, fate offered no justice nor justification.
"Yet you would ask me why."
That injury should have healed. Yet it itched at him now─a scab that bled and bled, threatening to hollow him out from within. Even as he picked at it, his feet carried him forward─better to survey the surrounds for threats─and into the silent city.
Unforgiving grey. Destruction and loss. All silent as the grave, as if even beasts preferred not to pick through these bones of an empire so early in the morn.
A flash of movement caught his eye─a scrap of old newsprint trapped in the tumbledown debris of a roadside ruin. The last will and testament of someone's breakfast table. He drew closer, mindful of the potential for further collapse.
"I remember this..."
A special edition, distributed on Unity Day several years past. The celebration commemorating Garlemald's founding and the heroes who had labored for the Empire was always a tremendous affair for residents of the capital, most of whom spent the day reveling. The eldest told stories of meager harvests and desperate clashes as choirs sang old marching songs. Hawkers along the avenues sold food, drinks, traditional adornments from the campi, and the latest magitek baubles.
Naught was more highly anticipated than the military parade─a show of strength and patriotism that never failed to inspire both awe and pride. Countless soldiers and magitek units moved in time through the city, beating a steady rhythm towards the imperial palace, where the Emperor's family stood assembled to receive them.
They led us to greatness. We who formed the vanguard of history's grand march forward. His city was the heart of the world, through which flowed blood stronger than steel─a bond between countrymen that would remain unbroken even should their every enemy join together to oppose them. Glory be to Garlemald.
The Unity Day described in this print had taken place while Jullus was in the academy, and marked the last year that the ailing Solus had been in attendance. Though the lead article detailing the events and speeches of the day was in tatters, the accompanying portrait of the imperial family remained.
At its center, naturally, was the stern visage of Solus zos Galvus. Though still dignified in his old age, the gaze which he fixed upon the reader was more melancholic than proud. Never saw the man smile once. To the Emperor's right stood Titus, second of Solus's sons, along with his wife Arrecina and son Nerva. Both Titus and his son had a strained look about them, not dissimilar to the younger Solus found in the history books.
On His Radiance's left was his grandson Varis, the only legacy of the deceased crown prince Lucius. A proud one, too─Varis was tall and broad of shoulder, and his comportment marked him a prime candidate for high legatus even then. His wife and right-hand, Carosa, had passed away in her prime, and so he was flanked instead by his mother, Hypatia. Though she departed to join Carosa a mere year after this portrait was taken, she supported Varis's claim to the throne until the very end. And then there was the young man with a faraway look in his eyes and an air of detachment...
"Would you be 'happier' had I a 'good reason'?"
Zenos yae Galvus. Though his anger had cooled since their encounter on the Eblan Rime, Jullus nevertheless found himself wrenched back to the present with no little displeasure.
His homeland was gone. That much was plain, even as he clung to the ragged scrap of remembrance. He hadn't known then whence the fervor of that day would lead, but knew well now that it would never be reborn. Even should Garlemald rise from the ashes, its age had ended.
And what of us? A new day had dawned, and Jullus would not suffer his people to remain in the dark. Yet what star were they to follow?
Jullus shook out the paper, folded it neatly, and tucked it in his pocket before leaving the ruin behind.
The streets were still and silent, his crunching footsteps the only sound. Playing his role of watchman, he investigated the semi-intact structures he came across, but found little of note. No food or supplies remained, only the detritus of peaceful lives─naught worth saving then or now. A fine layer of ash covered splintered furniture and forgotten trinkets, forming cairns in the gloom.
After a time, he arrived at a house he had never explored in his prior wanderings. With the roof torn off and the walls half-crumbled, it seemed unlikely to hold anything of value, but he nevertheless picked his way through the frosted rubble that would have once formed the lintel. Once inside, he dusted himself off and took in his surroundings─and drew a startled breath.
Jullus had seen enough death by now to recognize it at a glance. He approached the soldier and knelt to examine his corpse. Though the cold had prevented significant decay, it was clear he had died some time ago. Had it been during the war, the body would have been removed, so he could only be one of the tempered or their victims. The bite and scratch marks suggested the latter. Like the scars my family gave me.
He removed the helmet carefully─not a face he recognized, so probably not a member of the Ist Legion. Just another poor soul who had escaped the tempering, exhausted the last of his strength, and died anyway.
Jullus would offer no gods-bound prayers as an Eorzean might, but nevertheless set the helmet aside to pay his respects. Though the sentiment rang hollow, he silently encouraged the deceased to find peace with his ancestors and watch over his kin.
Alphinaud and Alisaie claimed that the Scions had visited the aetherial sea, where all souls returned. There, they were healed of their traumas and washed clean of memories─even should not a single prayer be offered on their behalf. Their deeds in life had no bearing on their place within the relentless machinery of death and rebirth─made no more difference than Garlemald's vaunted unity had to its ultimate fate.
If the twins spoke true, then what meaning was there in any of it? What was life, if not another pointless parade?
It occurred to him that this was probably not the most respectful place to ruminate on life's worth. My new friend here would certainly have an opinion. He had no tools for a proper burial, but if he could at least make note of the man's name...
Alas, there was no identification to be found. Understandably not a priority for you at the time. His armaments were standard-issue, and provided no hint either. Although...
"What have we here?"
Gently prising open the corpse's fist revealed the empty case for a magitek armor identification key. Had it been stolen after his death? That didn't make sense─a thief wouldn't have repositioned the dead man's hand, which had been clutching the thing so desperately. As if in prayer. But if he had reason to hope that a comrade might escape, or that rescue was on the way, then maybe...
"You gave it away," Jullus muttered, as another memory surfaced in his mind.
It was summer─of the same year as the newsprint he'd found earlier. A friend had insisted he read some poetry collection, and in the spirit of camaraderie Jullus obliged. He had little interest in elegies, often finding them difficult to parse, but one inscrutable passage had stayed with him:
"Let this be my final gift to you. In death, my love."
In death we have the power to bequeath the life we might have had─the possibilities and potential─to others. To grant them what they need to go on...or so the poet said.
Was your key one such gift?
Would my mother, my brother, my sister─would they tell me to accept theirs?
Lord Quintus, with his suicide? My comrades, whom I failed? My countrymen, gone without a word?
Did you leave your lives, and your love, to me?
The dead do not answer, yet the wound within ceases its bleeding for a time.
If that is our truth...
"Then let it be our meaning. Let it be the chain which binds us through generations. Live on in me, as I would have in you."
"Perhaps we may yet live on in others."
The dead do not answer, but light shines through the broken ceiling, and Jullus follows it to behold a brightened sky. His comrades at Tertium will be waking soon. In apology and gratitude, he offers one last silent prayer to his kinsman ere departing.
Be at peace─and know that you are with me.
Jullus stands, and forges ahead into the dawn.