16th of Saun, Midnight
Joseph had always enjoyed the sea. Watching it in the dark, even more so. The waves roiled like a living thing, crashing and roaring against the rocks of Scalvoris. He stood quietly on the sands, his eyes focused on the water, moonlight flickering off the backs of the waves as they dipped and reared. He was, in a word, aimless. He didn't know what purpose his life had come to; he had clawed his way out from underneath horrific abuse to do...what? Serve the Lamplights? The strange Harvester he'd made a deal with who now had an inexplicable tie to his soul? He wasn't sure how he felt about the entire thing. He'd made the decision out of desperation and fear, and now that he was free was it selfish to want to go their separate ways? Yet on some level, he knew it was permanent. The Lamplights had not been dishonest with him. They hadn't implied it would be anything but permanent and lifelong, a partnership between the two of them.
It was a bit comforting, knowing he'd never be alone again. If he had to be stuck with this power, how exactly was he to use it?
'Your thoughts are noisy.'
'Buzzing, like flies.'
'If you want to learn I will teach you.'
'You are not the first mage I've had. The second, only.'
'The first gouged his eyes out to stop seeing us.'
'It didn't end well for him.' That dry, papery cackle.
'We destroyed him for a fool.'
'If you want to learn, I will teach you.'
Joseph thought for a moment, slowly folding his legs and settling down on the sand. It was still warm from the Saun heat, and in the darkness and stillness there was no one around him. Everyone was in bed for the night. Sailors knew better than to venture out into treacherous waters even by moonlight. Joseph had chosen his stretch of beach well, out of sight of guards and the casual observer. The last thing he needed was someone thinking he was a lost child or pitying the cripple settled down on the sand. They were, for all intents and purposes, alone. He took a deep breath. "Teach me then." he said quietly.
The Lamplights appeared before him. They were so much smaller, even so than he. The size of five year old children, connected by an arm-thick cord of pulsing muscle and sinew. Like an umbilical cord it kept them as one being. Never apart. Never two entities. Just two heads, and two names. It was difficult to keep straight sometimes, but Joseph simultaneously got the sense that they both shared a mind and had their own thoughts. It was even more difficult to distinguish them in the blackness. Their eyes were pinpricks of light, and light shone from places deep in their throats and skull-like nostrils. It plumed out from their broken skulls like smoke, out of their dull fingernails and thin spots in the flesh near their collarbones and knees. It looked more like a collection of fireflies from a distance than solid formations. Joseph studied them, quietly, as they approached. Usually one or both of them was responsible for carrying the cord between them. It was elegantly wrapped around Ari's shoulders and the crooks of his elbows like a rotten snake. Oav carried his burden across his shoulders, like the hood of a cape.
'Ether is what keeps us together. It is a bond between mage and Harvester.'
'Ether comes from Emea.'
'You and all humans have it. We steal it from others who are too cowardly to accept the Spark.'
'Too useless to do anything but dream.'
'They are dreamers, we are awakened.'
'Hunger from one soul to another.'
'That is ether.'
Joseph was slowly getting used to their style of conversing. Oftentimes Oav would begin, and Ari would leap in and pick up right at the end of the sentence. When they got into a rhythm, they spoke as one being. There was hardly a gap in speech between them, like expert mummers reciting a play. Joseph nodded. He understood the concept of ether. But how to go about taking it? They could hear his own thoughts as clearly as he could, because Oav cocked his head and looked around on the sands. He flung out an arm, pointing to something skittering on the sands.
Joseph hesitated for a moment. They wanted him to grab a crab? He raised an eyebrow, but they were unmoving. Ari was looking at him expectantly and Oav was skuttling after the crab, forcing his other half to reel him some slack. Joseph shuddered a bit at the sight of the cord slithering off Ari's shoulders, and lunged for the crab. He managed to seize the angry little thing behind its legs, holding its squat body where it couldn't pinch him. It tried anyway, flailing its sharp little legs and snapping its pincers.
'Stretch out yourself into it.'
'Feel your ether through it.'
'Biting through shell and flesh.'
'Find what makes it it.' Both of them were staring at him expectantly now, shuffling to squat next to him in the sands. Their eyes kept flicking from the hapless crustacean to Joseph. Disturbingly, Joseph had the sudden urge to throw it...they looked so much like dogs at a dinner table. He sat up, brushing sand off of himself with a free hand, and settled down to focus on what they were saying. He wasn't used to doing this. But he tried. He pushed forward with his being, his ether tentatively touching the animal. It was slow, tentative, almost like he was afraid to truly touch it. His ether slowly wrapped around the crab, sinking into shell and organ, that frantically beating little heart. That strange dull mind that held emotion in a thimble. Then he pulled. He tore shreds from the creature's tiny soul like he had cooked it over a fire and ate it himself.
The crab squirmed, kicking and writhing. Its legs curled and spasmed in pain as Joseph dug deep into it and tore free that tiny speck of power he found there. The crab withered. Its kicks died and it slowly started to fall into itself. Its rusty colors turned greyish black in the moonlight, and the shell in his fingers shrank. It was no longer armor anymore, brittle like it had been dead for weeks. Joseph released it in surprise, and the dead thing fell to the sands and withered into a gray husk.
He felt the tendrils of his ether, satisfied there was nothing more to take, leaving the corpse. He was concentrating on it so hard that when the Lamplights broke out into a peal of horrifically child-like laughter he almost fell over.
'You have a natural talent.'
'You are a good thief.'
'Wait until you see it in a man.'
'Yes! A man! They way they scream.'
'The way they crumble.' The pair dissolved into giggling. 'Again, yes, again!'
'Find something sentient.'
'Something that screams.'
Joseph raised an eyebrow at them. "You're going to have me killing seafood on the sand all night?" he couldn't keep the incredulous tone out of his voice as he rose to his feet. In spite of himself he was looking. They followed along behind him, hands clasped and dragging the cord.
'Can't hunt humans right off the start.'
'They will kill you.'
Well, at least that made sense. He tried not to think about how strange it was to have beings smaller than he was presuming to teach him. They weren't children no matter how much they looked or acted like it. To mistake them for such would be a grave underestimation. He was wandering under the rebuilt docks now, running his hands over the wood. What were they looking at? He sighed. It was impossible to see anything in the darkness. He stopped, and tried to pick out his surroundings with the fading moonlight. He saw a cat curled up in a crux of one of the beams. Foolishly low. Just above the tide line, but not too tall for him.
He moved slowly, thankful for the sand that dampened the noise from his foot brace. When he was just underneath the animal, he pounced. He managed to seize the cat's tail and rear leg. It spun on him with a yowl, spitting and hissing. Joseph swore and thunked the animal against one of the pylons. That only seemed to enrage it further, and it sank claws and teeth into his arm.
'Right behind the skull!' The Lamplights crowed like they were watching a game match, Ari clapping excitedly. Joseph wished he could ask for clarification. Bite the mangy thing?!
'Bite!' They urged him gleefully.
Gods. In spite of himself he lunged forward and seized the cat right behind the head. He bit down hard, and tried to concentrate. He could feel fur prickling his tongue and gums, the way his blunt teeth put pressure right on the bones connecting to the skull. His teeth weren't just his teeth...they were ether. Ether bit deeper than he ever could, and through the pain he focused. His fingers tightened on the rear leg of the cat and his other hand dug deeply into its belly fur. Slowly, the ether came to him. It was only a tiny trickle, but it was there. Pooling in his mouth and racing down his throat. The cat yowled and struggled, but it was weakening. Growing thinner. Flesh melted off of its frame and its fur grew dull and straw-like. Just like the crab its kicking stopped, and the withering tendons yanked it into a curled position.
Joseph flung the cat away from himself and spat fur onto the sands. The Lamplights gathered around the cat, cackling and clapping their hands.
'We will see you hunt yet!'
'Yes, small and withered but hunting.'
'You will learn fast!'
Joseph glared at the two, scraping fur off of his tongue and nursing the wounds on his arm. "I am not biting any more flea-bitten ship cats!" he snapped. "That was disgusting. I will taste that the rest of my life."
'But you feel a little power, yes?' They grinned at him.
He couldn't dispute that they were right. Just a little bit. A hum in his veins like he'd drank too much coffee. He sighed and rubbed his face. He wasn't sure if he could do that to a human. Not yet. Maybe someone who deserved it...maybe someone who hurt others. Someone who kept children in basements or enslaved the weak...men who broke the feet of little boys until they limped.
'Revenge is good. Yes. We find someone soon. For now sleep.' They reassured him. They clasped hands, and raced toward the water. They didn't splash, or make any sort of noise as they disappeared beneath the waves. Slowly, their light blinked out of existence. They were back home in Joseph's head once more....and he had a lot to think over.