Disclaimer: No claims to the characters, no money being made off them. Just here to rip their souls apart with supernatural angst.
Notes: This one can be blamed on Mithrigil, and a couple of particular FFXII pieces of hers that take place in this same city, full of ghosts...
The library Sydney kept in the keep of Leá Monde contained many, many books - so many Hardin hadn't believed at first that Sydney could have read them all. The only reason he could believe it was possible at all was because of the many nights Sydney spent sleepless and restless, during which Hardin woke from sleep to look for him with the Sight, and usually found him in the library.
He had taken advantage of Sydney's collection numerous times himself, during study and during his increasingly rare idle time. Not only had Sydney accumulated forbidden books on the subject of their faith and tomes of history, but books of stories that once Hardin would have considered only fables and myths. Considering all that he had seen since he'd taken up with Sydney, the old tales seemed more plausible than they had before, though he was unsure of the validity of many. Many of the tales Hardin would not have believed were said to have taken place within the city - Sydney seemed to have taken a particular interest in books with those tales - and some he had verified with his own eyes. Certainly he had heard the voices of the dead, and he had seen them given form, even taking the body of another were it surrendered.
On the other hand, the dead that he had encountered had been nameless strangers. The tales told of people coming to Leá Monde to encounter the shades of loved ones who had passed, who often were said to have given warnings of things to come, or sometimes revelations. Sometimes they offered no more, it seemed, than closure. A bittersweet ending to a tragic story.
This was a tale Hardin was quite interested in verifying.
"Naught but folly," Sydney replied when he asked. "Few retain their sense of self after the body has departed - and although the pilgrimage to our city is a romantic notion, the palings that surround the city of man were designed to keep out, rather than keep in. They have come to serve this purpose in Leá Monde, as you know, but the souls you will find here now are almost entirely those who have died within the city's walls."
"'Almost' entirely?" Disappointment was replaced by intrigue.
"'Tis the Lady's dark city," said Sydney, looking up this time to meet Hardin's eyes. "The lines of power converge, and many things are thus drawn. This is why the majority of the tales have long taken place in Leá Monde; some will inevitably pass through the paling, for it is imperfect, made by imperfect man. I would not, however, suggest you waste your time dreaming dreams of the past."
Of course he knew what Hardin had intended with his questioning. Hardin had asked for information, however, not advice.
Many of the tales spoke of the dead appearing deep in the forest. Some, the oldest he could find, spoke of a people who would willingly seek out their deceased among the trees at night, unafraid. It seemed like enough of a starting point for Hardin, yet his efforts were stifled by Sydney. Again, the seer knew his intentions, and insisted upon accompanying Hardin on what he claimed to be a dangerous vigil. Far from dangerous, Hardin saw naught but snowflies that night, as well as the next attempt, and most of them congregated around Sydney as he lay at Hardin's feet, dreaming his own dark dreams. At Sydney's waking, he asked what Hardin had seen, as if he did not know, and he nodded in satisfaction when Hardin admitted that he had seen nothing at all.
Hardin had to wonder, naturally, if it was Sydney's presence that kept the shades at bay. He might not even have been doing so purposely, for what reason would he have to prevent Hardin's success? No spirit had ever troubled him anywhere within the city, though, at any hour, so long as Sydney was with him. Surely they respected his power, for he had the power to hold them in subjection.
It was this that led him to sneak away one night just past the darkest hour, when he woke to find Sydney not in their bed, but again reading in the library. By this time he had learned to prepare if he was to be outside the keep after dark, and no one still awake questioned him as he passed through the halls at the late hour, sword belted at his waist and a staff slung over his shoulder.
The wings of the snowflies were so pale as to be visible even in the darkness, so pale they looked sickly as they swirled in his wake. Sydney had once warned him away from the forest even by day, for it had a strange tendancy to seemingly reorient itself, as if it wanted to trap its prey within - but that warning had come before Hardin's talent had shown itself, and now the Sight allowed him to keep his bearings easily. Even with that assistance, Hardin occasionally found that he was not where he would have expected to be, but he had accepted the forest as a unique mystery some time past. Besides, at the moment, he was not going to any one place in particular. The first clearing he came upon was beside the river, which seemed a pleasant enough place to wait.
Already the forest seemed different than it had with Sydney - thicker with snowflies at first, but then Hardin thought that perhaps it was only that they were spread out more evenly now that they were not hovering around Sydney. A chill was in the air, unseasonable for summer, but that might have been the presence of the river so nearby. Or perhaps it was another nearby presence. Hardin unhooked the staff from his shoulder, and kept his sword in hand as he sat, back against one of the trees.
His peripheral vision made useless by the constant motion of the snowflies, Hardin did not see the shade until he abruptly realized it was hovering before him. The form was glowing faintly, but the hair and features were a mass of shadow and bubbling blackness so that he could not be sure, no matter how closely he looked. Still, it had made no threatening move, and the more shapely form, above the point where it trailed off in tatters to float just above the ground, was... small. Approximately the correct size for a youth of twelve.
Even so, there were thousands who had died in the quake two decades past, including many children. Though Hardin wanted to ask, he was unsure how.
In the end, the shade spoke for him, in a child's murmur but with a voice unclear. "Why have you come?"
Whether it was indeed Philip or not, Hardin spoke the truth. "I wished to speak with my brother, if I might find him."
"Ahh..." The shade's head bobbed vaguely, and the snowflies that were now swarming were not displaced. "Once I too wished to speak to my brother - my elder brother whom I loved - and all they could tell me was that he had been a fool, and I could not find him. He never did come back."
"I did," Hardin whispered, unsure of whether the growing hope was more powerful than the pain that the words inflicted. "I swear that I did - as soon as I could. They had imprisoned me, but I broke free."
"It was too late."
"...Gods help me, I know," Hardin agreed softly, shamed. There was no further shame, however, than that which he already had borne for more than a year. "All I can do is apologize."
The shade's head seemed to turn aside, the long shapes that stood in for its arms crossed stubbornly. "What good is apologizing, John? I asked for you, and you did not come. Though you swore to protect me, I died alone."
"I'm sorry... I did all I could, but I was in prison," Hardin repeated helplessly. "It took time to free myself."
"Far better for us both had you never been imprisoned in the first place," the shade retorted. "I'd rather have died younger, with you at my side until the end, than to have cried out in vain again and again with what little breath-"
"Forgive me," Hardin murmured. "I only wanted to give us more time. Forgive me..."
"How?" The small voice rose in frustration. "How am I to forgive you? You promised... and then you broke that promise!"
If apologizing was of no use, Hardin was not sure what else he could say. It was not safe to lower his head, faced with an enraged spirit, and so he simply stared at the apparition, studying it sadly as it continued to rant at him.
"I believed in you, John - I believed in you, and you failed me! You who still live, you could never know what it is to die alone and afraid! You could never-"
The tirade cut off abruptly, and then the shade's hand rose as if to ward itself. "No, don't!" it cried, to Hardin's surprise - and in the split second of silence, he heard the murmuring chant that the shade's cries had previously drowned out.
"As two become one, one become two; unseen sword, cleave in twain-"
Recognizing the spell, Hardin's thought was to call out in resistance - but in the last instant, he held his tongue.
The shade shrieked, high and painful, as the spell of banishment struck its mark. The sound echoed from the cliffs and dissolved, just as the shade itself scattered apart into innumerable snowflies. Hardin turned his head to Sydney, who stood a short distance behind him in the wood, hand still upraised in spellcasting posture, regarding him with a stern expression. The prophet said not a word, but Hardin nodded after a moment and took up his sword and staff as Sydney turned to leave.
He said nothing as he followed Sydney back towards the city proper, never bothering to check his location, for Sydney knew the forest. When the city walls and the door were at last before them, he chose to state his case. "...Philip was a youth of twelve years," Hardin began, "and ill for the last five. He had never been given occasion to think about such things as income, and he would not have understood the nature of my crime. He had a right not to understand, to blame me."
"Perhaps," Sydney agreed, pausing with his hand on the latch. "If that had been your brother at all."
"...I suspected as much." He had seen the Dark play tricks on him before in the same manner, after all, and he had known the chance was slim.
"You have ghosts enough, my friend," Sydney admonished him softly, "without summoning more."
Hardin sighed heavily as Sydney unlatched the door and ushered him through ahead. This was true enough - but even having known it from the start, his heart ached. "...What would you have done," he asked, hesitating and turning back to Sydney, "if it had been my brother?"
"Had he spoken such words to you?" Sydney did not hesitate as he did, but instead brushed past him. "I'd have done the same."
Hardin simply watched after him for a moment. He felt that this answer should have angered him... but somehow, it did not.