Desire stands before Zenos with its fangs bared and its short, broad palm pressed against the hilt of a filthy greatsword. Zenos did not know it would be the thing that it is; crude, animal force, base and unbecoming, spattered in offal and blood. Zenos had never judged it so capable or potent. Perhaps he should have. It pleases him either way, to see the grit of its teeth stained bright with death.

Thrice now has he crossed blades with his own longing. That the beast — barely is it a man — should survive to meet his challenges again and again, and finally rise to grant him a worthy performance, is testament to a nature Zenos feels a sudden swell of pride to share. It is a sign, as everything tied to the beast is a sign. It is a sign that the beast leaves a trail of corpses in its wake, and it is a sign that it cannot speak to Zenos without a snarl in its voice, and it is a sign to see the look in its eyes most of all — dull, glassy, mirthless eyes that look without seeing, and leap to life when they fix on Zenos — eyes that glitter with rage and passion solely his to possess and to take.

The eyes are bruise-blue and bruise-violet, and as they look upon Zenos now they press, hard, like points of fingers mashing bruised skin. He relishes the sting because it is a weight no other gaze on him has ever held. He wishes the beast's eyes could tear his throat out, that he could taste his own blood in that sharp and furious gaze, to meet the lips beneath it and paint them with the red of his throat. Seldom has Zenos yae Galvus wished for anything, and more seldom still has he wanted. The thing that stands before him is his own want and his own reflection.

Zenos is sure that this is love.

He laughs, and his voice echoes against the palace walls. "Yes," he rasps, "yes — such ferocity, such tenacity!" It feels good. He does not remember the last time he felt this good, or this much like his heart was beating.

The beast at the center of his world does not do anything but snarl and bare its fangs a little wider. Dark hair falls in its face and bandages its bruise-violet eye, such that Zenos can no longer see it and the hot-blood gaze it holds.

"Finally," Zenos continues. "Finally, you prove yourself worthy prey for the hunt!" Finally, he wants to say again and again, a prayer, finally, the bedroom cries of a lover left too long unsatisfied, finally, finally, finally, finally.

"I'm not your fucking prey," growls his beautiful, perfect animal.

Again, Zenos laughs, because his heart for once is light, and he is in love. "You think yourself the hunter?" He tilts his head, takes in the beast from another angle. "Oh, yes, I see it. It fills you even now, doesn't it? The hunger. To bite down on my jugular, to feel the warmth fill your mouth and run over even as you drink deep."

"Shut up!"

"Good, good!" He ignores the demand; he is not here at his lovely beast's leisure, although he would ask of it no less spirit than to command him thus, out of turn. "This is the beast I have longed to face!"

"I don't care what —"

"This is no place for a final contest." He turns away, toward the hall that leads to the royal menagerie. "Come! The heavens shall bear witness to our dance!"

He makes his way quickly; the beast, naturally, follows, as he knows it will, for there is no other way it might slake its bloodlust. The skies are pink and raw, and the blood-flushed light shines with grace on the feral thing before him, dripping still with the red offerings of war. It reeks with the coppery scent of Garlean lifeblood, and Zenos thrills at the thought that it shall soon reek with his. Shinryu in its bindings towers over them both; even its raw, unbridled might moves him not when he is in the presence of his snarling, feral mirror, the thing that has introduced him to what is surely love.

"Welcome to the Royal Menagerie," says Zenos to the animal.

His animal's bruise-eyes go wide at the eikon in its bindings. It takes in the spectacle of its fellow brute in chains with a slack jaw, and its gaze darts frantically; Zenos wonders for a moment if it is afraid, and then he fears it will reveal some hidden cowardice. But its perfect eyes fix on him again with twice the venom as they had before, and it speaks to him.

"How dare you!" Its yowling is as feline as the sharp ears that flatten against the crest of its skull. "What the fuck is wrong with you! This isn't yours!"

Zenos smiles at it and waits for it to finish speaking nonsense. "It is a divine specimen, is it not?" He turns to gesture to the creature, conversationally, as though his beast has any care for such nicety; if he does not care, he knows it does not care either. But he is too used to pretense, in the way so many lesser beings have taught him to be, and surely if this is the case his animal will expect it. "I suppose you must resent my stealing the prey from beneath your claws, eikon-slayer. Your fates, after all, are entwined — this dragon, this —"

"Get out of the way!" His animal tears at him blindly, and he knocks it back with a fleshy jerk of his wrist. His blade tears through its paltry armor, and carnal red sprays from the shallow gash on its chest — a fitting climax, he thinks, and feels the warm buzz of satisfaction pool inside his chest, throat, lower back, belly.

"Patience," he chastises; he is enjoying these overtures, but the animal has clearly never heard of foreplay. "There is a point to my words — though I suspect they are of no moment to a savage who thinks only of killing the beast before him."

It stands upright and claps a paw close to its chest to staunch the bleeding, fingers splayed awkwardly. Sticky red runs between them in delicious rivulets. "You don't understand," it gasps. "You don't have any fucking respect!"

"Respect?" It is a rhetorical question; there is little point in hearing the beast's answer.

But it cuts him off before he can continue, voice low and rough, the gravelly tell of an animal pushed too close to its limits. "Their rage, their pain — it's not some bauble for you to hold like this! It means something!"

"Meaning!" Zenos laughs. "Come, now! Men should fight for the joy of it. To live, to eat, to breed — lesser beasts snap and howl at one another for this. Only man has the wisdom and the clarity to embrace violence for its own sake. That is the only meaning there is."

"Shut up." It spits onto the stone. Zenos does not think the fat droplets, foamy and pink, are its own blood.

"I know you understand this," he encourages. He must be patient with its silly rhetoric, he thinks; it is only an animal, and it does not yet realize it can speak and think freely with him. "You and I are one and the same. Together, we could while away the quiet hours, as friend and confidant…if you will accept me." Warmth blooms in his chest, for he already knows the answer.

"Are you crazy?" It spits again; this time Zenos is sure it is purging itself of its own blood. "No."

Zenos is cold. His limbs are cold and his chest is cold, and his stomach especially is freezing. "What?"

"I'm nothing like you," snarls his animal. "No."

"You are lying."

"Get out of my fucking way and let me handle Shinryu," it wheezes. "You've already done enough to the people of Ala Mhigo! I won't suffer your dirty hands on their pain, too!"

"You are lying!" He begins to laugh, because this, too, is new, this sensation of loss. "You — we — live only to taste the thrill at the edge of life and death — Ala Mhigo and Doma and Garlemald be damned!" Zenos thinks he has forgotten how to breathe, that his animal has filled his lungs with blood. "You desire it! You desire me!"

Caught in a frenzy, the blood roaring behind the drums of his ears, he raises his blade and frees the eikon, and he laughs, cannot stop laughing, cackles until he is screaming himself hoarse. The magitek bindings explode behind him and the eikon roars, but it cannot drown out the pounding of his heart that reverberates in his skull, nor can it drown his peals of shrieking laughter, yet more fervent prayers laid at the feet of his thankless, perfect beast.

"If you do not want me, I will take you for myself!" The eikon at his back releases a jet of white-hot power with a shrill and deafening cry, but his voice resounds above even this unbelievable din. "YOU WILL RELENT! YOU WILL ACCEPT ME! TOGETHER WE WILL TOWER ABOVE THE GODS — YOU BY YOUR GIFT, I BY MY MIGHT!"

He forces his Resonance to awaken. His blood boils within him, heart jumping erratically; it is too much mindless pleasure for one man to withstand, and he spreads his arms, feels the burning, empty ache in his chest grow and grow, until finally — finally, finally, finally, finally — his feet leave the ground, and he sails dizzily into the raw, pink sky, and he and the eikon are made one by the force of his will.

The stretch of his new body is enormous, apocalyptic; his voice, when it comes out, is enough to shake the foundation of the world. "AN ENDING," he roars, "TO MARK A NEW BEGINNING!"

What comes next is to Zenos little more than a haze of delirious ecstasy. He lunges for his beast, made puny by Zenos' ascent to godhood; it does not cower in fear. Its blade glances away from his scales, like stone and steel. He is aware faintly of sparks. With his new voice he cries fire down on the animal. It figures out that there is space between his scales, and it does not flinch from the burning of its flesh as it drives its blade ever deeper through the crack in his armor, into his side, where the hot, precious lifeblood spills out in white agony, and it is the best thing he has ever felt and he is sure that it is love, and rather than the old prayer of finally all he can think is again, again, again, again, again, more, more, more.

They fight, and they scream, and they bleed, and it is after an eternity of delectation that he thinks to swallow his animal with his infinite new maw, for he can imagine no greater claim to its heart than this, no better oneness. He opens his mouth, and he lowers his head, and he thrills when it climbs inside — until it drives its blade through the roof of the eikon's mouth and into his brain. Then there is the feeling of cold water, and numbness, and tumbling, and vertigo, organs that tie themselves into knots and fail and fall all out; he is a million clumsy livers tumbling over one another on the butcher's block, wet and red and metal.

He plummets to the ground and a thousand raw, pink petals spill around his body, propelled into the wounded sky, blood-flushed clouds stark against bruise-blue. It is a pair of bruise-colored eyes that look down on him now, and they are dull, glassy, mirthless, and they look without seeing, pressing at the slick organ of his bruised heart with cold, indifferent fingers.

It is here Zenos yae Galvus, with blood-colored petals tangled in the exposed ligaments of his golden hair, learns what it means to be a jilted lover.

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