Final Breath Still Trapped Behind My Teeth – 2/2 – Spiralgal

Title: Final Breath Still Trapped Behind My Teeth
Author: Spiralgal
Fandom: Final Fantasy XV
Genre: Fantasy, Action Adventure, Pre-Relationship, Slash
Relationship(s): pre-Nyx Ulric/Noctis Lucis Caelum
Content Rating: Teen
Warnings: Violence-Canon-Level, Discussion-PTSD, Discussion-Trauma, Discussion-Self-Image-Issues
Author Notes: Just before the fic starts the main character is burning up in a magical fire. He has scarring from this and there is a scene where he confronts and tries to cope with those scars.
Beta: Jahaliel
Word Count: 27,300/54,800
Summary: Nyx Ulric was meant to die with the dawn but finds himself stumbling out of Insomnia, somehow still alive. Barely holding himself together, he is found by Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum and his retinue. Desperate for a purpose and lead by the words King Regis’ ghost, he joins the group as they begin a journey to reclaim the kingdom—or is there perhaps some other purpose waiting for them?
Artist: Leilsilver


 

 


Chapter 12: Diversions

They had popped into the restaurant before they left, talking to the local tipster to get an idea of the lay of the land. Noctis had also chosen to grab a hunt in the same area as where they would be searching for frogs. He had pointed out that the beasts would be a nuisance anyways and they might as well get paid for dealing with them.

The drive to the Chocobo Post was only about half an hour, and soon enough they were pulling into the parking lot.

Prompto was the first out of the car, bouncing and looking around every-which-way in excitement as he exclaimed, “Now this is what I’m talking about.”

He barely managed to hold himself back until the rest of them had gotten out before he was bouncing away, towards the irresistible draw of chocobos. The rest of them followed behind, fighting smiles. “The kid’s got it bad,” commented Gladio.

“There are worse vices, I suppose,” Ignis observed, voice fond.

Prompto made a beeline towards the first person they saw that looked like they worked there, bouncing up and saying, “’Scuse me.” The man turned, and Prompto continued, “We’d like to ride the chocobos.”

“The chocobos, huh?” The man gave a little nod of his head. “I hate to break this to y’all, but we can’t permit our birds to leave the post.” The man’s voice fell in genuine sounding regret as he spoke. “Not while Deadeye’s still about. He’s an uncommonly ferocious behemoth that’s taken to prowlin’ these parts of late.” The man shook his head, gaze dropping as he explained the dilemma to a wilting Prompto.

“His scent makes our birds nervous, an’ to prevent accidents an’ tragedies, we have no choice but to suspend rentals.” The man heaved a sigh, before pausing, something seeming to catch his eye. He looked over the group again evaluatingly, saying, “Hold on, now—ain’t you lads the hunters that’ve been makin’ a mark around Leide?

“You reckon you could handle the likes of Deadeye? It’s an official hunt, o’ course, so there’d be a reward in it for ya.”

Prompto was already turning puppy dog eyes on Noct, begging to help the chocobos. Noct took one glance at him and then turned back to Wiz, smile playing on his lips and shaking his head fondly.

Wiz quickly sorted out the wanted posters for the hunts and pulled out the Deadeye one for them. Noct also pulled out their map and spent a few minutes asking Wiz to point out what he knew about the area before they were done.

With everything ready, the group set out around the back of the Chocobo Post, finding a small cliff that offered a good view of the area. Looking over the edge, they spotted a path leading down from their left and around the cliff, towards the area their target was supposed to roam.

“That looks like the way to go,” commented Ignis.

In agreement, the group began heading left, but Nyx noted the way Noctis seemed to be lagging a bit behind the group. He dropped back to walk beside him. “Everything good?”

Noctis was silent for a long moment, and Nyx tried to follow his gaze, curious. His eyes landed on Gladio, and when he looked back at Noctis there was the suggestion of a frown tugging his lips downward. A moment later Noctis looked up at him, and Nyx found himself following a lock of hair that fell between Noctis’ eyes to brush his cheek before looking back up into those blue, blue eyes. “Just… thinking,” he said with a real frown now.

“About?”

Noctis’ eyes turned to look out at the view over the Slough. “Thinking that we’re going to have a lot of shit to deal with for a while… Thinking that we’re going to keep running into stronger and stronger enemies, especially once the Empire realizes I’m still alive…”

He was quiet for a minute as they began descending the slope. “Thinking that we’ll need some more firepower…” Noctis looked back at Nyx with a sigh, “Thinking that I should get around to extending the King’s Magic to you again.”

Nyx’s feet stumbled to a stop, and Noctis slowed beside him before stopping as well. For a minute, he just stood there, blinded by the words echoing in his memory.

“Whatever strength you have is on loan from the king. You are nothing without him.”

 “What of your King’s power now? It’s a burden you cannot hope to bear.”

“What good will you be without the king’s magic?”

Nyx came back to himself at a careful touch to his bare arm. He pulled a stuttering breath into his aching lungs, and then grit his teeth in fury at his thoughts. That is not what he is saying, he told himself fiercely.

His next breath came easier. It was a perfectly sound idea. They needed more firepower, and when you looked around, he was the most efficient solution. He had been fighting the Empire for years and had plenty of experience with whatever they might throw at them. He was also currently operating at barely half of his previous capacity, through no fault of his own.

Another breath, and Nyx managed to meet Noctis’ concerned eyes with a semblance of calm.

Noctis held the ability to restore his capacity to its previous levels and allow him to fully utilize the skills he had spent years training, and that’s what he was proposing. He couldn’t know that he was echoing every horrible and degrading voice the Kingsglaive had ever heard. He couldn’t know that—

Nyx choked for a moment, certain things crystalizing that he had understood instinctually since the night of the fall, since the Captain had been revealed as Glauca, but that he hadn’t put words to before.

—that Glauca had slowly and insidiously been dripping poison into them, trying to break any pride they might have taken in serving the King, in being entrusted with his magic. That Glauca had been instilling a certain disdain and distaste of utilizing the King’s magic.

Nyx had to pass a hand over his face, throat tight, as he finally saw the festering wound that had been lingering in the Kingsglaive for years. He struggled to think back, but it was a thing so commonplace that he couldn’t really tell when it had started. It was just a thing the Captain did. Big heads got people killed, so he kept them grounded by reminding them they weren’t invincible. Except that wasn’t really why he had been doing it.

The hand on his elbow flexed, reminding him of his audience. After a moment, he managed to lower his hand and meet the concerned gaze of his Prince. His throat was still tight, and he couldn’t manage to force any words past it.

“Nyx, man, you okay?”

The sudden, concerned interjection startled him enough to glance over and see Prompto, shifting restlessly on his feet, gaze steady on him and Noctis. His eyes slid past him to take in Gladio standing planted in the middle of the path, head on a swivel as he kept a lookout for any danger that might want to interrupt them even as his body leaned towards them. Ignis was watching them from the furthest edge of the path, another barrier between them and unwanted company.

Nyx realized how he must have looked, expression no doubt twisted in grief, covering his eyes and slumping into the hand on his arm enough that it might look like it was holding him up. He must have looked like he was about to break.

He took a deep breath, and this time it shook because he was overwhelmed by their concern for him. It managed to finally ease his throat enough for him to speak. “Just,” and he had to stop and grope for words, for a way to explain what had shaken him so much. He looked back at Noctis with a strange need to assure him somehow that his momentary breakdown hadn’t had anything to do with what he had said.

“Just realizing something.” He took a breath and brought a hand up to cover the one on his elbow. “I… Glauca spent years, dripping an insidious kind of poison in our ears, pretending it was concern. And finally recognizing it that way was a shock.”

Nyx blew a breath out through his teeth, patting the hand, before straightening and letting it slide away. He threw a smile towards the still concerned faces. “I’m fine, truly.” Nyx could feel his expression hardening as he added, “And I’m not about to allow Glauca the privilege of breaking me.”

Finally, he met Noctis’ gaze again. “I would be happy to accept your magic, if that is what you want to do.”

It took a good bit more than just those words, but eventually they were ready.

At first, they meant to perform the ceremony right where they stood. The Behemoth causing trouble and the chocobos being unavailable meant that there weren’t really any tourists hanging around the Chocobo Post. Some digging around in the Arsenal— which apparently held much more than just weapons, who knew— had turned up a serviceable ceremonial goblet. Actually filling the goblet had been what changed their plans.

Nyx had never known exactly what it was they had been given to drink in the formal ceremony in the Citadel. The way Noctis and Ignis had gone back and forth over it had informed him it was more complicated than he had thought. The two had pulled out and examined every single liquid the group had, and several hidden in the Arsenal, eventually rejecting all of them.

Nyx had happily left them to it, not particularly interested in trying to understand their conversation, given the number of technical terms they had been throwing around. Finally, Ignis had waved a hand in the Prince’s direction, conceding something to him. Noctis had turned to them with a wrinkle in his nose and a frown on his face and told them they needed to go to a Haven.

Wiz had kindly pointed out all the nearby Havens on their map, so they continued north into the Slough to what Wiz had named Ausace Haven.

~*~

With the liquid taken care of, Noctis turned and began waving his retainers into position. The goblet was handed off to Prompto, who stood slightly nervously beside Noctis. Ignis had retrieved a potion and was standing to the side, out of the way of the ceremony about to take place. And Gladio had taken up the traditional position of a Shield, two paces behind and to the side of his charge.

Noctis turned to him now, expression steady. A gust of wind made the hair brushing his chin sway for a moment before it stilled again. “Ready?”

Nyx took a breath, memories from the ceremony with King Regis shifting in his head. “Your Majesty,” he said, inclining his head and raising a fist to thump down over his heart.

Noctis waited until he raised his head to meet his eyes again, before waving a single hand at Prompto. “Drink of this, that the Crystal might take your measure and the Six might know my will.”

On cue, Prompto stepped forward and offered him the goblet. Nyx accepted it carefully and drank deeply of it. When he handed it back, he had drained half the liquid in it, and he accepted the small knife from Prompto in turn.

“I ask now for your blood, that my magic might know you.”

Slightly awkwardly, Nyx used the knife to prick a finger on his right hand. The last time, it had been his left, but with the scarring he was leery of how deeply he might have to cut to draw blood. When the blood welled up on his finger, he held it out over the goblet and let three drops of blood fall into the liquid. The color curled lazily through the water for long moments, before a sudden current seemed to sweep through it and the red vanished.

Prompto retreated to Noctis’ side and offered the goblet. Noctis a short sip of the liquid before holding the goblet out in front of him. “Ancestors, know this man who comes willingly before us,” he spoke, tipping the vessel. The liquid fell in a shining stream that vanished before it hit the ground.

Now it was the Shield’s turn to speak. “Petitioner, you ask for the Magic of the King. Speak your oaths that you may be worthy of it.”

Nyx felt his breath shake slightly as he inhaled. He took a single step forward, and knelt, fist pressed to his heart again. “My King, I pledge to you my service.

“I swear myself to the Line of Kings. I swear to them my service as they hold the line against the darkness until the coming of the King of Kings.

“I swear to use my magic in the defense of Lucis and against the coming Darkness. My King, I swear this magic you gift me now will be used with all due responsibility and will not be turned against innocents.

“All this, I swear with no reservations before the light of the Crystal and the eyes of the Six.”

As he spoke the traditional oath of the Kingsglaive, written some centuries before by an unknown monarch, Nyx noted with concern the pain that seemed to steal across Noctis’ features. It was only the subtlest of twitches at certain parts, but it very definitely seemed like a reaction to certain phrases in the oath. Unfortunately, Nyx couldn’t afford to think about it at the moment, given the ceremony taking place, but he carefully noted and filed away the expressions and when they had occurred.

The words of the oath settled into the air. A tension built as they hung, waiting, until finally Noctis stepped forward to stand in front of him. Only slightly self-conscious, he raised his left hand for his King’s perusal.

Noctis turned Nyx’s hand so it was palm up and ran his own palm down towards his elbow. A subtle pulse of magic built between the two points of contact—his forearm and his hand. The first time he had gone through the ceremony it had been like a zing, a spark. Now, he felt it as a pure, unattuned stream of magic.

With King Regis, his body had been so on-edge he hadn’t been able to hear a word the King had spoken. This time he paid close attention.

“With this I do extend to you my magic. I take you into my care, such that you might meet enemies with the edge of the Draconian’s power, and friends with the Draconian’s light. May the Crystal bless you and accept these oaths between us as our covenant.”

The magic retreated from his arm, and Noctis drew his fingers up Nyx’s palm again. His fingers invoked wildly uneven sensations, one moment near nothing and the next making him want to shiver all the way down into his toes. Noctis managed to make the motion entirely controlled, dipping up and down over his scars but drawing a perfectly straight line over the now invisible tendons in his arm.

Finally, Noctis stopped at the very edge of his palm, one finger resting in the tiny natural dip between the muscles of his palm. Nyx forced himself to breath, trying to relax for what came next—

The magic pierces into him, and his breath strangles in his throat. The magic rushes into his veins like light floods a room, so strong that it blots out all other sensations in its wake. He can’t move, because in the wake of the magic his muscles disappear.

His eyes fix on Noctis fingers against his skin as the magic rushes up his arm and into his chest. For just a moment Nyx feels afraid as he remembers the white-hot kernel of fire trapped behind his sternum, warded behind a wall of white. He tries to brace himself as the flood of magic sweeps down toward that kernel—

And washes past it without any reaction. Noctis moves his hand down to encircle his wrist, the tip of his finger turning into his entire palm, the magic flowing into him even faster. Nyx remembers how this moment felt with King Regis, the intrusion gentling into mere pressure, but he can’t feel anything now. His physical senses are being blotted out by the light, and his magic sense is flooded beyond his ability to process.

It doesn’t take long for the magic to reach every corner of his body, until Nyx is floating in a sea of light, even his sight overwhelmed. The only thing he can feel at this point is the gentle warmth of the magic, glowing ever brighter, and the tiny point of fire still trapped in his chest.

There is a sudden tug, and Nyx’s spirit slumps sideways. There’s a tingle, like he’s supposed to be feeling something, but all that exists for him in this moment is the light.

Eventually, he notices new sensations creeping in.

The light begins to flow inwards, retreating from his limbs as it goes. Slowly, slowly, it seeps into his chest, pooling there. Soon, the light had retreated to a small channel that stretches from his throat —that had spoken oaths to his King— to his heart —where he had placed his fist as he pledged— to his stomach —which held the liquid from the ceremonial goblet he had drank from.

With a vague memory of how his body worked, Nyx rolled his head back until he could meet Noctis’ burning eyes. They helped anchor him to what was going on, pulling him out of the magic. Slowly, Nyx’s brain processed the signals from his body. He was slumped into his arm, which was being held above his head by the hand on his wrist. Another hand was pressing into his elbow, locking it straight and helping support it.

Something was going to happen, right? Something…

Nyx’s eyes caught on the movement of Noctis’ hand. It was throwing off little fits and fizzles of electricity as he raised it to grip his own hand, still caught in Noctis’ grasp. Nyx gasped, trying to wrench away as the lightning shot through his body. A moment later, the light in his chest leapt forward, twisting into a matching current and racing to meet the intrusion.

The two spells met in their clasped hands and created a halo of electricity around them. The light gleamed strangely on the dark trails of liquid seeping past the grip still tight on Nyx’s wrist. Before his thoughts could steady, Noctis let the lightning go, and the light in Nyx’s chest followed suit. It dropped back into the well-worn channel in his chest, lapping at its edges before settling and curling around the still-burning kernel in his sternum like a cat.

In his moment of distraction Noctis had moved away, and Nyx only focused when an unfamiliar, cloth-covered grip covered his hand. The fingers around his wrist loosened, and blood began to drip freely down his arm. Noctis made a noise, something low in his throat but high in pitch, and then hurriedly moved back.

The moment his wrist was clear, Ignis was pouring the potion he had readied over it. Once he was sure the potion had worked Ignis stepped back, releasing his hand. Nyx gathered it back to his chest, trying to gather his scattered thoughts along with it.

When he looked at the King again, he found Noctis focused intently on wiping his hand off, trying to scrub away the blood. It was several long moments before Noctis stopped his scrubbing. Slowly, his hand fisted up, and Nyx noticed with concern the whiteness in his knuckles.

Gladio dropped a hand onto Noctis’ shoulder, and when Noctis turn away to glance at him, held a hand out for the bloodied rag. Something seemed to pass between them from the way Gladio’s face softened before he reached forward and gently pried the cloth out of Noctis’ hand. With another pat and a little push to the shoulder, Gladio moved back again.

“You are now bound to my magic, and through me, to the magic of the Crystal,” Noctis began after a moment, dredging up the words to end the ceremony. “Rise and be welcome,” Noctis said, extending a hand to him as his eyes seemed to glow from within, “Glaive Ulric.”

As Nyx grasped that hand, he felt a warmth that had nothing to do with magic suffuse him. He found himself, like the King, diverting from the overly prescribed words. “It is an honor to serve at your side.”

Chapter 13: Camping

By the time they had finished the impromptu ceremony, the sun had begun setting. As they were already standing on a Haven, it was decided that they would make camp for the night and go looking for the Behemoth the next day.

Gladio went to begin setting up the tent, and Ignis began setting up a table filled with cooking utensils. Nyx watched, slightly bemused at their efficiency, and shifted out of the way of the activity. Prompto was bustling around the fire pit, arranging chairs, only to stop suddenly with a noise of dismay.

“Prompto?” Ignis asked, looking up from laying out several knives.

“Oh, uhhh, just realized we haven’t camped since we found Nyx. Or shopped. And we only have four camp chairs.”

“Oh, that’s fine. I honestly don’t think I’ve used one before,” Nyx tried to reassure him.

“Never?” Prompto asked, sounding fascinated.

“Surely when the Kingsglaive was deployed,” probed Ignis.

Nyx could feel a smile tugging at his lips. “The Kingsglaive was never connected to the Arsenal, remember? We camped plenty on deployment, but you don’t want to weigh yourself down with too much equipment. Things like tables and chairs were the sole domain of Tactical, and everyone hated carting the things around enough to never want one for themselves.

“Besides,” he shrugged, “on deployment you were only ever one of three things: on duty; eating; or asleep. What’s the point in extra weight you’ll never use anyways?”

Nyx could see both Prompto’s and Ignis’ brains whirring, turning over what he had said. It was all true, if slightly exaggerated and simplified. It didn’t even hint at the questions creeping around the edges of Nyx’s mind, wondering if this wasn’t another manipulation by Glauca, making them actively distasteful of such minor things.

“Nevertheless,” Ignis said, turning back to his things with a frown, “we shall be purchasing another chair when we have the chance.”

“Yeah,” Prompto chimed in, “we’ve been spending lots of evenings talking around the campfire. You’re going to have to add another activity to your list: it’s called, ‘Hanging Out’. We might be setting up camp, but we’ve got a couple hours before we’ll really feel like sleeping yet.”

“Nyx, what kind of things do you like to eat? I’m just about to start preparing dinner.”

Distracted by the question, Nyx turned towards Ignis with a smirk. “I’m Galahdian, I grew up on spicy food. The spicier the better, in my opinion.”

Prompto practically lit up, spinning around to face him. “I love spicy food!” he rushed out, before turning to Ignis and clutching his arm with wide eyes and a fast spreading pout. “Please, please, pleasssssse, can we have green curry tonight?”

Prompto,” Ignis sighed at him.

Nyx felt his smirk gentling into a true smile at the two. “I doubt you have any idea of what true Galahdian spice is like, but green curry sounds great to me.”

“Green curry for dinner it is,” Ignis muttered as he shook Prompto off, but Nyx caught the smile on his lips.

“Noct,” Ignis spoke without looking up, cutting through Prompto’s cheers. “Perhaps you should take Nyx and the two of you could go wash up. I would hate to think of a little blood ruining our dinner.”

Nyx had nearly forgotten about the Prince, and looking around, found him near the edge of the Haven. Noctis was absently gripping his wrist and staring at the oncoming sunset. There was a moment of silence, before Ignis said, “Noct,” again, a little firmer.

Noctis startled, dropping his wrist. “What,” he asked, flipping around and blinking at them. “Oh, right… Good idea, Specs.” He waved a hand at Nyx in a beckoning manner. “Come on, there’s a lake right over there.”

The trip to the lake was silent. Nyx knelt just at the edge of the water to scrub the blood off his wrist, examining the scars up his arm as he did so. The first time he had received the King’s Magic, it had left a fine scar that faded to near nothing over the course of some months. Nyx had still been able to locate it, but the one time he had asked someone else they hadn’t been able to spot it.

Now, with the randomly branching scars from Lucii’s magic, it had vanished completely. There wasn’t even a visible scar from the ceremony they had just finished. Lowering his arm into the water again, Nyx wasn’t entirely sure what he felt about that.

Done with the washing, Nyx rocked onto his toes in preparation to stand up; a glance to the side made him falter. Noctis was still kneeling in the gravel, water lapping at his knees as he scrubbed at his own hand.

Nyx felt his lips part in surprise, but couldn’t look away. A moment of trying to catch his mental balance, and he noticed the blank expression on Noctis’ face; the staring, unmoving gaze; the single-minded, repetitive nature of his scrubbing.

The picture cleared for him suddenly and Nyx rocked back, unsure. This was a moment where Noctis was decidedly not there, trapped somewhere in his head… and it had probably been brought on by the ceremony earlier.

Figuring out the problem was easy; the signs were all there for him to interpret. Nyx himself could remember the first times he had killed Imperials, the horrible sensation of blood on his hands. The terrifying feeling of it won’t come off.

But this… this was subtly different. There had been no death, no one had died, there hadn’t even really been any violence. And, no one had been concerned, had they? His retainers had sent Noctis off with just Nyx for company. Which meant either they were sure Noctis would be fine, or… or they didn’t know that Noctis would react this way.

With a lump in his throat he couldn’t explain, Nyx finally rose to his feet. He pulled out the towel Ignis had sent them off with and approached Noctis slowly, doing his best to avoid sneaking up on him. Carefully, trying to remain in his peripheral vision, Nyx reached out and set a hand on his shoulder.

Noctis stilled.

Swallowing against the tightness in his throat, Nyx dangled the towel in front of him. “You ready to head back?”

When no response came, not even a twitch, Nyx felt something in the pit of his stomach twist. He slid his hand down Noctis’ arm, and gently tugged him upwards. There was a moment where it felt like he was pulling a dead weight, but then Noctis gave in to it, letting himself be guided upwards.

Nyx didn’t let go of the arm but pulled it towards him. Carefully, he began to dry it, giving individual attention to each finger. Noctis twitched, turning slightly to face him, but Nyx didn’t hear an actual protest. If there was one on his face, well, all his attention was needed on his hands at the moment.

When he had finished drying the hand, Nyx hesitated over it, debating what to do. Noctis almost solved the question for him when he stopped holding it up, the arm almost slipping through his fingers before he tightened his grip on it. After a moment he did let if fall, but only to tuck it into his elbow. Then he reached for the other hand and began to gently dry that one as well.

Eventually, his fingers stuttered to a stop and he couldn’t put it off any longer. Hoping against hope that the horrible blankness would have retreated, Nyx slowly looked up into Noctis’ face.

There was definitely an expression there.

Nyx felt his breath leave him in a rush. The knot in his throat came loose to the chorus of the tension in his shoulders and back relaxing. Not thinking, Nyx found himself whispering, “There you are.”

Blue eyes flickered up to meet his, and one corner of Noct’s mouth pulled upwards even as his eyes remained dull. “Sorry.”

Noct’s voice was quiet and a little sad. Nyx’s fingers tightened on the hand he was still holding, his worry doubling. He so desperately wanted to soothe that sadness away, to coax the words out of Noct that would bleed away some of his pain. But it was just as obvious that Noct didn’t want to talk about it at all, didn’t want to even acknowledge it.

“It’s fine,” Nyx said, looking back down. He pretended to wipe more water off perfectly dry fingers before letting go and stepping back. “They’re probably waiting for us back at camp.”

Noct wavered for a moment before turning to head back, and Nyx let himself fall into step beside him. Halfway back, keeping his eyes fixed on the thin trail of smoke from the Haven, Nyx finally found the words he wanted.

“It happens to us all,” he said quietly. “Every warrior, in every walk of life, has moments of doubt, and times when it hurts. They might pretend otherwise but it’s true.” Nyx took a steadying breath. “Trauma is. Pretending otherwise is just an invitation for it to happen again.”

Nyx let his words sink into the space between the two of them, not looking to see if they had gotten a reaction. He had said his piece, and it was enough.

A couple of steps later, Noct bumped into his side. It was just a light tap, but Nyx could feel the acknowledgement in the fact it had happened at all.

When they finally mounted the rock of the Haven, they were greeted by Gladio. Nyx could see him examining Noct from head to toe, and the tension that eased out of him afterwards. Of course; Gladio was the Shield, it had probably made him uncomfortable to emerge from the tent and find Noctis missing.

“I see you made it back in one piece. Didn’t have any troubles?”

“Not a peep. Animals were probably bedding down for the night, and it was still too early for daemons,” Noct replied quietly. He headed for a chair and collapsed into it with a little hiss, rubbing at his back.

With a quick glance around, Nyx began heading for a clear spot by the fire. He was waylaid by Prompto before he could go more than two steps.

“No. No no no no no,” Prompto was saying, and actually grabbed his shoulders as he steered him towards one of the chairs.

“Prompto,” Nyx tried to protest, but a sudden hard shove from the blond unbalanced him. Nyx tipped, and found himself sprawled with a thump into the camp chair.

“Dude,” Prompto said seriously, glaring lightly behind a wagging finger. “You are not sitting on the ground. You just received the King’s Magic for the sake of all the Six!” Prompto was slowly retreating as he lectured, and sat in his own chair without looking.

Nyx sat awkwardly under the pointed look Prompto kept fixed on him, not even daring to try and find a more comfortable position. Before the silence and muffled grins from Gladio and Noctis could grow awkward, Ignis announced, “Dinner’s ready.”

Jumping at the excuse, Nyx stood quickly and darted over to the work table where Ignis had dished things up. Grabbing a plate and cutlery, Nyx pointedly took a seat on the icebox on the opposite side of the fire from Prompto.

Gladio snorted as he accepted his own plate from Ignis. As Prompto spluttered, he spoke over him, “Looks like you got outfoxed there, Prompto.”

Prompto pouted, but was quickly distracted by the dinner Ignis placed in his hands. Ignis retrieved the last two dishes, for Noct and himself, and took the chair Nyx had so eagerly abandoned. “Well, let’s dig in.”

Nyx kept an eye on Prompto, wondering if he had to worry about an act of revenge, but the blond was diving into his food with relish. Satisfied, Nyx glanced down at his own dish. Prompto had practically gone into raptures when Ignis agreed to make it, and Nyx was curious both as to how it would be, and how it would rank compared to true Galahdian spice.

Turned out, pretty well, on both accounts. Oh, it wasn’t actually spicy, but it had a pleasant warmth and a richly complex flavor. Ignis obviously hadn’t been trying for a true burn, but he had a very good grasp on how to use and balance various spices.

Almost before he realized it, Nyx was scraping the bottom of the bowl. The entire group had been silent as they worked their way through dinner.  Wondering what they usually did for dishes, Nyx glanced over at Ignis. The man just waved at his work table with one lazy hand.

Nyx got up to deposit his dish, and then wandered back to the icebox. Opening it to investigate, he found a couple sports drinks, some flavored and plain waters, and tightly packed stacks of Ebony. Nyx fished a water out for himself, and then glanced around.

“I’ll take a PowerUp,” Noct said, and Nyx tossed him one.

“Water for Ignis,” Gladio said, interrupting the man as he opened his mouth, “and for me.”

“Strawberry, please,” said Prompto, sinking deeper into his chair.

With drinks passed out Nyx, satisfied, sealed the icebox and perched atop it again, sipping his own water. He was beginning to feel tired, but he pointedly ignored it as conceding Prompto’s earlier argument. After everyone had finished and stacked their dishes to be rinsed in the lake in the morning, and was sitting down again nursing their drinks, Ignis spoke.

“Tomorrow we will see about hunting down Deadeye.”

“And then we’ll finally be able to see the chocobos!” broke in Prompto cheerily.

A smile hovered on Ignis’ lips. “Yes, and then Wiz will be able to let the chocobos out. But do we want to head back to the Chocobo Post after Deadeye, or take advantage of being close to the Slough to find Miss Sania’s frogs?”

“We don’t know yet where Deadeye will be. We might not end up any closer to the Slough than the Post is. Besides, haven’t you noticed all the Chocobo Rental locations,” said Noct. “They’ve all been out-of-order so far. Aren’t they for renting from Wiz? Once we take care of Deadeye, he’ll probably start renting them out again. We could return to the Post and then head into the Slough on chocobos.”

All the other men were looking at Noct now.

“Huh,” muttered Gladio after a moment. “Is that why you agreed to Prompto’s detour?”

Noct shrugged. “It was certainly a factor.”

“Those are all very good points,” Ignis said after a moment. “I confess I had not thought of the Chocobo Rentals, since they’ve been unusable so far, but that will certainly help save us time.”

“Oh my gosh! You mean we’ll actually get to ride the chocobos?! Noct, you’re the best!” Prompto had managed to lean over and hug Noctis, both of them still in their chairs. Nyx had to quickly lift his bottle of water to his lips, trying to stifle the laughter that wanted to spill out at the sight.

Noct was complaining and batting at the arms wrapped around him. A particularly vigorous shake from Prompto actually rocked the chair Noctis was sitting in, and his flail had Gladio shifting and sitting up straight. Nyx took in the watchful look on the Shield’s face, and took his own closer look at Noct.

Prompto was now laughingly messing up Noct’s hair. Something about his movements must have had a deeper meaning to Gladio, as he stood from his chair and headed over to the two and brought his hands down on their shoulders.

“Alright you two, it’s time for the Princess here to go to sleep.”

Gladio,” Noct complained.

“Nuh-uh, I can see you wavering. In case everybody has forgotten, we took out an Imperial Blockade this morning. We’re all tired, and then you decided to invest your first Kingsglaive. To bed. You too Nyx,” Gladio said, glancing across the fire at him.

The words took a moment to sink in for Nyx, but when they did, he groaned. The mention of sleep had his eyelids dragging where he had closed them in exasperation.

“Both of you, into the tent,” came another voice, and Nyx when glanced over Ignis was frowning. “We’ll secure the camp and be in soon as well. Gladio is quite right to remind us of how busy we were just this morning.”

Nyx, knowing the futility of arguing with bossy friends when they were right, gave in with a sigh. He levered himself to his feet and followed a grumbling Noct into the tent. Suddenly remembering the other thing that had happened that morning, Nyx stopped just inside the doorway.

Trying to cover the suddenness of the movement and buy time, he began working his boots off. Noctis was puttering around, dropping his jacket and shoes in a corner and then grabbing some loose clothes. Nyx looked down at his boots, giving his entire attention to each and every buckle as he undid them at a fraction of his normal speed. The crinkle of a blanket—or sleeping bag in this case—shifting brought Nyx’s attention back up as he slid the boot off.

Noctis was settling in just left of the middle of the tent, obviously his normal spot. Nyx headed for the right wall, dropping his boots in the corner. Sleeping bags had been unzipped and spread out as padding, with a top layer obviously meant to be used as a covering. When Nyx finally crawled into the nest in light sleep pants and his T-shirt, for a moment he thought he could feel a stare boring into his shoulder blades.

Chapter 14: Hunting

They rose bright and early the next morning. After a quick breakfast they set out back in the direction of the Chocobo Post. There had been some obviously mauled trees the day before, and Gladio had a hunch they could follow them to Deadeye.

Said mauled trees came into view just minutes after they set out, but there were no obvious tracks around them. Still, the group continued along the path as it wound into some rocky hills. Just as the path spread out, a deep rumbling growl echoed from over the rocks. Nyx was instantly falling into a defensive stance, old instincts taking over.

Gaze jerking up, he saw trees slowly collapsing over the next hill.

“Something’s amiss,” murmured Ignis.

“C’mon,” said Gladio, immediately turning his feet in that direction.

Nyx felt much more caution as he followed them. Rounding a bend, they came upon the recently felled trees, fresh scars marring what remained of their trunks.

Annnnd, of course, they were following right in the tracks of whatever had caused that damage. The path split, one direction continuing through the open hills, the other heading into heavily wooded ones; they of course took the second option.

Every couple feet there was another snapped, downed tree to show they hadn’t lost the trail, accompanied by the sound of falling timber, and there were little clouds of mist all over the place. Eventually they came upon a clearing where the hills spread out and the tree coverage lessened. Nyx tensed again, expecting something to leap out them.

Apparently no one else felt tense, because they simply walked into the clearing. Nyx felt a bit like gaping at them but was immediately distracted by the noise of pounding feet. Seconds later, a pack of voretooths came dashing out from between the trees, rushing past without paying them any attention, obviously scared.

“Whoa!” Prompto exclaimed. “Look at them go!”

Nyx could feel his island-raised instincts of giving a respectful berth to things that could kill you as easy as look at you warring with his more recent instincts to fight all the things, but mostly, he wanted to bash his head against a tree repeatedly. It had been awhile since he had been on an actual hunt, and he had never been on one with people so blasé their own personal safety.

Apparently the only thing of note about a fleeing pack of voretooths was where they had come from, as the group continued towards the trees they had fled out of. They poked into every little offshoot of the path, verifying they were clear. Eventually the path ended at a stone structure.

There was a small passage, almost covered by some rusted sheet metal. When the Prince began leading the way into the passage to the accompaniment of deep growling, Nyx practically choked. Thankfully for his sanity, the Shield caught his shoulder with a fierce, quiet, “Noct!”

Gladio motioned that he would take point and headed into the passage with one ear cocked. Noctis, however, took the still dangerous position of second-in-line. Nyx’s heart raced when they came to a part of the passage without a roof and saw that Deadeye was literally feet away from them, and they wouldn’t be able to fight him off inside the cramped little passage. Thankfully the behemoth’s dead eye— reeeeal clever naming there, har har— was facing them, so they might be able to get out of this deathtrap of a passage without having to fight.

Only a few feet later, Nyx spotted a section where the rebar in the roof had been ripped out. Gladio, ever wary, crossed the gap quickly, and motioned for them to wait. Nyx felt his heart literally leap into his throat when the damn behemoth shoved its nose into the passage right between Gladio and Noctis.

Somehow, Deadeye didn’t smell the two snacks that were sitting ducks mere feet from its mouth (maybe whatever damaged its eye also damaged its nose). The beast stalked off, frustrated, and Gladio eventually motioned them to continue once he had judged it safe.

The passage only continued another couple feet after that, and being in the open again settled a lot of Nyx’s nerves. Sure, he could have warped through one of the gaps in the roofs to fight the Behemoth, but everyone else had been sitting ducks.

“It’s weak on the right—no eye, no horn,” commented Gladio.

“We’ll stay in range until we can exploit its weakness,” Ignis instructed.

They pressed on to a choke point where they had to duck under a tree, and Nyx again felt his heart in his throat when Noct took point, even if they couldn’t hear the Behemoth nearby. Another stretch of boring, uninteresting, fogged forest, and they came to an old barb wire fence that the Prince had jumped before Nyx could suggest they look for another way around.

Just a few feet beyond, the trees gave way to a mist-filled field, and the silhouette of the behemoth appeared again.

Finally showing an ounce of sense and caution, Gladio dropped into a crouch, Ignis pulling up next to him. Lowly, Gladio said, “We’ve got the beast in our sights.”

“But no plan of attack,” Ignis returned. Nyx’s gaze was fixed on Noct, still several feet ahead and not falling back. Carefully, Nyx crept forward on silent feet, falling in on Noct’s left. “The behemoth should be headed back to its lair, where we can catch it fully off guard.”

Really? Nyx wondered silently. And how would you know that? It’s morning, maybe it’s looking for a snack. And if does go back to its lair, maybe it’s for its calisthenics routine.

Beside him, Noct let out a snort. “Yeah,” he said, sarcasm barely audible, “as long as we don’t let our guard down ourselves.” Nyx glanced sidelong at him, but there was no way to tell if the eye-rolling tone had been accompanied by an actual eye-roll.

Noct then, to Nyx’s absolute disbelief, indicated that he would stalk the behemoth alone. On the one hand, the larger the group the greater the danger of being spotted, even as it allowed members to trade off keeping the thing in their sights; and with this group in particular, Nyx definitely did not think they would be able to manage all four staying unseen. On the other hand, Noctis was the Prince. It seemed irresponsible to let him stalk the behemoth alone, risking him being spotted and having to fight alone.

Gritting his teeth, Nyx snagged Noct’s shoulder before he could slip away. “I’m coming with you,” he whispered, keeping his voice low to prevent it carrying, “I’m probably the only one of you that has actually done this before, and you cannot go alone.”

The surprise on Noct’s face was obvious to Nyx, but after a moment he simply nodded in acceptance, and they hurried after the behemoth. It was slightly difficult, stalking a behemoth through an open, misty field, but the plethora of boulders dotting the field offered plenty of cover. Eventually, the beast jumped onto, and then over a ridge of rock. They managed to find a small slip of a passage to squeeze through and determined that they had found the thing’s lair.

It took a short five minutes for the rest of the group to join them, and Nyx spent them prowling, getting a feel for the ruined building they were standing in. He went far enough ahead to see the building end, with a small cliff in the distance that the behemoth was perched lazily atop. Target located, Nyx headed back to where Noct had stopped at an outcropping of stones glowing with natural fire magic. Nyx noted the magic, considering in the back of his mind what might have aligned it to a fire nature as he settled against a wall to check his equipment.

When Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto joined them, Nyx saw Noct passing a small ball, glowing red, to Ignis and Prompto. They started strolling casually through the building, following the hollowed-out corridor as it wound around like a giant S. And then they strolled just as casually out of the building and the protection it offered.

Nyx felt strangely like his soul was leaving his body.

The Prince and his retinue were just happily walking straight towards the beast. They weren’t trying to scout the area or get a lay of the land. They hadn’t checked their equipment or looked up the habits of behemoths. They weren’t doing anything to give themselves the advantage, they were just… strolling right into a behemoth’s lair without a care in the world.

Before Nyx could reboot and drag them back by their ears for a lecture on proper hunting precautions, the mist that had hid them so long began fading. A soft rumbling growl started up as the behemoth noticed intruders in its lair.

“Gladio,” Noct said, and Nyx glanced over to see him staring up at the behemoth, a light glowing in his eyes, “It’s weak to shields and broadswords both, so you’ll be doing the heavy hitting. We’ll cover you.” Noct’s eyes came down from the cliff to take in the field. “Ignis, Prompto. Target those oil drums. Call your shots when you take one, and we’ll get out of the way.”

Weapons were appearing in showers of blue. Nyx still felt the group was horribly unprepared, but at least it wasn’t quite as bad as he had thought. Though Ignis’ drawled, “Shall we,” still made him want to face-palm.

When Deadeye got agitated enough to jump down off its perch, they were ready.

Noct did indeed stick close to Gladio, darting in to fend off attacks and catching the beast on his own broadsword whenever possible. Sometimes Gladio would take the opening to land a hit, but sometimes he would be in the middle of a dodge when Noct stepped in, leaving him awkwardly far from the combat and off balance.

A shout of “bombs away” had Nyx instantly warping back and away. He saw the glowing ball Noct had handed out earlier flying through the air and finally got to learn what it did; namely, explode in a cloud of fire. Ignis’ aim had been dead on, landing the on top of the oil drum between the behemoth’s front legs. The resulting explosion of fire caused the beast to let out a feral roar of pain.

Gladio moved back in while Deadeye thrashed, trying to get the drop on it. Nyx winced when he took a flailing paw to the chest instead, going flying with a shout. He warped in before Deadeye could realize one of its aggressors was down and vulnerable, aiming for the tail.

The distraction worked almost too well as the beast swung around snarling, trying to sink its claws into him. Nyx quickly warped away again, this time up the decrepit water tower. Before anyone else could engage, Prompto hollered, “incoming”, tossing his ball of fiery destruction at the behemoth’s good eye.

It fell short. The luck of the six must have been on Prompto’s side, though, because the behemoth had turned at the shout, bringing it into range of the blast. It roared again as fire licked up the side of its head, staggering backwards.

Gladio and Noct took the chance to attack its back legs, Prompto aiming bullets Deadeye’s face to keep it distracted. Nyx took the opportunity to warp down onto its back, burying his blades as deep as he could, trying to reach its spine. They all kept it thoroughly distracted as Ignis rushed it and slit its exposed throat, decisively ending the behemoth’s life.

Not wanting to get crushed in any death throes, Nyx yanked hard at his knives to free them, already throwing himself sideways. Mid-fall he tossed a knife towards the ridge, letting the warp stop his tumble. Deadeye hit the ground hard enough to make everything tremble just as Nyx reappeared.

With the behemoth finally dead, Nyx prowled its lair to come down from the battle while the others tried to get their breath back by its body. In the back corner, he found a small passage cut into the cliff covered with a piece of sheet metal.

“Think I might have found a short-cut,” he called back to the guys. Looking closely at his map he found that they were nearly at the edge of the tangle of hills that marked the Nebulawood. If this wasn’t an exit, they would have to retrace their entire path through the middle of the woods.

When the guys came over, Noct commented, “Yeah, you found it,” before promptly sliding into the passage and kicking the sheet metal aside. Nyx would have had a panic attack about him being so blasé over his safety, but he had just seen the sheer skill and power Noct wielded in the fight with Deadeye.

From there, it was about an hour’s jog, circling the Nebulawood to get back to the Chocobo Post. Wiz was effusive in his praise and gratitude when they told him Deadeye was gone, and soon they had rented a couple chocobos and were heading into the Slough in search of Sania’s frogs.

They hopped off the chocobos when Prompto spotted some voretooths hanging around a pond. A quick check of the hunt they had picked up said that these were their targets, which meant it was also the area Sania had wanted them to search for her frogs.

Nyx fell back just slightly, letting Ignis and Gladio take the lead as he picked out one of the farthest creatures as his target. Gauging the distance carefully, Nyx slowed even more, bringing his target into range just as the vanguard engaged.

A throw and a warp, and the first voretooth was dead before Nyx even managed to pull his knife out of the corpse. He was already turning, ready for the next, and was greeted with a burst of blue crystals breaking in front of his face. Rather than pull his sword free, Noct continued his strike through the voretooth’s body, beheading it without a flinch.

Noct turned back to the battle behind them, absently flicking the blood off his sword. As the motion finished, his blade vanished, to be replaced with a gun.

Nyx was content to stay back and let Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto figure things out with the numbers reduced. As he had seen with Deadeye and the blockade, they were all decent fighters; what they needed most was experience. Noctis stood next to him, landing shots in feet and tails whenever it looked like one of the creatures might sneak up on one of three.

Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto were taking advantage of the scattered pack and dealing some good damage. They even managed to work together a couple times to land crippling blows.

Once one of the voretooths finally fell, they were able to put more pressure on the others. Noct lowered his gun to reload it, but didn’t end up raising it again. The last few creatures fell one by one, each faster than the last.

“Where would guys be without me?” Prompto bragged.

“Getting a little cocky there, aren’t you blondie?” Gladio needled him back.

 “Right,” Noct said, vanishing his gun. “This pond is where Sania told us to go, so let’s start looking for those frogs.”

Frog hunting turned out to be very frustrating. They prowled around the pond a bit, but only managed to spot a single red frog. Noct had no qualms about the errand and managed to catch it, but both he and Gladio insisted that Sania wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than five frogs.

The rapidly changing light as the sun steadily lowered in the sky might have had something to do with their difficulties, but eventually, after nearly having to instigate a full inch-by-inch search, they managed to find more. Often, they heard the croaking of a frog before they managed to spot it. Noct seemed ready to chase after all of the frogs, but Nyx, determined to contribute his fair share, grabbed the second frog. Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto followed his example and all caught their own frogs as well.

When Noct looked around at all his friends standing with frogs in hand, he had a very nonplussed expression. “Well, I guess that’s all of them then,” he muttered. The frogs ended up deposited in a tank Sania had pressed on Noct while insisting only the freshest specimens would do.

With how low the sun was in the sky, the decision was made to return to the same Haven they had slept at the previous night. It was barely worth getting back on the chocobos to get there, but Prompto’s enthusiasm for the birds still hadn’t worn out. Noct, Ignis, and Gladio were all obviously willing to indulge him, and Nyx didn’t really have a reason to protest.

Knowing now how they did things, Nyx pitched in with setting up camp and within the hour they were sitting around the fire chatting comfortably, the chocobos a snoozing lump of feathers at their backs. Prompto brought out a camera Nyx had seen but not really registered before, flicking through various pictures he had taken at different points in the day.

Seeing his interest, Prompto relocated his chair next to the icebox and began going through all his old pictures, explaining them as he went. Some of the pictures were very nice indeed, the colors and composition positively entrancing, if not the subject matter. Eye catching on something, Nyx cocked his head curiously, glancing back and forth between the pictures and their subject.

The Noct in the pictures had a spiky hair style that obviously took a great deal of dedicated work and hair gel. The Noct across the fire however…

The Noct across the fire didn’t seem to have put anywhere near the same amount of effort into his hair. It hung straight, one lock hanging between his brows and the rest just brushing his chin. Nyx could feel his brow furrowing in concern. Those spikes took a lot of dedication, and the sudden change to an almost no effort hairstyle—

Understanding struck like lightning, and Nyx wanted to smack himself in the face, the answer was so obvious. Obviously, Noct hadn’t been interested in styling his hair since Insomnia fell. Why would he be? Nyx could even recognize now that he had seen the last struggling bits of that hairstyle that first day they had found him.

The Prince might seem to be powering through his grief, but here was one of the biggest signs that he wasn’t. Finding mundane bits of his previous routine to suddenly be uninteresting, maybe even repulsive… Nyx grimaced. He couldn’t believe he had bought the façade for so long.

Nyx went to bed that night with a lump stuck in his throat. Somehow, the insight into Noct’s head had stirred up a lot of his own emotions over King Regis’ choices and actions, ultimately bringing up a thread of grief that he couldn’t easily put back down.

Chapter 15: A Lazy Day

The next morning was a lazier one than when they were hunting Deadeye. After breakfast, Nyx spotted Noct standing on the edge of the Haven, looking towards the lake they been at yesterday. His part of packing up finished, he walked over to stand beside the prince, glancing at his face before trying to see what had caught his attention.

When nothing jumped out to him, Nyx looked back to Noct. The expression on his face was unfamiliar. Nyx chewed over the words for a minute before deciding to just ask. “What’s up?”

Noct’s eyes flickered to him for a moment before he looked away, dropping them to study his hands. When he spoke, the words seemed almost forced, “Nothing.”

Nyx just kept looking at Noct, knowing he was lying. He was debating over whether to call him out or let him get away with it when Gladio wandered over. He draped an arm across Noctis’ shoulders and leaned on him in a deliberately provoking fashion.

“What’s up, Princess?”

Noct pushed Gladio’s arm off his shoulders with a sound of disgust. “It’s nothing,” he said, sounding sullen for once.

“That’s not a ‘nothing’ face, Noct.”

Noct heaved a put-upon sigh, his attention already swinging out towards the lake again. “Fine,” he snapped lightly, “When we were out catching the frogs, I thought I saw someone fishing. I’m wondering if they’re still there.”

“I shoulda’ guessed,” Gladio rumbled, sounding fond. “So we’re gonna’ be hunting this fisherman down, then.”

Do keep in mind that we still have to return the chocobos to Wiz. You can’t spend all day fishing.” Ignis’ voice came from behind them, and Nyx glanced back to see him closing the buckles on the last case sitting on the Haven before sending it into the ether. Prompto was already bouncing over with the chocobos, looking eager.

“We’re riding the chocobos, right? We’ve still got the whole morning on their rental.”

The curl to Noct’s lips was small but clear.

“Let’s get goin’ then,” Gladio said, clapping a hand on Noct’s back before accepting his chocobo from Prompto. “Don’t want this fisherman to wander away while we’re just standin’ around.”

They started out heading back in the direction of where they had found the frogs. Noct pulled his chocobo up where the two lakes squeezed the land into a narrow strip and went on foot towards some tall greenery to their left. Nyx hurried after him, not really concerned but not wanting to lose him behind the plants that couldn’t decide between being tall shrubs or short trees.

There on the other side of the greenery, they found a man fishing, like Noct had said. Noct had paused only a few feet ahead of Nyx, allowing him and the other three to catch up. Noct turned his head, probably glancing back to check they were there, before he continued forward to the man.

Without turning around to acknowledge them, the man spoke. “If you’re here for the huntin’, do it someplace else. I don’t want you boys scarin’ the fish.”

“Actually,” Noct said, “We’re here ‘cause I saw you fishing.”

The man turned to look at them now. “You’re into fishin’, my boy?”

Noct’s tone was noticeably lighter when he replied, “Yeah, I fish whenever I can.”

“Well then, a fellow fish nut! C’mon. Let me show you a good spot.” As he spoke, the man was fiddling with the rod in his hand, making a grasping motion in the air in front of him before fiddling with the rod again. Finally satisfied, he swung it up on his shoulder and gestured for them to follow him.

He led them to a small pier nearby, with an abandoned shack and a camping chair set on the point just next to it. As he walked, he talked. “Haven’t seen you around these parts before. First time here?”

Noct took a breath, and said, “somethin’ like that,” on a long sigh.

“Well,” the man glanced at Noct, peering at him for a moment before looking back to where he was leading them. He continued cheerfully, “The name’s Navyth. I’ve traveled the whole world, lookin’ for new fishin’. If you’re as keen as you say, what d’ya say to a challenge?”

“A challenge?” Noct asked as they came to a stop at the pier.

“The Crag Barramundi. Lurks in these waters,” Navyth said with a gesture to the lake, “Catch ‘im, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

Nyx glanced at Noct, curious, taking in the grin on his lips. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Navyth grinned back at Noct. “I like your spirit, my boy.”

Gauntlet thrown, Navyth headed for the camp chair, probably going back to fishing. Nyx and the others followed Noct up the stairs. Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto were all strolling slowly along the length of the pier, in contrast to Noct, who walked with long, quick strides to the end.

Part of Nyx had been silently wondering where the Prince’s fishing rod was, and he nearly dropped his face into his hand when Noct summoned it in a flash of blue from the Arsenal. Of course, he berated himself, where else would it be.

Noct fiddled with his rod for a minute, bending down to a box next to him and pulling out a small yellow thing. Curious, Nyx moved closer, watching what looked like a streamlined miniature chocobo be attached to a near invisible wire. Satisfied with his knots, Noct let it go. It swung in the air as Noct changed his stance from bracing the rod against a shoulder to holding it out over the water.

A fluid movement of his wrist sent the little yellow chocobo flying out over the lake.

“And now we wait,” rumbled Gladio cheerfully.

“Think I’ll play King’s Knight in the meantime,” Prompto said, leaning up against the side of the shack that was sat at the foot of the pier.

“Better not,” Gladio returned, nudging Prompto’s shoulder, “his Highness might get sulky.”

It didn’t take Noct very long to land a correct fish; one cast, two casts, three casts. The second cast Noct grimaced at and pulled back in immediately, but the third cast he twitched only once or twice before the fish took the bait. Noct patiently let the fish drag his line around before it calmed; he managed to reel it halfway in before it panicked and tried to escape. A few patient minutes later, and Noct was hauling the fish onto the dock.

“Hmmm,” Ignis hummed approvingly as Noct reeled it in the last couple feet, “you’ve improved.”

“Got it,” Noct exclaimed as he hauled the fish into the air, voice softer than Nyx was expecting. “The prize catch.”

Prompto moved from where he had been playing on his phone, pulling out his camera and trying to get a look now that Noct had landed the fish. “That’s the one that Navyth was talking about?”

“Yep. That’s a crag barramundi, alright,” Ignis commented. Noct turned around to show them the fish. Nyx didn’t really know much about fish other than eating them, so he tried to take it in, but… honestly, there was no way he would be able to distinguish it from any other freshly caught fish in the world.

After a minute of admiration, Noct headed back over to Navyth, showing him the proof of his accomplishment. Navyth exclaimed over it in surprise and no little pleasure—he must not have been entirely convinced that Noct was truly a fisherman despite his claims.

“Well, a promise is a promise,” Navyth said genially, bending down to his own box and pulling something out. “Here’s your prize.”

“You… sure?” Noct asked, voice lilting in question and surprise both.

“Sure I’m sure. With this lure,” and Navyth shook his hand just slightly, causing the object he was holding to jiggle, “you’ll be able to diversify—reel in more kinds of fish. Catchin’ things you ain’t caught before,” Navyth laughed, “end of the day, that’s what bein’ an angler’s all about. You’re still wet behind the ears, but you got potential.”

Noct finally relented and accepted the lure that was being pressed into his hands. He gave Navyth a pleasant farewell, and then turned to where they had been waiting to give him some space with the fisherman. Noct’s expression as he looked down at the lure still sitting in his palm was soft, and Nyx found himself moving forward before he could think anything of it.

“What did he give you?”

Noct tipped his hand so that Nyx could see it. “It’s called the Knife T. Tonberry,” he explained, using a single finger to roll it over in his palm. It looked like a slim green fish body, with a brown ‘robe’ wrapped around its middle. With the name, Nyx could actually connect it to a tonberry, but he hadn’t before it was mentioned.

“You’re gonna’ try out that lure, right,” Prompto prodded.

“Of course he is,” Gladio answered before Noct could.

“Well, if you guys insist.”

Ignis’ voice had a teasing lilt to it. “In that case, you’re in charge of finding dinner tonight.”

It was just getting into the early part of the afternoon when Gladio commented, “At this rate, we’re gonna’ fish this place dry.” Noct turned from the lake to survey the haul that Gladio had steadily been filling a cooler with. After a moment, he gave a satisfied little nod before ‘holstering’ his rod with a flourish of his wrist.

“Guess we better get those frogs to Sania, then.”

They took the chocobos back to the Post, dropping them off with Wiz, and hopped into the Regalia. The drive back to Coernix Station passed relatively quickly, and they were soon pulling into a parking space at the pumps and jumping out.

“Perhaps we should speak to the tipster first,” Ignis suggested. “He at least will be quick.”

Indeed, talking to the tipster of the Crow’s Nest diner went quite quickly. An impressive amount of Gil was handed over for such a simple hunt, as well as a metal circle.

“So, what did we get,” Prompto asked as they walked out the door.

“The tipster named it a ‘Warrior’s Anklet’,” Ignis relayed. “The name likely comes from the etching of an ancient warrior.”

“It has a bit of magic,” Noct reported, turning it over and over in his hands. “Feels like… mhm… I think it will blunt some physical damage? Hmm… maybe make it easier to fight through damage.” Noct finally stopped turning it, letting it rest flat on his palm. “Anyone want dibs?”

When no one spoke up immediately, Ignis hummed. “I’m accustomed to wearing such things at least.”

“Ignis it is,” Gladio rumbled, and the ring of metal passed from Noct to Ignis. Hunt taken care of, it was time to deal with Sania again.

Noct, having been the one to agree to help the woman out, was the one who approached Sania with the tank full of frogs.

“Look at all these lovelies,” Sania practically cooed. “Thank you, boys. Now my research can spring along.” The quotes around ‘spring’ were practically shouted in her tone.

“Research?”

“From longer nights to earthquakes, there’s been a lot of strange phenomena of late. The world’s out of whack, and there’s no end to the mysteries that want for solving.”

There was a long moment of silence, and Nyx glanced at Noct’s face to see him blinking rapidly, eyes wide. He managed to pick up the thread of conversation again, saying in a choked voice, “So, why frogs?”

“Well you see, red frogs only appeared recently. We don’t know what gave rise to the mutation. But this tiny critter could hold the key to the world’s mysteries in its webbed feet.” Sania cooed over the frogs for a moment. Her next words were directed at them without looking up. “When can you help again?”

“Can’t really say.”

“Well, when you can, you let me know. Oh! And here’s a token of my thanks for finding the frogs.” Sania looked up just long enough to press something small into Noct’s hands before becoming lost in her frogs again.

Noct accepted the little thing and began backing off, obviously happy to escape the woman without being roped into another task. They were heading back to the car when Ignis spoke up.

“Sania… last name Yeagre, if I’m not mistaken.”

Nyx was puzzling over the words even as Gladio barked a laugh. “Took you long enough to make the connection.”

“Sania who?” Nyx asked when no one else seemed about to.

“Sania Yeagre, famed professor of biology. Her works have been published the world over.”

“Whoa, she’s a big deal,” inquired Prompto. “You sure don’t get that impression.”

“Yes, well, what did she give you Noct?”

Noct shrugged and opened his hand. “It’s a pendant. Just enough magic in it to ward against most poisons. Any of you want it?”

Ignis hummed, and Prompto leaned in to poke curiously at the star-shaped bit of metal. “Hmm. Maybe Gladio should take it?”

“What? Why you want me to wear it?”

“Well, it did come from a lady friend of yours, and you’ll certainly be able to show it off the most,” Prompto told him cheerfully. “Besides, you’re the only one of us who wears necklaces on a regular basis anyways. We’d probably forget it after taking it off the first night.”

Gladio grumbled but accepted the pendant from Noct as they made it back to the car.

“Where to now, Noct?”

“I guess we should head to Lestallum and see Iris and the others.” Everyone made agreeable noises and climbed back into the car to set off.

Half an hour down the road with Lestallum nowhere in sight, it was getting dark.

“Perhaps we should call it a night, Noct, before the daemons come out.”

Beside Nyx, Noct let out a thoughtful noise and wiggled around to pull out his map. “Have we passed a road to our left,” he asked, tracing their path from the station.

“Five minutes ago.”

Noct tapped the map decisively. “There should be a parking spot coming up any minute now then. There’s a Haven just across the road from it. We can stop there rather than having to backtrack.”

Ignis did as suggested, and minutes later they were pulling off the road into a parking lot. The Haven was perched just up a hill across the road, as Noct had said.

Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto were all quick to get out of the car and set off up the hill. Noct walked more slowly behind them, apparently unbothered by the possibility of being caught by daemons. Nyx found himself falling into step with him, equally unconcerned.

When they crested the edge of the Haven, Gladio already had the tent laid out in its spot and was putting the rods together. Prompto had the pile of camp chairs he had retrieved from the ether, and Ignis had his table set up and was inspecting his knives.

“Noct,” Ignis said, switching to another knife, “you did the fishing, so please select which ones you would like to eat tonight. I’ll process them all, but best to start with the ones we’ll be eating.”

Noct gave a tiny sigh as he produced the cooler from his magic and began digging around in it. Nyx went to help first Prompto and then Gladio with their setting up. Once they were done, they checked with Ignis, but the man shooed them away, saying Noctis was more than enough help with tasks for the night.

The three of them settled in around the fire and Prompto and Gladio decided to dig out their phones. Nyx eyed them from his perch on the icebox. When the phones started emitting slightly familiar tinny noises, he asked, “that the game you were playing back at the caravan?”

“Right,” Prompto exclaimed, “you said you hadn’t seen it, didn’t you?” He promptly shifted his chair over so he could show Nyx his phone and began excitedly explaining the mechanics of the game. Nyx listened, vaguely curious, and that was how they whiled the time away until Ignis declared dinner was ready.

Crawling into the tent that night, Nyx felt truly relaxed for the first time since the delegation from Niflheim arrived in Insomnia.

Chapter 16: Lestallum

They rolled into Lestallum the next day.

They had had a bit of a late start that morning, after Ignis exasperatedly sent his companions back into the tent to change into civilian clothes. As he had explained to Nyx earlier, entering Lestallum in their black Crownsguard fatigues would draw unwanted attention.

Their late start was extended by Noct receiving a phone call from the Marshal just as they started packing up. Noct told him that they were on their way to Lestallum, and after saying their goodbyes he reported that Cor would be meeting up with them some time the next day.

After they finally managed to pack up, Noct had taken the wheel for the drive to Lestallum. He was now carefully backing them into a spot in the largest parking lot Nyx had seen since Insomnia.

All of them had been pretty impressed as they passed through the tunnel on the eastern approach to Lestallum. The first sight of the city had drawn some exclamations of admiration and intense interest. Now, getting out of the car, Nyx felt the heat roll over them.

They headed up the stairs from the parking lot, a babble of voices washing over them as they crested the top. “One hell of a crowd,” Prompto commented

“This must be the main thoroughfare,” Ignis said as they carefully crossed the street.

“Iris?” Gladio asked. Nyx glanced over quickly, but saw the big man was on his phone. “We just rolled into town. Where are you?”

“‘Kay, thanks. Bye,” he said, hanging up just a moment later. “She’s at the Leville. Let’s go.”

Noct snorted. “Weren’t you complaining about her not calling you? That right there is the perfect reason for her to call someone else.”

“Oi.”

“You didn’t even talk to her, just asked a question and hung up.”

“Oi.”

“Indeed. Perhaps she called Noct earlier because she wanted to actually talk to someone, not just pass on information.”

“You too, Ignis?” The group finally broke out laughing at his reactions, Gladio frowning grumpily at them until they finished.

Nyx couldn’t keep the grin off his face as they set off towards the hotel, absently rubbing at an ache in his chest. It was important to be able to laugh with your comrades, and Gladio really had set himself up for it. The alley they were walking through opened into a courtyard with a fountain. They had just drawn abreast of it when the ground started shaking.

Noct immediately stopped short. Nyx glanced at him in surprise; it wasn’t that big an earthquake, really. Insomnia had had them pretty often, Galahd even more so; they all should have been familiar enough with them to know this one was rather small.

“Do you feel that,” Noct said, eyes wider than normal as he looked at them.

“You mean the earthquake?” It was Gladio that answered him, sounding puzzled.

Noct’s face dropped into a deep frown. After a moment he flinched, raising a hand to his forehead and squeezing his eyes shut.

Gladio’s voice was suddenly sharp. “What’s wrong?”

“…Nothing.” Noct’s eyes had slid back open, two burning points of blue in his face. “My head just started throbbing.”

“You alright?” The inquiry came from a concerned looking Prompto.

Noct finally dropped his hand, but still looked troubled. “Yeah, I’m fine.” After a moment he turned to continue across the square to the hotel.

They were greeted in the lobby of the hotel by Gladio’s sister, the aforementioned Iris. She chatted with them for a minute, and Nyx could feel her eye lingering on him a couple times. She let them rent a room and then suggested they talk more upstairs.

It seemed the invitation was also an occasion for them to meet her companions, an old man and a young boy. Gladio greeted them with a relieved, “Jared and Talcott!  good to see you.”

“Prince Noctis!” the young boy, Talcott, said eagerly. “Iris is safe with me!” Moments later Jared, the boy’s grandfather apparently, excused them and escorted Talcott away.

Without anyone standing on ceremony, they all took a seat. Nyx absently rubbed at his chest. Finally, Noct broke through the ever-increasing awkwardness. “So, Iris,” he hesitated, seeming to change what he meant to say mid-sentence. “You got out of the city okay?”

“Yeah,” she sighed. “The Citadel took a beating. But a lot of the outlying neighborhoods made it through in one piece, if not a pretty one.”

“Hmm. The empire must have had tactical targets in mind before they brought in daemons,” Ignis mused.

“So,” Iris’ eyes slipped over to Nyx again, “are you one of the Kingsglaive?”

He gave her a careful smile. “Yep. Nyx Ulric. Nice to meet you.”

“Oh!” Iris was suddenly looking at him wide-eyed, surprise obvious. “I was looking for you last week,” her gaze was suddenly evaluating as it ran over him again.

“You were,” Gladio asked in surprise.

“I was trying to catch Noct before he left the Citadel. Nyx apparently drove him back to his apartment.”

“Seems it’s a small world,” commented Ignis.

Iris suddenly spun back towards Noct, who was staring blankly at Nyx. “You know if there’s anything else, you can ask me.”

“Yeah, uh,” Noct blinked back at her for a moment, “thanks.”

“And about Lady Lunafreya. I keep hearing she was in town. Apparently she left right away, but at least it means she’s okay.”

Nyx found himself straightening, hand dropping away from his chest. What was the Oracle doing in Lestallum? She was supposed to be on her way to Altissia!

Noct’s head tilted down, his hair swinging forward to shadow his eyes. After a long moment he looked up again and said, “Good to hear,” managing a small smile for Iris. “Thanks.”

Apparently finished, Iris stood. “Well, get a good night’s rest,” and she left cheerfully.

The Leville being a large hotel, they had offered to provide a roll-away bed for their fifth member. Slightly paranoid at how the Prince had ended up in the same bed as him their previous times in a caravan, Nyx was quick to volunteer for the small single-man bed.

Lestallum marked the first night of fitful sleep since the Fall. Nyx tossed and turned, in turns too warm and horribly itchy. Consequently, when Gladio rose early in the morning to do a short exercise routine, Nyx’s eyes slitted open to watch him. When Ignis rose and vanished into the bathroom, the sleepy part of Nyx’s brain sighed resignedly and gave in.

Nyx was therefore the third to rise, shortly followed by Prompto. There was a small fight to try and get Noct up, with him grumping at Gladio that they didn’t have to do anything today, why should he get up early? The eventual decision to let him sleep in seemed inevitable.

The four of them headed downstairs to have a complimentary breakfast in the attached restaurant. When they wandered back into the lobby, they ran into Iris, Jared, and Talcott.

“Hey guys!” Iris called, obviously happy to catch them before they wandered off.

“Iris, Jared. Talcott! How ya doin’,” greeted Gladio.

“Great! We just had breakfast. Have you had breakfast yet? Where’s Prince Noctis?”

Ignis replied to Talcott’s enthusiastic questions, “Yes, we just finished breakfast here. I’m afraid Noctis is still asleep.”

“Oh. So, what are you guys going to do now?”

“Hmm. We haven’t decided, but we do have a small shopping list to take care of while we’re in town.”

“I can help you with that! What do you need?”

“We need one or two more pieces of camping equipment, and then we were going to see about getting Nyx here a phone.”

Talcott was suddenly all wide-eyed concern as he spun around to look at Nyx. “You don’t have a phone? Did you lose it in the attack?”

Nyx felt strangely awkward under that gaze and found himself rubbing his neck. From the subtle and overt reactions the others had given to him saying he had never had a phone, he found himself hesitant to mention it to this earnest young boy.

Discretion was the better part of valor here, and he found himself saying, “Yes, that. …I’ve been making do since Insomnia, but since we’re here…”

“Well, I would be glad to help,” Talcott said officiously, and suddenly Nyx felt weirdly like he was standing in front of a miniature butler. “I can show you guys where all the shops are. There’re stores for two different phone companies just off the square. And I can point out which phones I’ve seen people using around Lestallum!”

Nyx glanced at the boy’s grandfather, unsure of what to think of the offer. The man cleared his throat and addressed them all, “If you don’t mind taking Talcott with you? He would very much like to walk around town, and I am just a little old to accompany him.”

“Well Talcott, sounds you will get to come with us,” Prompto said cheerily, a strangely triumphant edge to his smile.

It was only as they were heading into a phone store Talcott had led them to that Nyx realized why. He never agreed to buy a phone!

~*~

After buying a cheap smartphone several generations out of date, they had swung by the afore-mentioned camping store for a chair and more bedding. The rest of the morning had been spent letting Talcott lead them around Lestallum. Nyx did manage to purchase an extra outfit and his own sleeping gear at one point, including a jacket that would manage to offer some protection in a fight without advertising their recent origins in Insomnia. He immediately took the chance to change his T-shirt and tugged the jacket on to cover his arm. Talcott exclaimed knowledgeably all the while over local tradition and rumor, mostly in an indulgent Prompto’s ear.

They arrived back to the Leville to see Noctis and Iris in the lobby. Noctis appeared to be finishing a phone call just as they walked up to him.

“That was Cor, checking where we were. He just arrived,” Noct announced to them.

“Guess we should get ready to go then.”

“Gladdy! You guys just got here. Do you really have to leave so soon?”

“Wouldn’t do to keep the Marshal waiting, Iris.”

Iris pouted at her brother for a moment, but then got a sparkle in her eye. “Fine, but I’m not leaving you guys until you actually get in the car. So there.”

Gladio’s helpless expression caused a low, well-worn pang in Nyx’s chest as he was reminded of his own sister. Selena had also been accustomed to getting her way.

“I’ll just run our purchases upstairs while we wait,” Ignis said, a smile twitching at his lips.

“I’ll go with you,” Nyx said. Thoughts of Selena were an old grief by now, but the pang in his chest had been a little fiercer than he had expected. Getting away for a minute would be helpful.

As they were dropping things off in their room, Ignis took a look around and sighed exasperatedly. “It seems we really can’t spend a night in a hotel without spreading things all over the place.” Nyx also swept a glance over the room, noting a book on the side table, camera things spread over the coffee table, and a pair of socks just sticking out from under a bed, among other things.

“Definitely going to need to sweep the place to be sure we haven’t forgotten anything as we leave,” he agreed.

When they went back downstairs, Iris, Gladio, Noct and Prompto had sat down in the lobby. Talcott had disappeared, probably off to find his grandfather. Gladio gave them a nod as they approached, but Noct’s attention had gone to the doorway, and he stood. Nyx looked as well, and marveled slightly at the Marshal’s serendipitous timing, as he was just walking through the door.

“Cor,” Noct greeted him.

The Marshal inclined his head, but didn’t speak until he had closed the distance, returning the greeting with a very quiet, “Highness.”

“So, what did you find out?” Noct asked, crossing his arms over his chest and turning inwards to their little circle.

“There are two dungeons by the Vesperpool, places that are similar to Keycatrich; infested with aggressive wildlife and daemons. Some of the hunters did recall seeing an ornate building deep in the Myrlwood, so that’s one tomb substantiated.”

“You mentioned that the Empire had sealed the area off,” inquired Ignis.

“Yes. There’s two access points to the Vesperpool,” the Marshal pulled a map out, and Gladio and Prompto, still sitting, helped spread it out in the middle of the circle. “Going North from Lestallum is the Hunter HQ, Meldacio, where the first tunnel through the mountains is. Going Southwest,” Cor traced the road on the map, cutting west until the road T-ed and he went North, “is another tunnel through the mountains. Both tunnels are gated and locked. There’re no visible forces, but the hunters have observed infantry units and Magitek Armors passing through the gates, so we can assume that they have a blockade set up just out of sight.

“What they’re doing in the Vesperpool, nobody’s actually sure. Dave mentioned cases of hunters hearing complaints about harvesting from the couple Imperial Officers that have been by, but what they might be harvesting and what they need it for, nobody knows for sure.”

“So,” Nyx murmured, eyes tracing the map, “can we break through?”

Cor made a noise is his throat, and said, “There’s two different battles, the Eastern tunnel and the Western tunnel. A two-pronged attack to take them both out at once could be arranged, but unlike at the Norduscaen Blockade, the two positions are too far apart for the Empire to send reinforcements.”

“There’s also the hunters to think about,” Noct added. “We don’t have enough people to mount two full assaults, which would likely mean we’d end up drawing on the hunters for support.

“Frankly, the hunters are too valuable to put in the sights of the Empire.” Nyx cocked his head, curious where Noct was going. “The hunters are the first line of defense for keeping people safe from monsters and daemons, and they’re going to be desperately needed before things can improve. There’s no need to remind the Empire that they’re practically Crownsguard.”

“All true,” Ignis said, nodding to Noct with a curve to his mouth and a brightness in his eyes. “So, a single assault then. East or West?”

“The Western tunnel would be a better target, given that we’re trying to not show the hunters actively revolting against the Empire. Break the Western tunnel,” Cor drew a finger along the map, “pass through the Myrlwood for the Royal Arm,” his finger traced slightly west, “then head into Steyliff Grove, the other dungeon,” his finger moved east, “and break out through the Eastern tunnel.”

“And breaking out is a valid reason for the hunters to get involved,” Prompto put in.

“What’cha thinkin’, blondie,” Gladio asked.

“Well, hunters get calls about trouble, don’t they? So someone calls the HQ, begs for help in the Vesperpool, and they’ll start trying to talk to the Empire and get in. Audible fighting starts in the middle of that, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to start trying to break the blockade to help whoever’s in trouble.”

“It’s a good idea,” Ignis said, adjusting his glasses.

“As long as there’s an actual human officer there, and the hunters let him retreat without trouble, the Empire probably won’t come down on the hunters afterwards,” Noct muttered.

“Sounds like a plan,” Cor declared. “The hunters said there’s a Haven here,” he tapped a spot next to the Vesperpool, “and another inside the Myrlwood,” his finger moved west to tap another spot. “I scouted the Western tunnel, and there’s a Haven here,” his finger tapped a spot by an intersection, “and an outpost here,” the outpost was further south, out of their way.

“We can depart now and rest closer to the tunnel before the assault, or we can push our luck and aim to sleep at the Vesperpool Haven tonight.”

“I’m loath to spend the money for a Caravan again so soon,” Ignis said, crossing arms and tucking his wrists up against his elbows. One of his fingers began tapping thoughtfully. “The Haven would be on our way. I suppose we could begin the drive and decide whether to press on once we reach it.”

There’s a moment of silence. When it stretches, no one having anything to say, Nyx pulls out a well-practiced grin. “Sounds like a plan. You meeting us there, Marshal?”

The Marshal met Nyx’s gaze for a moment before answering. “Yes. Are you all ready to go?”

Ignis gave a polite little cough into his hand, tipping his head just enough that no expression could be seen behind his glasses. “I’m afraid you arrived before we could get ready to go. We still need to head upstairs and pack up, and then check out.”

Gladio’s cheeks seemed just a shade redder as he said, “If you want to head out, we shouldn’t be long behind you.”

The Marshal surveyed them for a minute, before tipping his head. “I’m parked next to Regalia. I’ll take the opportunity to stock up on things while I’m in town, and head out once I’m done.” Quickly, he folded up his map and touched his hand to his shoulder in a subtle salute to Noctis. Then he was gone.

Prompto’s bright, “Well, upstairs we go,” got the rest of them moving.

Chapter 17: Blockade Breaking

It took them about half an hour to make their way to the car. They glanced around the parking lot, but nothing stood out as a vehicle belonging to the Marshal, and Ignis claimed recognition of the car’s only neighbor as being there the day before.

Fairly certain that the Marshal had gone ahead, Ignis took the wheel. Nyx, Noct, and Gladio were just settling in in the back, when Noct suddenly shot up, and insisted they rent chocobos before leaving. Thankfully there was a rental spot there in the parking lot, and Noct hurried over, rubbing at his forehead before deciding on a week-long rental. They made a quick stop for gas, not sure when they would have the opportunity for it again in the next few days, and then they were on their way.

The drive was mostly quiet. Ignis and Prompto had a brief argument about radio stations versus music, while Gladio had his nose buried deep in a book. At one point Ignis had to bring the car to a stop for a pack of voretooths crossing the road. Prompto’s voice had been somewhat wondering as he had commented, “Where do you think they’re going?”

Noct had either fallen asleep or was meditating, and didn’t react to the stop. The stop did, however, cause him to slump over and begin leaning on his shoulder; Nyx deliberately focused on ignoring the contact.

It was around four o’clock when they pulled into the parking spot for the Haven. Cor was there already, leaning on the guardrail next to a motorcycle. Nyx couldn’t keep back his impressed noise and interest in the bike as they got out of the car, the Marshal standing at their approach.

The Marshal didn’t bother with greetings, starting instead with an even, “Well? Do we press on, or spend the night?”

Nyx glanced over at Noct. He didn’t really have an opinion one way or another, so would be happy with whatever. The thoughtful expression on Noct’s face as he carefully shaped his words kept Nyx from being able to look away.

“I took another look at the map. The Vesperpool Haven is out of our way if we’re intending on entering the Myrlwood. It makes more sense for us to rest here, and then head straight for the Myrlwood once we’re through the blockade.”

Everyone waited a moment to see if someone would voice a different opinion, but no one spoke. “Well then,” Ignis said, “I suppose we might as well get settled in so that we can be up bright and early tomorrow.”

And so they did. The Haven was only a couple minutes’ walk from the road. Setting up happened quickly, with only a few shifts in positioning to fit the Marshal’s tent as well. Noct took the time to tell the Marshal, “I rented us all some chocobos. Given the Empire, it’s best to leave the car here, and given the giant lake, the chocobos seemed liked they would be faster anyways.”

Dinner that night was the last of the fish Noct had caught in Alstor Slough. Cor apparently knew about the Prince’s fishing habit and complimented him on the catches. In return, Noct enquired about Cor’s hunter contacts and how they had been established. (It turned out Cor the Immortal tended to rest up after skirmishes with the Empire by helping the local hunters with some of their bigger problems. Totally relaxing hobby there.)

Soon, they were settling down for the night. The extra bedding they had bought gave them a little extra cushioning between their fragile bodies and the hard ground. Nyx also used the extra blankets to give himself a little more protection from the uninsulated walls of the tent.

Like Ignis had said, they rose bright and early the next morning. A quick breakfast was followed by packing up their campsite. Everyone checked their gear before they headed out, and there was a small debate of whether they were more concerned with disguising themselves or with extra protection.

Ultimately, they did want their assault on the Western tunnel to be connected with Lucian forces, so Noctis and his retinue wore their Lucian Black fatigues. Nyx switched out his new leather jacket with his damaged Kingsglaive jacket which was a more easily recognizable symbol.

When they climbed back up to the road, Noct took a moment to call for the chocobos they had rented. Once they arrived they sorted out who would be riding which, and then mounted up to head up the road to the tunnel to the Vesperpool.

The road past the Haven was surprisingly straight, rising gradually with the valley between the mountains. It ended abruptly at a gate. There would have been no twist in the road to park their vehicles behind, no dip to hide them in. The mountain rose sharply to their left, and the road passed into the hill without any pretenses.

Nyx eyed it carefully. He and Noct could easily warp onto the hill above the gate, but that wouldn’t help them in getting into the tunnel. They all approached carefully, examining the gate with an eye for weaknesses. Gladio had headed for one of sides, perhaps hoping to find some hinges. Prompto was poking at the seam where the two doors came together. Ignis was tapping at the metal, head cocked like he was listening intently.

There were frowns on everyone’s faces as they contemplated the gates. Finally, Nyx broke their silence, if only to try and get a plan started. “I could try and break the lock,” he offered, “they don’t exactly have a keyhole to pick, but it looks like there’s just enough of a gap to interact with the bolts directly.” It wasn’t exactly guaranteed, but it was what he had.

 “I believe,” Ignis offered from where he was still crouched next to the doors, “that we might be able to break through with magic—fire and ice specifically.”

The group was quiet for a minute, no one offering any other suggestions. Eventually, Cor sighed.

“Ignis, if you think we can get through the doors with elemancy, better to use that. We want to break their blockade, not simply slip through,” Cor declared. “If they can simply close the doors and lock them up behind us, we’ll have failed.”

After another moment examining the doors, Ignis gave a nod to himself and stood, adjusting his glasses as he spoke, “It sounds thick, but I believe it is still thin enough that by alternating fire and ice we can make it brittle enough to break through.”

Noct was already digging out the glowing balls that had shown up for the fight against Deadeye. He spent a few moments holding each between his hands before they began glowing either red or blue. Once they lit up, he passed them out.

There was a bit of debate about what to do once the doors opened. They all agreed that there was likely to be a blockade force, but whether it would be just beyond the gates and inside the tunnel, or on the other side of the tunnel, they were divided on. Finally, Prompto suggested that they ride the chocobos they had rented. “Wiz talked about how smart they are. When or if we run into a fight, they’ll be smart enough to get themselves to safety, but they won’t go too far.”

“Sounds good to me,” Noct declared after a moment, and that was that.

With everyone armed and mounted up but for Gladio and Noctis, they took up positions some feet from the door in a curved line. “Right,” Ignis said, hefting his ice flask, “bombs away.”

Then the first flask hit the door, spreading ice through the metal. Two seconds after Ignis threw, the next flask was released, and two seconds after that, and two seconds after that… When the last flask had landed, Gladio let out a roar as he raced forward, broadsword swinging hard. Noct followed right behind him, using his back as a launch pad to come down on the door with a second broadsword.

With a mighty groan, the metal gave way, pieces shearing off as they gave up the fight. Path open, Nyx, Ignis, Prompto, and Cor spurred their chocobos forward as Gladio and Noct headed for their own birds. They didn’t run into the blockade force until they cleared the tunnel—a unit of MTs and a Veles armor that wouldn’t have fit inside the tunnel.

The enemies were already on alert, probably from the racket they had made breaking the gates. Prompto’s chocobo began to slow as the blond pulled out his gun, but Nyx and Ignis just leaned further over the back of their birds, urging them faster. As they approached, Nyx took the chance to evaluate the enemy group and formulate a couple of likely strategies his companions would use.

Moments later, they were in range. Still on chocobo-back, Nyx had already picked his target and was throwing his knife. It arced high above the MTs, their targeting programs trying to track it, before Nyx let the magic pull him into a warp and off his bird.

He burst back into existence just above the Veles, using his weight to drive the knife through one of the missile turrets. The move had the consequence of his continuing off the back of the armor, but Nyx was already tossing his second knife to the ground and letting himself fall into the warp.

Nyx rolled as he came out of the magic, the asphalt hard against his back, and he let his momentum carry him into a second roll, putting more distance between him and the Imperial forces. Clear for the moment, Nyx glanced back to check on his companions.

He was just in time to see Ignis launch himself off his chocobo with a backflip, landing among the MTs with his spear. Cor was several feet behind him, already on the ground, with Noct and Gladio just coming abreast of him.

Nyx could toss his knife again, start warp-spamming like he was famous for, but this wasn’t the frontlines. Their group wasn’t going to be pressed to desperate straits by this small force. Frankly, this was more like a training mission than a deployment, with a few high-level officers accompanying newbies in the field to get them some hands-on experience. The greatest struggle they would encounter here would likely be endurance.

So instead, Nyx reversed his grip on his knives from ‘toss’ to ‘slash’ and headed back towards the fray on foot.

The fight wasn’t particularly hard, but it got tedious a few times, juggling the MTs and the Veles stomping around. Eventually Gladio and Ignis concentrated their attacks on the Veles to get it out of the way. Nyx did warp away once they brought it down, not wanting to get caught in the explosion. The boys weren’t so lucky, catching the edge of it, but they would learn in time. After that, it was only a few more minutes before all the MTs were down.

“Wonder if I’ll ever get the hang of all this fighting,” Prompto muttered while they caught their breath.

“Sure you will,” Gladio said, clapping a hand on his shoulder, “if you live long enough.”

“I wouldn’t count on that myself,” Ignis drawled, his sophisticated accent throwing even more shade than his tone did. Nyx had to turn his back to the three to hide his shit-eating grin, accidentally catching Noct’s eye. The amusement was infectious, as Noct grinned back at him.

After that levity, they hopped back on their birds and continued down the road in slightly less of a headlong rush.

Soon enough, a dirt road came up on their left and they departed the main road for it. At the point of its first switch-back, they left that road behind as well, heading into the woods on their chocobos. A couple minutes of passing through trees and over rock formations, they found a path and Noct began leading them down it. Eventually, it made a hard turn through a bottleneck of rock that had Nyx’s hair standing on end.

Thankfully for his nerves, the bottleneck only lasted an instant and then they were through, the ground widening into a large clearing. Just a little further was a natural tunnel in the rock formations through which Nyx could see vibrant greenery.

“This looks like our destination,” Cor announced, pulling his chocobo to a stop.

Prompto, always eager, asked, “How do you know?” even as he followed the Marshal’s lead and began dismounting.

Nyx snorted and steered his chocobo towards the tunnel. Just in front of it, it balked and refused to go any further. “There you go,” he said, letting his bird back away, “Chocobos always know where any dungeons are. Like Wiz told you, they’re too smart to willingly put themselves in danger.”

“Unlike humans. Instead, we choose to walk into a place we know full well can kill us.”

Nyx nearly choked on his laughter at the dry comment, swinging around to see the deadpan expression on Noct’s face. He had one foot on the ground and one foot still in the stirrup and had to hop awkwardly trying to keep his balance as he shook with laughter. After a moment Noct dropped his deadpan to shake his head at him, coming over to steady Nyx’s chocobo as she shuffled uncomfortably under him.

It took Nyx several long moments to stop laughing, finally burying his face in neck feathers to calm himself down. Once his shaking stopped, he lifted his head to flash a smile at Noctis. “Thanks,” he said, gently beginning to untangle himself from the chocobo.

Nyx glanced back up when he heard Prompto try to stifle a snort, curious. Noct had let his chocobo go once he indicated he was good, and had backed away a couple feet, looking at towards the Myrlwood. Nyx glanced at Prompto, but the blond was definitely looking at Noct.

Nyx peered again at Noctis, trying to figure out what the joke was, noting the redness on his cheeks. Finally, he shrugged it off once he was free of his chocobo, figuring he must have missed whatever it was.

Once they had all tended to their chocobos as needed, they assembled in front of the entrance to the Myrlwood. “Well. Let’s take a look around,” said Noct, leading them inside.

Chapter 18: The Dungeons

“Wow! This place is a jungle,” Prompto exclaimed, admiring the greenery.

“Abundant in not only flora, but fauna as well,” Ignis said pointedly.

“You really think we’ll find a royal tomb in these old backwoods,” Prompto asked a couple minutes later.

“That’s what the hunters said,” replied Cor.

A little further they encountered their first taste of the local fauna, a Mushussu. “Shields and polearms,” Noct called a moment after spotting it. Ignis and Gladio took point, darting forward in a coordinated attack with the weapons he had mentioned.

Not having any weapons other than his knives, Nyx hung back, observing the two attacking. They worked well together, always knowing where the other was and not getting in each other’s way. They even managed a couple linked attacks, with Gladio helping Ignis into the air to come down on top of the monster.

Once the Mushussu was down, they headed further into the Myrlwood. The stone walls eventually fell away in favor of a heavily overgrown basin. They moved cautiously through the area. The limited visibility and thick undergrowth forced them to spread out in more of a fan formation than a group.

Not entirely sure where they wanted to go, they kept the “wall” of the basin in sight on their right. They encountered another Mushussu, which went down a little quicker this time, before they caught sight of another “wall” in front of them. Noct practically threw up his hands in frustration, and turned directly left, clutching a hand to his head with a groan as he did so. The sudden change in direction had some of the others scrambling to keep up.

They had barely fallen back in line when they stumbled out of some bushes onto a Mandrake. Noct spent only a moment eyeing it before he announced, “Swords and guns,” and then he began laying into the thing with large sweeps of his sword.

Noct’s grumpiness seemed to abate after the fight, and just a few minutes later they stumbled on a passage through the rocks that led away from the basin. They encountered two groups of mandrakes and mushussus fighting each other, but they beat their way through them without serious injury.

When the path split, Noct paused. “Anyone have an opinion on which way we should go?”

“The left path seems rather bright. How about we go that way first,” Ignis suggested.

They did so. After just enough of a turn in the path to hide it from where they had stopped, they stumbled out upon a small waterfall and lake. “Finally, a little breathing room,” Gladio commented, looking around.

“It’s a Haven,” Prompto exclaimed from behind Nyx. He spun around from where he had been incredulously examining the fishing pier, and indeed, there was a Haven. It had been tucked away on the left of the passage, and Nyx hadn’t noticed it since he was on their right flank.

“Man, Noct, this is like, the perfect place for you,” Prompto chattered. “This is probably the shortest distance in all of Eos between a bed and a fishing spot.

“Yeah,” Noct said, voice wistful. When Nyx glanced at him there was a tiny smile playing about his lips. “Maybe someday I’ll retire here.”

“Alright, Princess,” Gladio said, coming up to clap a hand on Noct’s shoulder, “but no fishing today. Don’t want to force the Marshal to wait around for you, do you?”

Noct ducked the hand, pushing Gladio away with a snort. “We’ve barely gotten started. I’m not going to take a break at full strength when we haven’t even finished the dungeon yet.”

So saying, Noct darted back towards the path. Nyx felt a startled “shit” slip past his lips as he hurried to keep the prince in his sights. Noct did in fact stop to wait for them where the paths intersected, and then they were moving, again down the left passage. It began sloping upwards with twists and turns, and they encountered another pack on monsters near the top of it.

Once they had dealt with them, Noct made an interested sound and set off towards an opening on the left. Nyx followed, and had just realized it was the lip of a drop when Noct bent down, digging in the dirt for something. He came up brushing off a metal circlet.

“Huh,” Nyx said, peering at it. “Is that a bangle?”

“Looks like,” Noct replied. “Someone must have lost it.” Noct stared at it for a moment before muttering something under his breath that sounded like, hope there’s no tags around here, which Nyx didn’t understand at all, before turning back towards the group. “Hey Prompto, you want another bracelet,” he called.

“Sure,” Prompto said, bounding over from where he had been checking his gun. “What’s this one do then?”

“Force redirection magic,” Noct told him, handing it over. “Gold is one of the best metals to bind magic to, but it’s so soft that they had to reinforce it to stand up in a fight. It was too complicated to mass produce, so they only make them for the hunters.”

“Cool,” Prompto said, and the golden bangle joined the many other bracelets wrapped around his left wrist. “Will this one still work if I blunt it?”

“Go ahead,” Noct told him with a little wave. “As long as the face is clear the magic will still work, like always.”

Curious, Nyx raked a look over the other bracelets on Prompto’s arm, slowly realizing the chaotic mess had a lot of glinting to it. Bronze, silver, black, even a peek of blue… Bangles, Nyx realized. Prompto’s wrist was covered in a small fortune of bangles. Nyx blinked and looked closer, wondering why they weren’t making a racket, and finally noticed the non-standard subdued rubber edges on each of them.

Nyx had the sudden urge to reach out and touch them, but managed to turn it into a gesture instead. “You do all that work yourself?”

“Yep! Bracelets are kinda’ my thing, but don’t want them to become a problem in the field. So I made them quiet!”

“Smart,” Nyx told him with a nod. “Is that how you can manage so many at once?”

“Yea, turns out, there’s a difference between stacking and stacking. Stacking them like normal, with the edges touching? The magics bleed into each other or something, and they start doing wacky things. But stacking? With the edges covered, I can stack as many bracelets and their effects as I have room for.”

Prompto turned back towards the path, taking a last glance at his new bangle. “I’ll probably start working on this one when we camp tonight.”

Noct thankfully followed Prompto back to the path and away from the sudden drop. The path was a pretty short downward trail coming out in another basin-like area, this time including a trench of standing water. Glancing back at the hill they had come down, Nyx spotted the place they had just been standing. Now on the ground, he could see it wasn’t as high as he had worried, and the hill was quite free of erosion and undercutting.

“There’s something over there, past the trees,” Gladio said with a sweep of his arm.

“Be cautious,” Cor said before the group could move. “The magic of the tombs often attracts greater monsters to the area. There could well be one here.”

The group stood at the bottom of the trail for a minute, straining their eyes for any sign of a monster. Finally, Prompto broke the silence. “I don’t see anything but trees.”

Gladio snorted. “Not like they’re gonna’ come alive and attack us, blondie,” he drawled before starting forward.

They made it to the trench of water when suddenly one of the trees moved.

“Treant,” Nyx yelled, leaping aside as he drew his knives.

Noct’s voice was frustrated as he drew his sword, “You just had to tempt the Six, Gladio, didn’t you? Of course it’s a fuckin’ tree.”

A glow back towards the path caught Nyx’s eye, and he darted a glance over to see Ignis hanging back, shining golden as he cast some kind of spell. As the glow faded, Nyx suddenly could feel a tag of magic, dangling politely in his mind. He readily reached out to receive it and when it unfolded, he found knowledge of the Treant’s weaknesses along with an impression of its healthiness and stamina.

Useful for when you’ve never encountered a creature before, Nyx thought, letting the spell-knowledge slot into place with his own experience. Deciding they had been on their back foot long enough, Nyx tossed his knife at the rampaging Treant’s tail and fell into a warp.

He came out just as the knife connected, putting his entire weight behind the blow. There was a great snap, and the tree bellowed in pain, spinning around to slash at him. Nyx was already warping back out of range.

He reappeared in a flash of blue sparks, steadying himself for a moment. Just as it had looked, the tail had felt like all muscle. Letting it flail around would have dangerous, and—

Nyx had to cut off his train of thought and block. It seemed the treant had managed to keep track of him, a true rarity. Nyx was just barely managing to block its blows, wincing at the force. The bloody thing hit nearly as hard as Glauca!

A sudden, strange revving noise caught Nyx’s ear, just before some kind of blast hit the treant with a ‘boom!’ The creature screeched, spinning around towards its new aggressor, and Nyx caught a flash of blond hair. Another blow from a different direction split the thing’s attention.

With the pressure off him, Nyx took a moment to breathe before leaping on the treant’s back. He caught flashes of others attacking its front: Gladio, winding up for a sweeping swing; Noct, blade glowing red as he leapt high into the air; Cor as he unsheathed his sword in one blindingly fast blow; Ignis to the side, blades also glowing red.

In barely any time, the treant was falling to the ground with a whimper.

They all fell back from the thing’s body, taking a moment to steady themselves and slow their pounding hearts. Nyx found himself having a particularly hard time getting his breath back, reaching up to rub at the ache in his chest. What’s wrong with me? I should be barely winded, if at all, he wondered. He’d certainly fought fiercer foes when pitting himself against the Empire, and hadn’t had such problems then.

Nyx hadn’t quite managed to recover his breathing entirely by the time everyone else was starting to move cautiously through the little glade again. Still rubbing at his chest, he followed.

The flash of white Gladio had spotted through the trees did indeed turn out to be a Royal Tomb. Nyx was still rubbing at his chest as it came into sight, but he definitely noticed as Noct’s Retinue rearranged their formation, automatically covering their holes until they finally settled.

Nyx found himself walking beside Noct as they covered the last fifty feet to the tomb, and glanced sidelong at the man. And frowned in concern. The closer they got, the more emotion seemed to leech out of Noct’s face, leaving him with an expressionless mask.

“Here, too, rests the power of Kings,” Ignis murmured from his flanking position. “Who knows how many tombs have survived the ages.” They reached the stairs leading down to the tomb’s door as Ignis finished speaking.

Nyx followed Noct down the stairs, getting more and more concerned as he took in the stiffness of his movements. Even as he took out the key and unlocked the door, Noct’s face was remote. The complete lack of expression as the doors slowly ground open had Nyx inching closer and closer to him.

He was two steps behind Noct as he entered the tomb and stopped in front of the pedestal holding the casket and bas relief. For several long moments, Noct stood there, hand fisted by his side. Eventually he lifted a hand to rub at his forehead, hissing a breath between his teeth. His hand stopped, still on his face, and Nyx could trace the passage of tension as it spread over Noct’s back and hunched his shoulders.

Forcibly discarding anything that wasn’t support for his Prince, Nyx stepped closer, placing a gentle hand between Noct’s shoulder blades. Nyx had just a moment to register the warmth radiating through his hand before Noct heaved a shuddering sigh. He leaned back into Nyx’s touch for a moment before he dropped his arm. As Noct straightened, he moved further back into Nyx’s support, and Nyx shuffled a half-step forward in return to stay in reach.

“Guess I better get on with it,” Noct muttered almost below Nyx’s hearing. Looking away from the Prince for a moment, Nyx glanced at the pedestal, expecting another unfamiliar weapon.

“Oh,” the word slipped from his lips without his permission as Noct held his hand over the pedestal and the Star of the Rogue began glowing. Noct was suddenly backing up into Nyx, and he scrambled to follow the movement so they wouldn’t fall over. Noct stopped quickly, and Nyx caught his balance with soft, soft hair brushing his cheek.

Before he could scramble away in embarrassment, the star came down and Noct flinched back into Nyx. Once again, no sensation of impact communicated itself to him, and with a crystalline tinkle, the Royal Arms burst from Noct to circle around them. The Star was glowing blue as it spun past Nyx, and he shivered slightly as he remembered the power of that weapon plowing through Imperial drop ships and cruisers.

Nyx’s attention came back to Noct as he felt him take a long shuddering breath, Armiger fading to crystal shards. Nyx waited, patient, even with the sweet torture of hair brushing his cheek, for Noct to move away on his own.

Instead, he spoke. “What was it?”

“Hmm?”

“Something surprised you. What was it?” Noct turned his head slightly, and Nyx got a nose-full of clean, dry scent.

“Oh.” It took Nyx a moment to remember what Noct might be talking about. “That was the Star of the Rogue, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Just, recognized it. From when it was the size of a city bus and being flung around by the Old Wall.”

There was a moment of silence, and finally Noct moved, looking up to meet Nyx’s eyes. “Huh. Must be weird seeing it a normal size then.”

Nyx moved back, opening up space for Noct to leave the Tomb without having to go around him. “Just surprised to actually recognize one of Royal Arms. It’s not many that you get to see in action.”

Noct hesitated another moment, opening his mouth like he was going to say something, but then he shut it. For a moment there was something fragile in his face, but it vanished, and Nyx almost questioned whether it had truly been there as Noct headed for the door.

Nyx glanced around as they came out of the Royal Tomb, slightly surprised no one else had gone inside with them. Ignis and Gladio were standing near the door, and on the grass at the top of the steps stood Prompto and the Marshal.

Nyx found himself being given a surprisingly appraising gaze by the Marshal. Wonder what that’s about, Nyx thought, tilting his head slightly to meet the Marshal’s eyes. Prompto was leaning into the man, practically vibrating, and Nyx raised an eyebrow internally at the behavior.

“Well,” Ignis spoke, and Nyx forcibly dragged his attention to the man, “back to the chocobos, then?”

The trek back out of the Myrlwood was, thankfully, without incident. They found the chocobos waiting where they had left them, Prompto quickly running up to his bird to shower them in affection and praises. Ignis pulled their map out and a traced a path from the Myrlwood to the point Cor had mentioned had a parking spot. Destination chosen, they headed out.

They took the path down away from the Myrlwood, but then departed it to head for the lakeshore. One last check of the map, and Ignis led them into the water, pointing the chocobos towards a jut of land just barely visible in the distance.

It took maybe half an hour to make their way across the lake and back to land, climbing out at one of the few vaguely sandy areas on the shore. Ignis consulted the map again, and led them slightly to the left, where they eventually came out of the trees at a parking lot. There was even, surprises of surprises, a chocobo rental station. Just across the road was a Haven.

They all took the chance to dismount and stretch after the ride across the lake where they most emphatically could not. As they did, Ignis gestured towards the Haven. “Perhaps we should make camp and leave the next dungeon for tomorrow,” he suggested. “It’s almost four o’clock.”

Noct, somewhere on the other side of Nyx’s chocobo, made a sound of protest that cut-off abruptly. No one else seemed to have heard it, and when Noct gave no other signs of disagreement, Nyx let it go.

Chapter 19: Hurry Up and Wait

The group made their way to the Haven, setting up camp quickly. It was still a little early for dinner, so Ignis sat down around the firepit with the rest of them.

Prompto was humming a fierce little tune as he rummaged his phone out of his pocket. Once he had it in hand, he turned a devious smile on Nyx. “Ny~yx,” he sing-songed, “you have a phone now, so it’s time we introduced you to the wonders of King’s Knight.”

Nyx made a face at the blond, but didn’t bother trying to fight. Prompto had already beaten him back in Lestallum, and there would be no escape out here in the wilderness. Gingerly, he rummaged his own phone out of a pocket, inspecting it to make sure it hadn’t gotten damaged in any of their battles before turning it on.

There followed an entertaining hour of Prompto directing him in how to download the game and set up an account, and then demonstrating how it was played. Without giving Nyx a chance to protest, Prompto guided him into a practice joint campaign with the blond. Prompto declared him “good enough” when they had finished, and then immediately invited him into a joint campaign with the entire Royal Retinue; minus the Marshal, who had shaken his head at them and now appeared to be networking on his own phone.

The game stretched into four campaigns. Nyx consistently came in last due to his newness to the game and teams made up of mostly 3-star characters. The others, having been playing for a while, fielded only 4- and 5-star characters. Still, Nyx did eventually relax into the game, managing to enjoy the simplicity of the battle mechanics.

After four campaigns, Ignis got up to start on dinner. That seemed to be the signal for everyone to put away their phones and work on weapons maintenance for a bit. It was quiet as they all descended into close concentration on various aspects of their weapons.

Nyx only had his knives, and while he pulled out a sharpening stone to make sure their edge hadn’t gotten dull, he was rather distracted. Every couple minutes, he stopped the repetitive motion of sharpening to rub at his chest. Despite the hours since the Myrlwood, Nyx still felt a tiny bit out of breath; it was like something was sitting on his chest, keeping him from completely filling his lungs.

(It did happen, sometimes. Twisting the wrong way would pull something just enough out of alignment that his chest would ache for hours until it relaxed back into place.

Still, this… didn’t quite feel like that.)

The sensation lasted the rest of the night, through dinner and chatting and as they crawled into the tent. Despite his worries, Nyx made a point of stretching as he crawled into the blankets, trying to open up his chest and release whatever muscle was restricting his breathing.

They rose bright and early the next morning. Thankfully, a good night’s sleep seemed to have relieved whatever Nyx’s problem had been, and he was breathing easily again. Ignis made them a hot breakfast that morning, something Nyx hadn’t seen him do before at a Haven.

“What brought this on,” he asked curiously as he accepted the bowl.

“Noct requested something hot for breakfast last night,” Ignis explained as he sat down in his own chair. “We’re not in such a hurry that we can’t afford the time for it, so I agreed.”

They broke camp quickly after breakfast, vacating the Haven by mid-morning. As they headed off the rock, Prompto spoke up, voice bright. “Chocobos again?”

“I was actually thinking we should walk,” Noct replied. “We don’t know exactly where the next dungeon is on the map, and there’s no clue like a heavily wooded area to aim for. It would be too easy to miss on a chocobo.”

“Aww~,” Prompto said, and Nyx glanced over in time to see the pout on his face. He couldn’t help smiling at Prompto’s whole-hearted adoration of chocobos.

“Hey, we still have them rented for five more nights, Prompto,” Nyx told him.

Prompto continued pouting. “I suppose.”

They had picked up a trail out of the parking lot, and were following it through the squat palm trees and occasional outcroppings of stone. After maybe fifteen minutes, the vegetation fell away on their right to reveal a rocky plateau. The path curved, skirting the edge of the rock before leading away.

Noct pulled his map out, taking a single glance at it and nodding to himself. “Looks like we’re going right,” he said, and led them up off the path, onto the stone.

The plateau was made of waves of rock that they had to constantly go around or climb over. What made their journey even longer was Noct’s apparently very sharp eye, as he bent over every other minute to scoop up one thing or another. From a monster claw to feathers to a glass bauble, Noct seemed determined to grab everything that might be sellable or useful for upgrading their equipment in the future.

Eventually they made it to where the rock gave way to dirt and vegetation again. There they encountered a basilisk and some chickatrice that apparently took offense to them. They were easily defeated, but during the battle Ignis had apparently caught sight of an ingredient he wanted to harvest. Nyx wasn’t sure foraging for wild ingredients was the best thing for the royal retinue to do, but he wasn’t going to tell Ignis he couldn’t do it.

Their time among the vegetation didn’t last long however, and they were soon wading into the water. Nyx was grateful for his tall boots, and carefully didn’t wonder about any of the others’ footwear. The area was filled with old ruins; collapsed arches and leaning columns liberally dotted the swamp.

Noct wove between them without any apparent rhyme or reason. He traipsed in and out of the water, up and down the small hills of land, and still kept an eye out for things to scavenge. His diligence even managed to find an abandoned Ether caught in a crack of one of the ruins.

It was just past noon by the time Ignis caught sight of a stone wall standing tall and unruined in the distance. “Might that not be our destination?” he suggested, tone arch.

Noct seemed almost reluctant as he said, “It might be,” but began leading them that way.

As they got closer to the structure, it became apparent that they weren’t the only ones interested in it. Nyx noted a stack of crates on one of the hills, and as they came abreast of it, he spotted another one, this one with a few people around it and a figure lounging atop it.

They were noticed almost immediately, the lounging figure climbing slowly to their feet. “Well, well, what do we have here?” they drawled, and Nyx realized belatedly that they were a woman. “If it isn’t a Kingsglaive, a couple Crownsguard, and The Immortal himself. I wonder what such a group could be doing here.”

She had heavily stylized armor covering her shoulders, paired with a black and red leather ensemble, partially covered by a white tabard. Coupled with what he realized was a helmet with a horn and a long black tail sitting on the crate at her feet, Nyx tentatively identified her as Commodore Aranea Highwind, the “Dragoon” of Niflheim.

He ground his teeth together. Of course there had been a chance of them encountering whatever Imperials had been occupying the Vesperpool, but they hadn’t thought they would be interested in the same place they were. More fool us then, Nyx thought bitterly, at least she doesn’t recognize the Prince.

“Cat got your tongue? That’s all right,” she purred, hopping down off the crate and prowling towards them, “I can take a guess.”

The Marshal chose to speak then, playing into her assumption that he was the only person of note in their group. “Some contacts indicated there was a dungeon in the area. Is that true?”

Highwind stopped right in front of the Marshal, putting her hands on her hips and leaning in to look him up and down in a lingering manner. “It might be. But it might also be that the Empire has their own interest in it. Why should I allow you to access it?”

“It may be that we don’t want to access it. If you’ve been in there you can tell us; is there a locked door in its depths?”

She eyed Cor for a long minute, not saying anything. Finally, she straightened. “There is indeed. But if you want us to show it to you, I’m afraid we’re on break.” She eyed him for another moment before purring, “You’re welcome to join us.”

Nyx threw a glance at his companions, wondering if they were seeing the same thing he was seeing. Gladio’s shit-eating grin and Prompto’s wide eyes suggested they were. Highwind was… flirting with the Marshal.

Ignis spoke into the charged silence Highwind had created, “We wouldn’t want to impose. I’m sure we’ll be able to find our own way if you agree to let us pass.”

Highwind’s lips curled in a strange kind of satisfaction and she waved an expansive hand at their surroundings as she turned around and headed back towards her crate. “Search until sundown if you like. It won’t do you any good.” She plopped back down into her seat, projecting an air of smug disinterest. “If you’re lookin’ to get inside, you’re gonna’ have to wait.”

Despite her condescension, Ignis gave her a little tilt of his head and murmured, “Thank you.”

Cautiously, they headed past the small group of Imperials to the arch set into the ancient wall. Nyx could feel her gaze on them the whole way and had the strange sense that his butt—despite being hidden under his jacket—was being thoroughly violated.

As they passed through the archway Nyx could feel the ground under his feet change. It was still under about a foot of water, but he was now walking over a stone floor. The area they were in now had fared better than the ruins they had seen before, being somewhat shielded from the elements by the wall. The columns that marched forward like a causeway stood straight and tall despite their weathering.

They spent a moment just looking around, all of them appreciating the well-preserved beauty of their surroundings. Prompto commented wonderingly, “What kind of place was this? Any idea, Ignis?”

“None,” Ignis answered, voice soft with his own distraction.

“I wonder what happened to the locals,” Prompto mused, and Nyx for once found himself agreeing. It was surprising the place had ever been abandoned.

Gladio was the first to get over moment, unable to resist the chance to needle Prompto. “Why don’t we head in and see if they’re still around?”

Nyx groaned in stereo with Prompto and Noct. “Bad taste, Gladio, bad taste,” Noct complained.

Reminded that they were here for more than just the architecture, they continued on. As the focus of the… courtyard? room? was on the stairs rising at the back, they headed towards them. There was a fair-sized landing at their top, and opposite the stairs was the most well-preserved wall they’d seen so far. It had stone protrusions that formed a distinct doorway—

Around another bit of wall.

“Well. It looks like we won’t be getting anywhere from here,” Ignis observed in a dry tone.

They went back down the stairs and split up to explore every nook and cranny of the courtyard area. Eventually, they gathered at the arch that marked the entrance. Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto all looked frustrated, and even Cor had a furrow in his brow. Only Noct looked at all calm about not finding an entrance.

“I’m not seein’ a way in,” Gladio said with a grimace.

Ignis’ frown turned thoughtful and he slowly said, “Not at this time of day, at least.”

Prompto managed a joking, “There’s a way in. I can smell it.”

“The empire sniffed it out ages ago,” a voice intruded on their conversation and they jumped, Nyx only belatedly remembering that Highwind had been watching them. “Wait ‘til nightfall, shortcake.”

It was just a little awkward, turning to look at the group of Imperials now. They were still cooling their heels around the same crate, the Commodore and two junior officers. From the corner of his eye, Nyx saw Gladio glaring at them a moment before he spoke. “So you guys just laze around all day, huh?”

“Yep,” Highwind smirked. “Play all day, work all night. A girl’s gotta have a little variety in her schedule. And I’ll say it again, you boys are welcome to join us. Even you, muscle man.”

There was a distrustful silence that stretched awkwardly. Noct, hidden at the back of the group, eventually gave a sigh and stalked forwards. “If it’s all the same to you guys, I’d rather sit down while we wait.”

Gladio and Ignis both made a grab for the Prince, but Noct nimbly avoided their fingers. Ignis made a kk! sound but followed warily in his wake anyways. As they all started moving, Nyx had a singular chant in his head that he was sure was echoed by everyone else: Don’t say his name. Don’t say his name. Don’t say his name!

They managed to find dry and marginally comfortable places to sit, choosing to settle on the other hill that housed crates rather than Highwind’s. Noct even laid down completely, pretending he was going to sleep, but no one was quite able to relax. Finally, desperately, Nyx pulled his new phone out and turned to Prompto. “Show me how that game works again. I forgot,” he lied, desperate for anything to break the tension. The smile he got in response said Prompto was just as grateful for the distraction.

And so they managed to pass the next few hours. Five o’clock came and went. Ignis apparently decided using the Arsenal wouldn’t be revealing too much because he summoned and passed out sandwiches. It was half past seven when Highwind gave up trying to flirt with the Marshal and stood on her crate.

“Alright boys, the sun will be setting soon,” she said, stretching provocatively. “You better get yourselves ready, ‘cause I won’t be waiting around for you.”

“Lady Highwind, truly, there’s no need,” Ignis interjected smoothly even as they all rose cautiously to their feet. “I’m sure you have more important things to be doing. We will be fine on our own.”

“That’s cute, specs, but there’s no way I’m about to let the Marshal go unwatched somewhere the Empire has declared a strategic location.” She propped a hand on her hip as she continued, “Not even my loose interpretations of orders stretches that far.”

Hidden from Highwind’s view behind Gladio’s back, Noct turned to fix a look on Cor. Nyx carefully kept his face blank and his eyes straight ahead. As Ignis tried to convince the Commodore that really, she didn’t need to come with them, Noct made faces at the Marshal. The man just stared back at his prince, face set in a deadpan.

A couple minute of this passed, Ignis’ arguments in the background and some kind of conversation passing between Cor’s deadpan and Noct’s expressions. Finally, Cor sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose before saying, “Commodore Highwind, would you be interested in a spar?”

The glee that kindled on Highwind’s face was near-incandescent in intensity. Her purred, “Oh Marshal, I would love one,” was just as suggestive as might be expected after the hours she’d spent flirting.

“Where do you want me?”

Man, when the Marshal commits to something, he really goes all out, Nyx thought as the innuendo sank in. Highwind’s lips curled into a hungry little grin that Nyx instantly wished he could forget as she hopped down from her perch on the crate. “Right this way, Marshal,” she said with a little curl of her finger, “right this way.”

They watched Cor and Highwind trek away through the swamp, off for a wide, open area to spar in. An awkward and chagrined moment passed between the Lucians and the two Imperial soldiers. Prompto gave a little giggle.

Eventually, Noct cleared his throat. “Let’s go wait by that door.”

Chapter 20: Steyliff Grove

Nyx leaned against the wall as they waited the last few minutes for the sun to set. Prompto, Ignis, and Gladio were talking quietly about something near the stairs; Noct leaned against one of the pillars framing the doorway, looking at something on his phone. Nyx watched him, tracing the fall of hair against his cheek, the way his eyes shone, and the line of his nose.

Prompto laughed, and Nyx realized abruptly he had been staring. He quickly turned his head away, gazing at the carvings on the wall instead. After a moment, Nyx noticed that parts of the carvings were actually a different color, only obvious as the light faded, forming lines that traveled upwards. As the twilight set in, the lines began to look red. Nyx leaned in to take a closer look at them and realized they actually had a subtle glow to them, ever more apparent as the sky darkened.

There was a soft whirring sound that pulled Nyx’s attention away from the carvings, and Noct pushed off his bit of wall and put his phone away. “Door’s open, guys,” he announced. “Let’s head in.”

There was a small room just beyond the doorway, but then there were stairs. Seemingly endless stairs. Stairs that went on. And on. And on. When they finally saw the bottom, Prompto let out a dramatically relieved, “Finally. I thought it’d never end.” At the bottom of the staircase was another room with, curiously enough, lights in the corners.

They cautiously began to explore the ruins. The first couple rooms they explored seemed okay, if weirdly barren for how well-preserved the place was. Ignis amazingly spotted a Megalixir in one of the rooms, but when he went to grab it part of the roof fell down. Nyx winced at such a valuable item getting crushed, but there was nothing they could do.

Just a little deeper, they discovered a door. It was gigantic, made of black metal with golden rays radiating out from a point nearer to the top than to them. “Solheim,” Ignis murmured, nearly inaudible. They might have lingered longer looking at the door, but as soon as someone approached it quietly retracted itself upwards. Any disappointment vanished immediately at the view beyond the door.

“Beautiful beyond words…” Ignis gasped, obviously moved.

And indeed it was. They were apparently on the uppermost level of the complex, standing on a balcony. There was a great cavern stretching out in front of them lit by a blue light and going down, down, down…

“Look up!”

Nyx followed Prompto’s instructions and blinked at the undulating sheet of blue above the cavern. “Is that… the water?” Gladio asked, and suddenly Nyx could see it.

“Wait, what?” Prompto made an agitated motion that Nyx barely registered, still staring. “Does this mean we’re underwater? Woah. There’s even fish.”

Noct voice was strained as he asked, “Where are you seeing fish?” Nyx glanced over at the tone, checking he was okay. Prompto had moved over and was pointing at the fish he had found.

Ignis was still occupied with puzzling over the spectacle. “Can we truly be submerged?”

Nyx hummed thoughtfully, gazing upwards again. “It does seem harder to breath down here.”

They continued staring upwards for a minute until Gladio broke them all out of their trance. “Let’s get a move on.”

Nyx shook himself a little as he looked down. He took a moment to put away his wonder and focus back on their task. As he did, Noct brushed past him to take the lead again, and Nyx just barely caught him muttering, “Like seeing a dream of that place.” Puzzled, trying to work out what he might have meant, Nyx followed in Noct’s wake. He couldn’t be entirely sure, but it seemed like Noct pointedly avoided looking up at the water the rest of their time underground.

Just beyond a bit of balcony that jutted out into the cavern without a roof, the floor had collapsed. They were able to cross the pit by edging along a small ledge still attached to the wall. Prompto hadn’t been too keen on it, but they all crossed it. Further on the floor gave way again, this time without anything they could use to get across. Luckily, there was a staircase, and they proceeded downwards.

The staircase had let them out on a balcony identical to the one above it, and they had retraced their steps to find a second staircase positioned under where the door had been. The third level again had a balcony, but where there had been stairs at the far end of the first level, here there was another door that again slid quietly away and let them inside, where they found a set of two-story rooms.

They had arrived on the upper level, made mostly of floating bridges. Everything looked fine at first glance, but as they reached the center of the room it seemed just their presence was enough to make one of the bridges collapse. Leery, they inched along the still standing bridge into a second two-story room that had a staircase leading downwards.

“At least we know there’s a way to get back up if one of these collapses underneath us,” Nyx offered.

The third room was much the same in structure as the first; one of the bridges even collapsed just from their walking by. When they tried to leave the room however, an Iron Giant appeared. Its weight was more than enough to destroy the bridge, and Noct and Gladio both fell into the room below. Given the drop, Ignis and Prompto both chose to jump on the daemon rather than straight down, while Nyx warped down to check how bad the fall had been.

Strangely enough, once they had defeated the giant daemon, the rubble from the bridges had floated upwards, reforming into whole stone once more. They had to open another of the Solheim doors to find a staircase back upwards, but as they walked the floating bridges of the third room again, there wasn’t so much as a rumble or a trickling of dust to suggest they were unsound.

Then it was around a corner, through a room, down a staircase, and they were on a bridge that spanned from one side of the cavern to the other. Far above their heads the lake surface hovered, soft moonlight filtering through its gentle rolling and glittering reflections from the lights below.

It was then that everything went wrong.

Well, more wrong. Very early on in their advance through the dungeon, only a couple of battles in, Prompto had gone down. The blond had dropped without a sound, and as fast as Nyx had understood what had happened, Noct had appeared in a flash of blue. He had dropped to his knees and shoved a Phoenix Down in Prompto’s lax hand before laying into the daemon that had felled him.

That had been the point where Noct stopped hanging back. Instead of keeping to the edges and managing the battles enough to keep his Retinue from being overwhelmed, he began taking a very active part in combating the Crème Brulees and Reapers that kept appearing.

And now they were here, facing more enemies at once than they had yet been forced to. Nyx was trying to keep all the skeletons focused on him, warping just short of a daemon and taking a swipe at its sword “arm” before moving onto the next. That left the other four to focus on the more troublesome enemies without having to constantly guard their backs.

From the bit of attention he was able to spare them, Noct wasn’t warp-spamming like him. Instead he would concentrate fiercely on one opponent for a few moments, before another daemon made to advance on one of his friends, at which point he would switch targets to them.

The skeletons Nyx was fighting were slowly losing their sword “arms” after a couple hits when Nyx’s eyes, in the middle of falling into a warp, passed over a hulking figure at the other end of the bridge, near where the other four were fighting. Horrified, he thought, Is that a Ronin?!

The surprise cost him, as he stumbled falling out of the warp and had to spend a few moments completely dispatching the skeleton that had latched onto him. Nyx was turning, meaning to shout a warning, when he heard Ignis’ normally level voice scream, “NOCT!!”

Nyx had only a moment of seeing Noct held aloft on the Ronin’s sword before it gave a negligent flick and—

Pain.

Nyx was barely aware of his body collapsing, everything was pain. There might have been voices. There might have been blows as skeletons landed on him. Nyx didn’t know. All he knew was—

There was a ball of fire in his chest, and it wanted to consume him.

A scream ripped itself from his throat.

The fire, the seed of fire that Nyx had somehow forgotten about was raging free. The light that had filled his chest since Insomnia’s Fall had vanished and there was nothing to keep the Lucii’s burning magic in check.

The ground heaved before Nyx’s chest cooled just long enough for him to drag in a breath. In the next moment the fire was back, and another scream burst from his throat.

He spent a small eternity, hovering in that pain, before something flushed through his body, knocking out all the tendrils of fire that had crept out of that place in his chest. The shock choked Nyx’s voice in his throat and he gasped.

And gasped again, and again, and again, as the fire burning behind his sternum seemed to pulse angrily. It was hard to move his chest, to get oxygen, but he struggled anyways, mind clear enough for the moment to think, scrambling for something that might help.

What was it that King Regis had said? …you have been granted reprieve. The rest had been something like… The King of Light holds back your price. His life your life, his death yours, so you shall perish at the dawn. Our Bargain is over. Your death here has been denied by the King of Light, but your life is still forfeit, belonging now to the King of…

“—ight,” Nyx gasped, or tried to, the word barely making it past his lips. Nyx tried again, trying to form the words, his plea to the Lucii, to whoever they had been talking about. “K-ng of -ight,” he whispered in beseechment, the pain in his chest growing again. Not good enough. Once more he tried, reaching up to claw at the heat in his chest. This time he managed a clear, “light.”

And then a sound was being wrenched from him again, too weak to call a scream, but no other descriptor could fit the way it tore at his throat. Nyx could feel his eyes tearing up, trying to get some of his pain out, and his throat convulsed in a sob.

Suddenly, there were hands on him, hands that blazed to his scrambled senses. Something happened at his waist, and Nyx gasped when he felt a hand press against that spot on his chest, skin against skin. Even though it continued to burn, it steadied something in him. The tiny bit of relief was almost enough to wash away the sensation of his body being moved until there was a bare hand against the skin of his neck, and more skin being pressed to his forehead.

There were words being breathed against his lips, blazing as they broke against his skin, and Nyx struggled fruitlessly to hear them. They felt like a declaration, like something important.

Just as they finished, the hand pressed against Nyx’s chest sank into him, grabbing the ball of fire and quenching it ruthlessly. Nyx gasped and writhed against the sensation, trying to both curl his body around it and get away from it. After a minute he began gagging intermittently, the feel of something practically inside his lungs making his body think it had to get it out.

Under that unrelenting grip, the fire began to shrink. Bits of it sputtered and died, other bits flared, trying to escape, but the light was inescapable. Finally, after what Nyx knew had to be only minutes but felt like much longer, the fire had been compressed into a tiny seed that Nyx vaguely thought he had felt in Insomnia.

What wasn’t familiar was the light that seemed to blaze through every corner of his body.

Nyx spent a minute laying quietly, basking in the painless grasp of who- or what- ever held him. Only when he felt like his nerves had calmed down and relaxed completely did he finally fight his eyes open.

He met a blue gaze bare inches from his own. There was a relieved sigh, those blue eyes slipping closed for a moment. The hand on his chest shook free of what Nyx suddenly realized was a rucked-up shirt and came around to cradle the side of his neck.

When those blue eyes slid open again, they fixed Nyx with such a serious look that he almost wanted to snap to attention. And then they spoke.

“You are worthy, Nyx Ulric, and the words you spoke to the Lucii were just. You were right to remind them of their post, to call them on their hypocrisy. No true king would have demanded this in return.”

Nyx felt his breath catching in his throat, and tears welling up in eyes that hadn’t quite dried yet. Feeling overwhelmed, Nyx tried to reach for Noct; maybe to one of the hands resting on his neck; maybe to the face hovering above his; maybe to Noct’s shoulder.

Wherever it was his hand would have settled was a moot point, because it didn’t get more than a few inches before aches and pain and exhaustion raced through his body.

There was a shift above him, and Noct moved back, hand moving away from his neck as he broke Nyx’s gaze. A moment later a quiet “shit” drifted to Nyx’s ears. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to focus past the wateriness. There were a few moments of quiet before Noct spoke again.

“We’re done with this dungeon. Gladio, can you carry him?”

Nyx’s mind was stuck on the implacable command that infused Noct’s voice as he spoke. In that moment, Noct hadn’t sounded like a Prince without a throne, he had sounded like a King. His mind was stuck enough that he didn’t notice what Gladio was doing until the man had lifted him straight up in his arms.

Struggling to communicate what he thought of that, Nyx managed to bring his arm up enough to fall against Gladio’s chest. It was pitifully weak, but Gladio glanced down to look at him. “…‘sis is no’ a sma’ way to carry s’un,” he managed to get out, exhaustion causing his tongue to stumble over the sounds.

Nyx felt Gladio snort as he replied, “You were clawing at your chest, Ulric, I’m not about to sling you over a shoulder.”

He had been, hadn’t he? “… ‘m fine now,” Nyx told him truthfully even as he wanted to shiver at the memory of the Magic of the Lucii wreaking havoc on his body.

Gladio said something in reply, but Nyx couldn’t be bothered to try and understand it. His mind and body were begging him for sleep, and despite his wishes, he couldn’t muster up the ability to fight it off completely.

Nyx was vaguely aware of Gladio stopping, of a conversation. There was a faint tickle of magic being used, and then Gladio was moving again and Nyx felt a huge rush of magic over them, there and gone in an instant. There was movement again, and more voices talking, and then there was just the quiet of movement. It was soothing, and despite their location, Nyx felt safe.

He fell asleep.

Epilogue

When Nyx awoke, it was slowly. He was snuggled into something, with weight draped across his shoulders, and a warmth that he had been missing for several days. Still bleary, he spent some minutes snuggling deeper into his—pillow? Eventually, he had to acknowledge that he was indeed awake, and with a sigh he rolled onto his back, the weight on his shoulders shifting to lie across his chest.

Lying on his back exposed his face, and his eyes scrunched unhappily at the light coming through their lids. Something settled lightly against the top of his head, stroking gently, and Nyx relaxed into it with a happy sigh. Once his eyes had adjusted, Nyx blinked them slowly open, squinting slightly.

Either it wasn’t as early as he had expected, or it was an overcast day, because it didn’t take long for his eyes to relax. Vision clearing, Nyx blinked upward, slowly realizing he recognized the worried face hovering over him.

“Noct.” The word slipped past his lips with barely a thought.

Relief stole over that face above him, blue eyes closing for a moment. “Nyx,” Noct breathed in return. “Thank all the Six you’re alright.” Blue eyes slid open again to meet his.

The emotion swimming in those blue depths was so captivating that it took Nyx several long moments to realize he was lying with his head in Noct’s lap. Another stroke against the top of his head had Nyx’s eyes widening. He was sure he had to be flushing. As he remembered the way he had snuggled into his “pillow”, Nyx gulped, breaking Noct’s gaze to dart little glances anywhere but at him.

His glances revealed that they were in a camp. Nyx moved to get up, only to flinch in pain, trying to suppress a gasp as his entire body throbbed. It felt horribly similar to the pain he had been in upon escaping Insomnia. The arm he hadn’t realized was draped across his chest tightened, pinning him down. “Don’t move,” said the voice above him.

After a moment, his tensed muscles relaxed again. The hand cradling his head began carding its fingers through his hair and Nyx found himself tilting his head to give it better access. He took carefully regular breaths, trying to shake the pain off; both the immediate pain and the pain he was remembering from Insomnia.

Nyx drifted awhile, mind quiet, caught between Noct’s hand in his hair and his still recovering body. He came back to the present at the deliberate scuffing of a foot against rock, and a low-voiced, “Noct.”

Gladio’s tone was carefully measured and the most serious Nyx had ever heard it as he continued, “What were you talking about, when you said it was a dream?”

The hand carding through Nyx’s hair paused, hovering, before it slowly lowered to rest against his head. Nyx took in the carefully blank expression on what little he could see of Noct’s upturned face. After several seconds his head dropped, eyes managing to miss Nyx’s gaze. After a moment, Noct’s fingers began absently picking at one of Nyx’s braids.

He began speaking just like that, addressing his words to Nyx’s hair, voice soft yet carrying.

“My destiny… the Prophecy… the Accursed and the Starscourge… it’s all meant to end in the…” Noct seemed to grope for words for a moment, “Beyond.”

One of the legs under Nyx’s head shifted, and Noct looked away, gazing into the steadily crackling flames of the fire instead.

“After… everything… I floated.

“I don’t know how long it might have been that I floated in the beyond before something changed. What I do know, is that… I realized it was getting dark.

“At some point after that, something in the… feel of my environment changed.” The hand on Nyx’s shoulder rose, curling into a fist as he paused and then releasing abruptly with a wave and dropping back to his chest as Noct tried to convey something unexplainable. “The beyond is another plane of existence, but mostly, it feels like magic. I was still floating in magic, but, something had changed.

“…Like I said, it had grown dark. Shortly after I realized something was different, that too changed, and it changed abruptly. There was light, coming from somewhere, and—” Noct broke off, mouth a grim line in his face.

“There was a man there, lying on the ground. He—I know he was speaking, saying something. There were figures, giants in comparison, made of magic that were looming over him. The man was hurt terribly, but he was negotiating with these—beings anyways.”

Noct’s hand was now brushing through Nyx’s hair in long strokes that trembled faintly.

“…They hurt him, for something he said. But he kept speaking, and they stopped hurting him. Eventually they sent him away, but not before they planted a channel in him.

“The darkness fell away as the figures did, and the man was… I suppose he must have been in a city, I didn’t really register any of it.”

Noct paused, the fingers playing with the ends of Nyx’s hair his only motion for several moments.

“The channel was for magic. Once the darkness faded, it poured into him—sealed whatever had hurt him. And the man was able to use it. He—fought?

“…there was something happening, but I couldn’t really register it. I only saw the magic.” The hand that had been resting softly on Nyx’s shoulder tightened and his voice dropped even softer.

“He could use the magic, and he was good at it. He was pulling magic out of the channel, using it up as quickly as it was coming in, but…

“There was something else, in it. There were bits of the magic, sparks that refused to obey him, that followed some other direction, and they were building up.”

Noct finally turned his gaze from the fire, looking down at Nyx. The hand on his shoulder moved to lightly trace one of the scars on his cheek, and Nyx’s breath caught in his throat.

“It was… horrible. I watched as they grew, as they began hurting him, the way those figures had hurt him. And eventually, when he stopped fighting…” Noct’s shoulders shuddered above Nyx. “When he stopped pulling magic, it was worse. The sparks came through quicker without the magic flow to slow them, and…”

Noct swallowed hard. Nyx’s eyes traced his Adam’s apple as it bobbed up and down. The hand on his cheek snuck back into his hair, and the eyes that met his were so heartbreakingly tentative, as if Noct was scared of his response.

“It was like I had stepped through a veil, and suddenly I was right there… And I knew, that this was their way of killing him.

Noct’s eyes slipped closed and he shivered above Nyx. His next words were a whisper. “I said ‘No’.” And then he lifted his chin and said more loudly, “I said ‘No,’ and I stepped forward and reached into him, and I snuffed those sparks myself.”

There were several moments of silence as Noct breathed heavily, reining his emotions back under his control, before he could speak again.

“…It all faded away,” Noct told them, looking back down into Nyx’s eyes. “The images, the magic, the floating—it was all gone. And I woke up in Galdin Quay, confused on how I had gotten there. Before I could really process it, Ignis arrived with the morning news.”

Noct’s cadence only tripped for a moment before he was pushing past it. “I should have been surprised. I was definitely confused, but I let my shield-brothers push me forwards until I found myself on a cliff.

“It was slowly sinking in, but it wasn’t until I felt something in my magic—something that I had never felt before—that I truly believed it wasn’t someone playing a trick on me.

“That I believed I was in the past.”

 


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Spiralgal

Mid-twenties female. I have been participating in small challenges for a couple years, often falling short of the goal. When the FFXV fandom consumed me, I soon got to the point of needing to write to fulfill my craving, and then this challenge came along. Combined with an abundance of writing time at my new job, I decided to go for it. This will be my first bonafide, 100% complete fic, even if the story will go on in sequels.

One Comment:

  1. That… was totally interesting and very enjoyable. Although, now I’m going to have to go and play FFXV just to refresh my memories of it!

    Thank you!

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