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the world behind the world

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Noctis is running, feet hitting the asphalt hard. It’s raining blood, deep and tangy and suffocating. It enters his mouth, his nostrils. The smell is enough to make him gag and everything tastes like metal, slick and overpowering on his tongue, cold and sharp like a knife. He slips on the concrete, scrapes his knees on the blood-soaked pavement, and tries not to yell out in pain and frustration.

There’s no time.

He picks himself back up, flicks blood and hair out of his face, and continues to run for the fence he finally, finally sees at the far end of the street. It looms, tall and ugly and unwelcoming all at once.

The fence is supposed to be stark white. It drips scarlet today. Through the drops of sticky red and black, he makes out the flickering of the lamplights overhead — the street is devoid of life, but it’s storming blood so that’s expected. The sunlight is beginning to fade, grey dusk mingling with red, and it’s enough to make Noctis pick up his pace.

It’s a rude shock when someone ducks out of an adjacent alley and collides straight into him.

“God. Fucking. Dammit,” Noctis spits as he topples down again, but he doesn’t hit the ground this time.

A solid hand shoots out to grab at his jacket. The blood rain has made it slippery, but his saviour has managed to grip it and yank him upright. The smell of cloves — stronger, much stronger than the blood — assaults his senses and he coughs.

A man’s voice cuts through the static rush of the rain speckling the sidewalk. “I apologise. Are you—”

No time to lose. Noctis shoves himself away from the man and snarls. “You better get the fuck away from here if you know what’s good for you,” he says and takes two quick steps back. All he registers are a concerned pair of green eyes and a glint of silver wrapped around a slender neck standing out in the wash of red before Noctis takes off running again, in the direction of the fence.

He knows if he stays too long, every wraith this side of the city will catch up.

He shoots a glance back at the man when he’s far enough away, but he sees nothing but red rain and puddles of blood along an empty street. Well fuck, he could have been a wraith too, Noctis thinks angrily to himself. He’s so fucking stupid. He’s never seen another human being in the blood rain before. And every one he’s ever come across had died before it stopped. 

The fence is right in front of him. He closes his mind and clenches his eyes shut and runs straight into it, runs straight through it. The fence is nothing, a mere illusion set in place to keep prying eyes away. The door that’s behind the illusion, however, is shut.

“Luna! Fuck, fuck. Let me in!” he shouts and scrambles for the doorknob. It’s useless. He slams a fist against the door once, twice.

The door swings open and Noctis barrels inside, sopping wet. His shoes squelch and he thinks of kicking them off and throwing them back outside in the rain.

His vision clears. The blood is now gone, like there had never been any in the first place. It’s rainwater, smells like rainwater, and Noctis knows it. The enchantment Child Luna had set ten years ago to ward this derelict house and negate other enchantments has never failed. Noctis sees clearly when he’s with Child Luna. Noctis cannot live without Child Luna.

Child Luna, with her tiny hands and her tiny face and her deathly pale skin.

“You’re back,” she says to him, watches him like a hawk as he pulls the door shut behind him and sags to the floor, back to the hard wood. He’s exhausted and freezing. “Want to dry off?”

“Fuck off, Luna,” Noctis chokes out through heaving gasps. “The rain came out of nowhere, I couldn’t even see a fucking thing. Fuck. The smell.” 

Child Luna, small and fragile as she is, with the face and body of a ten-year-old girl, kneels down next to him, and he tries to move away from her brittle hands. She reaches for his face, has to scrabble for it and hold it in place because Noctis is struggling to look away, and she gazes into his eyes with a brutal determination that is so at odds with the images that assault his mind, of white lilies, of dove feathers, of early morning sunlight glancing off a lake, of smooth silk against his skin. Noctis breathes deeply and feels everything melt away.

Luna smiles and slowly removes her hands from his damp cheeks. “Feel better?”

Noctis blinks rapidly and toes his shoes off. “They’re soaked through,” he grumbles. He doesn’t comment on the state of his shredded knees, pink and raw and wet. The only blood he sees is seeping out from the cuts and split skin. It doesn’t look pretty.

“Don’t pout. I’ll get a fire going and we can have some leek soup. I’ll have a look at your wounds after. They don’t seem bad.” Luna gets to her feet and swiftly moves deeper into the house, past the broken crates and debris littering the hallway. “The Spirit Rain sounds like it’s stopping,” she calls from the dining hall, “so if you rest now, you’ll be able to head to the church tonight.”

Noctis stands slowly and hobbles after his guardian of seventeen years, his ageless guardian with a heart of stone. He growls in pain and tries not to aggravate his injuries as he sinks into one of the half-broken chairs at the makeshift table in the kitchen. The only light in here comes from a single fluorescent lamp overhead; not much daylight filters through the slats in the boarded-up windows. 

“Hate this place,” Noctis mutters, poking at his knees with a finger and wincing.

Luna sparks a fire in the stone-lined hearth and shoves a heavy cast-iron pot into the flames. “You’ll love the soup,” she says mildly. The heat from the flames wash over Noctis and he shudders.

The soup looks like vomit, when it is served. Yellow and gloopy and filled with unidentified chunks of orange and brown. Noctis scowls down at the bowl that Luna pushes in front of him.

“Eat,” she says, and she takes her own seat in front of him, eyes him sharply like she thinks she knows something. It’s maddening, the way she thinks she knows everything. “Did you see anyone?” 

Noctis makes a noise around the spoonful of soup in his mouth. It tastes like dirt and burnt vegetables and too much salt. He swallows it down quickly – it scorches his throat – and shrugs. “No. Yes. Some asshole in the rain. Fuck was he doing in the rain?”

Luna fidgets with the leather cord around her neck, its stone charm scratching the hollow of her neck. “Was he a wraith?” Her voice is soft. Dark.

Noctis shrugs again. “Didn’t seem like it. Least, he didn’t want to rip me to pieces. And his eyes were… you know. Normal. Whatever, he’s probably dead by now.”

Luna is quiet.

Noctis frowns at her silence. “He smelled like cloves.”

Luna nods absently as though his observation is just the thing she expected to hear all along. “He wasn’t a wraith, then.”

Noctis glances at Luna, contemplates her passive face. He grins a little and stirs his soup. “Definitely fucked by now then,” he tells her wryly.

Luna just continues to look at Noctis, expression inscrutable. “From now on, stay away from anyone and anything smelling of clove, Noctis.”

Another rule, like so many of her other rules. And he knows she means well, she means to protect him. But the rules are really starting to aggravate him. Once upon a time, there’d been only one rule: no mirrors in the house. “No mirrors, Noctis, no mirrors in the house,” Luna’d said, when Noctis turned eight. “It's a precaution,” she’d explained. “Mirrors are dangerous in the wrong hands. They are gateways. Not for the chaos of the Netherworld, but for the precise order of this world.” And when he’d turned twelve, she’d given him a story: “The Goddess of Sorrow cherished her mirrors. She was vain and sad and wanted nothing more than to be loved, so the legend goes. Treat mirrors with caution. Mirrors can be used to trick, to confuse, to watch.”

Once upon a time. Now, there are so many rules.

Noctis wants to throw his bowl of soup across the table. Wants to see it splatter across the scuffed wood and stain the floors. “Okay. Why?” he says, voice steady.

“It’s a dangerous smell, and you’ve just turned twenty.” It’s all Luna offers before she changes the subject. “I baked a cake. It’s nice and sweet.”

Noctis lifts another spoonful of yellow liquid to his mouth, makes the mistake of looking. A dead insect stares back at him. He drops the spoon back into the soup. “Yeah,” he mutters, pushing the bowl away from him. “Thanks.”

It’s not that he hates the place, it’s more that they’ve lived this way for so many years now, and while he’s grateful that Child Luna has been with him all this time, he is also growing tired of her unexplained paranoia. 

“Pryna?” he asks moodily.

“She’s in the rain.”

“Of course she is. Dumb dog.”

“Why do you despise her so much?”

“Maybe you forgot, but she likes using me as a chew toy when I so much as try to touch her.”

“Perhaps it’s how she shows affection.”

“Luna, she went straight for my throat the first time she saw me.”

“She is suspicious of you, but she will never truly hurt you.”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself that.”

“She won’t hurt you when I’m around, I will not allow it,” Luna says with such conviction that Noctis sags in his seat and tries not to look at her face too closely. He hates it when she does that. The way she makes his skin crawl and makes him feel like hiding from the strength of her molten gaze.

They’d picked up Pryna two months ago. The dog had been prowling the streets just outside the safe house. Pristine and white and unscathed, eyes black as coal. Proud dog, arrogant dog. Noctis hates her with a passion and he knows exactly why. Pryna adores Luna, listens to Luna, gives Luna every scrap of attention, but the stupid animal hates him. He knows it, feels it. Deep down, he knows the dog wants him as far away from Luna as possible. He wonders if Luna knows this. Wonders why Luna allows this.

“What the fuck is Pryna, anyway?”

“Excuse me?”

“She’s not a real dog, anyone can tell. She doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t give a shit about the Spirit Rain, comes back looking like she’s killed something.”

Luna purses her lips, like she doesn’t want Noctis to continue this train of thought. “She’s just a dog, Noctis.”

“And you’re just human,” Noctis says sarcastically.

Luna ignores the jibe and crosses her arms imperiously, or as imperiously as someone with the face of a little girl can manage. “Noctis, I love you and want only what’s best for you. Leave Pryna alone, we cannot afford to have her turning against us. She’s here to help.” 

“Is she a wraith? She sure seems to have the bloodlust for it.”

Luna snorts, then primly composes herself and pushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You say that to her face, I dare you.”

“I’ve seen her rip one to pieces, no thanks.”

Luna stands and moves to the small cupboard near the kitchen sink, pulls out two bent forks and a level cylindrical object sitting on one of the ceramic platters they’d found in a dumpster. “Cake, shall we?”

Noctis stares at the platter she sets down in front of him. The cake is perfect, if a little flat-looking, smelling of sweet lavender honey and chocolate frosting and a hint of soft spice. Noctis wonders after the poor soul she robbed this from. Luna cannot possibly have made this; she doesn’t even know how to bake.

“Happy birthday,” Luna says proudly. She hands him a slip of paper. It’s more of a scrappy note than an actual card. 

Noctis unfolds it.

“Dearest Noctis,” he drawls out loud, tries not to sound too bored. “Happy twentieth. You deserve the cake. We both deserve the cake. Our world’s gone to shit, but we’ll always need something sweet to make things right. Don’t worry, I didn’t steal it. A friend gave it to me.” Noctis glances up at this, suspicious. “You don't have friends,” he says sharply, and Luna just shrugs in response. Noctis narrows his eyes at her. 

“You don’t know that,” Luna says bluntly.

Noctis snorts. “You’ve just got me.”

Luna sighs and her expression melts into something strange and yielding. Something pained. “Yes,” she says softly. “Yes, I’ve just got you.”

Noctis feels a stab of awkward discomfort and looks down at the card to avoid her stare. He hastily finishes it. “Twenty is an important number. From now on, watch your back. I can’t always do it for you. Love, Luna.” Noctis looks up from the scrawled message and sucks in a short breath. “Luna, I—”

“Shut up and just eat the cake.” Luna’s cheeks are stained pink. 

Noctis eyes her for a moment, then slowly folds the piece of paper into quarters and places it in his pocket. “Yeah. Um. Love you too, Luna. Thanks.”

Luna smiles, cuts a slice of cake for Noctis, and then for herself, and hands him a fork. The rain lets up outside and Noctis hears the scritch-scratch of Pryna at the back door, demanding to be let in. Stupid thing. 

“I’ll get her,” Luna says brightly, shuffling her skinny feet. Noctis sees the crisscrossing scars that run up and down her legs where her short dress can’t hide them. He averts his gaze. “Eat the cake,” Luna commands, “it was really bloody fucking hard to get.”

Noctis rolls his eyes and stuffs a forkful of it into his mouth. The cake makes his eyes water. 

Noctis doesn't remember the last time he’s had cake this grand or this cake-like. He doesn’t remember the last time he’s had any kind of proper dessert. It’s sweet and sticky and decadent and lusciously rich in his mouth. But it tastes so bitter on his tongue. 

He gets through half the slice before he hears a sharp bark and a whine, and then Pryna’s in the kitchen with him. She slinks in like smoke, smelling of rainwater and something coppery. Luna follows her in, motions for the dog to sit by the table and watches in satisfaction as Pryna drops to her haunches in front of Noctis.  

“Noct’s twenty today,” Luna says to the dog pointedly, like she’s telling a dark secret and wants Pryna to understand. “You know what this means.”

Noctis can never get his head around Luna and her tenacity when it comes to the most trivial of things. They didn’t need the cake, Pryna doesn’t give two shits about Noctis turning twenty. Luna is incredibly stupid to think this.

Pryna, dripping wet and panting slightly, stares at Noctis for a long moment, eyes hot and intense. Is she trying to read his mind? The gaze makes Noctis want to leave the kitchen. Luna pats Pryna on the head once and Pryna makes a small noise, blinks at Noctis and slowly inclines her head once in an unmistakable bow, then glances away like she’s lost interest.

Noctis grins wryly. “She so fucking hates me.”

Pryna gives a wet snort and pads out of the kitchen and up the wooden stairs of the house. They don’t see her come back downstairs until nightfall.

 

The blood on the streets fade. The cracks between the Netherworld and The City have finally sealed. The chaos has stopped seeping into Eos. For now.

The night is quiet and Noctis isn’t ready for the stinging cold that slaps him in the face as he steps outside. It isn’t far to the church — two blocks away — but he can’t help the feeling of terror that creeps up the back of his neck. The streets are lit, but barely so; electric lamplight buzzes soft and incessant, and there’s a thin veil of fog that coats the air. The meager light from the streetlamps do little to chase away the pressing darkness of the witching hour.

There’d already been a Spirit Rain episode today, so he’s banking on the chance that no more unstable events from the Spirit Realm will occur while he’s working. The last thing he needs is to be caught off guard by chaos and destruction while watching the church. 

“You’re late,” the old priest grumbles as Noctis steps in through the creaky wooden doors of the rundown church. His shoes squeak against the worn tiles of the antechamber. “Your friend promised midnight.”

“It’s midnight,” Noctis growls, tries to tamp down his anger because this is a place of worship and he doesn’t want to cause a scene. But he’ll cause one anyway, if this guy keeps going on like this, and – Noctis looks past the small opening, past the main pillars – it’s a good thing there isn’t anyone occupying the nave.

“The wards have expired, boy. How long will it take you to make new ones? I cannot afford this House of Light to be vulnerable for even a second. I will not stand for the wraiths desecrating this holy ground.”

Bahamut won’t give a shit, Noctis almost says out of spite, but he holds his tongue and gets to work. No use angering the priest, he’s here to get paid. “Where do you want the wards this time?”

“All the doors, all the windows. Luna does the basement and attic as well.”

“Right. Kitchen?”

“If you think you can steal from me, think again. The kitchen is off-limits until you’ve managed the rest.”

Noctis knows he’s one step away from doing something he’ll regret, so he nods stiffly and stalks back to wooden doors of the church. Might as well start with the main entrance. Not that wraiths discriminate against other points of entry.

“She says you can do it. Is she certain?” There is a hint of apprehension in the old man’s voice that Noctis finds even more grating than the mistrust — Noctis can feel the waves of fear rolling off him and he hates him.

“I assure you she’s trained me plenty for this,” Noctis says shortly, drawing a small knife from his jacket pocket. An old knife, but he’d sharpened it this morning just for this purpose.

He stops in front of the doors and observes the previous ward left by Luna, its shades of rust and piteous spark of negative energy making him suddenly nauseous. He shuffles a few feet to the side, seeks out a clear surface, and plunges the tip of the knife straight into the wood of the door. He scratches a symbol into the surface with clinical precision — he knows this: one vertical line straight down, two smaller strokes angled high to the left, and then to the right.

The mark of protection.

It doesn’t take long to craft. Satisfied with his work, he wipes the blade against the fabric of his jacket once, twice, then slides the sharp edge against the palm of his left hand, waits for enough blood to pool there, and rests his hand on the fresh sigil. He leaves his mark, and then steps away. Some of his blood drips to the floor.

His nausea abates and that’s a sign, if anything.

The wards are child’s play. The world is dying from the chaos that the Netherworld has brought with it. Those with the ability to forge wards that keep out the wraiths that come crawling out of the unseen realm are rare.

He moves through the church, from site to site, drawing the same symbols and soaking them with the blood of the pure. Luna has told him time and again: the blood of the pure, only the blood of the pure can withstand the chaos that the wraiths bring. And Noctis knows the “blood of the pure” can only come from one source. Not him.

Not for the first time, he wonders after Luna’s sanity.

His blood is not the blood of an angel. His blood is not the blood of the pure.

Yet, he’s been given the training he needs for this task, and his guardian seems confident of his success. Perhaps Luna sees something in him that he cannot fathom, but whatever, he’ll do his job and get out of here.

The church is not a new shelter; he understands why it needs to be warded against the destructive spirits that have increasingly been making their home amongst the humans. Many humans seek out the church during instances of the blood rain – it’s the only House of Light for miles. He’s done it plenty of times. And while he’d rather hide from a storm elsewhere, he at least knows the wards in this building will hold – Luna sees to it. And now he does, too. 

At least they are compensated for this. Paid in food and shelter, if not in hospitality or anything else. This suits Luna and Noctis just fine.

A few moments more, he’s done with the windows and the attic and the basement. His hand hurts like hell, and he sees the white of his flesh glisten through his broken skin, but he ignores the pain and keeps going. “Kitchen?” he asks pointedly, and Father Hester nods, beckons to him and leads the way.

The kitchen is a tiny room down a corridor in the east wing and it smells faintly of something burning here. Noctis doesn’t comment on the smell, only follows the priest. When they reach the kitchen, Noctis spots the small side door that leads out to the open yard and makes a beeline towards it.

“This is the last door?” he asks, gritting his teeth as he carves his sigil into the door and paints it red. “No other entrances?”

“That’s the last,” the priest nods, walks over to the counter by the shelves stocked with dried food and knives and pots and pans, picks up a wicker basket filled with goods. As he hands it over, he lists the contents. “Bandages, for the wound. Tea leaves, cured meat, a loaf of bread, enough cooking oil for a month. Milk, cheese. Plums, as Luna requested. Just four, and they are for her. Only for her.”

Noctis snorts at the last bit. “Yeah, thanks.” He takes the basket with his good hand. It’s much heavier than he expects. He figures it’s the cooking oil and the milk.

They make their way back to the antechamber and to the main entrance. Noctis is itching to flee the church so that the stone statues of the winged angels that sit along the semicircular recess just behind the altar can no longer gaze upon him with their blank, open-mouthed stare.

“It had better be Luna next time,” Father Hester says as they come to a stop by the door. “She pays her respects.”

“Oh, yeah?” Noctis mutters. “To you?”

“You are a wicked child,” the priest hisses. “To the God of Light, Bahamut. The god of all the angels and the warmth of this world. 

As if, Noctis thinks sardonically. As if Luna would bow to any god. “I’m sure,” he drawls, and hefts the basket awkwardly – it will be a mission to lug this all the way home with a single hand. His other hand is still sore and bloody; he’ll need Luna to help with the healing when he gets home. “Well, it’s been a pleasure. Let us know when you need the next set of wards to go up.”

Father Hester sucks in a deep breath before sighing. His voice is dark when he next speaks. “Do you know anything about the God of Light, boy?”

Noctis scowls. So much for leaving without some sort of sermon. “I know he decided to abandon his people,” he says scathingly. “That’s a pretty shit thing to do. Why would anyone still put him on a pedestal? If you ask me, he’s ten times worse than the Goddess of Sorrow. At least she had a proper reason for fucking off to who knows where. Yeah, I know the story. I have no sympathy for worshippers of the Light.”

Father Hester’s lip curls and he shakes his head. “Sharp mouth. You realise the creators of this world are brother and sister.”

“One decided to take a long nap, the other fell for a pagan god and ran away. Bottom line: they aren’t looking after us anymore, are they? I don’t get you worshippers.” 

“Perhaps the concept of faith eludes you.” 

“Sure. Let’s go with that.” Noctis has heard enough stories to know what he should believe in, and what he shouldn’t. He knows enough to be a skeptic. Or at least he thinks so.

Father Hester sighs and motions for him to go. “If you need more provisions before the next warding, come when the sun is high. Our door is open to you and Child Luna.”

Noctis nods. “Thanks, Luna will be pleased to know.” He brushes past the priest and leaves the sanctuary of the church.

The midnight chill makes him shiver and he hopes Luna’s still got a fire going in the house. He’s glad for the spoils in the basket – they can have a decent meal at last.

 

When he enters the house, he’s immediately aware of Luna’s presence. She’s upstairs. What he doesn't expect is the strange, hollow impression in the air that doesn’t quite belong. It lingers in the foyer and wafts through the hallway, though it’s already fading, blown away like smoke in the last hour. Perhaps Luna has been practicing some art. But no, Noctis knows her magic and the way it enshrouds like a comforting blanket. This feels crisp and sharp and desolate. And the smell of something earthy, heavy—

It’s gone.

Noctis scowls and sets the basket of food on one of the crates by the door. “Has someone been in the house?” he calls.

It takes Luna a long moment to respond, and when she does, it’s with an imperious tone that filters down the stairs. “What makes you think that?”

“Where’s the dog?”

Luna appears on the landing just above the alcove. She’s in her thin sleeping clothes and her straw-like hair hangs down around her shoulders, limp and unwashed. She eyes Noctis, eyes the basket of goods. “She left when you went to the House of Light. The job is done, then? I hope Father Hester was pleased with your work.”

“He gave you plums,” Noctis says dismissively, then: “So you’ve been alone all night.”

“I’m perfectly fine on my own.”

“Luna—”

“Perfectly fine,” she repeats. “I know how to protect myself.”

“I know you do.”

“Excellent, then let us feast on my plums. I’ll heal your wound. Come.” Noctis watches as Luna bustles down the creaking stairs. She takes the basket and beckons for him to follow her into the kitchen. 

Noctis deepens his frown. “They don’t even look ripe enough to eat,” he grumbles and shuffles after her. He welcomes the warmth of the fire from the stone oven when he enters the kitchen.

“I forgot something this afternoon,” Luna says as she unpacks the basket and lays out the spoils before her on the stained table. “Completely slipped my mind.”

Her tone is suspiciously airy.

“What?” Noctis doesn’t even bother to hide how cautious he sounds.

Luna doesn’t say anything for a moment. She puts away the milk and the cheese and the cured meat, slots the tea and bread and pitcher of oil on the shelf near the kettle. She leaves the plums and bandages on the table. At last, she turns to him and stretches out a hand. “Let me tend to your wound first.”

Noctis extends his arm and holds his injured hand out, palm facing up.         

Luna clucks her tongue and gives Noctis a reassuring smile. “The cuts are precise, not as messy as your practice runs. Well done.”

Noctis rolls his eyes. “The blood’s more important than how pretty you can make your wound look.”

“It helps with a cleaner healing,” Luna says, and her voice is clipped like she’s trying to teach him a lesson. “Right, don’t move.” She takes his hand in hers and maintains skin contact. It only takes a second for Noctis to feel the wash of heat that stems from the palm of her hand. And it starts to work. He feels the searing sensation of his wounds knitting together, sees the dried cuts morph into scars and then into raised razor-thin lines, and those vanish entirely by the time Luna is done.

Noctis doesn’t make a sound throughout the healing, but it hurt as much as the fresh incisions had. Noctis doesn’t make a sound because he knows Luna bears the brunt of the pain as well.

“Thanks, Luna,” he says quietly, pulling away from her and stepping out of her personal space. He knows she needs the space. And she looks a little pale from the healing.

“Pleasure.”

Noctis sits at the table. “You forgot something this afternoon,” he reminds her.

Luna smiles. “Yes. Your gift.”

“Uh.”

“Your gift,” Luna says again. “It’s your birthday, so you get a present.”

Noctis frowns, confused. “You already got me cake.”

“That’s not really a gift, is it?”

She isn’t making sense. “It was the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life,” he tells her, “so if the cake wasn’t it, I’m afraid of what you think a proper gift should be.”

He gets his answer when Luna produces something from the pocket of her nightdress: a thin chain, long and delicate, with a circular pendant. It sits in Luna’s hand, sleek and fragile and gleaming in the soft light of the fire. The pendant is nothing like the stone ornament that hangs around her own neck. This one is a small flat disc made of highly polished silver. It’s a tiny charm, as small as his thumbnail.

“I’m not going to be around forever,” Luna says slowly.

Noctis takes the piece of jewellery from her. “Is this a protective talisman?”

“Of a sort.”

Noctis slips the chain over his head and looks down at the polished disc.

It feels… suffocating. Like a weight that’s far heavier than it appears. And he knows, almost as soon as he’d touched it, that it’s not Luna’s magic. Hers is a searing white blanket of power that radiates warmth and comfort. This magic is cold and deep and hollow. It doesn’t hurt to adorn it, but it’s going to be hard to ignore its presence. He wonders if she had it made by someone else.

There’s something you’re not telling me, he wants to say. “Thanks,” he says instead, and gives her a small smile.

Luna looks away. She picks up the untouched bandages and moves over to the cabinets, shoves them in haphazardly. They have a sizeable collection there, unused and collecting dust.

Noctis fiddles with the pendant for a moment, watches how it shimmers in the dim firelight, watches how it reflects an orange glow against his fingers. He remembers something Luna once said to him.

No mirrors in the house.

  

There is something nice about the early hours of the morning. It’s easy to forget that the world is dying in the moments before the sun truly rises. At least the sun does rise – it can be hard to tell sometimes, if the chaos from the Netherworld decides to flare up. A quiet dawn is something The City still claims as its own.

They share the single bedroom upstairs, him and Child Luna.

Noctis has always known Luna is not like him – her gentle aura and her passive magic and her ability to make him think of inviting warmth and peace when he knows he should be thinking of less tasteful things gives her away. She has never said as much, even as she tells him stories of the God of Light and tales of the Goddess of Sorrow and whispers of the Godless War between the angels and the demons, like she’s lived through the legends. But Noctis knows she’s not trying to be subtle.

What Noctis doesn’t know is why she made the choice to run and hide from a life she understood. Why become a guardian to an orphan? Noctis doesn’t remember it, but he knows he’d been young when Luna had found him, barely old enough to run. 

The years and seasons have changed him, but Luna has never aged. He is now twenty, but she looks as young and lost and small as when she’d held him in her skinny arms. Luna, with her straggly wheatsheaf hair and her pearly blue eyes and her translucent skin, has remained as pale and pristine and willowy and angelic as she’d been for as long as he can remember.

But in the body of a ten-year-old, she is still the most lethal being he has ever laid his eyes on. 

Unfortunately, Noctis is slowly starting to realise just how unstable the world is becoming. He needs to know how to protect his guardian.

He knows he isn’t of the same calibre as Luna. He knows she isn’t even human. But he knows Luna deserves to feel like she hasn’t spent the better part of the last two decades raising a useless boy.

When Noctis wakes up an hour before the sun rises, it’s to the sound of Pryna screaming and howling. It’s to the feeling of ice creeping through his veins and something vaporous and opaque entering his consciousness.

Luna jerks from her spot on the cot in the corner of the room, and the air suddenly crackles with something strong and half-blinding. “No, no, no,” she says, throwing her sheets to one side. “Unbelievable. They’ve found us.” 

“They?” 

Luna doesn’t bother with a response, just bolts out of the room and thunders down the stairs. “Pryna!” Her voice is commanding. And terrified.

There is noise. A lot of noise.

Noctis takes a moment to compose himself, then he scrambles after Luna.

By the time he reaches the stairs and peers over the railing, there is nothing but a dewy mist rising up from the ground below. And silence.

The air tastes like winter and madness, feels like rust and sand against his skin. Feels like knives and pins and needles pressing against his forearms and face and neck. 

The mist clears eventually, and he can see Luna and Pryna standing over large shapes on the ground.

They are bodies. Face up, motionless.

Two wraiths. Noctis knows they’re wraiths because the gashes in their wounds do not leak blood, and their eyes give them away. For all that they look human, they have gaping holes in their heads where the eyes should be.

It takes Noctis a long moment to understand what has happened.

There are two dead wraiths in the hallway. And another body further along the hall that has clearly been savaged by Pryna, scarlet pooling and staining the carpet where it lies. This body bleeds. It bleeds from a neck wound.

Pryna always goes for the throat.

Luna is there, next to the panting dog. She reaches out slowly to touch Pryna’s blood-drenched muzzle and some understanding passes between them. Luna turns her gaze up and Noctis catches her eye, and he’s suddenly aware that he’s swaying a little from his spot on the stairs. There’s so much blood and it looks almost comical to him. Luna’s eyes cut back to the bodies strewn around her.

“I don’t understand,” she says, voice low and angry. Her tiny hands are balled into fists and her frame is trembling with something – fear, power, rage. Noctis doesn’t know. “Wraiths and demons picking a fight here. Everyone is crossing the fucking line. This prophecy will destroy Insomnia before it saves us!”

“Luna. Tell me what I’m looking at!” Noctis demands.

“The Queen has found us. She’s made her move. We need to get out of here.”

Noctis feels a tremor run through his body. He’s had enough of Luna sidestepping everything.

“Tell me,” he grounds out. 

Luna nods in his direction. “Okay.” She nods again. “All right, Noctis. Long story short?” she says, stepping barefoot through the blood. Some of it trails behind her. Pryna drools gore and saliva all over the carpet when she dips her head and moves out of Luna’s way. “You want the short version, yes? Okay, Noct. I’ll give you the short version.” She walks to the back of the house, to the kitchen, and when she returns, Noctis sees that she has the pitcher of oil from Father Hester in one hand. She steps back over the bodies, looks directly at Noctis. Her eyes are ablaze.

“The angels have failed to hold back the chaos centuries ago, the wraiths of the Spirit Realm are taking over. Demons and angels have never tried to pick fights with the wraiths. But there is a prophecy – more of a curse – and both sides are afraid, especially the Queen of Demons.” Luna tips the pitcher and pours oil along the floor and over the bodies, forms a snaking trail to the front door. “As she should be.” 

“Prophecy,” Noctis echoes. “The one you’ve told me about. Once. When I was a kid.”

Luna sets the empty pitcher aside and recites something vaguely familiar. Her voice is flat and distant when she speaks:

The true son of the Queen shall take the throne of the angels; the true son of the Queen shall unite the clans of the Netherworld and command their armies; the Queen shall fall at the hands of her own family.

Noctis stares at her. He has never heard her sound like this before.

“Now. Matches.” Luna snaps her fingers. An old matchbox appears in her hand. Noctis wonders, wildly, why she’s attuned herself to a matchbox of all things. “Pryna, Noct, out the door.” 

Noctis understands what she means to do, so he runs down the stairs to where Luna stands and he yanks the front door open.

“They want a war. Demons and wraiths and angels. They want a fucking war.” Luna sets the matches aflame in her hand without striking a single one, and she drops the whole box to the ground.

The fire engulfs the carpet and the oil and wooden floorboards and the bodies, and Noctis is sure he can feel every ounce of Luna’s magic fanning the flames. The heat is overpowering and they scramble out the door and onto the dark street. The white fence no longer stands – the magic has broken.

“We’re being watched,” Luna says over the roar of the fire. “We need to move somewhere safe.” 

Pryna whines and pushes her nose against Luna’s hand.

Noctis doesn’t move from his spot. “Who’s the true son?” he asks, because he knows Luna has the answer.

Luna rounds on him, and she looks terrifying in the orange light of the burning house. “Someone I need to trust,” she says to him, blunt and hard and unapologetic. “And someone whose trust I need to gain.” 

There is no emotion in her voice.