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Salt and Stone

Chapter Text

When Nyx first arrived in Accordo, it was at one of the smaller outposts. One of the fishing villages that had prided itself on not being the grand capital with its noise and chaos. They had directed him back to the waters when he asked for directions; back to the gaping maw of the weathered rocks and narrow passageways that led to the Altissean Bay. He had been told to look for the statues on the outcrops, still standing despite the battering of sea air and rains. He had taken the ferry rather than navigate the tumultuous entry himself, guided forward by a seasoned veteran of the local waters who scoffed at his claims he was from an island.

The hunters he had travelled with— hunted with across the old Lucian continent— refused to go near the city. They gave him his cut of the bounties they had taken on the way south, and wished him well, with a full pocket and a warning about the canals.

When he had passed through the impressive guardian gates of the city— the rise of the ancient stonework built upon the waters itself— Nyx already missed the welcoming, easy beaches of Galahd. He handed over declaration forms and documents, the invitation he had received to act as a work visa, and he missed the friendly welcome of back home. He had always heard that the Accordo capital was welcoming and charming, and had been promised a peaceful place among the magic of the waterways and depths.

The suspicion that greeted him and his paperwork was too much like the Nifleheim standard for his liking. But once through, he felt the magic of the city open before him. The morning lights gave way to the famed romance of the evening, the soft curl and coil of the city lights set out in strings across plazas and shops and reminded him of festive fairy lights and lanterns back home.

He had been in Altissia for a week before anything unusual or unexpected happened. He had a week of trying to settle into the little apartment he had chosen, tucked away beneath the labyrinthine walkways and canals, too close to the waters of the bay for his liking. He had a week of learning the alleys and steps and backways around the enchanting city and the routes to his new job, the fragrant flowers carried across the narrow, windy routes until he was reminded of a greener home. He knew when the tide came in, and when the waters overtook the little stoop outside his door, the steps leading into the waters of the city lapping at his door (and stopping there if he was lucky). And while his front steps flooded, Nyx let himself be charmed by the rising city around him— by the layers of lights and distant festive music in the plazas, the strange stone creatures spouting the runoff from the canals on higher levels just beyond his door, and by the gentle waves echoing through his small stone-walled apartment.

Nyx had a week of adjusting to the strange city with its stranger little restaurant and bar he had been recruited to; the Maagho buried deep beneath the shining lights of the grand Altissia, but still a rush of regulars and tourists he was expected to serve drinks to and charm and manage.

But when the week of learning the city had gone, Nyx found himself finding that Weskham Armaugh had recruited him for more than just his bartender experience and his skills with a kitchen knife.

Nyx had always prided himself on his reputation for discretion, as a hunter and bartender.

“What the hell is that?”

Sometimes, that discretion failed when he was faced with a creature of pure myth. He had seen beasts and daemons, monsters pulled from the nightmares of children and adults alike across Eos. He had faced the creatures that stalked Galahd, and heard tales from hunters and the shoremen alike of sirens and daemons of the depths and cool waters of his island home. He had seen all matter of danger and beast haunting and hunting along his shores, but never something like this. Never an indignant looking creature staring right back at him, with big blue eyes and a small pout at his blurted reaction.

Beneath the dimmed lights of the now closed Maagho, with the threat of sunlight edging its way beneath the grand stone supports arching above the floating platforms that housed the bistro and bar, Nyx had never expected to come face-to-face with a creature of legend that had haunted his hometown as he emptied trash and collected water to finish cleaning. He certainly never considered that the creature would have just peeked up over the platforms to smile and call to his unflappable coworker.

“It’s rude to stare, Ulric,” Ignis’ admonishment echoed through the quiet platforms as the man crouched at the water’s edge with a plate. “I’m sorry, your highness. He wasn’t warned.”

“Don’t call me that,” the creature pulled itself up to the decks of the Maagho, balanced on the lip just past the low, decorative fencing, and settled easily to reach for the plate in Ignis’ hand; “What did you make tonight?”

Nyx felt lost in the face of the situation. He could see the seam where pale human flesh disappeared to the long, dark scales of what looked like a serpentine tail at first glance. He watched in shock as Ignis— stern, quiet, professional Ignis— smiled and knelt by the water and explained the new blend of spices on the fish special used throughout the night. He stood frozen in place as his conflicting training tried to spark him to action; there was a creature he knew from stories and legends to be a danger and a threat urging his hunter’s instincts to grab the nearest weapon. And then there were his skills as a host, watching his colleague treat the smiling creature like an honoured guest, as if he had stepped from the gondola rather than emerged from the dark waters beneath them.

The sound of his name in introduction was enough to get him moving again. Though the action he chose was to cover the bar for the night and secure the last of the locks while he assessed the situation at hand.

“This is Nyx Ulric,” Ignis said as the creature picked at the prepared fish with his fingers, watching every movement with curious silver-blue eyes as reflective of the waters around them. “Weskham thought it prudent to employ a former hunter. Ulric, this is Prince Noctis—”

“Just Noctis,” the creature interrupted, those strange eyes moving across Nyx.

“—I expect,” Ignis continued, straightened as he retrieved the plate, the fillet held in both of the creature’s hands now as he nibbled; “you to not speak a word of his existence outside of the Maagho.”

In the week that he had started to settle into the depths of the shining, sparkling, candlelit city, Nyx had assumed that most citizens lived as he did. He assumed that most of the people rushing through the alleys and narrow streets lining the wide canals were much like him— barricading the waters from their doors, but living above the surface.

“Yeah,” Nyx paused, ready to assume that he was lying unconscious on the platforms of the bar, or in his apartment, or on the street. The hazards of a reckless stride and a damp city with tight corners. “Do I get an explanation?”

There had been long hours so far. The bar was demanding when Weskham was away— a steady wave of tourists eager to see the floating markets and experience the bistro bar at the heart of it all. More than once, he had charmed his way with a smile and tip money into shared gondolas and merchant boats for a quick ride home, rather than spend the hours working his way through the narrow passageways and endless levels of steps. More than once in that long week full of long hours, Nyx had crashed on his bed as the sun broke over the hills; the shine of the Celluna Cascades driving him to hide beneath the covers of his bed while the water lapped against the stone walls and steps outside, dreams twisting with the salt air and the solid stone walls around him.

It wasn’t impossible this was just the product of another long day. A long day trying to memorise where to turn and why and how, which steps to take up and which would lead to the level and layer he needed, only to be faced with Ignis’ cold charms and seeming indifference.

“Ooh, can I do the honours?” A second creature pulled itself up next to the first— to Noctis— with a grin, water dripping from his sunny demeanour as he settled. Nyx could see the same seam in the flesh, but golden scales and frills flaring out across the lip of the platform. “Hi, I’m Prompto.”

Nyx retreated to the Maagho’s tiny kitchen— to the safety of the grill and the barrier of the counters. He could feel their eyes on him, their curiosity, and tried to judge it against other hunts, other dangers, other threats.

“These are our resident Mer,” Ignis stated, finally stepping away from the visitors who seemed comfortable enough to be among the regulars; “I’m sure you’ve heard their kind called other things? Sirens seems the most common outside of Old Lucis.”

“Yeah, there were some stories in Galahd.” Told by the old fishermen looking to keep the children entertained while the parents examined the hauls. Told by the drunks who took up nightly vigils in Libertus’ bar, memorialising those lost to the depths through storms and inexperience. And told by the hunters making their rounds— nightmares for children who wandered the stony, empty shores when they shouldn’t. Nyx had known plenty of names for the creatures that lured civilians down to the empty, deep, cold seas. “They aren’t daemons?”

“Hey!” It was Noctis who called out on that comment, fingers poised at his lips where he had been licking them clean as he eavesdropped. Nyx glanced over the counter to see the second creature— the new one; all blond and golden scales and freckles— ribbing at Noctis with a grin.

Ignis smirked, pouring a drink from Weskham’s good stores; “Brats, yes. Daemons, no. Noctis is the prince of his people, residing in Altissia for safety. Prompto has been his companion for years. And there is Gladiolus, his guard, lurking about somewhere.”

Glasses clinked together, and the scrape against the wood had Nyx looking more towards the creatures staring at him rather than the drinks. Inhuman eyes were on him, and instinct was hard to break. “You said I wasn’t warned.”

“You clearly weren’t,” the drink was pressed into his hand, and Nyx took a deep breath before he downed it. Ignis continued, calm, level, measured as Nyx studied the creatures that were studying him; “Weskham has been a guardian for them here for some years—”

“Decades,” Noct interjected, he shifted on the wooden platform and Nyx saw the hint of fishy frills clinging to damp scales. The waters shifted with him, like the canal itself was trying to drag him back.

Ignis kept Nyx’s focus on himself instead. “Decades, yes. And he has recruited those he feels trustworthy to keep the prince safe.”

“Safe, right,” It was a dream. It was the effect of a new city and a new life, far from everything he had known. He had felt feverish the day before, the damp air clinging to his lungs without the separation of a real shore. He had caught something along the way, watched the dark shapes beneath the waters too often, spent too many long nights in such a short time spread thin in Weskham’s establishment. “I’m going to need a bit with this.”

“Take your time. I can lend you any notes I’ve taken in my own years of service.”

Rationality of illness and sudden changes steeled him with the burning temper of the alcohol Ignis had poured. Nyx could find his feet with that, could step towards the narrow boardwalk that would lead him out, lead him home and to bed. And away from the living myth still licking his fingers of the Maagho’s night special. “Right. Yeah. Definitely going to need to process this.”

In the early morning like this, the city faced its only lull.

The greys of dawn dimmed the soft lights the city was known for, as the last of the revellers and late shifts wandered back home. The gondolas seemed more like quiet, solemn processions in the early hours, gliding across the canals as they ferried those with the money to spare back to the safety of their beds.

In his two days of searching for an apartment, Nyx had learnt that it was the wealthy who lived well above the lazy sloshing of the morning wake. Their doors opened to dry plaza cobblestone and narrow alleys rather than the wet canals. Their walls were shared with colourful, charming buildings Altissia was known for, refreshed each season for the tourists to wander and admire. Their balconies overlooked the sprawl of the lower levels, the busy festival avenues, and the gleaming plazas, the streets of the city rising up to meet them. The Celluna Cascades reflecting the rising sun just as easily as the shop windows did.

And beneath them, where the blood of the city moved through in silent, somber morning processions, was everyone else.

Nyx had thought his apartment charming— the doorway opening to the small kitchen. He liked the rhythm of the water against his stoop, and the cool air that filtered in through the old creaking windows. The flagstone floors were weathered and marred, and the shutters tied back to the peeling paint of the sea beaten walls outside. He had liked the cottage feel of the little corner apartment, right at the water’s edge, with the boats that never seemed to move moored beneath the little nook he had decided was a sitting area rather than the suggested breakfast nook. He had liked the way the bedroom wall shared with a neighbouring apartment had been quiet, the other home standing empty and damp.

Now, as he made his way along those mirror calm canals, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to be so near the waters.

He had expected the job to be a change of air and scenery— the means to scrounge some money through peace rather than hunting. He had expected a good story or two, and a charming place to show off to Libertus when his friend visited. He had not expected to end the week of a chaotic move spent meeting a creature he had only ever heard of told through drunken, fearful tales of ruins and storms. The sort of creature that had only existed as rumours and tall tales when he had trawled the coastal towns as a hunter in need of work. He certainly didn’t expect that same creature— one that he had heard lured sailors to their deaths, that dragged good men down into the ocean dark— looking back at him from under a messy mop of dark hair with the most unimpressed expression Nyx had ever come across.

Had this been a hunt, Nyx knew he would have settled down and planned. He would have plotted his moves and taken stock of his own knowledge. There would have been notes made of what he knew of the creatures from the stories and legends, and tipsters sought to confirm or refute whatever he thought he knew.

But it wasn’t a hunt, and his knives were tucked away with his belongings. He had no hunter contacts in the city. And from what he understood there would be no hunters making their way to the canals.

He should have paid more attention when they warned him away from the city.

Nyx just wanted a moment to breathe in the crisp, cool air of the lower canals and let it clear his head. He wanted a moment to process the strangeness of the night that had been going so well.

He wanted to crash into bed, and assess the situation like a hunter when he woke. He could handle anything after a good rest and a shift back to his second profession.

Everything seemed better in the afternoon, when Nyx woke from his dazed rest. The apartment was no longer the dark little corner he had rented, but flooded with the light of the sun higher in the sky. The distant music of the main plazas and bistros and tourist spots seemed as distant as his dreams as he moved through routine now. The quiet steps against the cold stone shocking him awake as he started the first coffee of his day and just let the peace of a home wash over him.

He planned to sit out on the stoop as always, and try to process the last night.

He opened the creaking, solid door that needed a fresh coat of paint.

“Holy fuck,” Nyx had not been ready to see a strange creature sitting on the flooded steps outside of his doorway, reaching for the little flowers spilling from the side of the basket some public servant had painstakingly placed even in the abandoned little corners of the city. He did not expect to open his door to let in the fresh air, only to see those bright blue eyes looking at him. “What the hell?”

“Good morning to you too.”

The instincts of a hunter, cultivated by years of challenge and danger were a hard thing to suppress when faced with the shock of a creature that should not exist sitting on his stoop. Nyx wanted to ask the creature what he was doing here, what he was thinking, being out in the open. He wanted to demand some sort of explanation for the strangeness, for the boldness. Instead he ran a hand over his eyes and went to his tiny kitchen to get his coffee. “Noctis, right?”

“Right.”

“Do I want to know why you’re here?”

When he emerged back out to the little stone steps, it was with the warmth of his mug in his hands keeping him grounded. It was easier to focus and watch the creature’s curious examination of the flowers, and study any signs of a threat he was not prepared for.

“Probably not.”

Nyx did not have an apartment that was easy to get to. It was off the main waterways, and down a handful of narrow alleys, the route twisted and turned and branched off between several docks that housed merchants and several boats in disrepair. He had to walk the narrow paths and climb two sets of stairs to get to any part of the city that seemed lively or more of what the city was famed for. He supposed a creature that lived in the water would have an easier time navigating the place than he would.

But that didn’t mean he was entirely comfortable with the sudden appearance outside of his door.

Still, he was already having a strange week, and a strange day. He threw his caution to the wind. “Do you drink coffee?”

“Sometimes,” Noctis was settled a little bit higher on the steps, closer to the landing where he could peek into the doorway if he leaned back, if he wanted to. Nyx could see the stretch of the tail now, and thought of all those drawings his sister had done of creatures like this when she was small— the seamless shift from pallid flesh to inky scales was almost a temptation to examine, to study. “Feeling any better then?”

“Is that why you came here? To check on me? I think I’m flattered.” Nyx stepped back into his kitchen, to where the little pot of coffee continued to warm. A second mug in hand and he offered one to the creature.

“Don’t be, I sleep around here. It’s a coincidence.”

It was a move to study the thing, to see if stories were true. There was nothing notably monstrous about the mess of dark hair and the shifting blue eyes. There was no obvious sign of claws or fangs, or the dark signs of daemonic blood flowing beneath that too pale skin. If he ignored the easy, lazy sway of the tail dipped into the water, Nyx would say that the creature seemed very human.

Nyx settled on the landing outside the door, a mug in each hand. “So you just sleep around here and decided to say hello?”

“Basically.”

In the light of the morning, he could see the strangeness of the tail properly, the colour of the inky scales was more of a blue then a black, the deep greys and iridescent shine hiding the midnight sky nature of the colour. Fins clung to the sleek shape of it, drifting loose when the waters lapped at him. The creature— from human innocent eyes and delicate features to the cold and dark and damp of the monstrous tail— was strangely alluring and innocent to his eyes. There was no sense of monstrosity or revulsion at the alien nature of the creature, no threat or menace that he knew from his years tracking and hunting just to bring food in.

There was something almost sweet in the way the creature— Noctis, he reminded himself— took in the sight of him at the same time. The appraisal in those too human eyes bringing a smirk to his lips on habit; “Like what you see?”

“Do you?”

“Well, you’re not hideous.” Noctis hid his smile behind the mug of coffee, the little snort of suppressed amusement almost lost. “So you’re a prince.”

“Yes.”

“And Weskham is your…?”

“Guardian? I think.” Noctis offered the same indifferent shrug Nyx would have expected of a young man not certain or unwilling to give more than necessary; “He’s friends with my father.”

“Then why am I here?”

“Wesky’s old.”

That broke Nyx’s study of the creature. He imagined his boss, the formidable yet polite man, who he had watched charm regulars and tourists with ease, but who gripped knives like he was born with a set in his hands. He thought of the easy confidence of the man who had approached him in Libertus’ bar to offer him the job, asking for him like a hunter, like an employer looking to shed blood. “Don’t tell him that.”

“I tell him that all the time,” Noctis smiled; “That’s why he got you.”

“What’s wrong with Ignis?”

“Nothing.”

“But?”

“You’ll have to ask Wesky that.”

“Right,” Nyx leaned back against the wall, looked up to the shuttered windows around them. He supposed if they were quiet, there was no reason for anyone else to take an interest. The neighbourhood itself was quiet, peaceful, and seemed like part of the ruins just glimpsed below the waters’ surface. Most of the windows were shuttered against the early afternoon light, and the waters rippled with the boats along the canals closer to the lively centres of the districts. But here… Nyx had picked an isolated spot to rest, and it appeared to be a taste shared with the creature. “Didn’t think I’d be talking to a siren when I left home.”

“I’m not a siren. That’s something else.” Noctis held out his mug to Nyx; “Is there any more coffee?”

“I have the feeling that Ignis will kill me if he find out I’m giving you coffee.”

“He drinks coffee the way most of your kind drinks water. He doesn’t get a say.”

Nyx chuckled and downed the rest of what was in his mug. At this point, it was a matter of adaptation. Nyx could handle adaptation, he was good with that sort of thing according to those he left back home. “I need to do stuff today, come back tomorrow and I’ll make another mug then.”