Lestallum was doing well, considering.
It wasn’t bustling and happy in any sense, like it had been before. More dead bodies than warm ones arrived on trucks every day.
Eos was an apocalyptic hell. Refugees arrived in droves, hailing from Altissia to Hammerhead. According to them, Altissia had sunk into the sea, jungles were taking Tenebrae back with vicious vigor, and biting snow was taking over more than just Gralea. It had been cold when they’d left Noctis behind, but now neverending blizzards had weeded out the strong and the weak. Niflheim soldiers had retreated in waves to Lucis, begging for salvation. Gladio would have turned them away, given history, but the compassion Noctis would have felt for them kept him from slaughtering them on sight.
Gladio liked to think the blizzard was Shiva’s doing; it was her way of keeping Noctis safe in the Crystal. It brought comfort to think that Noctis was not alone.
The hundreds of thousands of survivors that flooded the borders filled the outposts to bursting, and daemons ravaged those who could not fit in outposts, or those who tried to hide. Most people, if not eaten by predators, starved to death.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Eight years. Eight goddamn years. And with every year, some part of Gladio hoped that Noctis would just...appear. Make the sun come back. Put everything back the way it was.
Gladio’s glass felt heavy in his hand when he thought about it. He set it down on the stained, old wood bar. The whiskey, or what passed as it, burned running down his throat.
They weren’t supposed to lose.
But they did, and Noctis had taken the sun with him.
What a brat, he thought. He swirled the amber liquid in his glass; not much left. Dave sure was taking a while. He was supposed to meet him almost an hour ago.
Gladio supposed punctuality was a little more lenient now, though. Daemons stopped cars on the roads almost constantly, and only those armed to the teeth had the sense to leave the safety of lit outposts. A few hunters had taken up transporting refugees from place to place with trucks outfitted with obscenely bright lights and unfairly large weapons.
Gladio looked around the bar; it was small, dark, and smelled a little weird. He vaguely remembered it being a convenience store before Lucis fell. Off-duty hunters and plant workers meandered around the place, a couple stumbling with a drunken step. The air was thick with humidity and cigarette smoke. At first, Gladio had been a bit put off; in the Crown City, a bar like this was a place where people went missing. He wouldn’t have let Noctis step within the block of the place.
However, it was the only functioning bar in Lucis right now, so he supposed he couldn’t be too picky about his post-apocalypse drinking spots. The Nexus, they called it; a place where connections were made and jobs were taken. It was doable.
...The whiskey did taste a bit like toothpaste and piss, though.
“Whoa, look at the gil on this!” Gladio heard from across the room. A few hunters stood at the job board, huddled over a single flier. “And you get extra rations for the trip!”
The old wooden bulletin board on the far side of the room was covered from top to bottom with jobs, bounties, and help wanted ads. Some overlapped others, some were pinned to the sides, some lay on the floor where drunken patrons had knocked them down. It was what earned The Nexus its name. Gladio had entertained this board a couple of times in the past, when jobs were tight and no one threw themselves at him on sight for work. ( That happened a lot more than he would have liked.)
Another hunter scoffed. “Yeah, but look at who’s leading.”
“Head Eater?” said another, “Shit, no wonder they’re paying so much.”
“I heard he killed an entire family in cold blood. Just pop pop pop , right in the heads.”
“Bet he’s not even human.”
“He used to be normal, you know.”
“Yeah, I heard he was in the Crowns—“
“Gladiolus,” a deep drawl said behind him as a hand clapped on his shoulder, and the conversation around Gladio melted into nothing but noise. Gladio nodded at Dave as he took a seat next to him. “Didn’t drink too much, I hope,” Dave said, gesturing to the glass on the bar.
Gladio scoffed, “Hardly enough to tickle my throat.”
Dave laughed at that, and ordered water for himself.
He seemed to be working up the words to say what he needed to. Gladio hadn’t actually been told the job Dave wanted to offer him, just that there’d been an emergency, and he was hoping Gladio could help.
Finally, after a few sips of water and about a minute and a half of listening to bugs fly into zappers, Dave sighed. “Meldacio went dark,” he said solemnly. “Not sure what’s happening out there, but daemons attacked not long ago. Lotta hunters went out there and never came back.”
Gladio remembered hearing about those disappearances, and the broadcast on the radio telling the locals to stay away from Vesperpool and Meldacio. It hadn’t alarmed him too much, if he was honest. Disappearances happened a lot now. “Civilians evacuated yet?”
“All of ‘em. The casualties and missin’ have been hunters and a couple Glaive.” Dave shook his head at the thought of the missing people; at least bodies gave closure. “I have a small team of some pretty good hunters. I’m hoping that you’ll add on to that. You’ve fought in the area before, you know how dangerous it can be. I’ve already asked one of my best teams to help, too. With y’all, they might stand a chance out there.” The man took a drink of the water, and stared at it like it had tasted bad. Hell, with how unclean things were now, it probably did. “Hell, maybe there’s survivors.”
Gladio breathed out slowly through his nose. He’d helped Dave before on a number of missions, both rescues and clean ups. He didn’t often sound so grim about sending him out; maybe this is more serious than he’d first thought.
“This team any good?” Many hunters claimed to be good at their job, and ended up being all bark and no bite. Gladio himself had had to get those hunters out of a few scraps. They had Dave’s confidence, but…
“They’re a handful of my best. Not big, but they’re efficient.”
Gladio squinted at him just a bit. There was a catch here. “What’s the leader like?”
Dave pressed his lips together into a tight line, rubbing his hands together slowly. Finally, he sighed. “Head Eater. That hunter with the bad rep. Now, I know what people say about him. And don’t gimme that look, I know you hear the gossip.”
He wasn’t wrong, Gladio did hear gossip from time to time. The hunters at the job board hadn’t been the first he’d heard of this Head Eater; apparently, he was cruel, cold, ruthless, and a genius on the battlefield. He was quick to kill anyone who got in his way of victory, friend or foe. Gladio had heard about a few hunters going in with him, then being killed by him.
Was a man who threw away the lives of hunters so easily the best choice for a rescue mission?
“Gossip ain’t always right,” Dave continued. “Good man, him. Doesn’t do anything without reason.”
As though sensing the hesitation in Gladio, Dave clapped his shoulder a couple of times, and stood from his seat. “C’mon, at least meet the team first. Then decide. If you say no, it’s no hard feelings.”
Gladio watched him exit the bar, and sighed. Don’t go, Gladio, it isn’t going to go well , his brain said. No, no it wasn’t.
He threw back the last of his drink, and followed Dave outside.
The camp they arrived at was a few miles out of Lestallum. It was small, maybe four tents set up and three trucks, and most of the hunters were trying to keep busy by loading a few trucks with supplies.
Food, cases of water, medical supplies, guns…
Lots of guns.
He wondered how many hunters would actually be involved on the mission. There had been two dozen in Meldacio, and all of them had gone missing. The civilians had been evacuated at the first sight of daemon attacks into Lestallum, but the hunters had stayed behind to try and salvage what they could. When Dave and a handful of people went to the post to investigate the radio silence from said hunters, they’d found several dead bodies. Those that weren’t found dead were reported missing.
There was no way there was enough people here to outnumber daemons that took down that many hunters.
Gladio followed Dave as he marched through the camp. He walked with purpose, like a military man, and it reminded Gladio of his father. Hunters moved out of his way, and nearly threw themselves out of Gladio’s. He’d grown used to that. It had gotten worse a few months after Noctis disappeared, when Gladio’s name had become a whisper amongst the public. He, Ignis, and Prompto had become legends, of sorts. And with the legend came strangers asking Gladio to find their lost cat.
The video games had been right all along. Being a legend was thankless.
(And the cat is always on the roof.)
“Sir!” a young voice called. A hunter, maybe just a bit older than Talcott, rushed up to Dave’s side as they approached. He was so young; was Dave really sending someone like this in? “Geralt wanted to speak to you about the rations.”
Dave nodded firmly. He looked around the camp for a moment, then turned to Gladio. “‘Scuse me, Gladio, this is Lena. Lena, this is Gladio. Hirin’ him to help you guys with Meldacio.”
Lena was slim, fit, and about the same size as Noctis. His messy brown hair, kept under some control with a small ponytail and dark green bandana, framed his freckled face and big brown eyes. He had large, raised scars up his arms, like claw marks; Gladio wondered how long he'd been at hunting to get scars like those.
Lena’s eyes shifted to Gladio, and he yanked his body to stand up straight. Gladio’s stone poker face was the only thing keeping him from chuckling. “Sir! You’re Gladiolus Amicitia! Uh, the King’s Shield, right? I-It’s an honor, sir!” He bowed deeply, hugging his clipboard tightly to his chest.
Gladio clapped Lena on his shoulder. “C’mon, stand up.” The boy nearly stumbled over himself to do so.
Dave laughed lightly with his hands on his hips. “I'll go talk to Geralt ‘bout them rations. Why don't you show Gladio ‘round a bit? Get him acquainted.” Dave left before either of them could agree.
Lena shifted from foot to foot, then hesitantly gestured for Gladio to follow him. Nervous , Gladio’s mind supplied.
There wasn't much to “get acquainted” with in the camp. It was mostly Lena pointing out hunters whose names Gladio would forget in a few minutes, and pointing to the old man Dave stood chatting with.
Geralt, Lena provided, was the medic located in Meldacio before the takeover. He'd been evacuated with the other civilians, but had demanded he be allowed to treat people on the mission. Lena said that Dave had agreed out of fear the old man would follow them anyway.
“I hear Dave's not leading this mission,” Gladio said quietly. He wasn't sure if he'd interrupted Lena or not, didn't particularly care, but the kid stopped nonetheless.
“Ah, no, he's not. He'll be in contact through the radio, but there's other hunters he needs to oversee in the meantime.”
“So where’s your leader?” He had to get more on this Head Eater character than Dave was giving him. Someone had to know this guy’s real name.
Lena hesitated, his teeth gnawing at his lip for a moment. “That’s...a good question…”
Gladio acted before he thought. He threw Lena to the ground, shielding him with his larger body as he heard gunshots over him. The roar of daemons rung in his ears, and he muttered a firm, “Stay,” before pushing himself up to join the fray.
His giant sword sat heavily in his hand. It felt good in his grip, fitted and familiar like a reliable friend’s hug, as he approached a snarling alberich. He slammed his sword down its middle, splitting it in half. It turned to smoke and ash as it disappeared, and another emerged in its place.
Slicing through them was easy enough, but the more Gladio cut, it felt like more kept coming. Other hunters opened gunfire on the impish daemons to ward them off. The creatures danced around the trucks, avoiding the glare of the obscene lights as they pounced. Gladio kicked an alberich off of a hunter and drove his sword into it, even as it squealed and squirmed.
He lurched forward as one jumped on his back, crying out in pain as it slashed through his jacket with its giant claws. He ignored the stinging in his back, and the wetness of the blood in his shirt, as he reached behind him and grabbed the offending creature. He threw it hard against the ground, stomped hard on its head, and it exploded with a squelch.
“Fuck, there's so many!” Gladio heard Dave curse. “Keep them away from the supplies!”
Gladio turned over to the supply trucks. A handful of imps were trying to scavenge their supplies. He drew his sword and prepared to swing on the little vultures.
Boom! One imp’s head exploded in a black rain of blood. The flash of a bullet zoomed straight through its skull.
Then another imp exploded, bullet piercing its head and sailing by.
Then a third.
A deafening pause.
Then another fell, and then two more.
Within seconds, every daemon lay on the grass, disintegrating to nothing.
Gladio looked around the camp. The hunters looked a mix of amazed and horrified. He turned to Lena, still where he'd left him on the ground. Some part of Gladio laughed; if only Noctis had been that easy to protect. His king had a bad case of, “You can’t tell me what to do!” Although jumpy, at least Lena had the sense to stay down. He offered his hand to hoist the kid up.
Lena brushed his clothes off and sighed. “Shit,” he muttered, so quietly that Gladio doubted he was meant to hear. Gladio turned his gaze to where Lena was looking. “You wanted our leader,” Lena said quietly, as though the sniper would hear him if he talked too loudly.
The man approaching (at an alarming speed) was a slim, fit man that walked with furious purpose. The air about him was cold, calculating, and...familiar. His hair swept into up like a wave, and his eyes, weighed with tired bags, were a piercing blue-violet. They struck through Gladio when he spotted him, unlike any other time he’d seen those eyes. The entirety of his air was different, but there was no doubt. This man, “Head Eater,” was…