Chapter 1: The Best Baby
Inside the lavish cradle, upon a pile of soft white blankets lay the smallest creature Bahamut had ever seen. It was barely the size of his fingernail, really.
The baby was swaddled in silk emblazoned with the sigil of the kingdom of Lucis. One who would be king one day; tall, mighty and proud. But in that moment it was merely an infant, its small features puckering unhappily as it woke from slumber. Mewling querulously, the child opened its eyes—and stared directly at Bahamut.
Or seemed to. Through the astral portal he could spy upon the tiny child, but could not go any further. His power was meant for only one, and that one had not come into the world yet.
The small creature before him was not the King of Kings.
“Stop staring at it,” Leviathan snapped over his shoulder. “It’s just wrong for an enormous armoured god to stare at a baby for so long. It looks like one of the beans in that soup Titan likes eating.”
“I just like it,” he said at length. “Are we sure it’s not the King of Kings?”
“You want it to be?” Squinting down at it, gills shivering, Leviathan snorted. “That thing doesn’t look like it could summon a breast to its mouth, let alone one of us. But it’s your prophecy.”
“And not its time.” Below, the infant had begun squalling in earnest. Nobody came to attend it. “Where is its mother?”
Shouldering him out of the way, Leviathan flung a finned hand across the portal, turning the image to swirling white. It cleared momentarily, sharpening into recognisable shapes and colours. Red, mostly, staining the crisp white sheets of childbirth. The eyes that stared up at Bahamut this time were flat, lifeless, and forest green. They did say childbirth was a battlefield all its own, Bahamut reflected tiredly.
Leviathan clucked her tongue. “Guess I was right about the babe not summoning a teat. What’s that old line you had about death in childbed? Birth in blood, death in blood?”
“It was a morbid phase a few millennia ago,” Bahamut protested. “There’s no proof he’ll die violently.”
Slitted eyes narrowed at him, then rolled heavily. Shaking off her mostly-humanoid form, Leviathan returned to her coiling, eel-like splendour and vanished into fragments of light. Bahamut couldn’t blame her for scoffing, really.
No king of Lucis ever went quietly.
Content to watch with uninterrupted interest, he splayed his gauntleted hand across the gory scene and returned it to the infant prince, who was now being held by a decorated male. Dark of hair and eye, he ushered over a female servant dressed in royal livery. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she unbuttoned her blouse and took the baby into her arms. Haggard, the man sat on the wooden box placed at the bottom of the cradle and put his head in his hands.
A wet nurse, loyal to the line of Lucis, Bahamut thought. And the infant’s father. It was then that his eye was caught by the gilded plate on the end of the cradle. Black lines formed letters he remembered, forming three names for the child.
Regis Lucis Caelum.
Perhaps it would be a name to remember, as the years rolled by. Bahamut felt the stirrings of interest in the world of Eos for the first time since Solheim fell, and wondered if it was going to be one of many changes the tiny prince wrought. King of Kings or not, who else in a thousand years had grasped his attention?
He was still staring raptly hours later when Titan approached the portal, palming a bowl of soup and slurping loudly as he looked down at the sleeping child. The infinite realms of afterlife and birth were, unfortunately, public domain for all astrals.
Bahamut tried to ignore him for as long as he could, he really did.
“Look at this,” Titan said, and spat something back onto his spoon, lowering it until it was in line with the sleeping child in the portal. It was a pale, kidney-shaped bean. “Do you think they’re related?”
Of all the—
“You really aren’t taking this pact seriously, you know.”
“I took a splinter of rock through my eye socket. I caught a meteor,” Titan rumbled, his muscles rippling for emphasis. “What have you done lately? Other than stare at babies and make us all uncomfortable.”
“I just like it,” Bahamut repeated stubbornly. “It’s going to be a good baby. Maybe the best baby.”
“It’s not the Chosen and it never will be,” Titan said, gesturing at the portal with his carved wooden spoon. “It will be old and dead soon, shelved with the spirits of all the other kings of Lucis who never passed our tests. Go back to the crystal and wait for the real thing.”
Bahamut ignored him. All they ever did was wait. No harm was done by watching over the bloodline he’d made the pact with.
Finally, Titan finished his soup and burped, turning to leave. Before he did though, he imparted a final piece of advice.
“You’ll crush its mind if you try to talk to it.” Between his fingers, he squashed the bean for emphasis. “Wait until its strong enough to pray to the crystal.”
Casting his hand across the surface of the portal, Bahamut abruptly reduced it to swirling white, pushing himself fully upright. Titan sucked the squashed bean off his fingers and watched him go in silence.
“If he ever needs to pray to the crystal, there is only one thing I’ll be able to tell him of.”
“His death,” Titan guessed. Bahamut exhaled hard, and nodded.
“Bet you wish you hadn’t lost to me in rock paper scissors for catching that meteor. Could be me in the crystal writing bad poetry and condemning kings to death.”
“You’d be terrible at it, Titan. You’ve no grasp of the flow of language.”
Titan shrugged his massive shoulders.
“I get hit in the head a lot. Call if you need.”
As though he ever would, Bahamut thought as he strode forward into the forgiving reach of the eternal darkness. As though any of them ever did. Their wars were done. Until new covenants were forged, they were trapped by their own limitations, their own vows. Their shells remained in Eos: Titan, trapped in stone, holding his meteor atop his mighty shoulders. Shiva, sleeping in the ancestral ice that could not thaw. Leviathan’s mortal shell was asleep in the depths of the ocean, too deep for anything other than the oracle’s song to be heard. Ramuh was lightning and cloud itself, waiting high in the sky for a plea piercing enough to reach him. And Bahamut was of the crystal—incorporeal until he was summoned, waiting to receive the King of Kings.
What he wouldn’t give to matter once more.
Until then, they had the deep oblivion of life and death, a starless space of purgatory and salvation from which they could peer down upon the world.
And, for some strange reason, a small, motherless baby prince whose cries just wouldn’t quite leave Bahamut’s ears.
If that was what waking up was heralded by, Bahamut wasn’t sure he wanted to follow that strange path. Especially if it resulted in death.
Death in blood, he thought as oblivion swallowed him back down into the crystal’s sharp embrace.
He really needed to stop writing poetry in his spare time.
Chapter 2: Time Flies
Under the watchful eye of Bahamut, Regis flourished.
The years rolled by swiftly, but with a single focus on which to count the passing of time, Bahamut soon found himself watching the portal with urgent attention, scanning the youth each day for changes. Growth of hair or nail, height blooming upward like a young sapling, the fineness of his features revealed as the plumpness of childhood gave way to lines of burgeoning adulthood. He grew strong and tall, his bloodline stamped upon him in the dark of his hair, his green eyes sharp with intelligence and thought.
Lucis loved its prince, that much was clear. Dedicated, kind and with a head for strategy, even as a child, Regis excelled at anything he turned his mind to. Almost everything, Bahamut corrected one day with deep amusement: Regis still couldn’t talk to girls without flushing a terrible shade of red.
Until one day, he could. The portal showed him hand in hand with a familiar face, one from the days of his childhood playtime. Hadn’t it been only weeks ago? But the shy girl-child from the sandpit had grown into a slender beauty, still retaining those same tilted blue eyes and hair dark as pitch. The smile she elicited from Regis spoke of promises to be made, and soon.
Time just seemed to move too fast, Bahamut thought, disturbed by how much he hated the idea. Before long he would be king, and all that entailed. His father, Mors, was already suffering beneath the weight of the ring of the Lucii, as though each dead king who joined the pantheon of the bloodline both empowered the ring further and drained its wearer beyond all measure. By the time Regis inherited it, the ring would be heavier still. But to cast it aside would be to undo the protection across the land, and invite total annihilation. Such was the king’s burden.
It was as Bahamut pondered those dark thoughts, lost in his quiet contemplation by the portal one day that the space lit with the flash and crawl of electricity. Lightning, to be precise.
Ramuh strode forth to the portal and stared down into its depths, one hand idly combing through his snowy beard. Within the swirling light, Regis was summoning his armiger in practice with his trainer. He was covered in sweat and had already thrown up once, but he was relentless in his pursuit to best his father’s record.
“Are we sure he’s not the Chosen?” Ramuh asked finally, leaning hard on his ornate staff to get a closer look. Behind his faceplate, Bahamut smiled.
“That’s what I keep asking myself.”
“It is your prophecy.”
“That’s what everyone keeps saying.”
Ramuh hummed thoughtfully, but said no more for a time. Regis was going down hard on the training mats, beet red from exertion and breath whining in his chest. Each time he fell, he got up again. Seventeen and strong.
“It’s difficult to reconcile him with the tottering babe throwing blocks at his nursemaid,” Ramuh mused. “He had the fattest thighs of any child I’ve ever seen.”
Bahamut laughed so loudly he surprised them both.
“He did. And always running around naked after his bath, squealing incessantly. Mors could barely keep up.”
Ramuh smiled, smoothing a hand down his beard in contemplation.
“He’ll be a good king, Bahamut.” His smile faded. “And then he will be dead, and his spirit will fuel the ring. Don’t let yourself become too invested. He will serve no purpose in the greater fate of the world.”
Bahamut’s smile froze. “It’s not about his importance, Ramuh. Does the lightning scorn the clouds? Everything has its place.”
“The dragon need not coddle the lizard,” Ramuh returned. “Everything must play its part.”
“And what of ours?” Bahamut said sharply, feeling his armour crawl around his body, caught in the taut transformation between man and dragon. “We sit back, we wait, while the humans suffer the destruction Ifrit wrought? Do we stay silent, tied up in our promises, forced to watch? Lucis was never to be the one hope for freedom. We were supposed to do more.”
“And we will,” Ramuh said heavily, “when the King of Kings—”
Snarling, Bahamut threw himself to his feet, giving the old lightning rod his back as he stalked away.
Let it be so, then. But he didn’t have to like it.
Time rolled by, and Bahamut didn’t consult the astral portal for a while. In fact he didn’t do much of anything for a while: he retreated to the crystal and cast off his armour and power, pulling off each piece of ornate metal and throwing it into the deep abyss. It would come back, as it always did. But for a time it was good to see his scale-patterned skin instead of metal plate for once. It reminded him that he wasn’t simply a dusty old myth, forced to look upon the living. Sure, he had to live in the nebulous no-space within a magic crystal, but he was still a living creature. Well, if you discounted the leathery black wings that forced themselves out of his back, or the iridescent scales that gathered at the bend of elbow and dip of his back…or the clawed fingertips and toenails.
After watching over Regis and his smooth-skinned kin for so long, Bahamut had the sudden notion he might look like a monster. He summoned his armour back quite quickly after that, worried. Was this vanity? It was awful.
He slept, eventually, troubled by the futility of his connection to the young prince. Ramuh was right, of course. Leviathan too. Until the time came, they were as helplessly disconnected from the world as ever. Forced into slumber or locked behind crystalline walls.
Waking eventually from his bleak musings, Bahamut barely noted the wheezing breaths that seemed to echo in the regal chamber where his crystal hung suspended. Light bloomed behind his eyes, piercing even his sanctuary—the ring was near to the crystal in a way it hadn’t been in decades. Not since…
Bahamut’s eyes opened in alarm.
“Please help me,” said a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. Radiance bloomed again: the ring was touching the crystal. “By the light of the Six, I do not think I’m ready.”
Bahamut stared into the great abyss of his sanctuary. How long had he slept?
He hadn’t meant to speak. The crystal was too close to the ring, if Regis wasn’t careful he’d be drawn in and consumed. Only the Chosen—
Bahamut snarled at himself. Was it his prophecy or not?
Peering through the facets of the great crystal, seeing and unseen, Bahamut realised with a jolt that he had indeed been asleep a long time. Regis had grown again. Broad-shouldered and bearded, garbed in black and gilt, he resembled his father more than ever.
And he was wearing the ring of the Lucii.
King Regis Lucis Caelum.
Mors must be dead. Recently, too, if the glassy grief on Regis’ face was any indication. The ring always did take them young.
“Sacred crystal, seat of all power, I beseech you.” Regis swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut. Two tears spilled silently down his cheeks. “Make me strong enough to do this.”
Bahamut recoiled. Regis was close enough to influence, to communicate with, but if he opened his mouth and spoke…it could kill him, and end the succession of kings.
What comfort could an old dragon offer, anyway? Strength wasn’t something granted to one by another. Not the kind that mattered.
Realising he was talking himself out of a true moment to be a deity, to make some small difference in a life passed over by the prophecy, Bahamut drew himself up against the crystal’s edge, yanking off his gauntlet to press his scaled palm to the source of the ring’s light. They were dimensions away, and Regis wouldn’t feel a thing, but it might be contact enough to dampen the soul-crushing tenor of his voice.
Sending up a prayer of his own, Bahamut looked down upon Regis’ tear-stained face, opened his mouth and spoke.
“You go in the grace of the gods, Lucian king. You are strong.”
Shock flared in Regis’ face, and for a moment his searching gaze almost caught Bahamut’s own. Almost. His nerve breaking, Bahamut did the only thing an aloof, respectable astral would do in his place.
He panicked and got the hell out of there.
Regis had heard him.
How in Eos was he supposed to turn away after that?
Chapter 3: Like Thunder
Titan was dripping soup into the portal when Leviathan arrived to peer into its depths.
“Stop that. Don’t you eat anything else?”
“It’s low fat and high in protein,” he said by way of explanation. “I’m naked in a crater right now. Who knows if fat transfers to the corporeal world?” Trust Titan to be more concerned about his weight gain than the piece of rock hanging out of his eye. Pushing him aside, she shook her eel-form off until she stood on two finned legs, darkly scaled from foot to hips. Her upper body was bare but for an ornate necklace, some offering from centuries ago.
“Something has happened, I can feel it,” she announced. “Bahamut hasn’t stalked the portal for too long now. Where is Regis?”
“The—the soup bean.” She may as well use words he could understand.
“He’s king now. His wife’s belly is swollen with his seed.” At that, Leviathan felt her chest loosen, for reasons she couldn’t name. The line needed to be kept intact, she told herself.
“The little bean visits the crystal often, to seek solace,” Titan mused. “Nobody ever speaks to him, but he speaks his mind to it. Bahamut is in his crystal, I think.”
Leviathan clenched her fists until spined fingertips cut into her palm.
“Then what are you doing out here, watching Regis?”
Titan shrugged his enormous grey shoulders, the unfathomable light of their realm catching the glinting painted surface of his skin. His eyes were as round as bronze coins as he glared down into the well-like portal, still steadily eating his soup.
“I like him.”
Anger flushed her pale cheeks pink, and Leviathan slapped the bowl out of his hands. Titan barely caught it in time, but his spoon clattered down into the portal and vanished.
“Shit.” Both stared dismally down into the portal, where Regis was staring at the enormous wooden spoon now decorating his throne room. The other humans had all run screaming.
Titan tilted his bowl to his lips and slurped loudly, completely unconcerned by the mayhem below.
“That’s your fault.”
Leviathan briefly wondered if astrals could have aneurysms. Titan honestly didn’t—did he not realise what had just happened? The soup splashes hadn’t made their way down through the portal though. Why the spoon? Wasn’t the portal for viewing alone? What if—
“Titan, did you make that spoon? Crafted of your two hands?”
Scratching his bald head with his free hand, Titan shrugged.
“I like making things.”
Please be too stupid to realise, please be too stupid to realise, Leviathan prayed with heartfelt need as he finished his soup and left, seemingly uninterested in the spectacle playing out below him. Regis was simply holding court, after all. Why would that interest Titan? He was best amused by the sparring sessions and bloodletting, no doubt.
If an item crafted by one of the Six could be delivered into the hands of a Lucian king, the entire war might be turned in the favour of Lucis. If a spoon could make the distance, why not the draconian’s own sword? Why not a sacred harpoon, blessed by salt and sea? If a weapon could be transferred, why not their own essence, their form—
Dangerous thoughts, Leviathan thought, feeling blood rush from her face. With the Accursed still out there, biding his time, they couldn’t take such risks. Not even for their little soup bean, the brave King Regis of Lucis. Bahamut hadn’t torn himself to pieces to birth that particular prophecy for laughter and joy. It had almost killed him.
They had to wait for the King of Kings. Even if that meant withholding a weapon that could hurt their enemy in the meantime. Their strength would be best used later.
Leviathan peered down with slitted green-gold eyes as Regis touched his hand to the enormous spoon, feeling its wide carved lines and symbols. Most mortals would look upon it as a blessing from above, some sign to guide them, but Regis simply shook his head and clenched his fist until fire burst around it, hot and white with magic. The spoon burned like a pyre for giants, incinerated by the great heat in mere moments.
Ifrit would have been proud.
Catching herself, Leviathan swallowed and drew away, clearing the image to nothingness once more.
Despite herself, she was getting in deeper than intended.
Let the king die, silent and alone, misunderstanding his messages from beyond. He wasn’t the one they waited for.
And if he wasn’t, who would be worthy? Who could rule better, fight better, pay obeisance to his gods better than Regis? Eos would fall to ruin, for no other could hold Leviathan’s attention.
No other deserved it.
“…Enormous spoon rained from above, hitting the stone floor of the audience chamber. Clarus nearly wet himself, I’m sure of it.” Regis sat with his back resting against the crystal, suspended on the platform that allowed him to touch it. “We’re to patrol the outer regions soon, so that the people know that my father didn’t abandon them when he retracted the spell to cover Insomnia alone. It was never to leave them defenceless, merely to protect the bloodline until the heir to the gods is born. How many lifetimes until that day, I wonder?”
Regis shut his eyes and tipped his head against the rough, magic-warmed stone behind him. He was thirty now, and a king. Speaking to his gods through the crystal should have seemed frivolous and self-indulgent, and yet it was the only confidant he could tell all his secrets to without fear. Imagined voices or no, the stone had become very much the bedrock of his reign.
Cid always said he spoke to the stone more than his companions, but there was little to be done for it. There was peace in the crystal: some small energy that soothed the ache of his bones, when he woke up to find his joints throbbing from the drain of the ring. It should have been a nightmare to grow so close to it while his blood pulsed in his temples and his bones shook with strain, but there was a silent peace there that Regis couldn’t explain.
Some mysteries simply didn’t bear delving into. Appreciation was enough.
“My father was forty-eight when he died from the strain of the ring and his office.” Blinking out through reinforced glass up into the night sky, Regis smiled slightly as the stars shone like chips of diamond above. “I should like to beat his record. Very much.”
The stars said nothing in return. Nor did his crystal.
Regis didn’t mind.
At the astral portal, left open and abandoned by Bahamut, Ramuh began to pace by the void. His staff clacked against the stone with each step, echoing hard and cold in the silence of their abyss.
Does the lightning scorn the clouds?
Blue electricity shivered up the staff into the carved head of Ixion, lighting his eyes cobalt and steel.
Perhaps he was no King of Kings. Perhaps he was not Chosen. Perhaps the reason Eos’ salvation had not been born yet was due to their apathy, their eyes cast inward instead of to the people below. This king, Regis, he would die soon, that much was certain. Time moved like the tide to the astrals, and none escaped the icy lap of its reach. Was it hubris to wish for a life longer than destiny had bestowed?
Was it hubris for Ramuh to wonder if his gift would prolong that destiny?
None would know. None would see.
Clearing the image below, his pearl-white eyes fixed down upon the sleeping king, Ramuh raised his staff and positioned it above Regis’ right temple. One shot. One blessing. In sleep, that Regis may never know of it to tell Bahamut, who listened raptly inside his crystal.
Ramuh drew both hands tight around the staff, and wondered.
Could the lightning bless the ground?
The shot was white-hot, deafening, and it pierced the veil of the dimensional portal like cold fire and damnnation. Regis arched up like a puppet caught on some cruel string, straining involuntarily for an entity he could not find. Insensate still, when the lightning went out in his bones and faded, he awoke coughing, gasping for breath. Ramuh watched from above, eyes hawklike and stern. No blessing had ever been paid from afar.
Regis simply sat upright, panting harshly—until he touched his temple, left slick and bloody from the burn he’d received. It would curl into a scar before long, dancing along his temple like a dream he didn’t remember having.
In Regis’ hand, lightning fluttered like the touch of fireflies, as gentle and innate as breathing.
Satisfied, Ramuh drew away and quieted his staff. Job done.
Time to get the hell out of there before Leviathan found him.
As Regis coughed out the last of his strange nightmare, shuddering under the weight of unnamed power he couldn’t explain, he felt Aulea turn rigid in the bed beside him.
The hand that gripped his was thin and strong enough to make his knuckles pop. Aulea turned to him, her blue eyes black in the shadow-filled night.
“Either I’ve wet myself, or I just broke my water quite violently. Get me to a midwife? We’re too early for this, far too early for this…”
Adrenaline flooding his veins, Regis shook off his nonsense dreams, kissing her monstrously strong hand with lips that trembled.
Dreaming inside the crystal, Bahamut wondered if contentment felt like the warm wave of peace crashing over him. For some years yet, there could be no upheaval, no torment. The Accursed was working his schemes, certainly, but the Empire held no true sway just yet. He could happily ride out the next few years in the solace of the crystal, listening to the daily events of Lucis’ greatest and most adored king.
So Bahamut slept, deeply and in languorous leisure, waiting for his next communion.
He’d barely rested a wink before the echoing cry of an infant split his dreams, shockwaves roiling down deep into the marrow of his bones. It echoed off the crystal’s spikes, heightened into a single clean note that pierced him like a knife he’d been waiting for since the dawn of days.
He knew that cry.
He’d been waiting for it for hundreds of years.
“Oh,” Bahamut breathed, and covered his face with his clawed hands. “Oh, no.”
The King of Kings had come at last.
Chapter 4: The Chosen
Aulea was bleeding deeply into the soft bedding beneath her, the blue glow of the potions unable to do anything to still the flow. When they came, her screams were reedy and exhausted, echoing from marble chamber to balcony and back again. Resisting the urge to bear down, her eyes squeezed shut as the midwives tried fruitlessly to turn her wayward baby into position.
Outside the chamber, forbidden to enter, Regis pressed a palm to his mouth and tasted bile.
At the portal, three astrals paced in an even circle, pale-faced and stern.
“She’s dead already,” Titan said, eyeing the blood loss. “If we don’t intervene the child is dead with her.”
“We can’t intervene,” Leviathan said stiffly, though she looked like she was going to throw up. “He’s a false alarm. The Chosen is to be born into the world, not die in utero. He’s not the real thing.”
Ramuh circled the portal with them, his knuckles white on his staff.
“If we can do it, we do it.” Lightning could strike twice, after all.
Bahamut didn’t pace, didn’t do anything more than brace his clawed gauntlets upon the rim of the portal and stare deeply into the swirling light. Aulea, with her honey-coloured skin and tilted blue eyes. The smile only she could wring from Regis’ austere gravity, his kingly weight. Her black hair was flung across the pillow in sweaty tendrils that fell like snakes, her skin so pale her lips were blanched pink-white and her veins stood out like trails on a roadmap. Bahamut swallowed as her blood soaked the bedding black beneath her. And all the while the unborn child’s cries were splitting his skull. Distress. Pain. Fear.
The child could be saved. But Aulea…
Would her death break Regis?
“Carbuncle,” Bahamut said, his lips numb. “Find Carbuncle.”
Leviathan’s lips thinned. “Bahamut, we can’t.”
“Find him, Levi.”
Gaping for a moment, Leviathan set her shoulders and shook her head stubbornly.
“I’m only of water, I can only look in water.”
“But I’m of stone,” said Titan, slamming his fists together. Leviathan’s head whipped around. “Between us we’ll find him.”
“Then both of you, go. Now.”
Leviathan’s brow puckered. “You don’t order us—”
“This is my prophecy! My blood! My king!” Bahamut roared, slamming his gauntleted fist down upon the edge of the portal. They all flinched back. “Find Carbuncle, save the child. This is what we’ve waited for. If you can’t do this much, Leviathan, turn yourself into the ocean and never resurface again.”
“He’ll never be better than Regis,” Leviathan shot back, furious tears rising in her slit-pupil eyes. “And Regis has to die to make the Chosen whole. You want it to live?! Let it dash its head upon her bones, Bahamut, and stick there until its breath stops. Your prophecy isn’t foolproof. No foretelling is. Regis might still be it. Ours.”
Bahamut shuddered under the weight of his own wants, his favour clashing with duty. Why did the snake always have to strike at his heart?
“He’s not. Regis is not the Chosen. If he dies to save his child…” Bahamut swallowed and pulled off his faceplate, baring his face to the cold air, “then it’s what we must witness. But today, it’s Aulea. Find Carbuncle.”
Between their crackling, helpless fury, Ramuh and Titan exchanged glances too deep to comprehend in words.
“I’ll take the skies,” said Ramuh, and light flared in his eyes like dawn, dusk and moonrise all in one.
Titan stretched his limbs until they popped and cracked like firewood.
“I’ll take the ground.”
And Leviathan, reading something terrible in Bahamut’s blue gaze, bit her lips hard enough to bleed and dashed her tears from her eyes.
“I’ll take the water,” she spat, “and damn you all when we find him.”
Bahamut just stared into the swirling tragedy below him, feeling his eyes sting for the first time in millennia.
“Go with my blessing. Go with the prophecy on your backs.”
“Aye,” said Titan, who threw himself into shards of light. Ramuh followed with a bow, swirling out of sight on a gust of stormwinds.
Leviathan simply ripped her necklace off and threw it at Bahamut’s feet, twisting her form into glorious scale and fin.
Bahamut didn’t watch her go, averting his gaze until the primal crash of water and wave had faded. He couldn’t blame her rage. What was it to know something doomed, and love it regardless? But he was the oldest, the strongest and the one ordained to write the prophecies of those below. Much as he wanted to strike it out and make Regis the hero, the triumphant, the fulfilled, Bahamut didn’t want him to be the King of Kings, either.
There was only one fate for the one who bore that title.
Far beneath, Bahamut watched Aulea take a potion and crush it against her breast, her eyes burning with intent, despite her fading life.
“Get him out of me, whole and safe,” she said to her midwives, and it didn’t sound like a prayer. It sounded like the last order of a queen.
Bahamut sank to his knees before the portal, hand splayed over her brave and beautiful face. Wherever their healer was, Bahamut prayed he was fast enough to run to her side.
It was Titan who found Carbuncle, keeping watch over hunters clearing a daemon nest. Unable to wait for him to understand the situation, Titan picked up his tiny counterpart and threw him like a stone at the citadel.
Their exchange unseen by the hunters, to them it just seemed like a minor earthquake had occurred.
Four of them died when the daemons attacked.
Carbuncle arrived in time for the delivery of a limp and silent infant, its purpled skin slick with blood. It was too small.
Beside him, its mother’s eyes had turned vague and empty. Her chest had stopped rising.
Carbuncle looked to the heavens, knowing they looked back at him.
He turned his ruby light to the child.
All else could fall to ruin, but the King of Kings had to live.
Bahamut didn’t look up as the others arrived, rushing to his post. The cries in his head had stopped the moment the healing light had touched the baby’s skin. It would live.
Aulea was dead.
Perhaps it was the fate of the Lucian line. Birth in blood. Death in blood. Their fate was written as though it were carved in stone. Regis would either live to see the death of his son, or die to give him his promised power.
For the first time, Bahamut didn’t care. The prophecy was fulfilling itself in pieces, out of his reach to change. All he could do was watch.
At his shoulder, Leviathan’s spined fingers dug trenches in his armour. Rage shook her until it began to shake him, too.
“This speck, this thing that couldn’t even be born without our grace? That’s our king?” Hissing a breath, she spat at the image reflected in the portal. “Let them all burn. Ifrit was right.”
Titan just rocked back on his heels, shaking his head. At his side, Ramuh thrust his staff at Leviathan’s throat, driving her back from the scene.
“Go join him then, Hydraean of the sea.” Sparks flashed in the carved head of the staff, forcing her back. “But you won’t harm this child. The covenant—”
“That thing down there, that grain of sand? It will never earn my mark. It could spend a thousand years and it will never convince me it can save Eos. Not even with Regis’ hand on his back, pushing him forward.” Her mouth trembled once, then thinned into spite. “That thing will never be worthy.”
Titan leaned on the portal’s stone rim, bending to stare at the bloody scene below. The doors to the chamber had been thrown open, and a familiar man was lurching forward, still every inch a king for all his dishevelment and confusion. Then later, his grief.
“Regis might disagree,” Titan rumbled, turning away from the sight. “Bahamut, you need to convey the message. Tell him of his son’s destiny. It’s your duty.”
Duty. Again, duty.
Bahamut dragged his eyes from the silently weeping king, who by then had clutched his tiny mewling son to his chest. History repeating itself. A wet nurse. A broken king. A new prince, still innocent of its path ahead.
The line of Lucis didn’t deserve this.
“Let the Chosen grow in his father’s grace, first,” suggested Ramuh. “Let him have a few years of peace.” Bahamut knew he wasn’t talking about the child.
“A few years of peace,” Bahamut repeated, and closed his eyes.
“I suppose we can grant that much.”
Chapter 5: Bow My Head
“I wonder if it’s sacrilege to drink by the light of the crystal,” Regis mused, turning the bottle in his hand until the amber liquid caught the soft glow at his back. “I do hope the Six can take pity on me, just for this one night.”
Within the faceted walls of the crystal, Bahamut felt his mouth stretch into a smile. But there was no more amusement in him than there was dry humour in Regis. Who they were pretending for, he had no idea. As far as Regis was concerned, he was utterly alone. And Bahamut…well. He’d retreated into the crystal and hadn’t resurfaced yet, content to punish himself with his loneliness. And to be a coward, unable to watch the king hold his son through the portal, knowing Aulea’s body was entombed beneath the citadel because they hadn’t been fast enough. Because some lives were set in stone, beyond even his long and ageless reach.
“Noctis continues to thrive. He’s gaining all that baby fat they talk about, despite being born so early and so small.” Regis took a long swallow from his bottle. He didn’t cough afterward. “He has the chubbiest thighs I’ve ever seen on a baby.”
Bahamut tipped his head back against the furthest edge of the crystal. They were almost back to back, offset just enough that he could turn his head to spy on Regis’ profile. Like that, their size difference was distorted by the crystal’s barrier. Like that, they could almost have been two men drinking together, only a finger’s width to separate them.
“You were a fat baby,” Bahamut said tiredly. “Just a long line of fat royal babies, probably.”
“He threw up on my shoulder, yesterday,” Regis continued, unable to hear him. “I feel it was some retribution for laughing at his wobbling legs.” A pause, then, “First time I’d laughed since she died.”
Bahamut lowered his head, staring down at his armoured hands. The metal claw tips on his gauntlets were a reflection of the black claws beneath, he knew. The armour didn’t hide anything, or protect anything. Just another farce, as he was a farce; pretending to listen with great wisdom and gravity, when in truth he clung to every word.
“I think you spoke to me, once.” Bahamut blinked hard as Regis’ words filtered through. “Gave me a chance, gave me strength when I doubted it in myself. After all, who could live up to a man like my father? What king could do better? I was lost, I was alone, and for the first time I felt the myths like they were all within my reach. Like I was part of them.” Another long pull from the bottle in his grasp. Regis’ shoulders lifted in a long sigh. “It’s been years since I felt that.”
It seemed to come out like an old regret and a thank you.
Bahamut wondered if he shouldn’t warn Regis to be careful of what he wished for.
He was just contemplating leaving the king to his musings when the familiar glow of the ring touching the crystal lit his floating abyss from the outside in. Regis had turned on his knees and planted his palm against the most unforgiving edge of the crystal. Blood was already slipping down his palm, staining the stone pink.
The light within the crystal was blinding. Bahamut straight-up started to panic. If the crystal registered the blood of a Lucian king, it could reach back with or without his permission. To protect him, it could—
Draw him inside, Bahamut realised just as Regis was swallowed by brilliance and pulled into the living heart of the stone. Where he was.
“No, no, no,” Bahamut chanted, reducing his size and ripping off every piece of armour he could before Regis managed to coalesce into being. Too many artworks depicted him in his enormous draconian form. With Regis still in the dark about Noctis it was far too soon for them to meet. If at all.
When Regis finally blinked and took in his surroundings, Bahamut was bare but for the thin dragon hide of his pants and the black armour that encased him to his thighs. His blue-black hair was tied back at his nape, nothing special, but the ebony scales on his cheekbones, inner elbow and waist would give any human pause. And his eyes—well, blue was entirely common, wasn’t it?
Regis took one look around himself and half-fell back against the cradling luminance of the inner crystal.
“Surely I didn’t drink that much,” he whispered hoarsely, staring up at the shifting light of the realm. Then he caught sight of Bahamut and turned entirely ashen. “By the Six.”
Bahamut then realised he’d changed his appearance and size, but not his wings. Big, black, leathery wings were still sticking out of his back like ominous flags. Why hadn’t he simply run away? He watched with woeful misery as Regis pushed himself to his feet and approached cautiously, quickly finding his way in the floating sanctum. Of course he picked it up fast, Bahamut thought dolefully. There wasn’t a damn thing Regis did poorly. For the first time, Bahamut thought he might resent that.
“Who are you?” Regis stopped a few feet shy of touching distance, his brow knit in confusion. “Is this…am I inside the crystal’s heart?”
Bahamut wondered if he could simply pretend he was mute, or didn’t understand the language. Perhaps he could simply knock Regis unconscious and boot him cleanly out of the crystal. Would that work? Why didn’t he know if that would work?
His panic must have shown on his face, because the next thing Bahamut registered was a hand on his scaled elbow, fingers squeezing gently.
“Are you well?” Regis asked. Bahamut looked down at the hand touching him. A pale hand, faintly warm against the greater heat of his skin. Regis’ hand. Touching him.
“This is all wrong,” Bahamut whispered, and slid to his knees. “You’re not meant to be here.”
“I did get that impression,” came the dry admission, as a hand ran down Bahamut’s spine in an approximation of a comforting gesture. More touching! “Again, who are you? Are you ill? Are you always here?” Something seemed to strike the young king. “Are you the one who listens?”
Bahamut wondered if he was going to throw up. Sweat broke out across his brow. Too many questions!
“Just—shut up for a moment,” he grated, mentally grasping for a path ahead. “I’m trying to think.”
“My apologies.” Patting his shoulder gently, Regis sat back and waited. Whether it was the drink or his own calmly accepting nature, he seemed content for Bahamut to take his time in gathering his thoughts. Bahamut: the scaled, winged thing living inside his ancestral crystal. He was suddenly coming to understand why Regis hadn’t batted an eye at the giant spoon that landed in his throne room. He held a kind of quiet gravity few others possessed.
Bahamut realised he was going to miss that, when Regis died and joined his kin.
When he lifted his head, his mind and vision clear at last, Bahamut took his first full view of Regis since Aulea had passed.
Garbed in his black raiment, his half-cape and chains of gold connecting a concealed shoulder guard to his chest, Regis could have easily looked like every other king of Lucis since the crystal was bestowed to their bloodline. Somehow, he didn’t. His dark hair hung rakishly over one green eye, dishevelled somewhere in his travel between dimensions. Shot lightly with silver, it made him look older than his thirty-one years. With his neatly-groomed beard and faint laugh lines gathering at the corner of his eyes, Regis gave the appearance of wisdom, warmth and sadness. He looked like a king, Bahamut thought, torn between sorrow and fierce, abiding pride. He didn’t need the curved mythril barb of Lucis woven into his hair to mark him royalty. He didn’t need a single thing.
“I’m a messenger,” Bahamut said, voice gravelly as he spoke around the knot in his throat. “Nothing greater than that. I guard the crystal’s heart, and I watch from its depths. You shouldn’t be here, King Regis. Drawing on the crystal’s power—”
“Drains my lifeforce,” Regis finished, the faintest curl of a smile deepening his lined features. “I understand. I apologise for the intrusion, and yet I confess I’m curious: has it been you, all these long years? Do you hear me, when I find the words to speak?”
Bahamut stared. As Regis’ expression shifted and he reached out with one bloodied hand, he wondered what the king might see. A frightened messenger? Or an ancient god, shivering in his skin for reasons he could no longer name? With each moment passing by, Regis was losing his vitality. He was ageing in a way that had nothing to do with the true passage of time.
Bahamut caught the bleeding hand with his own clawed one, smoothing his other over the pale skin of the back of Regis’ knuckles. Bahamut ignored the stunned confusion on his face as he raised it to his lips.
“You cannot come here again, Lucian king. Not ever again. There’s no solace for you here.”
“You lie,” Regis countered steadily. “And you are the one who listens, of that I am certain. You’re the one who spoke, the one who told me—”
“If you seek the gods, find your oracle,” Bahamut said, and pushed Regis’ hand from his grasp. “This sanctum was never meant for one such as you. You are merely king among kings. The crystal lends you its power only because it must.”
Anything, anything Bahamut could say that might hurt him, he used without mercy or care for either of them. Regis could never enter the crystal again. He could never see it as solace, or sanctum, or confessional. It was not his friend. Not his salvation. It could only be his death.
Regis’ mouth thinned, his eyes turning cool as he pushed himself to his feet. Blood dripped off his fingertips, unheeded.
“With respect, messenger, the crystal was bequeathed to my line by the great god Bahamut himself. Until he tells me otherwise, I will treat it as my own, and use its power as I see fit to protect my hearth and home. You may relay that to your gods.”
From his kneeling position, Bahamut looked up at Regis with such terrible pride, it felt like it could shake his soul apart if he let it. Even in his anger, his quiet dignity, even in a lost dimension meeting some otherworldly thing, Regis was still himself. Duty, and duty, and kindness beyond measure.
“Why couldn’t it have been you?” Bahamut asked helplessly, and hated himself to his core for even speaking the words. “We wanted it to be you, with all our broken hearts.”
Bahamut expected no answer, and lowered his head almost to one armoured knee. So what if it resembled obeisance? So what if Regis saw his misery? He’d never remember it once dawn broke. It would all be some strangely-coloured dream, trapped in a bottle of amber liquid and his own secrets. Would that Bahamut could forget it all, too.
A hand touched Bahamut’s hair, hesitating a moment before fingers slid down to feel the curve of his skull, the exposed nape of his neck.
“If it’s not me,” Regis said quietly, “it means that there’s still light in this world, doesn’t it? It means we all have time. Just a little more time. I am content to be the king that can still guide his people with the sun at his back.” He swallowed. “For however long I am able to do so.”
Forty-eight, Bahamut caught himself thinking. Mors died at forty-eight. Seventeen years in the hourglass remained. At least seventeen more years. Looking up at Regis, feeling the fingertips brush through his hair, he wondered how in all the ages he could prolong that brilliant and blinding lifeforce, just a little bit longer.
Were they gods or were they not?
Bahamut pushed himself to his feet, knowing he towered over even Regis’ stately height. He shook his wings out, stretching them long and wide. They were his, after all. Pulling a deep, rib-aching breath into his lungs, Bahamut cast away his shadows and guilt with one strong beat of his wings. If Regis didn’t blame them, if he was still looking forward, how could they do any less?
“You’re embarrassing all of us, you know,” Bahamut said frankly, the corner of his mouth curving up in a helpless, grateful smile. “And you do your line so proud.”
Regis shrugged, his gaze thawing into true warmth.
“Well, I do walk in the grace of the gods,” he said dryly. “Now, how do I get out of here?”
Bahamut was only too grateful to assist, his heart full and aching in a way he couldn’t explain.
Four more years until the choosing. They had that long to spare their king.
Bahamut intended to see they made the most of it.
Chapter 6: Flares
When Bahamut finally emerged from the crystal’s sanctum, armour on and faceplate firmly in place, he wasn’t entirely sure how much time had passed in the lower world. It all blurred so strangely at times, like they ran out of sync when he wasn’t paying attention. After depositing Regis back on his metal scaffold, bemused and safe on his side of the dimensions, Bahamut had simply sat down quietly and stared into the soft aurora of shifting colours that surrounded him.
He was sure that feeling a little starstruck wasn’t becoming of an astral, at least not one so mighty and powerful as he. They’d written songs about him, for light’s sake. Art and poetry and bard’s tales. The mortals used to weep and cast themselves at his feet like ants, their impossibly small hands grasping at his dusty armoured heels. What made Regis’ regard any different?
Bahamut was still pondering the thought when he came upon the portal and found an argument underway.
“Don’t you understand romance at all?” Leviathan was saying, lounging full-length upon the stone rim, head propped up in her hand. Her iridescent hair hung into the swirling well, catching the light like seaweed finding sunlight. Somewhere, she’d found and replaced her ornate necklace, the one she’d thrown at Bahamut like a challenger’s gauntlet. He was quietly glad to see it.
What were they talking about?
“There’s signs,” Leviathan continued, too intent upon her argument to notice his approach. “Not always spoken, not always made obvious. Small, needless touches. Glances darting away before the other notices.” She pinched her spined thumb and forefinger together. “The tiniest waver in an otherwise steady voice. He’s in love, Titan.”
The giant in question just crossed his arms, propping his elbows on the rim at Leviathan’s scaled feet as he peered down into the dimensional depths. The frown that creased his brow was more severe than usual, his bronze eyes darting back and forth at whatever was playing out.
“It just looks like fighting to me. Shitty fighting, at that. Clarus could have ended him six moves ago.”
Leviathan flopped onto her back and cast her hands into the air in supplication.
“Stars, light and life, please give Titan a brain he can use.”
“I’ve got a brain, and it works,” Titan insisted, booming slightly louder than usual. “Just because I don’t know what love looks like doesn’t make me stupid.”
Bahamut stared at the sudden tableau Titan’s words made of them both. Leviathan could be surprised on occasion, but she so rarely looked ashamed.
Wondering briefly if he should leave, his decision was made for him when Titan spied him out the corner of his eye, gesturing widely for him to join them. Bahamut did so, slowly and warily. The last thing he wanted was Leviathan stabbing him with her harpoon.
“Who’s in love?” he asked, clearing his throat. Leviathan’s eyes flared. “In the portal, that is. Clarus is in love?”
Titan shrugged. “Leviathan thinks Cor is presenting for Regis by displaying his prowess.”
Bahamut stared at them both.
“He’s not a peacock,” Bahamut said faintly, even as his feet dragged him to the portal. “How old is Noctis now?”
“Three,” said Leviathan, who was pushing her feet into the crook of Titan’s elbow, prompting him to grab them with his hands. “He sleeps a lot, cries a lot, and spits out all his food. Truly the champion of our time.” Her frown only faded as Titan began inspecting her toes, tilting them so the dark green scales changed colour. “Cor and Clarus are putting on a show for their king on the sparring grounds. It’s all very…”
“Flippy,” Titan supplied, eyeing the battle. “There’s a lot of flipping, warping and laughing.”
Flippy, Bahamut thought as he planted his palms on the portal’s rim, standing adjacent to Leviathan and her unwitting masseuse. He knew Cor; five years Regis’ junior and an adept warrior, one of his longtime confidants and friends. Brown hair and blue eyes, with a contained loyalty and always something trapped in his clenched jaw. Perhaps it had been a confession, all this time.
True enough, Regis was contentedly overseeing their sparring match, his eyes bright with laughter as his attention darted from one to the other. On his knee, Noctis was asleep, drooling a wet patch onto Regis’ lapel. His glossy hair obscured his features, but Bahamut imagined the child was content.
“Come now, Clarus,” Regis called as Cor swept his legs from under the older man and backflipped away, “is this stripling really going to best you?”
“Stripling?” Cor repeated, sounding strangled as he summoned his blade once more. “I’m twenty-nine. Clarus is just getting old.”
“Clarus is my age.” Regis’ arched eyebrow was pure calculation. Cor didn’t bat an eyelash.
“As I said, your majesty.”
Grinning like a fox, Clarus charged Cor in a flat-out tackle, driving them both hard onto the mats. Destablised by his own momentum, Cor rolled a few times before he could stab the foam floor with his blade and come to a stop.
Regis, in all his kingly mercy, flicked his fingers at his panting retainer. White light crackled off his fingertips and arced across the training floor, striking Cor on the buttocks with a snap and flash of lightning. Cor shot away like a cut snake, swearing his head off.
At the portal, Leviathan and Bahamut leaned in closely. That casual display of magic had either been planned for at least a minute beforehand, or—
“Ramuh,” Bahamut said slowly. “Exactly where is that old lightning rod?”
“Seeing a snow goddess about a covenant,” Titan said, swirling his fingers in the astral pool. Leviathan pressed the arch of her foot to his cheek and pushed. He shoved it away. “What? Didn’t we all know Ramuh likes an underdog? He wants Shiva on his side when Noctis comes of age.”
“Shiva is a giantess asleep in a glacier,” said Leviathan pointedly. “She has no stake in this future.”
“Yet,” Bahamut added, thoughtful despite himself. His eyes met Leviathan’s slitted gaze. “It’s unlike Ramuh to involve himself so freely. To bless Regis with thunder and go on to awaken your sister, it speaks of a plan.”
“One he didn’t tell us about,” Titan said gloomily. “So we’re stuck here watching Lucian Ninja Warrior.”
Frowning down at the portal once more, the rippling surface was casting back an image of Clarus giving Cor a hand up, tossing him a clean towel to wipe his face. Approaching them, not even trying to mask his smile, Regis hefted Noctis in his arms as he closed the distance. There was a very minor limp in his stride, Bahamut noticed, one that had never been there before. Regis hadn’t approached the crystal in some time. Casting a protection spell over an entire city and maintaining it day and night was bound to have a few side effects.
Cor was still surreptitiously rubbing his ass when Regis pushed Noctis to his chest, forcing the terminal bachelor to catch the sleeping lump of drool and hair or risk dropping him. Clumsily supporting the boneless toddler, Cor braced his small head with one large palm, freezing as Noctis mumbled in his sleep. The eyes he raised to Regis were horrified.
“I’m afraid to sneeze,” he told Regis, who laughed and whipped the towel from around his neck. Clarus gripped Regis’ shoulder once in acknowledgement as he retreated to the showers, taking some unseen cue from his king. Bahamut found himself leaning forward to observe the exchange.
“Do you really think me old, Cor?” Regis asked, covering his hands in the towel and driving it into the short, sweaty spikes of Cor’s brown hair. “Thirty-four is old these days? I must be losing my touch.”
“Your touch is fine, majesty,” Cor replied, his eyes obscured by the towel, and even Bahamut could see his cheeks stain with a light flush. “I was only trying to goad Clarus. It got out of hand. Cid used to—” The sentence fragmenting briefly, Regis’ hands stilled against Cor’s sweaty scalp. “I suppose I’m not the joker he was.”
Regis hesitated further, before drawing the towel from Cor’s head and fixing it neatly back around his neck. Still slumbering peacefully, Noctis felt no difference between his father and his bodyguard. His limp, warm weight was carefully supported by Cor’s large hands, for all his clumsy misgivings.
“You do just fine, Cor.” Regis reached out to take Noctis back into his arms, positioning him so the chain of his armour wouldn’t press into his soft cheek. “I do regret that I can’t join the fray anymore, but unless you want a thunder spell or one of the royal arms up your rear end, I’m not much for sparring these days.”
“Your arm, majesty?” Cor blurted, and the entire scene seemed to slow into treacle and ice. Leviathan nearly rolled into the portal, stopped only by Titan grabbing her upper thigh with one scarred hand, pushing her hip back to the stone.
Ignorant of Leviathan’s yelling, Bahamut was so close to the portal he almost felt his plated nose touching the mystical water.
Regis blinked only once at Cor’s question, though his countenance had turned some strange colour between pink and pale. Still, his hazel-green eyes were sharper than ever.
“Cor, is that a proposi—”
A flare of crackling light filled the sparring room, bright and deafening, a popping multicoloured display that threw the entire scene into disarray. A show of power that hadn’t been seen in the realm of mortals for a few hundred years. Shouting in alarm, Cor and Regis warped out of the room in different directions, their conversation forgotten in the panic.
Bahamut’s nose stung. Rubbing it, he found it came away wet from the portal’s water.
Titan stared at Bahamut like he’d never seen him before.
“Did you just initiate mega flare on Cor Leonis? With Noctis in the room?”
Stunned to his ancient scaly core, Bahamut tugged down his toothed helm to cover his eyes.
“I got too close,” he said by way of explanation, backing away. Still clutching the portal’s rim, Leviathan started cackling like she’d never laughed in her entire long life.
“Dragonblocked!” she gasped out, grabbing Titan’s hand where it still clutched her leg. “Forget Cor, it’s Bahamut who has the crush.”
Tipping his head back skeptically, Titan simply rolled his eyes as Leviathan laughed herself to tears. When his eyes switched to Bahamut, the draconian only offered a spread of his hands and a shrug. She’s obviously crazy, the gesture said. Titan nodded gravely, and Bahamut had never been so glad to find Ramuh had taken a journey from their ethereal realm.
That was more than enough revelation and embarrassment for one day.
Regis and Cor?
Despite his instinctive recoil, Bahamut found himself interested to see where that might lead.
From a respectable distance next time, perhaps.
Titan didn’t know a lot about children, or parenting, or the concept of bedtime, but even he could respect Regis’ attempts to get Noctis to sleep in an actual bed of his own.
It looked like a good bed, to his untrained eye. Plush with blankets and soft pillows of varying size and shape, the black bedding bore the gold symbol of the house of Lucis in bold contrast. It looked like the bed of the Chosen, and a little like it might also transform into some kind of weapon. Noctis’ room was shining black granite and gold from end to end, heaped with toys and books carefully arranged so that he could reach them.
So why did the kid hate sleeping there so much? Idiot. Taking a huge gulp of his protein shake, Titan burped directly into the pool, watching the water ripple as it reflected the wailing child clinging to Regis’ leg. Kid needed some balls.
Besides, Regis looked absolutely shattered. Had done for a while, if Titan thought about it. Usually when Regis slept they were able to sweep across to Clarus, or Cor, even Noctis if he was able to be separated from his father for more than two hours at a time. Clingy bastard. But thinking back, there hadn’t been those usual opportunities. Regis hadn’t been sleeping, and it was starting to show in the shadows beneath his eyes, the way he pushed aside his meals to sign off on reports and receive sitreps on the ongoing war with the Empire. The war they were steadily losing.
And there was Noctis, bawling because he didn’t want to sleep in his soft bed. Maybe Leviathan had been right to rage and hiss at their apparent Chosen. Regis hadn’t been such a brat at four years old.
Planting his fist high on his cheek and leaning on it, Titan watched Regis gently attempt to disentangle his son, trying not to roll his eyes at the child’s fussing.
“Get in your bed, maggot,” Titan rumbled, glaring down at the boy. “Let your father rest.” But if anything, Noctis simply howled louder, pushing his face into his father’s thigh; small, stubby fingers hooking into the gold knee plate strapped to Regis’ leg.
“Don’t go,” Noctis begged, round cheeks flushed bright with exertion and tears. His dark hair was sticking up in all directions, at odds with the usual silky mop he sported. His blue eyes were magnified by the tears standing in them, his dark lashes thick and spiked with moisture. Almost on cue, an enormous crystalline tear rolled down his chubby cheeks, quickly thumbed away by his father. Despite his clear exhaustion, Regis found the energy to smile, his laughter quiet in the stillness of the room.
“Noctis, what is it? Is it too cold in here? Too quiet? What if we left the light on?”
“Noooo,” came the high-pitched howl, muffled as Noctis buried his face in his father’s trouser leg. “It comes here when you’re gone!”
Regis blinked in alarm, glancing around the room to its locked glass windows and balcony door. The only things in the room were dancing shadows from the soft lamplight.
“What comes, my little princeling?”
Noctis sniffled, long and wet.
“The dragon in the ceiling. It watches me.”
“Dragon?” Regis repeated, something strange in his tone. Titan found himself sitting up straighter, hands falling flat against the pool’s wide stone rim. “What does this dragon look like?”
True to his childhood imagination, Noctis was quick to paint an expressive image of an enormous spiked monster replete with sharp blades and teeth, waiting to snap and gobble him down when Regis left him to sleep alone. The tale was vast and breathlessly relayed, as though the boy was afraid he wouldn’t have time enough to tell it all to his bemused father.
Titan shifted thoughtfully, taking a long gulp of his shake. He barely looked up as the clanking footsteps of their resident armoured dragon approached. Bahamut probably took his armour off somewhere these days, but Titan couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen him without it. He very closely resembled Noctis’ dragon in the ceiling, which…
Titan thought it over.
“Bahamut.” He waited for the draconian to brace one knee on the edge of the pool and stare down, tipping his dragonhead helm back so he could see with his own eyes. The half-mask of his faceplate hid everything but his startling eyes, as ever. “You been watching the Chosen sleep?”
Bahamut shrugged, his attention on the pair below as Regis swung his young son up onto the bed and settled beside him, toeing off his wingtip shoes as he did so.
“I watch everyone.” The words were stated flatly. Titan could have smirked.
“Well, the kid’s watching you back.”
He was gifted with one startled side-long glance before they were both distracted by the scene beneath. Noctis was ensconced in his soft blankets, tucked closely to his father’s side as Regis stroked his fingers through the luxuriant disarray of Noctis’ hair, smoothing it back down from its riot of tufts and spikes. It made for a cute picture, but it was what Regis was saying that had Titan glued to the pool’s reflection.
“You see this ring I wear?” Regis said, turning his left hand over so that Noctis could see the black band on his third finger. Noctis nodded solemnly, pressing his thumbs to the sword motif on it, then squinted hard at the engraving holding the crystal on the small circlet. “Did your dragon look like that? Because if it did…” A shadow seemed to pass heavily over Regis’ face, “then you’re a very special boy indeed.”
“Looked scarier,” Noctis replied, dropping his father’s hand. “Like a monster.”
By the pool’s edge, Bahamut pulled his head back and turned around, resting his bladed back against the raised stone well. His eyes were wide and staring.
“I’m giving the Chosen nightmares,” he murmured to himself, shocked. “I’m why Regis hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks?”
“Shut up and listen.” Titan tossed his empty cup at Bahamut’s overly-ornate head. It caught on the jut of one of his horns, dribbling leftover milk down the helmet. Bahamut barely noticed.
“Well,” Regis was saying as he gathered Noctis to his side, squeezing lightly, “our family is descended from one who made a promise to that dragon. In return, he gave us a jewel of his kind, and a ring with which to channel its power. It’s our job to use it to hold off the darkness, at any cost.” Noctis dug his chin lightly into his father’s chest as he shifted to get comfortable, frowning as he pulled the ring up to examine it again.
“He’s our dragon?”
“I believe so,” Regis said thoughtfully. “Perhaps he watches over us to keep us safe. Could you think of anything that might challenge such a ferocious creature?”
Noctis was already shaking his head emphatically.
“He’s big,” he said, like that explained everything. “The biggest dragon.”
“And mighty,” Regis agreed, and reached into his own hair to slide the crown from where it rested behind his ear. “The draconian has walked with our bloodline since the very beginning, Noctis. Do you see him here?” Tilting the barbed mythril crown so light caught the metal and blazed it gold, Regis waited for the moment Noctis realised it was shaped in the profile of a great winged man, his hair flared back like horns as it streamed in an invisible wind. “As each king inherits the ring and all that comes with it, the crown of Lucis reminds him that he never walks his path alone. Bahamut, the dragon king, great astral and god of all gods, watches us eternal with his fierce eyes.”
Noctis seemed awestruck when Regis handed him the crown, letting him turn it over and feel the skin-warmed metal, pricking his fingers lightly against the horn-like curves. When he tried to put the elaborate cuff over his own ear, Regis hummed softly and held it in place. The horn of Bahamut streamed through his dark hair for a single breathless instant, until it fell into his lap, still too large for such a tiny prince.
“One day,” Regis said warmly, sliding it back where it belonged. His own hair was dusted silver-black, a duller contrast than it used to be. “Until then, let our great dragon see you to an easy rest, small king.” Blowing out his cheeks in a sulk, Noctis thankfully didn’t protest as Regis drew himself away, tugging the blankets up around his son’s small shoulders. The kiss he brushed against Noctis’ hair was summarily ignored as wide blue eyes stared up at the ceiling, darting from corner to corner like he would find his fanciful dragon waiting there patiently.
Regis was tugging his shoes back on when a sleepy voice asked one more question.
“Does Baamut have friends?”
Above, Titan stared intently, his eyes like round coins as he waited for Regis’ response. By then even Bahamut had turned back to the portal, much as he tried to keep his head out of view of their eerie little prince.
“He has several,” Regis said slowly, sounding surprised. “But they sleep now. As good princes also must.” He waited for Noctis to grumble himself out, eyes finally sliding closed and staying that way. Asleep at last.
Holding his breath, Regis switched the lamp off and made for the door as fast he could, half-tripping on a discarded toy truck as he went. The curse he whispered in the darkness was all that remained as the door opened and shut behind him, its small wedge of yellow light vanishing with his exit.
By the portal, Titan rested his chin on the stone.
Unburdened by his father’s tale, their small Chosen opened his eyes partway and smiled sleepily up at the shadowed ceiling.
“I’ll be your friend,” Noctis whispered to the darkness, before his eyes swept shut once again. The slumber he fell to was as deep and trusting as any the astrals had witnessed in all their long lives.
Bahamut stared in silence, eyes blank and stunned as he absorbed the events of the entire exchange.
“The kid’s special all right,” Titan said grimly, even a little sadly. He plucked his cup off Bahamut’s horn and gave his armoured shoulder a strong squeeze. “He’s no oracle to hear our voices, but that much awareness is beyond any normal king.”
“Our final proof,” said another voice, bloodless and decidedly female. Leviathan stood behind his shoulder, having been there for some time judging by the fingertips fluttering hesitantly at her breast, and the sad twist of her mouth. “Regis told a lovely little fairy tale. He only left out the part where the ring is draining him dry, igniting his bones a little more for each day he keeps protecting his people.”
Bahamut didn’t respond, but his head dipped slightly lower, as though Leviathan’s words had a weight all their own.
Titan just pushed himself to his feet, feeling strange and unsettled by what he’d witnessed. There was an itch between his shoulders and something tugging at his chest, and all the portal-watching in the eternal beyond wasn’t going to fix it.
“If they ever let me drop that dead meteor, I’ll test his strength.” Titan didn’t see a point in forging a new covenant otherwise. “And then I’ll see him through when his comrades can’t.”
“And I’ll hurl the skies down upon his enemies,” said Ramuh, leaning on his staff behind Leviathan. His usually calm gaze was blazing with ferocious light. Still, his smile was as knowing as ever. “But I’ll make him find me, first.”
Leviathan’s face was mottled red with unspoken fury and denial as she spun slowly, looking at each of them like she couldn’t believe the words that fell from them. Such easy vows.
“I will come at the last,” breathed a new voice, crisp and crystalline in the tension-thick silence that had fallen. “When all others cannot, or will not.” Eyes of spiderweb blue flicked across Leviathan’s stiff shoulders and pale lips—and kept going. “For I am as patient as the ancient ice.”
“Shiva,” Bahamut breathed, standing at last. In a rare show of acknowledgement, he reached up and tugged off his entire faceplate and helm, casting it aside so she could see his face. So they all could. “What tugs the glacian from her long slumber? The boy is still small.”
“Yes,” she agreed, smiling at Ramuh. “It’s why I’ve come. When he will need us, the world will know darkness. I intend to place myself closest before that time, and to do so I will need to move soon.”
“What are you talking about?” Leviathan spat, finally finding her tongue. “You’re three hundred feet tall and sleeping in a glacier down there.”
Shiva simply smiled her secret, close-lipped smile.
“Yes. And that is why I must let them kill me.”
As she detailed her plan, looking to Ramuh for urging as questions spilled from each of them, it began to occur to Titan that they were forming an alliance unlike any before seen in the lower world. To test Noctis, to push his limits, to only come when needed and in accordance with their covenants. To, when the darkness had spread, spring forth from the astral pool and throw themselves back into the fight. The idea of cracking through the clay of eons and standing tall in the world of mortals once more, to push off the crippling decay of ages and test his strength—
Well, Titan liked that idea a lot.
“Then it’s settled,” Ramuh said finally, deliberately ignoring Leviathan’s cold gaze. She had not taken part in their discussion. Nobody had tried to make her. “When the time comes, this is how we act. Bahamut, are you in agreement?”
“Agreed. I await to deliver the revelation, as ever. Ramuh, you will take my place as chief protector.” There was no particular inflection in Bahamut’s voice, but his mouth was curiously tight. “But before all of this, there’s one duty that must be fulfilled.”
That gave them all pause. One by one the realisation sank in, until even Leviathan’s prickly anger had dissipated. The one duty they’d tried to put off until it became too dangerous to do otherwise. Titan bowed his head.
“We have to tell Regis that his son is the King of Kings.”
Bahamut’s exhale seemed to come from his very bones. For good or ill, it was the prophecy, and it was being fulfilled by slow increments.
Noctis turned five tomorrow.
“Summon the oracle.”
If you're wondering about Regis' description of the crown, take a look here. Can you see what he sees?
Chapter 8: A Bad Farewell
It had been some time since Bahamut last spoke to a Fleuret oracle. He knew well that Ramuh spoke his piece on occasion, warning of natural disasters, dry spells and failing crops, and that Titan passed on his apologies for the odd occasion that he felt a sneezing fit come upon him. The ebb and flow of nature had been the only true connection the astrals had to Eos before Noctis had been born. Wars, within and without—they were for the mortals to quibble about. Even ones that relied upon a crystal to see themselves safe. There had been no true danger to it, even then.
With a heavy heart, Bahamut had cast the others from the side of the portal. This was his communion. His prophecy.
Sylva Nox Fleuret dreamed of starlight and dark green fields rustled by a warm wind. In that illusion, she stood staring up at the bombardment of streaking stars and comets, each one shooting like a silver sword across the heavens.
“Oracle. The appointed hour has come.”
Sylva turned to face him, the wonder in her eyes replaced by confusion. She did not forget to bow.
“Great one.” When she lifted her head, her lips were parted with sorrow, her eyes wet. “I have not spied upon your visage before. I always thought—I didn’t want you to come. Forgive me. It’s Prince Noctis, isn’t it?”
With each step that he approached, Bahamut felt the swords at his back shiver and tremble for joy at being so close to the realm of the mortals. Even in a dreamscape shot with starlight and the humid gales of summer darkness, he felt closer to a battle than he could ever remember being since, well. Since he took his heart from his chest, that great glowing thing, cracked it open and handed it to the kings of Lucis.
“Noctis is the King of the Stone. Do your duty, star-maiden, and guide him until his time comes.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve been called maiden,” Sylva replied with a curl of her lips, shaking her head. “I fear that duty will fall to my daughter, Lunafreya. She is young yet, but in her eyes burns the light of the Six. Her heart is pure and her spine is steel. I will guide her until she is able to guide him. Four years his senior, she will be a mentor and a friend.”
“And the trident?”
“Still in my possession. Still safe.” Sylva bowed once more, but when she straightened there was a tension in her stance. “If you are the great god Bahamut, dragon-king and bestower of the crown…”
“Is there a blessing you would give, when I deliver your word to King Regis?”
Through his dragon-faced helm, staring down from such a great height, Bahamut thought he should feel like the immense god he was. Instead, he felt choked by words of old, a promise made and kept, whether he wanted to or not. Words held power. His own included.
“Do your duty,” Bahamut replied, and he couldn’t honestly say whether he meant that order for Sylva or Regis. Regis, who loved his son beyond the measure of time or pain or joy. His last true jewel, Aulea’s treasure.
Sylva was still bowing when Bahamut let himself dissolve from the illusion, splitting into a thousand blue sparks of light, arcing up into the sky to join the other stars staring so balefully from above.
Let it be done, he thought as the portal threw him back into the beyond, ignoring the buckle of his knees that sent him crouching to recover his stance. Gauntleted hand planted against the stone, for a moment Bahamut could only stare at the narrow view his armour afforded him. It was done.
Come the morning, Regis would know his son was the sacrifice of all Eos. As per the prophecy of Bahamut, the great dragon of the line of Lucis.
It made sick sense that fate was a true bitch, even to the gods.
Leviathan was not good, or kind, or noble. She was the sea: the crash of wave that swallowed ships whole, the scream of gale winds whipping water into a frenzy. She was the deep grip of the ocean, pulling down that which she considered hers and hers alone. Drowning everything in the salty, heavy silence of dark depths. That was Leviathan.
Dragging her clawed toes through the water of the astral portal, upon which the reflection of father and son glimmered like submerged steel and old coins, Leviathan watched Regis weep into his sleeping son’s hair and tasted salt in the back of her own throat, like the crest of waves was trying to pull her under as well.
She’d watched the oracle deliver the news, in person and with great sorrow and pride. Regis hadn’t buckled then, or even after he read the old tomes, in one last effort to convince himself it could all be avoided. But like the stone that Titan favoured so greatly, some things were simply so. Even Bahamut couldn’t change their fate. The promise had to be kept, and none had the power to alter a destiny more than one hundred generations in the making.
All was so. As ordained.
Tucking her lank, sea-drenched hair behind her curved ears, watching Regis cry for his son, Leviathan grit her sharp teeth and wanted to rage and scream and break it all to driftwood and ruin.
Her first great, gasping sob felt like the fill of wind in ruined sails, blowing through old cavities that couldn’t hold anything of worth. Her second simply hurt.
The arms that wrapped around her middle were colder than ice floes. The breath that gusted along her cheek was winter itself. It surrounded her until Leviathan thought even she might freeze into oblivion.
“Get off me,” Leviathan forced out, tilting her tear-streaked face away from her sister. “I don’t need you. I don’t need you.” She struggled to push the icy arms from around her, but Shiva persisted, pressing her lips to Leviathan’s temple, her cheek, her chin. Salt water froze on her skin and was brushed away like it never existed.
“You like to think you’re colder than I am,” Shiva whispered, and pushed her snow-dusted head into her sister’s neck. “But the warm water came long before the ice. You are warm, Leviathan. Why pretend to be anything else?”
“Get off me,” Leviathan said, doggedly persistent. She felt almost bereft when Shiva did dissolve beneath her pushing weight, becoming a flurry of white wind that vanished like a dream. Breathing hard, shaken and feeling more alone than she’d been before, she blinked away the lingering moisture in her eyes and grit her teeth, staring down into the astral portal. Ever vigilant and watchful, as gods were supposed to be.
It seemed oddly fitting that upon second look the portal reflected only Noctis sleeping soundly in his bed, with Regis nowhere to be seen. Leviathan wiped her nose, sniffling loudly.
“Typical. Ten billion channels and nothing’s on.”
Regis had been laying siege to the crystal for over an hour.
Bahamut watched him strike the hard outer stone with white-hot whips of lightning and deafening thunder, slinging them with one hand and then the other like they cost him nothing to do so. Ramuh’s blessing was steadily turning into Bahamut’s curse.
The crystal was fine, of course - there was little that could harm it. The stone could be stolen, hidden, moved and disguised, but never harmed. Watching Regis shake himself apart as he spent magic his body couldn’t afford was the hard part. As he exhausted himself through outside means, the ring drew harder on his body to keep the city’s protection strong, tugging him almost to the brink of unconsciousness.
Palms to the spiked crystalline window to Regis’ world, Bahamut watched with sorrow as the king fought his futile battle.
“He’s my boy,” Regis said finally, his voice breaking into a hoarse rasp. “My only boy. Take something else, take anything else.” Falling to his knees upon the suspended platform, Regis bent his head until his brow touched the outer stone crag. “You said once that you wanted it to be me. Did you know then, my friend? Know what the gods would demand?”
Staring at Regis’ bowed head, Bahamut didn’t know what was worse: being spoken to directly with such exhausted sadness, or Regis calling him his friend. Helplessly guilty all the way down to the marrow of his ancient bones, and Regis referred to him as friend. Unable to reply, unwilling to offer excuses, Bahamut simply watched as Regis dragged himself back up to his feet. He was shaking with the toll his magic had taken, his cheeks were slick with silent tears, but his spine was straight. And his eyes—Bahamut could barely look at them. There was too much desperation, too much rage.
“I thought if I was a good king, if I was a good man, if I honoured the crystal of my ancestors…” Regis’ laugh was horrible to hear. He gestured grandly at the windows high above, where the interlocked matrix of Protect glinted in the sky outside. “Does this even have a purpose? Have I wasted my years of youth upholding an eggshell? Have all the kings been the pawn of the gods, simply one failure after another until Noctis could be born? Was there ever a point? This war with Niflheim, Lucis barely holding the line—and all the while minutes of daylight are slowly burning into night.” The proud line of his shoulders began to slump. “Damn Sylva. And damn the Six.” His energy spent, his fight gone, Regis finally buckled.
Bahamut reached out before he could think twice about it, ensnaring the king with the crystal’s light and dragging him inside.
Better than watching him crack his skull on the sharp edge of the crystal, Bahamut told himself as Regis sank limply within the careful grip of the sanctum’s atmosphere, cradled by soft light. His apparent unconsciousness gave Bahamut time to shed his armoured form and coalesce at a similar size, as he had once appeared to him before. He never liked being without his armour; it left him dressed in skin and scale, looking nothing like the great god Regis seemed to hold in such esteem. Or, he used to. Perhaps it was better not to look like the dragon Noctis had stared at so watchfully.
Folding his wings tightly against his back, Bahamut knelt by Regis’ side, pushing him carefully over onto his back. Taking his sleeve between thumb and forefinger, Bahamut lifted Regis’ left hand until he could see the ring of the Lucii. Hopefully the old kings weren’t looking back, he thought as he blew softly on the stone, as one might feed a coal. The light was still strong, as Regis was strong. He would recover, especially there, where the crystal in the ring was closest to its source. Regis might age a few weeks while he was inside, but it would replenish him after weeks of sleepless nights and exhaustion. To say nothing of the magic he’d just spent.
Bahamut was studying the limp hand hanging before him when he realised green eyes were watching him intently.
It looked bad. It had to look bad. Bahamut, crouched next to him like some terrible vulture, plucking at his clothes to stare at his hand? Irrespective of the fury he’d displayed a moment ago, damning the Six and the crystal and—
Really should have seen it coming, Bahamut thought as Regis sat up and clocked him straight in the jaw. It barely rocked his head but his feelings were hurt, and in the great scheme of light and life that was probably the important thing. He didn’t defend himself from the second blow, or even the fourth, letting him spend his grief and rage as he pleased.
Then Regis swapped to his ring hand, and Bahamut felt a piece of his own crystal cut through his cheek. That stopped them both: Regis breathing hard, Bahamut simply surprised as black blood slid down his skin in a wet bead of strangeness. His clawed fingertips came away smeared with it. Dark eyebrows raised in amazement.
“I haven’t seen that in a while.” Folding his legs so he was seated more comfortably, Bahamut licked the blood from his fingertips. It tasted like salt and charcoal to him. Old fire and the ocean. The things one could forget, given enough time.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” asked Regis, still haggard but refusing to give in and rest. They were in a mockery of their usual positions, side by side and facing each other, barely a half-foot between them. Inversions within the crystal seemed fitting, but Bahamut rather wished he was further away. “Don’t tell me messengers ordinarily tolerate such abuse.”
“You deserved it.” Bahamut shrugged, then admitted, “I deserved it.”
Regis’ eyes were as sharp and green as jade. “How so?”
“You were right. I did know, about Noctis.” How easy it should be to look away from that gaze. And yet. “The crystal resonated with his—” Shut up, you idiot.
“With his what?”
Bahamut wished he knew how to lie, or how to bite through his tongue.
“His fear. I know his birth was…not an easy one.”
Regis stared. The disgust that twisted his features wasn’t unexpected, but Bahamut looked away nonetheless.
“Aulea. Did you watch her, too, as you’ve watched me?” The ring was laser-bright on Regis’ finger. “Did you cast her aside like garbage once your precious sacrifice had been born? Did you even bat an eyelid as she bled out? Were you watching, messenger, when I found her white and staring—”
Bahamut’s hand was clenched around Regis’ throat, clawed fingers both pressing him down and silencing him in one movement. A movement he couldn’t recall making. All he knew was his chest was trembling within, his lips skinned back to reveal incisor teeth like knives. Let him be afraid of his scales, his teeth, his claws, Bahamut thought, and wanted to cast him clean through the dimensions and not care where he fell. Let him be afraid of all he took for granted. Just another mortal, just another man looking for something to blame.
“You think we watch and don’t care?” Bahamut snarled in his face. “That it’s a joke? Our hands are tied in ten thousand knots and we’re still trying to do what we can. The prophecy isn’t a story we get to change. It’s the result of price paid in blood and pain, long ago, to safeguard your kind. To make sure you’d have a chance one day to undo what’s been done. You were given the crystal, the ring, the blessing, the oracle—what more can I give after Solheim assured its own destruction? They abused their power. Ifrit was too proud, too angry, but he was never unprovoked. Our power alone can’t fix it. Humanity must atone as well, and light help me, I wish it wasn’t so.”
Through dishevelled dark hair Regis stared up at him in receding anger and surprised pain. Then, he let go of Bahamut’s wrist long enough to reach up and touch the black-scaled curve of his cheek.
“You’re crying,” he rasped, his fingers slipping in dried blood and—tears, yes, tears, Bahamut realised, trying to blink his vision clear. He jerked his head away without thinking, knocking the reaching hand away in what probably looked like revulsion. For once, he didn’t care. Bahamut released his grip on Regis’ high collar and gold chains of office, painfully glad the cloth had been there to muffle the contact between his palm and the king’s pulse. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t care to know.
Bahamut refused to look as Regis sat himself back up, gingerly feeling his way down the length of his throat. Pushing himself to his feet, wings held tightly to the line of his back, he turned away. His fists felt like they’d never unclench.
“You’ll need to lock the crystal away from now on,” Bahamut said finally, relieved to find his voice was steady. “Don’t approach it, don’t speak to it. Treat it as fuel for the spell over the city. Use it like a battery and nothing more. Whether you share its power or covet it for you and your son, I don’t care. Keep it like a trinket in a vault. It doesn’t need light, or heat, or a view of the sky.”
“And you?” Regis husked, not even trying to clear his throat.
“I won’t be here.” His mouth firmed into a flat line of resolve. “Bury it in the soil. Throw it into the sea.”
Knowing Regis would remember how to find his way back through the dimensions and feeling tired to his very soul, Bahamut thought about simply vanishing out of the crystal’s sanctum and leaving him there. The ring saw him safely out last time. It could do so again. Especially after the care he’d taken to replenish its power.
All his thoughts were scattered as two hands clutched the black root of his wings, right where the leathery skin merged into his back. Worse, a forehead pressed between them, high on his skin below the nape of his neck.
“You aren’t a messenger, are you?” Regis said, his voice still cracked and hoarse. Warm, mortal breath was touching his spine. Alarmed, Bahamut flared his wings, hoping to send him sprawling. The result was a blinding pain in his joint as Regis dug his ring finger under the base of his wing and pushed up. Fast learners were bullshit, Bahamut thought, trying not to hiss a breath between his teeth. Still, he refused to reply. Clever bastards didn’t automatically win themselves medals, not in any world. But, always stubborn, Regis had to try again.
“I accused you of letting Aulea die. I apologise, I do. I—” he swallowed hard, “It’s not my desire for my impertinence, my blasphemy to deprive Noctis in any way of the blessing of the Six—”
“Oh, fuck off,” Bahamut cried, and bore the wretched dislocation of his wing as he shoved Regis as far away as he could get him in such a small form. It wasn’t very far, but he landed on his back, which was something at least. “How petty do you think I am? ‘Oh no, Regis is angry with me, I’d better doom the known world and hurl Eos into darkness forevermore.’” He scoffed. “I know a lifetime of royalty probably made you feel like the centre of the universe, majesty, but even your tantrums won’t sway us from protecting your son.” Bahamut barely waited for Regis to right himself this time before he pointed both arm and sagging wing at the way out. “Go now. Raise your son. Lock away the crystal. Fight your war. Be a king.”
But Regis just came storming back once again, and it took everything Bahamut had not to take a step back. Even when hands gripped his arms, just above the elbow where the black scale met the swell of muscle. Why was he always touching his scales…?
“All right, Noctis was an excuse. Well,” Regis amended, “it’s important, of course it is, but—” he tried again, “I would not have your hatred, even if there were no stakes in this future of ours. I would…I rely upon your presence. Forgive the turn of phrase, but you’ve become something of a rock to me.”
Bahamut’s face could not have reflected any more disdain if he’d tried.
“I’m not actually a crystal, you know.”
“I know,” said Regis. His eyes he lifted to him were grim, but terribly unsure. “Sometimes I feel like you are something else entirely. The way you spoke of Solheim, that old ancient place…” He shook off his thoughts, but there was a shadow of doubt in the edge of his brow. “Tell me how to make it well again.”
Bahamut looked at him a long moment, wishing for any interruption to break the silence, to throw him out of that terrible green gaze. Standing as close as he did, Regis was more than a vision through a portal. He was a calculating, scanning gaze, he was warm hands and breath. There was a scent that swirled around him—nothing and everything. Faint soap, probably, and something that lent itself more to skin, sweat and a beating heart. A life scent, something Bahamut had not experienced in centuries.
“It’s already well,” Bahamut said finally, tiredly. “You’ve not said anything I haven’t already said to myself. But I don’t speak in jest. Lock the crystal away. Your enemies seek purchase wherever they can find it, and the crystal is the seat of your power.”
“Noctis’ power,” Regis said, nodding.
“Your power,” Bahamut corrected, and reached back to grip Regis’ shoulders with large hands. “I won’t have you dead because you wanted to speak with me. Lock it up. We’ll both survive.”
Glancing from shoulder to shoulder, Regis studied the black-clawed fingers pressed deeply into his ceremonial raiment. Slowly, as though light were dawning in his gaze, he lifted his chin until he stared over Bahamut’s shoulder, to his wings, now relaxed from their tense clamp. One flagged terribly, but it would heal.
When Regis stepped in close, Bahamut couldn’t help but turn rigid with uncertainty. It gave the king just enough time to tug his hair from its bindings, whipping it free as the leather tie was pulled loose with one rough movement.
“Hm,” Regis said with disappointment, sifting his fingers through the limp mass of thick blue-black hair that tumbled free. “I rather thought it would form spikes like horns.”
“I’m not your god of lore,” Bahamut said, side-eyeing the exploratory fingers dragging through the oft-neglected length of his hair. It was almost true. “The wings don’t do much. Less, today, now that one is out of place. My doing,” he added, before Regis could feel guilty about something else. “It will be fixed in time. Can you stop touching my hair?”
“No,” Regis muttered, reaching up to his temple to drag down another hank of it. The back of his knuckles brushed the patch of scales across the contour of Bahamut’s cheekbone. Bahamut didn’t flinch so much that time. “If I asked you one direct question, would you answer it with nothing but truth? As a favour, before I go.” The never to return was unspoken, but they both heard it.
Bahamut tried to think. Such promises were often folly, but Regis didn’t have a sly bone in his body. He just wanted to know if his nameless messenger was in fact the astral he knew as Bahamut, and what was the risk in telling him that, really? They would never speak again, never meet again. Regis would simply live his life knowing…well, that he’d punched the great god himself right in the face. Who else could claim the same?
They would never speak again, Bahamut repeated to himself, trying to find some solace in that. There was none. From here out, their eyes would need to be upon Noctis. Regis’ as well. No more diary entries at the crystal. No more tantrums. No more drinking, or yelling. Just Noctis, and nothing but, until he came of age.
“I would answer truthfully,” Bahamut said, and tried not to make it sound like a sigh. “So, ask.”
Regis nodded solemnly, dragging dark hair down until it sprang free of the tips of his fingers.
“Is Cor attracted to me?”
Bahamut stared. Regis stared back.
“Get out,” Bahamut cried, shoving the unperturbed king toward the dimensional barrier. “Get out, you monstrous king.”
“That’s not an answer,” Regis managed to say, tired as he was still hooking a leg over Bahamut’s and grabbing a fistful of his hair. “You made a promise!”
“You know that answer, you wasteful wretch.” Trying to shake Regis loose, Bahamut actually nearly overbalanced. “Get off me!”
Trying not to laugh and failing, Regis shoved the tip of his shoe into the bend of Bahamut’s knee. They both went down like a pile of unnecessary fabric and wings.
“I’m sorry, my friend, I just,” Regis planted his palms against Bahamut’s chest to raise himself up, “I think your decorum unnerves me. I prefer you as you are. When you aren’t vexed with me, and we can speak as equals.” It was a huge opening to land Regis a blow and they both knew it well. Bahamut ignored it. He had a king sprawled happily across his chest, minding neither his wings nor his scales. All in all, it wasn’t a bad result after being punched in the face so many times.
It wasn’t a bad farewell.
“If I asked you one direct question,” Bahamut said slowly, looking up at his favourite Lucian king, “would you answer it with nothing but the truth?”
“Of course,” said Regis, as immediate and unwavering as ever. He slid away to kneel carefully by Bahamut’s side. “I will.”
Bahamut sighed heavily, and thought of all the questions he could ask—and then deep down, to the ones that really mattered. To Noctis and duty and sacrifice, and the ring’s drain of power and Regis’ weakening flesh. To the slow spread of darkness that nobody else had really noticed. Bahamut thought about all those things.
“I would ask,” Bahamut said finally, “that you grow your hair out a little. You look like a gangster.”
Regis gaped at him just long enough for Bahamut to flow forward and cast him from the crystal with one direct strike of his palm. In the odd gravity of the sanctum, Regis was sent absolutely flying for the dimensional barrier.
He was gone before he could reply, of course, and still it felt like Bahamut had gotten his way. No sad goodbyes, no real promises. No admissions of identity, or guilt, or how much he’d cared.
Their closest brush from there out would be when Regis’ spirit became one with the ring. A place that Bahamut, for all his grand designs, couldn’t touch. A place of Lucian kings and custom. To remember Regis with his outraged green eyes and laughing mouth, his guard down and fingers still smeared with his blood and tears…it wasn’t perfect. But…
It wasn’t a bad farewell.
Chapter 9: Slick
When the shining steel walls of the crystal’s new haven slid shut around it, Bahamut felt the strangest impression of going blind. Instead of the great open space of the crystal’s viewing room, there was a close-pressing coldness, and a darkness lit only by the glow of the stone’s internal light.
Worse of all, there was no king to rest against the rocky crags of the stone’s outer layer, telling him about his day and asking rhetorical questions purely for his own amusement. It was as he’d recommended, of course, and it warmed something in him to know that Regis had listened and acted accordingly. So, it was screened off, locked away and vaulted where few could access. It all went as he’d directed.
Bahamut hadn’t expected the crystal to feel so damn lonely afterwards, though. And without Regis to speak to it on occasion, was there any point lingering in the dark enclosed space? The crystal would power the spell that protected the city with or without him. Still, leaving seemed out of the question. What if he came back? Needed guidance?
It took a long time before Bahamut finally decided that Regis wasn’t going to return. It would be a while longer before he could bring himself to depart the crystal.
Just in case.
“He’s moping over something,” Leviathan said, splayed across the rim of the portal in her usual position. Her upstretched arms gave her a view of the delicate black spines that grew from her fingers, and the soft frill of fins on her forearm. “At a guess, it’s Regis giving the order to vault the crystal. He’s probably penning terrible poetry about it right now. Safe, safe, out of sight. Seal the stone away from the light.”
“There’s an uncomfortable extra syllable there,” Ramuh pointed out from his disturbingly flexible lotus position upon Titan’s back. “Bahamut is the wordsmith, perhaps for a reason.”
“You’re like a million years old, Ramuh,” Leviathan said. Titan and Ramuh both waited for a continuation to that, but apparently that was the insult in its entirety. Her attention returned to her fingers, turning her hands from side to side to examine the angle. Long skeins of her greenish hair were floating in the astral waters.
For his part, Titan just continued his push-ups, a piston-like machine of muscle and smooth motion. Ramuh felt like he was made from balsa wood and the wishes of sick children, but he was an extra weight for his workout and Leviathan had utterly refused to do it. He’d thought about asking Shiva to help with his reps, but instinct told him that would be a terrible idea. Besides, she was hardly anywhere anymore. Mortal-worlding with the baby oracle and her dog messengers, probably. Bahamut would have been ideal, in full armour and carrying his sword to boot. Too bad he was crying into his journal somewhere.
“How’s the junior bean?” Titan asked, keeping his eyes straight ahead. Leviathan sighed loudly.
“He’s whiny, healthy and he absolutely loves Regis’ bedtime stories. They’re all about Bahamut, and I hate them.” She rolled onto her stomach and glared over at Titan. “What about me? I used to be good too!”
“What about me?” Titan shot back reasonably. “I caught a meteor and—”
“And caught a jag of stone with your eye socket, yes, yes.” Leviathan sighed. “Everyone knows the story. Do try to manage something similarly impressive inside the next millennium.”
Titan switched to one-handed push-ups just so he could flip her off. She looked duly impressed and returned the gesture. Ramuh, on the other hand, just belted him across the head with his staff.
“Why do you two devolve to children when Bahamut is absent?”
“Sorry, Grandpa Lightning,” Leviathan replied sarcastically.
“Time to get off, pervert.” Titan rolled abruptly to one side, silently praying Ramuh would topple and roll a little. “Rides on my naked ass only last for an hour.”
“That’s not what you said last night,” was Ramuh’s cheerful reply. On the portal’s rim, Leviathan started laughing like she’d never stop.
“Beat it or I’ll break your hip,” Titan told the smug bastard, who was straightening his dress robes. Clothes. Who needed them? “Go do your pilates somewhere else.”
“It’s yoga, you idiot,” Ramuh said scathingly. “And if you two could learn to actually watch the portal instead of bickering and doing your nails, I wouldn’t need to be here.”
“But my nails are so pretty,” Leviathan said, and raised her two middle fingers in Ramuh’s direction. “See?”
Finally sick of them and apparently not as invested in the portal as he wanted them to believe, Ramuh swore colourfully and broke apart into crawling whips of electricity, vanishing from the astral realm. The only problem after he was gone, of course, was that Titan was left with Leviathan.
As if he hadn’t been sweating before.
Staring over at him with an unhappy frown, iridescent scaled legs kicking up behind her idly, she didn’t look like she was plotting his death. But that had never been a good indicator of anything, and Titan knew to be on guard at all times whenever she frowned.
“What?” he finally rumbled, when he couldn’t pretend he hadn’t noticed her staring any longer.
“I’m trying to picture you with hair. Just…any hair at all.”
“Stones don’t have hair.” Don’t touch your head. Don’t even move.
“You don’t have any stones,” Leviathan pointed out, stabbing a finger toward his groin. “You’re a towering god of masculine strength and you don’t have a dick.”
How the hell did he get into these conversations with her? How? Trying not to flush red with indignation, trying even harder to stop himself from replying, Titan failed hard on both counts.
“It’s just the form I take, so my dick isn’t flapping around while I’m holding the meteor,” he said heavily. “Kind of like how you take the form of a bitchy fishstick, but you’ve got tits when you’re up here.”
Leviathan propped her hand against her cheek, her slitted eyes calculating.
“How would you know? You never look at them.”
Loaded question. Loaded question! Alarm bells felt like they were going off all around him. Sweat broke out on his smooth brow. Titan knew he had approximately three seconds before she snapped. He tried to think fast.
“I like men. Just…so many men.” Inspiration hit. “I love Bahamut.”
Leviathan rolled her eyes so hard they showed nothing but white for an instant.
“Please. He’s a giant mecha with a stick up his ass, and he’s stronger than you.” Her mouth twitching into a thoughtful line, she dragged the fingertips of her free hand through the water. “I suppose he does have a handsome face. Stunning eyes. I don’t think he’ll take his armour off for you though, Titan.”
Looking over, Titan was relieved to see humour sparkling in her gaze. Leviathan knew as well as he did that there was no unrequited crush on Bahamut, just as well as he knew she hadn’t meant to pin him down with her question. He did try his best not to upset her, but it was difficult when her nature could be as prickly as the spines that decorated her fingers. Fingers she was always studying.
When he got up and moved to sit beside her, he made a point of patting the back of her hand.
“I’ll survive somehow.”
Leviathan sat up, swinging her legs over the stone rim and staring down into the waters at last. Titan followed her gaze. Reflected within was a simple, quiet afternoon for Noctis and his watchful retainer, an attractive woman in her thirties with brown hair and smiling eyes. They were out in the countryside surrounding Insomnia, where Noctis was staring open-mouthed at fish darting in the river, his tiny rod in hand. The sunset was a breathtaking wash of pink, orange and blue. It was…serene, and a welcome sight to watch over.
“Sorry I called you dickless,” Leviathan said after a while, her eyes on the peaceful reflection. Titan shrugged.
“Sorry I don’t look at your tits.”
They sat in contemplative silence a while longer, probably the longest they’d gone in recent history without a fight breaking out. Titan wondered if it was her way of communicating sometimes, when there was just too much emotion and not enough ways to tell of it. Maybe he could stand to talk more.
“This is so boring,” Leviathan sighed, slumping forward. “Right now, according to Cor’s uptight military man schedule, he’s probably showering after drills with the crownsguard. And I’m here watching Fishing Simulator.”
“It’s our duty.” But it was boring. Light, it was boring. “Regis is also our duty, though.” Maybe he’d be doing something other than signing reports and receiving briefings for once.
Leviathan’s hand was already swirling the reflection out of sight, casting her fingers above the water.
The image it began to clear into was Cor Leonis in the shower, lathered with soap. Decidedly not what Titan was after.
“Regis, turn it to Regis,” Titan said in annoyance. Leviathan was looking at her hand in puzzlement.
“I thought I did.”
Titan’s eyes widened. “There’s no way.”
Craning their necks forward, the pair watched in breathless and unnerved anticipation as the reflection rippled out from Cor’s soaped-up body—to the pair of very familiar hands that were holding the soap.
“Nooo!” Titan howled as the reflection became whole, and he was treated to the sight of two naked, soapy, slippery men making out in the shower, hands sliding greedily over any skin they could reach. “Come on!”
Leviathan just let out a deafening whoop of triumph, thrusting both fists into the air.
“Presenting, and representing!” She kicked her legs above the portal in glee, her dark green hair thrashing as she wriggled. “Congratulations, Cor. You climbed the mountain. You plumbed the royal depths.”
“I don’t think Cor’s doing the plumbing,” Titan said glumly. Cor’s cheek was presently pressed to the water-warmed tile wall while a black-ringed hand trailed down his spine. “Regis looks like he’s still training. Great muscle mass.”
"Great ass,” Leviathan said emphatically. “Good thing Bahamut isn’t here. He’d crawl into his crystal and die of jealousy.” A moment or two of disturbingly vocal shower grinding later, she said, “We probably shouldn’t tell Bahamut about this at all.”
“Remember the mega flare?”
“That was an accident.”
“A crime of passion,” Leviathan corrected. “Trust me, I know these things.”
“I thought you just sleep with the fishes.”
“If I ever find out where you’ve packed your balls away, rest assured I’m going to kick them.”
Sighing the long-suffering sigh of the put-upon and harangued, Titan assumed the thinker pose and tried to zone right out of the unfolding tryst. He’d leave, but there was no guarantee Leviathan would resume watching Noctis afterwards if he did. Thus he was completely stuck, listening to porn’s greatest hits while Leviathan made dry commentary on whatever was going on.
“Have you ever considered,” Leviathan said at one point while Regis pressed biting, open-mouthed kisses to the juncture of Cor’s neck and shoulder, “that you completely killed your own sex drive by deleting your dick?”
Titan’s eyes sprang open wide.
“No?” Horror consumed him in an instant. “I’m just…no? Should I be horny right now? I don’t think I’m really into men.”
“Calm down.” A hand rubbed a comforting circle between his shoulder-blades. “I just know I’m different in my other form, see things differently because I’m made of different pieces. I just wondered—but it’s fine! Light and life, Titan, don’t look so scared.” Leviathan reached up to drag her nails from side to side at the top of his shoulders. “You’re fine. You’re gorgeous, and frightening, and ripped. Of course you’re not interested. Who could measure up?” There was a guilty darkness in her voice that had never been present before. Titan realised with a small start that she really was sorry. Leviathan was never sorry.
“You think I’m gorgeous?” he asked after a moment, surprised. “You always laugh at me and call me stupid.” He mourned the loss of the scratching fingers that were suddenly snatched back at his words. For a moment, she just looked at him with dismayed green-gold eyes, her slitted pupils trembling in the shifting light beneath them.
“If you haven’t noticed in the last few thousand years,” Leviathan said finally, “I’m sort of horrible. I’m angry, and I’m miserable, and I don’t know how to be nice. It’s like Shiva got all the good parts and I was moulded from her leftovers.” Clearly struggling, Leviathan laced her fingers together, spined thumbs playing war with each other. Her head bowed.
“But do you think I’m gorgeous?” Titan persisted. “Enough about you, this is important for my self-esteem.” He knew he was pushing it, probably further than he ever had with Leviathan. Lifting her head, she stared at him with outraged misery tucked in the corner of her mouth, in the elegant quirk of her brow—and then she punched him straight in the stomach and laughed until it sounded like tears.
“I hate you,” she announced once he got his wind back, but she was smiling. “Yes, Titan, I meant what I said. And you’re not stupid.” She turned her pale hands palms-up and shrugged. “You’re always teaching me lessons, for one thing.”
Pleased beyond measure, Titan grabbed her up in both arms and hugged her until delicate spines threatened to puncture even his mighty skin.
“Let’s watch gay porn together,” he said sincerely when he let go, and tried not to grin when she snorted loudly against his ear.
“Deal,” she said, looking clearly up at him despite the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “I still don’t know what they’re planning to use as lube though.” She budged closer as Titan left his arm wrapped around her waist.
“Maybe Regis has it stored in his armiger.”
“Good idea!” she exclaimed. “Axe, knife, sword, snacks, wallet, lube. Those kings of Lucis really put Bahamut’s magic to good use.”
Peering back down into the astral waters, inside the steam and white tile of the shower cubicle it soon became apparent that they’d missed a major step in their king’s sweaty dance. To be precise, they’d missed an extra body equipped with the elusive lubricant, and graced with hands large enough to grip even Regis’ hips into stillness.
The hands belonged to another familiar face, as it happened.
“When did Clarus join in?” Leviathan howled, clutching her cheeks. “Titan, you bastard, you could have told me!”
“I wasn’t looking! I was having feelings!”
“Fuck your feelings!”
Their argument escalated in volume, colour and vocabulary until a heavy footstep sounded behind them, clanking with what could only be the dark hinge of ancient armour.
“What,” Bahamut asked heavily, sounding about a million years old, “are you two yelling about?”
Frozen mid-sentence, Titan’s eyes met Leviathan’s in horror. Their snap decision was as synchronised as the clash of sand and sea.
“Don’t come any closer!”
Chapter 10: Sweet Dreams
Bahamut didn’t know what he expected when he finally emerged from the crystal. Peaceful monotony, maybe. Certainly not the catastrophic trash fire he found. If it wasn’t enough that Titan and Leviathan were at each other’s throats again, the astral pool had clouded over with what looked like rolling fog that completely obscured whatever it had been reflecting. It was when he cast it back to Noctis that the real emergency started.
Emergency, Bahamut thought as he watched a snake-woman with six arms and as many swords attempt to dice the Chosen into bite-sized pieces. That almost covered it.
Noctis survived, of course—Carbuncle was always waiting in the wings somewhere to save the boy if his situation turned fatal—but he’d taken a grievous hit, and for such a caring fox, he’d surprisingly left it to do its damage. Regis arrived only in time to drive the Marilith off the side of the cliff it fought atop, with a slice across its face to take as a souvenir. It cost him something to do it, Bahamut noticed, his eyes catching the sweat that dotted his brow and the pronounced limp in his step. Perhaps the ring was taking a more visible toll? He commented upon it to Titan, who degenerated into nonsense mumbling and began sweating profusely until Bahamut left him alone. Why was everybody so damn weird all the time?
It was a truly terrible outcome, and the terror in Regis’ face as he’d knelt over his unconscious and bleeding son struck Bahamut hard in the chest. But they were all alive, and that was the important thing.
Well…all except the nanny. Carbuncle was such a picky asshole sometimes. Was he sexist?
Leviathan and Titan looked so sorry and downtrodden that Bahamut couldn’t even lay them out for essentially zoning out on the entire unfolding mess in favour of having an argument about Clarus in the shower, or whatever they’d been on about. He hadn’t pegged Titan for a voyeur of that calibre, but do you ever truly know another person?
Bahamut let them slink away from the portal with the silent treatment alone, tired and more than a little confused by his own motives. Sure, they were supposed to watch over Noctis, but even if they had been there observing, what would they have actually done? Carbuncle was already there. Noctis was his goal. They were all spare parts up there in the great beyond until they could ally themselves to the King of Kings. It was hard to chastise them while he’d been ignoring the entire plane of existence for…three and a half years. Ouch.
Give his last enormous leave of absence, Bahamut wondered if he shouldn’t prescribe to their brand of distant observation and occasional dismay. Feeling personally involved wasn’t going to do him any favours, certainly. He was a guardian, and a watchful—observer? Certainly he couldn’t intervene, even if he wanted to. It had been part of the original oath, back when he’d handed over his weapon and heart. Humanity was to save itself. Humanity had to save itself. His mark had already been given to the Lucis bloodline, whether they knew it or not. They drew on his strength every time the crystal lent them its light. Their ancestors were tied to it; their wisdom and strength on hand. Surely it was enough from him, until he could reach out and lend his sword to Noctis.
Bahamut knew he was getting in too deep.
Perhaps it was time to be the distant god Eos knew him to be. Perhaps it was time to look away.
Ramuh found him there by the water, pondering that thought. It was hard to tell how long he’d been standing there for, staring at the milked-over portal. He didn’t start at the feel of the hand that shook his shoulder, even when the faint buzz of electricity rippled through his armour.
“If you really want to torture yourself, Titan is looking for a workout partner.” Cheerfully and gently delivered, Ramuh’s words had their intended effect. Bahamut blinked and tipped his helm up slightly, giving the old stallion a piercing look.
“Titan skips leg day too often to be a distraction.”
Ramuh smiled, too wolfish for someone with back problems and a horse head on his staff.
“He’s starting to realise Leviathan’s constant gaze means something other than a threat. Perhaps his routine will change.” He cast a hand over the waters before them. Within moments it cleared into a bedtime scene: Regis, looking older than he ever had as he watched over his comatose son. “Stop trying to be the staunch leader. Stop trying to be the myth. We’re not so old we can afford to buy into our own bullshit, Bahamut.”
The rumbling growl that rolled in his armoured chest was somewhere between disapproval and thought.
“It’s not torture, Ramuh. It’s—owed. He’s going to sacrifice everything before the end, and he’ll do it without complaint because it’s the word I passed down from the first king until the last.”
Ramuh’s mouth opened, then closed as he met Bahamut’s blue gaze. Finally, he found his thoughts.
“Noctis will end the strife. He’ll end it everywhere. He’ll be welcomed into the halls of his forefathers and he’ll be given the peaceful and bountiful reward that comes with it.”
Bahamut stared down into the water. Below, Regis had his elbows dug into his son’s mattress from where he knelt. His interlaced fingers were pressed against his brow. His shoulders were shaking.
“I wasn’t talking about Noctis.” Turning to Ramuh, Bahamut plucked his faceplate away and pulled off his helm, tossing it aside. It melted into the soft light of the beyond, followed by his gauntlets, his chestplate, and every other piece of armour until he stood before his fellow astral dressed in nothing more than a pair of dragonhide pants and his own patchy scales. Behind him, he felt the stretch and groan of his cramped wings as they reached their full leathery span, spread like twin black flags. “Tell me something, old friend: what do you see when you look upon me? A god? A dragon? Or just flesh, as they are flesh?”
Ramuh was staring. “Well, to be honest, I haven’t seen you unarmoured since before Ifrit fucked us all and poisoned Eos. It’s a little overwhelming. I forgot you had real wings.” Striding forward, his staff in hand, Ramuh pressed a fingertip to Bahamut’s upper lip and raised it. He whistled at the white incisors he found beneath, still sharply pointed. “Where’s the tail?”
“Ah neffer ‘ad un,” Bahamut replied around the probing finger, before slapping it away. “Tail’s just part of the armour. Is your memory going?”
“No,” Ramuh said serenely, grabbing the hand that had struck his and turned it until each black claw was laid long and sharp under his gimlet eye. “But even a thousand years can dim some things. Such as how I was the only one who stood with you when you carved out your heart and gave it to the first king. How it became their crystal, and the ring, a chip of it you allowed them to carry from father to son.” His opalescent eyes were almost pitying. “Bahamut, you’ve had this soft spot since the beginning. Why are you so surprised by it now?”
But he hadn’t, Bahamut wanted to say. Not like this, never like this—and he wanted it gone, to tell all truth.
“It’s…I’m not Shiva. I don’t have a boundless love for all of them.” His inflection was in all the wrong places.
Ramuh lifted his chin, but said nothing overt. “He’s not dead yet. Talk to him. He still prays; he’s praying right now.”
“It would do no good.”
“It would do you good.”
“No.” Bahamut cast the reflected image from sight, returning it to white ripples. “It wouldn’t. I’m tied down by old oaths, far moreso than you and the others. I no longer see the future. I am no comfort. I’m just an old dragon of no particular use, waiting for his martyr. And in my own way—I’m responsible for this. I chose to give the crystal instead of my covenant; at least, not in a way that would have mattered. I could have been their patron summon, their answer to prayer. Instead I gave them power. Power to protect themselves. Because of it, they think I’m some story. A ghost.” He swallowed. “The crystal is just a battery to them.”
That didn't feel entirely true anymore. Regis knew more of its capabilities and true power than the previous kings that had come before him, but even then, what did he know of Bahamut? All he knew was his nameless messenger who dwelled within. Whatever his vague and uncertain suspicions were, he hadn’t been entirely convinced. But to descend into his dreams for nothing more than conversation and comfort would raise too many alarm bells. It hadn’t been his original intention to deceive Regis beyond preserving his impression of his gods, but to destroy that fragile trust now would only muddy the waters.
Whether it would be good for him to reach out was irrelevant. He had to remain distant and neutral until Noctis came into his own. He had to remain a god.
Ramuh watched him carefully for a moment.
“Does it occur to you,” he said slowly, “that you gave up too much for them? You’ve shackled yourself here, alone when the rest of us may come and go, and yet you still wish you could do more. Give more. They no longer worship you, they don’t speak your name with reverence when above all the line of Lucis should pay you tribute. Does it occur to you that you’re owed far more than you receive?”
“Let me finish. You seem to be labouring under an impression that you’re to blame for the entire world’s troubles. It’s not so. You chose the bloodline, but they accepted. They took the power and it made them rulers beyond measure. It gave them strength, and status, and they forgot you. You’re a bedtime story for a child these days.” When Bahamut looked away with a flinch, trying not to care, Ramuh stilled his tongue until he looked back. “Stop moping over them like you owe that line more than you’ve already given. Regis is ploughing ahead. Noctis will recover. Look away for a while. Let them grow, take risks, come to harm and recover. It’s life, Bahamut. Regis and Noctis have the blessings we can afford to give them. Carbuncle watches them both. Regis slings my lightning like he was born to it. So cheer up, you miserable old dragon. You chose well. They’re strong, and they don’t need us yet.”
It was everything Bahamut had wanted to tell himself. Hearing it from Ramuh, though, just made him kind of ornery and unwilling to concede. He just looked old, he didn’t actually know better than any of them. Their forms were all just reflections of their basic natures. A stoic dragon, a warrior monk, a soft snowfall maiden, a towering strength and a quicksilver two-edged blade. And…whatever the hell Carbuncle was. Plus nobody counted Ifrit anymore, since he was a lazy traitor and also an arsonist.
Bringing himself back to Ramuh’s words, Bahamut summoned his armour back to himself, feeling each piece catch and connect with the other until he was again plated in metal from head to toe, his wings tucked away once more. He felt more aware of his armoured tail than he’d been before the entire conversation.
“Fine,” he said briefly, trying not to care. “I return to the crystal, to slumber until I am needed.”
Ramuh’s long moustache twitched slightly.
“That’s not exactly what I was implying that you do.”
“I don’t know…visit Noctis in his dreams? Find Shiva and give her something to really gasp a gale over. Dare Titan to eat an entire bag of beans. I honestly don’t care what you do, Bahamut, as long as it’s not cloistering yourself inside the crystal, or moping over Regis and the Chosen.” Vanishing his staff into curls of rising smoke, Ramuh reached out and grabbed both of his clawed gauntlets. “Let me teach you yoga.”
Bahamut yanked his hands away. Ramuh caught them again.
“I’m bendy enough, Ramuh,” he insisted, tugging at the grip on his hands. “I can dislocate most joints in my body. My muscles slide like warm oil.”
“They do?” Of all things, Ramuh looked virulently jealous at that. “I thought Leviathan was the serpent.”
Bahamut shrugged. “Dragons.”
In the end, after much convincing and reassurances to Ramuh that he wasn’t actually depressed, Bahamut retreated to his crystal sanctum, that space he’d carved out as a portal between the stone and himself. Since no other could access it, he’d begun to think of it as his home. His place of silence, reflection and slumber. The crystal was walled off now, safe, and so was his rest. If Regis didn’t need him, if Noctis was watched by the others, was there any reason not to retreat from the painful unfolding fate that lay before them both?
Did it make him a coward?
Unsure and hating himself a little for it, Bahamut reluctantly gave himself to the deep cradling darkness and closed his eyes. The others would wake him when he was needed. Everything was fine.
A while after Bahamut’s departure, Ramuh took a long moment to be pleased with the outcome of things. Bahamut needed to back off once in a while and let them all stake their claim on the pair, anyway, and his grim countenance staring down into the portal was both scaring Noctis and putting off the others from doing their share. His recent sojourn had been its own blessing, but for the earlier accident. For them all to take turns, and importantly for Titan and Leviathan to connect with the small prince, they had to feel like their observations were important and needed. They might not share Bahamut’s sweet regard for Regis, but the bond they could forge with Noctis was as important then as it would be later.
Congratulating himself on completing his self-sworn mission, Ramuh cast his hand over the now-white portal, which had gone hazy when their conversation had ended.
The reflection, when it cleared in to soft ripples of light, reflected nothing but fire. Tenebrae on fire, to be precise. Ramuh stared down in horror at the devastation of the land, as Regis fled the field with a wailing Noctis propped high against his shoulder, which was bleeding freely from a sword-stroke. Life and light, what the hell had they missed? Where was Sylva?
Casting the reflection back, scanning for the oracle, he found—oh. Well. Where was Carbuncle? Sweeping his hand across the sight, he ran it across until he could see the faint starry outline of their little healing fox. He was standing on Regis’ other shoulder, sharp teeth bared at any who would attack either of them.
Ramuh frowned. Had he legitimately just let their trained oracle die in fire and steel before her son’s eyes?
“Prick,” he breathed, shaking his head. Was he sexist?
Still, it looked like father and son had in fact survived the attack by Niflheim, and the young Lunafreya was in custody but unharmed. It was…unfortunate, but most likely a mere hiccup on the long road to the prophecy.
Everything was fine.
No need to alert Bahamut to that particular little skirmish, after so soon taking himself to his rest.
Mopping his brow slightly, Ramuh sat his hip against the well-frame of the portal and committed himself to a long look and a short rest.
Better that than risking Bahamut’s wrath so soon.
Chapter 11: Kingsglaive
It had been years since Bahamut cloistered himself away in his sanctum. Years since Titan did anything other than work on his muscles and many, many years since Ramuh was anything more than an old blowhard, trying to direct them this way and that. The astral waters reflected a peaceful life as Noctis grew to adulthood, even as Regis started to crumble from the inside out.
His bones were going, Leviathan figured, sprawled unhappily on her stomach at the pool’s stone lip, her fingertips trailing idly in the water. It always happened. Always the legs first, then the arms. Eventually, though they rarely made it that far, the spine went as well. It was a sick, sad sight, and Leviathan hated it all. Mostly she hated seeing Regis with a cane and knee brace - two clunky mortal items to compensate for his legs. His hand he could do nothing for: it trembled and shook whether he was sleeping or holding court. His hair had turned almost utterly white five years prior, though his face was mostly unlined. He wielded a power fit only for gods, she reminded herself. It drained vitality, but the body reflected that half-caught pull between magic and time. She hated the sight, and yet she watched on, alone and lonely.
For Regis was fifty years old, and preparing to sign a peace treaty with Niflheim.
There had been a lead sinker of dread in her stomach since the moment she spied the Accursed in the citadel’s throne room, giving his bows and acknowledgements, flourishing and flattering with eyes as cold and dead as stone. Regis, brilliant and beautiful and so, so clever, knew not to trust him an inch. The preparations to send Noctis away from Insomnia had begun from almost the very moment the doors had closed behind—behind Ardyn Izunia. Even his name tasted like bile and spite. What she wouldn’t give to be able to shove a harpoon up his ass and hoist him to meet the gods he wanted to spit in the eye of. Ifrit’s little protege.
When Regis trailed out onto the balcony of his citadel and prayed that the gods would forgive him, Leviathan knew the end was upon him. Knew that he knew, and would accept what came for the sake of all.
It was all shit. Complete and utter shit. Slapping the reflection with an open palm, Leviathan pushed herself upright, swinging her scaled legs around until they hung inches above the pool. Biting her lips down between sharp teeth, she glared down at Regis, who despite his failing body and cool reception, had chased his son out to the citadel steps just to wish him safe one last time.
And that—that puling insect of a boy had brushed him off, rolling his eyes and cracking wise while his father’s heart broke quietly in his chest. Regis had smiled as Noctis left, absorbing all that selfish regard like it gave him some kind of hope. Idiot. Idiot! That stupid, self-sacrificing old fool! Why wasn’t he fighting?!
“I hate you all so much,” Leviathan whispered, and meant it. The saltwater droplets that hit the astral water meant nothing. Yet still, she kept vigil. It was too late to look away.
She watched, and watched, until a glaive with eyes like sea glass delivered the oracle to the king. A sewer rat, hadn’t that been said? Orphans, mostly, with a proficiency for magic. Offshoots of the Lucian line, if she remembered correctly. Cousins of cousins and so forth. Some sewer. What history could lose, she thought pitilessly, given inattention and the right kind of spin. They were blood of kings and queens, and not even Regis knew it. Bahamut might have told him, if…well, it was too late for hope. Far too late for that. He was the one afforded the power to speak to the oracle and the kings, and he’d chosen to bury his head in the astral sand. Leviathan hoped he choked there.
A cold hand covered hers, soft and chilling. Leviathan’s head jerked up, seaweed-skeins of hair flying with the motion. Through the wet mess of braids and woven seashells, she saw that Shiva sat beside her like she’d never been anywhere else. Her blue-white skin was faintly luminescent where Leviathan’s scales were blinding radiance, but only in the sun. Warm waters and ice floes, seated together watching what could only be the slow and inevitable end of King Regis Lucis Caelum, one hundred and thirteenth king of Lucis.
Weary of the solitude, wearier still of the silence, Leviathan turned her hand beneath her sister’s until their fingers laced like keys in a lock. The water between them froze and vanished, and they sat a long while together watching what unfolded below. Her tears came unbidden and plentiful, and this time she didn’t try to hide them beyond the hunch of her shoulders and the veil of her hair.
“I don’t understand,” Shiva said eventually, sounding a little lost. Below, Regis was strapping his brace to his leg with wooden, mechanical motions. It was the day of the ceremony, and the king had dismissed his attendants. “What about him brings you such grief? A hundred kings before him, more, all acted the same. Is it because he is the father of the King of Light?”
Leviathan barked a hoarse laugh. “Like I give a shit about that frogspawn and his gelled hair.” When Shiva continued to stare at her in confusion, she gave a jerky shrug. “If you’d been here, you’d know. But you were off combing the oracle’s hair these last fifteen years, patting yourself on the back for how good to the mortals you’ve been. Meanwhile, the real struggle is here,” she gestured at Regis’ reflection with her free hand, “where it has always been. He’s good enough, brave enough and smart enough to have been our Chosen, and instead he’s the one who—” Fingers clenching like a vice, Leviathan turned her head away and clenched her teeth, refusing to give voice to her grief.
“You love him,” Shiva said wonderingly. “Finally, a mortal you could love. Then he is surely a paragon of all his kind, to earn your heart.” Nodding to herself, she peered down at the portal with renewed vigour. “So I will love him too.”
Leviathan choked an indignant sound. “Get your own, bitch.” Knuckling tears from her corners of her eyes, she hauled in a deep breath, filling her lungs like sails. “Besides, Bahamut cleaved to him long ago. I just…I want to reach down and crush everything in his path. Because he’s good, brave and smart, and I can’t stand that he’s going to die today. I can’t stand that his child will be the one that saves the world, and that the simple knowledge of it will drive him to ruin. Willingly.”
Shiva didn’t reply. She was watching the quiet conversation between Regis and Clarus as it was broken by the interruption of a familiar glaive. Time was moving too fast below: never a sign of fortunate events to unfold. The oracle was missing, and a Niflheim fleet hovered beyond sight of the city. True to form, Regis never hesitated in sending his kingsglaive — his own personal guard for the proceedings, to rescue Lunafreya instead. With the crownsguard and Cor orchestrating perimeters and protecting the city, and the glaives all gone, all that remained was the city guard and Regis’ own council.
“He’s stripping his defences too thin,” Shiva whispered, strangely unsure. “Lunafreya’s regard was not misplaced, not once in all these years.”
Leviathan wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Of course not. It’s Regis.”
“You trust him?” Shiva’s voice was oddly urgent. “You’d prolong his life?”
Something twisted inside the trap of Leviathan’s ribs. Old instinct, and a tone she remembered.
“What is it you know, Shiva?”
Shiva stared at her wordlessly for a moment, her lips trembling. Then, “Ravus is going to take the ring. His blood is close to the line of Lucis, and he is devoted to his sister despite all words. If he pledges fealty, in lieu of Noctis the kings of old might actually—”
Leviathan shot bolt upright, flinging her hair back from shining wide eyes.
“Bahamut! King of scale and stars, god of wing and light!” she cried, long and loose and with the full throat of her power behind her. “The line of Lucis is falling! Wake up!”
But it was all moving too fast, far too fast: the next reflection of the pool was the citadel shaking under a rolling storm of explosions, Regis and Emperor Aldercapt facing each other by firearm and thundaga outstretched. The air was littered with the crystals of weapons summoned down the long aisle of both friend and foe. The trap had been sprung.
Panting, her eyes following the accelerated movement despite barely being able to track it, Leviathan felt panic close about her neck like a fist as the fighting broke out in earnest.
“I’m not ready,” she gasped, feeling the suck of air inside her like a vacuum, unable to pull enough in. “Shiva, he can’t—”
Arms like a wall wrapped around her from behind as soon as a hand closed over her bare shoulder, steadying her as she breathed hurricanes and exhaled storms. And all the while, Shiva held her hand tight. Titan and Ramuh were there, with Carbuncle perched on the fulgurian’s robed shoulder.
Carbuncle, she realised brokenly. He wouldn’t intervene. There was no hope.
Yet still, the drum-beat of a dragon’s mighty footsteps approached in the distance, his helm drawn low and its eyes blazing white. But he was so far and time was moving so fast—
Leviathan looked down—Clarus was impaled—she looked up—Bahamut’s sword was drawn—
“The kings are shifting,” Ramuh breathed uneasily. “The ring is severed.”
Around them, blue light moved in strange shadows as the ghosts of the Lucian kings began to take shape, converging on the only portal to their last bastion of power. The ring. Reaching for something that might bear them hence, those old bitter echoes still grasping for a foothold in the world.
Was she any different? Leviathan asked herself, and did not know the answer. Yet all the while, the world unfolded beneath. She looked back down, and Ravus had the ring. Regis’ blood spattered his face like war paint, but his eyes barely betrayed his pain.
Bahamut’s thunderous footsteps shook their nowhere realm, and a light like stars and all their fire was blazing around his armour. But he wasn’t heading for the portal, no. He was aiming straight at the kings.
“Sicul fo sgnik o, sllah ruoy ot kcab teg. Gnir ym raew llahs reprusu on.” His blade swung in a flat, controlled arc that bled a kind of light and power that not even the entire line of Lucis could hold a candle to. They blew away like cobwebs and ghosts, even as Ravus slid the ring onto his finger and begged their favour.
But by then, Bahamut himself was there to answer his prayers.
“He has his part to play,” Shiva said suddenly, as Bahamut’s cold eye bathed the son of Tenebrae with a chilling light. “And it was Glauca who cut the ring from Regis’ hand.”
Bahamut’s only answer was to touch one gauntleted claw to the astral water.
Leviathan stared in rapt hunger and fury as the multicoloured flames ate away at the fool’s hand, and she drank in his screams like water as his entire arm was engulfed by Bahamut’s most beautiful weapon. Let him become ash, she thought savagely, as the ring rolled straight back to Regis like it was coming home. That sacred heirloom knew it was meant for one bloodline, and one alone.
But it was all too little, and far too late. The ring had been preserved, but only to pass into Lunafreya’s small hands, though they closed strong and loyal over its black face. Perhaps it would be safe with her, and perhaps Regis knew it well.
When the interlocked shell of Protect formed a wall between the oracle and the king of Lucis, Bahamut himself fell to one knee.
“Locked doors shall seal your fate no longer,” Regis told the young oracle, and then bade his glaive to go. Without him. Behind them all, General Glauca landed heavy and hard atop the elevator. He even gave a mocking bow to the injured king. Then he drew a threatening arc with the tip of his greatsword.
“Ti eb t'nac siht,” Bahamut snarled softly, still lost to the old tongue. His helm was locked down so that none could see his eyes. He looked so far beyond himself that his armour trembled with more life than his voice had; caught in the throe of a denied transformation.
Below Leviathan, Regis threw his cane aside in a single defiant gesture. Yes, the end had come, the movement said. But never let it be said that Regis Lucis Caelum welcomed it.
The fight was short. For all she wanted to look away, Leviathan made herself watch every quicksilver moment, every flash of sword and spark of electricity. She heard every word.
“Here is your peace, by steel’s swift descent,” Glauca swore in his unnatural baritone, and without looking, thrust his sword backward through Regis’ proud body.
Their beloved king, their small bean whom they’d watched from the cradle.
Regis was dead before he hit the ground.
Leviathan stared, too shocked for a single tear to cloud her vision.
Bahamut threw back his head and roared with all the vocal, poisonous black rage and murderous, indiscriminate fury his cracked and ancient soul could grind out from a loss so profound, and a life so wasted by war. The entire realm shook with it, bleeding light and stars and the kind of dreadful wreckage they hadn’t had to fear from the draconian in over two millennia.
And it didn’t end. Leviathan barely had time to draw the pool’s surface to a vision of the ocean before she and Shiva had to throw themselves through it in panic. Ramuh cracked out of sight with Carbuncle. And as tough and enduring as stone, Titan simply weathered the onslaught, his back to the portal’s stone rim and arms clasped above his head. It went on a long time, and he couldn’t fault Bahamut even a little.
Regis was dead. Dead like a mortal thing, there and gone in the blink of an eye. But damn, what a life. What a hell of a way to go. If that didn’t spark a fire in Noctis, then Titan figured they were all doomed anyway. It was Bahamut he was worried about. Bahamut, who’d finally let his roar run hoarse, whose claws had gouged rivulets in the stone of the portal so deep they’d cracked it down to the base. Titan wondered what it was like to grieve someone that badly. Maybe he was better off not knowing.
By the time Titan had the nerve again to peer into the portal, to scan it back to Insomnia, dawn had broken, and citizens were fleeing in long, tired droves. He thought maybe he spied the oracle among their masses, standing out in her fine pale dress. So the ring was safe, at least. Maybe she was worth a look. If she could force a covenant from him, he’d be more inclined to help the prince when his time came. But not if he had to be babysat the entire way.
Resting his forearms down along the lip of the portal, Titan sank his chin upon them as he spied Bahamut doing the same across the waters, though it looked more the product of exhaustion and loss than any casual pose. It never bode well when that dragon helm was pulled all the way down, its dark jaws snapped shut to make him more animal than god. His sword was discarded beside him, out of reach and flung far from his hand. That never happened.
It occurred to him, slowly and with gaining strength, that Leviathan and Bahamut wouldn’t be the same after Regis. They’d loved him, and his loss had damaged them. They’d retreat, and stop laughing. They’d close themselves off again. Leviathan might even return to her sharp and angry ways, her black spines growing out like barbs to scare everyone off. Bahamut would just go back to his crystal and never come out again. There was Noctis to watch over, but he wasn’t exactly an inspiring example, or even interesting viewing. He thought he was on a pleasant road trip with his friends. Poor sap. Ramuh could handle protecting him alone, anyway.
It didn’t sit right. They were the Six, weren’t they? Even if Ifrit was a piece of shit, they were supposed to guard Eos, one and all. Not—sulk and cry because their favourite toy had been broken. Himself included, Titan told his stinging eyes and the downturn of his mouth.
He waited what seemed like endless days before hauling himself upright, leaving Bahamut slumped where he’d been the entire time. There was no way he was going to even try comforting that wreck. He’d get seven arms cut off for the privilege, and he only had two. Instead he pushed further and deeper into the astral abyss than he ever usually deigned to go, discarding light and sound for darkness and silence.
Going back the way the old ghostly kings had poured from.
It had to be there somewhere, didn’t it?
The further in he travelled, the more unnerving it became. Contrary to the belief of Eos, the astrals hadn’t created the worlds and all their wonders, and the beyond was yet another hanging dimension that they certainly owned, but had never actually made. It was…scary, Titan decided, pushing through the dark until it felt like it was smothering him on all sides, pressing up his nostrils and into his mouth. When he looked back, the spark of the portal was all he could see, like some kind of perverted guiding light. No wonder the kings had been so desperate for light and purpose. It was a little bit like torture this far down the back of the wardrobe.
Titan pushed on for a long time, though how long he wasn’t sure. The stretch of time was like cold treacle this far from the portal. Had it been one day? A thousand? Or only a second? All he knew was he had the damn creeps, and it was too late to turn back. Far behind him, the spark of the portal was almost lost to his keen eyes. Surely he’d gone as far as he could.
Titan struggled through a while longer, anyway. Why not?
Eventually, there was nothing but pitch black all around him. The portal’s light was gone. And Titan, for all his staunch bravery and uncaring regard for the world around him, didn’t have the nerve to take a single step in any direction but backward. Not because it frightened him, but because he was so removed from it all that he wondered if he’d forget the world if he took but one more step away. For a mortal, that would have been fine—casting it all off was generally their reward. But for Titan, it could mean he forgot his way in every sense. With that in mind, he drew in a deep breath, trying not to choke on the thick oppressive darkness that surrounded him. It wasn’t just a lack of light back there. It was a lack of everything, and it was gross.
“Kings of Lucis. The commander of earth and stone summons you.”
Titan wasn’t exactly sure it would work, being…not Bahamut. But like blue pyrelights they all blinked into existence, one after another, seeming strangely energised and alert for a bunch of creepy old ghosts dressed like mecha bosses. They were almost as tall as he was. Cute. He blew on them, hard, until their facades whiffed out and a crowd of bewildered kings and queens squinted up at him in the dark, each smaller than his beloved missing spoon.
They were squeaking questions up at him, so he grabbed a rough handful of them and pulled them up to face-height. They all screamed like caged monkeys in fancy robes, palms pressed to cheeks and mouths open wide as they were brought to scale, realising exactly how small and insignificant they were. Titan could easily have fit a few into his mouth in one go. They did look high in protein, but the bones weren’t exactly appealing to him. He waited until they stopped screaming and praying—to who, he wasn’t sure—before speaking again.
“I’m looking for Regis,” he explained. “He’s about your size. Wears black. Missing a few fingers.”
They all looked at each other, stumbling together on the unsteady platform of his palm. It was a bit of a crush, so they were all hanging onto each other. They seemed to confer with each other in a huddle of black and gold before a dark head popped out the top of them all, waving an arm high for Titan’s attention. Plucking the upraised hand and winching the king high out of the gaggle, Titan released his palm and let the others fall into the abyss. Ignoring their swearing and screaming as the abyss caught them up again, he placed his palm beneath the king who’d grabbed his attention.
“You’re not Regis,” Titan told the dark-haired man, like he might not be aware. “Who the hell are you?”
Brushing his half-cape down into order, the barb crown of Bahamut winking over his ear, the king executed a perfect bow.
“I am Mors Lucis Caelum. A king no longer, in truth, but I appreciate the summons. Regis is my son.” Squaring his jaw, Mors stared up with clear dark eyes and asked, “What is it you want with him, so soon after his passing into our hall?”
The audacity of the question didn’t escape either of them, and yet Mors didn’t stutter a word. Titan barely remembered Mors, really, but he probably did have balls if he raised a son like Regis. Still, he wasn’t there to barter with a king the size of his finger.
“The Six require him,” was all Titan offered in explanation. If they refused him, he could just sort through them all like dolls until he found the right one. There was only a hundred and twelve to go through until he found the right one. “That’s all you need to know.”
Mors frowned. “You’ve never required any of us before, judging from the screaming and weeping I just witnessed. Why Regis?”
Something was pricking at Titan’s leg. He shook it to alleviate the itch, unwilling to break eye contact with the pain in the ass that currently stood on his palm.
“I’ve never punched a tiny man before, but I will if you don’t haul his old ass out of that dogpile of mothballs over there,” Titan told him, giving his best golden-eyed glare. The itch was over his hip by then, and damned if he wasn’t about to slap the first and most irritating astral mosquito in existence. “Give up the goods, cripple, or I’ll marinate that bad leg of yours and eat it.”
Mors made a rude hand gesture that involved exactly one finger and squirrel-dived off his hand, arms and legs extended like some kind of living parachute. Unbelievable. Titan was debating whether or not to punt him three thousand years back into the past when something stung his armpit. Irritated and a little more amused than he was willing to admit, he looked down to find his persistent beetle was actually a tiny king bearing two minuscule daggers. He’d been using them to climb up Titan’s body from foot to chest the entire time. Curious, Titan put his palm under the man as a cushion and was gratified to see him withdraw his knives and sink back onto it, breathing hard.
“Thank the Six,” the man said, pushing dark hair off his brow. Revealed by the motion, his green eyes burned like lanterns in his pale face. “I’d be most grateful if you would get me out of here.”
Titan stared at the small offering for a long time. He had the look of a Lucian king, of course, being tall (for a mortal), pale and dark-haired. His pinstripe suit was accentuated by a deep purple shirt beneath, patterned with silver. It was mostly hidden by a black neck scarf, which he tugged at with one black-gloved hand. It wasn’t until Titan hauled him up closely enough to stare into his face with one golden eye that he realised there was an extremely familiar pattern of curling scars around the small king’s right eye.
“Regis?” Titan blurted, accidentally blowing the tiny man back against the wall of his curled fingers with his breath. “Why are you so young?”
“I don’t know,” Regis said, waving off the humid breath he was being blasted with. He didn’t bother to stand. “A perk of the extremely dark afterlife, I thought. Can you tell me, stone-lord, what becomes of Noctis and Luna?”
It was him, Titan realised, simultaneously stopping himself from both smiling and squashing the king in his affectionate fist-hug. He’d done good.
“I can’t tell you,” he replied honestly, and secretly revelled in the way Regis’ face fell and his shoulders slumped. Waiting two beats, he followed up with words that might just fix everything.
“But I can show you.”
Chapter 12: Hands
They’d been walking in pitch darkness for what seemed like hours before Regis wondered if it would be the height of blasphemy and arrogance to ask the Archaean if they were lost.
Standing on the wide platform of Titan’s palm, holding onto his curved fingertips for balance, Regis felt much like the captain of a terrifying vessel of incredible destructive power, even if he couldn’t see anything beyond himself and Titan’s stone-hewn musculature. Turning slightly, keeping one hand gripping at a curved finger for balance, Regis, looked up, up, up into the face of one of the great gods of old.
Titan had a very stern, unforgiving look about him, the severe lines of his features drawn into something that resembled a snarl. His bronze-coloured eyes shone like two unholy lanterns, but they cast no light into the smothering dark. Every inch of him from his bald pate to his scored feet was roped with muscle, sinew and tendons standing out against his skin as he moved. His only adornment was the white paint that striped his body in ritualistic patterns, sweeping down the bridge of his nose and beneath his eyes, broad swaths of it wrapping about his arms and legs.
Titan looked like he could destroy a small country without batting an eyelid, let alone one outspoken king.
Regis felt his courage abruptly evaporate, leaving him feeling somewhat at odds with himself. He’d been raised to be strong in the face of long odds, to push ahead and do what had to be done. Sitting in obedient silence while his tongue crowded with desperate questions and his skin prickled with adrenaline was a difficult exercise in caution, but a necessary one. He still didn’t know why he was required, or what his role was to play. But knowing he might be able to find out what had become of Noctis and Lunafreya was more than worth any trial he might be put through.
Forcing himself to meek silence, Regis kept his questions and his curiosity to himself. Angering the gods was never a particularly wise course of action, and he’d yet to get the measure of the earthreaver’s temper. Everything he’d read said that Titan was both a steadfast warrior and a nightmare of untold destruction. He commanded the stone and the soil, and it quaked with his every footstep. When angered, the earth could split and spew forth molten rock, reshaping everything in its path. All in all, he sounded like one not to be taken lightly.
Silently, Regis cursed himself for never asking his messenger in the stone about the astrals. Then again, would he have told him anything? He seemed a suspicious sort, his nameless friend, with a hunted look in his eyes that spoke of too much knowledge and far too many secrets. The theory that he was in fact Bahamut: great dragon and origin of Lucis, dressed in skin and scale was a tempting one. It was not without evidence to support it, but having laid eyes upon Titan, known to be less mighty than the draconian and seeing him still vast and powerful in a way that beggared belief…it seemed like a truly foolish and fanciful idea. Perhaps he’d been a disciple of the great dragon, watching from the stone like a lonely guardian. Perhaps that was why he’d reached out.
Regis thought about asking Titan, just opening his mouth and saying the words, but he couldn’t bring himself to impart the secret just yet. If it was even considered such before the gods themselves. Besides, the crystal had been taken. With it, perhaps his messenger was now also lost to Niflheim and their dark machinations.
Aldercapt was going to be in for a shock if he tried to touch the heirloom of his line, Regis knew that much. Settling his balance upon Titan’s palm once more, he was still pondering wild fantasies of revenge and triumph when Titan’s rolling, reverberating voice nearly blew his eardrums.
“What’s it like?” Titan asked, his thumb abruptly moving to shove Regis in the back, right in the middle of his spine. “Dying.”
Regis pushed himself back up from his kneeling position and tried not to gingerly prod at the eerily accurate sensation of an enormous thumb shoving against the site of his mortal wound. What was it like? Looking back up at Titan, he refused to quail before the singular gaze directed at him.
“Quick,” Regis said simply, pressing the heel of his palm to the place above his heart. “There was more shock than pain. I—to tell the truth, I was more concerned about holding the spell separating Glauca and Lunafreya.” The admission made Titan’s fingers twitch strangely around him. “It felt like weakness. Consciousness ripped from my grasp. Then I woke in the dark, with a hundred or more of my ancestors staring me in the face, asking what had killed me.”
Titan didn’t respond right away. He simply continued trudging forward in the darkness, following some distant star that had appeared within the dark somewhere along the way. Why hadn’t he noticed it sooner? There appeared to be rules to the beyond that he had no idea about.
“Not weakness. You had strength enough to protect what was important, even at the cost of your life.”
“I’m dead,” Regis replied, tense across his shoulders, chest aching in a way that had nothing to do with his echoing injury. “If I’d had strength, perhaps Clarus wouldn’t be also. Perhaps Glauca would be. It doesn’t take strength to die, stone-lord.”
“The hell would you know?” Titan snapped back. “First time you’ve ever done it.”
Regis bridled. “But I have done it.”
Silence. Titan glared down at him like he was a worm, and Regis wondered if it would do more harm than good to apologise. But damn it, he wasn’t sorry. Then it was all he could do to hang on as Titan raised his palm until they were at eye-level, close enough for Regis to jump across to the straight slope of his nose if he wanted to.
“You,” Titan said flatly, “should probably keep your wrong opinion to yourself.” His eyes were narrowed, but he didn’t seem particularly angry anymore. Regis found himself wanting to tread carefully anyway. With a single, terse nod, he lowered his eyes in deference.
The rest of their trek continued in silence, until their guiding star grew larger with every step, until Regis began to realise it was no star at all, but rather more a lighthouse in the darkness. A beacon to mark their destination. It glittered with a strange light that shifted and glimmered ceaselessly, much like the ripple of sunlight beneath water. Diluted and muted, but brilliant.
“What is it?” Regis found himself asking as its shape became an enormous well-like structure, or perhaps a beautiful fountain pool the size of a lake. Stone resembling marble veined in silver formed its walls, the width of them at least thirty feet by his measure. The entire structure was sized for one such as Titan, obviously. The water inside it shone and glinted like starlight.
Titan’s speed increased until he was almost jogging, throwing them both forward into a realm that was illuminated in soft shades of blue and purple, pinpointed with starlight. It was a painful comfort, Regis realised with a sharp pang of longing, for it resembled the inside of the crystal. A place he knew he’d never see again.
“It’s the astral pool,” Titan said. “A portal through which you can spy upon the world you left behind. The Six have used it since creation itself to watch over your kind.”
A portal through which to watch over Noctis from a place beyond death. For a moment the sheer need it evoked threatened to unhinge him. With stinging eyes, Regis looked back up at the Archaean, pointing at it with a hand he hoped was steady.
“May I use this? For my son?”
“No.” The refusal was crushing in its certainty. “Only the Six command the portal, and of the Six, only Bahamut rules supreme. It’s him you’ll have to petition.”
Light and life. “Is he…large, like you? Imposing?”
Titan’s smile was all teeth. Sharp teeth. “Bigger.”
Suddenly Noctis’ description of his dragon in the ceiling didn’t seem quite so far-fetched. What had he described? A dragon of dark scale armour, swords sticking out all over? Eyes that burned like hellfire? No, perhaps that was simply himself being fanciful. Or panicking.
How was he supposed to convince the draconian himself to allow him to watch from the gods’ own window to the world? There was no offering he could make, no supplication that would mean anything after so many long years without prayer or sacrifice. If his messenger were able to speak on his behalf, perhaps…but that was a fool’s errand. He’d been gone more than a decade hence, and their parting hadn’t been particularly warm. Regis had punched him repeatedly in the face, after all.
The question was, why had he been given this opportunity in the first place? He knew for certain it had never been extended to the other members of his line. Was it because he was Noctis’ father? No, he corrected silently, to the Six he would only be the father of the Chosen. But that had to be the reason, for he could think of no other. Still, he wondered: what knowledge could he possibly have that the gods themselves did not?
“Where would I find Bahamut?” Regis found himself asking faintly. “To…petition him for his mercy.”
“Dunno. Probably in the crystal.” Titan scratched his cheek, oblivious to the way Regis had turned stunningly rigid at that. “Or however that works. How do you sleep inside your own heart?”
“Or a piece of it. I don’t know, Ramuh was there, not me. What, you don’t know the story?”
It seemed there was a lot Regis didn’t know—but maybe there was a chance for him to learn it all. If he played his cards right, and waited until an opportune moment, perhaps there was even a chance he could use it to Noctis’ advantage. Somehow. The astrals themselves may be bound up in vows and covenants, but he wasn’t. If he could get a message out…
“Titan,” and oh, that felt like blasphemy to speak his name to his face, “might I ask about the messengers of this realm? Twenty-four of them, our legends say, yet I’ve only seen three. Gentiana, Pryna and Umbra. Where do the others reside?”
And suddenly he was upside-down, dangling by one foot as Titan hung him over the astral pool. Before he could catch them, both of his daggers fell out of his jacket and splashed into the glittering waters below.
“Thinking of sending a message somewhere?” Titan growled ominously. “Because I can think of a lot of ways that might get your spawn killed before the prophecy can pass. Now, do I have to peel out your throat and break your hands?”
Hanging limply like an embarrassed pendulum, Regis felt the blood rushing to his head and hoped dearly that it might knock him out. Underestimating Titan’s intellect. Good job, majesty. He felt like an idiot.
“No, there’ll be no need for that. I understand.”
“Good.” The Archaean dropped him straight into the pool. Regis had one moment in the rippling, thrashing water to be terrified before he popped back up like a cork, spitting strange water and trying not to let his leg brace drag him under. “Float in there for a while and think about what you just did. I have to find Bahamut.” Bronze eyes glared fiercely down at him where he struggled to tread water. “Try not to indirectly imply he’s a fucking idiot too.”
Regis flushed. “Will I get to live that down?”
“You’re dead. Remember?” Then he was gone, striding away into the cloaking lights and soft colour that everything seemed suspended in. Regis wondered seriously if he could manage to drown himself before he returned with—and it hardly seemed possible—the draconian himself. Bahamut. No doubt having told him already about his entirely un-subtle attempts to glean information from Titan to use for his own ends. Because he knew best and they didn’t, obviously. Regis clapped his hands to his face and threw himself beneath the water, cursing himself to hell and back. Too used to being king, being in charge, being tired and powerful and breathing around the impending doom he was hurtling toward. Still trying to plot, plan and out-manoeuvre everyone. Idiot. Look where it had gotten him. Dead. Humbled. Thrown in the back of nowhere with the other kings like so much refuse. He owed the Six—or at least one of them, to be obedient. To listen, not to be listened to.
Wherever his messenger was, for a moment Regis missed him awfully.
Hanging beneath the water was a small comfort, and he didn’t seem to need air, but it was no real hiding place from his circumstances. He couldn’t see where his old daggers had gone, either. The water looked endlessly deep, and it shone strangely somewhere far below. Since Titan had only told him to float there, diving down further was probably a bad idea. Kicking strongly, Regis forced himself to the surface once more. The confining weight of his leg brace was back again, which made no sense since he hadn’t started wearing it until after Noctis was at least ten years old, and he’d awoken in the halls of kings far younger than that. Time in the beyond truly made no sense.
It was only when his head broke the surface that he realised two things. One, that the hair falling in his eyes was prematurely grey again and he was clad in his full raiment, and two—there was an enormous snake-eyed woman staring down at him in horror.
“Regis? What the fuck are you doing down there?” she cried, reaching down with pale, black-spined fingers that had deadly sharp fingernails. “Life and light, you’re the size of a tampon. Grab on!”
There seemed to be a lot of noise being directed at him, and not all of it was coming from the giantess with hair like seaweed. Regis floundered backward a little, barely evading a hand that seemed to be made of black knives. He’d had quite enough of giant hands grabbing at him, and he was definitely bigger than an astral tampon. Seeing the hand trying to make another sluggish pass at him, Regis dived deep, deeper, trying to out-swim it.
It went about as well at one would expect. He barely had time to register his half-cape catching on one sea-urchin spine, and then he was being hoisted high like a miserable sodden flag, hanging at least fifty feet above the pool. Water was pouring from beneath his clothes, which felt like they were sewn from lead fibre. Coughing with difficulty, defeated and manhandled in a way he’d never been in his entire life, Regis hung his head and waited for the next indignity.
Instead, he was gently transferred into the giantess’ other palm, which was softer than Titan’s, forming a tight seal of her fingers so he could rest back against them without pricking himself. She meticulously freed his cape next, and even brushed it down into place with the back of one fingernail. The skin beneath his feet was as wet as he, but she was faintly warm; a sensation that Regis found more than welcome. He could almost forgive her the size comparison for that.
When he summoned the nerve to look her in the eye once more, she was crying.
Not loudly, or with any fanfare that might draw attention to it. She was simply watching him with a trembling mouth and a head slightly tilted, so that her hair wouldn’t fall into her green-gold eyes. Her pupils were slitted like a reptile’s but they were graced by short, spiky lashes. Everything about her seemed as human as he was, but for her fingers and fragile fins. Then he glanced down at her waist, and realised she was clothed in dark green scales from her hips to her sharp toenails. A serpent? No, he realised abruptly, staring back up into her eyes, one from the sea.
“Leviathan,” he breathed, feeling the wonder spread through him. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and smiled like sunrise.
“Hello, little bean,” said Leviathan of the salt and sea, her laughter like morning bells and the crash of waves. “It’s good to see you.”
Chapter 13: Revelation
While Bahamut wasn’t exactly prone to heart-rending emotional outbursts, Leviathan at least thought that after his reaction to Regis’ death he’d show a little enthusiasm when presented with his favourite king, standing tiny and proud in the centre of her palm. Instead, she might as well have been holding a handful of dirt for all he reacted. The jaws of his helmet were still snapped shut to obscure his entire face, giving him the appearance of a dragon clad in dark steel. He didn’t even move, let alone speak.
Bahamut just stared down at Regis, who looked smaller than ever beneath the draconian’s cold gaze. Even a little cowed.
He was the patron god of Regis’ entire bloodline, the one who bestowed the crystal and the ring upon the first king of Lucis, so it was probably completely natural to want to shit yourself in Bahamut’s presence, Leviathan allowed grudgingly. But it wasn’t a good look on Regis, and Bahamut was doing nothing to dispel his fear and awe. Bahamut, who’d watched over him, worried over him since the day of his birth.
Leviathan had only had scant moments to speak with Regis before Bahamut had arrived, Titan trailing after him briefly and then making a swift exit to places unknown, but he’d quickly adjusted to her size and manner—even asked her a few questions about the realm and the pool. But that hesitant regard, while polite and respectful, had evaporated into horrified silence the moment Regis’ green eyes had locked onto Bahamut. Narrowing her own, she tried to see Bahamut as Regis might, as the silence stretched into something awful.
Bahamut was of course, enormous. Larger than Titan with his plate armour, his interlocking steel shone somewhere between midnight blue and deepest black, edged in bright gold. The eyes of his helm were a savage yellow, devoid of any warmth. There wasn’t a hint of flesh, warmth or mercy in his gargantuan form. Instead there were swords like wings, sharper than cruelty itself, and flowing crimson silk worked in gold spilling off the hard edge of his dark armour, floating behind him in a breeze she couldn’t feel. Bahamut bore down on his greatsword, largest of its kind, stared at Regis, and said nothing at all.
Leviathan shifted uneasily. Perhaps Regis had some cause to be unnerved. Had his death broken something in Bahamut?
“Titan doesn’t know the way back to return him,” she said abruptly, an awful thought occurring to her. If he didn’t want the small king there, he would have to be returned to the hall of Lucis. “And honestly, I am prepared to watch over him—”
“Enough.” Leviathan’s jaw closed so fast her teeth clicked. Bahamut leaned forward and bent forward slowly, until his sharp-toothed jaw and metal eyes were level with Regis, suddenly unsteady on the platform of her hand. Anyone would crumple beneath the ferocity of that gaze. “You belong in your hall with the rest of your line. Did the archaean forcibly take you from it?”
Something about the dropped helm turned his voice from its usual deep timbre into a rolling snarl, echoing with old power. Or perhaps she was simply listening like a mortal. Whatever it was, Regis nearly buckled beneath it. But just as quickly his spine turned rigid, and Leviathan watched him square his shoulders and tip his jaw up. He hadn’t bowed in worship, she realised belatedly. Ever the king.
“It was my wish to leave the hall, great one,” Regis said steadily. “Respectfully, the rest of my line does not reside within that darkness. Not all of it.” This time he did bow, fist clenched to his breast. “If it does not displease you, I would very much like to watch over my son. Just until—until he requires the full power of the ring of the Lucii.” Until he was sacrificed to obtain the power to purify Eos. It bordered on a guilt-trip, certainly, but there wasn’t one word of a lie in his request, and Leviathan knew well that Regis would give over any personal peace or freedom the afterlife might afford him as a king and a human, just to be as impotent as the rest of them in watching bleakly over the living. His only son.
Lifting her eyes to Bahamut, Leviathan prepared to argue with the great dragon himself if he refused.
Instead Bahamut splayed his own hand palm-up, and reached out for Regis to step onto it. There was an instant in which a clawed, steel-gauntleted hand rested under her much smaller one, and Leviathan realised with a distant start that she and Bahamut didn’t touch each other. Not at all, really. It wasn’t their way. She held still as Regis stepped carefully, warily from one hand to the other, as though Bahamut’s fingers might snap shut like a trap and hurl him back into the darkness with his kin. No such thing happened—at least not immediately—and though she’d known him since time immemorial, Leviathan wondered what Bahamut would do next. They were breaking rules and rites and all sorts of oaths. By their own laws, Bahamut’s in particular, Titan should never have plucked Regis from his resting place.
Regis rested a hand upon one clawed fingertip for balance, looking deeply horrified by the necessity of the contact. Leviathan wasn’t sure if she was disgruntled or smug about that. Wondering if she should continue to stand in observance or make herself scarce as Titan had, she lingered in stubborn silence with eagerness to see what happened next. It was almost better than the portal. Which, now that she thought about it, someone should probably be watching. What if Noctis was upside down in a tree somewhere? The boy was terrible in the outdoors.
Bahamut lifted his palm and straightened his spine, standing tall and terrible with Regis cradled carefully in his hand.
“Do you fear me, King Regis?” The draconian’s voice rolled like thunder. “Fear the power of Bahamut, the one who raised your bloodline above all others? Who gave you the ring, the crystal and the armiger? Do you fear my strength?”
Regis stared up at him intensely, his eyes burning forest green in the strange light of the realm. Even to Leviathan the question felt loaded in ways she couldn’t entirely grasp. For Regis, the pressure to answer had to be immense. Oddly, despite his body seeming to shift between that of a young king and Regis at the age of his death, he stood proud and tall, like he hadn’t ever suffered under the drain of the ring. In that moment he was as old as he’d ever been, but limber and strong as he shook back the trailing edge of his half-cape and let go of the metal claw he’d been gripping for balance.
“How could I fear your strength and power, when it is the backbone of my own?” Regis asked simply, his voice carrying in the ringing silence. The curl of a smile hidden in the corner of his mouth was self-deprecating, but his eyes were sad. “What I fear is that I led a life and a country the best way I knew how, and in doing so I failed us all. How hard it is to look at you, great one, and feel the weight of every choice I made try to press me down to my knees in your presence.”
Bahamut didn’t move.
“You fear my judgement.”
Regis’ smile faded. “I do.”
“You needn’t.” Bahamut reached up with his free hand and snapped open his dragon helm, revealing the metal faceplate and his eyes. “We’ve watched you since the day of your birth, we Six. Your life was difficult, and your trials were agonising. You met each one with strength, courage and dignity enough to shame even us, so shackled as we are. We grieved at the moment of your death, and while our laws are old and our hearts even older, I can think of no other I would make the guardian of our astral pool.”
Leviathan couldn’t see Regis’ face, but she imagined he had a lump in his throat the same as she. Damn it, Bahamut could really talk the talk when he wanted to. It was easy to forget sometimes the power and authority he wielded, when there was little to do but watch. Easier still to forget he was the point of origin for the kings of Lucis, and that his blessing was a many-layered honour to the bloodline.
“Then,” Regis said slowly, like he couldn’t quite believe it, “I can stay to watch over Noctis from this pool, until the very end? You would allow me this?”
“Just say thanks,” Leviathan hissed, trying and utterly failing to pitch her voice low. The glance Bahamut gave her for that was dry. Regis looked between them, pale and shocky with the enormity of his gift. He turned back to Bahamut and fell to one knee in true obeisance, bowing over his fist.
“I will never be able to repay you, but I will spend my eternity trying,” Regis swore, his voice shaking. “I swear it.”
Bahamut tilted his head slightly. The glance he shot Leviathan was uncertain, and a little guilty if she was reading him correctly. Or perhaps that guilt was for Regis, who was slowly pushing himself to his feet again.
“Just don’t punch me in the face this time,” Bahamut said strangely, and reached for his helmet once more—only this time it was to pull the entire thing off. The moment he did, Leviathan leaned forward in rapt fascination: his entire suit of armour was melting away like smoke and shadow.
His hair was freed first. Tumbling out in a wild riot of blue-black strands, it fell down his back and along his bare shoulders in sweaty tendrils. Twin wings rose like banners of black leather and scale, flaring outward in a long stretch of muscle and bone. The rest of him was revealed as the armour retreated, leaving Bahamut in black dragon-hide from the waist down, his upper body defined in pale skin, dark scales and hard muscle. His arresting gaze, electric blue framed by thick dark lashes, was fixed upon Regis like it was anchored to his every move.
Leviathan was spellbound. Had Bahamut always been so beautiful?
Regis just took one look at the unmasked form revealed before him, hitched a single laboured breath—and covered his face with his hands. Bahamut lifted his other hand and cupped it around Regis in an approximation of the largest back-pat in the history of anything. His expression seemed somewhere between horror and a truly terrible amount of tenderness.
For the first time, Leviathan actually began to feel a little awkward about being a gawking bystander. Taking it as her cue to go find Titan and give him all the gossip she could glean from the entire exchange, she gave Bahamut a stiff nod and backed away, falling through the depths of the realm to sink down somewhere she might find Titan, wherever he was hiding. Oh, and Ramuh. Ramuh was going to need to change his dress when she told him his little thundaga king was living large—figuratively—in Bahamut’s palm.
Maybe he would spark a little more life in the realm. Considering they were about to be custodians of Noctis and Noctis alone, they could use all the entertainment they could get.
She still didn’t understand the face-punching line though.
Bahamut had been painfully glad to have his face concealed when he first laid eyes on Regis, standing tiny and overwhelmed in Leviathan’s palm. In fact, he was reasonably sure he had about thirteen heart attacks in a row and nearly burst into tears from the overload of shock and desperation alone. So much so that when presented with Regis, all Bahamut had been able to do for the longest time was simply stand there like a lump and keep his knees locked so he didn’t collapse. He’d always assumed that death was the end for the Lucii, that the ring would take Regis’ soul and all his memories away, not…house and keep him as a true spirit. But trust Titan to go blundering into the actual oblivion that surrounded their pocket of the beyond and come back with a royal souvenir, with no regard for all Bahamut’s assumptions and self-forged beliefs about the very weapons he’d given to the line of Lucis.
Incidentally, the next time Titan asked for him to sit on his back during his push-ups, Bahamut would unreservedly agree. For the moment, he simply stood tall with his hands cupped about the shaking form of his favourite king, wondering how best to reduce his size so they could interact properly without dropping him a probably fatal distance. Was it still fatal if Regis was already dead? Light, there were so many questions he’d never thought to ask. Some deity he was.
Eventually, he managed to sit Regis on the stone lip of the pool and step away just long enough to vanish into a stretching beam of strange light, re-forming again at the size Regis knew him best as. Slightly broader than he was, and a little taller, but nothing intimidating. He didn’t even have a sword. If Regis wanted to hit him again for the lies and deception, or even just for old time’s sake, Bahamut would have to let him or risk inflicting an injury.
“Fifteen years,” Regis was saying, his eyes glassy and fists clenched. “Fifteen years I did it all on my own. Sealed the crystal, like you said. I held council and planned campaigns against Niflheim, I created the Kingsglaive and shared your power with them. I got my soldiers, my citizens and my friends killed. All for Noctis. All for your prophecy. Fifteen years alone, my friend—and I actually missed you. Infuriating, obscene and wonderful as you are, I missed you.” Swallowing hard, Regis ran a hand across his face. His fingertips touched the scars at his temple and danced away. When he glared back at Bahamut, who couldn’t think of a single thing to say, his eyes were shining terribly. “Was it truly enough? What I did? How I tried?”
Was it enough. Of all the stupid questions, Bahamut thought, reaching out to pull Regis against his chest, enfolding him and all his stupid layers of black cloth in his arms.
“Your son is alive. Lunafreya is alive.” The words were spoken clean and certain against the cold shell of one ear, and brought with them the hard clutch of similarly freezing hands against Bahamut’s back. Fingers knocked against the base of his wings and slipped away, but only to gain a stronger grip at his waist. The touching was familiar and awful, but Bahamut thought he could learn to relax beneath those hands—if only they weren’t as cold as Shiva herself. Regis hadn’t been so cold in life, had he? “They’re doing fine, Regis, I promise you this. You were perfect. My only regret is that I couldn’t reach down and tear off Drautos’ head myself.”
“Thank the Six,” Regis whispered, before he caught himself. Old sayings probably would die hard, Bahamut thought, rubbing idle patterns against the fabric under his hands. Surely his warm skin could transfer a little of his heat into Regis. It was as he was doing so that he felt Regis turn utterly rigid in his arms.
“What is it?” Bahamut asked, pulling back in alarm. Had he injured him? Did he still have the stab wound? But Regis simply stared at him in sharp incredulity.
“Did you say Drautos?”
Chapter 14: Speaking Terms
As it turned out, there was a lot Regis had missed about his death and what came after. Luckily for him, Bahamut had been collapsed by the side of the pool the entire time, having a totally legitimate breakdown, so he’d been able to fill in the gaps. Things like Titus Drautos being a double agent for Niflheim all along, somehow miraculously splitting his time between the two monarchs and their armies without detection. Regis generally stomped and spat about concealing helmets and voice distortion until Bahamut pointed out he’d done the same thing earlier, which earned him a green-eyed glare so filthy Bahamut was still feeling sour about it days later. It wasn’t his fault. Or was it, knowing he’d told Regis to sever the tie between them, the access to the crystal?
But he wasn’t supposed to interfere, Bahamut told himself doubtfully. By then he’d reverted to his larger form and had a tiny king sitting on his enormous armoured shoulder, using his greater vantage point to see all that was reflected in the pool. Being so small by comparison, he couldn’t view the depths in the manner they were intended for. It seemed that if Regis wanted to spy upon the pool, he’d need another of the Six to act as both guardian and towering lookout. Bahamut was more than happy to be that person until another came—or even after that time. Despite being strangely judgy about his eternal existence and the fact there were no beds in the astral place, Regis was welcome company with his quiet, intelligent questions and observations. He was also, strangely, quite happy to take his rest in the curving lower jaw of Bahamut’s dragon-face helmet.
“It’s warmest here,” was all Regis offered by way of explanation, which Bahamut didn’t understand at all. Armour was armour; all of it cold metal. But it worried him that Regis suffered with his unnatural chill. Did the flesh of mortals passed on simply refuse to take heat into themselves? He didn’t know. Regis was the first he’d known after death itself.
The question bothered him enough to leave Regis sleeping on the portal’s edge and take it to Titan, who had met the other spirits in the beyond. The other kings.
“I dunno,” Titan said flatly when asked. “They were all wearing clothes. I don’t go around feeling up tiny men, Bahamut.”
Well, that was offensive. He left Titan crumpled in a heap and went to find someone else who might know.
“The hell would I know? I’m part fish,” Leviathan said angrily, though she looked concerned beneath her snarly expression. “And what do you mean, he sleeps on your face?”
“Here,” Bahamut said, pointing at the exposed lower jaw of his helm. There was an indentation in the metal that could just as easily be a nesting place for one supremely chilly king. “He says it’s warm.”
“It’s just metal, maybe he wants—” Leviathan reached her palm up to cup around the armoured jaw piece, and went still. “Oh.”
“What?” The look in her eyes wasn’t familiar. It wasn’t savagely furious, which he could probably deal with better, but it was alien to him. “What’s wrong?”
“Your breath is warm,” she replied eventually, attempting to roll her eyes. “Bahamut, your breath is his personal heater. It’s as close as he can get without crawling inside your plate armour. He needs blankets, a place to sleep that can hold warmth. You’re probably the warmest thing in this place, barring Ramuh’s armpit.”
“How do you even—”
“The important thing is, I need that pretty ribbon off your armour.” Reaching out without permission, Leviathan tore off one of the streaming bolts of crimson silk. “And then I need Titan. Between the two of us we can make something.” She wound the silk over and over until it was a manageable bundle, gave him a brisk and unreadable look through her hair before absolutely hightailing it out of there.
Bahamut stared after her, wondering if he should be angry or simply pat himself on the back. He hadn’t even ordered her. The Regis effect?
With no further need to pursue his concerns since Leviathan seemed to be all over it like a scaly rash, Bahamut returned to the portal in sincerest hopes Regis hadn’t rolled into the water and was currently floating there, stranded. Should they build a little pool ladder? Light and life, it was like child-proofing a house, having a tiny little middle-aged king who liked to blame them for things that weren’t specifically their fault whatsoever. Especially not Drautos, who was also Glauca.
When he returned, Regis was almost foetal on the stone, sleeping buried in his half-cape, which he’d turned up so it all but covered his head like a wimple. Not the most dignified slumber, Bahamut thought reluctantly, dissolving his form until he was a similar size. His armour was ruined since Leviathan stole part of it, anyway. What was she going to make with that silk? Curtains? Bahamut reached out and turned down the concealing black cloth that covered Regis—and stared.
In slumber, the years were stripped from him. Not only in the smoothness of his brow and the faint flush of his skin, but in the dark fall of his hair as it swept into his eyes. Duty and weariness had vanished as though blown from his skin like dust, revealing someone who still burned with life, unburdened by his reign and the end of all. Bahamut frowned, kneeling down to study the fall of his eyelashes, the part of his lips. If this was what happened while he slept, then it was likely that his fluid ageing was directly related to his mind. Specifically, the burden he still felt that he carried with him. Didn’t Regis realise that he wasn’t a sole ruler in command anymore? Then again, he hadn’t exactly been dead very long, and what reassurances could Bahamut provide? None, or none that mattered.
Sitting himself down at the crown of Regis’ head, Bahamut spread one dark wing until he could shelter over his sleeping king. Then he cast the pool to Noctis, taking no heed of Ramuh’s approaching bulk, walking like a monstrous old warrior a million years past his prime. And he was tall.
Bahamut was squinting into the water with difficulty, refusing to return to his usual size when Ramuh hitched up his robes and swung his legs over the edge of the pool beside them, dangling his bare feet in the water like he didn’t have a care in the world. Bahamut made a quick mental note to never try to drink that water as long as he lived. He raised one finger to his lips and stabbed the other at Regis, half-obscured by his wing. Ramuh just sighed.
Together, the pair of them watched the unfolding scene of camping domesticity below. It was evening, not quite full dark, and Noctis was sitting on the platformed rock of the haven, ignoring the campfire behind him. Ignoring everything behind him, it seemed. He had his phone in his hands, long bangs obscuring his eyes as he stared down into its glowing screen. He was dressed in its pale artificial glow and the light of the carved runes in the stone surrounding him. Blue light and shadows, while the warm flames and his confused friends burned with affection at his back.
Bahamut was trying to remember if Noctis knew his father had died by that point when Ramuh reached out and swept his hand across the reflection, leaning down to frown at something. His fierce eyes were narrowed with concentration, one hand stroking over his long braided beard in thought.
“Wake the king,” he said finally. “He needs to see this.”
Despite his faith in Ramuh, Bahamut hesitated to wake Regis from what looked like a true slumber: perhaps one of the few he’d had in recent times. But as the astral pool’s reflection cleared beneath Ramuh’s guiding hand and became a glowing flat thing, Bahamut reached over and shook Regis’ shoulder-guard carefully, for only as long as it took for him to start awake. Touching still didn’t feel right. Maybe it never would.
“What is it?” Regis asked thickly, pressing the heel of his palm to his eyes as he sat up. “Has something happened?” He saw Ramuh almost the same moment he spotted the flat face of the pool, reflecting the screen of a phone in the process of tapping out a message. Several, in fact.
Noctis’ messages to someone, Bahamut realised, frowning. What had Ramuh’s sharp eyes seen from way up high? But the long arm just pointed at the pool, where even their small forms could read the message that shone within.
I have a weapon in my armiger now. It ’s heavy somewhere I can’t talk about to anyone. The others want to get it, but I think they want me to get over it as well. I’m just not as good at burying it all as Gladio is
He thinks I can ’t hear him out there, after we’ve all gone to bed. But I can. He’s angry, the same way I’m angry. But he’s got a duty, and I’ve got nothing
I don ’t know what I’m doing
I miss you, Dad
The texts were sent one after the other, in a rolling staccato burst of keyboard ticks and flashing thumbs. The name at the top of the screen was ICE 4. Fourth to call in case of emergency. Not a name—not Regis’ name. It was just Prince Noctis, sending messages to a phone that would never reply to him.
Regis’ eyes were fixed on the pool the entire time, even after Noctis exited and turned off his phone to conserve battery. He didn’t blink as Ramuh’s expert hand swept the entire scene backward until it was viewing slightly overhead the entire camping site, where three other youths pretended not to be bothered by their prince sitting alone and silent in the gathering dark. But it was in the set of wide shoulder and elegant jaw, in the slide of nervous blue eyes afraid to be caught watching.
A quiet camp. Bahamut sighed to himself, feeling the tug of responsibility in places he shouldn’t. There was nothing he could do. Nothing he could ever do. Noctis silently texting his dead father’s phone wasn’t the worst thing he could be doing. Whether he kept doing it was something else entirely.
I miss you, Dad
Bahamut scrubbed his hands over his face, running long fingers back through his hair. Where the hell was Leviathan and her stupid blanket idea? He wasn’t equipped for any of this, any of the visceral feelings, the—Bahamut watched. He cared from a distance, and that was all. There was no way for him to sit beside Regis as he absorbed that kind of impact and kept ploughing forward, kept burying it all behind stern restraint and all those kingly virtues he’d always displayed—
Regis gave him one hollowed-out glance of pure guilty sorrow and Bahamut was already reaching out, putting one large palm on the curve of his shoulder. The hand that covered his was ice cold, but it squeezed his with surprising strength. He couldn’t bring himself to move any further than that, somehow feeling like a wall had descended between them. Fathers and sons, he didn’t know a thing about that and he never would.
“It’s not your fault,” Bahamut said hopelessly, keeping his eyes pinned to the pool. “You could never have been both. Not the way everyone needed.”
“It is my fault,” Regis replied. He sounded muffled. “Because I chose.”
“As we all must. Often to our own detriment, knowing we’ll lose the things we care about most. For that greater good the poets and idiots are always talking about.”
“I thought they took their cue from the gods,” Regis replied, a rusty laugh trapped somewhere in his throat. “I know I did.”
“I’ll only take credit if it worked.”
In the corner of his eye, Regis shifted until the line of his clothing brushed against Bahamut’s side. His head lowered.
“Then you can take credit for me.”
What a horrible honour that was. And yet, irresistible in its way. Unable to form a reply, Bahamut simply slid his grasping hand around to Regis’ other shoulder and squeezed him until it felt like the cold finally began to thaw from his bones, until the skin beneath his hands might start to finally warm. Contact like that, it would probably never feel natural to him. He’d gone too long without. Bahamut hung on anyway.
“Thank you,” Regis said finally when he drew back. His eyes were lowered to the paler band of skin on his left hand where the ring of the Lucii used to rest. “I wonder how many times I’ll horrify myself by making you my shoulder to cry on?”
Over Regis’ head, Ramuh was squinting at them both suspiciously. Ignoring the question in his gaze, Bahamut shrugged.
“I make a good shoulder.”
“You hold back a flinch whenever I touch you.”
“That’s…something else,” Bahamut admitted. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
“Ah.” The sidelong glance he was gifted for that was a little wry. “Consider me let down gently, then.”
Well, that wouldn’t do. “It’s the armour,” Bahamut explained, or tried to. “I haven’t been out of it for more than a millennium.”
Above them both, Ramuh sighed like a silent, judging monolith. Regis just nodded with careful gravity, his eyes concerned as he scanned Bahamut like he was seeing him again for the first time. Whatever that meant.
“You tolerate much,” was all he said in reply, but there was something Bahamut hadn’t heard in his voice before.
They studied the portal again for as long as they could, but being so low to the water was really a problem. Besides, the Chosen—Noctis, Bahamut had to remind himself—and his crownsguard were simply sleeping in their ultimately small tent, the lamps all extinguished. All safe, and all dark but for the glow of runes on old stone. Regis just stared at the water blankly in thoughtful silence for a while, loosely sandwiched between Ramuh and himself. Their first meeting, and Ramuh was just creeping on him, obviously waiting for an official introduction. It was as good a distraction as any.
Bahamut caught the fulgurian’s eye and tilted his head at Regis meaningfully. Ramuh shook his head sternly and pressed his two pointer fingers together, rotating his wrists slightly to make a—was that a kiss motion? Was that what that was?
Bahamut stared. Why would Ramuh even suggest that? Did Ramuh think he was attracted to Regis? Regis clearly preferred women, and Bahamut was a dragon. Well, sometimes, and he didn’t even have a true heart anymore. He’d given it to the line of Lucis. It was complete idiocy on Ramuh’s part, he told himself flatly. What a moron.
He was still steaming over it when Leviathan and Titan came hurrying toward the astral pool. Titan had something cradled carefully in his enormously muscled arms, something that spilled red silk out the top. Giving the three of them little more than a cursory glance, they whispered and hustled their way to the complete other side of the pool, arranging silk and various items on the stone lip of the pool. Bahamut couldn’t even pretend to say he knew that the hell was going on. Making Regis a hammock?
“You’re doing it wrong,” Ramuh said after a few minutes of hissing and whispering. Titan was beginning to look like he was contemplating murder, and Leviathan kept slapping him over the fingertips when he tried to touch things. “You two have no idea about design, truly.”
“Eat shit, Ramuh.” Titan didn’t mince words.
Ramuh scowled. “No.”
“Yes,” Leviathan returned, still frantically fiddling with tiny little items. “Eat all of it.”
Regis had stirred with the commotion, and was beginning to look a little stunned. But his hair was returning to the same dark fall of longish strands, spilling over a brow that no longer bore so many lines. His leg brace melted into light and shadow while he wasn’t paying attention to himself or the pool. It began to give Bahamut the barest edge of a theory. Good humour and a distraction. Warmth and being able to relax. Trust. They were all things that kept Regis looking healthy and strong. Not young, exactly—but perhaps without the ring’s clear drain upon his body. What he might have looked like if it had never touched his skin, if Bahamut’s magic hadn’t ruined him.
“Here,” Leviathan finally announced, retracting one shielding forearm fin with a flourish to reveal their handiwork. She beamed across at Regis and Bahamut, her knife-like teeth gleaming like pearls. “Perhaps not a hearth, probably not fit for a king, but it’s definitely a home.”
It was Titan’s treasured soup bowl.
Or it used to be. Spun upside down on the stone, the wooden bowl became a dome with carved windows and an arch for a door; one curtained by some extremely familiar red-gold fabric. There was a cut-mark through the roof of the so-called home, decorated by a spray of more silk erupting from within the domicile, blazoned with the ornate golden thread that reflected an image of sword-encrusted dragons. It shot out the top of the bowl like a rooster comb, or a territorial flag.
Whichever it was, it had Regis captivated and pushing himself to his feet, a wondering smile actually teasing the corner of his mouth as he squinted over the long distance to the makeshift home. Despite himself, Bahamut wanted to see it too, and found himself ignoring his self-imposed rule of avoiding skin contact to loop strong arms around Regis stomach from behind.
“What in Eos?” Regis took one glance down at his chest and over his shoulder at Bahamut. It was then he saw the dark dragonleather of his wings at full span, stretching wide with promise. “Oh no, that’s really not necessary!”
“Too late,” Bahamut laughed against the cold shell of his king’s ear, and jumped off the edge of the pool to let the unnatural winds grab at the billowing place beneath his wings, filling them as he beat the wretched things hard and flew—really flew—for the first time in as long as he could remember. The astral pool glittered like diamonds and black velvet beneath them, reflecting a starry midnight sky far from them. Bahamut felt like he was a thousand feet high in a world far beyond the one he was shackled to.
In his grasp, Regis was staring at him with eyes sharp and burning like old emerald, and Bahamut couldn’t even bring himself to want to hide the sharpness of his fang teeth, the scales that marred him at cheek and elbow and hip. His claws flexed joyously for all their care, finding the give of firm muscle and soft fabric.
“What is it?” he asked as Regis continued to stare. “Am I too ferocious?”
They were close enough to the other side of the pool that Leviathan and Titan were each holding out their palms to perch upon when they landed. Behind them, Ramuh was power-walking to make it to the other side of the wide well, even at his size.
“No,” Regis said, unblinking. He was thirty-five and his lashes were spiked with the whip of wind that stung his eyes. “I think you might be quite perfect just as you are.”
The words, so quietly delivered, were all but swallowed up under the frantic beat of Bahamut’s wings as he sought the wide landing pad of Titan’s palm.
“Come on,” Bahamut said as Regis fought to regain his balance, looking slightly queasy despite the smooth landing.
“Let’s inspect this tissue house they’ve made for you.”
Chapter 15: Hubris
For a small while, time passed in an easy lull of relative peace.
Noctis and his companions were ever dodging the empire of Niflheim, of course, and his nightly messages to his father’s phone continued as a journal for ghosts, but on the whole they seemed to be enjoying themselves by running around the countryside honing their skills and camping under the stars.
Leviathan found it all insufferable. Dancing about in fields of wildflowers, swinging swords and—of all the things to be doing right under her nose—fishing? Always, always with the fishing! It drove her spare. The only thing that kept her sane and quiet on those long afternoons was Regis, ever patient and attentive, watching his son for hours with eyes that were hungry for even the smallest smile or laugh. It saddened her just enough that she didn’t speak every cold and callous thought that crossed her mind. Noctis had a father who wanted to dote upon him from even the next life, when souls should rest. Sure, he didn’t deserve Regis, but Regis didn’t want to know that. So, time passed, and fun was had…and it was all incredibly boring, really.
They were still sitting together, Regis watching quietly upon her shoulder, when behind them Titan began to glow gold with the evocation of the covenant.
“Titan,” Bahamut said, sharp and surprised. He lowered his gauntleted fists from their defensive position and pushed his helm up. Vaguely, Leviathan had been aware of their odd grunting and sparring, but it just didn’t hold the same interest as keeping an eye on whatever had Regis in such a lather. Some empire boy, Loqi, had recently challenged Cor with a mechanical monster. As though anything could kill that blue-eyed specimen. But they were both torn from their viewing as brilliant light began to shine over Titan’s stone-hardened skin.
“Guess I’m first up,” Titan said, shrugging. If he felt any effect from the call, he didn’t show it. He slanted a bronze-eyed glance at Bahamut. “This call, the magic still feels like you. Generations of dilution should have weakened this hold. But she calls and I still see dragon teeth and eyes like fire under my eyelids.” Pressing one large palm to his chest, he frowned and covered the light where it shone brightest. It wasn’t smothered—it bled out from beneath his palm like liquid gold. When he looked up at Bahamut his eyes were almost uncertain.
“What is it?” Leviathan asked from the portal, oddly afraid. But Titan’s eyes were all for the Bahamut, who seemed to be experiencing some kind of feedback. He trembled beneath his armour, just a little. Just slightly out of sight of most. Titan stared down his draconian leader, the one who led them all.
“She screams for me and…it’s with your voice.” He shuddered beneath the call. “I have to obey it, don’t I? I would have done it anyway—” The spilling gold became knives that plunged down into his skin. “Light, she’s not giving me a choice.”
“Desperate times,” Regis murmured upon Leviathan’s shoulder, and raised his palm to the astral pool. The disc of Cauthess spun into view, a jutting blue flame of brilliance and power, and at its base, shouldering the weight of the world’s calamity was the hunched figure of Titan’s worldly shell. Further beneath it stood a young woman, straight of spine and clear of eye. She would brook no argument.
“Lunafreya,” Regis breathed, pride in his voice. His smile was warm and paternal, though Leviathan knew his interaction with her had been minimal at best. Did humans forge bonds so easily? Curious, and angry for it, she squinted down at the young woman, searching for her worth.
Lunafreya hadn’t been one Leviathan had kept much of an eye on, dismissing her after she’d received the ring of the Lucii from Regis. Governed by Shiva, her strongest tie had been to Noctis, which said everything Leviathan needed to know and more. Weak as milk and too involved in each other, a pair of youths fancying themselves special and strange—
“Titan!” Lunafreya screamed through the portal, her voice a thunderhead of power and crashing command. “Stone-splitter, earthreaver! You will heed my call or forsake your power and self. Come to me now, or withstand the rending of your flesh as you break your oath! Answer my call, as I call with the voice of Bahamut, great dragon and king of the gods.” A thin-fingered hand gripped the trident and slammed it down into the stone between them, glittering with old magic and light.
Leviathan leaned back slightly. Strength for strength, she thought, eyes slightly wide as Titan dissolved into a shower of golden light, succumbing to the call that pulled at the ancient stitches of his promises. As though he could do anything less with that kind of cry fuelling Bahamut’s trident.
“Shit,” she whispered, watching Titan’s shell blink and shift as his spark re-entered it, feeling the spike in his eye and the weight at his back. “She’s got some pipes on her to haul Titan back by force.”
“That she does,” Regis said, his mouth picking up in a crooked smile. “She has the strength of her mothers before her. Lunafreya won’t stop until she’s done what she’s set out to achieve.”
“She needs to be careful,” Bahamut said succinctly. He stared down into the pool between the jaws of his helm. “Call out in my name all she pleases, but pulling the thread of my power to bring the astrals to heel will only unravel her strength. She’s not strong enough to bring a railing god to bay. Should Ifrit appear before her, should she anger any of us, that strength will be a glass cannon and nothing more.” His lips pulled down into a severe line, dark with disapproval. “Deference would bring her more strength. If she petitions Ramuh in a similar fashion, I honestly fear for her. Has Shiva not taught her this?”
“Shiva assumes we’ll all roll over for the prophecy,” Leviathan said, unsettled. Even Bahamut’s echo was an oppressive, smothering thing, but a human was still a human. Such hubris, to drag Titan—a god—down to the dirt and make demands of him. Because Bahamut had promised so? Because the oracle wielded a fraction of his power? Because a story from a thousand years ago said some shaggy-haired picky eater would one day save Eos? Bahamut might stand beside her, his power bleeding off his strong shoulders like hot sweat in winter air, but these humans were just token puppets foretold to finish the job.
Beneath them, Titan blinked in confusion at the raised trident of Bahamut, held in the hand of a young oracle girl. And he nodded, bowing as best he could with a meteor on his back and shards of stone stabbed through his body.
Leviathan felt her teeth sharpen like razors inside her mouth.
How dare she.
“Well done,” Regis said softly, as Titan’s light coalesced and he accepted the word of the oracle. The covenant. The test of Noctis would soon follow, and with it, the yanking servitude of their oaths would pull them all into line. Like cattle to the slaughter, forced to fight for humans who were bred from the same kind that doomed their shining world to begin with.
Lunafreya stood proud and straight, ignoring the streak of blood dripping from her nostril. Her eyes burned with purpose and strength. For an instant, Leviathan hated her, and hated Regis for loving her.
A warm hand clapped down on her shoulder, free of its gauntlets and soft despite its ridged calluses. Bahamut. The breath she didn’t know she’d been holding rushed out of her like a hurricane. Then the hand shifted, moving away, and she realised it was just to remove Regis from his perch. The hollow punch of loss she felt at that was as strange as it was harrowing. Did nobody see as she did? Would Ramuh say any different, were he there with them? To see their mighty kind, so strong and sure, just—enslaved for a few words in the quest of a supposed king of kings, a herald of light who fished and whined and cried at night when nobody was watching—
“I hate him,” Leviathan gasped out, feeling the words push out from their place behind her ribs. “I hate all of them. They’re not good enough.”
Her words fell on nobody at all: echoing like poison and vapour in the astral pool’s starlit chamber. Bahamut had departed with Regis at some point. It was just her, just the bitchy fishstick Titan liked to tease, except he couldn’t now because he was lying under the heavy yoke of the line of Fleuret, sworn to aid the Lucian kings. Would he come back? Could he?
Why was Regis celebrating?
Leviathan sat there for untold hours in the dark silence, eyes burning with fury and teeth clenched against all the words she knew she couldn’t say. For an oath was still an oath, and she had made hers in the ashes of Ifrit’s betrayal.
Before the end, perhaps she too would fall into line. For this milkhearted prince who would be king and his steely-eyed queen.
Lowering her head, Leviathan wondered who had more: the gods, or the humans who would try to leash them.
They would all find out soon enough.
Chapter 16: Scales
With the crystal locked away inside Emperor Aldercapt’s keep, Bahamut had little reason to return to its sanctum. Still, old habits were difficult to break, and despite the constant darkness within the soft cradle of the crystal, there was an old comfort there.
Besides, it wasn’t all bleak silence and steel walls. On the rare occasions the vault was opened, the wily old man’s piercing stare was cold and clinical as he studied his glittering acquisition. He talked a lot, in shifting tones, about the glory of the empire and his triumph over Lucis, but never seemed to say anything of true importance. Bahamut knew those lilting tones and circle-talk were a gift from a childhood mentor—one who stood unchanged by the slow crawl of time, away from his emperor’s side far more than he wasn’t.
The Accursed had become quite active since the death of Regis. Bahamut could guess where it all led, but the smile tucked in the corner of Ardyn’s mouth was still genial and friendly, if a little smug. It was when that smile slid away that Bahamut knew to pay attention. His plans were always slow to come to fruition, and Bahamut didn’t think for a moment that Ardyn would show his hand any sooner than the exact moment he meant to.
Not for the first time, Bahamut envied Titan, down there beneath his cold stone burden. Breathing the clean air, watching the stars from below instead of above, waiting for Noctis to come close enough to summon with his call, that he might be soon summoned in return.
Bahamut was in a melancholy mood when he finally left the darkened sanctum of the crystal, not overly inclined to do anything other than sit at the pool and watch, watch, watch as Noctis and his companions wound their way toward Titan’s mortal shell within the core of the disc. At the other side of the pool Regis mirrored his position, splitting his glances between the pool and what Bahamut could only guess was himself. Leviathan and Ramuh were gone again—still, in Ramuh’s case, which Bahamut suspected had something to do with Shiva.
So it was Regis and Bahamut, Bahamut and Regis.
Again, the old thought surfaced: what did his searching gaze matter, really, when there was nothing to be done? Titan might forge his covenant and give Noctis his mark, and so might Ramuh and Shiva and Leviathan. But he couldn’t. Not until Noctis could pursue the crystal itself. Watching meant nothing more than seeing all else fall by the wayside on the road to the Chosen’s destiny. Aulea, Regis, Clarus, even the damn nanny. Even the glaives, whose old bloodlines had meant they could pluck at his magic in their king’s name. Just another sacrifice. Another ploy. All for the prophecy he ripped from himself in hopes he could spare Eos from Ifrit’s scourge.
Perhaps it was his punishment, too.
So Bahamut pinned his eyes to the astral waters, elbows to the stone edge and face downturned. Free of his armour, still at his astral size, he was comfortable enough to kneel there as though in prayer, watching through the portal to the world below. There was nothing else to do, after all.
Below, far below, Noctis was trying with difficulty to mask the pain that Titan’s insistent call had sent crashing inside his head. For whatever reason, the most incapacitated member of the foursome was driving them all to the disc. Stubborn, reckless—or was that by someone else’s design? In the front passenger seat, the young nervous one was darting worried looks at Noctis while blindly texting…Ignis in the back seat, if his own preoccupation with his phone screen was an indication. Silently conversing about their king. Interesting use of their resources. And, watching all of them, Gladiolus simply leaned back in his seat, arm outstretched along the backrest until his fingertips brushed the expensive fabric of Ignis’ tailored jacket. His eyes never left the side of Noctis’ head, but his tone was easy and unbothered as he speculated on the Accursed’s motives for guiding them to their destination.
Titan was going to have a time of it, if Niflheim was springing a trap. He couldn’t act on Noctis’ behalf until the king had earned his mark, and if the empire blew him to pieces before that could happen it would take far too long for him to create another corporeal form. Clever of them, to try to cut Noctis’ power out from under him before he could even fail on his own. Someone had been studying the old texts—or perhaps Ardyn simply remembered.
“My head hurts,” Noctis groaned, and Bahamut silently echoed his sentiment. Still, his hands never wavered on the steering wheel and his attention was sharply pinned to the car in front that guided them to the high walls of a blockade. Bahamut tried suddenly to remember how many weapons he had in his armiger. Two? Three?
“You look as grim as I feel,” a new voice commented, and Bahamut glanced down at his elbow to see Regis standing beside it, his neck craned as he stared up to meet Bahamut’s eyes. “Quite a walk to get to you, you know. I’m not sure I needed that exercise.”
Always subtle with the censure, Regis was. A gentle rebuke for picking the furthest point from him to make his vantage point. Always careful not to truly offend. He was a far cry from the young king that had punched him in the face, still ignorant of who and what he was. Bahamut found he missed that irreverence. Still, he took his eyes from the portal and plucked Regis up, depositing him in the palm of his other hand. Standing on the ridge of his calluses, refusing to grab his thumb claw for balance, Regis gazed solemnly up at him, foregoing the astral portal for a scant few moments. Bahamut could see it anyway, if anything went wrong. Regis looking away from the portal though, that meant business.
“What troubles you?” Regis tried again. “I have seen neither skin nor scale of you in days, and now you emerge looking like it’s you who shoulders a meteor’s weight, not Titan.”
How to convey the tired ennui of an old god, without receiving rote obeisance in return? Bahamut propped his head up with his other hand, his elbow upon the stone rim of the glittering pool. Perhaps no truth at all was the best course of action. Regis would return to his observations soon enough.
“It’s nothing to concern yourself with.” But Regis’ green eyes narrowed slightly, his brows drawing together. Slowly, his hair turned again to silver, and the brace upon his leg melted back into existence. Damn it. “Noctis’ travels continue as planned. There’s no danger to him.”
“I’m aware. In fact, Noctis can occasionally hold his own without our eyes pinned to his back at every waking moment.” Evidently Regis wasn’t kidding, since he hadn’t glanced away from Bahamut’s face since he made his walk. Why was he pushing? He had his wooden abode, replete with silks and cushions Leviathan had fashioned for him. He had the pool to watch over his son, and the attention of the great astrals themselves. Couldn’t he simply let Bahamut mope in peace? “You are no longer yourself.”
“And you know me so well,” Bahamut snorted. “You, who nearly expired in my presence once you saw me for what I truly was.” His knew he sounded sharp, even reproachful for no good reason. Ill-tempered and unkind, Bahamut waited for Regis to shrink back into the role of respectful mortal. “Leashed here or not, I still command more power than the other astrals. A score of swords and stars lie a fingertip and a word away, and my roar can split the sky itself. I’m blade and scale and light, Regis, I’m—”
“Stuck here,” Regis said succinctly, “like a rat in a cage. And it’s driving you absolutely insane that Titan is down there, a moment from punching the imperial army in its damned ugly face, and you aren’t.” Crossing his arms, Regis levelled him a frankly filthy glare. “Do you honestly think I don’t feel exactly the same?”
“It’s not the same at all.”
“Isn’t it?” Regis laughed, the sound almost rusty. “Isn’t it? Through the crystal and the ring passed from my father to me, I commanded armies and raised walls of pure magic to keep my people safe. When I was angry, lightning bled off my skin and crackled behind my eyes, and my enemies knew to cover their throats in my presence when my sword was drawn.” Fists clenched, eyes locked on Bahamut’s, Regis lip actually curled with true anger. “I was king—and now I’m dead, stuck here watching the end of the world play out like the evening news, living in a house made from a bowl with a miserable dragon god for company. Do you think you’re the only one to feel helpless, your teeth and claws blunted by circumstance and fate?”
Feeling heat gather in his cheeks, Bahamut had to resist the sudden urge to make a fist around Regis and make his head pop off into the pool. The nerve.
“If I hadn’t damned myself to give your wretched bloodline and the Fleuret oracles power to suppress the scourge, I would be out there,” he snarled. “Instead I have to listen to you whining about how you’ve lost your ivory tower and nobody respects you anymore. Big fucking deal, Regis, but the world keeps turning whether or not you’re still wearing your favourite ring—”
“And it’s still turning whether or not you get to flap around like a giant bat—”
“—these are dragon wings, you irreverent bag of bones—”
“I am not old,” Regis said hotly. “You’re the one who’s ancient, self-involved, sour and entirely too large to punch in the jaw like I wish I could.”
Bahamut scoffed loudly. “Well, isn’t it just a sad day to be you.”
There had to be a straw to break Regis’ back, and apparently that was it. Green eyes snapping furiously in his pale face, Regis twitched back his immaculately pressed cuffs, lifted both his arms and—
Bahamut blinked and stared, his hackles lowering in shock.
And over two up-stretched arms hitting him with the double-barrelled middle finger, Regis glowered right back.
At first, Bahamut didn’t even know what to do. He glanced away. Then he glanced back. It was still there.
In all the history of all the centuries Bahamut had stood guard, nobody had ever dared disrespect him so openly. Not Leviathan, not even Ifrit when he’d been at the height of his crackling, blackened rage—and that was saying a lot, considering Bahamut had to kill him that one time. But then there was Regis, angry, brave, concerned Regis, who’d asked what was wrong and had his head bitten off as a result. And still he’d given just as good as he’d gotten, taking exactly no shit despite being the size of a thumb and trying not to stagger as he kept his balance.
Well, Bahamut had been sick of respectful bowing and politeness, hadn’t he? Wish granted. Reluctantly, he tipped his head and tried to hold down the faint twitch of a fond smile.
“Have I expressed myself clearly enough?” Regis’ arms were shaking slightly with the strain of keeping them held up. “Because this is really rather difficult to maintain.”
“I think you’ve made your point,” Bahamut said slowly, almost drawling. “Quite emphatically, in fact.”
“Well. Good.” Regis busied himself for a moment with righting his cuffs and collar, brushing off imaginary lint for a moment before glancing back up guiltily. “That…wasn’t very majestic of me, was it?”
“No.” Unfairly, Bahamut waited for Regis to fidget. “I suppose it wasn’t very godly of me, either.” He finally let his mouth curve upward. “It’s a good thing we’re neither king or god, but instead two angry prisoners stuck in the same cell. Or we might have to be embarrassed.” Leaning down, he lowered Regis to the stone edge of the pool once more, shaking out his wings until he could join him in a smaller form. When he blinked away the shifting light of his brief transformation, Regis was holding a hand outstretched toward him.
“Prisoners, yes, by virtue of circumstance alone. I’m trapped here until Noctis can call upon his forefathers. You’re trapped here until he can obtain the crystal,” Regis said thoughtfully. His earlier anger seemed to have evaporated almost as quickly as Bahamut’s own had. “As your one and only human friend, I should very much like to help you through this difficult time.” His fingertips twitched slightly. “If you’d like.”
Bahamut’s eyebrows shot up. Actually, his whole face must have done something awful because Regis seemed to wince, but he didn’t take back his words. His hand, however, did begin to droop as if to fall back to his side. Unsure about whether or not to reach out and grab it—what was the polite thing to do? Did it matter?—and far less sure about touching him, Bahamut just folded his wings down against his back tightly and hunched his shoulders.
A truly awkward silence descended. Bahamut wondered if he could drown himself to escape.
Finally, Regis cleared his throat a little.
“I had thought…with the amount of times I’ve called you friend, that perhaps it was a mutual feeling. But I’ve overstepped. Worse, I’ve tried to touch you again, when I know how you hate it. I do apologise.” For all his words, Regis simply looked confused: he’d taken a confident turn down a familiar road and found a sheer drop before him.
Bahamut felt abruptly wretched. Why was he always blundering about? His single-minded, possessive and wholehearted affection for Regis was clear to everyone, except apparently the man himself. He liked Regis from his words to his company to his utter refusal to put up with his fits of self-pity, but the word friend just…
Bahamut wasn’t his friend. Wouldn’t ever be his friend. The knowledge resounded with a truth that sank all the way down to the marrow of his bones. Worse, he didn’t want to fix it, or lie. Even when Regis straightened his shoulders and tucked his hands behind his back, the years melting off him like snow in sunshine until he was dark-haired and unlined, his half-cape and golden chains of office vanishing from a neat dark suit and purple cravat. Young, strong, but as uncertain as the day he prostrated himself before the crystal on the day he was crowned king.
“Do me a favour,” Bahamut said suddenly, before he could think too much about it. “Touch me.”
Regis’ eyebrows twitched upward. Apart from a slight ruddy tinge to his cheeks, it was all the reaction he gave.
“That seems counterproductive to my plans. You panic every time.”
“I don’t panic,” Bahamut replied, irritated. Plans? He waved a hand between them. “I’ve touched you before. But I—forgot, you see. Warmth and, and hands and skin. I’m out of my armour more often than I’m in it these days, but skin contact is still unfamiliar to me.” He refused to be ashamed. “So remind me.” His eyes darted around the softly-lit space. “If you want.”
It took a few moments before Bahamut could glance back at Regis to gauge his reaction. So much for bravery. But the look on the now-young king’s face was that of amazement, and of all things, eagerness. Stopping only to smooth a quick, thoughtful hand over his dark beard—which was steadily flecking with silver once more—Regis stepped forward and reached out with both hands.
Bahamut’s eyes slammed shut like vault doors, but he didn’t move.
Nothing happened. Not at first.
It took a moment for him to feel the whisper of slow, cool fingertips brushing the dark scales at the bend of his elbow. The touch was so unobtrusive, so careful in its exploration that Bahamut’s eyes opened in surprise more than reflex. Regis didn’t look up from his mapping of the warm bend of his elbow, fingertips drifting over the transition from scale to skin and back again. Bahamut knew the scales were strange by human standards, but Regis had always zeroed straight in on them, if he remembered correctly. Did he have some kind of reptile fascination?
“I like these,” Regis murmured, more to himself than Bahamut. “Warm and smooth, not rough at all. They shine like obsidian.” He glanced up briefly at the twin streaks of scale that emblazoned Bahamut’s cheeks, but didn’t reach for them. “Do you have them anywhere else?”
“That’s forward of you,” Bahamut replied, a little rumbly from a strange and sudden sense of languor. He smiled. “Yes, I have more.”
Regis’ eyes dropped straight to Bahamut’s black hide pants, and the black armoured boots that jointed over his knee to grip his thigh. There were barely visible scales at his waist, flowing over his hips and disappearing with the delineation of muscle downward. Regis swallowed, fingertips twitching against Bahamut’s biceps.
“Well that’s…that would make sense, anatomically, I suppose,” Regis said eventually, then busied himself with Bahamut’s clawed fingertips. When he was done with testing their sharpness and opacity, he carefully explored every inch of Bahamut’s arms and shoulders, even being bold enough to run his hands along the hard skeletal branches of his wing structure; thankfully not to dislocate anything this time.
It wasn’t as startling as Bahamut had expected. Regis wasn’t grabby or rough, and his hands were gentle and cool against his warmer skin. It felt more like he was being…discovered, in long sweeps of contact. Slowly, Bahamut felt himself relax into it. If Regis noticed, he didn’t say a word.
Finally, Regis seemed to pluck up his courage enough to slip his fingers over Bahamut’s jaw, thumbs sweeping outward to his earlobes and up to his cheeks. Beneath the dark curtain of his hair, Bahamut felt long fingers sift through it and curve against the warmth of his scalp. It was extremely pleasant. Bahamut couldn’t remember anyone ever doing that before.
Regis watched him carefully the entire time, his gaze almost luminous beneath his steely brows. Back again to the body he’d died in, his only indication of his age being the fanning laugh lines that decorated the skin at the corner of his eyes. He hung somewhere between that form and something stronger and younger beneath its visage, hiding like a secret. For a single moment Bahamut forgot to be concerned about the fingers stroking careful lines across his face, and wondered if Regis would mind if he reached up and touched the winged curve of his brow, following the pale scars that twisted at his temple.
“You’re staring at me,” Regis murmured, the brow in question arching slightly. The barest tip of his thumbs had touched the edge of his scales—and there they stopped, as Regis waited for a response.
Bahamut found himself a little irritated by the pause in motion. What, he couldn’t stare?
“You stare at me all the time,” Bahamut replied eventually, trying not to sound defensive and probably failing. “You’ve spent the last few minutes feeling me up, and I’m in trouble for staring?”
“You asked me to,” Regis returned with high amusement. “And I want to know what you find so interesting to look at. I’m merely an irreverent bag of bones, after all.”
Rolling his eyes, Bahamut tried not to huff a sigh that might accidentally blow Regis across the realm.
“All right, I’m sorry I called you old. I’m the old one. So very old.” When Regis feigned disinterest, Bahamut persisted, trying to hold down a sharp-toothed grin. “One time, my hip even ached.”
The laugh that burst out of Regis surprised them both. One of the hands on Bahamut’s face increased pressure, pushing his toothy smile away and squashing his cheek up until his eye scrunched shut. He clucked his tongue in annoyance when that failed to do absolutely anything to move him.
Flushed with the pleasure of amusing Regis with his obviously superior humour, Bahamut almost missed the sound and blinding light of an arrival in the astral realm. The flare of it lit the curve of Regis’ jaw and nose where it touched him over Bahamut’s own shoulder. Titan certainly knew how to wrap things up quickly, he thought, vaguely annoyed at the sudden intrusion. They’d been bonding.
Turning to call out to the old boulder before Titan accidentally sat on them or something, Bahamut completely missed the expression on Regis’ face.
The heat was the first clue: a dry, crackling heat that ribboned in clear waves that stank of rotten woodsmoke and hot tar. The second was the firelight that stained the lilac-blue sanctum ochre and umber with twisting shadows, coiling around something much, much larger than either of them.
Ifrit stepped out of the billowing smoke and smothered a flame the size of a skyscraper in his fist. His hacking laugh was the spit and crack of boiling sap in a bonfire.
“So this is the lookout,” he rasped, seemingly to himself, his burning-coal eyes slitted with malicious enjoyment. “Last lighthouse left, and nobody’s home.” Tossing his hair back over his horns, gold cuffs jangling like windchimes, Ifrit closed his eyes, tilted his head back and hauled in a deep, hungry breath of air.
When his eyes opened again, the molten gaze had rolled sideways—to where Bahamut and Regis stood frozen on the edge of the stone portal.
“Guess I’ve gotta entertain myself with the pets.”
Chapter 17: Intruder
Bahamut was ancient. Like, really damn ancient. He’d been around when the world was still faintly steaming from the oven, when the oceans had been ice and the stone still ran with molten fingers of brilliant red. He was old, and strong, and generally accepted as the wise and courageous leader of the gods.
So why, Bahamut thought in pure desperation, grabbing Regis and throwing them both down as a fireball roasted the air where they’d just been standing, why was he only just experiencing the first trickles of pants-pissing terror? Shouldn’t it have come and gone already, maybe back when the world nearly ended the first time? Hauling Regis up by his austere chains, they both leapt to their feet and ran for their damn lives.
In a circle.
On the ledge of the portal.
Where they’d been running for the past forty minutes.
“I’m not entirely certain Ifrit is sane,” Regis puffed alongside him as he ran. He was sweating rivers, somewhere in his late thirties before the leg brace had been required. “Shouldn’t he have tried to kill us both already? Or you? He should have tried to kill you, at the very least.”
“Thank you, Regis,” Bahamut panted, giving him some lethal side-eye. “You could try to sound concerned about my welfare, you know.” More fireballs followed them, this time forcing them to run in a zig-zag formation. The stink of scorched linen and hair said they hadn’t been entirely successful. Behind them, Ifrit’s giant fucking head was a mountain of sick glee, his burning eyes following them with fascination. Psychopath.
“You can handle yourself. In fact, why aren’t you handling yourself?”
For all the slight against his strength the question was, Bahamut wasn’t offended. They’d remained together, running in circles after Ifrit, apparently bored and sulking that nobody interesting was around, decided that some target practice was in order. He was surely toying with them, crouched by the rim of the portal as they dodged his flames, and it didn’t take long for Bahamut to realise that Ifrit had no idea who he was. He had been in his armour almost exclusively before Regis wormed his way into their lives. Ifrit looked at him and saw a small messenger at best — not the draconian of starlight and steel. The small deceit was probably all that was keeping Regis alive, for if Ifrit suspected for a moment that the former king of Lucis was at all of value to Bahamut, he’d roast him on a spit.
“Just keep running.” And Regis did, legs pounding the stone like pistons, cheeks flushed and his expression grim.
But Bahamut knew they couldn’t run forever, and it didn’t look like anyone was returning to the realm soon to redirect Ifrit’s attention. He had to come up with a plan that wouldn’t get Regis killed a second time. If that was even possible. It seemed like it might be possible.
He was still pondering that train of thought when a hand like a hundred foot wall slammed down ahead of them, cutting off their way forward. Skidding to halt his advance, Regis grabbed Bahamut’s elbow and yanked him sideways in time for a plume of crimson flame to skim his opposite shoulder and wing in a charring flash of black agony.
Right, pain, Bahamut thought as he swallowed back the urge to vomit. Pain was bad. Fire, also bad. Was his wing on fire?
“This is bad manners, I guess, but I think I’m just going to kill you both,” Ifrit said lazily. He’d slumped over to press his cheek against the stone, effectively caging them between one enormous hand and the infernian’s giant burning face. His breath felt like a forge bellows against the already hellish burn on his arm, but Bahamut refused to do anything stupid like pass out. What he needed though… “If I let you live to tell the tale it’s good for my reputation, but bad for my overall image. You know, human hating Ifrit, scourge, tragically murdered by Bahamut—”
Oh, come on.
“You had that coming,” Bahamut growled as he whirled around, his wings raised like hackles. “Oathbreaking vermin, you turned on your own kind. You’re nothing but a reeking trash fire,” he jeered, watching the rage mount in Ifrit’s eyes to truly uncontrollable levels. “Count yourself lucky you only had your mortal shell snuffed out at Ravatogh.”
Ifrit’s face twisted into something bestial and cruel, and that was all the warning he gave.
Hellfire was a funny thing, Bahamut thought serenely as he pushed Regis straight into the pool and dove after him, plunging like a knife down to the deepest reflection of the sparkling waters. Ifrit liked to pretend he was the master of flame and heat, but the stars themselves burned hotter than Ifrit ever could. So as the world above roiled in shades of red and black, Bahamut reached out beneath the cool water and took Regis’ face between his hands.
‘I need a brief distraction,’ he said directly into the wide-open planes of the stunned king’s mind. ‘Can you give me one?’
Regis, having no idea how to communicate back in a cohesive manner, threw him a series of images that loosely resembled agreement. His green eyes looked oddly flat beneath the water, but the hands that gripped his wrists were strong and certain. There was an element of anxiety to the tumble of his thoughts, however, one that took Bahamut a long, embarrassing moment to realise was the result of mild oxygen deprivation. He hadn’t given him much warning before the push, had he?
Bahamut was having half an idea to give Regis a breath from his own lungs when the fire above finally shrank and died, and then there was nothing more to do but grab Regis and kick toward the surface, his wings catching great draughts of water and dragging them to gain speed, speed enough to burst through the water and up, up into baked dry air that smelled like ozone and crackled with smoky heat. He dropped Regis on the lip of the portal furthest from Ifrit, right onto the blackened stone where the water off his body sizzled and turned to steam. Then, flaring his wingspan to halt his descent, dropped behind the wall where he could begin to gather his power.
To erupt into his full size and take on Ifrit right there was a tempting option—almost too tempting for him to deny. But it would endanger Regis, and to avoid that Bahamut had to wait, and plan. If Levi or Ramuh would simply return, it could be done with in a moment—! But of course, they were occupied with the Chosen, in one way or another. Compared to him, now dead, Regis had taken a back seat in their priorities.
Back to the stone, feeling the wet sting and blister of his skin where the burns were worst, Bahamut squeezed his eyes shut and raised his clawed hands palm-up, willing the power of his god form into hands too small to hold it. All he needed was the echo of it. The illusion of it. One ghostly flare before the follow-up burst from a form large and mighty enough to support it.
So preoccupied was he with gathering the light of stars into his body, that Bahamut didn’t really stop for a moment to wonder what kind of distraction Regis had concocted.
High above, lightning crept through the realm in a spiderweb of deadly white.
“Kings of Lucis, from the dark depths of your hall, I summon you!”
Bahamut went rigid. No, he told himself slowly, that kind of thing wasn’t possible, the line of Lucis was commanded by the ring alone—
“Get the cunt!” a high-pitched voice shrieked, and a cacophony of battle roars followed, tumbling over and over each other in a flashing, blinding, intensely magical sea of dead kings and queens.
Staring at his hands for one brief moment, Bahamut blinked hard at his palms and hesitated just long enough for Ifrit to start to scream like all the hounds of hell had crawled into his ragged satyr-pants. Abandoning his master plan, Bahamut pumped his wings and launched upward to the stone edge of the portal, landing hard in time to see something he couldn’t conceivably say he’d ever witnessed the like of in all his long life.
Regis—and, unbelievably, the entirety of his ghostly royal line—had swarmed Ifrit like a nest of pissed-off ants, shooting every known permutation of magic they had while they crawled over his body with the tiny knives and weapons they’d died with, because no monarch ever went out without at least a dagger, apparently. And Ifrit was losing his mind. Not in an angry way, but in a ‘I woke up with spiders in my mouth, better punch myself in the face until they die’ kind of way. He was going absolutely out of his horned melon crazy—to a point where some alarmed and long-dormant protective streak in Bahamut almost wanted to brush them off Ifrit and wrap him in a shock blanket. But that was for the old days, before he’d earned it.
Instead, Bahamut watched in stunned awe as Ifrit panicked himself to the point that he stopped slapping the angry ghosts off his torso and face and just simply set himself on fire, a blistering primordial heat that both ejected the furious ghosts off his body and sent him hurtling out of the realm, for no furious display of power could be sustained there for for long. Such was the nature of a realm of observation and contemplation.
In the end, nothing remained but the reek of fetid smoke and one hundred and thirteen extremely smug dead Lucians. Clustering in a self-congratulatory herd, Bahamut watched them back-slap and shake hands with each other for a moment, feeling curiously put-out by the entire display. Hadn’t he been about to save the day in a really incredible fashion? But no, Regis had to go ahead and be amazing. Summoning his dead ancestors from their hall. Unbelievable. Bahamut crossed his arms in annoyance—then uncrossed them with a gritted curse. That had to be a third-degree burn on his shoulder.
He was bordering on sulking when Regis emerged from the gaggle, still sodden and looking stylishly dishevelled. His collar was unbuttoned to bare his throat, a pale arrow of skin visible in a rare display of casual ease. With his hair mussed and hanging in his eyes, slate grey almost obscuring laughing green, he looked…interesting. The smile crooking the corner of his mouth was downright annoying, though.
“I fear I overdid the distraction somewhat,” Regis said as he approached, lacing his fingers together and stretching his arms out until his shoulders cracked. “Who could have guessed that Ifrit had a crippling fear of humans crawling all over him?”
Shrugging unhappily, Bahamut nearly bit through his lip as the motion burst what felt like an enormous blister on his back. Regis’ good humour faded somewhat. Reaching out, he gently touched Bahamut’s other arm and turned him around. The sympathetic hiss he heard said it probably looked as bad as it felt.
“It’ll heal,” Bahamut said automatically, trying not to twitch his wings. “In a few hours it won’t even be a scar.” He very carefully didn’t react as a cool fingertip traced the furthest border of the injury, where the skin only felt overheated, like a mild sunburn. The fingertip became an entire palm, pressing like a cold brand on the untouched skin. It felt like bliss, but only served to make the weeping burn at its centre feel all the worse.
“Let me get rid of them, and I’ll ice some of this water and crush it up for you.”
Bahamut frowned. “I just told you—”
“I won’t suffer knowing you’re in pain while it heals.” The tone brooked no argument. Then, softer, “I know you could have fought him at the first, just as I know you were trying to protect me from his wrath. I’m no fool, Bahamut. You’re injured because of me.”
Oh, no. Guilt.
“I’ve hurt myself worse than this getting dressed,” Bahamut replied hastily. “You just subdued the infernian, Regis. Be a little more pleased with yourself, and a little less worried about me.”
But Regis wasn’t having it. Within minutes he’d shepherded his bloodline back toward their hall, with only a few words to Mors, who was darting curiously threatening glances at Bahamut over his son’s shoulder. Bahamut had to resist the urge to wave. Mors was the only person there he recognised. And were those a few stately queens in there? He did recall one of them screaming bloody murder. But soon they were all gone again, their light melting into the shadows at the edge of the realm. The low buzz of their chatter went with them, leaving the place feeling cavernously quiet in their wake.
“Now,” Regis said firmly, “with me, please.” He tugged on Bahamut’s uninjured arm, which did absolutely nothing to move him. He yanked harder: still nothing. “Bahamut.”
“Regis,” Bahamut drawled.
“I will drag you by your left nipple if I must.”
The immovable suddenly became pliant—and a little disturbed.
It turned out Regis was only guiding him to the upended soup bowl he called his personal chambers, where he proceeded to drag Bahamut to his knees on the crimson silk of his own pennant, folded over many times until it became a soft cushion-like floor. It was mattress-like beneath his knees, yielding slightly with his weight. Leviathan had actually done good work with it. He’d seen it before, of course, but this was his first time entering the domed room since Regis had first received it. From the inside, it was a curtained, flowing place of rest coloured in draconian sigils where they glimmered gold in the shadowed red silk. His scent was everywhere — Bahamut’s own, from the furnishings. He wondered if that bothered Regis at all.
“Should I take off my boots?” Bahamut asked cautiously, working his ankle slightly so the metal squeaked. Regis was staring at him oddly. He took that as an affirmative, dismissing the last vestiges of his armour to bare blunt-clawed toes. “Now what do you plan to do with me, now that I’m at your mercy?”
“I—” Regis blinked himself out of his reverie. “What? Oh. Just go down on your front while I get some ice made. Now that I know magic truly does work in this place, I’ll put the astral pool to best use. Wait here.”
“Yes, master,” Bahamut said drolly, giving a tolerant roll of his eyes. He did as asked, though, and not entirely without enthusiasm. Burying his face in the soft silk, feeling it cushioning him from head to toe, he gingerly relaxed his wings out a little.
It didn’t hurt much, to his relief, meaning the majority of the damage had to be on his shoulder-blade and upper arm. It probably looked like hell, considering how Regis had reacted when he saw it. Damn Ifrit. That firebug had more issues than Insomnia Weekly. What had he been after, turning up like that? Himself? One of the others? He’d been missing since Ravatogh, more or less, barring some unexplained forest fires now and again. They’d been lucky he’d turned up in a relatively good mood. Still, his motives were a mystery.
Could always ask him next time he showed up, Bahamut thought hazily, his eyelids drooping. And then shove his best sword clean up his tailpipe. Jangling pretty-boy. Who needed that much jewellery?
He must have dozed off a little because the next thing he was aware of was a stunningly cold pressure carefully applied to his shoulder, and a hand on the back of his neck. To stop him rearing back and hurting himself, perhaps? Regis always was a cautious one. Still, the pendulous sweep of a cold thumb on the back of his neck had nothing to do with restraint. It felt good enough that Bahamut let the tension go in his shoulders and relaxed again, exhaling a small sigh.
“You can sleep, if you like.” Regis’ voice was a soft comfort to match his hands. “I’m sorry if this feels unpleasant at first, but it will quench the sting of your burns soon.” A deep silence filled the space between them for a long moment. “And—thank you.”
“I didn’t do anything.” The words were more of a sleepy purr than an imposing rumble. In response, the gently sweeping thumb on the nape of his neck stilled. Bahamut frowned slightly into the silk, missing the sensation instantly. The whole contact thing was easily adjusted to, it turned out. “Regis, you saved me from being roasted from top to tail, then gang-jumped Ifrit with your family. Stop feeling guilty and go back to my neck rub.”
The hand returned to its careful ministrations, but there was a tension in the motion that said Regis still disagreed with him. Beneath the packed ice on his shoulder, the slowly-healing burn prickled like a reminder. It had to have at least closed over by then, surely.
“I wasn’t thanking you for that,” Regis murmured eventually, shifting the ice slightly to increase its range. “I was thanking you for trusting me to tend your wound. It’s quite a lot of contact in so short a time. I know it’s not easy for you, and I don’t expect it to be for quite some time, so I’m…humbled, I suppose.”
“There’s no need for all that,” Bahamut said. “Besides, I’ve decided I like your hands. Touch me with them at your leisure.”
Strangely, his only reply to that was a pained sigh.
Returning to his nursing duties, Regis stayed knelt by Bahamut’s hip and worked carefully over the wound with the ice he’d made, sponging it away gently with his discarded suit jacket when it melted into rivulets of tepid water. Bahamut’s temperature ran hot by nature, so it wasn’t too long before he had to replace it with fresh batches. The ritual continued a few more times, and Bahamut freely dozed throughout. The pain had faded at some point, replaced by a slumberous sense of wellbeing.
Bahamut woke what felt like hours later to the sound of low voices at the astral pool. Ramuh was back, he realised, feeling a rush of affection for the old bastard. So was Titan, if the stentorian growl responding was any indication. Something unwound in his chest at the realisation. Pushing himself up on his elbows slightly, Bahamut blinked sleepily at the chamber in general, realising Regis had left.
Or—not left, rather given in to a quiet slumber of his own. He was curled loosely on his side facing Bahamut, stripped down to his black undershirt. He’d obviously used his shirt to make the ice pack. It was costing him to be without the extra layers, his skin prickled faintly with goosebumps from the chill. He hadn’t even wrapped himself in the silk he slept upon. Instead Regis slept like he’d simply fallen there and hadn’t bothered to move, his usually neatly combed hair falling softly against his exposed cheek, obscuring the silvery scars at his temple. He’d removed his barbed crown at some point, too.
While fascinated by the sight of Regis beside him, it slowly occurred to Bahamut that his shoulder had mended, and he should probably leave him with his privacy intact. It was just as he was making up his mind to stealthily creep out and face Ramuh’s eternally judging stare that Regis hunched his shoulders in around himself, and gave a single, tiny shiver at the cold.
It didn’t take much to gingerly scoot over and close the distance between them. Positioning himself on his side, his downside wing tucked in tight against his back so it didn’t crush, Bahamut sucked in a deep, fortifying breath and placed his palm against Regis’ back, gathering the sleeping king in close so he could steal Bahamut’s radiating warmth for his own.
Now, Regis wasn’t exactly a small man. He was tall, and the set of his shoulders, while not as broad as Bahamut’s own, were nothing to scoff at. So when he shuddered pleasantly inside Bahamut’s arms and stretched out like a cat in a sunbeam, it left them pressed almost chest to foot against the length of each other. Added to that was the freezing cold nose that had burrowed into the space where Bahamut’s jaw met his neck, the tickle of a beard and the soft gust of breath brushing his skin and…some kind of short circuit must have started to occur in Bahamut’s brain, he was certain. It was the only explanation for why he simply stayed put, letting Regis arrange himself in a tangle of limbs, slipping his icy hands between the warm leather of his wing and the expanse of his bare back.
It wasn’t that it was unpleasant—quite the opposite. But his nerves were trembling on the taut edge of breaking, and he wasn’t sure what would happen then. It was only Regis, he told himself helplessly. In pure defiance of his muddled instincts, Bahamut tightened his hold, turning the corner of his mouth down against a scar-knotted temple.
Of course, Regis picked that moment to partially rise from his sleep, muttering to himself and rubbing an itch in his beard against Bahamut’s collarbone.
“A little tight, Cor,” he muttered throatily, shifting his shoulders to loosen his grip. Then he was slumbering softly once more, content and careless in the circle of Bahamut’s arms.
Bahamut, who stared wide-eyed into the dim of the room.
“What the fuck,” he whispered, to absolutely nobody at all.
Chapter 18: Sea Change
“Let me repeat this back to you: Ifrit was here and somehow you managed to defeat him without destroying everything in a hundred mile radius? Instead Regis—our tiny king—sent him packing?” Ramuh looked like he needed a good hit of a pipe just to take that all in. Bahamut shrugged, his armour clanking as he laced his gauntleted fingers in his lap. He didn’t want to think about why he was wearing it again, other than to admit that being mistaken for Cor Leonis was going down in the kind of history that lesser people tried to erase.
“Ifrit is making himself known again because events demand it. He intends to play a part, somehow.” Narrowing his eyes at the glittering water, Bahamut took in the vision of the Altissian waters lapping at the cliff of a stone overlook. “If he wanted a good stage, pinning Lunafreya between Leviathan and himself would send a message.”
Beside him, Titan shook his head. “It’s too obvious, and Noctis has both Ramuh and I watching. Ifrit’s a coward, and Levi always scared the shit outta him.”
“She scares everyone,” Ramuh muttered. “Lunafreya is an oracle of rare courage and grace, but in the face of our hydraean and all her bitter fury—”
“Luna will prevail,” Regis said from the lip of the pool, standing stiff and stubborn between their towering bodies. He stared directly into the water, his hands clenched into fists. “I do not know Leviathan as you all do, but I know Lunafreya. I know my son. They’re stronger and fiercer than they realise, and if they must move the gods themselves, they will.” A tremor ran through his shoulders then, and Bahamut watched from behind his faceplate as Regis gripped the third finger of his left hand, running over the lined groove it still bore. As powerless as Bahamut himself.
“We’re not the enemy,” Titan said flatly, leaning around to frown at Regis.
Regis glared right back. “Can you tell me without a word of a lie that Leviathan won’t relish the chance to drown them both? I saw her, when Luna called you down to the Disc of Cauthess. Close enough to see her eyes. She’s no friend to humanity, and Noctis will have to go through her. They both will.”
“Maybe. But maybe you don’t get to waltz up with Bahamut’s trident and pin us down like we’re an all-powerful bug collection. Maybe you don’t get to summon us, either. Maybe you have to earn us, and maybe we get to choose.” Reaching over Bahamut’s armoured thighs, Titan snagged Regis in one meaty hand and hauled him high until they were face to tiny face. “Leviathan’s bitterness comes from giving too much to your kind. She wasn’t always Shiva’s foil; her heart’s too big for that. She gave and gave in protection of humanity, and when Solheim fell and Ifrit released the scourge, when she failed to save them all, the humans toppled her statues and burned her seaside temples, smashing everything to dust.” Fingers curling in like he wanted to crush Regis in his grip, Titan snarled silently and held back as Bahamut plucked the shaken king from his perch.
“Humanity put too much faith in us,” Bahamut rumbled, sounding tired even to his own ears. “Their disdain is justified. We did present ourselves as all-powerful, and it wasn’t true. Leviathan is stuck in the mindset of a thousand years ago: she still thinks she’s owed obeisance. But we have to work together to fix what’s been tainted and twisted by Ifrit and his accursed. I can’t; the power to do it alone doesn’t lie with me anymore, even if I could roam free.” Watching Regis sit down heavily in the centre of his palm, looking tired and low, Bahamut smiled a little, just where nobody could see. “Have faith in your gods, Regis. Even our old hearts may yet be changed.” Beside Bahamut, Ramuh snorted loudly, but Regis’ gaze seemed to soften slightly.
“What about faith in my son? He is your chosen, after all.”
“He is the chosen of the prophecy,” Bahamut replied. “But it was not I who chose.”
Something strange crossed Regis’ face. “I’m not sure I—”
“Enough,” Ramuh said, suddenly sharp. His eyes were upon the lapping water, reflected in their own liquid mirror. The girl is singing for the covenant.”
Titan leaned forward at the very moment Bahamut absently placed Regis upon his shoulder, his brilliant blue eyes staring down into the pool like it held the truth of all things. Lunafreya was singing the hymn, and the waters beneath her stone pedestal were beginning to ripple with the awakening of something very large within the dark depths.
And so it began.
It became clear at the first that Leviathan meant not only to test Noctis’ strength, but Lunafreya’s as well. Reared up in all her glorious, terrible splendour, Leviathan’s serpentine form was a sight to behold, even from the astral pool. Bahamut had forgotten just how big she was compared to the humans—her sharp-toothed maw snatched at Lunafreya’s crumbling platform and smashed it half to pieces from the motion alone. She wasn’t even trying. Atop his shoulder, Regis was pale with the strain of being unable to do more than watch the young woman as she was assailed time and again by the furious goddess of the seas.
Luna petitioned for reason, for the future, and received nothing more than howling scorn and an onslaught of pressurised water in return. Luna tumbled end over end, bruised and spluttering, but she got up again. In her left hand, the trident looked like it was the only thing holding her up.
“She’s in a mood,” Titan said grimly. His copper-coin eyes slid to Regis. “You said she was angry when I was summoned for the covenant?”
Regis only nodded, his jaw tight. Titan released a short breath through his nose and said nothing. Beside him, Ramuh’s hand twitched toward his staff, then fell still. Together, they all watched Lunafreya struggle to convince Leviathan to accept the covenant rite.
Then Leviathan snapped hard at Lunefreya, and the oracle finally snapped back.
Bahamut lurched forward unexpectedly at the hard yank on his strength, almost causing Regis to topple off him and into the water. Reflected within, Lunafreya had countered a potentially lethal attack with a beam of light so strong and golden it flooded the portal—and left the draconian gasping at the sudden pain beneath his ribs.
“Bahamut,” Ramuh said quietly, but he held up a silencing gauntleted hand.
“It’s fine.” Still clutching his plate armour, Regis stared up from his vantage point like he wanted to disagree. “It’s been a long time since that trident was used. Since I was used.”
“She enjoys tugging those reins,” Titan said flatly, as Leviathan’s image howled in pain and pulled back, chastened and furious about it. “I wouldn’t be as willing, in your place.”
There was no reply to make—no time, either. The covenant was accepted.
Noctis now had to prove himself to Leviathan, and there was only one way to do that.
“Settle in for a long one,” Ramuh said in resignation. “This is going to take a while.”
The fight was almost terrifying to watch. It wasn’t a true battle in the sense that Leviathan gave him her all—rather, any movement she made, no matter how insignificant, was so incredibly lethal that Bahamut found himself tense with worry that she might accidentally crush Noctis without meaning to. But, as time wore on, with all of them witnessing through the shining waters…
“He’s not doing so badly,” Titan said, sounding baffled. “Quick to evade. Decent parry when he needs it. Gladio’s lessons are paying off.”
“Leviathan is fast, but he’s faster,” Ramuh added, stroking his beard. “He lacks the power to take her down, though. He’s just too damn small. Noctis looks like a scrap of meat she picked out of her teeth.” Together they watched him whirling through the air around her, warping to and fro in an attempt to evade her and strike a blow to her pointed snout. But as dedicated as he was, the imperial ships were trying to harpoon Leviathan as he wove between them, and her rage was mounting to uncontrollable levels. Ruins and stone were flying through the air as she writhed, debris floating in the unnatural gravity of her power. It was all the prince could do to warp out of the way.
“Come on, Noctis,” Bahamut heard Regis whisper to himself, his eyes narrowed helplessly on the waters. “Use the armiger. Gods, if he just had the ring, at least—” Visibly stopping himself from his frustrated prayer, Regis darted Bahamut an abashed look. “I’m sorry. I know you can’t intervene.”
Not even if he wanted to, Bahamut thought, still feeling the hooks in his chest from the trident’s pull on his power. Between it, the ring and the crystal, he was little more than a collection of swords and the strength in his own two arms. All his power had been doled out to the humans already.
Distracted by the sombre thought, Bahamut almost missed the moment Noctis was thrown down hard upon the stone ruins, and despite her alarm Lunafreya could only crumple as her flagging strength ran out.
A figure in black and silver melted out of the sea mist and shadows to join her, but there was no comfort in his arrival.
Instead, there were a few murmured words, and then a knife jammed beneath Lunafreya’s ribs.
“No,” Regis whispered, his voice reedy with shock. “Oh, no.” He covered his face with his hands, but her choked gasp of pain echoed in the realm’s cavernous space. “Luna.”
“Accursed,” Titan snarled. “That oozing wretched son of a bitch—”
“Wait,” Bahamut said urgently, his eyes catching the oracle’s shaking hands as they touched Ardyn’s sleeve. They were glowing gold, and he could feel it deep in his veins. “She’s resonating with the scourge in his body. She could purge him.”
“Bahamut,” Ramuh sighed sadly. “Not even your strength alone could do it, as things stand.” He was right. Ardyn simply slapped her away with cruel disregard, though his demeanour was strangely shaken. For once, he left with little more to say, the fingers of his afflicted hand twitching like static was caught in his skin. Still, Luna struggled on.
Leviathan had hesitated with the sudden interruption. She roared at Noctis, but even Bahamut could tell she was trying to rouse him. Continue, she seemed to be saying. Fight.
“Here we go again,” Ramuh said, as Luna propped up the trident and squeezed her eyes shut. “Bahamut—”
“I know,” he said, right before the pain hit him like a rockslide. Unlike the crystal and the ring, the trident drew directly on his own strength as an astral, for its magic was for the subjugation of another. It had been the weapon that had killed Ifrit, though it had been much larger then. The drag of his strength over such a distance was harrowing. But she needed it, as Noctis needed it. So Bahamut surrendered to the pull, one last time. There would be no other oracle to wield it.
Titan held him steady as the tombs of the kings scattered worldwide lit up like beacons, paper lanterns all strung together to a single focal point. Around the pool, familiar spirits shifted and gained form. Old kings, old queens, hands still calloused from their weapons—blades they could bequeath for a short time. They were channelling their power through the portal, through the tombs, and through Luna. To give Noctis his fighting chance.
Bahamut coughed inside his faceplate, tasting charcoal in the back of his throat.
“I’m getting old,” he rasped, and reached into the portal with one golden-glowing arm. “All right, Lunafreya. Take it—and all of them.” He opened the way, and the surge of magic swirled like a tornado around Noctis, pulling tightly around his body.
When it snapped back, the arc of thirteen royal arms spun around him, on loan from thirteen of his bloodline and the great dragon god himself.
“A complete armiger,” Regis breathed. His eyes were wild with adrenaline and strain, but his mouth had gone soft with amazement. “Oh, Noctis.”
It was strange, Bahamut thought, that amidst all that was going on, despite trembling painfully inside his armour where nobody could see, he felt for the first time since his birth that Noctis truly was the king of kings. And knowing that, despite wishing so hard that it had never been so, Regis was absolutely bursting with grief and terrible, heart-shattering pride.
Below them, swirling in the portal waters, Noctis spun the armiger around himself like a roulette wheel and roared right back at the hydraean herself. Then he proceeded to absolutely take her to pieces.
“Holy shit,” Titan said, as the first fin fluttered to the sea. He looked a little green. Her horns followed soon after; hacked away as she sagged, stunned by the onslaught hitting her on all sides. She simply wasn’t fast enough, and the blows Noctis had landed were devastating in their strength. Uneasily, Bahamut wondered if he should actually be concerned for Leviathan.
Then Noctis snatched Luna’s trident out of his armiger where it had been dragged to him with all the rest—and opened Leviathan from throat to belly in one long, ruinous tear. Through the monstrous roar she let loose, they could all hear her long cry of pain and fury—and defeat.
It was finished, whether she liked it or not. Leviathan had to give her mark or be forsworn.
As Noctis sagged to the stone, depleted of all his energy, Luna took one look at Leviathan and reached for her magic once more. Clever girl, Bahamut thought grimly. Even bleeding out, she could see that Leviathan was hesitating to disperse. Her slitted gold eyes were venomous with pain and malice.
Bahamut leaned forward. “She’s rearing up.”
“Fuck,” Titan said, diving straight into the pool—and through it.
“Titan!” Ramuh reached for his ankle but caught only air. His pearlescent gaze was shocked. “But he’s terrified of water!”
Regis was beside himself, shaking so hard Bahamut could see the movement from the corner of his eye. But not from fear, or worry. Lightning crawled over his fists, catching in the metal of his raiment until it roped his body in white light. His green eyes were hard as emerald as he stared into the pool.
What was Leviathan thinking? Bahamut wondered, rigid with tension as he watched Titan coalesce beneath the waves, the light of the summoning spearing up from the water with his emergence. Seawater rushed off his body as he pushed himself to his full height, but inside the hydraean’s domain even he looked small and diminished. She was mighty, but Titan didn’t raise his fists. He just stared up at her, a fierce and living wall that stood between her and her quarry.
And Leviathan gave up. The blue light of her mark spiralled out from her serpentine body, coiling around Noctis and sinking into his bones. Not a single word was exchanged.
Bahamut felt the moment the tension left Regis, far more than he saw it as he sagged. It was done, he told himself, but it didn’t feel finished at all. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Perhaps Leviathan’s oaths had weighed too heavily on her. Perhaps he’d underestimated how betrayed she’d always felt, and how bitter.
“She hates the humans for what they made of her, even now.” Ramuh said grimly, shaking his head. “But for Titan, she will kneel.”
Titan, it seemed, wasn’t taking any chances. With an almighty blow, he struck the sea floor and raised a many-layered wall of stone up from the earth, driving Leviathan even further back from the injured pair. It began to crumble almost immediately, but it had made its point.
What a mess.
Bahamut watched with dull eyes as Noctis and Luna were swept beneath the water, knowing Titan would ensure the chosen’s safety. Lunafreya though; her wound and her weakened body alone would have been enough to kill her. The water would claim the last of her life. Perhaps it was a relief for her, after being prisoner and priestess for so long. Or perhaps she was another casualty, taken far too soon.
The prophecy was still unfolding, Bahamut told himself, finding no comfort in the knowledge. But was there even a point when the world seemed to be unravelling just as fast? Lucis, Insomnia, Altissia, gods rebelling against humanity and the scourge given human shape slipping like oil over water to go wherever he pleased, leaving daemons and disaster in his wake.
For the first time since he cut out his heart and begged for the deliverance of Eos, Bahamut wondered what the hell they were fighting for.
“Noctis’ strength will only grow from this,” Regis said, his legs folding until he sat upon Bahamut’s shoulder plate. He looked haggard. “Now he knows what lies ahead. What he’s capable of.” He looked up at Bahamut, misery in his eyes. “It’s only going to get harder from here. Without Lunafreya’s courage, her support…she’s been his backbone thus far.”
“He’ll stand on his own,” Ramuh said tiredly. Hunched over the pool, he looked far older than even his advanced years. “He must.”
“Noctis isn’t alone,” Bahamut said, and cast his hand across the astral pool. “His companions will bear the weight alongside him.”
The water cleared on an image of drenched imperial corpses and chaos, and a pair of bloodstained glasses shattered on the stone.
“I’m going to actually kill Carbuncle the next time I see him.”
The water was cloudy with crumbling stone and stirred sediment but Leviathan swam on regardless, ever more desperate with each small grotto and space found empty. Titan had made one hell of a mess. She had made a far worse one.
Blood was still spilling sluggishly from the hollow of her throat to her navel. Old fisherman’s technique, that one. A slice for gutting something cleanly, if it had been able to strike any deeper. Points for effort, Leviathan thought, her hair clouding around her head as she paused, scanning the water. Surely it was somewhere nearby.
There was no way she could return yet. No way she could look any of them in the eye.
Relentless as the tides, wasn’t that what they’d always said of her? Merciless, powerful, wild and untamed. A hurricane in flesh and blood. She hadn’t meant to buy into her own bullshit so thoroughly she almost doomed the known world. Forcing Noctis’ hand, pushing him to his absolute limits, that was all it was supposed to have been. But Lunafreya had come along, waving the trident in her face with her pretty blue eyes and her spine of steel. A single bow and a few lines about the chosen one. Chosen was all well and good, but it wasn’t a free ticket to triumph. Not with Ifrit coming his way. Not with Ardyn fucking Izunia twining his way around the prophecy like a black choking vine.
Kicking off a submerged piece of stone, Leviathan twisted and turned, ducking under broken arches and pushing through drowned wreaths of flowers. Her serpent form was too large to move the way she needed, forcing her to return to a small humanoid form, but damn it was hard to swim with legs. Talk about out of shape.
Leviathan had all but given up when she saw it: a trailing piece of white fabric, drifting on an invisible current.
There you are, she thought, gritting her teeth so hard they ached.
Her pretty blue eyes had turned flat and empty. They stared unseeingly up at the wavering light of the surface, her lips parted and slack as though caught in a moment of mild surprise. Small bubbles were still clinging to her skin like tiny, silvery pearls. The blood that had soaked her dress had faded as the water washed it away, but it still trailed out from the wound like a dark thread. The predators would soon come for her, sharp-toothed and hungry. Her flat eyes would be the least of her worries then, Leviathan thought, reaching out to touch the gold of her unbound hair. It slid over her sharp-spined fingers like silk, so different from her own sea-snarled green mane.
For all her rage, all her hurt and bitterness, Leviathan never honestly intended for the girl to die. But she was dead, resting on the sandy ocean floor half-trapped under stones, her pretty flower petals still suspended in the water around her.
Leviathan planted her hand against the dead girl’s breast and pushed the water from her lungs. It rushed out of her gaping mouth, but her eyes didn’t spark with life. The sea didn’t kill her. The knowledge was no comfort; if anything it made it all somehow worse.
Lunafreya’s eyes kept staring at the surface, doll-like. Leviathan’s teeth split her lower lip. Frustrated, she shook the girl by her shoulders, kicking away the rocks that had crushed her legs and torn her dress, that had kept her pinned to the sand.
Why are you still dead? she wanted to scream. Why aren’t you moving? Admonish me. Strike me. Move. Fight. But Lunafreya was still dead, and Leviathan couldn’t understand why.
From the surrounding waters, sharp-toothed fish flashed like quicksilver. An eel circled a rock, keeping to the crannies of its hiding place. Waiting. It was just their nature, the hydraean thought, and then she broke, turning toward them to scream so hard the sea itself retreated from her, blowing away from the goddess and her limp treasure, bent back over her arm like a flower with a broken stem.
Damn it, Leviathan thought, and let her eyes sting until they spilled over.
The air felt like knives, but the sea was no place for the last Fleuret oracle.
When the Altissian guard finally found her, Lunafreya lay in sweet repose upon the stone, her eyes closed.
They didn’t know what to make of the ancient-looking necklace that was laid across her chest, but they carried it back with her all the same.
Chapter 19: Heart
Regis didn’t want to call his avoidance of the astrals hiding, but there was really no other way to describe it. Bahamut had vanished with Ramuh under strangely abrupt circumstances, all but ushered away by the thunder god, and he couldn’t bring himself to look Leviathan in the eye. The torn open wound of Luna’s loss was still so fresh Regis wondered why he wasn’t actually bleeding. So he sat in his shelter with his back to the silk draped wall, just left of the doorway. Out of sight, but listening for anything that might make it all make sense.
Nobody bothered him. Regis felt quite certain that nobody ever would, if he chose to remain cloistered there.
While ever Leviathan and Titan remained sat upon the stone edge of the pool, Regis couldn’t rightly say he would emerge before the next age. He burned to know what Noctis was doing, how he was coping, but he didn’t know what he’d do if he walked out there, if he looked up and saw golden-green slitted eyes staring down at him like he was an insect. Just another ground-crawling human who refused to honour her.
Hadn’t he always been taught to pray? Who did he pray to, when he’d seen with his own eyes that the ones who looked back simply did not care?
It wasn’t fair, Regis knew it wasn’t fair, and yet the pit that had opened in his chest refused to pang with guilt. Refused to feel anything. He could still see that knife, the blood, the crumbling stone that gave way to the unforgiving tide.
“Say what you’re going to say.”
The order came from outside, and was not directed at him. The voice was hoarse, a little desperate, and absolutely belonged to Leviathan.
“I got nothing to say. You did your part in the end.” Titan’s tone was one enormous shrug. “You stopped yourself.”
“I let the oracle die. Say something.”
“All right, I will. Good job.”
Regis’ eyes flew open. Good job?
Leviathan seemed to echo his sentiment. “What kind of bullshit is that?”
“She wasn’t going to survive another covenant,” Titan rumbled. “And she wasn’t going to recover, and she sure wasn’t going to stop. Now Noctis won’t feel responsible for her safety or keeping her in good health. He can continue on with his eyes fixed forward.”
Leviathan made a guttural sound of disgust. “Eyes fixed forward? He loved her, didn’t he? The only place his eyes are going to be fixed is on the grief inside him that I did absolutely fuck-all to avoid. His mentor’s gone blind and his shield’s being a bastard, and he just accidentally shoved the scrappy kid who’s in love with him clean off the train. If he’s not falling apart at the seams then he’s officially the strongest brat I’ve ever seen.”
“Look at you, clued into the chosen’s moods.” The muted crack and pop of joints said Titan was stretching. “Almost sounds like you’ve got blood pumping in that scaly heart of yours again—for something other than us.”
Leviathan didn’t reply right away. Inside, Regis tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to imagine what kind of expression she might be wearing. Perhaps something like scorn, perhaps not. It could be something altogether. More and more Regis was beginning to realise his gods were a constant contradiction. Achingly vulnerable one moment, lofty and removed from all suffering the next. Smiling at him and damning humanity. Protecting Noctis and not batting an eyelash at the devastation that surrounded him. The nights were growing longer and the daemons were thriving, but all they cared for was their prophecy. That damned prophecy. Seeing it to fruition like it was their hobby, not the uncertain future of Eos.
“They won’t let him grieve,” Leviathan said tightly. “His father’s ring looks like the sum of all the things he couldn’t stop from happening, and he won’t wear it. I might not know shit about being nice, but I know grief when I see it. I know guilt. And you say good job .” Her laugh was cold. “I’ll be lucky if Bahamut doesn’t stake me down for Ifrit to find.”
“Enough, Titan.” Even Regis could hear the thickening of her voice. “You’ve saved the day. Now get out of here.”
After some protest and increasingly cutting dismissals, Titan finally did as she bid, from the sounds of shuffling and the fading boom of footsteps that followed. Regis stayed frozen where he sat for a long while after, defeated and unhappy. He hadn’t quite intended to eavesdrop that far. Bahamut’s tormented tears all those years ago had been shocking enough, and he’d only been thought to be a messenger at that time. Knowing Leviathan herself was hunched over the pool, damning herself over Luna’s death—though rightly so—left him feeling ill at ease.
So Regis waited, and stared into the strange lantern-light of his small home. A place the sea goddess had created for him, because she didn’t want him to be cold.
Eventually he heard her move, alarmed by something. He heard a single, hissed oath, and then an enormous splash as she seemingly dove through the portal. That got him moving.
By the time Regis made it to the portal’s edge and scanned it back to Noctis, the reflection showed him a nightmare scene. It showed his son: battered and bruised, braced upon the roof of a speeding train as it hurtled through a tunnel. Separated from his companions, Noctis was surrounded by daemons of unknown power. Scorpion-like, three females picked and clacked their way over the nose of the train, hauling their plated girth up to face him. Regis felt his heart find his throat as Noctis’ blue eyes filled with hopeless defiance.
Then the train burst out into the crisp open air and Leviathan erupted from the waters like a silver knife unsheathed, making a weapon of every single drop she could command. Twining herself around the train, lashing it with whips of water and orbs like boulders, she swept the daemons away from Noctis with single-minded fury. The assault left him clinging for dear life, but the relief on his face was painful. His life had just been saved—his, and the lives of everyone on the train.
Covenants, Regis thought, and sank to his knees upon the stone. Gods.
He was still watching raptly when the air at his back turned frigid, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away.
“The hydraean’s rage is only outmatched by her ferocity—when something she cares about is in danger.” Blue-white palms planted themselves on the portal’s edge beside him, and a woman dressed in silver and jewels like frost knelt forward to stare into the shimmering water. Her smile was as unknowable as her eyes were kind. “Lunafreya would be satisfied. Know that she did not fear death: she feared only that it would come before she could serve her king as his oracle.”
Regis tried not to stare at the glacian. Shiva had been thought to be dead for years, yet there she sat beside him, impishly small compared to her brethren and speaking of Luna as though they had been close.
“I failed that girl time and again,” he said slowly. “I burdened her with too much. Far too much. If I could have lived long enough to buy them both a little more time, to petition the gods slowly so that Noctis could plead his case…” Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. His head lowering, Regis almost missed the paleness of Shiva beside him flow into a familiar woman dressed in black and white.
“Don’t mourn for the young oracle,” said Gentiana, smiling gently. “She has gone to her mothers, at rest in a place of light and beauty. Mourn for the living, who are so very afraid in these long nights, and feel relief that the gods are again roused in defence of this sickened world.” A soft hand touched his, colder than he could almost stand. “Feel pride that her sacrifice made has brought the king of kings closer to delivering it. When he walks forward with clear eyes and resolve, it will be your hand he feels upon his shoulder. It will be Lunafreya’s.” The flowing ice gathered around her once more, crystallising and shattering to reveal her true form again. “And ours.”
Shiva spoke well, and carefully. A goddess of the people—and yet, she too sounded as distant as the moon that stared down upon them all. Strangely, his lonesome outlook didn’t cease even a little. Looking back into the water, Regis realised time had accelerated again.
“Zegnautus Keep. Bastion of the Niflheim imperial army and home of their magitek infrantry.” Shiva’s eyes grew sad as she watched Noctis regard the destroyed Regalia, which had carried them so far. “The ring must see him through now.”
Regis leaned forward to stare deeply into the water—and started back as a figure burst upward through the shining reflection, hair tossed backward in green lashes and pale skin glimmering like pearl under the strange light.
Leviathan blinked ethereal water out of her green-gold eyes for a moment, ignoring how it sluiced down her cheeks like tears in favour of swinging her gaze between Shiva and Regis.
“Ah,” Shiva started, suddenly wary. “We were simply talking—”
“It’s no matter to me,” Leviathan said, stormy in her calm. She hung in the waters like a mountainous figure of reproach, and Regis was more than a little glad her attention was directed at Shiva instead of him. She hauled herself out of the water in one smooth movement, her serpentine form dissolving as her body left the water, revealing her scaled legs and clawed toes. The water that ran off her body threatened to wash Regis away until Shiva froze it with a gesture, leaving him untouched if a little cold from proximity.
A dense, taut sort of silence descended. Regis actually had to fight not to squirm. Leviathan simply combed her hair over one shoulder and leaned over the portal, squeezing the residual water from it. The set of her features was remote, even a little bored. He felt strangely at a loss for words. Where had his hopeless anger gone? Grasping for it, wanting to cloak himself in it, Regis found nothing but confusion and sadness. Perhaps his time looking down at the world had begun to affect him too.
“I gave Noctis my mark,” Shiva said suddenly, her hands clenched on her thighs. She was staring down at the water with wide eyes. So it wasn’t just him. “The trident is his now.”
“Ah,” Leviathan said noncommittally, using the flat of her palm to sweep water from her pale arms. Shiva darted Regis a single pleading glance that he had absolutely no idea what to do with. The small exchange did, however, pose a question.
“The trident’s use seemed to tire Bahamut when Lunafreya—” breathe, you fool “—when Lunafreya used it. Will it have the same effect on him if Noctis draws it from his armiger?”
Leviathan did look at him then; a level green-gold glance that stripped him bare.
“Why do you care?”
Regis blinked. “Does it matter?”
“Do you want an answer?”
“Then it matters.”
Regis suddenly felt a strange solidarity with Shiva, who despite only meeting moments earlier seemed as lost as he did with her behaviour. He didn’t know Leviathan well, had only a scant few interactions with her, but from what the other gods had said she was angry, prickly and easily offended. For her to be anything but was…odd. He didn’t know what reply would satisfy her, and so all he could do was be utterly honest.
“Bahamut suffered an injury recently in defence of me,” Regis said steadily, tipping his head all the way up to meet her eyes. “It showed me he was fallible, I suppose. I’m sure it’s hubris to think my concern would matter, but at the very least I could—watch over him.” One enormous lance-like eyebrow arched at that. He refused to cross his arms. “I am the only other who is here at all times, when the rest of you have leave to go.”
Shiva was carefully creeping backward, vanishing backward into the mist and ice of her own powers. Leviathan’s wry glance said she knew her sister was retreating, but didn’t try to stop her. Her attention was, unfortunately, pinned to Regis.
“Hubris,” she repeated, “would be thinking you can do anything to spare him. But your concern…he’d probably like that. No, little bean, the trident in Noctis’ hands won’t cause him harm. Even if it did, Bahamut spent all his coin on your son long ago.” Her mouth twisted bitterly. Angry on Noctis’ behalf—she’d seen how hard he tried—Regis stepped over the melting ice between them and spread his arms wide.
“What more would you have Noctis do to earn your favour? Will nothing satisfy you?”
Leviathan glared. “That’s not—”
“Because we’ve all seen his struggles, his toil. You yourself were a large portion of those—”
“Don’t interrupt me when I speak.” With a crack of blue-green light and the sudden smell of brine, Leviathan vanished from on high, her form shimmering down until it was only as large as his own. Unfortunately, it only seemed to concentrate her presence, not diminish it. She stepped forward until a black-spined hand could press against his chest, shoving him backward. For the first time, he was able to see her the way he saw Bahamut: inhuman in skin and scale, but still soft. Still warm. And beneath her angry visage lay something he’d often seen in the mirror.
“You think me cruel, and it may be so. You think me bitter, and angry, and selfish—and I am, Regis, I am.” Leviathan snatched her hand back from him, fists clenching at her sides. “Two thousand years I spent nursing my wounds, vowing I’d never involve myself in human bullshit ever again. And here I am, giving a damn. It’s hard. It’s hard being wrong and it’s hard giving a shit again. I’m not going to be nice about it. At this rate, I’m just going to watch everyone die again, win or lose.” Even narrowed into slits, her eyes shone brightly with furious tears. Carelessly, she dashed them away, leaving a long scratch as her urchin-spined fingers tore the skin below her eye. Regis had lifted the edge of his half-cape before he even thought about it, pressing the fabric to her bleeding face. Her blood wasn’t black like Bahamut’s, rather some watery colour he couldn’t make sense of.
Leviathan went immediately still, incredulous as she stared down at the cloth pressed to her face.
“You’re touching me.” She was so similar to Bahamut it was amazing.
“My apologies,” Regis managed, summoning all his willpower to stop himself from yanking away. “But you’re bleeding.”
“I was…on a really good tirade before you did that.”
“It was impressive,” Regis replied dutifully. The blood in his ears was roaring. Was he about to die a second death? “There’s much I don’t understand, and for that I’m sorry. I spent a long time forced to view the bigger picture for the good of all; yet here I stand, selfishly wishing only for the life of my son to have meaning. To have the blessings of the gods. To be loved by them.” His smile was half-hearted at best, but Leviathan’s face still crumpled. “I’m sorry he wasn’t the deliverance you expected. I would have given anything to take his place.”
“Oh, shut up,” she whispered, her eyes sliding away. “He’s not that bad. Killed twenty daemons before I showed up, and didn’t piss himself when I arrived instead of Ramuh.” Her hand was soft as it pressed gently against his, then drew it away from her cheek. The wound had already become a faded line. The smile she gave him was small and crooked, but it was real. “I’ll look after him when I can. But if he’s going to Zegnautus, our powers to aid him will be limited. That labyrinth is soaked in the scourge. He’ll be running in circles looking for his little boyfriend for a while.”
“Noctis will make it,” Regis said automatically, before his brain caught up. “Excuse me, his what?”
“Boyfriend,” Leviathan said, rather expansively. “Chocobo fanatic. Got kidnapped? Has a folder three thousand photos deep of your boy? Name escapes me. Tonto? Primrose?”
“Prompto,” Regis said thinly, a thousand moments suddenly sliding into sharp focus. “I thought they were simply close friends. Are you certain? Do Ignis and Gladiolus know?”
Leviathan stared at him for a long time. “Ignis and Gla—where have you been? Don’t you watch them at camp?”
“I usually sleep when they do,” Regis shot back defensively, unsure why he was defensive. It only got worse as Leviathan’s melancholy dissolved into loud, honking, absolutely bawdy laughter.
“Light and life, Regis, I can tell you with certainty that those boys aren’t getting nearly as much sleep as you are.” Wiping a tear from the corner of one eye, she slung an overly familiar arm around his shoulders and shook him slightly. Wherever her aversion to being touched was, it obviously didn’t apply when she was traumatising him. “You definitely missed them at Caem then. Up in the lighthouse? They all—”
“Please stop talking.” Not that he wasn’t a progressive sort of father, but the mental images alone…Gladiolus was twice his size, for light’s sake. Did Bahamut know about this? Why hadn’t anybody told him? Did they all assume he knew?
Leviathan fairly cackled, devilishly pleased with his shock. “Oh come on, Regis, we all know who he takes after.”
They’d been watching him since birth. Now, he knew that, of course he knew that, but it suddenly occurred to him exactly what that meant. In one long, mortifying rush, Regis saw every embarrassing and private moment of his entire life flash before his eyes. He covered his face, knowing it was bright red and burning.
“That time on the balcony with Clarus?”
“On the throne with Aulea?”
“In the training room showers…”
“When I stepped in the leg of my own trousers while getting undressed and put my fist through the wall?”
Leviathan jerked. “I missed that one!”
“Good! You unmitigated pervert.” This wasn’t happening. The entire time he’d been trying to be impressive and dignified, and Leviathan had been watching him plough everyone in sight.
Wounded, Leviathan put a pale hand to her bare chest. “Look, I get bored. Besides, Cor is still in his prime and takes twenty minutes to soap up in the shower. He’s a good diversion when Noctis is fishing.” She dug her thumb into her temple lightly. “So much fishing.” She lowered her hand and squinted at him. “And since I know what your next question was going to be, no, Bahamut didn’t watch you closely enough to see any of that.”
Regis had a lot of reasons to be horrified by the entire exchange that had just taken place, but he didn’t anticipate the plummeting disappointment he felt at Leviathan’s words. He’d always assumed that Bahamut had been the one to watch him at all times, but perhaps when the crystal had been locked away he’d withdrawn part of himself, too. They hadn’t parted on the best of terms, after all. It was an unexpected blow to somewhere he hadn’t thought to protect.
“I suppose that’s one good thing,” Regis said, straightening up and clearing his throat. He ignored the glint in Leviathan’s eyes that said she’d probably seen everything he’d been trying to hide. “Though I shouldn’t be surprised. Bahamut is the sort to have honour, unlike some.”
Disappointingly, she barely reacted to that. Instead, she combed her fingers through the length of her hair thoughtfully, eyeing him with intense scrutiny. From his crowned head to his perfectly shined shoes she studied him, though he suspected it wasn’t his appearance she was calculating. That hard, intelligent look was reserved for picking him apart at the seams. Immensely uncomfortable at the assessment, Regis frowned right back at her.
Finally, she spoke.
“Bahamut isn’t above sulking, you know. Especially when he has to share treasures he’d much rather keep for himself.” Her lips tipped up slightly. “Don’t forget what he is, Regis. You could probably use it to your advantage.”
“I see.” Regis actually didn’t see at all. Was she implying Bahamut had trouble letting him go? Or that once relinquished, he severed all ties? Neither seemed likely. “I suppose I should ask him sometime.”
“You should. In fact, why don’t I watch the children while you do?” Reaching out, she gripped his shoulders and squeezed. Beneath her nails, the golden chains of his raiment clinked softly. “After all, life is short.”
Over her shoulder, Regis spied the return of a familiar bald warrior, furiously stirring a new bowl of what looked like porridge. His golden eyes rounded like coins as he spotted them on the portal edge, smaller than the very spoon he held in his hand.
“Take some of your own advice,” Regis replied dryly, right before she jabbed him between the ribs with a fingertip.
Perhaps everything was still a mess, and it might very well remain so. Regis had more questions than answers, and time was slowly beginning to run out, but there was a strange comfort in knowing they were all just as lost as each other, swept along in the prophecy’s wake.
Except for the part about Noctis and his three male consorts. Good grief.
That hadn’t been mentioned in the ancient scriptures at all.
Like father like son, Regis supposed, and turned on his heel to go hunt a dragon.
“Steady, Bahamut. You’re no spring chicken.”
“That’s spectacularly insulting coming from you.” Clutching his head, Bahamut forced himself to sit up. Ramuh, while a pain in the ass and generally an irritating busybody, was good enough to dutifully slide an arm beneath his wings and brace him there. His ears weren’t ringing anymore, which was a good sign. “Are you my nursemaid?”
“Yes. Now shut up and recover.”
“I’m fine,” he protested, gusting out a sigh. Ramuh’s fingertips against his back dug in tightly. “Ramuh, it’s a slight headache. Did you think allowing my magic to be channelled down would come without cost? You try splitting your power six ways from Sunday and see how well you bounce back from it. This is just the first time the trident had to be used to subdue an astral.” Stretching his wings slightly, Bahamut smiled. “The recoil is a son of a bitch.”
“Don’t take this so lightly,” Ramuh thundered, seeing exactly no humour in his words. “And don’t think I don’t know the price, Bahamut. I was there when you knelt. It was my staff that pried apart your ribs. My lightning that hardened your heart to stone.”
Ever the worrywart, Bahamut thought, tipping his brow against the cushion of Ramuh’s great woven beard. They made an awkward picture, slouched together like that, but of the Six he’d always known that Ramuh had kept secrets that would choke anyone else. It didn’t stop him from imagining the worst, though.
“Your concern warms my giant crystal heart,” Bahamut said finally, and pushed himself away so he could get to his feet. “But I’m not dead yet, so stop shovelling soil on me and go back to your knitting.”
“It’s crochet, and fuck you,” Ramuh grouched, folding out of his elegant lotus position and grabbing his staff. “Fine, push yourself if that’s what makes you happy. But when I eventually find you face-down in the pool I’m going to don a human guise and sell your swords on the Internet.”
“The joke’s on you, I hide them in my ass.”
“Then I’m truly heartened to know you’re taking whatever action you can find.”
“Uh-huh,” Bahamut said, his cheeks flaming. “Take your hobby horse and get out.” Thankfully, Ramuh did; vanishing into a few spidery lashings of white light that left him blinking away greenish afterimages for another ten seconds afterwards. Perfect. He truly didn’t feel that bad, apart from a little muscle weakness and a mild headache. The blood-spitting had ended as soon as it had begun, which was an entirely positive outcome.
Bahamut was just about to test his wings when he realised he wasn’t alone.
Regis stood somewhere off to his right, suspended in the muted twilight of the crystal’s sanctum. Whatever was occupying his mind was reflected in his appearance: silver-haired and smooth of brow, dressed in all his regal glory. Even the knee brace was present, catching the shifting tones of light. His green eyes looked black at that distance, but the barbed draconian crown shone proudly through strands of his hair.
“King Regis,” Bahamut said, unable to help himself as he swept a formal bow, dissolving down to a smaller size. “What brings you to this humble dragon’s lair?”
“Ramuh, I think,” was the wry response. Regis hooked a finger beneath his chains of office like they were constricting his airway. “He threw me in here like a chew toy just as I was coming to find you. What put him in such a mood?” Apparently satisfied that Bahamut wasn’t going to kick him out for intruding, Regis drew close enough to study his appearance at length. It was difficult not to preen or flex, but he managed it.
“I go out of my way to ruin his life,” Bahamut shrugged. Regis just nodded, his expression closed. Damn it. He paused slightly, then all in a rush: “Regis, I’m sorry I vanished so quickly. I wanted to see you, I did, I just—”
“Are you all right?” Regis asked, riding over the top of his verbal vomit. His mouth was thin with concern, his jaw tight. “Forget about me, I’m resilient enough to have my breakdown later. Sit down and let me look you over. You’re as white as a sheet.”
“Leave my winter bod alone,” Bahamut grumbled, eyeing his arms and chest. Maybe he was a little pasty. Still, he sat down again, disgruntled and more than a little self-pitying. “I’m strong, you know. I’m ridiculously strong—ow, your leg brace is stabbing me in the thigh—and it feels like you fussing over me is starting a trend. Next thing Titan will be trying to spoon feed me his soup.”
“I hope that’s not a euphemism.” Regis’ head was ducked slightly as he checked Bahamut’s glands and pulse, flexing his joints one by one. “This is only the second time, if you’ll recall. Perhaps you should simply look after yourself, so you won’t need to suffer this indignity.” The words were admonishing, but Regis’ eyes were warm with quiet humour. There was even a small curl of a smile in the corner of his mouth, so Bahamut pressed his fingertip to it as though he might trap it there a while longer.
Time was always a fluid thing in the higher realms, and the sanctum was no exception. Still, Bahamut had never felt it slow right down to an almost-standstill until the very moment he unthinkingly touched Regis like he had every right to, and every invitation besides. And Regis…well, he didn’t pull away at all, though Bahamut was convinced his eyes had turned wider and darker than even shadows would allow. He just breathed warmly over the fingertip intruding on the edge of his mouth, ignoring the hooked claw a millimetre from nicking his skin. After another moment, Bahamut let his fingertip slide away, lightly brushing the neatly groomed angle of Regis’ bearded jaw. Regis cleared his throat quietly, but gave no other indication that a line had been crossed. He simply continued his search for injuries with deft, careful hands. Finally, he sat back and looked Bahamut in the eye.
“You don’t seem to be in as poor health as I first thought,” Regis admitted, though there was still a worried crease between his brows. His examination had stilled with his hands resting in the bend of Bahamut’s elbows, thumbs carefully smoothing over the tender scales there. It was having the unexpected side-effect of raising all the tiny hairs on the back of Bahamut’s neck. “If you’d like, I can leave and let you rest.” He actually began to stand up, as though he knew the way out of the sanctum back to the astral realm. But the intention was still there, and between it and the unhappy shadows crossing Regis’ face, the way he hadn’t pulled away from Bahamut a moment ago…
Bahamut didn’t know anything about reassuring people beyond face value words, but he did like to think he knew Regis.
“Do you remember the last time you were here?” Bahamut asked suddenly, before he could talk himself out of it. “I told you to lock away the crystal and forget about it, so you pushed me over and sat on me. Then you had the gall to ask me if Cor Leonis was—”
“Yes, yes, I recall it all very clearly,” Regis said hastily, raking a hand through his hair. He looked a little hunted. “It was fifteen years ago, none of it bears mentioning now.”
Bahamut raised an eyebrow. “None of it?” It was hard work keeping his voice even.
“None,” Regis said emphatically.
“Even when you called me by Cor’s name in your sleep, not half a moon ago?”
Regis gaped in horror.
“I never. I wouldn’t—how would I possibly—when were you watching me sleep?!”
Oh, it was sweet. Flustering the ever-dignified gentleman king himself felt so good, Bahamut decided then and there he would dedicate all of his free time to making it happen as often as possible. Regis had even flushed a hazy pink all the way to the tips of his ears, and a few errant strands of hair had fallen over his brow, dishevelling him completely. Bahamut didn’t have a hope of hiding his smile after that. Oh, he was pleased with himself.
“You aren’t joking in the slightest, are you?” Regis muttered, caging his face with one hand for a moment before it slid away. He actually looked a little upset with himself. “I don’t know how to begin apologising for the offence I’ve no doubt caused. But…when precisely did this happen?”
“After Ifrit’s attack.” Bahamut wondered if he shouldn’t say anything further, but Regis looked like he was ready to enter the next afterlife just to end his torment. “It surprised me at first, but only because I didn’t realise you and Cor had—and I suppose I’m only assuming that much, really.” Knowing he was blathering a little bit like a moron, Bahamut stopped and shook his head. “There’s some rather large gaps in my knowledge about you. Some guardian deity I am.” He didn’t mean to sound self-deprecating, but once it was out he didn’t know how to laugh it off. Regis was still looking confounded and a little guilty, too.
“Well, I think you’re a rather good guardian deity.”
“Regis, you’re dead.”
They stared at each other for a long, strange moment, before Regis lips began to twitch. Then Bahamut snickered a little and that was all it took, really. Their laughter reverberated through the hallowed confines of the crystal’s heart, until even the soft light around them seemed to shine.
“I fear my sense of humour has grown quite dark of late,” Regis said sometime later, his shoulders still shaking a little. He was leaning comfortably against Bahamut’s side, probably unaware of it as he wiped moisture from the corner of his eye. “To be laughing at something I should rightly be offended by.” He jolted a little as Bahamut slung his arm around Regis’ lower back, fitting his wing around the startled man for good measure.
“It keeps you sane, being able to laugh. Does it really matter what causes it?”
“I suppose not.” Gingerly, a faintly cool hand brushed Bahamut’s bare back on its way to mirror his position. Out the corner of his eye, Bahamut spied Regis plucking the crown from over his ear to tuck it in his suit pocket. When Regis glanced back, Bahamut was stricken to realise just how close they were—and how it didn’t particularly bother him at all. Once upon a time, feeling another’s breath against his mouth would have sent him into a full-blown flare. “Did you laugh off my death when it happened?”
The question pierced like a javelin straight through his chest.
“No, I—no.” Bahamut swallowed. “I didn’t laugh that day.”
“What did you do?” As close as he was, the green in Regis’ eyes was almost incandescent. How strange that his eyes could be so sad and weary despite so breathtaking a colour. Lifting his hand, turning slightly, Bahamut carefully slipped his fingertips over the curve of Regis’ cheekbone. It was easy to map the pale twist of scarring that framed his eye.
“I went mad, I suppose.” Inside the circle of his arm, Regis seemed to barely breathe. “I slipped my skin into steel and roared until the stars bled light like tears, and I grieved, for I was certain you were gone forever from my sight.” Bahamut’s mouth quirked, but there was no true warmth in it. “Bad day.”
“But you were so cold when I returned.” Regis voice was shredded with restraint. “Distant.”
“A front. A lie.” No point putting on airs anymore. “I was so glad to see you I think my throat closed up on reflex.” Bahamut let his fingers slip away from Regis’ temple, only to trace his hairline down to the curving chill of one ear. He clasped it gently, trying to warm it with his fingers. “You’re always so cold.”
“On the contrary, I’m feeling quite warm right now.”
“I always want to touch you when you’re cold.”
Bahamut was trying to decide whether to be amused or pleased with himself over that when Regis drew his fingers away from his ear, and before his confounded gaze brushed his mouth gently across Bahamut’s clawed fingertips. It was a reverent touch, soft and faintly cool against his overheated skin, but there was no prayer in it. There was only a quiet, painful sort of affection, and it struck Bahamut squarely in his ravaged old heart, surely too old to be taken by such things. With the memory of Regis’ death so freshly unearthed in his mind, the loss of him—
“I’m sorry,” Bahamut said softly, and tugged his hand free from Regis’ grasp. “I’m not very good at this.”
“No, it’s quite all right,” Regis managed, right before Bahamut pressed him down to the floor and covered that cool, careful mouth with the blazing heat of his own.
A hundred variations of a thousand different apologies flew through Bahamut’s mind as he felt Regis tense in shock beneath him, lips parting beneath his, but they were all hollow. Oh, what he’d been missing, the entire time he’d been such an idiot. He hadn’t wanted to watch over Regis all his days; he’d wanted to walk them alongside him.
Beneath him, the tension seemed to leave Regis all in one long rush, and Bahamut had the singular experience of being utterly devoured by lips and breath and the slick slide of a questing tongue. Previously careful, elegant hands were drawing long, drugging lines down the arch of his back, circling the base of his wings and continuing down to the streak of his scales where they vanished beneath the soft hide of his pants.
It was intoxicating, heady, and almost more than Bahamut could stand. Tearing his mouth free, panting harshly against Regis’ neck, he tried to get himself in order. Just a little. For dignity’s sake.
“Told you I’m not very good at this,” Bahamut said shakily, pressing his mouth to the warm swath of skin beneath Regis’ jaw, where his beard gave way to softness. It earned him a very interesting noise, so he did it again. Fingertips dug into his lower back warningly. “What?”
“A half-naked dragon god is using his mouth on me,” Regis said, sounding strained. “I may not be a young man anymore, but even I can be tested beyond my limits.” Still, he shifted obligingly when Bahamut slid up his body, even shifting a leg to bracket him there. He looked torn between hope and incredulity. “What were you thinking? You can barely suffer my hands without being talked through it first, and you just—threw yourself at me.”
Bahamut winced. “Was it terrible?”
“Not at all.” One of those wonderful hands slid up to cradle the curve of his skull, sliding through the dark length of his hair. “Rather like a few fantasies of mine, if I’m honest. Only I was twenty years younger and wearing far less clothing.” Regis’ eyes slid to the side, avoiding his. Colour was staining his ears again, and Bahamut was completely, utterly charmed.
“After our first meeting? That long ago? Tell me about them.”
“But—” He was cut off as Regis surged up and kissed him thoroughly instead, notching his jaw open with one deft movement and sliding deeply inside, the hand in his hair drawing him down until Bahamut covered him entirely, overwhelmed with sensation and barely remembering to mind his weight. Regis barely seemed to notice, far too interested in his mouth and the corded tendons of his neck, which he traced with his fingers and followed with his teeth.
At his back, Bahamut slowly became aware that something bright was shifting in odd colours, and his bones felt like they were humming in a way that felt as familiar as breathing, though it had not happened in years.
The ring of the Lucii was in proximity to the crystal once more.
“Shit,” Bahamut rasped, blinking wildly down at Regis, who tensed in reactive alarm.
“What is it?” But Bahamut was already hauling himself up, twisting until he could see through the broken edges of the crystal’s radiance, where it looked upon a rusted catwalk suspended over an untold abyss.
At the end of the walk stood a young man alone, his eyes full of exhausted, desperate hope.
“Noctis,” Regis breathed. “He’s come to claim the crystal at last.”
Chapter 20: Prophecy
There were more than a few moments that Bahamut wholeheartedly regretted over the course of his long life, but denying Regis the first chance to speak to his son since seeing him off at the palace steps was topping the list. And yet, it had to be done.
At the single moment Noctis had touched the crystal and become ensnared in its power, just as Regis was leaning forward with a hand outstretched, Bahamut reached out and took the dead king’s shoulder.
Regis turned as still as stone beneath his hand.
“You aren’t going to let me stay, are you?”
“No,” Bahamut said steadily, and had never hated himself more. “It’s not the time for that.”
“It’s fine.” Regis didn’t look at him. He didn’t pull away, which should have been something, when it really just made it all a little bit worse. After all, Regis would never offend his gods in so petty a manner. “Send me back, then. I don’t know…how to leave on my own.”
There was so much more he wanted to say, to explain that it wasn’t cruelty or indifference—never that—but Noctis was lashed about the arm with ropes of white light and the Accursed was right there, his snarl hidden behind a smile. Bahamut had no choice. With one clawed hand spearing forward to command the crystal’s light, he turned and touched two fingertips to Regis’ pale cheek with the other.
“When you get out,” Bahamut said, his braced palm still pouring light out from the crystal’s broken edge, “ask Ramuh to tell you the story of the Accursed. It’s time you knew.”
Regis’ bleak gaze slid to him, uncomprehending for an instant, and then the light snatched him back from the sanctum. He dissolved beneath Bahamut’s touch, mouth open in a silent protest, and then the draconian was alone. Just him, his crystal, and the one who’d render its power down into so much purifying light trapped upon his finger.
Bahamut knew this one was going to hurt.
Sighing, he made the preparations and shifted his form into something more befitting the one who would receive the king of kings. Their chosen.
When the light deposited Regis back at the stone pool it was just in time to watch Prompto Argentum shoot Chancellor Ardyn in the back—and to watch him stand again with a flourish and a smile, his eyes leaking a black, tar-like substance. Foul scourge rose from his body like a miasma.
Regis stared, aghast; Ardyn Izunia looked less like he was tainted by it and more as though it emanated from beneath his skin. How was he still alive…?
“Repulsive, isn’t it?” Ramuh said, leaning down to plant his palms upon the stone. He stared with opalescent white eyes down into the swirling rain-soaked darkness. “Monstrous. Demonic.”
“He’s the reason Insomnia fell.” Of that, Regis had no doubt. “He’s the reason Noctis is hounded at every turn. Why the nights grow dark and the daemons feed—”
“Ehhh,” Ramuh said, waving a hand. “It’s all a bit murky, that last part. He’s not the originator of the starscourge. That was Ifrit. No, young Ardyn was initially a strong and hopeful prince, blessed with the ability to tug that poison from the veins of others.” Ramuh’s eyes shut briefly. “We thought he was our chosen, for a while there. Until we realised what the scourge was doing to him, each time he pulled it out of some poor wretch. What it was turning him into.”
Regis stared. Bahamut had told him to ask, but…
Ramuh’s smile was sad.
“Yes, Regis. Prince Ardyn, second son born to the first king of House Caelum.” Ramuh searched his gaze. “He’s your ancestor, and an immortal walking blight upon the land.”
He shared blood with that sickness-drenched and polluted thing? That evil, scheming, spiteful—
It’s time you knew.
Regis wondered if it was possible to throw up in the afterlife. To turn and retch out the hate and bile that threatened to choke him about the neck. The evil at their gates had come from their own line. Their proud, noble, vaunted line of kings had spat up that atrocity? With shaking hands, Regis reached into his suit pocket and drew out the barbed mythril crown. Had Bahamut chosen so poorly of their line after all?
“It’s fine to hate him, Regis. He’s been a bit of a bastard from the moment Bahamut’s light blistered his skin, instead of bestowing him the power he thought he was owed.” Ramuh shrugged his great shoulders. “He did great deeds, but he did them for great praise. All things…have their cost, as you well know.” Lightning gathered around Ramuh’s enormous form, crackling until it obscured his entire body. With a clap of thunder, he vanished from on high, instead standing before Regis at a height relative to his own.
Regis swallowed. “Noctis is in the crystal,” he said hoarsely. “Is Bahamut telling him of all this?”
“Probably.” Leaning hard on his horse-head staff, Ramuh scowled at the waters below. “With your son in the crystal, its light will be turned inward. Now unchecked, darkness will cover Eos entirely before long. And this will not be a short process.” Stroking his free hand over his long beard, Ramuh looked like every wise man ever depicted in the halls of Regis’ palace. “Bahamut will be unable to leave the crystal for some time yet. If there was ever a time to educate you, this would be it.”
Regis wanted to question him, wanted to shake the old god until all his cryptic secrets came spilling out and the world finally made just a little bit of sense. He also wanted to walk into his crimson-draped chamber and rage and grieve away from the knowing eyes of the astrals. Noctis was so close, so damn close, and what was he doing? Receiving history lessons and watching a pool that no longer reflected his son. Should he simply return to the hall of kings? What use was he?
A strong, lined hand clapped down upon his shoulder and squeezed hard enough to hurt.
“Come on,” Ramuh said firmly. “I want to show you something Bahamut probably won’t forgive me for, but the end is nigh, I suppose.” Not giving Regis a chance to ask—rather like Bahamut in that respect—Ramuh wrapped them in lightning like a net and allowed it to swallow his vision whole.
Then the light faded, leaving his vision splashed with strange colours, Regis felt the touch of something ancient about him. Old, dead air. Something closed away for a long time. Stone groaned soundlessly beneath his feet.
Regis blinked as torches threw the (temple, church, holy place, consecrated space, touch nothing, say nothing) cavernous space into sharp relief, shadows writhing against walls so large they could be nothing other than built by gods. Painted in red and gold from the torch flames, Regis squinted up and up and up—
“Oh, by the Six,” he whispered, and closed his eyes. “This is an altar.”
Ramuh let out a single, tired sigh.
“It’s the altar. This is where Bahamut pleaded with Creation itself for humanity’s salvation.” He lifted a hand to the gargantuan flat stone before them, stained black with an immortal’s blood. “This is where I opened his chest and cut out his heart, and where we laid it out as offering. Where he prayed and begged, and where I threw every bolt of lightning down upon his blood offering—until the prayer was answered and it changed. It became hard like stone.” Ramuh’s eyes were shadowed. “Like crystal.”
Regis stared in burgeoning horror at the old blood that had dried on the stone, dusty rivulets staining its sides. Bahamut’s blood, more than a thousand years old. But not just it; he also stared at the carved face in the wall behind it that showed eyes sealed closed. Three of them. There was a hand-print over the third eye in the centre of its forehead, black like the scourge’s tar, but Regis knew it was Bahamut’s hand. Bahamut’s blood. Who else could it belong to? Who else would—
“Is this…it’s why he can’t leave, isn’t it? He handed over his heart and his power to this thing, this Creator you speak of, and it gave us the prophecy.” He swallowed against the sudden urge to throw up. “Paid in coin of flesh and blood. His. And the crystal, oh, gods—”
Abruptly he turned away, hunched and gulping air that suddenly felt too thick in his lungs. His vision wobbled and sweat broke out on his brow. The crystal.
“He felt responsible, you see. Far more than the rest of us did. A king’s burden, I suppose.” Ramuh huffed a small breath. “Bahamut doesn’t look like much of a king though, does he? Doesn’t look like much of anything anymore. But the day he lay upon that altar and swore he’d be either penance or providence, ahh…the stars themselves shed tears of pure light. He puts us all to shame, and even now he tries to give more. To do more. He’s watched your line since its dawn and only looked away when he couldn’t bear to stand idly by.” Ramuh turned to him. “Then you came along. Regis Lucis Caelum, oh, what he wouldn’t do for you.”
Regis couldn’t get enough air. He’d heard fragments, wondered at the strange turns of phrase, the glances exchanged between them so secretive and Bahamut—Bahamut laughing them off, Bahamut apologising to him, Bahamut doing his duty, in all things. Because of a stone platform soaked in blood, and a creator that accepted no prayer but that drenched in blood before it would lift a single finger.
“Is—” gods, his voice was almost gone, “this face, this wall, is it real or an effigy?” Is it the god of gods?
“Both, neither, who knows. All I remember is my hair was black the day I prostrated myself in here with Bahamut, and it was white when I woke up and found him painting the floor with his blood, out of his mind and speaking words that I’d never heard before.” Ramuh’s mouth tightened. “His ribs still hung open like an empty cage.”
Reflexively, Regis looked down at his feet. It just looked like stone to him. Then, a little further away: a wide swath of black. Below it, yet another, as though drawn by an…an enormous hand.
Regis felt his body shifting into younger lines, hair returning to a dark fall that fell over his brow. He could almost feel the ring on his finger.
“Please get me out of here,” he whispered hoarsely. “I don’t think I can stand it anymore.”
Ramuh nodded slowly. There was something profoundly old and sad in his eyes as he regarded the ancient stone that surrounded them.
“Regis, I didn’t simply bring you here to show you the origin of your line’s power. It was to tell you of what’s to come, as well. You must prepare yourself.”
“I won’t hear any more,” Regis said, something hard and panicked gripping his chest.
“You need to know what it means for the crystal to shed all of its light—”
“Stop it, Ramuh—”
“—and at the moment of your son’s triumph, when the ring is destroyed—”
“Don’t you dare say it .” Spinning on his heel, tear-blind and furious, Regis slung a handful of Ramuh’s own lightning back in his face, all he could pull from his shifting, ghostly body. Beneath his feet, the words written in Bahamut’s blood were illuminated, like shadows smeared on alabaster. They went on seemingly forever, writing a story that hadn’t yet ended. One he couldn’t bear to read. Regis had thought he’d come to terms with all that the prophecy meant—that Noctis would die so the world could live. So the final price would be paid.
The old words had failed to mention that Bahamut would be paying that price, too.
“Come on.” Of course Ramuh was unharmed by his own power. When had Regis ever had any effect on the events unfolding around him? “It’s time to return. Perhaps it’s been long enough.”
Long enough, Regis thought bleakly, and for a moment he would have given anything for it all to be over already.
Surely oblivion had to be sweeter than waiting for the axe to fall.
There was one thing to be said about Noctis: the kid sure could sleep.
In fact, Bahamut had to check on him more than once to make sure he hadn’t actually died and was just a balled-up little corpse floating upside-down in his sanctum. But no, he was just a late bloomer, to all appearances. He’d taken in over half the crystal’s light; Bahamut could see it spiralling down in sparkling ribbons to join the ring. It was pretty cute, for part of an omnipotent planet-purifying ritual, but if Noctis took too long there wasn’t going to be any of humanity left to save.
Six or so years had passed, probably, down there on Eos. Five of them had been spent in pure darkness, and because of it the daemons had been running unchecked. It hadn’t felt like that long inside the sanctum though, and time was probably running differently in the astral realm again. Every time the prophecy jumped ahead, time slipped out of sync between all three places.
The time slips didn’t stop Noctis from growing an intensely dense hobo beard, though. His hair had grown longer too. Actually—and Bahamut was in no way belittling the importance of Noctis’ presence in the crystal—when he floated upside-down all his hair fell away from his face, standing on end like a troll’s. Other than that one mild entertainment, Noctis just floated around in his hunched up pose, completely insensate as he dreamed in reflection.
Naturally, Bahamut was about as bored as he’d ever been. Shifting from his terrible draconian form into his smaller winged state, he pushed himself up into Noctis’ personal space and studied him up close.
He looked nothing at all like Regis, really. He was Aulea’s child from head to toe, bar the evolving proud nose and straight edge of his jaw. His dark hair held a blue tint to its lustre. A little like his own, Bahamut realised with a start. Even his eyes held a small familiarity to that which he’d seen in his reflection. It was pure stupid fancy, but Bahamut quietly enjoyed the idea that when his prophecy had been written, the blood had somehow passed to Noctis. Chosen was chosen, after all, and Noctis was the heir to his power as much as Regis’.
“Little dork,” Bahamut whispered to the sleeping king, feeling just a little bit fond. “Hope you’re not going to die a virgin.”
Maybe there was enough time to let Regis back into the sanctum, he thought as he turned away, even if it was just to give the kid a shave—
Something yanked on his wing. Hard.
“The hell?” a familiar voice muttered, sleep-thick and groggy. “Gladio?”
First Cor, then Gladio? What was with this family mistaking him for their damn crownsguard?
“Bahamut,” he snapped, turning around to plant a hand on his own chest. Noctis was still knuckling at his eyes. “Honestly, do the wings give nothing away? And why are you even awake? Get back to sleep.” He waved a hand at him. “Reflect.”
The fist rubbing at Noctis’ eyes fell away slowly, revealing confounded blue eyes.
“Bahamut’s huge,” he said uncertainly. “You’re just a guy with wings.”
“Welcome to the great disappointment of the real world.”
“And you’re kind of a dick.”
Bahamut stared mutely for what was probably way too long. The actual disrespect! Of course, Noctis was a bit of a brat and…grabbing at his wing again, apparently. Scowling, he watched Noctis unfurl one of his wings to its full span, staring at the thinnest edge of its leathery membrane where it was almost translucent.
“Cool,” he said reluctantly. On his finger, the ring was still steadily gathering the crystal’s power. Bahamut wasn’t even sure how anymore. “Why’d you give me the big show before then?” His mouth dropped, softening. “Because you had to tell me I’m going to die saving the world? I’m kind of surprised I even made it this far.”
Bahamut huffed. “Well, you’re definitely giving Carbuncle his daily step count, but don’t sell yourself short. You’re going to make it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ll be backing you every step of the way.” Bahamut shrugged. “You have my mark now, and my power. It’s…different, to the others. Less about me swooping in to save you and more about you saving yourself.”
Even floating vaguely sideways, Noctis’ crossed arms and raised eyebrow were insultingly sceptical.
“If you say so.” Noctis made a show of stretching and yawning, balling himself up again in his hunched pose. “Guess I’d better go back to reminiscing—”
“Whatever.” His eyelids were already drooping again, the ring burning brighter on his finger. “Goodnight, ceiling dragon. See you at the end.” Then he was lost to his dreams again, face going slack if not entirely peaceful as he returned to his meditative trance.
“…yeah.” Bahamut rested his hand on the young king’s head. “Sleep tight, kid. It’ll be over before you know it.”
Poor bastard. What utterly shitty luck he had to be born at the precise moment the prophecy would kick in, after more than ten generations of kings who lived pretty decent lives in the sun before their horrible untimely ends at the hands of the ring. That soul-sucking piece of jewellery might be the thing to help save the world, but it had done its fair share of killing, too.
Feeling unsettled by the whole exchange and his personal reaction to it, Bahamut was eager to leave the sanctum for a while, knowing Noctis was safe in its hold for the time being. It was quick work to travel between the worlds to find himself at the stone edge of the waters. It probably wasn’t worth mentioning their small conversation to Regis, but giving him a few moments of solitude with his slumbering son would hopefully salve his feelings—particularly if he was furious at Bahamut for his abrupt eviction.
Leviathan eyed him from her reclined position upon the portal’s edge, looking enormous and far too interested in how tiny he was.
“He’s in his royal chamber,” she said dryly, waving a hand at the soup bowl on the other side of the pool. Bahamut frowned up at her.
“How do you know I’m not here for you?”
She didn’t even roll her eyes. “Because unless you decided to give yourself to me as a snack, I’ve got no use for tiny shirtless dragons.”
“You could pick your teeth with me.”
Leviathan actually laughed, and Bahamut was so surprised he almost forgot to laugh with her.
They paused after a moment, looking like two ridiculous power imbalances and a complete inversion of their roles. There were shadows and misgivings in Leviathan’s eyes, and more than a little guilt. What she expected of him Bahamut could guess at, and it probably began and ended with punishment of some brutal kind. For Lunafreya, for being a barrier, for scorning Noctis time and again.
Bahamut was too tired to be bothering with all of that.
“You look nice today,” he told her. Her cheeks bloomed with twin roses of pale colour. “Where’s your necklace? It really sets off your breasts.”
Leviathan stared at him, completely thunderstruck, for two whole seconds.
Bahamut left her there in gales of shrieking laughter, covering her chest with one hand and wiping her eyes with the other. Taking wing to the astral waters he glided over it, swiftly heading for the domed chamber Regis called his own. He’d know the instant Noctis had taken the entirety of the crystal into the ring, but that didn’t mean time was flowing the same way between the sanctum and the astral realm.
Bahamut was trying to figure out how to knock on a silk curtain when Regis pulled it aside and stared at him like he was a ghost. In an instant the years slid off him like oil, his silvery hair turning peppered, then dark. His usually brilliant green eyes were full up with darkness and—something. It was hard not to recoil.
“Has it…been a while?” he asked awkwardly. “It’s difficult to tell in there.”
It was all he managed to get out before Regis grabbed his wrist with a hand like a steel vice and pulled him behind the curtain, letting it fall back and obscure the world outside. Bahamut panicked and started babbling.
“Noctis is fine, he’s still in there right now taking the crystal’s power into the ring, but it’ll be a while before that’s finished. I just thought I’d come and…” oh shit, Regis’ jaw was set like granite, “and give you a chance to see him while he’s in his—well, it’s sort of a trance state, you won’t be able to do much other than hug his unconscious body, and he definitely needs some clippers for what looks like a truly terrible beard, but—”
“Noctis will be in there for some time longer?” Regis broke in, his fingers flexing against Bahamut’s wrist. “You are sure?”
“Definitely,” he replied, trying not to fidget all the way out of his humanoid form. “I’ll know when he’s done.”
“Good.” Regis answering nod was slow. “That’s good.” Upon Bahamut’s wrist, his hand was slowly beginning to warm. Then Regis’ shoulders completely slumped, like the entire burden of life and death had just crashed down upon him. The twist of grief in his face before Regis could properly duck his head was like a knife to Bahamut’s stomach.
It was all his fault, he realised, feeling wretched. Driving Regis out like that, not letting him see his son, just always shuffling him around and giving him pointless platitudes derived from old, miserable words—it all took its inevitable toll. Reaching out, shaking the loose grip off his wrist, Bahamut gingerly slid his arms around black-draped shoulders and pulled Regis against his chest.
“I’m sorry I’m such a terrible god,” he murmured against Regis’ scarred temple, pressing a careful kiss there. He made sure it was gentle, asking for nothing. “I’m sorry I had to do that to you. I’m sorry I made you wait.” Each apology was punctuated with a kiss and answered only by a soft, shuddering breath against his shoulder. The idea that Regis might be weeping made something awful seize up in his throat, but he couldn’t bring himself to draw back and see.
“Always apologising,” Regis said after a long silence, his voice like gravel. “When I am the one who’s truly sorry.” Hands lifted to cross over the small of Bahamut’s back. “I never expected to find myself so ashamed, or feel so selfish.” With a slow turn of his bowed head, Regis pressed his face against the side of Bahamut’s neck.
“Selfish? Regis, you’re the least—” a rush of warm air against his skin preceded a gentle, open-mouthed kiss to Bahamut’s throat, “—least…selfish person I’ve ever witnessed. And I’ve,” hands skated over the muscles of his spine, fingertips circling around and between his wings, “seen a lot of people. Aren’t you angry with me?”
“At first. But then you were gone, and you stayed gone.” Short, blunt fingernails pressed small crescents in the dip of Bahamut’s spine, like hooks trying to keep him in place. “So while I’m being terrifically selfish, while Noctis is safe for now, I’d very much like to tell you that you were missed.” Another small breath shuddered slowly against the damp skin of his neck like a secret. However utterly lost Bahamut was by the entire conversation, Regis’ firm weight against his chest and thighs, his careful hands suddenly possessive upon his skin and that mouth—that mouth —each said volumes alone. “Or I could show you.”
Bahamut wasn’t an idiot: he knew what was being offered to him, just as well as he knew that Regis posed the offer in such a way that to decline wouldn’t be an offence or a slight. Probably didn’t want him babbling apologies again, Bahamut thought disparagingly. Still so polite and proper—and hurt, somehow. Wounded, or injured, something about the set of his shoulders and the tone of his voice, the way he’d pressed a kiss to his bared throat instead of his mouth all said that something was wrong, when before it hadn’t been.
“I don’t want your worship or your reverence, Regis.” Before the stricken king could tense in his arms, Bahamut ducked his head and captured his mouth with his own, taking from him a kiss that sought to know every movement and taste the slick warmth within could provide. “It’s your heart I’m far more interested in.”
That drew Regis away and up to his full height, just a few inches shorter than his own. In his eyes was a terrible sort of hope, burning beneath all that green. And something else.
“Why don’t I trade you, then?” Regis breathed against his mouth, but his eyes stayed open and locked on his. “Swear yours to me, and I’ll give you mine.” There was something strange about the way he said it, something stranger about the intensity of his gaze, but Bahamut was beyond caring about anything but the words I’ll give you mine . He’d long since discarded any wish for tenderness of affection of any kind, but there he was, holding within his arms something he thought he’d never in all his thousands of years be able to possess.
“All right,” Bahamut said, not caring about the sharpness of his teeth and claws, or the black scales that marked him as other. Not caring about wings, or royalty, or spirits— “Try not to lose it.”
“Deal,” Regis said, and kissed him so hard and with such bite that he felt a bead of blood trickle at the corner of his mouth. “Deal, deal, deal. I accept.” Each word was emphasised with a kiss so brutal, so possessive that Bahamut wasn’t given a single instant to wonder at the onslaught, only welcome it.
As they fell against the silks and lost all their clothes, hands sliding and hips rocking, mouths tracing paths over new and unexplored expanses of skin, the shifting lights of the realm outside rippled once with an old power.
Neither of them noticed.
Chapter 21: Starlight
In the end, Regis did get to spend time with Noctis—even if it was just to groom his beard down and cut his hair and nails while he slept.
“He looks like something that fought a stray cat in a trashcan,” was all Regis said upon seeing him, utterly horrified and overwhelmed with his own emotions. With the tools Bahamut had procured from Titan and water from the astral pool, Regis immediately went to work on his sleeping son. Bahamut had left him to his work some time ago, instead trailing to the broken edge of the crystal, where it stared out from its suspended position in the throne room. How the Accursed had managed to have it moved, he wasn’t certain. Perhaps with the power draining from it, the stone no longer posed a threat to him.
Lifting a hand to stare down at his palm, Bahamut discreetly tried to summon a small flare. Nothing happened.
Well. That answered that question. Turning to check on Regis, he found him finished with his ministrations, simply cradling his son’s sleeping face in his hands.
“I never thought I’d see what kind of man he’d grow to be,” Regis said, swallowing. He tipped his forehead against Noctis’ and shut his eyes. “What kind of king.” On his son’s hand, the ring of the Lucii was blinding. All the power of the crystal concentrated down into a single pinpoint of light.
It was time.
Regis kissed the crown of Noctis’ head and drew away, anguished with the parting but still standing so straight. Noble bastard, Bahamut thought, clearing his throat around a lump. He couldn’t help the rolling, reverberating timbre of his voice as he spoke around it, thrumming with the last vestiges of his magic as it drained off him.
“The light waxes full .”
One push was all it took: Bahamut’s clawed hand spread wide against Noctis’ back, and the young king shattered into shards of brilliant white light. Gone from the sanctum, pitched headlong into the darkness. Into Angelgard, the last safe place still left in the shadows.
Bahamut tried not to stagger as his power was ripped out by the roots, but he must have made a sound for Regis to slide an arm around him, propping him up with one golden-chained shoulder. Around them, the crystal sanctum started to bleach of colour, the soft lights turning smoky and indistinct. It was starting to unravel, to die.
“Had a lot of good memories,” Bahamut whispered, casting his eyes around as the world turned ashen and began to fade. Beside him, Regis’ pallor was doing a good impression of the sanctum. “Come on, Regis. This is depressing.”
“Will you be all right?”
“Me?” Bahamut snorted. “Of course, I’m a god. You can’t blame a dragon for being a little out of shape.”
For a moment Regis’ eyes flashed, and his mouth opened as though to speak. Instead, the sanctum dissolved into smoke and ash, sending them hurtling back down to the astral realm like two puppets with their strings cut.
“Got you,” a bass voice growled, and a giant hand snatched them both out of the air. Bahamut blinked hazily up into Titan’s enormous painted face. “Got your eviction notice?”
“And then some,” Regis said, sitting up on the broad palm. “I fear it’s time I asked you to return me to my brethren, stone-lord.” He didn’t look at Bahamut as he got to his feet. “There’s a prophecy to fulfil, after all.”
Titan’s enormous golden eyes blinked once, then slid to Bahamut, who nodded. He scowled.
“Guess it is about that time.” It still didn’t stop him from dropping them on the edge of the pool, where Leviathan, Ramuh and Shiva were all perched. Even Carbuncle was there this time, his ruby horn glinting in the pool’s light. “Any goodbyes before I punt him back into his hall?”
Leviathan rolled her eyes. “We’ll see him after, why bother?”
“Real sentimental, Levi,” Titan grumbled. Beside her, Shiva smiled but kept silent.
Ramuh’s gaze swung between them like a pendulum, calculating and fierce. His brow was knit in a thunderous frown.
“We stand at the final precipice of all we’ve known these last two thousand years,” he said. Upon the judgement staff, his hand crackled with the crawl of lightning. “What happens after this, we cannot yet know. All I am certain of is that I’ve never been so proud to call you all my kin, here at prophecy’s end.” His brilliant white gaze fell to Regis and lingered a moment, then moved to Bahamut. “We’ve had a good run, we Six.”
“Five,” Titan corrected. “Since I’m gonna kick Ifrit’s dick off if I ever see him again.” Behind one delicate blue hand, Shiva smothered a laugh.
Ramuh lifted his gaze starward. “Can I not make one rousing speech without you ruining it with crass threats?”
Leviathan shifted, reclining back slightly. “Who here would personally love the chance to kick Ifrit in the dick?” She raised a hand. Titan immediately followed, and still laughing lightly, Shiva also raised hers.
“Fuck that guy,” Carbuncle said in a surprisingly deep voice, raising a paw. Everyone stared, until Leviathan let out a honking laugh.
“Oh for—” Ramuh, completely done with trying to be inspirational and heartfelt, lifted a hand. “Fine. We’re all united in kicking Ifrit in his flaming balls. Also: do your best. Bahamut, do you have anything to add?”
Regis turned to Bahamut, whose hand was of course happily raised. He snatched it back the moment he realised Regis was giving him an extremely odd look.
Well, Bahamut thought, looking up at them all. Nothing for it, then. Spiralling upward, his body twisting with dark magic—all he could still claim to bear—Bahamut conjured his armour and his greatest form. It was the most resplendent and legendary of his depictions, broad and plated with dark metal and gold. Crimson silk like pennants streamed from his shoulders beneath wings forged of razor steel, each feather a single gargantuan sword. His toothed helm was stretched open on a silent roar, and from within it, the draconian stared out at them.
After spending so long denying the final outcome of the prophecy, Bahamut found himself at a loss for words. But then, goodbyes were never an easy thing.
“It’s not over yet,” he began. “I know this. No good ever came of a victory speech before the final blow has been struck.” He looked over each of their faces, trying to commit them to memory. Leviathan’s sharp eyes, Titan’s snarl, Shiva’s smile, Ramuh’s grief. Bahamut snatched his eyes away from him before he could falter. “Things will change soon, for all of you. I want you to—look after each other, when it’s over. You may feel adrift, or lost, without that old purpose to bind you. When that happens, I want you to remember today. This, now. And how—” oh, light, “—proud I am of you all. Whatever may come, I am proud.” His greatsword clenched between his gauntleted fists, Bahamut bore down on it as troubled looks were traded, and hesitant tenderness was shared. Then he cleared his throat slightly. “Except you, Carbuncle. You need to work harder.”
“I’ve only got one horn!” the fox howled. Ever the victim. Still, it broke the mood and lifted the shadow he knew he’d cast, and with nothing else to say, Bahamut allowed himself to diminish again as they argued with the lazy healer. There was a reason Carbuncle never spent much time up there with them.
Beside him on the stone, Regis couldn’t seem to look him in the eye. He was blinking rapidly instead, pinning his eyes on the water. In its reflection, Noctis and his crownsguard were approaching the lights of Insomnia in full raiment and garb. That would be enough to distract anyone, Bahamut supposed, but he was left feeling somewhat ill at ease. Regis had been uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn since their time spent in the silk, almost unhappy. If Bahamut had any time in the world to address it he would, but everything was just happening, all at once.
Perhaps it had been a mistake, letting himself become so involved, knowing what the future held—or didn’t hold, in his case. But Regis would soon have his son back, and he and his kin would all be released from their halls, free to join the spirits of their ancestors and friends in the world beyond. One dusty old dragon couldn’t hold a candle to all of that.
It would all work out in the end, Bahamut told himself firmly, but couldn’t stop himself from knocking the back of his hand against Regis’ as they both stared into the water.
Fingers tangled immediately in his, a thumb sliding down the length of his own.
“If you return to your halls, you won’t see my summoning,” Bahamut said casually, watching the quartet pick their way through daemons and debris. A behemoth king appeared, causing Carbuncle to groan enormously and leap into the water. Leviathan sighed appreciatively at the size of it, leaning forward on her elbows. Titan glanced at her, then it, and stiffened in alarm. “Not to brag, but it’s pretty great. Lots of swords.”
Regis was trying to keep his expression smooth. “I’ve seen swords before,” he said with no inflection, but his eyes were bright. “And won’t I need to keep with the old kings for their—when they’re needed?”
“They’ll come to the portal at the moment of their summoning. Save yourself the trip.” His fingers squeezed desperately before he could force himself to gentle. “Have you ever seen a triple armiger?”
Regis tore his eyes from the portal, finally interested. “Triple, you say?”
“Mm-hm.” Bahamut gave him a slow smile. “Three rings. You human kings inherited a diluted form of my power, and I guess it’s cool, but…it’s no me.” He nonchalantly checked the claws of his free hand for effect, sliding Regis a glance. “But if you’d rather spend time with the mothball gang, I understand.”
The others were shouting encouragements at the pool, egging Noctis on as if he could hear them. Titan was bodily trying to stop Leviathan from gleefully diving into the pool to fight the now-suffering behemoth. And all the while, Regis was staring at Bahamut like he was the sunrise come early.
“I would stay with you an eternity,” Regis said wonderingly, “if I could.” Then he was inside Bahamut’s guard with a single step, kissing him like a man starving. Bahamut was more than willing to meet that kind of ardour halfway, even with an aching chest and a world in the balance. Light, he was going to miss that man.
“I’ve been luckier than most,” Bahamut panted when they parted, fingers moving desperately through hair that shifted in shades of silver and deep brown. His smile was helpless. “And so much luckier than I deserve.”
“You’re a moron,” Regis replied hoarsely, kissing his mouth, his cheeks and his jaw. “An absolute moron if you think this is the end.”
Bahamut’s breath stilled in surprise, his eyes flying wide, but Regis took the moment to shove him, hard—straight through the portal, which was beginning to steam with the flames reflected in it.
Time to get to work, Bahamut thought, and threw himself into transition.
The rest could come later.
The infernian’s mortal shell was so much smaller than last time, Bahamut marvelled, burning like a tiny coal far below. Landing a death blow with such enormous swords would be nigh impossible, but corralling Ifrit into a trap could work. He had an arsenal on his back, after all.
“Nothing for it,” he muttered to himself, and slung his greatsword down before Ifrit could burn Noctis alive. The surprise gave him just enough time to gather his flagging strength into a full armiger, one capable of raining down the ultima sword.
The ploy worked, except that Ifrit was apparently Insomnia’s latest parkour champion. He dodged and flipped around each sword like he was having the time of his life.
“Dumbass,” Bahamut said under his breath, rumbling a laugh. He shot down like a spiralling comet of light, irresistibly visible bait for a firebug with his kind of ego.
At the moment Ifrit met Bahamut’s last sword with his own, the draconian slid his eyes to Noctis and willed him to understand.
And that young king—that shredded, singed and unutterably magnificent young king—nodded in return.
It was almost impossible to hold onto his attack, but Bahamut wore it just long enough to see Noctis throw his sword and warp away, coming crashing back down on Ifrit’s gilded horns and into the side of his neck.
Please be enough, Bahamut thought as his body lost corporeal form, and the obscured stars summoned him back home.
Please be enough.
“It wasn’t enough,” Leviathan was barking when Bahamut opened his eyes. Had he fainted? There was a cool softness on his brow; her palm on his forehead. “Shiva, you’ve got the best chance. Not you, Bahamut, you’ve gone all clammy and disgusting. You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m too small to kick him,” Shiva was saying anxiously, somewhere off to his right. “But I might be able to give him a kiss.”
“Gross,” Titan grunted. “I think he has fleas.”
Bahamut listened to them bicker while he tried to blink the world back into focus. He was still in his armour form, but they’d pulled off his helm. He was laying on the flat stone of the portal, his head cushioned by something. Leviathan was combing his hair back through her spined fingers while she yelled at Titan, completely absentminded of her motions or Bahamut was sure she’d have stopped. It felt nice though, so he didn’t comment. It was becoming apparent that his cushion was actually her lap, and he liked his hide intact.
“Where’s Regis?” Bahamut asked, trying to sit up. His muscles felt like rubber; his head spinning. Leviathan shoved him back down none-too-gently. “Was I out long?”
Titan cut him a glance when he turned his head. Shiva was already swan-diving through the portal, leaving little more than a ripple behind. Ramuh was a silent figure on the other side of the water, nostrils flaring as he very pointedly ignored Bahamut’s state of weakness. Old softie.
“Regis went back to the hall of kings. Said he trusted you to see to Noctis.”
“So much for that,” Bahamut groaned, this time managing to successfully sit upright. “I really haven’t aged like a fine wine.” Why would Regis have left, when he already knew it made no difference where he was when Noctis called their power? Between his absence and his strange mood Bahamut wondered if something was going on that he hadn’t been informed of.
“Shiva’s giving it to Ifrit with interest,” Leviathan said with malicious relish, watching her sister split her form into many and conjure a blizzard worthy of song. “Freeze him, Shiva. Freeze his jangling traitor balls right off.”
Titan gave Bahamut a traumatised look. “File that one under reasons why I keep my jewels under lock and key.” Leviathan looked up and smiled like a shark.
After that, things went relatively smoothly, but Bahamut could barely keep his head up during the fight between Noctis and the Accursed. He felt like his insides were going cold, and light was trembling at the edges of his vision. Why it was happening so soon, he wasn’t sure.
Then Noctis finally sat upon the throne, and it all went straight to hell from there.
Oh, the kings arrived, pouring through the portal to melt up from the dais and marble, their armoured spirits reflecting the power of the old wall they’d become. And one by one, they broke through Noctis like he was an obstacle in their way—or a gate to something new. Deliverance, maybe.
Bahamut was shaking and on the verge of losing his senses when Regis’ ghostly form moved woodenly, silently to strike down his son. He held on.
“Oh, not this,” Leviathan whispered, her mouth twisted in a pained grimace. “Why did he wait for the last blow?”
“Because he couldn’t bear for it to be anyone else, I’d say,” Titan guessed, getting up from the portal’s edge to take the hand Leviathan reached to him with. He sat down with a thump and pulled her against his side—and pushed her face against his chest when Regis finally struck Noctis, straight through his courageous little human heart.
Bahamut didn’t realise he was crying until he felt the wetness drip off his jaw.
Whatever happened after that was beyond their sight, now. Their pages were written; the ink had dried. It was up to the line of Lucis to finish their story. And Bahamut…he needed only to wait.
It hadn’t been a bad few millennia, he thought as he turned away from the pool, staggering to his feet. His armour vanished into light and shadows a moment later, and for the first time in all existence he hadn’t done it on purpose. It was just gone, like his magic was gone, burning off his skin like parchment paper. His chest was sore, like a hole that had always been there was beginning to crack at the edges and grow a little bigger.
For the first time, Bahamut felt truly ancient. Tipping his head back, light sparkling in the corners of his vision, he stared up at the endless soft starlight of the realm he’d called home for untold centuries of life. Better it be like this, he told himself, trying not to gasp uselessly for air he couldn’t breathe. Better Regis didn’t see. He made the right choice.
It was over all at once: the moment the ring and that last tiny chip of his crystal was spent, burnt-out, and finished. Bahamut felt it not like pain, but like a cord as fine as a single strand of hair had finally snapped.
“…Bahamut?” Leviathan said, her voice hushed and uncertain. “Why are you shining…?”
Bahamut turned slowly, weaving on his feet. For her, he tried to smile.
“It’s been a long lie to tell,” he whispered, watching the starlight leave his skin. It was hard to see anything else. “Maybe it’ll be a relief—to rest.”
“Bahamut? ” Leviathan said again, this time with a clutching sob of fear in her voice. “What did you do? What did you do?!”
“What he had to,” Ramuh said distantly, and the light was pouring from every inch of Bahamut’s skin, turning it insubstantial and dull. His body was fading, like his crystal had faded. Stone hit his knees and he didn’t remember falling. “It’s why we called him king, and it’s why we’re going to obey our dragon’s last.”
There was a lot he wanted to say. Everything, he wanted to say everything—to tell them not to forget the world again, to be kind, and that he loved them all. His stupid Six, as broken and hungry as they all were. Even Ifrit, that burning wreckage of a god. But for the first time Bahamut found he had too many words and no breath to speak them. He just didn’t have anything at all.
When he fell for the final time they tried to catch him but he was no more than light, and shadow, and a whispered outline of wings.
But their faces, their reaching hands—they weren’t a bad sight to close his eyes to, before all his light burned out.
The world rushed to black.
Chapter 22: Dawn
The world rushed to black.
“Carbuncle! ” someone roared, and the world behind Bahamut’s eyelids turned red and white, heat piercing under his ribs like a knife. The world came rushing back. “Hold him here!”
“This is awful,” a female voice said, strangely familiar. “He’s going to need everyone.”
“Every last drop,” said a voice of steel and stone that could only belong to Regis. “Now bring the line of Lucis, and every last Fleuret oracle.”
Bahamut felt life trickle back into him, a red thread of power feeding a stream of energy that stopped him from dissolving away entirely. What he opened his eyes to nearly killed him once and for all.
Staring down at him like the ghosts of Lucis past were Regis, Noctis, Mors, Sylva, Lunafreya and—everyone. Every generation of the bloodlines, the ones he chose. Every single one stood around him in black and white and silver and gold, hands linked and faces bright.
“We’ve got you,” said Shiva, who took Leviathan’s hand, who took Titan’s. “Carbuncle, use us too.” Down the rope of their linked hands, power was channelling, gathering and passing until it reached Ramuh and then Carbuncle, who touched his horn to Bahamut’s forehead. It hit Bahamut like a physical wall, slamming into his now-corporeal veins in a torrent of confusing scent and sound as four different elements poured into him, feeding him life.
“Will that do it?” Noctis asked, and for the first time he realised their chosen was dead, and tiny, and standing on his chest so he could stare properly. “Save him?”
“This won’t,” said Carbuncle, whose ruby horn was beginning to smoke. “We’re just buying time.”
“It’s all right.” Regis was rolling back his sleeves to bare his forearms. “Luna, Noctis. Bring them all. Circle him. It took blood to do this. Blood and a promise.” His eyes burned like emerald in sunlight. “I intend to do the same.”
“Regis, this isn’t…the fight is done.” Bahamut coughed, and in a tremble of power he lost his great size, sending Noctis sprawling over his chest before he could scramble away. “Just pull the plug.”
“No, great one, we will not,” said Lunafreya, taking his clawed hand between her own. Her eyes were very wide, but she didn’t flinch from his gaze. “One hundred and fourteen kings and queens. One hundred and fourteen oracles. You shared your magic and your grace with us all, passed down from one to another.”
“Except it didn’t quite leave us after death, did it?” Regis said, kneeling at his side. “The magic still burned within us. Still borrowed. Stagnating in spirits that don’t need it anymore.” Lifting a hand, Regis summoned a flame to his palm. “Careless dragon. It’s a very good thing you gave me years to contemplate just what to do about you.”
It slowly occurred to Bahamut that Regis had summoned every spirit that had ever touched his power. His crystal. His trident. And inside each one glittered a tiny little echo of what he’d given away—
“You didn’t sell your heart to Creation, Bahamut,” Regis said with a quirk of a smile, just touching the corner of his mouth. “You gave it to us. And in blood, we’re giving it back.”
They formed ranks, as though they had it all planned. Together they created one enormous curling spiral around him, fanning out, making room for the astrals as they shifted down to match the human spirits, never breaking their chain.
Then Regis stabbed his palm deeply with Carbuncle’s horn, and pressed it to Bahamut’s chest.
The realm exploded.
Or it felt like it. A blinding onslaught of pinprick souls like supernovas rushed beneath his skin, swarming with their light as it hit him five, fifty, a hundred times, countless times, each one leaving behind a piece of something he’d thought was gone forever. Life. Light. Strength. Slowly, something began to fill in the raw cavity of his chest, something that thrummed with old power.
A heartbeat, he realised, eyes open wide as the drumbeat slowly pounded in his chest. His heartbeat.
“You gave it to me, did you not?” Regis said, sounding exhausted and just—so damn pleased with himself. The bloodied hand that pressed to his chest could no doubt feel each heavy, life-giving thump. “As it turns out, promises from a god carry some weight. That day, your heart became mine, and mine to give back.”
Bahamut stared at Regis as he pushed himself upright. Beside him, Carbuncle was passed clean out, smelling like singed fur and ozone. Keeping him alive long enough for Regis to perform his miracle had taken a pretty big toll on the usually fickle little fox. Privately, Bahamut wondered how Regis had even known Carbuncle could do it—if he even had. What the hell had happened when he wasn’t paying attention?
“How did you know?” Bahamut blurted, raking his hair back from his face with a shaking hand. “Regis…light, all of you…” Around him, the faces of the combined bloodlines stared back. Some were confused, others were unimpressed, but all of them were there. “Shouldn’t you all be off enjoying your afterlife, instead of resurrecting a dying old god?”
“Yes,” Mors said frankly. He darted Regis a curious look. “But somebody insisted we had a debt to pay.”
“Somebody said you and I had the same problem,” Noctis added, squinting at him mistrustfully. “You kinda missed that part of the speech.” He hesitated. “Sorry I called you a dick.” Noctis didn’t look sorry though; he batted Lunafreya’s light slap away with a grin, looking bright and soft in a way Bahamut hadn’t seen since before his father had died.
His attention was pulled away as Regis stroked a hand down the bloody handprint on his chest, his brow knit in worry and something tensely restrained. Unthinkingly, Bahamut covered the hand with his own, no less reassured when Regis tried to smile.
“I fear I’ve been keeping secrets,” he said quietly, “about the nature of my time spent in your absence.” He glanced around at the milling crowd, at Leviathan and Ramuh, Shiva and Titan. Noctis and Luna. “We should discuss it at length, when matters here are settled.”
Well, that was ominous. Bahamut watched with quiet reflection as Regis stood and herded them all away, reminded of the last time he’d demonstrated such command—and hell, it was also the last time he’d saved Bahamut’s scaly ass. But he’d long since given up on being offended about being saved by a single dead human king. As it turned out, Regis was actually incredible. No shame in being rescued by the best, he thought with reluctant amusement. Even if he had no idea how.
Titan knelt down and tugged one of his arms across broad painted shoulders, hauling him to his feet in one smooth movement. The look he slid him promised murder.
“You’d better pray to light and life that you never recover from this bullshit, Bahamut,” he said flatly. “The moment you’ve got your grace back in full I’m going to take it out your ass with both fists.” He started marching them both toward the portal for lack of anywhere else to put him, glaring ahead like he couldn’t stand to even look him straight in the face. A muscle in his chiselled jaw twitched angrily.
“I thought Noctis was the only one able to pull off a good martyrdom,” Leviathan added, slipping under his other arm. Her face was paler than usual, and strange shadows were gathered beneath her eyes. “You’re one selfish bastard, trying to clock out like that.”
“Now, now,” Ramuh said with a quelling shake of his head, striding ahead of them all. “He knew if he spoke of it to anyone that Shiva would fall on the sword as well…so to speak.” Leviathan flinched at that, darting him a startled look. Further away, Shiva was holding hands with Lunafreya, speaking in hushed tones. Her expression clouded.
“So what, maybe we all would have,” she said sullenly, but her heart wasn’t in the words. Back then Leviathan wouldn’t have spat on humanity if they were on fire—and honestly, for a while there they had been.
“It was a long time ago,” Bahamut said, trying not to stagger. He might have his heart again, he might be alive, but he felt like he could honestly sleep like the dead. “But for what it’s worth, I didn’t think anyone would really care. It’s nice to be wrong.”
Titan’s step faltered for a split second, but he didn’t say a word. Leviathan was chewing down on her own lower lip like she wanted to gnaw it clean off. Ahead, Ramuh just sighed like the put-upon old man he pretended to be.
“Regis cared.” Ramuh sounded like he was bracing for something. “He cared quite a lot when I showed him the altar of Creation, ten years past.”
Bahamut’s feet turned to lead beneath him. He felt himself blink once, twice.
“You what?! ”
The realm bled white and rainbow for a second time, but for Ramuh it quickly turned black and blue.
Bahamut eventually got the full story in bits and pieces, sprawled out on his stomach in Regis’ little bowl house because it was the only soft place anyone could think to put him that wasn’t Leviathan’s cleavage. She’d offered, but Titan had grabbed him before she could, tossing him into the house like an underhanded pitcher, where he’d landed all tangled in his own silk. He’d gathered an armful of it and buried his face there, smelling Regis and breathing deep.
Ramuh had been quick enough to admit his part in things, head tipped back to staunch the flow of a tremendous blood nose. From there, the story had followed. It didn’t take long for Bahamut to put two and two together—Regis had left him at the battle with Ifrit to confer with his ancestral line and find Lunafreya, who passed the word to her mother and the first oracle. Or perhaps he’d found them both. Either way, it was galling to know yet again he’d tried to throw himself on the line only to be rescued from his own bad plans.
Galling…and a little bit wonderful.
“You can’t do things alone like this anymore,” Titan said, as buried in the silks as he could make himself. He looked like a haunted bowling ball with the rest of his body ensconced in red and gold. Across his torso, Leviathan was comfortably sprawled cross-wise, plucking at the unravelling edge of one torn bolt. It was a strange kind of sleepover they were all having, but Bahamut wasn’t sure he minded them being clingy.
Besides, Regis was nowhere to be found. Not that he was thinking about that.
“All right, no more secrets,” Bahamut sighed, feeling his eyelids slide shut. “Though I honestly don’t see any of us needing to carve out parts of ourselves anymore.” No more crystals. No more rings, or tridents, or tragic kings dying before their time.
“Unless Ifrit comes back again,” Shiva said, her fingertips stuck up Ramuh’s hooked nose to stop the bleeding with ice. “Is the scourge completely done with now?”
“The scourge was burned out.” Ramuh sounded nasal. “It’s gone, as per the bargain that was made. If Ifrit wants to start anything after such a cataclysmic failure, we’ll be there.”
“Was it a failure though?” Leviathan asked with a frown. “So much of the population were slaughtered while the world was in darkness. Daemons everywhere, magitek soldiers turning to dust upon the dawn…” She sighed. “At least Cor survived.”
Bahamut started. “Cor made it? Good for him.” If he wasn’t dead he couldn’t go sniffing after Regis, he thought, then mentally slapped himself.
“I still say it was a failure. Humanity prevails. Bahamut didn’t die. The world keeps spinning, and the heroes get to rest.” Titan frowned at the ceiling of what used to be his favourite soup bowl. “But what are we supposed to do now? I don’t want to be stuck watching through the portal anymore. I want to get back down there. I want to move.”
“Well, we are free now, aren’t we?” Leviathan looked thoughtful. “No more covenants, no more sleeping. No more dickhead emperors crowing about world domination. But who’d pray to us for help?”
Bahamut thought about it. “Fishermen, Levi. These people have been starving for fresh meat and vegetables for almost a decade, no matter what they could grow in Lestallum under their artificial light. Stir up the sea and give them a nice catch.” He smiled. “They’ll be throwing wreaths into the sea within weeks.” Her slitted eyes lit up at the thought, almost sparkling as she smiled at Titan.
“And you? Turn the soil over,” she urged the archaean, excitement painting her voice. Her spined fingers found his arm and shook it. “Give them crops again, and clear the roads blocked by all that imperial stone.” Her reward for that idea was a scarred hand emerging from the silk to tangle sweetly in her hair.
“What about a beach?” he asked, giving her a telling look. “I could make you a place you could lounge on the sand.”
“I’ll need company.” Leviathan didn’t bat an eyelid at Titan’s surprised jerk. “You know, someone to oil my skin so it doesn’t dry out.”
“I could do that.” Their shared smile was secret, warm, and Bahamut felt equally pleased and uncomfortable. He was laying hip to hip with Titan, after all.
“I could water the arid lands Titan can’t enrich,” Ramuh added, completely tone deaf to the mood while he prodded his cold nose. “And clear the skies to let the sun touch new growth.”
“I’m going to hunt Ifrit,” Shiva said simply, “and see to it he doesn’t hurt us again.”
“You’re going to kill him?” Bahamut wasn’t sure he liked that idea after coming so close to a final death, himself. But Shiva was already shaking her head, pulling her knees up to her chest.
“Not unless I must.” She touched her lips in remembrance of something, then realised it was the same hand she’d just had half up Ramuh’s nose. “Ugh.”
They lay in thoughtful repose for a while after that, pausing only to realise they’d left Carbuncle unconscious somewhere. Ramuh went to find him, and the like the ebb of the tide the rest trickled out, leaving Bahamut to his solitude and his thoughts. They weren’t great thoughts, and the bowl seemed cavernously cold and empty despite the silks and torches that burned with warm starlight, now that Bahamut could do things like light them again. As his power returned in gentle rivulets of warmth and radiance, he began to remember the kind of things he used to be able to do for humanity. Back when they’d only wanted him, not needed. Back when he could blaze the stars to brilliance on cloudless nights and bless their gatherings with the streak of showering meteors. When he’d been more than swords and a crystal.
To return to that…
It felt a little empty, but it had been his life once.
It could be again.
The world beyond was more beautiful and perfect than anything Regis could have imagined.
Billions of worlds and dreams for spirits to immerse themselves in, all intermingled to form a perfect oasis for the restful dead. Old friends, new lives; places to reunite and separate and imagine. The entire place seemed like it was filtered through stained glass and sunlight.
For Lunafreya and Noctis, it meant a shared rest after a hard journey. A kingdom at peace once more, dressed in flowers and shining glass spires. A place to dance and laugh and wait for their friends and loved ones to join them.
A place Regis could join with his own dreams of a life beyond the torment and struggle of the life he’d left behind, until the hourglass turned over again and he was delivered into Eos once more, ready to begin again.
After spending so long in the soft light of the astral realm, cradled in the soft blues and purples of the world that had gathered them all so close to watch over the living, the world beyond, this…afterlife, was almost painfully brilliant to witness. To Regis, it was the picture of a kingdom he only remembered from his childhood; a perfect place of safety and light, still unblemished by the burdens of truth and adulthood.
It was home in its familiarity, and a dream in its perfection. A place to wait for his friends and companions. To reminisce a life once lived.
It was his reward, Regis told himself firmly. It was his home. But the pit in his stomach wanted to disagree.
Noctis eventually found him pondering those thoughts; found him standing on the roof of the palace, breathing clean air and watching the unnatural sunset flame red and orange and pink at the edge of the horizon.
“I think this place is supposed to be comforting, or something,” Noctis said as he drew alongside him by the railing, frowning out at the skyline. “But I just feel kinda stupid up here when the real Insomnia is down there, falling to pieces. Kind of…”
“Hollow,” Regis said quietly. “Having had a hand in the fate of the world will do that, I suppose.”
“Yeah.” Beneath the neat fall of soft dark hair, Noctis nodded. “I’d rather take the dirt and the rubble and try to fix it, not sit up here in my ghost palace, waiting for my ghost friends.” He slid Regis a glum look. “Not that it’s not great seeing you again, Dad, but…I think I want to go back.” He tilted his head slightly. “Like Mom did.”
Regis jerked in surprise, casting Noctis a disbelieving look. Quirking an odd smile, Noctis shrugged.
“I was kind of mad at first, like she didn’t want to meet me, or see you again,” he admitted. “But the more I think about it the more I get it.” Reaching out to grip the steel rail, Noctis arched back and looked straight up at the sky. The clear twilight sky, just beginning to glitter with the promise of starlight. “I don’t think me and Luna can sit still after the life we just had. It was too small, Dad. It was short, and it hurt. So I think…after the guys get here, however long that takes, I’m gonna try it all over again.”
It wasn’t a true surprise, really. Noctis had always been ill at ease in the palace, far preferring his friends and his common high school, the open road and his freedom. The sting of what felt a lot like a dismissal was the only argument Regis had. But it was Noctis’ life—afterlife—to live. Besides, it gave him a few ideas of his own.
“You might end up a penniless beggar,” Regis said dryly. “Or a toad squatting on a lily-pad.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Noctis snorted, flashing his father a grin. “And you can’t miss what you don’t remember, right?” Spinning around, he rested his elbows on the railing and pulled in a long, deep breath. “Besides, you’ll be looking out for me. You and Bahamut.” His slanted blue-eyed glance was knowing; his smile close-lipped and secretive.
Regis felt his cheeks heat. “I’m not sure what you’re implying.”
“I was there, Dad. I had to listen to you crapping on about his precious heart.”
Oh, light. “That was to repay him for—”
“I’m happy for you,” Noctis interrupted, grinning wickedly. His expression was utterly at odds with his ceremonial attire. Far too cheeky and pleased with himself, Regis thought with stiff embarrassment. “Really. I mean, a dragon god made of swords. You got game, Dad.”
That little shit.
“Well, he isn’t exactly three crownsguard in a tent,” Regis said with wry humour, watching Noctis flush pink from his neck to his hairline. “But I suppose he’ll do.”
It was enough of a blase line to embarrass Noctis into a spluttering, jittery fit, but for Regis it held more than a little uncertainty. Bahamut may not even want or need him anymore, with his power restored and the line of Lucis of no particular value anymore. Dragon god made of swords, he thought, knowing he was merely a man even if his skin was unlined and his hair was dark, needing no brace or cane to help him on his path. The world beyond had given him a body from his prime, but he held no magic nor particular value to the astrals. Certainly not to Bahamut, beyond that which his own sentimentality had allowed.
Regis had seen with his own eyes how quickly they could move on from loss.
Still, Bahamut had promised him something. Something Regis had no intention of letting go of—not for all the blood rituals and world-ending magic the universe could spit at him. That heart might be back in Bahamut’s mighty chest, but it belonged to him. After all, Regis was at his core an exceedingly selfish man.
As the sun quietly set and the moon rose high like a heaving great pearl in the sky, as they stood in the gathering evening light, Noctis looked at his father askance and seemed to smile.
Bahamut wasn’t certain how long he’d slept. Recovering magical energy was a strange thing: it could take eons or it could take moments, and the worlds could whirl out of sight and come back into view with hardly a change from the viewpoint above. Opening his eyes amid crimson silk, his skin luminescent with a faint soft light, Bahamut reached up and with a single motion he painted the ceiling with the image of a hundred million constellations buried within the hanging cloth. Just an illusion, a window and a small test of his power, but enough to tell his blood and breath that his magic was most definitely returned.
He could step down to Eos like this, he told himself, and wondered why the thought didn’t bring him any particular joy. What kind of miserable bastard had he become? Regis had bled all over him to give the power and his life back and Bahamut was sprawled in his chamber like a dropped pie, moping.
It occurred to Bahamut then that if he wanted to stay the size of a toenail and sleep in the bowl for another thousand years he could do exactly that, and damn being a watchful guardian. The others could do it. He was due for a holiday of some sort.
Regis was probably living his best wishes and dreams in the world beyond.
Rolling over onto his stomach, Bahamut pushed his face into the silk until he couldn’t see anything but blackness. Heroes deserved rest and reward, and Regis deserved everything. Time with his son and his friends passed on, good health and strength—and a peaceful afterlife that wouldn’t put that concerned line between his brows. A life that would bring his laugh lines out, but only when he thought something was really great. The look he’d given Bahamut on the stone portal’s edge, before he’d pushed him into the shining water.
I would stay with you an eternity, if I could.
Gritting his teeth, Bahamut clenched his fists in the silk, feeling it shred beneath his claws.
The prophecy was done. The debt was repaid. The world was saved.
What did one heartsick dragon weigh against all of that?
So he slept again, and dreamed it all away. He burrowed all the way down into the darkness of slumber and twisted himself around memories of searching hands and smiling eyes, of a kiss so desperately hungry it bruised. Bahamut dreamed of his claws dragging through dishevelled dark hair, of Regis’ wide amazement beneath the water when he’d spoken directly into his mind, of cool hands pressing ice against his wounded back.
Regis’ hands, pressing down on his shoulders to gently shake him.
A forehead pressed between the bony black leather of his wings, and the gust of warm breath on his skin.
“—ke up. Baha—”
A single, almost biting kiss on the nape of his neck.
Bahamut’s eyes snapped open.
“Regis,” he whispered, swallowing. “Regis?” Slowly, he tried to push himself up, hardly daring to hope.
Hands like iron grabbed his shoulders and flipped him over, shoving him back down into the nest he’d created for himself. Green eyes were wild as Regis stared down upon him, his gaze roving across every part of Bahamut he could see. The clutching vice of his thighs pinning Bahamut’s was warm, and alive.
“You wouldn’t wake,” Regis said, his voice shaking. Long-fingered hands were mapping trails across Bahamut’s chest, a self-comforting gesture if the empty fear in his eyes was any indication. “I thought—perhaps I hadn’t gotten it right after all.” As Bahamut continued to stare in wide-eyed incredulity, Regis seemed to flinch. “I owe you so much, so many explanations; I deceived you and I kept my knowledge hidden, I—”
“Love you,” Bahamut said hoarsely, and dragged Regis down to meet his mouth in a rain of kisses so harrowing, so desperately needed, he would throw his heart down before Creation a thousand times more if it meant he could just live endlessly in that one perfect moment. Because he had Regis, strong and warm and heavy against him, and the stars were burning above him like a tapestry of light, pure and brilliant at his back.
“I missed you,” Regis said between long, open-mouthed kisses, panting against the greedy pull of Bahamut’s parted lips. “For every second I was gone I learnt a little of how you must have felt, missing your heart for so long.”
“Did you rehearse that?” Bahamut whispered, fingertips moving beneath the looping chains that held Regis’ suit and half-cape together. “You can tell me.”
“No, I—can you please not ruin this with critique?” Hands slid down the muscles of Bahamut’s lower back, then delved beneath the concealing fit of leather hide. His hips twitched upward before he could properly register what he was being goaded into. “Especially when you can put your mouth to far better use.”
Bahamut’s teeth flashed in a smile, and he knew his eyes were gleaming like stars from their reflection in Regis’ gaze. The devilish edge to his human king’s smile faded into a dark kind of wonder, shadowed with need.
“As you command,” Bahamut said as Regis bore down against him, slinging chains and bolts of black cloth everywhere. He earned one single plunging, silencing kiss for that, and then for a long, long while there wasn’t much room for talk at all.
Later, in the tangle of their limbs and breath, half-draped in silk and on the whisper’s edge of sleep, Bahamut brushed his lips against the proud curve of Regis’ cheek and wondered if he could ever stand to be parted from him again.
“You’d give up a divine afterlife for me?” he asked softly, more to himself. “All the rewards of a life spent in service to the gods?”
Regis’ eyelids lifted slowly, revealing a warm and slumberous gaze.
“Somehow,” he murmured, sliding further into the circle of Bahamut’s arms, “I find you’re the only reward I could ever want or need.”
“That’s so sappy,” Bahamut breathed, quietly delighted. “I can’t believe you’re using these lines on me. Have you got any more?”
Regis didn’t baulk that time; rather he exhaled a small laugh. “I’ll trade you. But I warn you, it will have to be good.” Somehow, even half-stuck to him and twined about Bahamut’s limbs he still managed to portray an air of imperious, kingly regard.
Bahamut barely needed to think it over before he opened his mouth.
“A thousand years ago I swore my heart to your bloodline and suffered,” he said, letting the amusement fade from his voice. “And after a thousand years you gave it back. Today, I give it to you again.” He smiled at Regis’ tremulous expression. “Somehow, I don’t think it will hurt this time.”
Swallowing, Regis stared at him for a long, quiet moment. Then he fell back against the silks.
“Damn, that is good.” Beside him, Bahamut leaned down and gave Regis a lingering kiss.
“Look on the bright side,” he said as he pulled away, shaking his wings out. “You’ll have an eternity to think up a better line.”
Regis blinked up at the star-drenched ceiling of their little tissue house, where whirling galaxies flared in shifting colours. Bahamut didn’t have to follow his gaze to know he was searching out Eos, where it glittered in a light-bathed splendour.
Dawn had finally come, and with it was a world of promise—and time.
“Yes,” Regis whispered, a fierce and abiding joy in his voice. “I suppose I will.”