Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum turned sixteen on August 30. He found the celebration excruciating to suffer through. Most people celebrated their sixteenth birthday with a party to acknowledge their coming of age, finally leaving the realm of youth behind and shouldering the mantle of adulthood, a thing both bittersweet and exciting. For Noctis it was something different, something more, because for a Caelum, aging involved something far more magical. A Caelum turned sixteen, and he began the process of fulfilling his family’s covenant with the Crystal that powered and protected all of Lucis.
A Caelum turned sixteen, and he began to die.
It was a process that started with establishing his own magical interdimensional weapons arsenal, but ended with giving up his health and life to sustain the Crystal. A father to his son, and then to his son, and to his son, and to his son.
To celebrate Noctis’s birthday, over a thousand people crowded the Citadel, all of them congratulating him on having made it far enough in life to finally start being useful. Here was the point at which Noctis finally began to earn the life of luxury and privilege he had been born into.
The throne room glittered with lights, thousands of real, burning candles hanging from the ceiling. Crystalline cups and punch bowls were scattered across mahogany tables that had been pulled out of some gods forsaken attic and polished until you could see your face mirrored on them if you so chose. The whole thing was very high-class, suits and elegant cocktail dresses, and basically everything Noctis hated in life. Of course, the extravagant candles and crystalline cups were pointless, as the eerie light of the Crystal hanging behind the throne outshone every other attempt at creating impressive, glittering scenery.
Noctis had parked himself next to one of those glossy tables and proceeded to avoid the gazes of everyone else around him, lest he be pulled into some pained conversation. So far he had been moderately successful. He swirled the ice in his punch and wondered idly how much hanging a thousand useless candles from the twenty-foot high throne room ceiling even cost.
The people milling next to him were discussing Lucis’s recent withdrawal from even more territory, including an important sea port to the south. They had as of yet made no attempt to include him in the conversation, and Noct did his best to support that decision with an air of unapproachability. Noctis’s opinion of the issue was marred by the fact that the strain of keeping the wall against that attack had left his father bed ridden for two weeks. Regis had finally emerged with hair even paler, knuckles swollen and gnarled, and eyes that could not hide the pain he was in.
“Well you’re just a ball of happy sunshine, aren’t you?”
Gladio sidled up to him, all prim and proper in his Crownsguard uniform, his brand new tattoos hidden underneath heavy black sleeves.
“That obvious, huh?” Noctis drawled. If it was obvious to Gladio, then it was probably obvious to others, including his father. He swirled his cup some more, wondering if he could persuade Gladio to slip him some of the good stuff. Probably not.
Gladio, he decided, did not look genuine in the borrowed, formal Crownsguard uniform. The formal uniform was made of stiff leather adorned with far too many ribbons and buttons, impractical for a group of people whose job description involved violence. It was also a size too small, barely stretching out over his bulging biceps.
“The biggest birthday celebration the Citadel’s ever seen, and you’re hiding behind the punch bowl.”
At that, Noctis raised his gaze from his punch and just looked at Gladio, his eyes open and lips a grim line. There were many things that Noctis was not very good at expressing, but he found that both Gladio and Ignis were masterful at reading what his verbal skills tended to leave lacking. Gladio met his gaze searchingly, and then heaved a long suffering sigh with a shake of his head. “Damn hopeless.”
Noctis had no response to that, so eventually he shrugged.
“Would it help,” Gladio asked, “if I snuck you some of the good stuff?”
Noctis blinked suspiciously. “Yes?”
“Yeah, well keep dreaming, princess.” Gladio’s laughter boomed loud and boisterous, and it caused several people to turn their heads with scandalous looks. Meanwhile, Noctis managed to catch his father staring directly at him from the steps of the throne. He deliberately pretended he hadn’t noticed, but then Gladiolus pushed him in the back with curled knuckles, whispering, “Don’t you dare. Go.”
Noctis gave him his most sullen look, pointless because unlike Ignis, Gladio was never the least bit intimidated by his moods. Still, he put his punch glass down and proceeded to make the gallows walk up to the throne steps.
Perhaps he was being overly dramatic, but his father had been increasingly brooding and short-tempered in the weeks leading up to Noctis’s birthday. Whether that was due to the growing dire political situation with Niflheim or the implication of Noct’s birthday itself, he had no idea. But Noctis had recently spent as little time in the presence of his father as possible.
Out of self-preservation, he had surreptitiously watched King Regis closely all evening, and while the King was outwardly his usual stoic and majestic self, Noctis could not help but notice he was on his fourth wine glass.
He came to a rest before his father and bowed with his hand over his heart, though he stopped infinitesimally above where was proper. A small defiance. Noctis could not refuse this sham, drawn-out birthday celebration, no more than he could refuse his duty to the crown. It was without a doubt a very childish action, but Noctis had few avenues of self-expression when it had anything to do with kingly business. He felt his father’s lips curl, but then perhaps the King should have listened to Noctis when he said he didn’t want any of this fanfare for his birthday. Perhaps he should not have pulled away from Noctis these last few weeks, leaving him to sort through his fears and apprehension alone.
Apparently having chosen the high road and ignoring Noct’s rebellion for now, King Regis raised his head, his gaze roving over the crowded throne room. Silence quickly followed, the throng of people as responsive as marionettes.
It was apparently time. They had finally gotten to the meat of the ceremony. Both relief and terror warred within Noctis as his father began an imperious speech, droning on and on about the momentousness of today, how Noctis was finally taking his place. As his father spoke, he struggled to tamp down the ratcheting anxiety, to condense it into tight ball and send it far away where it could not control him. It was one thing to subtly challenge his father through an unimportant protocol and another thing entirely to puke on his shoes.
Noctis closed his eyes, though only for a moment because any longer and he’d have to hear a speech about proper princely decorum from some self-important advisor, but it was long enough. There was a place inside of himself where he had learned to go in situations like these at an early age, a place where he was untouchable, empty of desires and fear and need, and that was the place he now sought and found.
Opening his eyes, he was finally able to allow the surface of his mind to settle into something still and undisturbed, as glassy as a frozen pond. The crowd was endless, their gazes’ infinite, but he floated above it. He felt stripped bare.
His father finally finished speaking, gesturing for Noctis come with him, and he numbly followed up the many steps of the throne, until they were standing just before it. The Crystal pulsed warmly. Noctis could feel it, like an itch under his skin, whispering in the back of his mind.
King Regis reached out and grasped Noctis’s hand, the black ring on his finger gleaming. Its illustriousness was a startling contrast to the King’s own gnarled skin. He spoke quietly, his head bowed toward Noctis. This at least was for them, and not anyone else. “Are you ready, Noct?”
Noctis was not ready. He would never be ready.
The King smiled at that, an empty smile, as though he had heard the true answer underneath Noctis’s affirmation. He turned, and Cor handed him something long and silver. Stepping back, his father held out a gleaming sword to Noctis.
Noctis fought admirably to remain in his disaffected state. But then he allowed himself to truly look at the sword, and he could not help how his breath caught in his throat. It was beautiful. Absolutely exquisite. Thinner and more graceful than the hulking blades that Gladio preferred, yet obviously big enough and sharp enough to do the damage it needed to. There was some kind of mechanism on the hilt, although Noctis could not imagine what it was for. He reached for it almost without thinking, only managing to abort his movement at the last moment.
King Regis smiled indulgently as he laid the sword across Noct’s palm. Noctis coiled his fingers around it, pulling it close. Then a whirl of sparks exploded around the King, and his own sword appeared. He drew his blade above Noctis’s arm, his hands trembling from the strain.
Noctis did not need to be told how this part of the ceremony was supposed to go. He could not truly communicate with the Crystal until he took the Ring of the Lucii. But this ceremony was an introduction of sorts. An Awakening. With a swallow, he turned his free hand over so that it rested before his father, palm up.
Regis moved quickly and efficiently, restrained in an otherwise ostentatious ceremony. The sword slashed across Noctis’s palm. Noctis told himself he would not flinch, and he mostly managed, even though the cut was deeper than he had imagined. As he withdrew his hand from his father, the blood quickly welled up and ran in rivulets down his arm.
The King’s eyes flickered down to the freely flowing blood, dripping from his son’s arm. Noctis’s stomach twisted in on itself as he watched his father’s face carve itself into a terrible mask, his expression savage and pained. Even as he told himself it was baseless, he couldn’t help but fear that maybe his father was worried Noctis would somehow fail this test and doom the kingdom, shaming their family forever. But the King’s voice was steady and formal as he said, “You who carry the blood of the Kings of Lucis. Go forth and make the Covenant with the Crystal.”
With his father’s expression bearing down on him, there was nowhere to hide. His blood was ice in his veins. Noctis held his bleeding hand out, pressing his palm against the Crystal.
Immediately, the muscles in his hand clenched up. For a wild second he felt he would be pulled into the Crystal itself, swallowed and consumed while his father could only watch. He wrenched his hand back, only to find it was practically fused to the gleaming Crystal.
Noct’s heart thudded, and he tried to jerk his head around to implead his father. But the world around him swam and blurred until he was surrounded on all sides by murky smoke and colors, his father and the rest of the observers nowhere to be seen.
Then a figure stood before him, impossibly tall, its face hidden by armor.
“Who are you to call on the Kings of Lucis, protectors of the Crystal of Light?”
Noctis could not breath. Though he did not understand what was happening, there was no turning back now, and the answer to that question at least was easy, unescapable. “It is I, Noctis Lucis Caelum.”
The figure was silent so Noctis continued hesitantly, “I am son of Regis Caelum, son of Augustine Caelum....” Noctis trembled, but he managed to get through all the names of his ancestors, down to the one who had first made the covenant with the Gods. Ignis would be proud. He’d been drilling Noctis on it for three months now.
Though when they had practiced, they had imagined the ceremony to go quite differently. Noct was supposed to hold his hand on the Crystal and recite these lines to his father, not a strange being in a dream world. Was this what lived inside the Crystal? His father had not described anything like this dream world to him, and he didn’t understand why this was happening. Had they done something wrong, or was this supposed to be, and his father just hadn’t bothered to warn him?
He beheld the strange figure as he finished his recitation, taking in the intricate armor, the familiar crest on his breast.
The figure, the King, Noctis finally comprehended, took another long pause. Then he said flatly, “You are unfinished.”
It was the way he said, unfinished. It dripped from his lips so that it sounded more like unworthy. Noctis fought not to shrink into himself.
The figure snorted. “Still, blood calls to blood.” Noctis could not see the ancient King’s eyes, but they bored into him nonetheless. His voice tore into Noctis. “I name thee of the line Lucis Caelum, Protectors of the Crystal. The Chosen King of Kings, I name thee, and Bringer of the Dawn. It is done.”
The pain that followed was incredible. He was being stabbed with a thousand swords, gutted, organs ripped to shreds. His arm, blood still seeping, seized on itself, and every nerve burned white hot, as if hooks were being twisted into every part of him capable of sensation. His mouth was frozen, his scream of agony trapped in his throat.
And then it was done. Noctis blinked, and the throne room came into focus again.
King Regis spoke over the buzzing in Noctis’s ears, “It is done,” his words eerily echoing the ancient Luciian King.
Noctis could not remember most of what happened next. His father grasped his hand painfully tight. A blur of faces. The King spoke again, but Noctis found he could not focus enough to understand it. Another sharp blast of pain.
Every muscle and bone in his body ached. He closed his eyes, and the throbbing of his head seemed almost in time with the pulsing feeling of the Crystal behind him. It wasn’t just the pain either; exhaustion like he had never known pulled at him, sleep calling him demandingly into its warm embrace. He thought he might actually faint right here in next to the King.
But then someone had their arm under his shoulder, and they pulled him insistently. His feet struggled to keep him upright and walking. A familiar scent of leather and sweat wafted over him, and he slurred, “Gladio?” He wasn’t sure if was actually Gladio that answered, but Noctis murmured, his tongue thick and useless, “I’m so tired, Gladio.”
Noctis fell into a deep and dreamless oblivion.
Ignis Scientia found Noctis’s sixteenth birthday party excruciating to live through. In the weeks leading up to it, Noctis had been increasingly moody and sullen, his bad temper only outdone by his father. Needless to say the Citadel was a tense place to be at the moment.
At the party itself, his young charge flatly refused to engage in any useful social behavior, thus leaving Ignis to pick up the slack. He wasn’t resentful per se, but it was certainly frustrating. Noctis seemed to think that because Ignis excelled at cozying up to dignitaries and remembering long lists of names and interests that he must enjoy it. Noctis was wrong in that regard, but there was no point in enlightening him otherwise.
So Ignis talked to a Duscaen Baron about the recent record flooding in that region and its impact on potato crops. He commented on the price of Altissian imports. He spoke to Gralian immigrant about Niflheim’s aggression and reassured him that the King was committed to protecting that border. That was a lie of course. Ignis happened to know that the council was just this morning planning how far inward to pull the border wall. The King had admitted to his closest advisors that at the current rate of bombardment, he would likely die within three years. Absolutely no one had any illusions that Noctis would be ready to hold the wall himself in three years. And so sacrifices had to be somewhere.
He knew that many of the council members despised that Regis had insisted on keeping the traditional age of the Ceremony of Awakening for his son, refusing to even hear of moving it up, of preparing Noctis earlier. Ignis wasn’t sure how he personally felt about it. On one hand, it was selfish to insist Noctis have his childhood while so many suffered. On the other, Regis was the only person in the world who had any idea how royal magic worked. If he said Noctis wasn’t ready until he was at least sixteen, then who were they, mere mortal in this tale of Gods and magic, to say anything to the contrary.
It wasn’t that Ignis ever forgot exactly what Noctis was. But the idea of serving a royal Lucii certainly lost its sparkle when one was in the middle of washing that royal’s underwear. That same person who couldn’t figure out how to fry an egg without melting his pan, would soon be wielding the most potent magic the world knew. No, Ignis had never truly forgotten, but there was something warm in the pit of his stomach, something suspiciously like pride and wonder, as he watched Noctis ascend the throne steps to stand beside the King.
That pit in his stomach tightened into unpleasantness when Noctis purposely fouled the bow to his father, though he doubted very many observers had caught that. Ignis pursed his lips. Noctis had a reputation for arrogance and aloofness, and one could certainly add stubbornness to that list of deficient character traits. Even now, he stood stony faced and blank eyed as his father gave his speech. But Ignis could see the tightness around his eyes, the stiffness in his shoulders, how his breathing was just slightly unsteady.
At some point in his life Noct had learned to use apathy as a defense mechanism against the things in his life he had no control over. That wasn’t the same thing at all as arrogance, even if the distinction was difficult to see sometimes.
His movement surprisingly assured, Noctis held his hand out, and the King slashed his sword across his palm. Every King of Lucis had his own weapon, given to him on the day he was fully bonded to the Crystal, and buried with him the day he died. The one that rested in Noctis’s non bleeding hand had been commissioned by King Regis months before, called the Engine Blade. It was exquisite work. Ignis could see that even from his vantage point at the base of the throne steps.
A hand suddenly grasped Ignis’s shoulder, jerking him back. But it was only Gladiolus, somehow able to approach him entirely silently even though he was the size of truck.
“Little man’s finally growing up,” he said, the gruffness in his voice doing little to disguise the tenderness.
Ignis hummed his assent as he turned back around to watch the ceremony. Noctis was reaching his bleeding hand out to the Crystal. The young advisor couldn’t help the way his breath caught in his throat and the way his heart stuttered as his charge firmly pressed his palm against the Crystal.
Ignis wasn’t sure what he expected to happen. He’d spent an embarrassingly large amount of his time over the last few weeks in the royal library, studying up on the royal magic. The accounts were rather unhelpful. He always found it to be a terrible day when answers could not be found in a book.
What did happen was that there was a flash of light. It sparkled around the prince, swirling around him in faster and faster circles like a whirlwind of rose petals, and it was so very much other that it hurt to think about. The magic churned and churned. Noctis was motionless, and since he was facing the Crystal, Ignis could not see his face. Eventually, the magical energy seemed to reach some kind of apex because it brightened impossibly further, and then it rushed the prince in one swoop. It flew into him, disappearing under his pale skin, leaving him gasping.
Ignis could feel Gladio start and tense next to him. Even though he understood why, he still held out his hand, aborting the Shield’s movement before it had begun. They had both heard in that gasp incredible agony, the kind that was not ignorable to the two men who had devoted their lives to this youth. But it had to be so, because this pain was expected, sought out even. Gladio snarled, though he did not fight Ignis. In this they must be impotent.
The King, his own weapon swirling around himself in tight circles, took the Engine Blade from Noctis’s limp grip and slammed it forcefully into the ground next to his son. He said thunderously, “I name thee of the line Lucis Caelum, Noctis Lucis Caelum, Protector of the Crystal.” As Noctis slowly and shakily withdrew his hand from the Crystal, the King proclaimed, “It is done.”
With that the King’s weapon disappeared in a flurry of glittering magic, and Noctis once again gasped loudly. Father and son both turned to face the crowd, and that seemed to be the signal to start applauding.
It was obvious to Ignis that the prince was barely standing. He once again wished desperately and uselessly that he knew more about how the royal magic worked. Was it truly so taxing, even from the beginning? How did Regis stand it?
He watched as they shuffled the prince, not down the steps, but towards the side entrance by the throne. Turning to Gladio, he asked, “Do you--?” Ignis wasn’t sure what he was asking, but Gladio answered immediately nevertheless.
In unison, they pushed past crowds of people and slipped through a door on the side of the throne room with quiet nods to the Crownsguard standing watch. Another side corridor, and they came up the steps that led to back entrance next to the seat of the throne. There they found the Marshall struggling to keep Noctis upright. The prince’s eyes were half lidded and unfocused, like he was falling asleep standing up. His face was pale even for him, the sweat dried on his neck and forehead giving him a sickly sheen. Gladio immediately leveraged himself under the prince’s other shoulder and proceeded to help Cor half carry, half drag him down the hallway.
Noctis mumbled something that Ignis couldn’t hear, but Gladio grunted in response, and then Noct said slightly louder, voice strained and plaintive, “I’m so tired, Gladio.”
Gladio shifted so that he bore more of Noct’s weight, replying, “I know, kid. I know.” To that Noct didn’t respond at all, but his weight became fully boneless, and it was clear he had passed out. Gladio and Ignis exchanged a look, then they and Cor proceeded to carry the Prince to his quarters.
As they gently laid him on his plush bed, Ignis turned and demanded of Cor, “Should he be this tired? I thought today was just about introducing him to the Crystal, so to speak?”
Cor shrugged, his eyes unreadable, entirely too dismissive for Ignis’s taste, but it was the King’s voice that responded. “It is truly gratifying to see such devotion in my son’s retainers, but you worry needlessly.” The King’s stride was ponderous as he entered the prince’s room, his quivering hand leaning more on his cane than he was willing to in public.
Both Ignis and Gladio shifted immediately with low bows. “Your Majesty.”
The King sat down next to the head of Noctis’s bed in a bony chair that the Marshall had produced from somewhere. Meanwhile, Ignis and Gladio kept themselves at attention, unsure if they were wanted or if they were supposed to leave. It was clear that the King’s attention was entirely on his son.
“The Royal magic is taxing when one is not accustomed to it, and Noct has awakened his quite suddenly. He will recover in due time,” the King said, finally waving a hand at them to relax. He ran his hand over his son’s fringe, smiling sadly as Noctis shivered and twitched restlessly. “When he’s like this, he reminds me so much of his younger self,” he said softly. “He was such a sickly child.”
Ignis murmured, “I remember.”
The King nodded, still watching his son sleep. Noctis had shifted so that he was curled up on his side, hands tucked under his chin. The juxtaposition of the prince as a powerful magical creature and his present youthful vulnerability tore at Ignis as he beheld the scene. Somehow this child was supposed to become as regal and masterful as the man who had sired him.
King Regis’s thoughts must have traveled along a similar path. “I told myself that my burden would not become my son’s. I swore it on all the Gods,” the King said with a bitter laugh. “A father’s folly.”
Ignis swallowed, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Even though he had more interactions with the King than most people in the Citadel, the majority of it involved reports on Noctis. King Regis usually kept his thoughts close to his heart, even among his closest retainers, and that Ignis and Gladio, who belonged so clearly to Noct, were not. Why he was opening up to them now, Ignis had no idea.
“Duty comes for us all eventually, your majesty,” Ignis said quietly. Gladio remained silent behind him.
“For some of us too soon.”
That didn’t seem to require an answer. The King, ignoring them, brought his hand up to support his chin and bowed his head. The room settled into a potent silence again. Ignis’s discomfort grew astronomically as he realized that a fat tear was sliding down the King’s cheek. He looked at Gladio, but the bodyguard might as well have been a statue. No help on that front.
When the King spoke next, his voice had become roughened and thick. “Do you know what they called him?”
Ignis was bewildered. “They, your majesty?”
“Of course,” sighed the King. “That vision is my burden to bear as well, I suppose.”
Ignis felt like a failure, and he had no idea why.
“Bringer of Dawn, the Kings of Old named Noctis. Chosen King of Kings.”
Ignis still had no idea what King Regis was talking about, but he did his best. “Is that not a good thing, your majesty?”
Ignis felt he was not the best person to be having this conversation. His mind was nimble-footed enough, but comforting others wasn’t exactly his strong suit. There were so many layers to this ceremony, Noctis finally taking up the mantle of his family’s magic, the implication of its future drain on his life. But Ignis didn’t think this was what the King was mourning right now. That Noct would eventually bond with the Crystal and take his father’s place had been set in stone from the moment of his conception. Regis had had plenty of time to grow accustomed to that fact of life, as had they all.
The King did not answer. Instead, he turned back to the sleeping Noctis and asked, “Do you love my son, Ignis Scientia?”
Ignis did not need to think that answer through, though he wasn’t sure why the King would ask such a thing. Wasn’t it obvious? Hadn’t the King just commented on it?
“Of course. I’d die for Noctis.”
The King’s tone grew harsher, though his eyes remained on his son, and not on the man he was conversing with, as if he could not bear it. “It is your duty to die for my son if need be. That is not the same as love,” he said fiercely.
“To me it is.” Now when the King turned around, Ignis held his gaze.
This time it was Gladio who answered the unasked question. Ignis had almost forgotten he was still standing behind them. “No one could question your love for Noct, your majesty.” He paused and then added, “Or ours.”
They waited as the King stared unblinkingly at his son. He eventually spoke, all emotion gone from his voice, crisp and perfunctory. “Prince Noctis will be often tired and in pain over the next few weeks, as he grows accustomed to the Crystal’s magic. He will particularly vulnerable during that time. I expect you both to adjust accordingly.”
Both Gladio and Ignis bowed, and said in unison, “Of course, your majesty.”
With that the King left. Neither Gladio nor Ignis really felt like discussing what had just happened, at least not yet. Instead, they both exchanged a silent look and waited for Noct to wake up.