The Dog Days Are Over - SolRegis (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

“See? It’s okay!”

According to Somnus, however, it wasn’t okay. Looking up from where he had crouched before him, Ardyn tilts his head in the slightest. He couldn’t be sure what made him so scared. It was only a little fall that had scraped up Somnus’ knees, and a few of the thornier sticks and vines that had cut both their arms and legs. It really wasn’t that bad. The cuts on his arms and legs from the thorns still stung, but they weren’t anything that wouldn’t be gone in a matter of days. And still Somnus cries, sniffling and wiping at his eyes with the heels of his hands and the backs of his wrists. Ardyn couldn’t understand why Somnus was still crying.

There isn’t much logic a five year old boy can impart upon his four year old little brother, nor is there a way to settle his brother like this when Somnus was so insistent on crying. But why? Ardyn tries to think carefully, crouching in front of the small rock he had helped Somnus sit down on.

They had snuck away from home when their mothers weren’t watching. It wasn’t hard to sneak away, it had simply been an act of excitement, an act of growing up, he thought. When his mommy had turned her back and while his momma was inside cooking, he and Somnus had run off from the yard and ducked into the bushes a little beyond the house. He and Somnus had ran away, farther than either of them had ever been allowed by either of their mothers. Over one of the many hills and following the little valley east, he and Somnus had run to a small copse.

Truthfully, there was nothing special about the copse. It wasn’t so far from their house and their mothers that they wouldn’t be able to find their own way home again. But the thrill Ardyn had felt, the thrill that Ardyn knew Somnus was also feeling, all came from the prospect of exploring without the protective eyes of their mothers. Parents are important, even Ardyn couldn’t deny that. They fed both him and Somnus, kept them healthy and happy and feeling loved. Parents are definitely a good thing to have. But parents are boring . They were never allowed to do anything fun when their mommas were around. “Don’t point at strangers, Ardyn,” this, and “Don’t eat that off the ground, Ardyn,” that. Their mommas wouldn’t let him or Somnus climb the tree in front of the house, and they wouldn’t let them do anything that sounded like a fun way to pass the time. They were supposed to listen to them and do everything they were told to. That included staying close to the house, and always staying in their sight. Ardyn thought it was dumb, and egged on by Somnus’ wide eyes and excitement, he had run to the copse for some real exploration time.

There were no parents in the copse. There was an initial fear. There were no parents to tell them what was safe and what was dangerous. There were no parents to tell them they couldn’t climb the trees. There was no one to tell them they couldn’t roll down the hills and play in the bushes and throw pinecones at each other. There were no rules. The initial fear was swept under the rug very quickly, replaced instead with a fresh wave of excitement and nerves. They could do whatever they wanted. They would do whatever they wanted.

So they did whatever they pleased. Ardyn climbed a tree as high as he could go with Somnus trailing along behind him. Somnus picked every dropped acorn and pinecone and tossed them as hard as he could. Ardyn raced Somnus down a hill, where both tripped and rolled the rest of the way down in a whirl of limbs and laughter. There were plenty of big sticks in the copse to keep any number of kids entertained. All kinds of sticks, from the straightest to the knobbiest were perfect for makeshift play swords and play clubs. Ardyn and Somnus run around the small copse together with their sticks made play swords and clubs, beating up the make believe monsters hiding in the shadows of the bushes and chasing off any tiny bird brave enough to land nearby. It had been great fun until a young daggerquill had burst from a nearby bush. Maybe that was what had scared Somnus?

No, no, Somnus had been brave and had swung his play club at the daggerquill, no matter how much like a squeal his brave little battlecry had sounded. But, much as his momma had warned him before, daggerquills were better left alone. When the daggerquill hadn’t been deterred by Somnus’ swing, Ardyn had run with Somnus again, Somnus’ stick forgotten as they made a mad dash to escape the now angry daggerquill. And Ardyn thought they had done a pretty good job running away. They hadn’t been hit with the scary tail of the bird, and both he and Somnus had made it out in one piece. A snarl of roots had tripped Somnus, sure, and a claw had scratched Ardyn’s arm when he turned to swing his stick at the bird, but other than that they had escaped the copse without injury. And still Somnus cries, knees and hands scraped raw and tears still soaking his pudgy face. Ardyn tries wiping his hands on his shirt and carefully reaches out to brush the dirt and grit away from Somnus’ scrapes.

“It’s okay Sommy! It’s not even bleeding!”

The scrapes were raw and red, but there wasn’t any blood. The scratches on Somnus’ arms and legs had bled, but they hadn’t welled up beyond where the skin was cut. But Somnus still cries, taking a moment to look at him with the reddest and puffiest eyes before sobbing all over again. And Ardyn still doesn’t get it. If he were to think about it closely, Ardyn would say that he got off with the uglier wounds. His own still stung and he could feel his pulse in his arm where the sharp claw of the bird had scratched him. Somnus’ wounds were way nicer than his own, and Ardyn still couldn’t figure out why Somnus was still crying about it.

Trying again, Ardyn wipes at the dirt and grit surrounding the scrapes and cuts, using still so-small thumbs and fingers to scratch lightly at the skin that had been stained with dirt and grass. Somnus yelps when Ardyn’s finger pokes at a still sore scratch, and his crying grew in volume. Ardyn hesitates and looks around, feeling a little bit nervous this time. He was certain that the daggerquill had flown off. He had hit it right in the beak with his stick at the time, he knew he had hit it with the way his stick had snapped in half. That had seemed to be enough to get the bird to go away. Something prickles inside of him, though. Some kind of feeling that told him that the daggerquill hadn’t actually left. When nothing immediately catches his eye, Ardyn turns back to Somnus, watching as his sobs continue at the current level of distress.

“That big bird is gone Sommy! We’re okay!”

And when Somnus didn’t stop crying again, Ardyn is flooded with a very scary feeling. It feels like anger, but it isn’t. It burns red hot in his little body, thrumming through every inch of his body to the rhythm of his beating heart. It stings his chest and clenches it tight, squeezing and squeezing and squeezing him until he feels like he can’t breathe. Looking at Somnus only makes the feeling grow. His head hurts, filling too quickly with a weird, ringing-buzzing kind of sound that is accompanied by the sound of blood rushing through his ears. Staring at Somnus, Ardyn can only see red. And it is terrifying , feeling this nameless emotion. It feels so familiar and so intense, almost like he's felt it before. But just as quickly as it had come, the feeling leaves him.

Ardyn sits confused in front of Somnus for a moment, realizing that the scary feeling had only lasted the blink of an eye. His head no longer hurts, and he feels like he can breathe again, though he did not gasp for breath. He kneels there before Somnus, before the little boulder Somnus sat perched upon, and let the confusion take hold of him. He can’t be sure how long it is or when he had started staring in the first place, but Ardyn was sure time was passing normally again. Somnus hasn’t stopped crying, and still he wipes at his face. Now, however, he is wiping at his nose, the unfortunate drips of snot starting to seep out of his nostrils. Pushing himself to his feet, Ardyn stops and stares at Somnus for a few moments longer. Somnus continues to try and clean himself faster than he was dirtying himself, and he fails miserably at it.

“Hey Sommy!”

His voice is sharper, less patient than he means it to be. He didn’t want to yell at Somnus. Though Ardyn couldn’t understand why, Somnus is clearly upset. No matter how annoying little brothers can be, Ardyn doesn’t like seeing him upset, and likes it even less when Somnus looks at him with hurt and confusion.

Thankfully all Somnus does is flinch and gulp in a few loud breaths. His sobs still dominate his actions, and he keeps wiping at his eyes and nose, but this time something is different. Seemingly putting in a conscious effort this time, Somnus manages to suck in enough calming breaths that his crying dies down a little. Ardyn watches as Somnus lowers one hand as the tears start to slow. He keeps rubbing at his eyes and nose, but now he's a little quieter, a little bit calmer. That makes Ardyn smile, even if it is just a little one. He likes it when Somnus’ crying slows down because of him. It always feels good to be the reason Somnus stops crying.

When he's certain Somnus’ attention is on him, Ardyn thrusts a little hand out to him, flexing his fingers in a rapid motion that couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than grabby hands. Somnus seems confused, and his crying quiets down even more. He hiccups and sniffles, rubbing at his eyes one last time before dropping the other hand to sit clenched in the fabric bunched up above his scraped knees. Dark blue eyes, now surrounded by the redness and puffiness from his tears, glance between Ardyn’s face and his hand. Ardyn could only make the grabby hand gesture again. This time he tilts his head and lets his smile widen a little bit more.

“It’s okay, Sommy. It’s just a scrape.”

Somnus doesn’t seem to think it was okay, though. He shakes his head, the already messy strands of black hair flailing with the overly forceful motion. The tears start up again and one of Somnus’ hands returns to his eyes, wiping again at the tears staining his cheeks. Ardyn isn’t sure what to do now, having tried to calm Somnus down and failing.

“Ma- Ma- mama’s g- g- g- gon’ be m… Mad at me.” Soft sobs and hiccups jar Somnus’ words, forcing them to sound far more watery and scared than Ardyn thought they should be. “M.. Ma- mama’s g- gon’ yell at us, she- she’s gon’ be re- really m… mad at us. Ma- mama’s real sc- scary when- when she’s mad.”

Ardyn feels a pinch in his heart as Somnus starts crying a little bit harder. Okay, that is a little bit more understandable, he thinks. Parents are boring, and parents are really nice, but they can also be really really scary. His mommas had told him once that they only yelled because they were scared something would happen to them, that they did it because they could get just as scared as him and Somnus did. But Ardyn doesn’t believe it. Not because momma and mommy are bad people or lying, but because he’d doesn’t think it was possible. When you’re a grown-up, nothing is supposed to scare you. He’s never seen his parents cry in fear like Somnus is, and he’s never seen them run to each other or to them when they have bad dreams. It was something you were supposed to grow out of, right? Ardyn hasn’t grown out of crying yet, and even less so Somnus. Parents are scary, and they don’t understand. But Ardyn can.

After wiping his hands on the front of his shirt again, Ardyn reaches over to Somnus and rubs at his eyes carefully, pushing little fingers out of the way and doing his best to wipe away the tears Somnus still had the energy to cry. Somnus let his hand drop to join the other yet again, still sniffling and hiccuping and breathing deep, shaky sobs. He felt another pinch in his heart hearing his brother crying, and did his very best to give Somnus the biggest, brightest smile he could manage when he looked up at him.

“It’s okay Sommy. Momma says she’s just worried about us.”

“Buh- buh- but sh- she’s scary. She… she’s g- g- gon’ be ma- mad at me.”

Again, Ardyn’s heart pinches ever so painfully. The hiccups and sniffles were making it harder for Somnus to talk. Somnus had never really been good at communicating, but neither was Ardyn. Somnus is definitely still scared about getting yelled at by their mommas. Ardyn put on his bravest smile.

“She’s gonna be way madder at me.”

That at least seemed to calm Somnus down. Somnus returns a smile, though far smaller and watery in comparison to Ardyn’s own. The pinching in his heart eases just a little bit at the sight, and Ardyn wipes for a final time at Somnus’ tear stricken face. Somnus pushes his face into Ardyn’s hands and rubs his cheek against one of his palms.

“Buh… but you’re g- gon’ get yell- yelled at too...”

There’s a waver in Somnus’ broken and hiccupping voice, one that Ardyn knows by now threatens the return of even more tears. It pinches at his heart again, and Ardyn forces himself to say something, anything to keep the tears from flowing freely once more.

“It’s okay! I’m not scared!”

Immediately Ardyn knows what he has said is a lie. He is scared. Very scared, actually, though perhaps not as scared as Somnus sounds about the idea. Parents were always scary when they were mad and their mothers were no different. There was always something about the way his momma could frown that made Ardyn’s little arm hairs stand on end, and there was something about the way his mommy’s furrowed brows could make Ardyn start to sweat a cold sweat. He is very scared of getting yelled at by their mothers, but he would brave it if it helps Somnus to stop crying. He hates seeing his brother cry more than he hates seeing his parents angry. He would be brave for Somnus.

And being brave seems to pay off almost immediately. The watery smile Somnus wore strengthened, if only just a little bit. Dark blue eyes grow a little bit wider in awe, and once more he raises his little hands up to push at Ardyn’s hands, clearing the way to wipe at his eyes for one last time. Ardyn takes a step back and offers both of his hands to Somnus. After wiping his little hands all down the front of his shirt, Somnus takes them. He helps his little brother down off the boulder and lets go of only one of his hands. The hand he doesn’t let go is the one he gives a gentle squeeze, just like how his mommy squeezes his hand after he runs to her from a nightmare. The action seems to help brighten Somnus’ face.

“You… You’re so b- buh- brave, Ardy… Y- You’re sc- scared a n- n- no- n- nothin’…”

The praise, no matter how weak and watery it is, strokes Ardyn’s small ego. He puffs out his chest, stands a little bit taller. Somnus simply watches him, awe flickering in the depths of his puffy, red ringed eyes. Deep down, Ardyn knows that it’s a lie. He is scared. Very scared. One does not simply look at their mothers in the eyes after breaking a rule that was meant to keep them safe and not feel at least a little bit of fear. But he did fight off that daggerquil without shedding a single tear. He might be afraid of his mommas, but at least he could fight a monster!

“I’mma big brother! I can’t be scared!”

Somnus’ eyes only grow wider, and ever so carefully Ardyn turns and starts walking, giving the gentlest of tugs at Somnus’ hand. For that brief moment between Somnus standing there and beginning to walk after him, Ardyn is hit with the very real feeling of fragility. Somnus is a child, a toddler at best. He’s fragile, very delicate at the tender age of four. Both body and mind cannot handle a great deal of stress and fright. He needs to be careful leading him around, lest he pull too hard and he falls, lest he break like a sculpture made of glass. All children should be treated as if they were glass sculptures. But…

But Ardyn is a child, too, isn’t he? He’s only a year older than Somnus, and still of similar stature and maturity. His body could only handle the same treatment that Somnus could. Why would he think of them as separate, as if he was as old as his mommas and as if Somnus was still four years old?

The bizarre feeling passes the moment Somnus trails after him, still gripping his hand in his slightly smaller one, still sniffling and still hiccupping. Slowly they begin their march up the hill, silent save for the crunch of dried grass underfoot and the sounds of Somnus still fighting with the aftermath of his crying. Ardyn glances around again, still unsure if the daggerquil was really and truly gone now. Though his gut tells him otherwise, Ardyn still sees no sign of the daggerquil, neither on the ground or in the air. And thankfully, every step further away from the copse settled the feelings in his gut just a little bit more. Comfortable silence settles upon both he and Somnus as they continue to trudge until their little house in the distance was in sight. At the top of the hill, Somnus squeezes Ardyn’s hand and gave it a small tug, drawing Ardyn’s eyes from their home back to him.

“Are…. Are you sure you- you’re not scared…?”

With a slight note of pleasure, Ardyn notices that the walk up the hill has helped Somnus calm down some from his fit. Smiling again at Somnus, Ardyn gives him a strong, assured nod.

“I’m not scared of anything so long as you’re my friend, Sommy!”

And that garners a reaction Ardyn covets. Somnus’ face, though still red and splotchy and covered in tear tracks, lights up with a grin and a giggle he can’t stifle is pulled from his little chest. The sight of joy on Somnus’ face again makes his heart swell in just such a way that’s oh so warm and pleasant to the soul, an emotional balm during the steady march towards home and a hearty lecture. It’s a feeling that Ardyn wants more of, a feeling he can admit that he’s greedy for.

“And I’ll never be scared of nothing, ‘cause we’ll be friends forever!”

“Friends forever!”

The laughter from Somnus that had once been a balm to his soul instead sours inside him, turning black and bitter like the coffee his mothers loved so dearly. A sickening feeling wells up in his gut, filling him faster and faster and faster like a water pump overfilling a small cup. Throat tightening shut and a taste of bile filling his mouth spurs him to clench the hand holding a tiny counterpart. The hand is gone before he can crush it in his calloused fist, and the next step he takes lands on nothing. The earth beneath him swallows him up, teeth made of stone biting down on him, puncturing flesh and piercing bones. He does not feel like he’s falling, but knows that he’s falling all the same.

The sensation stops, but it still feels as if the hill’s teeth are digging into his body, hooked in tight and pulling so sharply at bones and muscles that refuse to release him. The ever present ringing buzz is back in his skull, sharp and frustrating and heightening the hate and anger bubbling inside him. He takes a deep breath, and when he exhales, any rest he got in his sleep escapes with his breath. The hate and anger drains out of him with it. It leaves only pain and exhaustion in its wake. He doesn’t need to open his eyes to know where he is, but they slide open anyways, heavy with painful sleep. It’s still cold. It’s still dark. It’s still dry. His skin prickles as his hairs stand on end, and he doesn’t bother raising his head. There’s no light in this cell. It doesn’t bother the plasmodia that fills his veins and sharpens his eyes, but even without light he knows nothing’s changed.

The remnants of his dreams- his memories- tickle at the back of his skull. They leave sour notes and blackened moods in its wake. He remembers faintly his brother, young and innocent and not yet angry, cheering about their everlasting friendship while they made their way home to their mothers. And despite everything it wrest a weak, choking laugh out of his throat. It was hollow and left him feeling empty.

“Friends forever…” he whispers. “How foolish of me…”

Chapter 2

Summary:

Lightning flashes and thunder claps overhead again, but Ardyn isn't concerned by it. Heavy storms usually passed quickly, and surely this one would be no different. He couldn't sleep with the thunder making such a racket but he was sure he could wait out the storm until the lightning and thunder had passed. This night is just like every other night he's slept through.

A sound akin to the shattering of wood and a shower of splinters filled the house.

Notes:

chapter 2 of who knows of ardyn's early past is finished thank the gods.

im actually doin it yo, im actually writing and posting a chapter every day for nano

hell yeah

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It was quiet and warm in their room. The window was drawn mostly shut, kept from swinging open in the warm night’s breeze by a rusting chain connected to the window sill. Crickets sang and owls called outside, creating the soft ambience that brought him to a doze. The threat of rain is on the breeze and thunder rumbles in the distance. In the bed across the room Somnus shifts, the cadence of his breath hitching in the slightest.

Tucked neatly under his own quilt, Ardyn snuggles a little bit deeper into his pillow. He squeezes the almost rubbed-hairless raccoon plush a little bit closer to his chest and sighs softly through his nose. Beyond the door to their room is the telltale whistling of a kettle and the clinking of cups and tea plates. The whistling dies slowly and the sounds of his mothers muffled speech makes its way through the wood. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but it doesn’t matter much to him. He’s too tired to care about grown up talk. Thunder rumbles again, closer this time, and Ardyn loses what little focus on his mums that he’s got. The night is like any other night: quiet, warm, and perfect. It’s the kind of night one looks back on when they’re older and think about when times were far simpler.

For a brief moment the mood strikes Ardyn, and it strikes him as odd. Such a grown up way of thinking, and yet he’s only six. No way he’s already a grown up. ‘Mum’s like a hundred’ he thinks. But the mood and the thoughts soon vanish as thunder rumbles yet again, far closer this time. In the other bed Somnus shifts in his sleep again.

The hooting of the owls outside has quieted some, though the crickets continue to sing. Outside their room he can hear murmuring and shuffling. Ardyn doesn’t pay either much attention, still drifting between sleep and waking. The bedroom door creaks on its hinges and candlelight spills into the room. That draws him further out of his slumber, enough that he lifts his head and blearily blinks his eyes open. Ardyn watches as his momma creeps to the window and carefully shuts it, securing it with the rusting chain. The candlelight makes her black hair seem a little bit less like a void and more like a curtain of shadows when she brushes it back over her shoulders. She picks up the candle from where she placed it on the windowsill and turns back towards the door. She started to move back towards the door, stepping as quietly as creaky floor boards would allow. Ardyn pushes himself up onto his elbows, hand still holding onto one of his plush raccoon’s front legs.

“Momma...?”

His voice is a whisper but it still startled her, blue eyes wide and startled. She placed a hand to her chest and smiles at him, the smile lines on her face catching the low light of the candle.

“Ardyn, honey, you scared me.”

“Sorry momma.”

Her smile softens at his words, and she creeps closer to his bed. He reaches up to rub at the crust in the inside of one eye just as she sets her candle down on the nightstand and takes the edges of his quilt in her hands. Her voice is just as quiet as the night and filled with the kind of love that warms the soul.

“It’s okay, honey. Go back to bed, it’s late.”

He mumbles a soft okay before he settles back down on his bed, snuggling deep into his pillow again. His momma draws his quilt up over his shoulders and tucks him in the way only a mother can. She presses a soft kiss to his cheek before she stands straight to leave.

“Good night, Ardyn.”

“G’night momma.”

He doesn’t watch as she picks up her candle again and slips out of the room, his eyelids heavy and already slipping shut. He nuzzles his plush raccoon, rubbing the tip of his nose against the black balding paw. It smells and feels familiar, smells and feels like safety. The night is quiet and warm again, the song of the crickets outside slowly fading.

Slowly but surely Ardyn grows sleepier and sleepier, finally falling asleep just as rain begins to fall from the sky. He can't be certain how long he sleeps, for it's a deep and dreamless sleep, but he wakes with a start at a scream. Sluggishly pushing himself up onto his elbows, Ardyn blinks his eyes open just in time to catch Somnus scurrying from the room, teddy in hand and door swinging mostly shut behind him. From the window comes a flash of light that illuminates the room for a brief moment. Barely a breath later comes the crash of thunder, and a muffled cry from Somnus in the other room.

A bad dream, probably. The thunder probably didn't help either.

Ardyn is a little more unaffected by the thunder, and with little grace he flops back down into his bed, nuzzling the pillow for a third time that night. In the living room nearby he can hear Somnus crying and the sounds of his mothers doing their best to soothe his fears. Ardyn's not scared of thunder. It just sounds big and scary. The Fulgurian makes all the storms, all the thunder and the lightning. He never uses it to hurt people. He just uses it to scare them.

Unafraid, Ardyn drags the quilt back up around his shoulders and settles in again for the rest of the storm. The crickets outside have stopped singing, and any frogs that normally croak during the storm aren't present. It's strange that he can't hear them on this particular night. They should have been croaking and screeching. All owl calls and various wildlife sounds had silenced too, though Ardyn doesn't remember them stopping. Maybe they stopped when the storm started, or when Ardyn was sleeping? He wasn't sure why they stopped, but he was more confused as to why he would notice such a thing. An odd detail in the hazy background of dozing, but one Ardyn doesn't plan to linger on any longer. Instead he relaxes and listens to the rain pattering on the roof and splashing off of distant trees.

Lightning flashes and thunder claps overhead again, but Ardyn isn't concerned by it. Heavy storms usually passed quickly, and surely this one would be no different. He couldn't sleep with the thunder making such a racket but he was sure he could wait out the storm until the lightning and thunder had passed. This night is just like every other night he's slept through.

A sound akin to the shattering of wood and a shower of splinters filled the house.

If the sound of the front door nearly exploding inwards didn't wake Ardyn, then the horrified shrieks of his mothers and brother certainly did. Words Ardyn had only heard a handful of times come out of his mummy's mouth in his six years of life were shouted loud enough to be heard in his room, loud enough to be heard over Somnus' screaming. Ardyn has no idea what's going on outside of his bedroom, but he certainly doesn't have any interest in finding out.

Like any other terrified six year old, Ardyn hides under the quilt on his bed, his plush raccoon squeezed to his chest and little hands dragging the quilt more snuggly around himself. He can't figure out what's going on outside his room, can't parse what the words his mummy is screaming mean, can't understand what his momma is saying to Somnus. All he knows is that something bad is happening outside his room, and that he's safer hiding underneath his quilt in his room.

A strangled, wet, gargling sound echoed in the brief breaks of Somnus' screams, and its a sound Ardyn has never heard before in his life. It chills him to the bone and makes his soul quiver in fear. There's a scuffle outside his room, the sounds of one of his mothers picking up Somnus and rushing to a corner of the living room, while the other moves a chair harshly. The wet strangled sound turns into something like a snarl, and heavy shuffling steps get faster.

He hears a meaty thwack and the splintering of wood. It's followed by a squelch and a clipped, distorted shriek. For a brief moment there's silence, and then the sound of a body collapsing to the floor. Somnus is still crying, and what sounds to be his momma doing her best still to soothe him. Ardyn simply feels numb with panic. It's hard to breathe, and his body can't stop shaking. He squeezes his plush raccoon to his chest even tighter- Marvel, he recalls- in the desperate hope that it helps him to calm down. It doesn't.

"Ardyn?!"

The voice of his mummy calling his name wouldn't have made his body shake worse, had it not been filled with a kind of fear Ardyn had never heard before in his life.

"Ardyn, sweetheart?! Ardyn, where are you!?"

"Mommy!"

He's not sure how he calls back, not when his throat clenches so tight he can barely breathe. He somehow manages to slip out from underneath his quilt, and he staggers to the door on shaky legs, not once loosening his grip on Marvel.

His mother is there in front of his door just as he pulls it open. There's a kind of blood on her face that he's never seen before, black and thick and shiny even in the dull light of the candles. It makes her honey brown hair look even lighter. She drops to her knees and immediately wraps her arms around his middle, and Ardyn responds by wrapping his arms tight around her neck, Marvel held by the paw in one hand. She rocks slowly, soothingly, in a side to side motion that reminds Ardyn of the waves in the nearby lake. One of her hands is running through his hair, holding his head close, while the other is holding him tight to her chest. He's still shaking like a leaf. He welcomes the protectiveness in her motions.

He can see over her shoulder.

In the center of the living room, is a man. Though, he doesn't look like a man, not anymore. Something thick and sticky like the blood on his mummy's face coats the man in layers as thick as his little fist. A horn protrudes from his scalp, rough and ragged and so very slimy. One arm is too long, coated in the same black substance and tipped with three inch claws. One leg is no better, with the knee joint bent backwards and out of place. Through the center of his chest is the broken leg of the chair, a strange mix of the black blood and human gore covering it. A thick mist rises from the body as it slowly begins to dissolve on the floor.

Strangely, Ardyn is not as terrified of the being as he remembers he should have been.

In the far corner of the room sits his momma, curled so tightly and so protectively around Somnus. His brother is still crying, face so red and wet with tears and snot he's nearly unrecognizable.

He feels nothing for Somnus.

He wishes that Somnus would stop crying about every little thing.

Truthfully, he wishes that Somnus would just shut the f*ck up and grow up already.

Notes:

my head is killing me right now. forgive me if theres a typo or an error in this chapter. and im highkey disappointed that this chapter is only like 2k at most. i usually try for 4-6k per chapter. feels meaty without feeling like a wild commitment. but theres nothing i could do to extend this chapter to that length. besides, this chapter wasnt supposed to be super big anyways. it was just supposed to be like.... the second snippet of like eight before anything real happens in the story. we're doing ALL background right now. but itll get a lot cooler around chapter 8 i promise. chapter 8 is gonna be a BEAST to write.

in case it wasnt super obvious, ardyn and somnus have no dad figures, only two mums. momma izunia and momma caelum. ardyn calls momma izunia mommy/mummy, and he calls momma caelum momma. somnus does the same but vice versa. thinkin ill name em myosoti izunia and paeonia caelum, cause they're gay and they're wonderful and because the devs put no thought into naming literally all the characters so im not gonna put any thought into them either afsgrdhtfjyjthdrgse.

Chapter 3

Summary:

"Are we actually gonna do it?"

Topher shrugs, and Damon whispers "I don't see why not." Markus chimes in.

"Are we just gonna walk at them?"

Ardyn speaks this time.

"We should probably run. I don't think they'll stick around for long if they see us."

Damon nods.

"Run at them as fast as we can and jump on their backs."

"Now?"

There's a bit of fear in Antoni's voice. Ardyn pays it little mind. He's too excited by the thrill of a wild rodeo.

Notes:

this chapter is like, just a tiny bit under 3k and you know what? i accept that. if my average chapter is gonna be 3k i think ill live lmao.

also fun fact. now that ardyns a lil older, hes callin momma izunia mum and momma caelum momma.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

There are twelve of the great beasts mulling about the clearing. Scraggly patches of white fur covers their heads and chests, and more chitinous lavender plates covers them where the fur did not. Bony protrusions litter their ankles and hind legs. A larger bone like protrusion sticks out from the center of the spine- the perfect place to nestle a saddle, according to Antoni. Larger still is the massive horn growing out of their skulls, curving up and back. "A good hook for a neat back-of-the-head scratching." Topher had said. They're not much taller than the average man, but to a group of rowdy fourteen year olds, they're massive.

Hunkered in the bushes with his friends, Ardyn watches as the herd of magnanir graze, massive cloven hooves pawing at the earth and uncovering the tender roots of drying grasses. Thin strips of fur and tail whip at their sides, swatting away bugs hoping to sneak between the plates and fur for a snack. None of the magnanir have noticed them in the bushes, not a single milky white eye or short snubbed ear turned their way. Markus had told them that magnanir and their sister species were nervous of humans, and flee when humans get too close. It's a good sign, Ardyn thinks, that these magnanir haven't heard or seen them. It's normally hard to miss a cluster of young teenagers, no matter where they are.

Despite the timid nature of the beasts, adrenaline pumps through Ardyn's veins at the sight of them. He's never been so close to a monster before- at least not a monster that didn't fly; the daggerquil he had fought off years before didn't count. Restless energy builds inside him, making his heart beat faster and sharpening his sight. It had been Damon's idea to venture out into the nearby woods. As the son of the village's hunter, Damon had been itching to deal with a real monster on his own, though a group made of his four friends seemed to be enough company for him. Markus had been the first to jump at the thought of tracking down some monsters, eager as the rest of them to see one up close and personal. Antoni was harder to convince, and Topher even more so, but just like Ardyn, both had succumb to the excitement of doing something big, of doing something reckless and brave. It was how they wound up crouching in the bushes, five pairs of curious and awed eyes watching magnanir shuffle about and graze as if there was nothing in the world to bother them.

The quiet and calm of monster watching was never meant to last, not with five fourteen year old trouble makers in the area.

Topher jabs at Markus' side with his elbow, jostling the bulkier boy a little. His voice is little more than a whisper.

"You should chase them around a bit."

"Why me?" Markus, who matched Topher's volume remarkably well, still spoke with a startled squeak in his voice. "Why do I have to chase them?" Ardyn looks towards them as Topher whispers again.

"Aren't you kinda bored?"

"No way," Markus hisses, shaking his head in slight little jerks. The motion messes up his carefully brushed back black hair. "I'm not messing with those. They're way bigger than me."

"Only by a few pounds, yeah." Antoni chimes in, just as quiet as the other two. That draws a soft round of snickers out of them, Ardyn included. Damon, who was still watching the magnanir, turns and shushes them, a slight downward quirk to his mouth.

"You're being too loud."

Ardyn peeks out at them again, and watches as a few members of the herd lift their heads and look around. Antoni, Markus, and Topher settle, and after unsuspecting white eyes drag passed their hiding spot a few times, the magnanir return to their grazing. They follow suit, settling into quiet once more and watching as the four legged beasts mull about, tearing up grass roots and munching away quietly on long stalks. Ardyn admits to himself that it does get boring rather quickly.

He can hear the restlessness in the other boys as well. They start to shift, trying to get more comfortable as they each watch the herd. Ardyn glances at his friends from time to time, watching Topher comb back his shaggy head of brown hair with his finger, or Markus tugging at his tunic, trying to get it to sit more comfortably on his broad shoulders. The magnanir are still blissfully unaware of them as Antoni sniffed and swipes the back of his wrist at his nose. Only Damon sits perfectly still, quiet and calm and watching with eyes like platters as the magnanir move about the trees in peace.

Ardyn does his best to copy Damon, remaining perfectly still and watching the magnanir. Hooves hit the ground with soft thumps, sometimes stones grind together as they paw and dig. Horns clack together when a herd member turns too fast, and the magnanir snort when the blades of grass tickles at their nostrils. There's a beauty in this kind of nature. There's a beauty in simply observing as life continues in normalcy, in routine. Ardyn's not sure if he can really see the beauty in sitting in a bush watching monsters, much less appreciate it.

Thankfully, Damon seems to grow bored with it too. There's only so much a monster can do idly before the impatience of fourteen year old boys wins out. Damon starts to shift, moving from his knees to a crouch, tugging at his leggings under his shirt so that they sit more naturally on his hips. Ardyn spares Damon a few glances, and he catches from the corner of his eye that the others are doing it too. Damon- the short little devil he is- is the ringleader of their obnoxious troupe. Whatever he says, goes, and Ardyn knows that the others are waiting for whatever Damon comes up with next. Glancing at Damon again, Ardyn catches the sparkle of an idea in his eyes. A good sign.

"We should try and tame them."

A near silent chorus of sound comes from each of them, Ardyn whispering a confused huh, Antoni and Markus breathing a what, and Topher huffing a why. Damon shifts again, bunching his legs up underneath himself as if he were preparing to give chase.

"We should, like, jump on their backs and tame them or something?"

"Why?" whispers Antoni. Damon whispers back "Why not? Wouldn't it be cool to ride one?"

That seems to do it for the rest of the boys, and Ardyn knows that does it for him. The rush of adrenaline from before, from seeing the magnanir close up, comes flooding back to him. It would be very cool to ride one. For a brief second Ardyn imagines what it would be like to ride one. Bareback it'd probably hurt. The bony protrusion sticking up and back from the spine would probably bump against his tailbone. But it would be really cool to ride back into town on one like it was a chocobo. They probably could get a special saddle made for magnanirs, and same with the bridle. No one had ridden a magnanir before. It would be cool to be the first. Ardyn relays that last thought to the others in a breathless whisper, and he can see that the same excitement that pumps through his veins pumps through theirs as well.

For a few moments there's a breathless shuffle between the five of them, each of them glancing at one another and back towards the magnanir. The monsters were still unaware. Antoni is the first to break the silence.

"Are we actually gonna do it?"

Topher shrugs, and Damon whispers "I don't see why not." Markus chimes in.

"Are we just gonna walk at them?"

Ardyn speaks this time.

"We should probably run. I don't think they'll stick around for long if they see us."

Damon nods.

"Run at them as fast as we can and jump on their backs."

"Now?"

There's a bit of fear in Antoni's voice. Ardyn pays it little mind. He's too excited by the thrill of a wild rodeo.

"On the count of three." Damon says. His words send electricity sparking through Ardyn's spine, and Ardyn turns back to look at the magnanir, a new energy spilling into him.

"Three."

Ardyn shuffles so that his feet are directly underneath him, legs bunched up and ready to spring.

"Two."

He moves his hands, one resting on the ground for leverage and the other gripping the thick branch of the bush, ready to push it out of the way.

"One."

Ardyn raises his rump just a touch, shifting into the perfect form for a sudden take off.

"Now."

The word is barely a whisper, but it sends Ardyn into a frenzy. He takes off, shoving the branches out of the way and sprinting full speed at the nearest magnanir with the others. The herd balks, startled by the sudden noise and the unexpected movement. It gives Ardyn a chance to draw in closer to them. The blood rushes in his ears, sounding every bit like a waterfall. He pays little attention to where Damon, Antoni, Markus, and Topher are. His eyes are fixed upon the magnanir before him.

The herd starts to move, horns clacking together and shrill cries of fear filling the space between the trees. They turn towards the opposite direction, the farthest magnanir already starting to gallop away into the trees. The one closest to himself turns just slow enough, its rear spinning towards him. Ardyn reaches his hands out, focused entirely on the monster's back. For all he knows, it's just him and this one beast. He touches it.

The chitinous shell is a strange temperature, not hot like human skin, but not cold like stone. Its smooth in places and rough in others, and has small, blunt points on the tops of the plates. Ardyn barely feels them as he jumps and pushes down on the magnanir's rear.

He's not sure how he does it, not sure how he manages to make it up past not only the rump of the beast but over the point of the spine spike as well. But he lands heavily on the back of the magnanir- right where Antoni said was a perfect seat for a saddle- and immediately wraps his arms around its neck and clamps his legs tight on the sides of its barrel chest.

The beast begins to buck, sharp shrieking cries piercing the trees as it wheeled around and around. The motions of the beast had Ardyn slamming forwards against its thick neck- there’s smaller, slightly sharper spines on the chitin plates there, he realizes- and flopping backwards against the bone spike piercing out of its spine. Ardyn quickly comes to terms that not only was this potentially a bad idea but that he’d be bruised to hell and back after this encounter ended. Who knows when this would end.

Slipping around on the monster’s spine, Ardyn shut his eyes tight and clung for dear life. He couldn’t focus anywhere else, couldn’t bring himself to try and pinpoint what happened to the others. If he stopped focusing on clinging for dear life to look for them he fears he’ll fall straight from its back and directly beneath trampling hooves.

Truthfully, Ardyn isn't interested in dying today, not until he's old and grey and has done everything he's ever desired. He clings even tighter to the magnanir, gripping around its neck and squeezing his thighs until it ached. It's all he can do to cling to the frightened monster until something different happens. He prays to any and all gods that the 'something different' does not land him flattened like a squirrel beneath a chocobo's carriage tracks.

Ardyn can't be sure how long he spends in the saddle of a kicking, rearing monster, but eventually something different happens. His grips loosens but loses no firmness. His legs still cling, but he presses in more around the than just the thighs. As the magnanir bucks about, Ardyn starts to shift, anticipating when its hooves hit the ground and when it moves to wheel around. And suddenly, in the briefest second, everything seems so doable. He's riding a magnanir. No one has ever ridden a magnanir before, not even the best of the chocobo handlers. And here he is, some fourteen year old whip of a kid, riding on the back of a furious, bucking magnanir.

"Hey Ardyn!"

His eyes blink open, and the world around him is a whirlwind. They only solid thing in sight is the neck of the monster. Everything else is lost in a sea of swirling greens and browns. From the back of the magnanir, Ardyn catches glimpses of blond and red, brown and black. Hair. The heads of his friends. Damon is standing, he thinks, with Antoni beside him. Topher is on the ground, and near him kneels Markus. He couldn't make out what was happening, hearing vaguely the whoops and shouts of the others nearby.

His focus is broken.

The magnanir suddenly pitches forwards, head bowed low and back legs risen in a frantic kick. Its head is too low, legs too high. The loss of focus had loosened his grip, and the sudden buck from the beast has Ardyn practically flying from its spine, over is shoulder and under the horn. He hits the ground hard, he knows he does from the way the wind is knocked clean out of him. He can hear his friends gasp and suck through their teeth. For a brief moment, when the world isn't spinning around him, he sees the magnanir he'd been thrown from. Its still pitching forwards, horn too heavy for how low it had brought its neck. Its hind legs scrabble at the air and at the dirt somewhere beneath it. It's charging right at him, whether it wants to or not. The world seems to loose focus, colour drains from everything except the magnanir. It's all Ardyn can do to curl up as fast as he can, arms shielding his head and neck.

A sickening crack and crunch. Three of them, actually. Maybe four. Pain blasts through him, rippling up through his ankle all the way to his hips. Everything goes black, swallowed by the void.

Right away the void seems to smear. Ardyn blinks, and then again. The blackness behind his eyes is watery now that he's got them open, and the smears of black he can still see is from his eyelashes. It's too much. He feels so sick. He hurts so bad. Everything is way too hot and way too cold.

He's in his room, that much he can figure out through the haze. Painkillers, something buzzes in the back of his skull. He doesn't know what tells him that it's painkillers, only that he's certain he's under the influence of painkillers. The room he shares with Somnus swims before him, a hazy mess of evening colours. His mothers are nearby. Someone else, too. A doctor, he recognizes.

"-suffered four impacts on his left leg."

Mr. Curis Salutem. Ardyn remembers him. A tall, thin, and aging man, with a tuft of grey sitting atop his head. A kind old man. Through the haze, he looks nothing more than stick of white tipped with cotton and soot. His mothers,- one draped in black with shadowy hair, the other wrapped in gold with a swath of honey brown hair,- are crying. Mum is crying harder than momma, he realizes, but he can't do much with the information. His hearing is tinny, and just as reliable as his sight. Salutem continues.

"I've done all I can for your boy. A miracle he still breathes. His leg still moves, even with a reduced range of motion, and nothing was destroyed beyond use. Nothing needs to be amputated."

Good news? Why are his mothers crying?

"There's nothing more we can do, however, for the infection in his bones. We can treat his pain and fever, and we can bolster his immune system, but it is up to the strength of your son to fight it off."

Oh. That was the bad news.

Still sounding so far away, Ardyn watches as his mum descends further into sorrow. Even through his haze he knows he's never seen her weep so openly before. It's weird. It's not something his body lets him focus on.

He tries to shift in his bed, tucked carefully under his quilt as he was. Pain lances through his leg so fierce that he can't breathe, wide and glassy eyed as it rocks up his spine and through his skull before rushing back down through his leg to his toes. Something soft and warm grips his hand. He turns his head, trembling and trying to suck in a breath. Black hair, blue tunic. Eyes dark and blue as the sea watch him, sympathy and concern and fear making them wetter by the second.

Somnus.

For once he doesn't feel animosity towards him. He isn't sure why he would ever hate his brother so much, and the thought gives him much to ponder. His body doesn't let him, his leg throbbing in painful protest. Instead he stares at Somnus who searches his face for something Ardyn can't identify.

When Somnus gives him a sad, watery smile, Ardyn does his best to return the gesture, no matter how thin-lipped and weak it might be.

He'd be okay. He knows he'll be okay. He just has to be. For Somnus' sake.

Notes:

ive sprinkled some npcs in for the flavour. but dont worry. they wont ever appear in fic again. probably. curis salutem will appear again, but not the boys. they're literally just there to act as a catalyst for ardyns limp and leg issues. and before you look at me like im pushing some agenda, there is in fact a very thorough article/essay discussing that yes, ardyn does in fact have a disability and is probably a flaming hom*osexual. its really interesting actually.

next chapter we start chugging along with older and older ardyn. the good stuff. getting closer to more canon episode ardyn stuff. i promise. chapter five'll be the beginning of episode ardyn, and chapter six is.... going to be a MONSTER of a chapter. i dont look forwards to writing that chapter at all lmaoooooo.

also another fun fact, if squeenix isnt gonna try that hard to name these characters then neither am i. curis apparently means "healthcare" in latin and salutem apparently means "health" in latin. the doc is named Doctor Healthcare Health. a righteous rival to mr king king and night light sky tbh.

actually they all have stupid names
night light sky
quick silver
flower friend
fire knowledge

lmao anyways hope you enjoyed

Chapter 4

Summary:

Before Somnus can tease him, a gentle voice greets them, softer than any down and any silk in their little village.

"Hello Somnus, Ardyn."

Aera.

Ardyn looks over. Aera is drawing closer, walking along one of the paths leading passed the tree. She's so pretty in her white dress, the way the Tenebraean purple accents on hems and sleeves and sash makes her eyes look so much bluer, makes her hair so much golder, makes her so much prettier. For a moment his brain misfires, and in his desperate boyish scramble to return the greeting, he swallows the whole chunk of apple.

He chokes.

Notes:

i was gonna write this all yesterday but woof was i ever f*ckin busy. sorry about the wait. ill hopefully be able to power through another chapter and get it posted tonight.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The sun is harsh and bright in Cavaugh during the summer, more so during the middle of the day and the following hours that drag towards twilight. The excessive sun colours trees and grasses from spring's rich greens to a drier, more muter version of the colours, browns ringing leaves and crinkling the edges of each blade of grass. The heat, while nowhere near as brutal as the days in the neighbouring Leide's summers, was hot enough to turn any rain into a thick, humid haze. Clouds normally didn't pass through Cavaugh's skies in the summer, meaning precious little shade could only be man made or found under trees.

Thankfully the shade beneath their specific tree was cool on this particular afternoon.

"Your cane is jabbing at me again."

"Well it's not my fault that you've sat on the heel."

"The what?"

"The heel," Ardyn snarks as he pulls the end of his cane out from underneath Somnus' thigh. "Surely you should have learned this as well while Doctor Salutem was explaining it to us two years ago."

Somnus pauses his shifting and a sheepish look sweeps over his face. Ardyn narrows his eyes and raises an eyebrow, leaning closer to Somnus. His brother shies away from him, and he gives a slightly apologetic smile.

"You weren't paying attention to him, were you?"

"I'm sorry?" Somnus offers, and Ardyn shifts his cane to his other hand and punches Somnus in the arm with his free hand.

"Ow! Hey!"

Despite the yelp in his tone, Somnus is laughing.

"It's not my fault Doctor Salutem is so boring. I swear, he could lull a Behemoth to sleep with his chatter."

Ardyn, despite the schooled glare he was giving Somnus, couldn't help but crack up at the thought.

"Perhaps you're right. He does have a rather monotonous voice."

"And he uses big words, too."

Somnus gives him a big grin, eyes crinkling in some kind of amusem*nt that Ardyn places immediately as a jest at his use of the word monotonous. Ardyn grins back and uses his free hand to ruffle Somnus' hair, earning him another 'ow!', this time as a whine.

"It shows that he is an experienced and astute man."

"And that he's rubbing off on you."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

Somnus, in the middle of rearranging his hair back into its usual chaos, looked up and grinned again at him, once more with a teasing tilt to it.

"Astute? Why can't you say intelligent?"

"Because it confuses little miscreants like you."

The grin Somnus was wearing wilted into a playful frown, rife with mock hurt.

"I don't even know what a miscreant is."

Now it was Ardyn's turn to give his smile a teasing tilt.

"A miscreant; adjective: unbelieving or heretical, depraved or villainous. Noun; an infidel, a heretic, or one who behaves criminally or viciously."

"Hey now," Somnus began, planting his fists against his hips and huffing. "I'm no infidel or heretic. I can't even be a criminal if I'm to be a general in Lucis' army."

"Oh no no, no of course not," Ardyn returns his eyes to his cane that rests in his lap, running his hands over the Leiden Blackwood shaft. He makes sure his tone is as light and teasing as he can possibly make it. "And it's certainly unlike generals to be soft of heart with the will of a tender babe in battle. Surely you are in no need of viciousness."

Ardyn looks at Somnus from the corner of his eyes, and steels himself just in time for the playful punch Somnus slugs him with in the arm.

"That doesn't count! Generals have to be vicious! To... You know, win wars and things."

"So very eloquent, my dear brother. You will surely guide the next generation into the new Astral Era."

With a sulking sort of pout to his face, Somnus straightens his blue tunic once more and crosses his arms across his chest.

"Since when did you start speaking like an old man?"

"Since Doctor Salutem took me under his wing as his apprentice."

Somnus shakes his head and finally places the basket hanging off his arm between them. He pulls back the gold and black cloth protecting the fruits inside and Ardyn's hands immediately seek out a plum. Somnus pulls out a peach of his own and bites down on it, skin and all. His next words are spoken around his mouthful of peach.

"I think the last thing you need, brother, is to be more of an old man."

"And what does that mean?" Ardyn shoots back, biting into his plum directly after. Somnus gestures at Ardyn's cane with the hand that holds his plum. Ardyn raises an eyebrow at him in a stern manner, and Somnus is effectively cowed. Ardyn doesn't bring up how the joke of his cane making him an old man stings. He decides that its not worth chasing that argument when the day is still so nice. Nice at least for sunny Cavaugh.

For some minutes, silence sat heavy between them as they ate their respective fruits. The warmth of the day and the pleasant relief of the shade soothed any ruffled feathers Ardyn had, and a brief glance to Somnus told him that he was relaxing more now too. Mentally, Ardyn began a countdown, watching Somnus eat from the corner of his eye.

Somnus couldn't stay silent for long, he knew. While Ardyn was content to let the silence be, he knew Somnus always found it to be awkward on some basic level, and Somnus always did his best to clear it. It was simply a matter of what topic Somnus would choose for discussion. As much as he could tease Somnus for lack of knowledge when it came to big words, his brother was sharp and quick witted.

The telling sparkle in Somnus' eyes struck just as Ardyn's mental clock ticked to zero, and not even a moment later Somnus spoke up.

"The crystal has been acting up recently."

"Is that so?"

Somnus nods, not looking to Ardyn and instead keeping his gaze on the paths nearby. Ardyn turns to follow his gaze, watching members of their village flit about and carry out their daily tasks. Across the path is sunny old Ms. Pomum, hawking to passerby the very same fruit Ardyn and Somnus had purchased on their way to sit under the tree. Artifex, a scruffy, middle aged man, wanders about with his team, each carrying a cloth bag of their lunches and their toolboxes, no doubt towards their current carpentry task. Cinaede runs through Artifex's group, tailed by her friends, each of them wearing flower crowns woven by clumsy, pudgy fingers. Their village is small, but the people are busy, and it makes for decent entertainment.

"Father Summus claims that the crystal is glowing again, brighter than it was before. I haven't been in yet to see for myself, but it would explain a few things happening in the village as of late."

Ardyn idly nods and takes another bite of his plum. Somnus does the same with his peach, and continues to speak around his mouthful. A bad habit he'd picked up from all of the other boys in the army, no doubt. Their mothers had been clear that it was rude to talk to someone with your mouth full.

"Have you noticed that farming has been more plentiful these past few months? That the crops are bearing more fruits and vegetables?"

Again Ardyn nods, swallowing his bite of plum.

"Doctor Salutem says that it's been a wonderful season for harvesting. Says that there has been a surprising lull in illness that needs to be treated as well."

Somnus hums a cheerful note in agreement as he bites again into his peach. This time he has the decency to finish chewing and swallowing before he speaks again, wiping at his mouth with his fingers.

"All of our crops have been healthy, as is our livestock. Healthy piglets and foals and chicks this spring, and more yet are still being born."

"I'm assuming Father Summus is saying that the god in the crystal is blessing us this year?"

"Sounds a lot like it, but other things aren't adding up either."

Ardyn's interest in the conversation spikes exponentially. He's always been fond of a good mystery. He leans back against the trunk of the tree as he finishes off his plum and turns now to look at Somnus. He doesn't need to prompt Somnus to continue, though Somnus does it through another mouthful of fruit.

"Mrs. Venefici says that she can no longer cast elemental spells."

Ardyn's eyebrows kiss his hairline.

"What, just like that?"

And Somnus nods, a solemn, worried gesture. It doesn't sit well with Ardyn.

"She says that, three months ago, when spring was just returning, that her proficiency in spellcasting was at an all time high. But two weeks ago she was claiming she couldn't even coax a spark to life."

"What does this have to do with the crystal?"

Somnus shakes his head, and Ardyn eyebrows sink into a furrow.

"I don't know. I do know, however, that Father Summus was saying the crystal had become more active three weeks ago."

"By chance do you believe that the magic in us is being affected by the magic of the crystal?"

Somnus shakes his head again, this time in uncertainty.

"I can't be sure. I was never that good at magic to begin with, and Mrs. Venefici is the best with spellcasting in the village. We would have to send letters to Leide and Duscae and Cleinge to see if their spellcasters have had similar disruptions in ability."

"That's not very reassuring at all."

"Not at all." Somnus mumbles, again through a mouthful of peach. Ardyn pulls an apple this time from the basket, the pit of his plum discarded near the roots of the tree they sat beneath. Somnus is finally finishing off his peach, his own pit being tossed somewhere to hide in the grass nearby.

"It just doesn't make sense, is all. The magic around us suddenly seems to up and disappear, but livestock are thriving and bearing healthy offspring. Fruits and vegetables are bigger and more plentiful. It seems like a strange, backhanded blessing for our magic to disappear because of the crystal, even if winter is becoming less of a threat to us with the surplus of crops-"

Somnus sputters as Ardyn bites into his apple, cut off by the noise of the crunching fruit. He hadn't meant to cut Somnus off like that, hadn't meant to interrupt him. It was nice to see his brother so engaged in something that didn't include the art of warfare, to see him enraptured by a mystery that had even Ardyn sitting at the edge of his seat in curiosity. The apology on the tip of his tongue turns to ash the moment the teasing glint is back in Somnus' eyes.

A look of fake offence settles on Somnus' contrasting features, and Ardyn can't help the grin that finds its way to his face.

"Really, brother, how rude of you."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Ardyn makes it perfectly clear he knows exactly what Somnus is talking about when he bites down into his apple again, this time slower, and purposefully louder, cutting Somnus off before he can start to talk again. Ardyn gives him a sh*t eating grin and smacks his lips as he chews, purposely being annoying. Somnus gives his shoulder a light shove, and Ardyn laughs around his mouthful of apple.

"You know, I might just have to retract my earlier statement."

Ardyn hums a soft sound akin to an "oh?" and Somnus' grin turns wicked.

"With the way you're eating, I don't think we'll be any more prepared for winter than we usually are."

Ardyn takes the jest in stride. He puffs out his chest and takes another obnoxious bite of his apple, this time taking as big a bite as possible. Somnus snorts a small laugh.

"I simply cannot help myself. If there is a fresh piece of fruit offered to me, I cannot say no. It would be rude not to eat such a delicious treat."

Somnus give a good natured scoff to that.

"And yet, despite the obvious pounds upon pounds of fruit you eat, you are no more than a twig of a man."

"What can I say?" Ardyn starts. He raises a hand to his long hair and flicks it dramatically over his shoulder. "The gods have blessed me with the perfect form~!"

Somnus isn't impressed with his slight theatrics. He's never been impressed with them, but he still takes it all in stride, amused at the very least by it.

"Whatever you say, branch boy." he says and plucks an orange from the basket. Ardyn grins and bites again into his apple while Somnus begins the task of peeling his orange. There's a brief silence again while they eat their respective fruits, Ardyn crunching away and Somnus popping slivers of orange into his mouth. It's a good silence, a companionable silence. And Ardyn knows it won't last long. Somnus predictably clears his throat and starts to talk again.

"Has Doctor Salutem taught you anything fun yet?"

Ardyn nods, and swallows his food before he starts to talk.

"Everything he's taught me has been fun."

Somnus looks at him and gives him a playful pout.

"Studying which plants and what bark makes a man keep from sh*tting in his underclothes doesn't count as fun, Ardyn."

"On the contrary, it is incredibly fascinating to learn what plants and what barks makes a man uncontrollably sh*t his underclothes."

That seems to spark all of Somnus' interest all at once, and there's a dangerous gleam in his eyes, one Ardyn can clearly name as the Prankster's Excitement.

"What plants and bark do that?"

Ardyn gives a hearty laugh, and shakes his head.

"Oh no you don't. I will not be giving you trade secrets just so you can add laxatives to all of the other army men's dinners."

"Aww, come on Ardyn~!" Somnus whines, in a very genuine whine that Ardyn has not heard since he was a child. "It would be so funny! Come on, imagine it! The general of the army is stuck in the outhouse all day!"

Ardyn laughs a little harder and shakes his head.

"And you claim you're not a miscreant."

"I'm not. I just know how to have fun."

"And I don't?"

"No way. You think studying is fun."

"Then perhaps you should keep very careful watch over your dinner tonight, brother," he says, a very knowing flintiness accompanying the mirth in his voice. "Who knows how long your outhouse trip tonight will be."

Somnus' voice sounds more like a squeak.

"You wouldn't dare."

"Are you certain?"

Somnus squeaks again, with less dignity this time, if such a thing is possible, and again Ardyn laughs.

Somnus is quick to try and change the subject, verbally sounding as if he's clutching at straws.

"Has the good doctor shown you how to cut people open yet?"

Ardyn scoffs.

"Cutting people open is an action reserved for thugs and murderers, not doctors who perform life saving surgeries."

"But has he taught you how to?"

"No, Doctor Salutem has not taught me how to cut people open yet."

Somnus starts to laugh, and Ardyn can't help but join in too. It was nice to enjoy a warm day with his brother, no matter how annoying or frustrating Somnus could be at times. These days won't last long, he's sure, not with Somnus training in the army and his own studies growing ever more intensive. He'll treasure this, Ardyn thinks, until he's old and grey.

Slowly, as they calm down from their laughter, Ardyn muses quietly to himself and takes a final bite from his apple core. He truly is sounding more and more like an old man, thinking about how he should revel in the good days while he's still got them. He isn't sure why he thinks he needs to, as the good days are sure to be plentiful in the next few years, but he feels the need to revel all the same.

A flash of white and gold distracts him, and Ardyn turns his attention away from his thoughts towards the new passerby.

Aera.

Hair brighter than the gold of the sun, skin softer than a new blossom's petals, eyes that shine brighter than any lake in dawn's first light, a laugh that's prettier than the song of any bird. Ardyn would never admit aloud that he has such an intense puppy crush on her.

She stands over by the fruit stall Ms. Pomum mans, looking over the grand selection from the recent harvest, a finger resting thoughtfully on her bottom lip and her eyes scrunching up as she thinks about such an inconsequential decision. Ms. Pomum speaks to her, no doubt offering the ripe pomegranates on the stand, and Aera says something back, looking up at Ms. Pomum in a way the Ardyn wishes she would look at him.

From the few successful times he's spoken to her, Ardyn knows surprisingly little about her. She had come from the other side of the world three years ago, from a place she called Tenebrae. His head had struggled to keep up, ever so taken by her then as he is now. She had said Lucis was far different from Tenebrae, how there were more plains than mountains, fewer trees and forests more scattered. Ardyn couldn't recall much else from the conversation, he was certain he had short circuited before he could commit the rest of it to memory. She was an only child, he knew, and her father had passed not even a year before she had moved to Lucis. He knew she was popular amongst everyone in their village, and how far out of his reach she was. It made him treasure every passing hello she gave him.

"Hey? Eos to Ardyn? Are you all right, bark-for-brains?"

Ardyn snaps out of his trance. He had forgotten he was with Somnus. He had forgotten that he still had an unchewed bite of apple in his mouth. Dumbly, Ardyn nods, turning his gaze away from Aera to look at Somnus. There's a knowing look on his face and a little bit of heat blooms across the bridge of his nose, not yet identifiable beneath bronze skin.

Before Somnus can tease him, a gentle voice greets them, softer than any down and any silk in their little village.

"Hello Somnus, Ardyn."

Aera.

Ardyn looks over. Aera is drawing closer, walking along one of the paths leading passed the tree. She's so pretty in her white dress, the way the Tenebraean purple accents on hems and sleeves and sash makes her eyes look so much bluer, makes her hair so much golder, makes her so much prettier. For a moment his brain misfires, and in his desperate boyish scramble to return the greeting, he swallows the whole chunk of apple.

He chokes.

Ardyn coughs and coughs and coughs, thumping on his own chest with his free hand, while Somnus laughs and laughs and laughs, thumping on his back with his own. Tears prickle at his eyes, and Ardyn isn't sure if its because of the irritation of apple being lodged in his throat or if its from the embarrassment of choking in front of his crush. He would be lying if he said he doesn't feel humiliation crawling up his spine, but he would never admit it out loud.

He can hear Somnus greet Aera, and humiliation burns hotter in his chest, blackening around the edges into terrible shame. Finally he coughs up the chunk of apple. It lands heavy to the side, away from the path Aera was taking, hidden from sight behind his thighs. It does little to hide that he had choked so hard on it, and it does little to soothe the humiliation and shame he feels.

He's scared when he looks up at her, his face undeniably hot and pink now. He sees concern on her face, wrinkling the edges of her mouth and eyes in something Ardyn normally sees on the faces of the elders when he limps passed, his cane supporting almost all of his weight. He doesn't like that look much. Seeing it on her face only makes him burn hotter in upset.

It's almost immediately washed away, because Aera smiles. At him. Aera smiles at him. The concern melts away, lines of worry replaced by the far more flattering lines of joy and happiness. The smile splits her face in the prettiest way possible, white teeth flashing in the sun and eyes sparkling and hair seeming to glow. Ardyn's gasping coughs are soothed quickly at the sight, and he feels as if he might melt. She's smiling at him.

"H-Hello, Aera."

Area's smile grows wider, and Ardyn feels like he's melting even more. She continues down the path, tossing one last smile over her shoulder- at him, specifically, he realizes- and Ardyn grows even redder. Somnus is laughing even harder at him.

Shamefully, Ardyn wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. And then he scowls up at Somnus, glaring weak daggers at him. Somnus still can't stop laughing. He opens his eyes once, wiping at tears that have started to fall, and laughs even harder, no doubt at the tears on Ardyn's own face and the red that's so dark it makes his bronze skin look pale.

"I'm glad to see that you're having a grand time..."

Ardyn's embarrassed growl barely affects Somnus, who is finally, finally, winding down from his intense laughing fit. He sucks in a few deep breaths, no doubt trying to muffle his laugher and calm back down. His attempts do nothing to soothe Ardyn's bruising ego, the blush still hot on his face.

"You should have seen yourself, Ardyn," he says between laughs, wiping once again at his eyes. "Drooling like a starving dog seeing food for the first time."

Ardyn huffs and crosses his arms, apple core forgotten in his hand. That only encourages Somnus to start laughing again.

"It's almost painful how much you like her, brother."

Ardyn huffs again and looks away, unable to meet Somnus' eyes. He does like her, he likes her a lot. So much so that it was occasionally painful. Not that he'd ever tell Somnus that. His actions only fuel Somnus' laughter even more. Grasping at straws, desperate to level the playing field, Ardyn blurts "What about that girl from the church?"

"Hm? Antistita? What about her?"

"You recited the wrong scripture to her several times over in your attempts to woo her. You even failed on every question on scripture when you dared her to quiz you about your knowledge in front of the entirety of the church."

Much to Ardyn's displeasure, Somnus simply shrugged, grinning a white, bright smile.

"Perhaps I was asking for it then, but hey! She still thought I was cute, and she helped me wiggle out of scripture classes."

Despite every sense inside him screaming at him to stay mad at Somnus, Ardyn cracked a small smile. It was difficult to stay mad at him, even when unknown bells and a foreign ringing buzz told him he shouldn't ever forgive Somnus. Ardyn looks down at his lap, running his hands over the shaft of his cane once more.

"You've had your grand embarrassment, I suppose this will be known as mine."

Notes:

im just.... hopelessly in love with ardyn seeing aera and going "holy f*ck shes so pretty" and then immediately choking on fruit cause hes a dumb 16yo boy with the sappiest puppy crush ever.
dont pay the randos too much mind tbh, only the doctor really matters. same with aera
also fun fact, the real world translation im giving leiden blackwood is african blackwood, because im pretty sure theres no africa on eos joihugvhg

Chapter 5

Summary:

When she nods, full of cheer and reassurance, Ardyn can barely contain himself, a meek and pleasured hum slipping from his throat. She lowers her cheek to his shoulder, and Ardyn presses his cheek into the top of her head once more. He winds an arm around her waist, and once more she wraps her arm around his. It's perfect, the way they fit together, the way they understand one another. He knows, and reaffirms to himself again, that if he were to die right here, right now, he would die a very very very happy man.

Notes:

AH-HA!!! TWO CHAPTERS IN ONE DAY, IM ALL CAUGHT UP BABY!!!!

fun fact, i wrote at least 8k today. i spent all day writing. please appreciate me because im actually dying right now, my head hurts so bad

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Sitting quietly on the outskirts of the village, spine pressing against the trunk of a tree and his good leg propped up and bent to act as a crude desk, Ardyn taps his wrapped charcoal to his bottom lip. The warmth of the sun, while comforting as it was in the ways it relieved Ardyn's leg and joint pain, did nothing but distract him from his writing. Sweat beads on his brow. Nothing excessive, but sweat nonetheless. It dampens his wrists somewhat, and makes every stroke of the charcoal a careful task. There is nothing more frustrating than having to wash charcoal off of one's hands and wrists after dragging the sweaty limb through writing. The distant sounds of monsters and birds drags him time and again from his writing, and slows any idea he may have to a painful crawl.

He can't think like this.

And yet, he has to think of something.

Five years since he had been taken under Doctor Salutem's wing, six since Ardyn's unfortunate run in with the herd of magnanir, and he's learned so much on how to treat and heal people. He's still learning so much. Every day it feels like Doctor Salutem teaches him something new, something Ardyn hadn't thought about before, something Ardyn hadn't considered an option. He'd learned about his own chronic pains, had learned about growing pains, pains from battle wounds, illnesses from plants, animals, bugs, everything Doctor Salutem could think to teach him. And still there was more to learn, a never ending flow of knowledge under his fingertips.

None of that knowledge seems to help with his current questions. Sometimes, that knowledge only brings him more questions, more unsolved puzzles, more riddles that he can't seem to work the kinks out of.

The Starscourge.

It's not a new disease, this Ardyn knows well. When he had been six years old, a man infected with the scourge had wandered into his house, had attacked his mothers and brother. He hadn't known of it back then, and neither had his mothers, least of all his brother. But it had been a case of the Starscourge, and a rather fatal one at that.

He could recall the way the man's veins had looked black under too white skin, the way the Starscourge had manifested into thick, glistening slicks of tar on the man's body. A horn made of the same material stuck out of his head, only it had been hardened and coated in another layer of slime. That same, strange, tar-like substance had coated an arm and a leg, had lengthened both of them and had changed them irreversibly. Claws like daggers on the man's hand, and his leg, as mangled as it had been, had looked like something out of fairytale about men turning into wolves.

No, this disease was older than that, he was sure. It had to have been. Ardyn knows he didn't recognize what little he could see of that man's face that night. As covered by the Starscourge as he had been Ardyn had known everyone in his village. That man had been infected in the neighbouring village, and had somehow made his way in that condition out to their own. And beyond what little information Doctor Salutem had been able to give him about it, the disease was far older than anything else. Far more deadly than any other disease as well.

There had been a few cases in the recent years, enough to present to Ardyn a pattern of infection. It always came back to a nocturnal event. They were all unusually similar. One woman had been travelling, and hadn't stopped in town for the night. She had said that something had spooked her bird, and she was left chasing after it on foot when it had bucked her off. Something had tripped her, something she couldn't see. She was hurt, bitten she claimed. By what, she couldn't describe, only that it was massive and covered in black tar. Somehow she'd chased it off with a dagger and fire, and by the morning she'd made it home and cleaned her wound. Two weeks later she was bedridden, veins inky black, skin deathly pale, and that very same tar-like substance trickling like sap out of her nose and mouth. Another week later and she looked and acted like the man Ardyn had seen as a child. She was killed when she attacked her husband.

Another man had been chopping wood at dusk at the outskirts of the village. He claims to have been attacked by a monster unlike any other, knocked over and arm gouged by a horn. He claimed it was covered in gore and slime, some kind of weird smoke billowing off of it. It was chased off easily with his axe, but barely even a month later he had been in the same condition as the woman. He had been put down by Doctor Salutem himself when the doctor was attending the house call.

Another man had inhaled the smoke that had been coming off of a corpse rife with the black liquid during the day. A woman had accidentally ingested the liquid running from a monster at midnight. A boy no older than ten was bitten by a man not unlike the one that had attacked Ardyn's family all those years ago. Each and every one of them had turned pallid with inky veins, secreting that weird black muck, and each and every one of them had to be put down after a month of their initial infections.

Each of these infections had started with contact to the strange black substance coating both monsters and humans. At first the revelation had scared him. His mother had been splashed in the liquid back then, her face soaked in the strange mix of blood and organ and black liquid. She had come into contact with it, it had openly touched her skin.

His fears were easily placated. She had washed up after that, and all the infections in the recent years were from that black substance or smoke touching open wounds, inhalation, and ingestion. His mother had done neither, and she had no wounds to speak of that night. His mother was safe from that fate, he was sure of it.

It had brought his suspicions of the cause down to parasites. What kinds of parasites, he couldn't be sure. It certainly wasn't like any other parasitic infection Ardyn had ever encountered before. Parasites usually infected the host, yes, but they had never eaten through the host quite like this. Parasites never caused horns to grow, or nails to turn into claws, or for bizarre liquids to spill from all orifices. Parasites never consumed the entire body after death, either. Sure they were there to drain the host of energy for their personal gain, but never had they ever driven a person to death, or turn the corpse into that strange smoke each deceased scourged person dissolved into. If it was a parasite, Ardyn had no idea what kind it was. Its own special species, perhaps.

Ardyn tilts his head to one side, eyes half heartedly dragging over the notes in his worn journal. They were all notes he had written and rewritten several times, in hopes of uncovering the mystery of this new disease. It did nothing to illuminate a new angle for him, and instead left him spinning in circles in the dark. Ironic, he thinks, that a disease originating from a bite from a nocturnal beast should leave him dizzy and disoriented in a shadowy metaphor.

"What a surprise to find you out here again, Ardyn!"

The voice startles him. He jerks up and away from the tree, a shout of surprise masterfully strangled in his chest. He hadn't realized someone was approaching him. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn't bothered paying attention to anything that wasn't a monster or that wasn't his own confused musings. A head of gold hair enters his view, framing blue eyes sparkling with mischief and a smile far too radiant to belong to a mere mortal.

Ardyn can't keep the smile off his face at the sight of her. He should have known Aera would come find him. As popular as he was with the people of their quaint little village, she had always been his only friend. She would know all of his hiding places. Atop his own house, behind the doctor's office, and even here, on the western outskirts of the village on the far side of the only tree before fields and fields of wheat and plains.

Ardyn shrugs.

"What can I say? Enjoying the summer breeze is a vice I cannot seem to shake."

His words draw a laugh from her, and Ardyn knows his heart melts at the sound of it. So soft, so sweet, like the wind chimes hanging off of the porch of her house. It's a sound Ardyn knows he'll never tire of, a sound he'll cherish until his last day on this star and a day after, too. Aera sits down beside him, pulling at her own tunic and readjusting the sash until she's comfortable. Ardyn feels he couldn't be happier.

Aera doesn't expect him to talk, and she doesn't try to break the silence that settles between them. Unlike Somnus, she understands the comfort in silence, and she relishes the quiet companionship of sitting beside him just as he relishes her beside him. He returns his eyes to his journal, wrapped charcoal once again tapping at his bottom lip thoughtfully. But he finds he can't focus, not with the way he's still smiling like a lovestruck fool, not with the way Aera's breathing is soft and muffled by the leaves in the breeze above them. And then she leans against his shoulder, and his mind turns to static. He tries again, to focus on his work, tries desperately to continue reading and writing and puzzling out this ancient disease. But she sighs softly, so full of happiness and so relaxed, that he knows he won't be able to focus on anything but her.

With a soft sigh, Ardyn places his wrapped charcoal between the pages of his journal and closes the hand bound book gently in his lap.

When he turns to look at her, he notices that she's got bags under her eyes, heavy and dark compared to the rest of her face. Her eyes, though they sparkle with the simple joy of spending time with someone dear, are unfocused and distant. She's lost in her thoughts. Ardyn would like to know what has her so preoccupied.

"You look like you're far away," he murmurs, raising a hand to brush some of her hair behind her ear. "What has you so tired today, my love?"

She comes back to him quicker than he would have come back to her, but the wicked grin that splits her face tells him she has wonderful stories to share. He can feel the excitement bubble up inside him as she moves to sit up again.

"Today I was helping at the bakery, the school, and the seamstress."

"And by helping you mean-"

"Causing trouble, of course!"

Ardyn can't help but laugh, and his heart swells when she joins in too.

"Well? Go on then," he prompts, nudging the back of her hand with his knuckles lightly. "Tell me what kind of ruckus you stirred up today."

"Well today, the three of them ganged up on me again. Caught me at Ms. Pomum's fruit stand again and begged me to come work for them."

For a moment, Aera places her hands on her hips and scrunches up her face. Her voice is lowered in a weak mockery of the voices of her assailants.

"'Oh Aera! You must simply come work at the school! You are so popular with the children, Aera!' 'No, you have to come work with me at the shop! Your delicate fingers are perfect for threading needles!' 'Nonsense! Such strong arms and capable hands are practically made for kneading the doughs of bread and pastries!'"

And Ardyn can't help but laugh again, earning him a sharp but very falsified pout from Aera.

"I assure you, all three of these mindless hounds said those exact words to me!"

"Oh no, I do believe you! I just can't get enough of your horrendous impressions."

Aera huffed and crossed her arms, giving him a sharp look that failed to hide the mirth in her eyes.

"Horrendous? I think you mean stupendous."

Ardyn chuckles and nods, grinning wider and wider with each passing word.

"Of course, silly me. What would I do without you to help me remember my manners?"

"Well, someone might mistake you for a wild man, raised at the teat of a sabertusk."

And at that Ardyn laughs again, harder this time.

"Fortunate then, that you have not drawn the hunters' attention towards the monster in the village!"

Aera leans back against the tree, and sidles her way closer to him. She nuzzles in close beside him, and instinctively he wraps an arm around her waist, drawing her in closer to his side. She sighs and smiles into his shoulder.

"Fortunate for you that you're such a charming man."

"I try my best. Now do tell me, what did you have to say to your three hounds?"

Aera lit up against his shoulder, and she looked up to him, that mischievous twinkle he adores so much colouring her eyes and twisting her face.

"I was so sick of them that I told them I would help them for a day. A third of the day spent with the baker, a third of the day spent with the seamstress, and a third of the day spent with the teacher."

Aera turns again to rest her cheek against his shoulder, snuggling closer to his side. Ardyn holds her close in return, pressing a soft kiss to the top of her head.

"I went with the teacher first, and let me tell you it wasn't difficult to get the children to join me in raising some hell. First I reassigned names to the children, so rolecall took over an hour to complete. Then the children and I arranged it so that when I coughed, we all dropped to the floor from our seats and played dead. Then, when told to teach the children a lesson of my choice, I taught the children how to feed their dogs their homework."

"My my, Aera, you are a menace."

"Oh I'm not done yet! I still have to tell you about the baker and the seamstress!"

Ardyn did his best to stifle a laugh, and failed miserably when Aera joined in on the laughter again. She continued once they had settled again, shifting once more in his arms.

"After the teacher kicked me out, I went to assist the baker. He asked me to follow a recipe for Lucian Strawberry Tarts. I instead made his kitchen into the largest science experiment I could. Vinegar and baking soda foaming across the counter tops, water and cornstarch stuck to the walls and ceiling, potatoes left in bizarre places. He turned as red as the tomatoes he grows in the garden."

Again Ardyn laughs. He buries his face into her hair and grins, doing his best to quiet his laughter in silent chuckles. Aera fares no better, giggling to herself, no doubt remembering her own chaos fondly.

"And then the seamstress. I barely had to step into her workspace to make her angry. I hadn't bothered to wash the experiments from my shirt. I sat around her workshop covered in nothing but a borrowed sheet, and I spent an hour trying to thread a needle. By the time I had finally gotten the thread through the eye, she was sick of me, and sent me home."

"And your mother?"

"So very angry with me, but she couldn't stop laughing when I told her about my day."

It was so easy to laugh around Aera, so painfully easy to find joy in her stories and the way she told them. She laughs with him seamlessly, waving her hand dismissively and cuddling ever closer to him. He nuzzles his face into her hair again, peppering the top of her head in affection kisses, broken only by his own laughter.

"It was such a busy day, and I hadn't slept well the night before either. You may think of me as mean or petty as you wish, but I am so sick of being hounded by well meaning people offering me jobs that I have no interest in."

Ardyn gives a deep sigh and smiles into her hair, rubbing at her side soothingly.

"They mean well, though I don't think they know quite what interests you."

"I'm sure I'll find a job I'll enjoy one day, I know I will. I just cannot stand it when people hark about how great some boring task is, and about how much change they are making in the world. I want to do what I want, not what they want."

"Perhaps, in the meantime, you can join Doctor Salutem and I in our practices. I'm positive your delicate hands will be perfect for dressing wounds and picking herbs."

When Aera lifts her head, confusion and something akin to betrayal in her eyes, Ardyn gives her the biggest sh*t eating grin he can manage. All at once she shoves him, a laugh ringing again from her chest, and he can't stop himself either, joining her yet again for a round of laughter. With her here, always making him laugh, Ardyn wonders how the other villagers haven't found out about his hiding spots yet.

When they settle, they settle in one another's arms, just like they had been when Aera was regaling him with her day's struggles. His arm wrapped snuggly around her waist, her arm doing the same to his, her cheek resting on his shoulder and his cheek resting atop her head. Their free hands are intertwined, resting neatly between their respective laps. And Ardyn thinks he could sit here with her forever like this, and die as the happiest man on Eos.

They sit together like that for a long time, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun, enjoying the way the wind disturbs the leaves above their head, enjoying the way the world moves ever onwards while they sit there beneath their tree, wiling away the hours doing nothing in particular. It doesn't last forever, but Ardyn cherishes what does last.

"You were writing earlier, when I came to find you."

Ardyn utters a soft hum, asking her non verbally to continue.

"What exactly were you writing about?"

Ardyn recalls his thoughts, remembers how he had been running himself in circles trying to figure out the complexities of the disease currently presented to him. And he thinks of how happy he is, warm against Aera's side and simply enjoying her company as she enjoys his. He doesn't want to ruin that companionable silence they share.

"It's nothing," he says, doing his best to sound nonchalant. "Just the confused ramblings of a confused man."

"I don't mind listening."

All over again Ardyn's heart swells in his chest. He feels so very warm and fuzzy inside that it's nearly overwhelming. Like drowning in the world's thickest, most comfortable quilt on a cool autumn night. She continues, and it only makes his heart ache more.

"Perhaps, if you were to explain it to me, you might be able to figure something out?"

"I wouldn't want to bore you with it." he mumbles.

"You wouldn't bore me," she tells him, as if she were stating that the sky was blue. "I love listening to your thoughts."

At this rate, Ardyn is certain he will drown in the warmth of the love she invokes in him long before he can die of old age.

"How is it that you always get your way with me?"

"The same way you always get your way with me."

And the way she says it is so easy, so matter of fact, so full of affection and tender love that Ardyn can barely breathe out an agreement before he's opening up his journal once again.

And he starts to read his notes to her. He reads to her all of his thoughts he has written down, explaining the nuances of the Starscourge, how deadly the disease, how every case has turned into a fatal case, what could be the cause of it, why its unlike anything he's ever seen, what they could try to do to treat it and maybe even cure it. All the while Aera nods and hums, poses to him questions he's considered before and questions he hadn't considered.

But he still runs in circles, still gets caught on the same few questions, snags on new questions when they arise again. Through it all Aera listens to him, acts as a patient ear, offering her thoughts and advice to him while he struggles with the concept of this bizarre disease. It's as comfortable as it is frustrating, but Ardyn knows at the very least he can count on Aera listening to him.

Until she isn't.

He stops for a heartbeat, sure he had imagined the sound, until he hears it again. A long, dragging breath, whistling through the nose. A snore. He looks down to Aera where she's nestled against his side and snuggled into his shoulder. Her eyes are closed and her body free of any tension. She snores again, soft and quiet and still so musical in the way her laughs are.

There's no offence tearing at his gut, no anger or betrayal snarling his insides. His heart clenches, yes, but it clenches with fondness so tender he's sure his chest would peel apart by a strong enough breeze. The bags under her eyes reminds him of how tired she said she was, and he does not fault her for a heartbeat for falling asleep. He can admit that medical talk is not everyone's forte, and for a mischievous soul like Aera, medical speak is certainly a drag.

Ardyn closes his journal once again and leaves it on the ground off to the side. He relaxes against the trunk of the tree with her and sighs, so very happy to be alive and beside her. He rests his cheek against the top of her head again, and he closes his eyes, breathing in the rich smells of summer and enjoying the way the world around him feels until hes dozing.

Time suddenly feels like water, and it trickles past him like a babbling brook. His hair feels longer, his body feels heavier and cooler, his leg and hip aches less but still aches, and the feeling of a new ring on his left ring finger weighs heavy and cool. He's growing older, he realizes somewhere deep in his doze. He's growing and growing, just as Aera is, until she is thirty two, and he is thirty. Ten years have swam past him, and the thought should scare him. It doesn't, not when Aera is still with him, still holding his hand, still leaning against him, still smiling that smile he first fell in love with as a goofy thirteen year old boy.

He's exhausted, he belatedly realizes, and it hits him all at once. He sags, unable to keep sitting up against the tree as he had been. Aera, who he was certain was sleeping against his shoulder, gently nudges him and shuffles him, moving him from sitting up against the tree to lying on the ground beside her, his head resting snuggly in her lap. While the earth beneath him is still warm, Ardyn mourns the loss of warmth when he's moved from her side to her lap. He feels cold, unnaturally so, enough that he's sure that Aera can feel it. But she doesn't seem to mind, running her fingers through his bangs and rubbing at his cheeks softly with calloused fingertips. He'll never cut his hair, he thinks. Not when Aera is running her fingers through his loose bangs like this, and certainly not when he can feel the heavy braid she's put in it, the light, perfumey smell of the flowers she's woven into it tickles his nose just right. Not when she seems to love it so much.

"Did you know, Aera," he murmurs, stopping for only a moment to recognize the gruff, worn voice as his own. "That the archaeological community has uncovered the bones of Solheim's first king?"

"Oh? Is that so?"

And Ardyn loses his bearings for a moment. He might have aged ten years, both in mind and body, but Aera still sounds just as wonderful and resilient as the day he first met her. She also sounds amused. Ardyn nods fervently in her lap, grinning while his eyes remain shut.

"Oh yes, it was a very big discovery. They say the head archaeologist was sifting through the rubble and found a strange object in his classifier."

"The head archaeologist, hm? Do you by chance mean me?"

"No no no, some other head archaeologist. Someone from far away, from Duscae or the likes."

Aera stifles her laugh and it comes out like a snort. Ardyn takes it as his cue to continue.

"A shame they didn't notice in time what it was that was in his classifier. A few more shakes and the bone was reduced to dust."

"Sounds like a shame. Old bones are certainly fragile." she says, and the mirth that's already in her voice tells him that a laugh is ready to break through. He soldiers onward, determined to hear it.

"Oh it was. But it's as the saying goes; sift happens."

That gets him the reaction he craves. She bursts out laughing, no doubt a mix of annoyed, angry, and genuinely pleased by such a buildup for one terrible pun. But the sound of it tinkles through the air like chimes all the same, and her fingernails scratch lightly at his scalp.

"Oh Ardyn," she starts, still scratching gently at his scalp. "You can't expect me to believe that."

"Oh, but I do! You have my word."

"Well, in that case..."

She trails off in a soft hum, still smiling and grinning, despite no doubt thinking about just how terrible his jokes have become in these past ten years. His heart, though its beats distant and hollow sounding in his own chest, swells all over again with a feeling of immeasurable joy and fondness. He can't contain it, and it escapes him in a breathy, joyous sigh, one that drags the tension from his body.

Above him he can feel Aera sizing him up, her eyes dancing across his form just as her fingers card through his bangs. But he doesn't much mind, instead taking comfort in the fact that she finds him worth appraising at all. Fourteen years he's known her, and he still can't believe that she chose to be with him for the rest of their lives. Again he thinks that he could stay here like this for the rest of his days, and die the happiest man on Eos. The silence never lasts.

"You look exhausted, my love. Are you all right?"

Ardyn blinks lazily up at her, appraising her just as she had been doing to him before. There's worry to the smile sitting on her face, but it's so deeply covered by warmth and fondness and love that Ardyn flusters, unable to answer. Instead he chuckles, an old nervous habit from when they had first gotten involved. She allows him to lay there in silence, allows him to collect his thoughts, and he appreciates her even more for it. She seems to understand that the near silent ringing buzz in the back of his skull makes it hard to focus sometimes. It only makes his heart yearn for her more.

"I am." he finally responds. He pushes himself up after, and Aera doesn't stop him. She lets him sit up unassisted and simply watches him as he lifts a hand to examine it, slowly turning it from front to back to front again.

"The gods blessed me with a power and a purpose: to cure people of what ails them."

He turns his head to look out at the fields of wheat before him, watching as the wind moves the frayed ends in an endless wave. It's quiet and calm, and Aera waits for him to continue, seems to know he isn't quite finished.

"I must see their will be done."

Aera doesn't immediately respond to him. And he certainly doesn't expect her to. It is heavy, knowing that the gods themselves have chosen the both of them for something far bigger than themselves. It's heavier still, trying to talk about such a thing with anyone. He feels her eyes leave him, to drift off and travel while her mind wanders. He would be lying if he said that his mind wasn't drifting as well. But it comes back to her at full attention when she speaks.

"Your devotion shall not go unnoticed. The gods will doubtless be watching over you."

She sounds so sure of herself, so confident that what she speaks is the truth. It brings him to swivel where he sits, turning to face her fully and to watch her. It warms him, the way she sounds so confident, and how easy her faith comes to her. She is all things good in this world, and Ardyn once more can't imagine how she wound up choosing him. Her smile grows just a little bit wider as they stare at one another, and she says "Just as I shall be watching over you every step of the way."

Her words are too warm, too heartfelt for him, and really, he should have gotten used to these kinds of confessions when he first met her over fourteen years ago. But he hasn't. He laughs a short, bashful laugh, nervous but still so enamoured and tender. She places her hand on the back of his own, the one he had unconsciously leaned back on to examine the other earlier. It sends warm, fuzzy feelings racing all throughout his body, up his spine and down his arms and legs to the tips of his fingers and toes. For a moment he feels like he's flying. He never wants that feeling to end.

They bask in one another's affection for each other, smiling candidly and watching each other's faces for their beloved ticks and quirks. Ardyn sees all of the best ones. The way her eyes crinkle at the corners. The way the laugh lines appear on her cheeks. The way her eyes sparkle. It sends his distant heart aflutter.

When they stare too long, Aera finds something else to say that fills the silence.

"It seems to me the cure for your exhaustion is comprised of two things, one of which is rest."

A sensible assumption, one he readily agrees with. His late mentor, Doctor Salutem, had always tried to drill it into his young head that the best cure for exhaustion was a good meal and a long night's rest. But the way Aera had spoken had meant there was a another component to this cure of hers. She doesn't immediately tell him, the smile ever present on her face. Ardyn tilts his head curiously, watching her closely.

"... And the other?"

There's a brief moment where Aera's smile expands again, and then she points to herself with a finger and warmly announces her second point.

"... Is me!"

Those soft tender feelings growing his his chest are ones Aera always seems to plant and grow, and her joyful little remark harvests them. His heart can't contain his laughter, long and loud and booming. Aera eagerly responds with her own, just as melodic as ever, and somehow never drowned out by his baritone voice. He's thankful for that. He would never forgive himself if be missed a single second of her wonderful laugh.

During their bought of joy, Ardyn swivels again, this time so his back faces the tree trunk, and Aera follows suit, leaning back against the tree the second he leans back as well. They lean into each other from there, their laughter slowly dying down into giggles and chuckles, until they're both sighing in a kind of intimate pleasure known only to those who married their best friends.

Looking at her, sitting beside him, Ardyn is overcome yet again with a wave of the most intense, tender, softest emotions he can handle. Ever so carefully he lifts her chin and presses his lips to her cheek. It's short and it's quick, but Aera lets out a hum of affection and Ardyn pulls away to bask once more in their mutual fondness.

"Oh, Aera..." he trails, and the way she looks up at him makes his hands tremble and his spine melt in his body. "Pray be with me always...."

Aera looks at him with such adoration, such affection that he knows he reflects in his own expression, that he melts all over again. No matter how many times he sees it, he believes her smiles are the most breathtaking sight on the star.

When she nods, full of cheer and reassurance, Ardyn can barely contain himself, a meek and pleasured hum slipping from his throat. She lowers her cheek to his shoulder, and Ardyn presses his cheek into the top of her head once more. He winds an arm around her waist, and once more she wraps her arm around his. It's perfect, the way they fit together, the way they understand one another. He knows, and reaffirms to himself again, that if he were to die right here, right now, he would die a very very very happy man.

Eos seems to take him literally.

All at once the world is whisked away from him and he's falling, falling, falling into the black abyss. Disoriented and now frantic, Ardyn looks up, up to where he had once sat. There's a flash of gold and white, the cry of his name reaching his ears, before its all swallowed up by the void. Once again the warmth and love he had known in life was ripped so cruelly away from him, and he falls ever downwards into blackness, anger and hatred roiling in his belly until he loses consciousness.

Notes:

ta da! you made it into the first bit of episode ardyn! yell the f*ck heah bitches~!

despite thinking the next chapter was gonna be a beast, i dont think ive written a full 6k for a chapter since my last fic, Give Me A Reason. i hope y'all are stoked for tomorrows chapter cause she too will be a f*ckin hell ride to write

i also hope you enjoyed soggy sappy ardyn and troublemaker aera

my characters now, whatre you gonna do about it squeenix

Chapter 6

Summary:

"Stop..." he wheezes, barely able to get enough breath to force the word out. No one listens. His arms are suddenly being pulled up and backwards in an awkward position, one that strains his wounded shoulder and draws a sharp gasp out of him.

"Cease this..." he pleads. No one listens. The feeling of metal clamps down around wrists and extends all the way up to his elbows, locking his arms in place behind him. The metal might as well have been ice. It feels so terribly frozen against his arms.

A ringing buzz is growing in him. It forces the ichor spilling out of him to harden, faster and faster and faster than what seems usual for his body. The ringing buzz starts drowning out sounds, scuffling boots and grinding gravel and sheathing weapons becoming foggier and foggier the longer it lasts. Slowly but surely he loses feeling in his body, the way he's being pressed ever closer to the earth feeling farther and farther away. Anger floods in after the ringing buzz, chasing it and taking up residence in his body beside it like the hot, stinging burn of acid. Several hundred monsters scream in his head, howling a song of rage and war. It's compelling.

"Cease this at once!"

Notes:

wow sorry this took so long. not only was this a beast of a chapter, weighing in at a solid 8k words, but ive had some bad mental health days these past few days. im getting better now, i think, but boy three days there was bad lol. please accept this massive brute of a chapter in apologies for the lateness. we'll see if my mental health issues clear up a little so i can get back into a proper posting schedule for nano.

BE WARNED THERE IS A FIGHT SCENE WITH SOME LIGHTLY DESCRIBED GORE
a casual mention of guts and beheading.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The first tell tale sign that he's waking up is the insistent, biting pain all over his body. Hooks more like harpoons keep him hanging above the stone floor of his cell, piercing and weaving beneath skin, muscle, and even bone. There's one hook in particular that hurts more than the others. That particular hook pierces in at his waist and threads the prong point of the hook through one of the bones in his hip. His left hip. His bad hip. It's hard enough as is to have forgiven the men and women who had strung him up like this, but Ardyn knows he can never forgive the man who had been in charge of that particular placement.

The second sign that he's awake is his breathing. Taking in a weak, shuddering breath, Ardyn chokes and coughs, wincing as each cough racks his body hard enough to jostle the hooks. He feels as though he's coughing up dust, like his lungs haven't been used in years. He knows that can't possibly be true, but a similar experience had haunted him every other time he had woken up in this cell. It was routine. It was familiar. It hurt.

The third sign that tells him he's awake is sound. And it sounds.... It sounds different. Ardyn isn't sure what it is, but something is off. His coughs still bounce around his tight little cell the same way they've always had, and his creaking breathing sounds no less ragged than it had before. No, it sounds as if there's... Stone, grinding on stone, and structures outside creaking and crumbling and giving way. Ah. A hallucination. Those were common in his cell. He didn't bother opening his eyes. Who knows what his eyes would conjure up for him this time should he open them now. The last hallucination had been cruel, had gotten his hopes up for an escape. But then he had been touched by his mysterious rescuer, and they had disappeared. Passed through him and disappeared like ashes in the wind. He could not bolster his hope. There is no hope in a cell like this.

Ardyn hangs in his cell in silence, eyes shut and body sagging against the pull of the hooks. The terrible grinding sound of stone on stone and the splintering of wood under metal continues, echoing faintly in his cell, but Ardyn doesn’t allow himself to fall for it. It’s nothing more than a hallucination. Another fantasy conjured up by his under-stimulated mind in the vague hopes it offers him some relief. It has the exact opposite effect, despair snarling his insides and gnawing at his guts like a starving animal.

Relief and minute disappointment seeps into his body when the sounds finally grind to a halt. It was a hallucination after all. He squashes his disappointment as best he can. It’s unlikely he’ll ever stop hoping, but at least now he expects disappointment. At least try he’s gotten good at tamping down the hurt when his hallucinations fade. Somnus has been very careful when he had him imprisoned here in this cell. No mobility was granted to him, and he wasn’t granted the chance to glimpse sunlight or the way time passed him by. In the time he’s spent in his cell, there had been no visitors. And Somnus has been very careful with that as well. Escape was possible only from an outside source, and everyone who could have helped him from his bonds had been effectively swayed by Somnus. Ardyn has been branded a monster, no longer human. An unkillable fiend who would turn against the masses just as the people afflicted by the Starscourge would. Another snarl of emotion twisted at his insides. Anger, powerful and burning, licked through every muscle and bone, until everything was red hot. Exhaustion took over seconds later. There was nothing he could do about it, trapped in this cell as he is. There’s no use to holding onto useless emotions. Ardyn only wishes to sleep and to never wake up.

The grinding of stone on stone starts again, louder this time, and Ardyn squeezes his eyes shut tighter. No, no he doesn’t want to listen to this, doesn’t want to endure his hallucinations until he passes out from his exhaustion again. That was how he had fallen asleep last time, suspended and in pain as he was. The walls of his cell around him had blurred at the edges, and the already black room had sunk into the void. He couldn’t fall asleep peacefully, not strung up perversely like some abused Yule dinner. The pain hadn’t let him fall asleep, and neither had his hallucinations. Only when his body couldn’t stand it any longer had he fallen unconscious, and it had led to terrible, terrible dreams. He didn’t want to listen to his hallucinations until he passed out again.

Once more the sound fell quiet, and this time Ardyn can’t help the long, low groan of relief that escapes him. He begs the gods, any and all who still listen to him, who still care for him, to keep his hallucinations at bay. If he hadn’t suffered a mental break already, Ardyn was certain he would suffer one if he were permitted to fall asleep to his hallucinations one more time. For a long moment the sound doesn’t return, leaving him hanging in the darkness with only the sounds of his own breathing as company. That’s as comforting as it can be, trapped in his cell, and Ardyn relishes it like it’s the finest wine he’s ever tasted. Blissful, torturous silence.

A new sound rushes him, spilling into his cell and filling the tight space with too many echoes to focus on.

Something is wrong.

The comforting blackness behind his eyelids suddenly turns red. Red? He hasn’t seen red behind his eyes in a terribly long time, and not once had he seen it in his cell. There was no light in his cell to illuminate the pink of his flesh and the red of his blood vessels. This couldn’t be happening. Another hallucination. Despair claws its way back up Ardyn’s throat, digging in deeper and deeper and deeper until it throttles him, makes it harder and harder to breathe. The sounds continue. It sounds almost like leather creaking, something like cork pounding against the stone floors, metal links of armor clinking together. It’s almost deafening in his cell, when before silence had been his sole companion. It has to be a hallucination, he thinks, it simply has to be. No one would come for him, no one would help him. Somnus had been so thorough, had been so certain that Ardyn was simply a monster wearing his brother’s skin. And the whole village believed him, believed Ardyn was mindless and ruthless, waiting for the perfect moment to strike and massacre them all. No one would come for him.

Determined to prove his desperate subconscious wrong, Ardyn cracks his eyes open. He had prepared himself to be greeted by the blackness of his cell again, to see only dust and stone and the chains that hold him off of the floor. Instead his eyes are assaulted by light. Light. Real, and actual light inside his cell. It burns so painfully, and he scrunches his eyes shut tight once more. The sounds stop, but they still echo around his cell, just like his breathing, just like his coughing. Real sound. It’s real. His head is rattling with the reverb, a familiar pounding beginning in his temples.

This is real.

Steps- they’ve got to be steps- march towards him, clean and confident with the sounds of metal in toe and heel rattling at his sensitive ears. The steps draw closer, and closer, and closer, until there must only be two feet of space between him and the other person. It’s there that they stop, and an old, prickling sensation settles on his skin. Eyes. There are eyes watching him. This is real, this has to be real. Ardyn tries cracking open his eyes again, and once more the light is blistering against his eyes. But it’s not enough for him to close them this time. Through the haze and sting of tears sitting in his eyes, Ardyn can just barely makes out a fuzzy black shape. He tries to lift his head, tries to squint to get a better look at the person in front of him, but exhaustion sweeps through him again and his head lolls. The person in front of him remains where they are, deathly silent as they’re shifted from the centre of Ardyn’s view to the left of it. Behind them the lights are intense, bright, and so very blue. It casts the person in front of him in strange, blueish shadows.

“He’s alive!”

And Ardyn certainly wishes he wasn’t. The person in front of him- a man, duding by the timbre- barely restrains his voice. It’s been so long since Ardyn has heard the voice of another man, and while it sends sparks of excitement shooting through his spine, the gravelly, grating inflection of the man’s voice rubs at him the wrong way. Like sandpaper dragging at his arm hairs against the grain. The man’s voice gets even worse when he laughs, long and loud and scraping. It solidifies Ardyn’s growing headache, the pressure behind his eyes nearly as painful as the hooks still pulling his flesh tight.

“Just as the ancient texts told!”

Ardyn’s not sure what to do with that statement. It sounds as if someone is relieved to see him alive, at least, but certainly not for any of the right reasons. Ardyn is also not fond of the term ‘ancient texts’. What ancient texts? Is the man referring to Solheim? And if he is, why are there ancient texts referring to Ardyn himself? Were the seers of Solheim truly so clairvoyant that they could predict Ardyn’s future? And if so, Ardyn would greatly appreciate having such a text in his hands as soon as possible. He would like to know if he gets his revenge on his dearest little brother.

Slowly but surely, Ardyn’s eyes adjust to the light that bombards him. The man in front of him becomes less of a shapeless, unknowable blur and turns more into a sharp featured man. He can only just make out the man’s features in this light, but Ardyn doesn’t need a lot of light to see the predatory curve of his features, the way his eyes are narrowed and the way his grin develops a strange sadism near the corners of his mouth. Ardyn decidedly doesn’t like this man anymore than he likes his horrid voice.

Ardyn tries his tongue, tries to speak after spending so long in silence. His breath is clipped and he struggles to even force out the word “Who…?” His throat aches now, so incredibly sore, and his tongue feels every bit like sawdust and wood shavings in his mouth. He’s still too weak, he knows, to even think of supporting a proper question. And it appears it doesn’t matter if he has questions at all. The man turns away from him, however slightly he does, and barks at the still washed out blurs of blue light.

“Take him away.”

Ardyn doesn’t like the sound of that.

The man takes a few measured steps backwards and some of those washed out blurs advanced on him. They were the cause of the sound, Ardyn realizes. They were the ones that sounded of creaking leather, beating cork, and clinking metal. They’re people, armed and armoured no less. Confusion and a flicker of fear consumes Ardyn as these faceless people reach out and grab at him. He can’t help the way he pants and wheezes and whines as they tug roughly at the hooks digging into him, twisting them and pulling and yanking them clear of flesh. One of them scrapes at bone and rips aching ligaments with the hook in his bad hip, and Ardyn blacks out for a few moments, his mind desperately shielding him from the trauma and pain. He comes back seconds later, his hip in a blaze of pain as they continue ripping hooks out of his body, unconcerned if they break bone or tear muscles.

And then he’s falling. Falling for real this time. His feet touch the cold stone that makes the floor of his cell. Agony shoots up through his left leg and grips it so tight that he crumples. He crashes down to his knees and manages to swing his arms out in time to keep himself from hitting the ground entirely. He can’t think, can barely breathe. It hurts so much, it hurts so bad, he can’t focus on anything else but the sensation of his muscles being knit back together by the black sludge of the scourge and the pain that continues to rocket up and down his leg. He feels ill with it all, but breathless as well. This is real. He’s actually on the ground, off the hooks.

Ardyn sinks forwards, but he isn’t allowed the relief of slumping on the cold floor. Strong arms wrapped in chainlink armor hook underneath his own and pull him upwards against gravity. It’s a weird, weightless feeling, being pulled near effortlessly to his feet. There’s no effort to get his feet under him properly, however. His feet are under him, yes, but haphazardly. The jostling of his rise hadn’t been so bad, but placing weight on his bad leg after such trauma almost causes him to black out again. He buckles between the men holding him upright, and they scramble to keep him upright. Hands find his underarms and hoist properly, while his arms are drawn out to the sides and braced just beneath the elbow.

Ardyn staggers between them, somehow breathing again. He sucks in huge, ragged gulps of air as he shuffles his feet beneath him. It takes a few tries, but Ardyn soon settles into the sweet spot that keeps his irritated leg from smarting. It’s a heavy lean, one that forces all of his weight onto his right leg, and minute relief sweeps through him again. It’s not perfect, considering it doesn’t seem like he’ll get a chance to rest, but it will have to do. For what, he’s unsure, but he’ll make do with his weight on one leg, sandwiched between two soldiers. They must be soldiers.

Far too quickly for his liking, the soldiers shift and step forwards. They drag him with them, and Ardyn blindly stumbles to catch himself. He steps heavily on his left leg, and it takes more effort than Ardyn cares to admit to cut his cry of pain short. Eyes return to him, watching him carefully as the soldiers stop and as he hops so that his left leg is raised pitifully off the ground. The stare has a sharp, bitter feeling to it, the kind of annoyance Ardyn has seen from the snappier adults in his village before his imprisonment. From the man with the predatory look on his face. It has to be him glaring at Ardyn. There's a brief moment of silence, where Ardyn barely manages to stand between the two soldiers, where eyes are glued to him, where Ardyn can't raise his head to look at any of them in the eye.

"Hurry it up." that terrible, scratching voice barks, and Ardyn is a little more relieved when he hears the man turn and march himself out of the cell, the strikes of his heels sharp against the stone.

The soldiers holding him up are none too gentle with him. They each hoist one of his arms over their shoulders. It draws the muscles on his chest tight, and he bites back a whimper of pain. With a shoulder plated in metal under each arm, digging into his sides, the soldiers clamp their free hands around his wrists, holding his arms immobile while the others wrap around his waist.

Ardyn doesn't much like the position he's been manhandled into, but with his hip still healing over the sludge and ichor seeping from the puncture, he hasn't much a choice. The soldiers step again, and this time Ardyn can manage a limp between them, supported yet immobile. Treating him like a threat. Seems Somnus' reach has extended to these people as well.

Ardyn's limp weakens more and more as the soldiers lug him out of his cell and down the bland, narrow halls leading to it. Eventually the soldiers seem to grow tired with his uneven gait and his ever faltering step. Eventually the soldiers hoist him harder, pull him over their shoulders faster than Ardyn can keep up with. Ardyn staggers, and his legs drag. They haul him gracelessly through the hall. Ardyn can't help but feel a small knot of shame in his gut as the soldiers drag him along, but the shame dies away quickly enough. He can admit to himself that it's far faster for the soldiers to drag him along, rather than floundering along beside him in his attempts to walk.

He begins to squirm. Its faster to allow himself to be drug around, yes, but it tugs harshly at his leg, sends jitters of pain rattling around in his bones and muscles. It's an unpleasant feeling, and it's one he tries to relieve by struggling in the grips of the soldiers. They only tighten their grip on him.

And they tighten their grip again.

Ardyn isn't sure where he finds the energy, isn't sure how he manages to struggle with a little more effort this time, but he does. His back arches, eyes squeeze shut, neck spasms, and he writhes. He gasps and hisses, sucking his breath in through grit teeth as his feet drag through gravel.

Gravel.

There is gravel under his feet.

Suddenly, its far easier to breathe, far easier to move. It doesn't relieve him of his exhaustion, but it makes it so much easier. And the wind. He... He can feel the wind brush against his bare chest, prod at the ichor sealing his wounds shut, run through his hair. It carries the scent of the sea with it. Salt, dead plants, and other substances that Ardyn can't identify. It's warmer, too. The closed off feeling of his cell is gone, the damp chill sinking deep into his bones is gone. He's bathed in warmth, a near tropical amount of humidity warming his long chilled skin.

He's outside.

Though still thoroughly worn out from hanging in pure agony for who knows how long in that cell, energy fills him with enough strength for him to stagger between the soldiers again, feet clumsily catching on gravel and rocks as he tries to limp on his own. It must have been magic keeping him weak and immobile in that cell, he realizes. Old runes and spellwork had probably been etched into the halls and the stone of his cell. Incantations and phrases meant to sap him of his strength, to keep him locked away, unable to escape without assistance. And while Ardyn's current assistance is somewhat sketchy at best, he can't help but feel even the slightest bit grateful for it. He's outside again.

He lifts his gaze long enough to look at his surroundings. Gravel and large pieces of stone drift by beneath his feet, and strange formations of rock rise up to their right and left, appearing as if carved out by explosives many many years ago. The moon shines above them, full and heavy with dim white light, and stars shine coldly down in the deep black void. The world around them is awash in blues, greys, and blacks.

It doesn't take long for the soldiers to give up on dragging him like a sack of potatoes, and instead they shuffle him again, this time so his arms are supported under his arms and his hands are clamped near their stomachs, kept tight and restrained. Ardyn can't seem to care. Hunched over in their arms, and walking somewhat more coherently, Ardyn manages a feeble limp, swift enough to keep pace with his no overworked soldiers. They'd all been overworked when Ardyn had last visited an army.

A wriggling fear in the back of his head grows stronger, finds a place to take root in his mind. For all Ardyn knows, this could be another hallucination. This could be another elaborate attempt to stimulate himself, to keep himself from going mad as a hatter locked in his cell. His hallucinations had been cruelly realistic before. Rescuers unsheathing swords to cut him free, only to fade into ashes. Villagers with pitchforks, daggers, and other assortments of farm tools-turned-weapon crowding around him, ready to tear him apart again. The various scrapes and scuffles and sounds he could hear from the other side of the walls.

Ardyn purposely stubs his toe on a particularly big stone in his path. The ache in his foot, a place that hadn't been touched by hooks, told him it was all very real. He wasn't just imagining things. He wasn't just dreaming of an escape that would never happen. People were here, and they were offering him admittedly shady help. This was real. He took exhausted delight in the thought. This was very very real.

One of the soldiers step funny, pulling away somewhat to catch themself. They do not release him. The movement stretches Ardyn's already weak and throbbing arms, and he hisses beneath his breath. His delight is drowned swiftly in annoyance.

"Don't... Touch me...."

His words are weak, pitifully so. There's barely any bite to them. But it seems he's at least regained some volume to his voice. Two other soldiers, ones Ardyn hadn't realized were marching ahead of them before, spun to face him, slowing enough so that their footsteps fell out of sync with the soldiers' footsteps at his sides. Ardyn looks up at them, eyes having already adjusted to the light from continuous staring at the gravel.

White tunics are draped over chainlink counterparts, and simple pauldrons rest on their shoulders. A thick, black, leather belt winds around their waists and holds two heavy looking satchels. The bags look rather cumbersome, if you ask him. Beneath it all is a set of beige trousers that disappear into knee high metal grieves, and their feet are protected by some rather bland looking sabatons. There's no defining features to these men and women. They each wear a steel gorget and helmet. They all look exactly the same, with the same bizarre item held in all their hands.

Certainly not the uniform Ardyn had been expecting. Somnus' men wore black, uniforms trimmed with gold cord and silver embroidery. They had no helmets, and instead wore hoods with decorative masks, each resembling something akin to a dragon. These were not Somnus' men. Ardyn isn't sure if that's a good thing or not.

The two that had turned towards him had their bizarre objects pointed to him, held every bit like a crossbow without the cord and arms. He's not sure what to make of them, nor the other two soldiers farther ahead of them, helmets twisting this way and that as they no doubt scanned the area. Instead Ardyn kept breathing, as heavy and wheezing as it was, and marched along between the two soldiers as well as his limp would let him.

That seemed to do it for the two soldiers in front of him as they turned away, facing the direction they were headed. Ardyn wasn't certain where they were headed, only that it was unlikely to be good. Perhaps it would do him some good to stay quiet and listen?

"Status report. Everything is fine here."

Ardyn blinks, eyes drawn towards the source of the voice. It sounds staticky and tinny, as if someone were speaking through a can of shaking sand. There's no obvious signs that any of the soldiers around him are talking. Even if it's likely these soldiers are speaking to one another, Ardyn feels as if the owner of the voice is not present, that the owner of the voice is not even in the immediate vicinity. He tries his best to even out his breathing, does his best to listen in case it's his own ears failing him. One of the soldiers in front of him pulls a strange black box off their hip and raises it to where the ear would sit beneath the helmet.

"Roger that. We'll transport the subject to your location."

No, no it couldn't have been this soldier, could it? It seemed rather foolish for a soldier to be speaking to themselves about status reports. Ardyn is no military man, but even he is aware that a status report is usually given to a superior, not to one's self. The staticky, tinny voice responds, and Ardyn struggles to understand what is happening.

"And we'll have the medical team ready as planned."

The speaker is not the soldier in front of him, Ardyn decides, but it does not clear up the question of where the other voice is coming from. The black box the soldier holds to their head is an obvious candidate, but also a ridiculous one. A fully grown man cannot fit inside a box the size of his own palm. Ardyn stares as he heaves and wheezes while the soldier with the black box stops and spins slowly, no doubt surveying the area once more. The soldier standing closest to them does the same before the one who had spoken raises their arm in a gesture. Ardyn isn't sure what that gesture means.

The talking stops, and Ardyn can no longer focus in on the origins of the disembodied voice. It shouldn't be possible for two people to communicate vast differences like that. Had Ardyn wanted to speak with anyone from the village during his three years of running and healing, he would have had to send an unknowing person to deliver his mail, or to catch a carrier pigeon flying from one town to his own. Never had been able to speak and have the person he was addressing respond in the same tone from vast differences away.

Ardyn stumbles, distracted by his confused thoughts, and manages to clip a whine of pain. Perhaps he should leave this mystery for later and focus instead on where he is headed. His leg and hip are still healing, and while expedited by the moon hanging in the sky, it would still take his body some time to recover completely. Who knows how long he had been in there, strung up and injured as he was? It would no doubt be a day until he was properly healed.

"What's the situation over there?"

Ardyn flinches when the soldier speaks again, the same one who first held the box to their head. He had been too focused on making sure his feet stayed somewhat steady beneath him that he had briefly forgotten about the disembodied voice.

"Nothing to report," came the reply, still tinny and staticky like before. "We're ju-!"

A startled grunt and a weak exhale comes across from the black box. It doesn't sit right in Ardyn, and judging by the way the soldier with the box stiffens, it doesn't sit right with them either. Ardyn doesn't have much time to think about it.

A streak of blue light punches through the neck of one soldier, and several more whiz by and pierce the other soldiers around him. One by one the soldiers hit the ground dead. The soldiers hold him upright move sometime during the intricate light show. Blue light whisks past his head on both sides. It burns with magic, that strange taste of metal, ozone, and petrichor unique to that special kind of magic alone.

The Armiger.

Somnus' Armiger.

The support of the soldiers holding him suddenly vanishes, and hands still gripping him even in death stagger Ardyn as their bodies collapse. Ardyn falls forwards, still too weak to properly right himself. Pain rattles through his left leg as he hits the cold stone and damp feeling gravel beneath him, and each of his ichor covered punctures throb angrily at the impact. A very small part of him was relieved to be lying on the ground, relieved to not be walking or standing or strung up, relieved to be able to get some proper rest for the first time in Astrals know how long. Even rest on gravel and stone is better than rest on cruel, rusting hooks. Fear consumes the rest of him.

Somnus is nearby.

Despite feeling somewhat re-energized when exiting the stone building Ardyn had been imprisoned in, it hadn't been a grand deal of energy. A pinch at best. Struggling first to his hands and knees, and then to his feet saps what little energy he has left until he's left standing, swaying with the breeze on trembling legs that he's certain won't hold him for long. They'll simply have to hold him.

Something is terribly wrong.

Doing his best to ignore his irritated him and leg, Ardyn looks around, turning his head ever so slowly and with it his body. He pivots on his right heel, using the ball of his foot on his left the push and stabilize. Nothing is approaching him yet, but the bodies of the soldiers are still around him, and the taste and smell of Somnus' Armiger remains thick in the air. It only frays Ardyn's nerves more. The path before him is still empty, as it the path behind him. Perhaps if he simply walked forwards he would be fine?

A foolish thought, and he knows it.

Daggers and a sword pierce the stone and gravel a few yards before him in a flash of blue light. And then there are people, hands wrapped around hilts and yanking them from the earth, standing up and turning to face him. He knew it would be too easy to simply walk away after the soldiers around him had been so easily slaughtered.

These soldiers are different from the ones that had rescued him. They dress in black- a familiar colour that Ardyn has no close attachments to anymore- and hide their faces in hoods instead of helmets. Ornaments akin to weaving snakes and small antlers don their heads, acting as masks and keeping the hoods firmly over their eyes. Gold and silver trims the black jackets and boots and gloves. Ardyn is familiar with this style of uniform. It was the uniform that Somnus' brainwashed men wore while they hunt him down. Seems the style has been upgraded since Ardyn saw them last, as there are details that look simply unnatural, or at the very least incredibly time consuming. The soldiers- no, the Royal Guard is what Somnus had once called them- advanced. Ardyn limped back a few paces.

One of them shouts "Adagium sighted!" and it stuns Ardyn for a brief moment. He whispers the word to himself; "Adagium...?" Ardyn is aware of the origin of the root word. Adage: a wise saying, or an old proverb. But Adagium? It slows him to a halt, uncertain. It was.... It was an old Solheim word. Adagium. Concise, memorable, a message constructed from experiences and customs. If he should be so memorable, these Royal Guards would know his name. Though perhaps they wouldn't, he thinks. If his brother had been raving to the masses that Ardyn was no more a beast in need of euthanizing, there would be distance created by wiping his name from use.

The Royal Guards draw closer in his moments of confusion, and suddenly Ardyn is all too aware of the aggression in their posture, the way they hold their weapons in offensive positions. Almost on instinct Ardyn is backpedaling, staggering over the bodies of soldiers and limping heavily to keep as much weight off his injured leg as possible.

"Get it back in the cell, no matter what!"

It? Him?

"We can't let this thing off of the island!"

Ah. Right.

The venom in the Royal Guard's voice reminds him that Somnus' men didn't even see him as a monster. More a virus, meant to be snuffed with a violent remedy. For a tired, brief moment, pain, heartache, and betrayal flickers through his chest. The hurt fuels him. Somehow, Ardyn manages to hobble backwards faster, no longer impeded by the bodies of fallen men and women. His eyes linger on the two advancing Royal Guards, never leaving them to survey his current surroundings. Ardyn had given the Royal Guard the slip countless times before. He's certain he can do it again, even in his current condition.

The one with the katana rushes him, the blade held above the shoulder and the tip pointed straight for Ardyn's heart. Ardyn spins on his right foot, using his left to give him added momentum and stability. The tip of the blade shoots past him, a few scant inches between his chest and the razor sharp edge of the blade. He tries not to think about how much his leg hurts as the Royal Guard overextends. No doubt he believed that he would impale him on the first try.

The Royal Guard draws back almost as quickly as he lunged, leaping back a few safe paces. Ardyn snorts to himself at the sight, his ribs smarting from the sharp breath and the ache of ichor in his wounds. It was as if this Royal Guard feared being contaminated with the Starscourge taking residence in his body. How foolish. The Starscourge does not spread so easily from Ardyn's body, nor has Ardyn produced any infectious material. Not to mention the man hadn't even touched the ichor on him, with or without his uniform.

The Royal Guard with the daggers gets in close to Ardyn, steel glinting dangerously in the moonlight. All for show. He stumbles a bit at first, but Ardyn dodges each swipe of the man's daggers, weaving back and to the sides as each strike comes. He finds he hasn't lost his rhythm after all that time spent in the cell. It's hard to forget survival instincts when they had been drilled into his skull for three years on the run.

He's curious, however. He wants to test these waters, rock the boat for these Royal Guards somewhat. After seeing the one with the katana leap back like his life was about to be stolen from him, Ardyn can't help the simple curiosity filling his breast. He pivots on his left leg this time, ignoring the angry lance of pain, and steps forwards rather heavily. The man with the daggers falls for his fake-out, leaping back just as the man with the katana had. Again, Ardyn snorts. They're scared of him. Perhaps, Ardyn thinks, he can walk away from this fight without having to lift a finger in offence. Perhaps he can dupe these Royal Guards enough times that he can escape. Perhaps he really doesn't have to hurt anyone to flee. He doesn't want to hurt them. He's never wanted to hurt them. They are men, just like him. They've simply been brainwashed by Somnus. They don't know any better. Ardyn can't find it in himself to fault them, not entirely.

Since the man with daggers had engaged him, more and more of these Royal Guards had been appearing. Ardyn had managed to notice each one by the smell of ozone, metal, and petrichor each time one of them warped in closer. Tendrils of nervous energy and uncertainty claw their way through Ardyn's heart. Against two, Ardyn was certain he'd have no problems. He would trip them, perhaps knock them out, and be on his merry way. But twelve of them? He could take two, even in his current condition he thinks he could escape relatively unscathed. But twelve, fully rested and battle hardened Royal Guards against one weak, exhausted, and agonized man? It's beginning to look less and less optimistic.

He must risk expending all of his energy if he has any hopes of escaping.

Ardyn reaches out and pulls at reality, reaches into the hammerspace and calls forth his own Armiger. It's difficult to call upon, no doubt from the disuse from his time in the cell, but it responds to him nonetheless. Some of the Royal Guards, perhaps ones higher up in the standings, or ones simply more in the know, seem to realize what Ardyn is doing. One of them rushes at him, a heavy broadsword held tight in her gloved hands.

Ardyn almost isn't fast enough. He pulls out his old shield in the knick of time, raising it above him to block the downward strike of the heavy glaive. Wisps of red magic dissipate as the force of the blow rattles all the way through Ardyn's body. The blow is enough to stagger him. His stagger is enough to encourage the rest of the Royal Guards to charge.

One by one the Royal Guards swing at him, glaives and broadswords and katanas and daggers all being blocked or bashed away by his shield. What Ardyn can't block, he sidesteps and dodges. A man with the broadest sword Ardyn has ever seen cuts diagonally. Ardyn shield bashes it away and off to the side. A dagger snakes in behind the shield, aiming for the tendons in his arms. He dips his arms down and steps back. A katana comes lunging in from behind him, and Ardyn pivots on his good foot, dodging the blade and catching the hilt of it between his arms. He twists sharply and it falls from calloused hands. The Royal Guard jumps away.

One by one, again and again, Ardyn dodges and blocks and parries and disarms. One by one they strike at him in a never ending rain of blows. Ardyn doesn't want to hurt them. He's trying his hardest not to hurt them. He thrusts his shield forwards too roughly, and breaks a nose. He spins his arms too quickly, and dislocates an elbow. He sidesteps and extends his good leg in practised ease. A crunch of bone on stone tells him a knee is broken. Ardyn doesn't want to hurt them, not even this much.

But Ardyn is tiring.

His bad leg is locking up, making it harder and harder to twist and turn away. The punctures covered in ichor ache and throb, begging for Ardyn to stop. His lungs burn. He can't breathe deeply enough, can't breathe fast enough. He's exhausted, mentally and physically. There are still so many Royal Guards who have not been injured, who are still in perfect fighting condition while Ardyn huffs and puffs and struggles to keep up. They're getting faster and faster, each strike becoming more brutal than the last. Ardyn knows he won't be able to hold up against them much longer.

In the blink of an eye, the Royal Guards retreat, backing away quickly. A path between them all opens up, and Ardyn can hardly believe his eyes. They're simply letting him go? After all that? The monster his brother painted him as, the man who had wounded a few of these people already, intentionally or not. And they would just let him go? Just like that?

Ardyn knew that was too good to be true.

Something that sounds like thunder in a can explodes near him before he can even think to flee. It explodes behind him a second time, after a bizarre sliding and clicking sound. He almost doesn't register the pain until he hits the ground, shield dissolving back into the Armiger as he collapses onto his stomach with a wheeze. His shoulder and hip are so sensitive, so painful. Ardyn can barely think, can barely breathe. What had hit him? What happened?

Ichor runs freely from his shoulder and his bad hip, doing whatever it can to scab up the new puncture wounds that make parts of his left side look like Tenebraean cheese. But these are new wounds, wounds many in number and with a far different effect than any blade or hook he's ever experienced.

It's all Ardyn can do to simply lie there, immobilized by his pain. He watches with blank eyes as the ichor runs freely and spread over stone and gravel. Black boots rush towards him and hands descend on him. His arms are pulled out to the sides, drawn taut and pressed painfully into the gravel by boots. More palms and boots press down on his back, on his spine and his shoulders, nearly grinding his torso into the ground. The pain takes a turn for the worse.

"Stop..." he wheezes, barely able to get enough breath to force the word out. No one listens. His arms are suddenly being pulled up and backwards in an awkward position, one that strains his wounded shoulder and draws a sharp gasp out of him.

"Cease this..." he pleads. No one listens. The feeling of metal clamps down around wrists and extends all the way up to his elbows, locking his arms in place behind him. The metal might as well have been ice. It feels so terribly frozen against his arms.

A ringing buzz is growing in him. It forces the ichor spilling out of him to harden, faster and faster and faster than what seems usual for his body. The ringing buzz starts drowning out sounds, scuffling boots and grinding gravel and sheathing weapons becoming foggier and foggier the longer it lasts. Slowly but surely he loses feeling in his body, the way he's being pressed ever closer to the earth feeling farther and farther away. Anger floods in after the ringing buzz, chasing it and taking up residence in his body beside it like the hot, stinging burn of acid. Several hundred monsters scream in his head, howling a song of rage and war. It's compelling.

"Cease this at once!"

It's an explosion of power that bursts forth from his body. Men and women are thrown off of him, as if it were a physical blast. In some ways it feels like it. The force of it burns out the exhaustion and replaces it with a kind of energy Ardyn has felt only once before. It burns him alive, washes him in anger, strips him of humanity. It feels so deliciously good.

It feels even better to get to his feet, pushing himself up by his chest and staggering up from his knees. He pulls. A groan of straining metal echoes until a harsh snap rings through the air. Suddenly, Ardyn's arms are free, the metal cuffs falling behind him with a clatter in scattered pebbles and gravel. To some extent, Ardyn is aware that he's still in pain. He's aware of how terrible a condition his leg is in. But he stands firm and tall on both legs. The pain is distant. It feels as if he's listening to someone shout through several feet of water. He supposes he can work with that kind of distance.

In the time it takes him to stand, break free, and assess his current state, the Royal Guards also manage to regroup. They rush him again, this time in groups rather than one by one. Despite his earlier troubles, Ardyn calls to his Armiger no problem. Instead of a shield, Ardyn draws his wine red blade. The Rakshasa Blade. His blade. Distantly he hears his subconscious begging himself not to hurt these men and women. They do not deserve to be hurt for what they've done. They simply don't know better. He shouldn't spill their blood for this. The rest of him overpowers that calling in his subconscious. He is filled with such a rage that truthfully, Ardyn can't be bothered with caring whether they live or die by his blade.

With one great sweep of the Rakshasa Blade, many of the advancing Royal Guards are cut down. The smell of blood staining tainted metal, the sound of it splashing on gravel and flesh disturbing the pebbles agitates him. The ringing buzz grows. His body floods with more energy.

One by one Ardyn cuts down the Royal Guards. Some wounds are instantly fatal, such as the severing of neck from torso and the pierce of a blade through still beating hearts. Some wounds are fatal, but not instantly, like stomachs being sliced open and guts spilling out, and arms falling from shoulders, legs being cut away from hips. Some are incredibly lucky, and Ardyn leaves them unconscious in the gravel, hit hard with the pommel of his sword and left to come to at a later hour.

Ardyn can't bring himself to care about what he does to these men. He takes a sick kind of joy in ripping Somnus' men limb from limb, gutting them like fish, beheading them and humiliating them. Distantly he hopes that Somnus hears of these happenings and feels a very real and very true fear of what he's unleashed upon this star.

As Ardyn cuts down the original twelve guards, more of them appear, arriving in the ever familiar tang of ozone, metal, and petrichor. Ardyn leaps to cut them down as well. Some of them never get the chance to raise their weapons. Those who do aren't far behind their comrades fading into the void of death. Those who manage to fight back are swiftly overpowered. It no longer matters that there are more of them than there are of him. It's a thrill to end their lives.

When the fight becomes stale, Ardyn reaches into the power the Starscourge grants him. He disappears in a puff of miasma. Men and women of Smonus' precious Royal Guard are stunned by the display, and when Ardyn reforms behind them and strikes them down too, he makes sure to use that ability more often. He purposely shifts from corporeal to plasmodia and vaporized ichor, using it to his advantage while dealing with these foolish pawns. Ardyn thinks he's never felt better.

Inexplicably, his body begins to slow. At first it's just a fight for breath. It gets harder to breathe as the seconds tick by. Then it's his stamina, stuttering with each transformation into miasma, faltering with each swing of his blade. He's growing weaker, he can feel the energy he once had beginning to drain out of him. He needs to finish this fight quickly.

The remaining men and women rush him again with a renewed vigour. They must be noticing his waning strength as well. Ardyn moves to defend himself. It changes very little of the battle's proceedings. One by one he cuts them down, though his strikes grow sloppier and sloppier. His pinpoint rage from earlier wavers and Ardyn staggers. It's the chance the Royal Guards take.

The Rakshasa Blade flees him without his permission, and a man gets too close. Ardyn punishes him, an inchor coated fist slamming into his stomach and sending him flying. Ardyn spares a second to whistle, impressed by the distance he flies. A women pounces on him from behind while he's distracted, but she meets a similar fate. Ardyn punches her straight in the solar plexus. She flies back and Ardyn gives chase, stumbling a little on his now wobbling legs.

She's trying to stand. Ardyn remedies that when he grabs her by the throat and slams her back into the ground. Ichor seeps over her neck, and something rings inside Ardyn, something deep and primal, chanting he continue without specifying what he's to continue.

Ardyn is tackled and thrown off of her, hand slipping from her throat through the slickness of the ichor. He hits the ground hard, but he loses no strength. He climbs to his feet and before the man can react he's on him, flying at him and bowling him into the ground. There's a a sickening crunch of bone and air rushing from lungs. Ardyn revels in the sound.

A rage unlike any other suddenly sweeps through him, burning hotter and brighter than the anger that had given him energy before. He pins the writhing man to the earth by his throat and his chest, and Ardyn howls, sounding every inch a civilian infected and consumed by the Starscourge.

"For what sins must I atone?!"

Fantastic imagery flashes through Ardyn, pictures of lights and sounds and smells and tastes, thoughts that are not his own rushing through his head. The struggling body beneath him and the painful gurgling cries are drowned out in the noise. Ardyn can't comprehend, can't understand what is happening. It feels so real, it feels so vibrant. It's too much all at once, and as his anger sputters and dies off, so too do the images flashing before his eyes.

Ardyn kneels before a corpse,- the last of the men and women of Somnus' Royal Guard, he realizes. He realizes again that the sensations and sights are memories. But Ardyn's never seen anything like any of that ever before in his life.

"These memories are not my own..." he mumbles, bringing his hands up in front of him to examine them with new eyes. "... Could they be his?"

It's then that Ardyn looks at the corpse.

The man beneath him is smoking, granules of flesh and fabric blowing away in the slight breeze that had never once stopped during the gruesome battle that had taken place. His skin is blackened, appearing as if it had been charred, and from his eyes Ardyn notices how black, oily sludge bleeds from his eyes. It's the very same ichor that infests Ardyn's body. It's the very same Starscourge Ardyn had vowed to heal people from. The corpse displays Starscourge in the late stages of the infection, though mutations are not present. It's a fatal case all the same.

Nausea hits him like a tidal wave at the same time the realization of what he's done hits him. The ringing buzz is gone. Ardyn feels so very close to puking.

"I didn't purge him of the scourge; I bestowed it upon him."

Saying what he's done out loud only makes it worse.

Ardyn jumps as laughter erupts nearby. It's the same grating laughter he had heard from the man with that predatory look on his face in the cell. He doesn't need to look to know it's the same man approaching him, metal and cork and leather squishing and clinking and brushing together. The fire in his body that had fuelled his blood rage is gone, and Ardyn is left feeling weaker and weaker by the second.

When Ardyn turns his eyes towards the man, the action makes him feel dizzy. The world is dipping beneath his knees, swinging and swaying more forcefully than Ardyn can keep up with. His body is completely drained. The pain is still distant, but far more intense. His hip and knee is locked, he's sure of it. He can't do anything about it in his daze.

"Incredible!" the man with the predatory look crows. "His power is unbelievable!"

Ardyn realizes too late that his hearing is tinny, and he's got severe tunnel vision. He's used up far more energy than his body had in the first place, far more energy than he could physically spare. Time seems to slow, and the seconds feel like an eternity. Ardyn tilts backwards, succumbing to the vertigo. His body crashes into stone and gravel, and he can't be bothered to cry out in pain.

"Hey!"

It's all Ardyn hears before his world turns black.

Notes:

i love writing fight scenes lmao theyre so therapeutic

i wish i could be stabbed LMAO

imagine how cool the scar would look

Chapter 7

Summary:

"Ardyn?" Her voice is soft and warm, just like it was the last time he arrived unannounced. "I thought it was the doctor knocking."

Though there is genuine confusion in her words, her eyes sparkle with a little bit of teasing mirth. Ardyn can't help but join in. He huffs with mock offence and pouts at her, his posture loosening into a weak slouch.

"You wound me, mother. You know I've been a certified healer since I was twenty two."

That draws a scoff and a grin out of her, her eyes rolling as she opens the door a little bit more.

Her tone is harsh, but there's no bite to it.

"I would have known that if my ungrateful children cared to visit us more often."

"Well, I'm here now, aren't I?"

The laugh that draws from his mother is striking, so very warm and full of joy. She draws him into a hug that he returns eagerly, mindful of putting unnecessary strain on his leg. After a few, blissful moments his mother pulls back, retreating just enough to press kisses to both of his cheeks and to his forehead. He returns that gesture as well, and grins down at her when she grins up at him.

Notes:

hoo boy so this one turned into a beast too
sorry fam we're right back into the memerdreams now

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

It's a rather quiet afternoon today. It's early spring now, and the temperatures are rising. Colds and coughs and flus have already run their course through the village, and there had only been one person picking up a vial of stomach medicine. Mrs. Veteris picking up medicine for her ill son, if he recalls correctly. There's not yet been the inevitable broken arm or leg from the farmers, and certainly none of the village children have found ways to get hurt yet in the new, warm days of spring. Truth be told, there's nothing to do this fine day.

Doctor Salutem had left only a few minutes earlier on a house call he had said that Ardyn was forbidden in participating. He'd ordered him to stay with the shop and maintain the supplies. Ardyn had done just that. It was easy now. After seven years of teaching, three of which spent as a fully fledged doctor, Ardyn knew exactly how to store the ingredients for medicines, how to monitor and maintain already created remedies, and how to clean each medical instrument with quick, efficient hands. He'd done as he had been told, and now he was left with nothing to do. No one had any ills to bring to him, nor were there any other people searching for a cure to one sickness or another. Not even the rowdy children had managed a scrape on their knees. Ardyn was left there with his own thoughts, sitting on a chair and reading the fine print in a medical book.

That, with regards to the singular house call of the day, was a truly dangerous activity.

His eyes and hands followed through the motions of reading up on herbs and stitches and splints, but he absorbed none of the information. He had read the book several times over before, knew it like the back of his hand. It never hurt to refresh his knowledge, but Ardyn could not focus on it. The house call he had been forbidden from participating in was at his childhood house. The house where his mothers still lived.

His mothers were getting older, just like every other parent for anyone of Ardyn's age. They were getting slower and more fragile, yes, but they have always boasted sturdy health. Ardyn can recall the number of times both of his mothers had fallen sick in his childhood on one hand alone. Their accidental wounds that would require a doctor were even less frequent. His mothers were getting older and frailer and slower, yes, but his mothers were no fools. Ardyn couldn't begin to imagine what might be plaguing his mothers enough for them to send their neighbours out to call on the doctor.

Ardyn had itched to go see what was wrong with his mothers, but Doctor Salutem had told him that he should stay put. A doctor becoming caught up in their family's health usually led to the inability to see how much suffering a family member was in while the doctor tried to find an impossible cure. Ardyn had agreed with Doctor Salutem. He knew all of this, and despite his urge to go to his mothers in their time of need, Ardyn had stayed behind at the shop. That didn't mean Ardyn wasn't jittery and anxious.

Ardyn stopped on the end of his page, and raising his head he glances out the front window at the sundial in the small marketplace nearby. Quarter past two in the afternoon. Ardyn bounces his good leg impatiently and draws his eyes back to his book, back to the beginning of the page. He reads through the page again, eyes once more seeing but not recognizing. When he stops at the end of the page he looks back out at the sundial. Eighteen minutes past two. Ardyn drags his eyes away again and begins his page once more, this time halfway down. Again Ardyn stops at the end of the page and glances out at the sundial. Twenty minutes past two.

It's enough to make a man go mad in this place.

Ardyn can't handle this mindless waiting any longer.

He knows that Doctor Salutem will give him the tongue lashing of a lifetime when he finds out. He knows that it's wrong of him to do this. But Ardyn cannot physically stop himself. He is overcome with his own worry and anxiety. What was he supposed to do? Sit here and pretend everything is fine while his mentor runs off to tend to his mothers as if it isn't his mothers who are in trouble? Ardyn would rather take the lectures and the impersonal and professional training all over again than sit here any longer and wonder if his mothers are dead or dying.

The medical book is placed on the bookshelf with the rest of the texts and references before Ardyn is off like a shot. He grabs his personal bag, the one used to haul equipment to a house call, and begins stuffing it full of the basic diagnostic equipment. A stethoscope, a pair of scalpels wrapped in leather, simple pain and fever medications, catgut, a hook, alcohol, bandages, and a splint. He's packed his things enough times that everything fits in his bag, neat and properly squared away. Ardyn reaches out for his last item and pauses.

His.... His medical dagger.

It was meant for the Starscourge. Still no effective treatment had been found for the Starscourge, forget all together about a cure for it. It was easiest for himself and Doctor Salutem to gain a pass from the Lucian military so that they may wield their daggers and use them to give those who fall ill to the scourge a merciful end. Ardyn had used the dagger only a few times, and Doctor Salutem had used his a few more times than that. They knew by now when a patient was nearing the end of their lucidity and when the parasite of the scourge turns them into something that is no longer themselves. Ardyn loathed to use the stupid thing, and he knew Doctor Salutem hated using it too. But when it came to dignity and the safety of the village, a dagger was the best cure.

Ardyn was going to visit his mothers. He couldn't bring the dagger with him, he simply couldn't.

For a brief moment, Ardyn recalls the images of those he had laid to rest with it, the relief on their faces masking the fear they felt. His resolve hardens. He packs his dagger and snaps his bag shut.

It's an easy routine, locking up the small building he and Doctor Salutem work out of, and when passes the small coat rack, Ardyn scoops up his cane and steps outside. It's an even easier task to lock the front door. He jostles it shut from where it catches on an upturning porch board and jiggles the handle into the correct position to lock it. He gives the door a test pull. It stays locked shut. Ardyn nods to himself, deposits the key into his bag, and descends the few small stairs leading up to the door.

Once his boots touch the dirt path, Ardyn is off like a shot. The heel of his cane hits the packed earth with a dull, muted thunk and creates a strange, hobbling rhythm with his quick steps. It irritates his leg to be walking so quickly through town, but Ardyn does his best to ignore it. He takes long strides that eats up the ground beneath him, cane hitting in time with his left leg. He knows the village like the back of his hand, and he knows all of the back alleys that will take him faster to his childhood home. Doctor Salutem might have left earlier than him, but Ardyn has youth and sheer bullheadedness on his side. No doubt Doctor Salutem, in his advancing age, is sticking to the main paths. Ardyn, with bones still decently strong and muscles still young, passes through the far less even alleys. He'll make it to his mothers on the other side of town before Doctor Salutem can.

He passes people on his way. Some of them call out to him, shout greetings and 'how are you's. Ardyn responds in turn, greeting when greeted and telling them he's glad the winter has come and passed. No one stops him on his path, not even the young florist who has taken a shine to him after treating her broken wrist months earlier. No doubt they all notice his medical bag, swinging in his right hand. No doubt they all know he's on a mission to aide another villager. He's thankful for their silent understanding.

Ardyn turns a corner and halts rather suddenly. His hip throbs in annoyance but he can hardly feel it. Before him stands the house he grew up in, nestled between two others on the very edge of the village. He's briefly bombarded by the memories of younger days. Days he and Somnus would play out front and in the back, days they would sit and watch the rain from their window, days that Ardyn was certain to cherish forever. He brushed them all off as quickly as he could. Time is of the essence, and he certainly wishes to make sure his family is well before Doctor Salutem finds him.

Shaking off the petrification that strangles his determination, Ardyn marches his way up to the worn door. He knocks with a fierce and firm rhythm, a knock he knows his mothers will recognize, and steps back to wait. For a moment there is silence, followed soon after by muffled shuffling. The door opens up just enough to allow a face to peek through. Ardyn can't help the smile that spreads across his face. His mother.

Dark blue eyes blink up at him almost owlishly. Black hair, long and wavy, frames her face just as Ardyn remembers it to, though it looks a little greyer than it did the last time he saw her. Laugh lines and crows feet are stronger on her face, and she looks all the more lively for it. She's shorter than he is, as well, a fact Ardyn can't help but continuously notice each time he visits. She was always reliable in reminding him of his height in the form of playful complaints. Though she's getting older, she still looks just as lively as she had back when Ardyn was nothing more than a wee tyke.

"Ardyn?" Her voice is soft and warm, just like it was the last time he arrived unannounced. "I thought it was the doctor knocking."

Though there is genuine confusion in her words, her eyes sparkle with a little bit of teasing mirth. Ardyn can't help but join in. He huffs with mock offence and pouts at her, his posture loosening into a weak slouch.

"You wound me, mother. You know I've been a certified healer since I was twenty two."

That draws a scoff and a grin out of her, her eyes rolling as she opens the door a little bit more. Her tone is harsh, but there's no bite to it.

"I would have known that if my ungrateful children cared to visit us more often."

"Well, I'm here now, aren't I?"

The laugh that draws from his mother is striking, so very warm and full of joy. She draws him into a hug that he returns eagerly, mindful of putting unnecessary strain on his leg. After a few, blissful moments his mother pulls back, retreating just enough to press kisses to both of his cheeks and to his forehead. He returns that gesture as well, and grins down at her when she grins up at him.

"It's good to see you again, Ardyn."

"You're looking as radiant as ever, mother."

And she laughs again, this time stepping back and opening the door fully.

"What a young charmer I've raised. Please, come in Ardyn. Make yourself at home."

As his mother retreats into the house, Ardyn steps in after her. He toes off his boots and leaves them at the front door before he follows her out into the main room and kitchen. She motions for him to sit down on the worn and overstuffed couch. Ardyn eases himself onto it, stretching out his bad leg and setting his bag of equipment down near his feet.

"Your mother has only just fallen asleep," she begins, fluttering about the kitchen to pull out a kettle for the old stove. "She was up all night hacking and coughing. I hope you don't mind my stalling. I wanted to give her a chance to rest."

"Of course I don't mind."

His mothers had always taught him and Somnus that lying was wrong. This time, however, his mother didn't seem upset by his lie. It gave them both time to pretend this was no more than an ordinary visit instead of a house call.

Ardyn watches as she brings some water to a boil, and nervously fidgets with his fingers while she begins to steep some tea. A cold weight had begun to settle in Ardyn's gut. He never wanted to play favourites, not when it came to his mothers, but it's impossible for one to not love their own mother more. Ardyn never knew his father, nor did he ever wish to. His mothers had told him and Somnus from a young age that even though they were not blood, they were still family. There had been a reason Ardyn looked nothing like Paeonia Caelum, and it was the same reason Somnus looked nothing like Myosoti Izunia.

It was the same reason both he and Somnus had taken the name Izunia-Caelum as their surname. They may not be blood, but they were brothers all the same. These women were their mothers. But no matter how much Ardyn loved Paeonia like a mother, he knew that he would always love his own mother more. He'd shared as much with all of them once, and Somnus had agreed. Hearing that it was his own mother hacking and coughing all through the night made Ardyn uneasy. No one enjoyed hearing their own mother was ill.

By the time his mother brought him a cup of tea made just the way he liked it, his throat had closed up with the tension. His mother sits beside him, and together they sit in companionable, if uneasy silence, sipping their hot tea. The warmth of the drink did nothing to loosen the chokehold his own anxiety had on his throat. They stay like that until Ardyn has drained his tea cup. His mother clears her throat, and Ardyn looks to her as she pushes grey flecked hair over her shoulder.

"You should know that it will not be easy, seeing your mum as she is now..."

Her voice is low and soft, almost soothing. Ardyn simply nods, his lips tightening into a thin line. She continues in that low tone, her own tea cup and saucer slowly settling half full in her lap.

"Myosoti has always been a strong woman... Even a bout of pneumonia couldn't keep her bedridden, as I'm sure you can remember."

Her hands tighten around the cup and saucer, and she isn't lifting her head to meet his eyes. In fact, it seems she's taken a fascination with the ugly rug in front of the couch. Her fascination with the black and gold speckled rug does nothing to soothe the churning in his gut.

"But this is far different... This... This is something different, Ardyn, and I am very scared."

Now, and only now does she look up at him. There are unshed tears in her eyes, turning her uncertain look watery. When she speaks again, she speaks in a whisper.

"I fear your mother has the Starscourge, Ardyn..."

Every muscle in his body freezes as if someone had cast a Blizzaga over him. He can feel his face pale, knows that the colour drains from his face just as the heat does. He pauses for a brief moment, searching his mother's gaze. He hopes it's a joke, he hopes that perhaps she's simply jumping to conclusions. When he finds nothing but uncertainty and tears, his heart freezes over even more. His mother has the Starscourge.

No, no she can't have the Starscourge. She couldn't have contracted it. She wasn't getting any younger, sure, but the Starscourge isn't prone to picking on those advancing in their years. He refuses to think of her as old and weak. He's seen children come down with it, has seen young men and women suffer because of it. That doesn't help his thoughts at all. He tries desperately to recall his writing, tries to think of a treatment for her. He comes up blank. He's spent five years trying to come up with a cure for the Starscourge. Hell, at this point, he would have been satisfied with a treatment that kept it from completely infecting the body, a treatment to make it a liveable, survivable disorder.

Every case of Starscourge both he and Doctor Salutem had come across was a fatal case.

The weight of the medical dagger in his bag by his feet seems to have become even greater.

"How...?"

He isn't sure how he manages to force it out, but the word tumbles out regardless, weak and breathless. His mother shakes her head, unable to look at him any longer.

"She was tending to the earth with Bundon Arator about a week ago... She claims to have stepped in a mushroom patch on the edges of the land they were planning to plant the crops... She said she caught a whiff of some strange dust, and Bundon Arator sent her home afterwards..."

Once more his body felt as though someone had cast Blizzaga over it. Ardyn hadn't seen or heard of many cases of it, but people around the village had been claiming that the Starscourge was beginning to infect some of the land. The ground would turn a strange, sickly grey in colour, and any plants that lived there would wither and turn black, strange specks of fuchsia dotting the stems and rotted leaves. It was uncommon, but not impossible.

Ardyn couldn't help but sit stock still beside his mother, looking at her but barely processing her. He barely noticed as she wiped at her eyes, no doubt trying to be strong for his sake. Slowly Ardyn turned to face forwards again, eyes focusing in on the middle distance while static filled his head. They sat together like that for some time, his mother trying to collect herself while he listened to the static nothings whispering in his skull. It took him far too long to return to reality for his liking, and when he did, he didn't have the strength to look over at his mother.

"I... Would like to see her..." he started, somewhat startled by how hoarse his voice had become. "I would like to see if I can come to a diagnosis for her..."

To his right his mother nods and stands. She places her tea cup and saucer on the side table, and Ardyn does the same before standing himself. The bag filled with his medical equipment feels five times heavier now than it had when he had first packed it.

The trip to the master bedroom passes Ardyn in a haze. He's still so lost and confused to properly register where his feet and the heel of his cane lands to take note of it. All he can think of is his mother, the sunspot on life that she is, suffering from something Ardyn couldn't fix for her.

When his mother opens the door for him and motions him inside, Ardyn can barely force himself to move. He steps stiff legged and slow towards the edge of the bed, but even this close is enough to twist his heart. Despair nearly chokes the life out of him.

Her skin, once bronze like his own, is a sickly ashen colour. Borderline translucent, it cracks all along the edges of her face and down her neck. Her veins are nearly pitch black, a strong contrast to the deathly pallor she's acquired. Even asleep her breathing is hard and shallow, rattling in her chest as if the very same black dust that infected her has slowly been choking the life from her. Her hair, once a warm honey brown, now looks nearly grey, stringy and brittle and limp.

His mother had come to the same conclusion Ardyn sees before him now.

Starscourge. Mid stage. Fatal case.

The world seems to fade away around him, everything growing silent and grey. The focal point is his mother, suffering in her own bed. Ardyn shuffles towards her, setting aside his bag and his cane before sitting ever so carefully on the edge of the bed. She doesn't even stir as the bed dips beneath his weight. Ever so careful, Ardyn cups her cheek and rubs a thumb under her eye. She's cold and clammy to the touch. Again she doesn't stir, and Ardyn moves his hand to run his fingers through her hair. It's damp just like her skin.

"Ardyn."

He barely has the will to drag his eyes from his mother's face, and he knows he must look pale from the way Doctor Salutem looks at him with pity. He hadn't even heard him arrive. He seems to think about his words, glancing between him and his mother, before letting out a deep sigh and rubbing at his eyes with his finger and thumb.

"There is nothing I can do about the Starscourge. It's only a matter of time before it takes her."

Though his voice is low and shakes with his age, the vocal confirmation is like a punch to Ardyn's gut. He turns away to look at his mother again, biting at his cheek to keep himself silent while Doctor Salutem continues.

"The best course of action would be to end her suffering here and now."

It's still not easy to hear. Instead Ardyn moves to fish a hand from beneath the quilts. Her hand looks just as bad as her face, deathly pale and skin cracking and flaking away. He lifts her hand to his face and presses her cracking knuckles to his lips. For a moment he remains silent, eyes sliding shut as he holds tight to his mother's fragile hand. After a few moments spent trying to collect himself, he opens his eyes again, looking down at her face. Even asleep she appeared to be in pain.

"Allow us, then, to say our goodbyes, Curis... We will part with her in the morn..."

He loathes how weak he sounds, loathes that he offers himself as the one to end his own mother's suffering. But if it's not him to lay his mother to rest, then it would be Doctor Salutem. He would not stand by and allow him to kill his own mother. It made the thought of the act of killing her himself even less savoury, but he would regret it if it was not himself who gave her the only mercy they could offer. Ever the compassionate soul, Ardyn hears Doctor Salutem hums a weak agreement.

"My condolences, Ardyn... It is never easy to face the death of a loved one. Come to me when you've said your goodbyes."

Ardyn says nothing, and by the time he feels he might have the strength to, Doctor Salutem is long gone. His other mother joins him at the bedside, and she does the same as he had, carefully fishing her other hand out to hold it close to her chest. Ardyn raises his head to look at her, and she offers him a weak, watery smile that's quickly swept away by her tears. Ardyn copies the sentiment, unable to stop his own tears from sliding down his cheeks.

Ardyn spends the rest of the day at his mother's bedside, tending to her cracked skin with soft scented oils, adding another quilt to the already impressive pile, and wiping away her sweat with a warm cloth. When his mother wakes he admonishes her. It's weak and has no bite to it, but it makes his mother laugh. Her laughter, weak and croaking, makes Ardyn cry harder.

When night falls, Ardyn remains awake. His other mother crawls into bed beside the love of her life, but Ardyn remains dutifully awake. The black sludge that came with illness begins to manifest, dripping from her mouth and nose, draining from her ears and slipping out from underneath her eyelids. He gently wipes it away with rags he knew he could burn. He would buy his mother new ones to replace them later. He would rather burn these ones, now stained with sludge, than risk both his mothers falling to the same fate.

Midnight comes and goes, and Ardyn barely feels the exhaustion. Though both of his mothers sleep soundly, side by side, he finds he can't waste a moment left with his mother. It would be the last chance he gets to see her. It would be the last chance he has to be with her. Though she wheezes and coughs in her sleep, Ardyn stays awake to memorize her. The curls in her hair, the way she still seeks out her wife for comfort, the way she nuzzles into his hand subconsciously when he cups her cheek. It's enough to have him in tears once more.

Some time during the short hours of the morning, sleep begins to tug at Ardyn. He does his best to fight it, does his best to stay alert and focused on his suffering mother. He can't fall asleep. He can't waste what precious little time he has left with her. He can't face the coming morning without having had the last few hours of night to make his peace with her fate. A thrum of power seems to sweep through the land, and Ardyn finds he has no choice in the matter. He sags and slumps in his chair by the bed, his mother's frail hand still held in his own when his eyes droop shut.

When he wakes, he finds himself not in his mothers' room, nor slumped in a chair. All around him is an endless expanse of space, filled to the brim with soft blue light and stars. The cosmos around him shifts and ebbs like the waves of the ocean, brushing past him but never disturbing him. It's quiet in this strange void of space of light and stars, quiet enough that Ardyn can hear his own heart beating like drum and his blood pumping in his veins. It's calm here. He isn't sure why.

A wave of power surges through the space, disturbing the gentle lap of the cosmos against his skin. The feeling of the power is stronger, and it sends goosebumps racing across his body. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck stands on end. A deep, essence shifting rumble fills the space around him, and suddenly Ardyn finds that he cannot hear his heart or blood anymore.

"Ardyn Izunia-Caelum."

The voice is thunderous yet soft. It sounds like countless wars and bloodshed, yet also sounds of the rhythmic hammer of a blacksmith's forge. All at once a commanding presence blooms behind him, orders him silently to face the one behind him. Ardyn is forced to turn around to face the owner of the voice of war and blood and creation of blades.

Before him stands Bahamut. They look nothing like the ancient texts tell.

Their armor is glossy and shines just as bright as the stars that illuminate the space around them, painted beautiful blues and purples and golds. A four horned helm hides the Draconian's face, and behind them stretches their wings made of blades, each weapon intricately forged and carved in runes and designs fit for gods. Twin trails of fabric flow out from behind them, no doubt originating from beneath one of the plates of their armor. A sword, bigger and brighter and more radiant than the swords that make up their wings stands before them, and their massive hands rest upon the pommel. The Draconian looks every inch a legend that the ancient texts insist they are.

Ardyn immediately drops to his knees, ignoring the way the pain bites into him, and bends so that he's bent forwards and bowed, prostrating before the Draconian. Whether Ardyn's prostrating satisfies them or not, Bahamut doesn't give a single sign to show it. Not that Ardyn can see anything but the void and stars shifting beneath him from where he's bowed. What could have been an eternity or mere moments pass before Bahamut speaks again, their voice sending a violent shudder down Ardyn's spine.

"Rise, Ardyn Izunia-Caelum."

And so Ardyn obeys, moving as swiftly as his bad leg will let him. When he is on his feet he looks up to the Draconian, unsure if he should avert his gaze or face the Draconian head on. Bahamut met his gaze from behind their helm, and for another brief moment Ardyn was unsure if meeting their gaze was correct. The Draconian seems to find something in him that satisfies them, however, and they tilt their head downwards to properly look at him.

"Fate has unravelled before you, and in its wake lies your destiny. You, Ardyn Izunia-Caelum, have been chosen to receive the blessings of the Astrals."

Huh?

Ardyn blinks up at them, certain his face was showing exactly how dumbfounded he felt. Bahamut pays it no mind if they notice and continue, rumbling voice capturing Ardyn's focus each time they speak.

"The Armiger is your first blessing."

The chest plates of the great Bladekeeper expand outwards, accompanied by the sound of air rushing away from the space before him. Light, a strange pinkish red in nature, forms before the Draconian's face plate where the mouth would be. When the Bladekeeper exhales, the light shoots forwards. Ardyn can't move, can't command his body to dodge. The light strikes him square in the chest and dissolves into him. It feels as if fire fills his body, pumps through his veins from his heart to every extremity. When the feeling of fire dies to a numb tingling, Ardyn releases a pained breath he was unaware he was holding.

Something feels different, he notes, but Ardyn isn't given the chance to understand what has changed before Bahamut demands his attention once again.

"The Scythe of the Sage is your second blessing."

There was no warning when a massive scythe came raining down from the void above him. The great weapon came sailing down, whirling in a deadly arc. Ardyn once again found that he couldn't move to dodge. He couldn't even blink. The scythe hailed down before him and caught in the void in front of him, the point of the curved blade a finger nail's width away from piercing his heart. Whatever held his body still released him, and as if on its own accord his hand reached out for the shaft of the weapon. It didn't hurt to receive this blessing. The metal shaft was cool against his skin, and the intricate carvings and designs of the weapon glowed briefly with the same pinkish red light from before, before it disappeared entirely in a flash of light. Somehow, some way, Ardyn could feel the blade within his soul, settled deep within the safety that must have been the Armiger.

Bahamut rumbled again.

"The Sin Eater's Blessing is your third and final blessing."

For a moment Ardyn froze. Sin eating? He had heard of the ancient Solheim rituals of eating bread tainted with a deceased person's sins, but Ardyn was unsure as to how that would fit into the destiny the Draconian claimed was in store for him.

Once more the Bladekeeper sucked in a breath, and light sparkled just before their face plate. This time, however, the light was a strange purple and grey in colour. Flecks of purple danced in a mass of grey light, looking every inch like the embers of a tainted fire spell. Ardyn could not question the Bladekeeper, partially out of the uncertainty such an action would be wise, and partially due to the fact that he could not force the words out. Whatever had kept him rooted before gripped him once more. It was all he could do to close his eyes and brace himself.

If it was fire filling his veins before, the fire filling them this time felt like an inferno. Hotter and hotter his blood boiled, each beat of his heart cranking the heat up higher. If he could scream, he would have, but whatever held him was paralyzing his vocal cords as well. All Ardyn could do was stand and pant, howling in his own skull and the blessing given to him ate him from the inside out. Never before had Ardyn felt a heat so great, and as the flames within him slowly taper away, Ardyn thinks he would like to never feels that kind of heat ever again. Whatever held him releases him not nearly quick enough, and he trembles where he stands. He feels raw and vulnerable, as if his very soul itself had been scoured by the heat. Strangely, however, it felt good. The cool of the void was a wonderful contrast to the hot and raw feeling still lingering in his muscles.

Unsure of when he had closed his eyes, Ardyn opens them and looks up towards the Draconian once more. They have tilted their head back up, once more facing the void before them instead of looking down at Ardyn. His breath catches a few times, and after a few false starts, Ardyn manages to speak.

"I do not question the reasons for the Astrals' blessings, but I must know... Why me?"

Bahamut does not look at him when they reply.

"It is simply the destiny that has been placed before you."

Ardyn staggers a step forwards. That wasn't a real answer. There must be a real answer for the gods deciding that he would be the one with some mind blowing life changing destiny. There simply had to be. Before Ardyn can voice his questions again, a shockwave of power emanates from Bahamut. There's no where for Ardyn to run to avoid it, and when it hits, Ardyn falls unconscious.

Sunlight tickles him from behind his eyelids, and with a soft groan, Ardyn shifts in his chair. He opens his eyes, wincing at the brightness of the morning sun, and rubs at his eyes with his free hand. All at once everything that had happened comes crashing down upon him. Ardyn nearly chokes on the grief, barely manages to choke it back down when he opens his eyes again. His mother is looking worse than when he fell asleep. Her skin was drier, paler, and sported several new cracks. Some of the cracks were so bad that the black sludge was starting to well up from beneath her skin.

Tears welling up in his tired eyes, Ardyn leans forwards and pulls her hand close to his face, close enough to place his lips on her knuckles once more. His heart sinks steadily at the feeling of her clammy skin and at the sound of her laboured breathing. It wouldn't be long before the sludge that flows from her chokes the life from her entirely and replaces it with a beast. He feels the sludge shift beneath her skin, moving in time with the beat of her heart, pulsing and flowing and ebbing.

Hang on.

Confusion strikes Ardyn hard enough to force him to lower his mother's hand from his face. He focuses somewhat. The feeling of the Starscourge lingering in his mother's body becomes more intense, more pronounced. Ardyn can't make heads or tails of it. Never before had he felt the Starscourge in his patients like he feels it in his mother now. Never before could he sense it like the parasite it was, eating away at flesh and taking over the body.

Ardyn raises his free hand and examines it in disbelief. He looks for something that's changed in himself. Briefly he can feel the scythe sitting deep within the Armiger, resting in his soul, waiting to be called upon. He can feel the other blessing as well. It yawns inside him like a hungry beast, demanding some kind of sustenance Ardyn isn't familiar with. His blessings and the near tangible thrum of the Starscourge in his mother aside, Ardyn can't pinpoint anything different.

Curiosity gets the better of him, and without thinking, Ardyn plucks at the thrumming sensation of the Starscourge.

It most certainly wasn't a yelp that fled from his lips. Ardyn doesn't yelp. It's undignified for a man not in agony to yelp. Though perhaps if he had yelped, the sight that caused it was a worthy one. Starscourge, black and fuchsia sludge that it was, appeared to have extracted itself from his mother's hand. The little tendril had wrapped around his thumb and, surprisingly painlessly, it had sank into his own skin. Ardyn leans forwards again, this time closer to his hand, and examines it. Nothing is wrong with his hand, nor is there anything wrong with his thumb where the Starscourge had sunken into it.

The strange, yawning hunger of his second blessing intensifies, not as his own hunger but as if there were a second stomach within his body. Somehow, some way, Ardyn connects one dot with the other. The Sin Eater's Blessing, designed to eat the Starscourge. It has to be the purpose of this blessing, it simply has to be. Ardyn could think of nothing else the blessing could be used for. The desire bubbles up strongly in the back of his skull, so strongly that he cannot ignore it.

Ardyn yanks at the thrum of the scourge this time, and rather suddenly the strange sludge of the scourge leaps from his mother's hands. It seems to seep out of the very cells of his mother's hand, draining from the rest of her body to the one point of contact Ardyn shared with her. It rushes into his hand, feeling every ounce as cold and slimy as it looks before disappearing all together. He isn't sure how long he sits there and pulls at the thrum. Slowly but surely, however, the thrum grows weaker and weaker and weaker until the feeling of it disappears completely.

Ardyn watches as his hand, flesh pale and veins blackened from the absorption of the Starscourge, trembles and shakes. Slowly but surely the colour returns to his skin, and his veins drain of the strange sludge that had plagued his mother. He feels slightly worse for wear, swaying slightly in his seat while his body temperature seems to drop half a degree. Something buzzes faintly in his fingertips, something that feels so distant Ardyn isn't sure it's actually there. Exhaustion tugs at him, but Ardyn manages to chase that and his lightheadedness away with a few moments of steadying breaths.

When he looks up at his mother, Ardyn can't stop the gasp that flies from his lips.

Colour has returned to his mother's face, and the cracks in her skin have sealed themselves shut. Her skin no longer looks thin and translucent, and there's no sign of the sludge that had once slipped down her face. All at once he scrambles, dropping his mother's hand and ripping open his bag of medical supplies. The clatter seems to cause his other mother to stir, but he pays her no mind. Ardyn pulls out his stethoscope and adorns it, immediately pressing the chest piece above her heart.

It beats strongly in her chest. He moves it to her diaphragm. She's breathing easier, breathing more deeply. He removes himself of the device and places the back of his hand against her forehead. Her temperature is normal, if residually a little bit sweaty. He forcibly peels back an eyelid, peering into it as the pupil contracts on its own. Normal. All of her vitals were normal.

His frantic shifting had forced both his mothers to stir now, and together they look up at him, bleary eyed and confused. His mother looks just as she had the last time he had seen her. Her hair was a warm honey brown, her eyes a light sky blue. Her skin was smooth where laugh lines and crows feet weren't, and her skin was bronze like his own.

She was normal.

"How are you feeling, mum?"

She looks startled by his question, manages to answer anyways.

"I-I... I can't believe how good I feel..."

Even her voice is strong and warm, no matter how startled she is by the strength of it. It's enough for Ardyn to crack.

The floodgates open all at once, and Ardyn brings both of his mothers into a tight hug. Tears slip down his face and sobs wrack his body, but between it all he's laughing, joy bubbling up in his chest, refusing to be tamped down by his tears.

"A-Ardyn! Ardyn what's happening?!"

He pulls away for a split second and smiles at them both, wider than he's smiled in such a long time. His voice is filled with certainty and pride when he tells them.

"I've discovered a cure!"

Notes:

you ever think about how bahamut is a f*cking thot?
an absolute bastard. i think i will tear him limb from limb

Chapter 8

Summary:

The woman gives him a very bright, very warm, and very fake smile. She seems to know how forced her own expression is as Ardyn knows, but neither of them mention it. Ardyn is beginning to feel far too tired to fight.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ardyn. Please try to relax. We will be taking very good care of you."

Ardyn doesn't believe a single word she says, but the fog is finally taking over what little coherence he has left. Almost against his own will, his eyelids slide shut, and all he can hear is his own breathing and the sound of the air pressure against his face. Hands lift off him but it feels so far away now. He had barely noticed that they had been holding him down still.

Hands find his elbow, and Ardyn feels a sharp prick where his arm bends. He can barely feel the discomfort of another prick sliding into his skin, can barely feel the strange sensation of something sticky pressing tubing to his arm.

Oddly enough, a fierce itch blooms from the base of his spine down between the curves of his ass. Sensation fades too quickly after that, and Ardyn soon falls asleep.

Notes:

after two massive beasts of chapters, here comes a little baby chapter, this one in the present.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Sound is the first thing to return to him. At first everything is muffled, distant and tinny. Sounds are garbled into one while some kind of ringing dominates his hearing. Slowly, however, the sound grows louder, clearer, stronger. He starts to hear voices, people shouting at one another for things Ardyn isn't familiar with. Beyond that he can hear some kind of strange rattling, something akin to the sound of metal splints clattering together on the back of a cart. And beyond even that he can hear a low hum of energy, somehow familiar to the sound of a charging thunder spell, but never reaching the high pitches of energy, always a low thrum. It doesn't make any sense to him.

The feeling of motion returns to him next. It's a strange sensation he's been forced to endure, one he isn't sure he's too familiar with. Ardyn is aware he's lying on his back, that much he knows for sure. What he isn't familiar with is the smooth, gliding sensation of moving while prone. He's done countless runs of sliding in the mud with his brother with the rains had come to Cavaugh, but that had been far more wild and bumpy, filled with more thrashing and flailing to move about. This required no input from himself. There were no stones in the mud to scratch him up, no bumps in the earth to jostle him around. It was confusing.

A slight tremor passes through him at the sound of metal gliding softly against metal. That was a sound he's heard only a very few specific times. How strange to hear it now.

"Hurry! He's waking up!"

Huh?

The voices grow in volume again, this time seemingly for the worse. There's a controlled kind of panic in their voices, one Ardyn recognizes from his time with the late Doctor Salutem. They had often barked at one another with the same tone of voice while preforming amputations on patients who had damaged limbs beyond repair. The thought doesn't soothe him.

Ardyn cracks his eyes open, and finds the world around him to be pleasantly dim. Whatever lantern light there is is far away, or at least kept small enough to keep from disturbing those who are asleep. He can't make much out of the building they seem to be in, not with six bodies standing upright around him. Doctors, it looks like. They each wear face covers made of a strange material he doesn't recognize. Some of their face covers hang around their necks, some of their face covers hide their noses and mouths. They're all wearing a blue outfit of some kind, but Ardyn can't tell what medical purpose it serves. Smocks, perhaps? And all of them wear some kind of strange fabric over their heads, big enough only to hide their hair. Ardyn looks past them all to the glass hanging above him. Inset into the hallway they seemed to be hurrying down were skylights. Stars shone coldly in the distance overhead, doing very little to illuminate the building.

He doesn't know where he is.

Ardyn tries to speak to them, tries to ask them a question. It comes out as a faint groan. His throat is so sore, so dry. He feels as if he's been asleep for a long time, breathing heavily through his mouth while it slowly dries out. He laves his tongue against the roof of his mouth. The people have ignored him so far, but Ardyn is desperate to know where he is at the very least. When his mouth is sufficiently damp again, Ardyn tries speaking again.

"Where.... am I?"

Ardyn winces. His voice is so terribly weak and raw sounding. He doesn't like it one bit. Thankfully, however, someone seems to notice him. Brown eyes round with shock and wonder focus on him, and Ardyn looks back up at them with what he hopes is an imploring expression.

His hopes for a proper answer are squashed when the brown eyes look away from him.

"Bring the anesthesia! Hurry it up!"

Anesthesia?

"We need the nitrous oxide!"

Nitrous oxide? What the f*ck is nitrous oxide? Ardyn voices his questions to the one who had looked down at him, though in politer terms than he had thought them. They don't respond to him this time, completely ignoring him and shouting a little bit louder for someone to hurry up again.

Panic is beginning to settle into his muscles. Why were this people ignoring him? What is nitrous oxide and anesthesia? In all his time as a healer, Ardyn had never encountered things like nitrous oxide or anesthesia, or if he had they were named different things. He was well aware that different regions had different names for different medicines.

Ardyn tries to sit up on his elbows, moving just enough to try and raise himself up a little. Instead he's held in place. For the first time, Ardyn realizes that there is a thick leather strap holding him down to whatever surface he's being moved around on. He tries to raise his arm, to tug at the strap on his chest. His hand stops short, another piece of thick leather encircling his wrists. Cuffs. Clenching his hands into fists, Ardyn tries to move each arm and leg individually. Each one is stopped by a leather cuff.

Ardyn's panic skyrockets.

Ardyn tries to sit up again, this time jerking against the cuffs and throwing as much strength as he can against the leather strap against his chest. The strange movement stops and hands descend upon him once more. The six people who had been walking around him press down on his shoulders, arms, and legs. Hands attempt to push him back down onto the surface he's lying on, attempt to restrain him and keep him prone. Ardyn redoubles his efforts, working now to try and buck the people on him off.

"W-What are you doing to me? Let go!"

"We need that nitrous oxide now!"

They're still ignoring him. Ardyn doesn't know what's happening, doesn't know where he is, doesn't know what these people are going to do to him.

He doesn't want to be here.

He squirms as adrenaline fills his body, tries to escape the hands as blood rushes in his ears. They continue to hold him down, some hands moving to grip the cuffs that shackle him to the thing he's on. The ringing buzz from before begins to fill his skull, slowly growing in cadence the longer he fights with these people. His panic only seems to fuel it.

A new person arrives, this one running into his view where his head is. The person, dressed the same as the rest, retreats from view for a moment and there's a strange clattering sound. It only panics him more. He keeps struggling, frantically looking for a way to escape.

Something is thrown over his mouth and nose.

It's not a cloth, and it doesn't suffocate him. It seems as if it's formed to fit the shape of a human face, fitting snuggly all the way from his chin to the bridge of his nose with no gaps between skin and.... Whatever material this thing is. Tubing of some kind runs from it, the light yet hard material of it brushing against his shoulder and disappearing out of view. There's a creak, something that sounds like a valve opening, and a slight air pressure pushes at his nose and lips.

Ardyn struggles for as long as he can manage, but its not long at all before his muscles begin to feel weak. The ringing buzz in the back of his skull fades, and soon enough is replaced by a different kind of ringing. His limbs grow too tired to struggle, no matter how much he wishes to. Slowly but surely he finds he can barely move, his fingers and toes starting to tingle.

"What are you doing to me?"

One of the original six people looks down at him and pulls their face cover down. A round faced woman with green eyes looks down at him. Finally, someone answers him.

"Remain calm, Adagium. We are taking you to get a thorough medical evaluation."

Her words, while sounding docile enough, still does nothing to soothe his panic. He jerks his head, trying to throw the strange device over his mouth and nose off. The seventh person keeps it firmly over his mouth and nose.

"Get off of me... Get off..."

"This is for your safety and ours, Adagium. I'm afraid there's no other way."

A shard of annoyance and frustration lances through Ardyn, and he manages to huff up at her. He doesn't focus on the fact that it makes him sound like an indignant child. His thoughts are slowly becoming muddled, almost as if he were growing too tired to think. Perhaps he is. He's had a long period of suffering and exhaustion recently. It wouldn't be too big a stretch. Ardyn somehow fights the fog threatening to cloud his mind long enough to snap at her.

"Ardyn."

She blinks down at him in confusion.

"I beg your pardon?"

"My name..." He stops for a moment to catch his breath, but breathing in makes him feel dizzy. "My name is Ardyn..."

The woman gives him a very bright, very warm, and very fake smile. She seems to know how forced her own expression is as Ardyn knows, but neither of them mention it. Ardyn is beginning to feel far too tired to fight.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Ardyn. Please try to relax. We will be taking very good care of you."

Ardyn doesn't believe a single word she says, but the fog is finally taking over what little coherence he has left. Almost against his own will, his eyelids slide shut, and all he can hear is his own breathing and the sound of the air pressure against his face. Hands lift off him but it feels so far away now. He had barely noticed that they had been holding him down still.

Hands find his elbow, and Ardyn feels a sharp prick where his arm bends. He can barely feel the discomfort of another prick sliding into his skin, can barely feel the strange sensation of something sticky pressing tubing to his arm.

Oddly enough, a fierce itch blooms from the base of his spine down between the curves of his ass. Sensation fades too quickly after that, and Ardyn soon falls asleep.

It feels time passes in the blink of an eye before Ardyn regains some semblance of consciousness. But it's not consciousness, not in its own right. Everything is hazy, feels as if its happening beyond some sort of shroud. Ardyn can hear things, yes, and when he blinks open his eyes, he can see things, but nothing seems to register. He can barely focus on what he's feeling, forget about focusing on anything else.

He can just barely figure out that he's moving again, moving as he had been before. Lying on his back while the world slid past him. Everything- the motion, the lights, the people- becomes too much for his tired brain to handle. Ardyn lets his eyes slip shut again, relishing in the relief of darkness.

Ardyn realizes his calling out for someone only when a hand finds its way to his shoulder.

"Ae...ra...?"

The hand seems to rub soothingly against his arm, but the sensation doesn't last long, feeling retreating immediately after the hand moves from one spot. He calls again, trying louder this time. His voice trembles, he knows, but he can't be sure why. The hand grips his shoulder and squeezes reassuringly.

"Hush, Mr. Ardyn. You'll be all right. You're just a little bit sleepy and confused, is all."

Ardyn doesn't process her words at all, and instead continues to call out. He can't remember where he is, who he is, what's happening to him. Broken bits of thoughts and memories drift into focus in his head, but they fade away soon after, dragging and notion as to what they were into the void with them.

"Aera... Aera I... Aera..."

Ardyn tries to moves. His body barely responds, his legs and arms shifting sluggishly. Something catches them but he can't be bothered to try and figure it out. He stops trying to move. The hand that had been rubbing his arm moves to his face, and ever so carefully it brushes something away from his face and tucks it behind his ear. He doesn't understand what that gesture was or what it did.

He keeps calling, his mouth dry and his head feeling as if it's stuffed full of cotton. Eventually the strange moving sensation stops, and more hands touch him. He doesn't have the strength to try and fight them off, and even if he did, it was unlikely the haze holding him down would let him.

Ardyn allows himself to be manhandled, allows something strange and cool slip down over his body, allows himself to be hefted and moved. Hands lower him down onto something incredibly soft and warm. More hands pull even more warmth over him.

Only now does he stop calling out. His body is weak and tired, and something about the warmth smothers what little functions his mind has control of. It's comfortable and warm and safe. Ardyn lets his body drag him down under the concept of sleep, sensation leaving his body again.

Notes:

im being 10000% serious when i write this. this is exactly what i felt when i was under general anesthesia when they were gonna pull my wisdom teeth. the first injection they gave me was some medication to make the anesthesia take better???? something like that, and for like 15 seconds i had the worst itch on my ass in the world. then they gave me the anesthesia and i was out like a f*cking light in seconds. i dont remember much after that other than have a dry mouth and sleeping for like 12 hours LMAO

Chapter 9

Summary:

"Ardyn! Brother! Come join us! We were just planning our next route towards Cleinge!"

Without warning, Ardyn lashes an arm out and grabs the front of Somnus' tunic, dragging him the last two steps forwards and using his few inches of extra height over him to loom as best he could.

"You do not get to make merry and play the part of a benevolent general! Not when you're running around the country, killing innocent people!"

Notes:

another wee baby chapter, at almost 2k long. its also a memerdream. just hold on a lil longer folks. soon enough ill run out of material for memerdreams LMAO

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

"SOMNUS!"

Ardyn spares no expense for a dramatic entrance this time around. He shouts as he slams open the grand doors leading into the village's main hall. The heavy wooden doors slam against the stone that holds their frames, and Ardyn marches his way in with purpose, the heel of his cane clicking sharply against the marble floors. He's walking fast enough that his cloak is trailing behind him. Slowly the grand doors swing shut, creaking all the way until they slam shut.

If Ardyn does not look every inch a king on a war path, then he's certain he isn't trying hard enough.

Before him, standing around a round desk filled with maps and tomes and pens, is Somnus and a small collection of his subordinates. Each of them, Somnus included, seem somewhat taken aback by his entrance. Good. He wants their attention. As Ardyn marches ever closer he pulls the hood of his cloak down. Recognition flashes is Somnus' eyes and he breaks his stiff stance, relaxing and spreading his arms out wide. Ardyn hates that he stands there as if there is nothing wrong. Ardyn keeps marching, drawing ever closer and hardening his glare at his brother.

"Ardyn! Brother! Come join us! We were just planning our next route towards Cleinge!"

Without warning, Ardyn lashes an arm out and grabs the front of Somnus' tunic, dragging him the last two steps forwards and using his few inches of extra height over him to loom as best he could.

"You do not get to make merry and play the part of a benevolent general! Not when you're running around the country, killing innocent people!"

For a brief moment Somnus looks positively baffled, as if he hadn't expected Ardyn to come crashing into his next meeting with his merry men. Men of which, Ardyn silently reminds himself, follow Somnus' every order and no doubt take pride and joy in killing innocent, unfortunate civilians. Of course they would. The grand Lucian Army is full of meatheads, every last one of them functioning with only a handful of brains between them. Somnus is quickly composed once more, his face neutral and almost pitying as he raises a hand to grip at Ardyn's wrist.

"Ardyn," Somnus starts, with his voice dripping in a tone that sounds every bit like a mother explaining something to their dense child. Ardyn's blood boils. "These are not people anymore. They are-"

Ardyn couldn't bear to listen to the rest of his words.

"They are people who have been afflicted by a terrible illness!"

Somnus looks less than pleased by Ardyn's interruption. One black brow twitches, and Somnus' eyes narrow slightly. Somnus blinks at him, and if he were feeling any more animosity towards Ardyn, he was careful not to show it.

"It is an illness for which has no cure. An illness that is far too contagious for us to allow it to remain on this star. They are beyond our help."

"They are not beyond mine!"

Ardyn can barely recognize his own voice. His own shout comes out sounding every inch like a roar, and his anger strangles his impulse control just long enough for him to shake Somnus around by the front of his tunic.

Somnus' expression turns the slightest bit darker and his grip tightens. He yanks Ardyn's fist away from his front and steps back. Ardyn does not follow him. Somnus reaches up and smooths out the new wrinkles on the front of his tunic, checking the dark blue and black folds for any damage. His voice is measured and controlled when he speaks again, and the expression he tries to level Ardyn's anger with is the same.

"You cannot prove that these people you claim to be healing are actually cured of the scourge, brother. It is a highly infectious disease that has never been proven to have any other end than fatalities."

"You think I don't know that?! You think that just because you're some new fancy general that you're knowledge of curing the Starscourge is any greater than mine?!? Me, the man who has been spending years upon years of his life studying the Starscourge in sight of a cure?!"

Ardyn is enraged now. His blood continues to boil hotter and hotter in his veins, and snapping and shouting at Somnus only makes it hotter. Somnus is only looking more and more unimpressed.

"What about the people I have healed, Somnus?Hm?!? What about all of our neighbours, walking about, their lives and energy restored to them after they have contracted the scourge? After I have cured them?"

Ardyn leans in close to Somnus, the hand on his cane gripping so tight that his knuckles turn white.

"What do you call that, brother?"

Somnus takes another step back from him and waves a hand dismissively in front of Ardyn's face.

"There is still potential that they carry the scourge."

"Oh, I assure you they are clean."

Somnus waves his hand dismissively once again, turning away from him to look back at his plans strewn about the desk. Ardyn furrows his brows and narrows his eyes.

"What you claim to be the truth is simply impossible, brother. How can you be sure that you've cured them completely of it? A little bit of pressure on the brain means very little."

Ardyn is seeing red now, and he takes a step forwards. A hiss forms on his tongue, but Somnus turns to face him again and cuts him off.

"Forget your 'god given gift'. Even if you could cure them completely, one way or another lives will slip through the cracks of your fingers. One way or another, we will still be facing the plague of the Starscourge. You are simply not enough, brother. The only way to ensure complete eradication is to wipe out those who have been infected."

Ardyn barely realizes he's reached into the Armiger, barely realizes it when his hand closes tight around the hilt of the Rakshasa Blade. It's only when he swings downwards does he realize how furious he is. Only when his blade cleaves a break in the marble floors does Ardyn recognize what his brother's words are doing to him. The edge of the Rakshasa Blade is a few measly inches away from Somnus, a few measly inches away from having cut the lower leg off of him from the knee downwards.

Staying true to what seems to have been Somnus' calling, Somnus doesn't flinch at the display of anger. He doesn't even blink, his arms folding across his chest. He looks every inch a veteran general, used to seeing men and women swing swords in fearsome displays. At the very least Ardyn's actions have cut him off, and Ardyn now takes the chance to hiss at him uninterrupted.

"By rounding up and slaughtering innocent people, you are no better than the simple minded fools who believe murder is justified through the survival of the fittest. These are still people, Somnus, no matter how far taken they are by the Starscourge. And as a healer, I will not allow you to roam the country, searching for the next unfortunate taken by the sickness to act as your victim in your bloodstained quest for peace."

Somnus eyes him. And then he steps forwards, very slow and very precise, his eyes narrowing with such an intensity that Ardyn has never seen on his brother's face before. The action does not shake him. Ardyn squares his shoulders and faces down his brother, daring him in poise and silence to continue with his heartless blather. Somnus rises to the challenge, his voice level and his tone deadly serious.

"I am protecting our people from the Starscourge far more effectively than your precious gift ever could, Ardyn. You had best be sure to understand that."

The anger inside him snaps, a ringing buzz flooding his skull a heartbeat later. Ardyn steps forwards towards Somnus, one hand drawing his cane closer to his side and the other pulling the Rakshasa Blade free of the break it had made in the stone. Ardyn isn't sure what he's going to do, isn't sure where his rage will take him. He needs to do something, needs to fight to protect the people. His brother cannot be allowed to continue his false crusade against innocent people.

Two of Somnus' subordinates step in front of him, effectively separating Ardyn and Somnus. Ardyn hesitates long enough for his anger to cool in the slightest. These meatheads might be Somnus' most trusted underlings, but they are people too. Ardyn's clash is with Somnus, not these men. He does not wish to hurt them.

The Rakshasa Blade is dropped, returned to its home within his Armiger, and Ardyn glares daggers so fierce at his brother that he finds it a marvel that his head doesn't start bleeding under his stare. Somnus, to his credit, looks aloof to the events unfolding before him.

"Know this, Somnus." Ardyn hisses, taking a half step closer to get a better look of his brother from beyond the shoulders parting them. "Should I ever catch wind of you touching any one of my patients ever again, I assure you that I will not stop until I have had my fill of justice on their behalf."

"Is that a threat, brother?"

"One I intend to carry through."

Somnus sneers at him.

"Big words for a broken man."

The world around him freezes over.

For a brief moment, Somnus looks startled and sickened by what he's said. It was a low blow and Somnus knew it. They were brothers, sharing mothers, sharing a last name, and though they were fighting, they were still family. It was an extremely low blow for Somnus to mention anything of the sort against family. Instead of apologizing, however, Somnus covers his shock with indifference and tamed anger. It was fast enough that Ardyn wasn't sure he saw the sickness and surprise in him in the first place. Determined to not be outdone by his own brother, Ardyn does his best to keep his hurt from showing. Somnus had verbally punched him in the gut, but Ardyn would rather be gutted like a fish than show his brother any kind of weakness now.

Instead, Ardyn snarls at him with a voice that is edged with an animalistic growl he could never produce naturally.

"I would rather be a broken man living amongst the people, Somnus, than be a callous general standing upon a perch made of the bones of the innocent."

Somnus is staring at him, eyes probing and searching for something in Ardyn. Feeling incredibly overwhelmed by his anger, and uncertain who would be caught in the crossfire if he lost it now, Ardyn turns sharply on his heel.

Ardyn makes his grand retreat from the main hall, cane clacking furiously against marble. He yanks the hood of his cloak up over his head again, somehow still mindful of how sensitive his skin is to the sun these days amidst his own rage. Reaching the grand doors, Ardyn makes just as much an effort ripping them open and slamming them shut behind him as he had when making his grand entrance. He needed to escape this place for some time, before he rips his own heart from his chest in a fit of anger.

Notes:

maybe its not such a good idea to let your daemon fuelled rage to get the best of you. youre weird pryomaniac of a brother might get some wrong ideas lmao

next chapter is an escape attempt, which is always fun. escape from what, y'all will see whenever i finish writing it. probably tomorrow tbh. its gonna be a beast of a chapter as well. i cant seem to find a steady medium between really long and itty bitty

Chapter 10

Summary:

Truthfully, he had been so caught up in exploring his new cell and coming up with a plan of escape that he hadn't noticed his attire before. Noticing it now, Ardyn knows that he'd have to fix it. Some kind of bizarre gown covers him from shoulders to knees. It has a slit, like most tunics, in the back between the legs. This one, however, travels all the way up his spine to the hem around his neck. Fabric strings keep the back of it mostly shut, but a little bit of tugging proves that if he isn't careful his whole ass would hang out. Ardyn is by no means a prude man, but he is a modest man. He would rather not have potentially dangerous strangers see his whole ass while he flees.

Notes:

lmaooooo sorry about that nice stretch of nothing there. pokemon sword came out and i couldnt physically keep myself from playing it like the bastard i am. i also broke my record of "beaten main storyline of nintendo games" playing it. when breath of the wild came out, i beat the main storyline in six days. i beat the main storyline of pokemon sword in four. im thinking i might have a problem when it comes to big name nintendo games lmaooo.

anyways here you go, have another chapter of ardyn whump

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

When Ardyn wakes next, he wakes filled to the brim with anger and the strange, ringing buzz is back, occupying the back of his skull like a swarm of angry bees. It comes as a bit of a shock, if he’s honest with himself. He hasn’t felt this angry since he had lived those terrible days. And while Ardyn couldn’t be sure if it was a few months, a year, or longer that he’d been imprisoned, he knew instinctively that it had been long enough to make the force of the anger feel all the brighter. It’s hard trying to grasp the passage of time when you’ve spent so long in a cell completely closed off from the world.

With his grogginess fleeing following the waves of anger, Ardyn carefully pushes himself up into a sitting position. It takes him an embarrassing amount of effort to get himself sitting properly, and he groans softly from the sudden strain of working his midriff too hard too quickly. The strain leaves a dull ache that fade quickly enough, and now that he’s seated upright, Ardyn can take proper stock of himself. A scratchy blanket falls from his chest and settles in his lap.

All of his wounds are more or less healed. The puncture wounds from the hooks that had held him aloft in his cell have all healed, save for the one that had been hooked through his left hip. That one was still a scab, though the scab was far smaller than the puncture wound itself had been. Whatever had peppered his shoulder and hip as well has vanished by the will of the Starscourge within him. Ardyn isn’t sure what exactly had hit him to wound him so gravely like that, but Ardyn thinks he’d like to avoid the work of such weapons again. It’s definitely no fun being as hole-y as a brick of Tenebraean cheese.

Ardyn turns to swing his legs off the edge of the bed. He’s quickly stopped as a searing pain shoots through his left leg. His leg always hurt in the mornings, he knew, but this kind of pain was far more severe than he remembers it being. Why? He hadn’t done anything differently when he was moving. Curious and desperate to give a face and a name to the reason of his pain, Ardyn pulled the meagre blanket off of his legs.

Ardyn’s not too sure what it is he’s looking at. Something encases his left leg from high on his thigh all the way down to the tips of his toes. There are two layers to it. The first layer is hard like metal, but doesn’t feel like metal at all. It’s grey in colour and there are many openings in the material, no doubt meant to let his leg breathe. Strips of fabric appear to hold it together around his leg. It almost appears to be some kind of armor, or perhaps a cast.

A cast, yes, a strange cast.

Beneath the hard layer is a softer layer, one far more form fitting. It looks almost like a sock had been pulled all the way up his leg until the hem of it sat a solid three inches above the edge of the weird cast. To protect his leg from chafing against the cast, no doubt. It was a warm and relatively smooth fabric, despite its apparent thickness. Trying to bend his leg the slightest at the knee and ankle confirms that there are in fact bandages on his leg beneath the fabric. Strange.

Ardyn tries to move his leg again, this time far more gently. He manages to get his legs to hang off the edge of the bed, his one bare foot silent against the floor while the cast clunks a little noisily. Ardyn spends a few more moments examining his leg, confused as to why his leg had hurt so bad. He’s spent years living with his chronic pain, has spent years mastering the movements that would bring him the least amount of pain as physically possible. Vaguely Ardyn recalls fighting and running recently, but even the pain garnered from those actions would have been soothed completely by a good night’s rest.

Has a night passed?

Remembering rather suddenly that he’s no longer strung up in a cell, Ardyn looks around at his surroundings.

Metal walls rise up around him on all sides, large sheets of it, bigger than the sheets Ardyn had grown up with. Stone floors covered the ground beneath him, feeling far more dense than any regular boulder or stone tiles he’s walked on before. Twelve feet above him, the ceilings were the same material as the walls. Long strips of lights punctuated the ceiling, but the glass casings did not appear to be holding fire. They were no lanterns that Ardyn knew. If he listened closely, he could hear the lights overhead humming a low, continuous drone of electricity. Well, that certainly isn’t ominous at all. Beneath him was a simple bed, more like a cot really. It wasn’t all that big, and it definitely wasn’t as comfortable as his own bed had been. He had one scratchy blanket and one under stuffed pillow to make it the slightest bit more comfortable. All of it was a pale grey or white in colour. How cheerful.

In each corner of the small room was a strange dome of glass, rounded so very small and dyed an intense black colour. Each of the domes clung to the metal ceiling, and after watching the domes for a few minutes, Ardyn decides that while strange and unlike any glass dome he's seen before, they're nothing to be worried about. There is no magic running through them, that much he can tell, and they have not moved since he's noticed them. He isn't sure what their purpose is, or what they are in general, really, but at least they're non-threatening for the time being.

Looking around once more, Ardyn notices that in one wall there's a strip of glass. It's long and narrow, and leaning towards it in the slightest and focusing just a little bit more shows that it's a small window on a door. The outline of the door is faint, and had Ardyn not been looking at the glass window spanning from one edge to the other, Ardyn wouldn't have noticed it. It's no more than a simple cut into the metal wall. There are no hinges on the inside, and there's no knob or handle either. Whatever is meant to be kept in these rooms certainly aren't meant to get out, that's for sure. That's unnerving.

Getting to his feet is a bit of a struggle, what with the strange new cast somewhat impeding his ability to bend his leg, but Ardyn manages to rise anyways. His leg is feels stiffer and straighter in the cast, but he waves that sensation away. As if his leg hadn't been stiff and straight before the cast was put on him. He could handle a little bit extra stiffness for now.

Ardyn makes a move to approach the door and notes that the cast is far heavier than the ones he's created before himself. He adjusts his own strength and awkwardly hobbles himself to the door, mindful of the cast and its hollow thunk every time his wrapped foot hits the ground. If his leg is in passable condition, Ardyn thinks that he'll certainly remove it. It's heavy and somewhat awkward and it makes far too much noise in his silent room for his liking.

Stopping in front of the door, Ardyn gives it an experimental push. It doesn't budge, not even an inch. He tries again, pushing harder and harder and harder this time. Still it refuses, remaining exactly where it is as if it's been locked tight with a deadbolt. He keeps pushing, in a vain hope that perhaps it was simply a matter of rusty hinges. All he accomplishes is straining his leg. He's forced to stop his efforts and relax, leaning more of his weight onto his right leg. The wave of stinging pain passes quickly enough, and Ardyn bends a little to peer through the strip of glass.

Across the hall appears to be another door, made of the exact same material as the one he's stuck behind. He notices the hinges on the outside of the door, and almost immediately after he notices a set of deadbolt locks, simple in creation but engaged. Judging by the uniformity of what little of the hall he can see, Ardyn assumes that the door he's stuck behind is much like the door across the little hall.

Ardyn backs away, retreating back into his room, and casts another look around. There's nothing else in the room. Metal ceiling and walls, stone floors, one cot with pathetic bedding, a single door, and the four black domes on the ceiling. The room is lacklustre, more like a cell truthfully, and Ardyn quickly fills with spare energy. He paces, anxious to burn off some energy, to do anything at all in his under furnished room. What is one supposed to do in a cell? Before, Ardyn had been locked away and strung up. He couldn't move before, and he had always been exhausted before. He's no longer strung up and immobile, and as far as Ardyn can tell, he's had a full night's sleep. He's got the range of motion to do tasks again, but there are no tasks to do. Even pacing loses its usefulness.

Desperate to escape his inactivity already, Ardyn returns to the strip of glass at the door. Nothing at all has changed since the last time Ardyn had looked through, which honestly hadn't been that long ago. He's uncertain about the probability, but Ardyn thinks that nothing is going to change outside this new cell for a very long time. Wonderful.

A desperate idea fills Ardyn's head, and as quickly as the red flags warning him of danger rise up, Ardyn brushes the warnings away. Staying in this bizarre and empty cell held just as much unknown risk as wandering the halls did. It was simply a matter of getting into the halls, a matter Ardyn was sure he could work through with little trouble.

Curiously, Ardyn raises his arm and presses the meat of it against the glass. He ignores the cold and examines it. It would be a tight squeeze, but a little bit of pinching on his arm would be an inconsequential price to pay for being able to stick his arm out into the halls. Ardyn pulls his arm away and instead taps on the glass with his knuckles. It's thick glass, and the sound certainly doesn't carry far. He waits, patient. No one responds. Ardyn taps on it again, this time with more force and vigour. Time seems to drag by, but Ardyn gets the answer to an unspoken question. No one responds. He's alone in this hall for now.

It doesn't take him long at all to start formulating a plan, and before long the plan is solidified in his head. The start of his plan was strong, but given what limited information he could collect in a little room like this, the end of his plan was shaky at best. It's all he can do to lower his head and clasp his hands before him, sending a silent prayer to the Astrals that his plan goes along smoothly. When his prayer is finished, Ardyn returns to the cot and sits down.

Ardyn turns his attention to the cast around his leg, and slowly he zeroes in on the fabric holding the strange material together. He pulls back on one edge of it, and releases it quickly when it makes a strained sound, almost as if he were ripping a very thick piece of parchment. Trying it again, Ardyn realizes that the fabric is supposed to do such a thing. Assured that he wasn't irreparably breaking the strange cast, Ardyn pulls the fabric strips away from one another, one by one, until the cast sits heavy and loose and awkward around his leg. He takes a brief second to examine the fabric. One strip has tiny, soft hooks on it, and the other that it connects to looks similar to a sheep's wool. Huh. Burrs and wool, then. Seems rather handy, this strange fabric.

As carefully as he can manage, Ardyn maneuvers his leg free of the strange cast and the skin tight fabric covering. The bandages are carefully unwrapped from his leg, and Ardyn finds that there are many many many slight scars covering his leg, each of them marked with countless stitches. The Starscourge had pulled muscle and skin back together quickly, and tissue granulation left faint, faded scars where wounds he remembers enduring and wounds he does not remember receiving mark him. He's not surprised there are stitches everywhere. He hadn't told any doctors that his wounds more often than not needed very little medical attention, and with Somnus raving about how much a monster he was, no doctors were supposed to know how quickly he could heal. It's not a big deal, but it certainly interferes with his plans. At least the stitches can stay in his skin until he gets somewhere safer. Assuming there was anywhere safer for him, of course.

Ardyn runs his fingers along the stitches covering wounds he doesn't remember, and halts for a brief moment. There are lumps under his skin, hidden so carefully under muscle that surely anyone else wouldn't have noticed them. He plays with them. They don't move like a tumour would. They don't feel like a tumour, either. Metal, perhaps. Ardyn has grafted metal plates to bones before. Perhaps whoever had been tending to his wounds had given him plates and screws as well? Much like the stitches, the plates could stay until he was somewhere safer.

Ardyn rises to his feet and very promptly sits himself back down. His left leg, though in decent condition, aches in the places the metal plates have been inserted. That most certainly isn't optimal. Ardyn weighs his options for a brief moment, thinking about the pros and cons of each solution he could come up with for his leg. He decides that the cast, though noisy, would have to stay on his leg. There was no guarantee Ardyn had the time to waste cutting open his own leg to remove the plates, forget entirely about letting his leg heal properly enough for him to move without much incidence. He would simply have to endure with the cast.

Ardyn slips his leg back into the strange fabric sleeve and cast, securing it tight with the burrs and wool fabric. When Ardyn stands again, he find the strain to be a little bit less. He'd been right. The strange cast was helping to stabilize his leg while the plates were under muscle and skin. He's no option left but to continue wearing it until he's far away from this place. Ardyn turns his attention to his attire.

Truthfully, he had been so caught up in exploring his new cell and coming up with a plan of escape that he hadn't noticed his attire before. Noticing it now, Ardyn knows that he'd have to fix it. Some kind of bizarre gown covers him from shoulders to knees. It has a slit, like most tunics, in the back between the legs. This one, however, travels all the way up his spine to the hem around his neck. Fabric strings keep the back of it mostly shut, but a little bit of tugging proves that if he isn't careful his whole ass would hang out. Ardyn is by no means a prude man, but he is a modest man. He would rather not have potentially dangerous strangers see his whole ass while he flees.

Quick as he can manage, Ardyn strips himself bare and rearranges the strange gown around his waist. Somehow Ardyn manages to tie the gown around his waist like a skirt, something that ties at the side so neither ass nor genitals have a chance to be unwillingly exposed. The arrangement leaves his chest pitifully bare, but Ardyn would rather a few dangerous strangers aim for his ribs than aim for his family jewels.

Ardyn's next problem is one he fears the most. After his brother, just as chosen by the Astrals as himself, had labelled him a monster and locked him away, Ardyn wasn't sure what had become of his Armiger. He recalls vaguely the sensation of the Rakshasa Blade landing in his hand recently, but his memories are muddled by something and are foggy at best. Taking a deep breath, Ardyn pokes and prods for his connection to the Astral's Given Gift.

He nearly drowns in his own relief when the all too familiar weight of his medical dagger lands in his hand, just as hefty and nimble as he remembers it to be. His Armiger, no matter how strangely rusty feeling after its time spent unused, answers his calls just as eagerly as it had before his imprisonment. The strangers outside could potentially be armed, but Ardyn is armed now too. It levels the upcoming playing field just enough for him to begin tampering with the door.

The strip of glass was held in place in the thick metal by a metal ring punctured with screws. Ardyn was certainly familiar with screws at least, familiar enough that unscrewing them with the tip of his medical dagger was nearly as easy as it would have been with a proper screw driver. He didn't keep one in his Armiger, but his years spent on the run forced him to keep only the essentials in it, for fear of unleashing a clump of pillows and soaps upon one of Somnus' head hunters. It was easier to remember the very basics than to fiddle with hundreds of little things meant for comfort.

As each screw drops into his side of the door, on the outside he can hear the faint plinks of washers or the likes hitting the stone floors. Idly Ardyn thinks that these cells were not meant to keep crafty humans as much as they were meant to keep monsters and rowdy wildlife. Something in Ardyn takes that thought as an insult, but he patiently brushes the thought away. Escape first, hurt feelings later.

When each screw and washer have hit the ground, Ardyn banishes his medical dagger and braces himself. Ever so carefully he pushes on the glass, content in some way to know that it was fitted enough to simply slide into place. There's nothing he can do about the way the glass falls and shatters on the stone floor outside his door, but Ardyn takes a little bit of comfort in the fact that no one seems to have noticed the falling glass. He's still alone. He can work with that.

Ardyn steps away for a brief second to summon a cloak from his Armiger. He draws it around himself and fastens it in place with a simple clasp on one shoulder. Its warm, and it sits nice and snug on his shoulders, just as it had back when he had been on the run from his brother. It hides his body from view a little bit better than his gown-made-skirt does. That brings him a small semblance of comfort and reassurance, and before he knows it he's standing close to the door once more.

He pushes his arm through the now empty slot where the glass had been. It's wider now that the metal plating holding the washers and screws are gone, but not by much. The squeeze is even tighter when he pushes his elbow through and stops finally on his upper arm, but his arm is far enough through that Ardyn pays it no mind. He swings his hand around aimlessly, palming as best he can at the outside of his door. His hand finds a handle at an awkward position, and Ardyn pulls on it. Something screeches out of place, and the sound of the deadbolt unlocking clicks.

Bingo.

He yanks his arm back in through the hole, mourning for only a heartbeat at the strange soreness on his upper arm. And then he's pushing. The door groans open. It's slow, and a little noisy, but it opens.

Ardyn takes a few tentative steps out of the room, taking care to avoid stepping on broken glass. He glances first to his right, and then to his left. The hallways are identical. The hallways are both empty. Ardyn is still alone. Though its a relatively good sign that no one has come to investigate all the noise, something twists and snarls inside him that says something is wrong.

Ardyn brushes the feeling off and turns left. He passes more doors on either side, each one exactly the same as the one he had dismantled and unlocked. A curious glance through the strips of glass tell him that they're almost exactly like the room he had woken up in. These ones simply lacked the cot. Definitely meant for keeping dangerous wildlife and monsters then. Escape first, hurt feelings later.

Ardyn continues on, foregoing looking into the rest of the rooms in favour of stepping as quietly as his cast would let him. He limps quietly, the only sound he's moving where he shouldn't be coming from the sound of his bare foot touching stone and the cast thumping softly against stone. The feeling of wrongness grows in his belly, anticipation of unusual strength squeezing at his guts. Something bad is going to happen. He isn't certain how he knows, but he's certain it will.

Rather suddenly, the lights in the ceiling above him turn a bright red in colour, redder than the sun's dying light could ever get. A noise, obnoxiously loud and grating to his nerves comes from everywhere all at once, repeating the same toneless pattern over and over and over again. Ah yes, there it is. Something bad is happening.

Like a deer spotting a predator, Ardyn bolts. He ignores the small stabs of pain that shoot through his left leg at the hurried pace, doing his best to swing it in its cast the way he used to when he had first began running from Somnus' men. No one had spotted him yet, and there were none of Somnus' men lingering about, but Ardyn wasn't about to risk anything more than he already was. All he could think of was escaping from this place and the sounds rattling around the halls and inside his skull.

"ATTENTION ALL PERSONNEL."

A voice booms through the halls, once again seemingly coming from everywhere at once. Ardyn thinks he's never been closer to sh*tting his skirt before in his life.

"SUBJECT ADAGIUM HAS ESCAPED THE SECURE HOLDING FACILITY IN SECTOR ELEVEN. ALL AVAILABLE TASK FORCE MEMBERS IN SECTORS SEVEN, EIGHT, TEN, AND TWELVE, PLEASE REPORT TO THE PERIMETER OF SECTOR ELEVEN. SUBDUE AND RESTRAIN SUBJECT ADAGIUM BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. I REPEAT. ALL AVAILABLE TASK FORCE MEMBERS IN SECTORS SEVEN, EIGHT, TEN, AND TWELVE, SUBDUE AND RESTRAIN SUBJECT ADAGIUM BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY."

Hadn't Ardyn been referred to as Adagium before?

f*ck it all.

For a very brief moment, Ardyn wonders why he’s so important? At least, he wonders why it’s so important to these people that they’d want him subdued and restrained in the first place instead of killed on sight. It certainly doesn’t make sense to him, considering how much effort Somnus had put into labelling him a monster fit only to be euthanized. Ardyn shakes the curiosity off quickly enough, however. Who cares why they want him subdued and restrained. It’s likely that Somnus simply wants the chance to gloat to him about his victories over him once more. Something to that effect, anyways, and it’s certainly something Ardyn doesn’t much care for. Even if he had cared, there wouldn’t have been time to ponder the reasons to begin with. With the voice repeating the same order over and over and over again, and with the strange sounds blaring repeatedly in the background, it’s a wonder Ardyn can even think at all.

Ardyn tries to run faster, tries to run more quietly. The cast still thunks against the stone floors, and for a split second Ardyn wishes he had simply removed it and left it. For a split second, Ardyn wishes he had cut open his leg instead and tore the metal out of it. At least running with an injured leg would have been quieter. The Starscourge had a fancy way of working faster under pressure anyways. Nothing to do about it now though. Ardyn has chosen his cards and by the Astrals he’d stick with them and play them. He sends another quick prayer to the Astrals under his breath. Perhaps they would take pity on him and bless his escape?

After what feels like dozens of hallways, turns, and corridors, Ardyn turns a corner sharply.

People stare him down. Lots of people.

Some of the armed troops before him flinch and stumble, and others shout an alert to the rest of the group milling about. By the looks of it, there’s about two dozen of them, and each of them raise their crossbow-like weapons to face him. There’s more of them than Ardyn can handle now. He instinctually pulls his old shield from the depths of the Armiger and hides behind it. None too soon either. A small barrage of something Ardyn can hardly see nails his shield front and centre. Had he been a second slower, the near invisible objects would have struck him in the chest. Judging from how the metal on the front of his shield dents under the force, Ardyn makes the assumption that the wounds they would have caused would have been serious. He would prefer to avoid such a wound, if he can.

As fast as he can, Ardyn turns and runs back the way he came. He can hear the twenty four odd people give chase, a symphony of clattering metal, cork, and another material Ardyn isn’t familiar with. He does his best to keep his back covered with his shield as strange hisses and squeaks rush past him. The projectiles, he realizes, fired from the strange crossbow-like objects they hold. Some of them strike his shield, denting it further. Ardyn doesn’t stop to think about anything and instead focuses solely on running as fast as his bad leg can carry him.

Ardyn rounds another corner and finds a fork in the hallways before him. To the right is a group of four people, each of them wielding similar crossbow-like weapons as the ones behind him. Not the same style, however. Even a glance tells him that something is far more deadly about these ones than the ones held by the people running behind him. To the left is an empty corridor, much like the ones he’s been running through. Deciding he doesn’t want to play with either group of troops, Ardyn dashes down the left corridor. Four more sets of armoured boots join the thunder behind him. Ardyn keeps his shield behind him. It’s still being struck by those near invisible objects.

Ardyn rounds another few corners before he sees it.

Freedom.

At the end of the hall stands a massive window, easily twice his height. Through it he can see snow and mountains and valleys. It’s bright, but judging by the angle of the sun and the redness of the sky, it wouldn’t be bright for long. The light that illuminates the mountains, snow, and hills shines on him as well, and boy does it sting, but it’s a chance at freedom. Ardyn would certainly take a sunburn over whatever it was the troops behind him were firing at him. From where the grand window extends down a perpendicular hallway Ardyn can hear more people walking. Panic surges through him. He can’t be caught again, he can’t be imprisoned again.

Ardyn finally switches his shield out for his Rakshasa Blade. He’s got one chance, and though he’s been lucky so far with his flight, Lady Luck has a bad habit of tearing his luck out from under his feet at the last possible second. It wouldn’t be long before the troops behind him caught up to him. Ardyn wouldn’t let that happen, couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t be imprisoned like that ever again.

Pulling his sword arm back, Ardyn throws his blade as hard as he can at the window. The pinkish-red light of his Armiger surrounds the blade as it flies, and for a single heartbeat time slows. Blood rushes in his ears, boots thunder around him. The Rakshasa Blade pierces the thick glass like its butter. The window comes crashing down. Somewhere outside, his blade lands in the snow.

All at once the same pinkish-red light that had covered his blade now swallows him whole, engulfing him in the magic given to him by the Astrals. He warps fast through the air, past the people walking down the perpendicular hallway, past the broken window, and into the snow. When he lands, he stumbles. Something sharp strikes him hard in the back, but it doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as he had expected it to. Ardyn ignores it. Instead he pulls his blade out of the snow and runs, ignoring the way his back stings between his shoulder blades and the way the snow around him is so cold that it burns. He’s free, he can make it, he’s going to make it.

Ardyn stumbles.

It's not a dramatic stumble, heavens no, but it is a stumble. Something beneath him catches his leg, and it slows him. He can hear the troops behind him leaping out of the window now, the sound of snow crunching under countless boots. They were faster than him in his current state. Not only was he being dragged down by his cast, but Ardyn had never been as swift a runner as he had originally been after his accident. Slowed more by the snow around him, it would only be a matter of heartbeats before the troops could catch up to him.

Another sharp strike lands true in his right shoulder, and just like the strike before it to his spine, it doesn't hurt nearly as much as he thought it would. That doesn't mean it isn't dangerous, however. Still trying to run through the snow, Ardyn stumbles again.

Something is wrong.

It's all Ardyn can do to lift the Rakshasa Blade once more and throw it as hard as he can. It travels in an arc, pinkish-red light stark against the more orange light of the setting sun. It soars over the crest of the hill the building Ardyn's fled stand solidly on. Hands reach his arms as the blade lands in the slight valley. Ardyn's yanked away from the hands in a flurry of magic, following his sword as fast as his gift will carry him.

It's not enough.

When he lands, Ardyn lands hard. His legs don't quite make it beneath him. Unbalanced, Ardyn tips and crashes down into the firm snow. All at once he's soaked, snow beginning to melt around his somewhat warmer body. He tries standing up. His limbs respond sluggishly. He can't figure out why. His head feels like it's beginning to fritz out, his focus wavering. He manages to get up onto his feet and yank his blade out of the snow once more, but the steps he takes afterwards are sluggish and sloppy.

Ardyn trips again and lands heavily in the snow. It's no surprise Lady Luck has tripped him up, and it's no surprise to him when hands find him again. Rough and merciless, the hands on him pull him up from a prone position into a kneeling one. His leg, wrapped as it is in the cast, splays awkwardly behind him while troops pull at his arms, first out and then back. Something clamps around his arms to keep him in such a position, something that's just as frozen as the snow still touching his bare skin.

Things are getting much harder for Ardyn to recognize. He can see snow dusting his lashes, can feel small chunks of it falling from his shoulders and hair. Hands keep him restrained and kneeling, gripping him almost too tight. He tries to struggle, tries to push past the fog seeping into his mind and get his limbs to obey him. He writhes at best. None of the troops are thrown off with attempts as pathetic as that.

It's a damning sensation, being forced to kneel in the snow, arms bound and body subdued by all too forceful hands. He's losing focus faster now, and it's becoming harder to keep his eyes open. His head starts to loll against his commands, and he's forced to look at the snow in front of him. His hearing is growing tinny, but he thinks he can make out the new silence in the building on the hill as the sounds are cut off. Troops shuffle and snow crunches. Ardyn can barely pay attention to it.

A hand buries itself into his hair and pulls back. Hard. Though the throb of pain is surprisingly distant, it still hurts enough to draw a weak hiss out of him. His head is forced back by the hand, and struggling to focus, Ardyn finds himself looking up at a man. The man with the predatory look. The man looks at him with an emotion Ardyn cannot begin to place through the fog in his head.

The man bends slightly at the waist, no doubt to get a closer look at him, but Ardyn is faltering. Sensations are growing distant, coherent brain function is fleeing, and his consciousness is wavering at best. He isn't sure what's happened to him, but the last working thoughts he has tells him it has something to do with those crossbow-like weapons and the projectiles they launch. He can't ponder it for long. His body sags, and when his eyes droop shut, his consciousness properly slips away.

Notes:

you know, i really do enjoy writing ardyn as a sharp fellow of the past in the future. he doesnt know the name of velcro, but he knows the its like burrs and wool after inspecting it. he doesnt know what hte f*ck a gun is, but he certainly knows its a weapon that shoots things like a crossbow. he doesnt know what those big chunky air casts are called, be he knows they're casts nonetheless.

next chapter is slightly less ardyn whump, and more sappy aera ardyn shenanigans. we're nearing the end of the stuff i have planned for the memory dreams though, so after i hit the final one a few chapters down the line, itll be nothing but the future! it's gonna be a good time tbh

Chapter 11

Summary:

“Hurry Ardyn!”

Feeling thoroughly whisked away by her excitement, Ardyn can’t help but laugh his response.

“I’m going as fast as my poor legs can carry me, my love!”

“Hurry faster then!”

Her voice twitters with breathless laughter and Ardyn is quick to join in. He feels so very young, running with her like this. He feels like a young school boy, running around and getting into mischief with his best friend. The response he barks back has no bite to it, filled instead with warmth and affection.

“You are insufferable, Aera, making a poor old man run like this!”Aera huffs a laugh.“If you’re old now, then I must be the oldest woman alive!”

“Oh absolutely. You’re the most ancient woman I have ever met.”

“I’m only two years older than you!” she snaps. There’s still no offence to her words. She’s brimming with mirth instead.

“Apologies, Aera, but I am afraid that 34 is far too old, even for me!”

Notes:

i wrote the majority of this at work cause it was pissing rain and theres no one in the world who walks their dogs to the store when its raining. im uploading this from the library. this is probably the soppiest, mushiest, straightest thing ill ever write in my life. ardyn loves his wife and you cant change my mind

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Ardyn is heaving when he presses his back up against a small, rocky outcrop near the forest's edge. He tries to take deep breaths, tries to even out his breathing and quiet himself down. He's supposed to be hiding, supposed to be running away from Somnus' men who are surely very close behind. Except he finds it incredibly difficult to keep a straight face.

Beside him Aera is covering her mouth, her breathing just as heavy as his and punctuated with aborted giggles and snorts. He suffers the same fate, trying to muffle his own snorts and shaky, aborted giggles. Distantly he can hear the sounds of men crashing through the trees, shouts of alarm and fear mixing with the heavy snarls of an angry mother coeurl. They're not even close to guessing where he and Aera had run off too, but Ardyn finds that to be rather helpful. It's certainly a struggle to keep quiet when he can hear Aera doing her best not to laugh.

The wail of a frightened man bolsters both of them, and stifling their laughter becomes even harder. Perhaps they should have gone out to assist the men in dealing with the angry coeurl. Perhaps they themselves should have steered clear of the coeurl's den when they were fleeing from them. But Ardyn couldn't bring himself to care, especially not when Aera had been the one to goad him into streaking past the den. The coeurl was aware of him and Aera, and she knew far better than to mess with Ardyn, as did a majority of the wildlife and monsters. But men with weapons? That, a coeurl is brave enough to deal with. They deserved it, truthfully, for disturbing the coeurl's rest.

The crashing of men, armed to the teeth and no doubt soiling themselves, draws ever closer. Ardyn tries to quiet them both down, tries to press them both closer to the rock wall they've hidden behind. It works only partially, as the meaty sound of a massive paw batting away a man like he was no more than a fly stirs more muffled snorts and giggles from his chest. Aera has moved her hands to him instead, both of her arms wrapping around one of his.

Daring to peek around the outcrop, Ardyn just manages to pull back behind the outcrop as the men chasing them flee in their direction, the great angry coeurl giving chase behind them. Six men whip past them, and while Ardyn cover's Aera's mouth with his free hand, Aera covers his with one of hers. They don't even look back, each of the shouting and shrieking as they flee the beast. The coeurl isn't far behind them. She stops to inspect the strained sounds of man and woman fighting to keep themselves hidden, but big bright eyes quickly shift from Ardyn and Aera back to the fleeing men. And off she runs again, another yowl flying from spread jaws and electricity dancing across whiskers.

To each their credit, neither he nor Aera shook or even flinched when the coeurl peered at them, nor when the coeurl howled. They were too deep in the throes of silent laughter that there was no room for fear left in them. It's there they wait, watching and listening as the coeurl and men disappear into the distance. And once there's no signs of them or a back up party, both he and Aera lurch forwards, laughter no longer being stifled.

She laughs so beautifully that Ardyn thinks he could sit and listen to it forever. Unfortunately, her beautiful laugh is a siren song, contagious like the scourge. He can't help but laugh harder hearing her, and she too laughs harder when he starts wheezing. Despite knowing that having been caught by Somnus' men could have meant disaster for the both of them, it's hard not to take the joy when it presents itself.

Being the one Somnus has labelled a traitor, a monster meant to be put down before the scourge can spread more, it meant that it was difficult to stay in place for too long. And Aera, dear, sweet, wonderful Aera. The chosen Oracle of the Astrals, the link between them and all humans. Her duties made it harder for her to seek him out. Spending time with her had become near impossible. Though their meetings like this hang in the delicate balance of staying out of Somnus’ sight and being bold enough to meet, it was hard not to find joy in running away from Somnus’ men with her.

It’s quite some time before their laughter settles enough for them to think clearly, and when the time comes, Aera’s hands find their way into the sleeve of Ardyn’s tunic. He looks to her and she smiles up at him, so big and beautiful and bright that it steals his breath away. She seems to notice his breathlessness and smiles wider. Aera nods her head to the direction Somnus’ men had come from.

“Come, Ardyn. I want to show you something.”

Who is he to deny her requests?

Ardyn draws Aera close, pulling her up to his chest and wrapping his arm around her tight. She responds by wrapping her arms around his neck, resting relaxed yet firm on his shoulders. Ardyn summons the Rakshasa Blade from his Armiger and throws it through the trees, as hard and as far as the limited space would let him. Both he and Aera disappear in a streak of reddish-pink light, chasing the wayward blade. They reappear a distance from their hiding spot, but Ardyn doesn’t stop. He throws the blade again and again, both his and Aera disappearing and reappearing in the streaks of light until Aera tugs on the shorter hairs on the back of his head.

When they finally stop, Aera doesn’t even take a moment to reorient herself. She’s shared his Armiger for some time, and had grown used to warping during their extended relationship. It’s a testament to her own resilience when she pulls away from his chest and grabs hold of his free hand. She gives it a soft tug. Dismissing the Rakshasa Blade, Ardyn follows where she leads. She seems excited, and he would never dream of harming the excitement she holds within her.

He’s careful with where he steps, ever conscious about the limits of his bad leg. Aera, despite her excitement, is careful with his leg as well, never tugging him along faster than he could comfortably keep up with. She’s always been patient and understanding with regards to his bad leg, more so than even Somnus. Her silent understanding brings him a relief that shines brighter than any sun. Her patience and understanding doesn’t stop her from laughing a complaint lacking any annoyance or resentment.

“Hurry Ardyn!”

Feeling thoroughly whisked away by her excitement, Ardyn can’t help but laugh his response.

“I’m going as fast as my poor legs can carry me, my love!”

“Hurry faster then!”

Her voice twitters with breathless laughter and Ardyn is quick to join in. He feels so very young, running with her like this. He feels like a young school boy, running around and getting into mischief with his best friend. The response he barks back has no bite to it, filled instead with warmth and affection.

“You are insufferable, Aera, making a poor old man run like this!”Aera huffs a laugh.“If you’re old now, then I must be the oldest woman alive!”

“Oh absolutely. You’re the most ancient woman I have ever met.”

“I’m only two years older than you!” she snaps. There’s still no offence to her words. She’s brimming with mirth instead.

“Apologies, Aera, but I am afraid that 34 is far too old, even for me!”

Her breathlessness finally catches up to her when she starts laughing harder, and silently Ardyn is relieved when she slows down. He slows until he’s walking beside her, giving her hand a firm squeeze and quirking an eyebrow in the way that he knows she adores. She retaliates with a smack on the arm, hard enough to only make the force felt beneath his cloak and tunic sleeve. Ardyn would be lying if he said he wasn’t about to take the chance to play. With a far too dramatic cry of defeat, Ardyn stops and swoons. The back of his free hand presses into his forehead and he falls into Aera’s waiting arms when she stops beside him.

“Alas!” he cries, his voice reaching an octave he normally reserves for his dramatics. “My love has betrayed me, too. I fear I can no longer hold onto a life where I am without her~!”

Never one to be outdone by his dramatics, Area joins in the blink of an eye. Her one arm remains looped around his back, supporting him where he leans against her, and the other moves to his front, hand gripping at his tunic over his chest.“My darling husband! Twas not myself who harmed you so, but the rancid creatures born of the plague! My life is all for naught should you leave me here upon this earth alone!”Her octave was just as impressive and dramatic as his own. Ardyn makes the most pitiful sound he can manage, and Aera simply draws him closer, showing off once more how strong she’s grown since she began wielding her trident.

“Prithee is there not a way to revive my darling beloved and return him to this world at my side?”

“Alas, I can only be saved upon the kiss of my one true love~!”

Ardyn purses his lips and makes the wettest, sloppiest kissing sounds he can manage. Aera fails miserably at stifling a laugh as she turns her head away from him, refusing him his supposed life-saving kiss.

“Prithee, O Gods of Eos, is there not another, less gross way to save my husband?”

Ever faithful to his dramatics, Ardyn forces a choking sound from his throat and goes slack in her arms. Aera holds him tight in his mockery of death, and his heart flutters in his chest with an overwhelmingly soft feeling. She gives an extremely fake cry of anguish.

“How could life be this cruel, to rip from me my most beloved man whilst he lay in my arms?”

It’s impossible to not smile like a fool.

“Aera~! I call to you! I beg thee, kiss my corpse back to life~!”

She gasps and holds him even closer, dragging him into a position that offers a bit more comfort than the last.

“Ardyn, my dear, is that you from the Beyond?”

“Come forth, Aera~! Breathe life into me once more~!”

The snorts that begin to punctuate her laughter warms him from his skin down to his very soul.

“All right! You asked for it!”

Ardyn puckers his lips again, forgoing the sloppy kissing sounds in anticipation of a teasing, chaste kiss. Lips meet his cheek instead, and before he can realize what she had meant with her words, she blows the wettest, nastiest raspberry she can manage. A startled laugh explodes from his mouth and he squirms. Aera simply holds on tighter and blows three more of her nastiest raspberries against his cheek. He can only laugh harder at the feeling, one hand reaching up to gently push at her chin. Aera cries his name in mock relief, the squeakiest he’s ever heard her voice, and she pulls him to stand at his full height. Ardyn swiftly wraps his arms around her in a fierce embrace, and before she can figure out what he’s planned, he rubs his cheek against hers, teasing her with the scratch of scruff and the slide of spit.

“Oh my dearest Aera, you’ve saved me~! How may I ever repay you~?”

“Release me, you stinky, stinky jungle man! You’re slobbering all over my cheek!”

“Come now, that’s your spit, not mine.”

“You’re a gross stinky man, a big unshaven brute!”

Ardyn can’t help but start laughing again at her voice, high pitched and cracking with her false anger. Her bravado is quick to shatter when he starts laughing, and her musical laughter joins in once more with his heavy rumbling laugh. Aera manages to push his cheek away from hers during their laughter, but Ardyn is quick to find her cheek once more, this time pressing his lips to her cheek. He places a series of soft and fond kisses in a messy pattern on her cheek while their laughter begins to recede once more. When Aera finally catches his eye, she gives him smile, a teasing tilt twisting any innocence out of it.

“If you’re so eager to repay me for saving you, then how about you do my cooking and my cleaning for a whole year.”

Ardyn grins back at her and takes her hand. He lifts it to his face and delicately kisses each of her knuckles.

“If I had my way, love, I would do all of that and more at the drop of a hat, my love.”

Aera draws him close for a soft and short kiss, the kind that makes his spine feel as if its melting, the kind that sends butterflies flutter about in his gut. She barely pulls away, her mouth moving against his when she speaks.

“You’re a real charmer for such a scruffy wild man.”

“I try my best.” he whispers back. Aera tugs on the front of his tunic once, and Ardyn lurches to a start, remembering that there had been a reason Aera was tugging him along through the woods. He follows her diligently, watching as she turns away from him and drops her hand to his. His heart swells as he watches her, feeling more and more overwhelmed and breathless as he follows along behind her. Even after all these years spent as both friend and husband, Ardyn still thinks he feels like he did the minute he first fell madly in love with her.

“Where is it exactly, my love, that you plan on taking me?”

Aera turns just enough for him to see her profile, and she gives him a show of thought, her face scrunching up in that way he adores so much while she taps her chin. For a brief moment she hums, as if she were contemplating her answer. It doesn’t last long. She looks back at him fully and shrugs, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth ever so sweetly.

“You’ll have to wait and see!”

“As demanding of me as ever, my love.”

“Only because it’s good for a wild jungle man like yourself.”

Ardyn just laughs, short but just as loud and happy as his laughs before.

After their dramatics, their place is slower, one Ardyn can follow far easier. It doesn’t take them long to reach the destination Aera was so keen on dragging him to. It turns out it’s nothing more than a small clearing, one only big enough to show a few measly metres of the sky uninterrupted by the branches of the trees. The sun is setting soon. The sky is cast in oranges that are starting the bleed into blue, and what little left of the sun’s rays there are just barely manage to pierce the clearing. The light stings at Ardyn’s skin, a demanding, prickling itch, but it’s easily ignored. The feeling of Aera holding his hand was more than enough to drive his attention away from the feeling of the Starscourge writhing just beneath his skin. A few fireflies blink lazily in the air, swirling in senseless patterns over the sparse patches of flowers and clovers. Truthfully, Ardyn didn’t see the beauty in the little clearing that Aera could clearly see in it. But he was certain the beauty was there, even if he was blind to it. If the small clearing made Aera happy, then that was all Ardyn needed to know that there was a beauty there in the first place.

“Ah, so a romantic evening spent in the middle of nowhere?”

His words earn him a stubborn shove, and Ardyn barks a startled little laugh. Aera snarks him, but there’s still no heat to her words.

“My apologies, my dearly beloved husband. Is it not to your liking.”

Ardyn returns her cheeky smile with one of his own. He cups her cheek with his free hand, and ever so softly he presses quick little kisses to her lips, each eyelid, and her forehead.

“I’m afraid I will be hard pressed to pay this place any attention when all I want to focus on is you.”

Aera flushes at his words and ducks her head in a shyness he sees very rarely these days. Her words are soft and affectionate, and only a little bit awed when she speaks.

“Sometimes I wonder how you didn’t wind up with all of the girls in town chasing after you like lovesick puppies.”

Ardyn hums softly, pretending to be deep in thought as he draws her in for a warm hug. She returns the gesture eagerly, her arms curling around his waist and her hands resting on his back. She buries her face into his chest, and he presses his into her hair.

“Truthfully, Aera, I was too busy trying to impress you to notice anyone else.”

“Oh yes,” she starts, and Ardyn knows that teasing tone anywhere. “Because Choking on fruit is very impressive.”

“Come now, what was I supposed to do when an angel smiled at me?”

“Ardyn, you are a terrible flirt.”

He huffs a chuckle at her muffled voice. She nuzzles her face into his chest, no doubt trying to hide an ever spreading flush in her cheeks.

“You wound me Aera. I speak only the truth.”

She pulls away to look up at him, and he looks down at her, feeling so much more loved than he’s ever felt in his entire life while she stares up at him.

“So if I am an angel, what does that make you?”

He leans in again to press another kiss to her lips, this one longer and more intimate than the kisses from before. When they pull away to breathe, the answer flows from his lips effortlessly.

“I am your humble messenger, fit only to spread the gospel truth of your beauty to the masses.”

“Ardyn!”

The laugh in her voice brings a laugh to his own as he nuzzles her. He breathes in deeply, fond of the smell of earth and petrichor and the breeze all mixed together, the smell that is simply Aera.

“And I will never understand how a being so divine found such joy in a scruffy, stinky messenger like me.”

“Oh, Ardyn…”

The laugh is still in her voice, but it’s sobered somewhat. She holds him closer, and he has no complaints as he squeezes her just a little bit tighter. She easily guides him to sit on the ground beside her, fireflies scattering for a brief moment before they return, finding perches on shoulders and in hair and on tangling legs. Ardyn is content to hold her as she holds him, and as silence blankets them, Ardyn can’t help but feel that he’s the luckiest man to have ever walked this star.

Notes:

mushy mushy mushy man, he hates himself cause hes infected with a terrible disease that has no cure. aera still stays with him because she loves him no matter what

next chapter is gonna be hell lmao i cant wait to write it, its nothing but pacing and resignation

Chapter 12

Summary:

Desperate, he latches onto memories of songs and games he would sing and play as a child. Running with his plush raccoon, pretending they were flying. Singing about flying too close to the sun and teasing Ifrit with feathers of wax. Chasing after the rusted metal band that had been liberated from an abandoned, rotting barrel with his brother close behind.

Somnus. The brother who slandered his reputation as an experienced healer and painted him as a monster. The knowledge still lances him through his heart like an infection. It leaves him feeling more and more numb as the seconds pass.

Notes:

lmao fair warning, ardyn cuts into his leg in this chapter to yoink some metal out of his leg. i dont think it counts as self harm but at the same time, if it isn't actually self harm, its borderline enough.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Waking up this time is so much harder. He isn’t sure what’s happened to make him feel so groggy and out of it, but it takes him far too long to realize that he’s got some semblance of being awake. Ardyn feels like he’s being sat upon, as if an anak has settled its rump upon his chest and refuses to stand up. He can’t figure out why he feels as such, as he’s certain there is no anak upon his chest. He can’t check, can’t give himself that one hundred percent guarantee that there really isn’t an anak on him. His arms don’t respond to him, refusing to move outside of twitches and weak clenches. Why can’t he move properly?

Ardyn opens his eyes. The actions quickly listed as one of his biggest regrets. He closes them, cutting off the intense, stinging light that assaults his eyes. He groans, and it’s a weak and pathetic sound. Hopefully there wasn’t anyone nearby. It would be unbecoming if anyone heard such a noise come from him. He tries again to move, trying to move his hand up to rub at his stinging eyes. No such luck. His fingers still curl and twitch weakly at his sides. There isn’t much he can do about his current situation.

So he waits. Ardyn lies where he’s woken, waiting patiently for his body to come back to its senses, waiting until he finally has some kind of agency over himself. He checks every so often, trying desperately to regain command of himself. He still only manages a few pathetic twitches. And Ardyn can’t be sure how long it is before he can manage to simply lift his arm to grasp at his chest, but that alone takes entirely too long. Frustration bubbles up somewhere inside him, but it’s distant, feels like it’s an emotion hidden underwater. It fades away while he lets his hand rest against his chest. He can’t be certain, but he’s sure he passes out again.

He must have come to later on, be it minutes, hours, or days. It takes him entirely too long to gain full control over himself again. He opens his eyes again, this time feeling less a struggle to command his eyelids to part. The lights from before are less painful, less obnoxious. It takes a heartbeat for his eyes to focus on the tubes in the ceiling above him. They don’t appear to be as bright as the last collection of lights had been, but they still hum. These ones seem to flicker, a motion akin to candlelight, yet still so different. He lies there and watches them, watches as the light flickers near imperceptibly, listens as it hums noisily above him. It gets boring very quickly.

When Ardyn grows tired of staring at the lights above him, he attempts to push himself into a sitting position. It hurts far less this time for him to sit up. His leg still aches in complaint, but it doesn’t feel like the sharp, stabbing pain it had been the last time he woke up. A quick glance at his leg tells him that he still has that strange cast around his leg, and peeking past the top of that strange fabric sleeve on his leg, he can barely make out the faintest bump where metal hides beneath skin and muscle. For whatever reason, that does not sit well with him. It snarls something nasty in his gut, and he feels the itch to remedy that.

No, no no, not yet.

Ardyn looks around the room he’s sitting in, a strange nervousness building under his skin. He finds this room to be exactly like the room he had been in before. The floors are still a dull grey rock, denser than any rock he’s familiar with. The walls are still made of massive sheets of metal, ones that stretch all the way up to the ceiling. There are black domes in the corners of the room on the ceiling, just like the last, and though the lights are dimmer, there’s still the same number of lights in the room as there were in the last one. Belatedly he realizes that there is no door. No, there is a door, there’s always a door, but when he finds it, he finds that there is no glass windows to show him the halls outside. No hinges, no handles, no windows.

It’s a cell then.

Swinging his legs off of his cot, Ardyn pushes himself to his feet and wanders over to the door, ignoring the minuscule shake in his knees. The only sign that there’s a door at all is the slight seam in the metal where it was cut to accommodate the door. He gives it a curious shove. It doesn’t budge. He pushes harder on it. It still doesn’t budge. He realizes that the door must also have a set of deadbolt locks on it. If there are no hinges on the inside, then that means they’re on the outside, and that the door swings outwards. A deadbolt lock of the caliber he’d seen on his last cell would certainly be enough to keep the door sealed shut, assuming these strange people hadn’t put further measures in place to keep him from escaping. Ardyn assumes that’s why there is no glass window this time to show him the hall. He’d made use of it last time. They seemed unwilling to give him the same tools for escape again.

Ardyn takes a step back, eyes stuck on the door, and more hesitantly takes another. A quick perusal of his memories tells him all he needs to know. He’s stuck once more in a cell, confined by hostile people, likely under Somnus’ control. He glances to the cot, and grimaces. At the very least Somnus has allowed him the comfort of a bed this time. At least he’s no longer strung up like an abused festival turkey.

Anxiety grabs him by the throat and squeezes. Perhaps it’s not much better that he can move instead of simply hang. He’s been immobile and in pain for so long that Ardyn cannot bring himself to sit back down on the cot. Instead he paces, walking silent, frantic circles around his cot, around the edges of the room. When he grows dizzy, he switches directions and paces the other way. He ignores the slight ache in his leg as he works it, exercising his legs after who knows how long spent immobile and useless. He paces for a long time before he finds he can no longer ignore his leg.

Ardyn dumps himself on the cot when he feels his bad leg starting to stick, and the heavy landing on an uncomfortable cot jostles his leg in several strange places.

The metal.

He isn’t sure what possesses him in that moment. It could be anxiety, it could be anger, it could be boredom, or irritation, or a desperate need to do something with his hands. It smothers him like a fog, and he moves on autopilot. Instinctively he calls forth his medical dagger from the Armiger. It’s a comfortable, familiar weight in his palm, and he feels somewhat distracted by it as his free hand pulls at the burrs and wool fabric holding the cast to his leg. When the cast is pulled from his leg, Ardyn manages to think fast enough to move himself from the cot to the floor, away from the place he was certain he would be sleeping. After that, the strange sleeve of fabric clinging to his leg is pulled away. He’s distantly pleased to see that there are no bandages there. When he last fell unconscious, these strange people had not bothered tinkering with his leg. The stitches are still there as well. Without them, Ardyn would not have known where the metal beneath his skin and muscle hid, or how long to make the incisions. All of the scars have disappeared, pale, puckered skin returning to a smooth bronze. Without thinking, Ardyn presses the blade of the dagger to his leg.

Pain alerts him through the sudden fog what’s happening, but Ardyn doesn’t stop. No, he’s started now, there would be no beneficial point in stopping. He breaks the strange material the stitches are made of as he cuts a section of his thigh open. He starts at the skin, but once the skin has been broken and ichor starts to spill, he starts again, pressing in deeper this time. Muscle parts for him, sending another burst of white hot agony shooting through his leg all the way up to his skull. It hurts so terribly, but Ardyn doesn’t stop cutting. The ringing buzz from before returns to him, and somehow, it helps pad the pain, makes it feel more distant, less intense. He’s thankful for once that he’s as infected as he is, though he’s thankful only for the dampening of the pain. Where he’s cut tries to stitch itself together again, ichor welling up heavy and intense and sticky. No, he’s not so thankful for the Starscourge anymore.

Ardyn fights with the scourge that surges to heal his self inflicted wound, cutting deeper and deeper and brushing away what ichor that wells up off onto the floor. It takes too long to locate the metal that hides in his flesh, but Ardyn makes very quick work of removing the screws and the plating from his bone. It still hurts, still feels sharp and stinging, but it’s not overwhelming. He can still think through it. And once the plate and screws are out, Ardyn allows the ichor to take over. The uncomfortable, sticky itch of ichor swelling in his wound and tightening, dragging the muscle and skin and even bone back in place is a feeling that forces him to grit his jaw. It was never a pleasant feeling, but it was one he would endure if it meant that he could ignore a greater quantity and quality of injuries. Being a sin eater has a few small perks, at least.

Doing his best to ignore the feeling, Ardyn moves and cuts into his leg a little farther down, where there’s another swath of stitches. It’s another fight to get down to the bone before the ichor tries to protect him, but he manages to fish the metal plating out once more. The ringing buzz intensifies, and the ichor grows more aggressive. Ardyn pays it as little mind as possible and cuts again. There are at least four more swathes of stitches he needs to cut open and dig around in his leg for metal. There was no point in wasting time, waiting for one brutal incision to heal before the other. He would simply have to deal with the original intensity of the pain multiple times over again if he were to wait. Better to get it all done when that ringing buzz was filling his skull.

One by one, Ardyn cut himself open and yanked metal and screws from his body, letting the objects drop to the ground to his right while he moves onto the next. By the time he’s fished out the last bits of metal from his ankle, his first incision is completely scabbed over with ichor. It’s not a swift recovery, this he knows all too well, but at the very least he should be able to move himself about, enough so to limp where he needs to with little pain.

Ardyn chooses to sit and wait before he moves again. It would take time for the rest of his incisions to scab over fully, and while he has no doubts he can stand and limp as he is now, he has no illusions that it wouldn’t be pathetic and incredibly painful. He can sit and wait on the floor like this, his legs stretched out in front of him in silence. At least, he thinks he can sit and wait like this, immobile by choice in yet another cell.

Minutes pass and the inactivity is already too much for him to bear.

He tries to distract himself, first with the fidgeting of his hands over the ichor stained handle of his medical dagger, then with banishing and recalling the dagger to and from his hand. It offers him little to no comfort, no matter how fiercely he fidgets. The action is the same as the action of turning his head back and forth when he hung in his previous cell of stone. He is willingly immobile. Returning to old coping habits, he desperately turns to his thoughts for something to distract him.

Aera. Ardyn thinks of Aera. He thinks of her smile, the way it brightened her face, the way she would smile at him when he told her a terrible pun, or when she would tell him of her mischiefs. He thinks of her laughter, lighter and more musical than anything he's ever heard. He thinks of how warm she had made him with her attention, how every moment spent in her arms made affection and adoration foam up inside him, warmed him from the inside out, made him feel more important than anything else in the world.

Before he can stop it, the brief memory of Aera, lifeless in his arms, cold and still and silent, chases the warm memories of happier days away. It leaves him feeling cold and alone and scared.

Desperate, he latches onto memories of songs and games he would sing and play as a child. Running with his plush raccoon, pretending they were flying. Singing about flying too close to the sun and teasing Ifrit with feathers of wax. Chasing after the rusted metal band that had been liberated from an abandoned, rotting barrel with his brother close behind.

Somnus. The brother who slandered his reputation as an experienced healer and painted him as a monster. The knowledge still lances him through his heart like an infection. It leaves him feeling more and more numb as the seconds pass.

Time.

Ardyn thinks of how long he's been imprisoned. He isn't certain. It could have been weeks, or months, perhaps even years. There had been no way to tell in his stone prison, and there's no way for him to tell passing time in his current cell. He had not been considered worthy enough to know what time of day it was, hidden in his cells. Monsters do not need to know the time of day, nor do they care. But Ardyn cares. He knows he cares. He clings to that thought like a lifeline.

Ardyn casts his eyes around his current cell again. Nothing has changed since he last looked, save for the puddle of ichor stuck beneath his leg and the metal he's pulled from his leg. But he does not recognize the architecture. He does not recall ever seeing those black domes before his imprisonment. He does not recall ever seeing those crossbow-like weapons before his imprisonment. The uniforms he's seen are so very different, so similar to one another that it seems almost supernatural for them to have been created by hand. And the medical equipment. Ardyn does not recall ever seeing a cast of this design, nor the strange item that had covered his face when he had first woke after his initial release. He does not recall ever seeing a structure made of so much metal, and he does not recall knowing anything that casts voices all over vast areas with no echoes or distortion.

Ardyn doesn't understand.

He's spent a long time in that cell, yes, he knows he has, but how much time has he truly spent in there? He doesn't know, and can't begin to think of a way to find out, but surely it couldn't have been all that long. A few years at most, maybe. Yes, surely, only a few years at most.

A voice niggles in the back of his skull. It would stand to reason, if he had spent only a few years in his stone cell, that he would be able to know and understand what was happening around him now. Things simply do not change that quickly. He's lived thirty three years on this star, perhaps even thirty eight, if he assumes he's spent longer in the cell. He knows for a fact that new methods and techniques for building, creating, and organizing took years to form, cement, and implement. As far as Ardyn can tell from his time before imprisonment, things have changed all too quickly for such a short period of time. He doesn't understand the weapons, he doesn't understand the long distance communication, he doesn't understand the black domes or the vast amounts of metal walls or the medical tools and equipment.

The voice whispers that it's been longer than a few measly years.

Ardyn balks for a moment.

More than a few years? Surely that can't be right. Yes, Ardyn had taken a few naps during his time in that desolate stone cell, but it couldn't have been more than just a few years. He must have woken up a few hours after he had passed out from exhaustion. He couldn't have slept more than that, he knows he shouldn't have been able to sleep more than that in those conditions. No normal man could withstand such abuses and sleep through it like it was nothing more than an itch.

But then again, Ardyn is simply no normal man.

Unfocused, Ardyn turns his gaze towards his leg. Ichor still sits on his skin, inching ever closer to stitching his brutal incisions back together. The Starscourge had sheltered him, protected him and healed him in every fight he's had since he first began healing those inflicted with it. It had infected his own body, crawled its way through skin and muscle and bone, corrupting blood beyond recognition.

As Somnus had struck him down, a blade through his heart, Ardyn had collapsed. But he had not died.

He had risen, rage and grief and pain fuelling him. He had risen to fight once more, and he had fallen to the same blade through his heart.

He had not died.

The thought of it sickened him.

Though temporarily swayed by the sudden ill feeling, Ardyn could not remain on the ground for long. Rage and panic and grief washes through him, burning away that sick feeling. He ignores his leg, ignores the pain that shoots through him. Ardyn gets to his feet forcefully, bare feet sliding minutely in the slick of the fallen ichor. It burns so very badly, but Ardyn does not stop.

He needs to get out.

He rushes to the door. The ringing buzz had settled earlier while he was sitting and thinking. It comes rushing back, padding his pain tolerance. He skids into the door, a dull thwunk echoing around his cell. He needs to get out. He can't stay here. He can't be imprisoned again. He can't be immobile again. He can't think. He can't breathe. The walls are closing in. He backs up a step and throws himself again at the door.

When the metal door doesn't budge, Ardyn does it again. A dull ache lances through his shoulder and bad leg. He ignores it, throwing himself yet again against the door. He builds up a steady rhythm, body checking the door as hard as he can manage. The ringing buzz fills his skull, muffling the thunking of the meat of his shoulder against the metal door and drowning out any potential sounds from beyond it. When the door continues to stand firm, Ardyn's rhythm gets faster. Adrenaline and panic flood him, his rage and grief forgotten almost as quickly as they'd arrived. Still, the door refuses to budge. The crack of a dislocated shoulder and the tingle of distant, burning pain forces him to change tactics.

He slams his arm methodically against the door for a final time, feeling bone and muscle slip painfully back into place. If the door will not submit to an outward swing, then it shall submit to an inward swing. Blunt nails scrabble at the door. He can barely register his own fingers scratching at the frame, searching for a proper handhold to leverage himself. The door and the wall are too close together. There's no room for even his littlest fingers to grab hold of the door and pull.

Without thinking, Ardyn summons his medical dagger from its place he had sent it away into the Armiger. The tip of the dagger slides in between door and wall smoothly, almost as if it was meant to be. Ardyn angles the blade and pushes against hard. He pushes and pushes and pushes, his own panic squeezing his throat so tight it felt near impossible to breathe. For what feels like an eternity, nothing moves aside from the shaking in his arms. After that, something creaks and groans. Ardyn pushes harder.

There's a sharp crack and the dagger gives. For a brief second, his head tricks him into thinking he's pried the door open. His eyes assure him moments later of no such thing. The blade of his dagger is bent and broken, the abused edge of it sitting on the floor at his feet. The door remains as it had been, completely unaffected by both Ardyn slamming his body against it and Ardyn desperately trying to pry it open. The dagger slips from his hands and both pieces disappear into the Armiger.

The walls seem to press in on him closer and closer, and it takes what little control Ardyn has over himself left to stagger back and away from them, moving towards the centre of the room. He suddenly realizes how dizzy he feels, how scared and panicked and trapped he feels. The back of his legs bump against the cot as he steps in the puddle of forgotten ichor on the ground. He slips and falls back. It's not much a consolation prize to lad on the cot instead of on the stone floor.

The sound of his thudding heart and strangled gasps for breath soothe him none as he lies there, eyes focused again on the lights above him. They suddenly seem so much closer to him, close enough for him to touch. The ringing buzz is still growing in his skull, rising steadily in volume until Ardyn can no longer hear his own breathing and his heart. The cell still appears to be closing in on him as black edges his vision. Desperate and afraid, Ardyn squeezes his eyes shut and listens as the ringing buzz slowly grows tinny and fades away, all sensation fading soon after.

Notes:

maybe he shouldn't have thought about all that sh*t while he was stuck in a new cell, you feel? its a lot to take in that you're still trapped after having two slight tastes of freedom after 2000 years of imprisonment. verstael is gonna have a f*ckin blast when he's notified of ardyns current condition. cant wait to write more of verstael

Chapter 13

Summary:

“You are in no position to be making demands."

Ardyn nearly jumps at the voice, but manages to make his startle look more like a shift to better situate himself on his feet. He recognizes the voice. It’s hard to mistake that kind of raw and grating voice. Ardyn finds him beyond the crowd of doctors, standing right in front of the faint outline of the door. He’s still wearing the same regalia he wore the first and second time Ardyn saw him, just as he continues to wear the same predatory look from before. He’s no idea who this man is, other than being high up on the food chain in this strange place. He’s a man that Ardyn neither likes nor trusts. Ardyn glares daggers towards him, and while he sizes him up, the man no doubt takes his silence as a chance to continue.

“Surrender your weapons, and do so before I lose my patience.”

Notes:

yo fair warning, this is where that "graphic descriptions of violence" archive warning kicks in.

you read the tags, you made it this far, please dont flame me for anything that ive tagged

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Ardyn finds that waking has become a very difficult issue to deal with as of late. His senses are far away for the time being, and he still feels as if he’s been crushed by an anak. His chest feels somewhat tight, as does his throat, and there’s a distant ache in his leg. But beyond that, he feels fine. A little drowsy and still partially asleep, but fine. It’s the sound of rattling and footsteps that must have woken him. They sound tinny and distant, muffled as though he were underwater. His mind struggles for reasons why, struggles for memories. They are beyond the door is all he can come up with, but it seems that’s more than enough for him in his sleep addled state.

He doesn’t bother trying to wake up further, doesn’t bother trying to force his body to obey him. He doesn’t remember why, but he feels subdued and resigned. Sleep is the only comfort he has. Sleep was the only comfort he’s known for a very, very long time. Sleep calls out to him, and Ardyn happily responds, allowing what little awareness he has fade away until he can’t hear or feel anything anymore. He feels numb. Empty. Hollow. But it’s not as terrible a feeling as he once would have considered it to be. There’s a bland comfort in the numbness, the kind of comfort that can be found in a bowl of lukewarm soup for a cool morning’s meal. He sees no reason to try and drive the numbness away. It certainly isn’t hurting him, so surely it’s nothing to worry about.

Voices faintly cut through the silence. They’re muffled and distant and tinny, too. He can’t tell what’s being said. He knows the timbre to be fear, has heard that tone of voice used between himself and the late Doctor Salutem. It’s the tone of voice doctors use with each other while they fight with all they have to save a patient’s life. How very strange to hear that tone of voice again when Ardyn isn’t the one involved in the chatter. After Doctor Salutem passed, Ardyn had been the only doctor in his hometown. It was uncommon to share such frantic, fearful words with anyone, and when he did, it was when a doctor had been passing by their town and offered their assistance.

The fear in the distant voices is enough to spark Ardyn’s curiosity. He fights his body for a little more consciousness. The voices grow a little bit in volume, loud enough for Ardyn to pick out a few strange words and hear differences in voices. It’s not enough to find out exactly what has these people in such a panic, but Ardyn can’t seem to bring himself to care. At the very least, mindlessly listening to peaks and valleys in these peoples’ voices brings him some kind of lazy entertainment. It’s enough for him to remain where he lays, still hollow, still empty, still numb, but aware enough to hear.

A new, unfamiliar sound sets off a warning in his mind. Ardyn struggles for a little bit more coherence, but for whatever reason it’s difficult. The sound clarifies in the slightest. It almost sounds like some kind of thunder magic. Like electricity sparking on and dancing between the whiskers of young coeurls, but more monotonous, more… More sterile. Ardyn perceives the noise as a threat, and fights his body even harder to regain his consciousness.

He manages to take a deep breath the moment two objects are pressed to his chest, one icy cold stretch of hard material over each pectoral.

Ardyn’s consciousness is brought back with painful clarity as electricity races through him. Disturbing, how he can feel his heart splutter and stammer back to life in his own chest. His body moves without his permission and he jerks, twitching and thrashing on the cot. He’s aware that his arms and legs have hit people, but he pays it no mind. All at once adrenaline is rushing through him, and without thinking he shoves himself to his feet. People around him shout in surprise and a sudden chill presses in on him. Ardyn doesn’t stop, doing his best to force his way through his seizing. He staggers and nearly collapses, arms reaching before him. Discomfort lances through his arms as his hands meet metal and it takes almost everything he’s got not to fall fully against the wall like a drunk.

His legs feel the way Flan looks, and his breathing can barely be called such. He gasps and chokes for the air he lost when struck, and he supports himself as best he can against the cold metal wall. Ardyn instinctively calls upon the Rakshasa Blade when hands touch his shoulders and spine. He lashes out, not even daring to open his eyes yet. The gratifying shouts and yelp of pain is a slight consolation, and Ardyn turns fully to lean his back up against the wall.

Once the jitters of electricity finally settle into subtle shaking, Ardyn opens his eyes. The cell is still somewhat dimmer than his last cell, but that’s certainly where the similarities end. Near the cot he had been lying on previously is a small team of people, each of them dressed in drab, blue shirts and pants. Truthfully, they each look like a pole someone had haphazardly thrown and pinned their sheets around to dry. They must be doctors of some kind, if the way their hair was pulled back and the way they each hid the lower halves of their face behind face covers were any indication. There’s seven of them in the cell with him. One of them, Ardyn notices, has a gash on their arm, one that they’re trying to staunch with a hand gripping it tight. The blood that drips down her elbow and forearm isn’t heavy. A shallow wound then. Nothing she’d die from.

Accompanying the seven doctors is a collection of metal boxes and stands that Ardyn doesn’t recognize. A few of them make sounds, the most annoying of which emits a soft yet piercing wail that never seems to lose volume or pitch. Strangely enough, a metal pole on wheels with hooks holding what appears to be see-through pouches filled with water and blood. Well isn’t that sickening. Doctors certainly have changed the ways they worked since Ardyn was last considered an official member of their ranks. He certainly has no idea what any of these devices are for.

Some of the doctors try to approach him, but Ardyn isn’t having it. He lashes out with the Rakshasa Blade, waving it wildly and without grace in front of him in deadly arcs. It’s enough of a threat to get the doctors to back away from him, and it gives him enough time to register a strange, painful pinch in his arm. Glowering at each doctor in turn in attempts to cow them, Ardyn takes a moment to glance down at his arm where it hurts. Short, strange tubing made of an unfamiliar, hard material juts out of his arm. Twisting his wrist causes him another sting of pain. Some kind of metal has been poked in under his skin, no doubt, hidden beneath the strange, sticky white band around his arm. It keeps the tubing in place, he realizes, but Ardyn is a little more concerned with the fluids that drip out of the tubing.

Water drips out of one of the opened tubes, and blood drips out of the other. It’s the blood that has him stalling, watching for longer than he intends. He hasn’t bled properly since before he started healing people with the Starscourge. The sickness had consumed him, had corrupted his blood and turned it into the very ichor that had choked his patients. Ichor dripped sluggishly out of both of the openings in the tubing as well, but the sight of healthy blood dripping from his arm was somewhat surprising.Ardyn glances back up to the hooks holding water and blood in those strange see-through pouches. Distantly he realizes that the tubes coming from the bottoms of each pouch had been connected to the openings jammed into his arm. They were pumping fresh blood and water into his veins. Why?He didn’t spend much time pondering, as his quiet inspection of his new accessory had emboldened a few of the doctors. Some of them had begun to creep towards him again. Ardyn reinforces his threat, swiping out at them with the Rakshasa Blade again. They all hastily hop backwards, out of his range, eyes focused solely on his blade again. For a few, painfully long moments, Ardyn watches them as they watch his blade. Soon enough eyes flicker back up to him, and he can see how much they want to approach him again. He can see how much the want him subdued again. Ardyn doesn’t like that. A sound not unlike a growl rattles in his chest and up his throat. The ringing buzz sputters back to life in his skull, quiet and subdued for the time being.

“Do not touch me…” he hisses, taking a deep breath to steady the slight quiver in his voice. “I have had enough of your incessant touching…”

“You are in no position to be making demands.”

Ardyn nearly jumps at the voice, but manages to make his startle look more like a shift to better situate himself on his feet. He recognizes the voice. It’s hard to mistake that kind of raw and grating voice. Ardyn finds him beyond the crowd of doctors, standing right in front of the faint outline of the door. He’s still wearing the same regalia he wore the first and second time Ardyn saw him, just as he continues to wear the same predatory look from before. He’s no idea who this man is, other than being high up on the food chain in this strange place. He’s a man that Ardyn neither likes nor trusts. Ardyn glares daggers towards him, and while he sizes him up, the man no doubt takes his silence as a chance to continue.

“Surrender your weapons, and do so before I lose my patience.”

“Before you lose your patience?” Ardyn sputters, choking back a startled laugh. “And what have I to gain by doing so?”

The man opens his mouth as his brow twitches, but Ardyn cuts him off, voice low and sounding more like a growl than before.

“What will you be offering me in exchange? Some real clothes, perhaps? Or maybe a vase to look at? It’s rather drab in here, I’ll have you know.”

A thought twists its way into Ardyn’s mind, and he barely manages to choke it out before he gives a soft and bitter laugh.

“Perhaps I would have asked for my freedom, but the way you’ve eliminated windows, doors, and even the barest hint of enrichment, I don’t believe that’s anything you’d risk giving me.”

Before the man can talk again, Ardyn levels him with another glare.

“No, I don’t believe that I’ve any incentive to surrender what is mine.”

The look on the other man’s face is something Ardyn knows he’ll cherish. That predatory looks turns angrier, eyes narrowing, brows furrowing, and the edge of his top lip quivering in the obvious sign of a barely restrained sneer. Something about drawing that expression out of the man delights him. It’s enrichment in its own right, Ardyn realizes. Humans are highly sociable creatures, beings with a natural instinct to seek out one another and interact. He definitely doesn’t like this man in front of him, but Ardyn absolutely enjoys making him angry. With his current situation the way it is, Ardyn thinks he’s safe enough to continue provoking the man.

The man before him clears his throat, though Ardyn finds the action as more a way to reaffirm himself than a way to get Ardyn’s attention.

“Your incentive is that I will not-“

“Lose your patience?” Ardyn cuts in.

“Use unnecessary force,” the man finishes. Ardyn merely scoffs. He gives a grand, sweeping gesture to his cell.

“How, pray tell, do you think I wound up here, hm?”

The doctors, who had once been cowed by Ardyn’s blade, began to creep closer once again. Ardyn gave them a not-so-friendly reminder that he could still, in fact, wave his blade around with enough precision to cut them. They back off again, and Ardyn snorts. Feeling somewhat less shaky, he pushes himself off of the wall and stands, both hands securing themselves around the hilt of the Rakshasa Blade.

“Such as my prison before this one, I was forcibly locked away. I cannot die of my wounds, nor can I pass with my ailment.”

He sighs, heavy, long, and loud, and allows the tip of his blade to touch the stone floor before speaking again, this time with a kind of dramatics that seems to pull the wind and rage right out of his lungs.

“Whatever methods of force you have in mind will not be reason enough for me to fear for my life.”

Ardyn watches both the man and the doctors as a silence settles in the cell. The doctors attempt another step forwards when Ardyn’s eyes are on the man in regalia, but a simply sharp twist of his wrists is enough to halt them. He watches patiently, quietly, while the man regards him from across the cell. What the other might be thinking is hard to discern. He’s schooled his features some, enough for the rage to disappear and be replaced by a look that suggests he’s deep in thought. What he could be thinking of, Ardyn isn’t certain, but his gut tells him it can’t mean anything good. His gut turns out to be right when a new glint appears in his eyes and sends emotion back through his face.

Comprehension. Understanding. Curiosity. By the way the man’s expression twists into an ugly looking smirk, none of it is good.

“You cannot die of your wounds?”That definitely does not sound good. Ardyn clams up, shifting his position and releasing one hand from the hilt of his sword to hang at his side, at the ready. When Ardyn doesn’t answer, the intrigue and fascination in his eyes only seems to grow.

“What intensity of wounds have you endured to make such a hypothesis?”

Again, Ardyn doesn’t answer him, instead raising his blade between them, the tip pointed towards the man’s gut. For a long moment, the man stood in silence, eyes sweeping all over Ardyn as if he were searching for his answers in Ardyn’s skin. It’s only now that Ardyn notices that the top of the strange tunic with the slit all the way up the back has been adjusted instead to hang around his waist, his torso bared for all to see. He resolutely refused to allow it to bother him, instead staring down the man across the cell. The man’s expression changes again, and Ardyn hunkers a little bit lower, preparing for the worst.

The moves away from the door, but instead of moving towards him, he backs away and out of the way of the door. He knocks twice against it with firm knuckles and draws away. A heartbeat later the door is flung wide open. Two troops rush in and turn towards Ardyn with their crossbow-like weapons at the ready. At the sound and sight of the weapons the doctors scatter, fleeing out of the direct line of sight. The man wears a grin much too malicious for anyone with innocent intentions.

“I say we explore the range of severity of wounds to test your hypothesis.”

All too late Ardyn realizes what’s going on. Frantic, he swaps his blade out for his battered shield, dented still from his escape attempt earlier. Ardyn raises his shield as loud cracks explode through the room, the sound reverberating painfully off the walls. The pain he feels is blinding, and his legs immediately give out underneath him. He collapses backwards against the wall, head cracking against it, and through the ringing in his ears he can hear the man shout an order. Something wet and ice cold dribbles down his front in several places. When Ardyn’s strength fails and his head lolls, he catches sight of his shield, dropped and forgotten. A spray of holes litter the metal. Whatever those weapons were, Ardyn’s shield had no chance in hell blocking them.

A twitch from his fingers is a difficult action to pull off as he is now, but he manages, and the shield disappears back into his Armiger. There’s no point in keeping the bludgeoned thing out while Ardyn bleeds out, and he’s almost certain that’s what he’s doing. His chest heaves, fights to breathe. It feels as if he’s endlessly choking, yet unable to make any noise at all. Though black is slowly consuming his sight and his hearing is turning tinny once more, Ardyn catches sight of the holes littering his torso. Several direct hits to his heart and lungs. No wonder he couldn’t breathe. His vision soon fades entirely, as does his hearing and sense of touch.

It isn’t the end, however.

It’s never the end.

Ardyn can’t be sure how long he spends trapped in his body, all feeling and sensation gone, but time must have passed. Slowly, little by little, sound and feeling returns to him. The feeling of small pellets, slick and warm, hitting his legs and the ground is the first thing he can identify. The next feeling he can identify is the feeling of his muscle and skin being pulled tight, the Starscourge dragging flesh back together. Neither were a pleasant feeling. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant feeling taking in a short, gasping breath either. Ichor finds its way into his lungs and Ardyn starts to cough, feeling ice cold ichor travel from his lungs up his trachea and out to his lips.

Hands find his arms and he’s manhandled into a position he’s now familiar with. Bent over on his knees, a hand pressing against his spine while others grasp his arms and pull them back tight, keeping him immobile and subdued. He can’t find the energy to shake them off, not while he coughs, and not when he manages to spit up what ichor he had in his lungs out onto the floor in front of him. He opens his eyes, his sight fuzzy and swimming with unshed tears formed during his coughing. The ringing buzz fills his skull, but does not yet drown out the sounds around him.

Ardyn stares down at the small puddle of ichor on the floor while he takes shallow, gasping breaths, trying to blink back the tears and steady his breathing while ichor scabs in his punctured lungs and heart. A hand finds its way into his hair and pulls back on it. His head is forcibly tilted back so that he’s once again looking up at the man in regalia. The predatory expression has not left his face, and Ardyn decides it looks far more threatening now in this position than it had before.

Before Ardyn can even spit in the man’s direction, the cool metal of a blade presses deep into his neck and is drawn across his throat. It cleaves a deep gash in his neck, from one jugular to the other. Pain blossoms and ichor spills down his front. He’s choking once more, desperate to try and take in yet another breath. Instead it whistles, not through his nose and mouth like he thought it would, and instead through the gash in his throat. Through the pain and instinctual panic, Ardyn notes that it’s a very strange feeling, one that should have remained foreign to him for the entirety of his life.

He can’t stop the tears this time as they streak down his face, and he can’t stop the way his vision dances and fuzzes black. The ringing buzz in his head grows louder as he feels himself fade, his heart stuttering and suffering just the same as his lungs. He falls limp once more, he knows he does, but sensations fade again. Once more Ardyn is pulled through the feeling of physical death, and once more he’s pulled through the feeling of his wounds scabbing over and slowly stitching themselves shut. When the scab on his throat is thick and tough, Ardyn wheezes and chokes again, more ichor being pulled up out of his throat and coughed out onto the floor. Fingers, feeling unbearably hot compared to the frozen scab of ichor, traces over his neck, feeling the strange smoothness of his scab compared to the smoothness of his throat skin. The hand is still in his hair, holding on relatively lax, but it tightens when the hand at his neck disappears. A heartbeat later pain fills his skull in his right eye. The knife in the other’s hand twists in his eye socket, and this time Ardyn has enough coherency and muscles in tact to scream.

When the knife retreats, he’s left trembling and wheezing and, as much as he despises it, whimpering from the pain. His right eyelid feels ripped and raw, and it stings so very bad when the ichor begins to stitch his eye back together. Ichor slips out from beneath his closed lid, tracking a trail of ice down his face. The hand in his hair grips tighter until Ardyn can distantly feel strands of his hair snap under the pressure. His head is pulled back farther, tilted up so the man can no doubt see the way the ichor moves underneath his skin. It must be pronounced enough if a huff full of sick fascination and curiosity from the other is any indication.

Ardyn isn’t sure what the man is waiting for, but Ardyn knows it hasn’t nearly been long enough for his eye to be considered properly healed. The hand that had no doubt held the knife moves to his face, and finger and thumb harshly pull at his eyelids, pulling them open. Ardyn can feeling the sting of light that he can’t see from his right eye strike him long before he can feel the fresh rush of ichor slipping down his face. The fingers pull away fast, no doubt shaking the ichor that had touched them away before they return to peel his eye lids open again. Again it stings, a kind of pain Ardyn could not liken to anything else he’s felt before. Through it all, a very familiar emotion takes a tight hold of him.

Rage.

The ringing buzz fills his head, his rage filling up any space the ringing doesn’t take. Hundreds of monsters howl within him, and he howls with them. All at once a surge of energy has him tearing his head free of the man’s grip, leaving a few strands of hair behind in his grip. The man hesitates long enough for Ardyn to lunge forwards, mouth open and teeth bared like fangs. He bites down on the man’s hand, and tasting the blood, Ardyn wouldn’t be surprised if something in the Starscourge changed his physiology so resemble something closer to a daemon’s. The man howls his pain, and it sounds far more dignified than Ardyn’s own scream had, but he refuses to let go. More hands find their way to his hair and throat. He retaliates, easily swinging his arms and slipping them out of the grip of the troops holding him down. He grabs each of them by the wrist and heaves, throwing them across the cell.

Somehow the man manages to yank his hand free of Ardyn’s mouth, but he leaves behind a mouthful of torn skin and blood. A knife lashes out at him, slicing open his cheek. Part of his cheek on the left side sags and opens, muscle rent apart. He barely feels the pain, barely feels the way ichor spills down his jaw and quickly starts pulling muscle and skin back together. Everything is drowned out in a rush of adrenaline, and Ardyn rises to his feet.

The man retreats backwards, and vaguely Ardyn notices that he hadn’t heard more troops filing into the cell. They surround the man, the group of ten crowding close to the door. No doubt covering the man’s escape into the hallway. It doesn’t matter much to Ardyn. All that matters is the anger he feels. He would deliver unto these men unholy retribution. And boy, he was going to enjoy it.

The troops aim their crossbow-like weapons at him and fire, launching the same pellets that had punctured Ardyn’s lungs and heart earlier. Ardyn is effectively pelted with the projectiles, and while the pain was distant, muscles rip under the metal rain. Or perhaps metal fire would be a more accurate term. Where he’s struck burns much like a tongue of fire burns. The scourge does its best to protect him, ichor spraying where projectiles strike the softest tissues and forming rough, hard scabs.

The merciless assault does not end. When one troop lowers their weapon to fiddle with a box on the underside, another takes their place, unleashing a flurry of metal fire upon him. Ardyn steps once forwards, underneath the violent assault, and steps again. The troops shout something, but Ardyn can barely hear it over the thundering of the weapons, over the strange sliding and clicking. They had sounded like thunder in a can when he heard them before, but in the cramped walls of his cell, the sound is tripled, endless claps of thunder pounding in his ears. Ardyn takes another step, his one good eye focused on the cluster of troops. The cluster ripples as two more join the fray from outside the door. Ardyn steps forwards again, his muscles protesting with how much ichor has replaced his torn flesh. He doesn’t hear the squeaks that come from the two new troops’ weapons, he only feels the pain of something sharp sticking into his throat and chest. Ardyn tries not to pay that any mind either, slowly but surely pacing his way towards the troops that try to keep their distance from him. Another round of squeaks announces another two strikes of pinching pain, one in the shoulder and the other once again in his chest.

When Ardyn takes another step, something falters. He isn’t sure if its his muscles failing under the metal fire, or if he steps wrong on his bad leg. He staggers and crashes to one knee, pain lancing up his bad leg. The ringing buzz in his head, once overpowering, slowly begins to dwindle, slowly replaced once more by a different kind of ringing. With it comes a difficulty in breathing, one that Ardyn doesn’t recognize as his lungs being too damaged to function. He tries to stand, tries to push himself back to his feet and to continue his advance. His limbs rebel, moving sluggishly and responding sloppily. He barely notices that the metal fire has stopped, can barely focus on himself. He tries again to push himself up. It ends with him falling forwards, the world around him spinning, dipping, and tilting under him. The floor feels cold under his cheek, and incredibly slick. Ichor, no doubt from the injuries he’s sustained. His heart feels like its stuttering in his chest again, and his lungs struggle to draw in breath. Black fuzzes at the edges of his vision again, it isn’t soon enough when he fades away properly.

Notes:

fun fact

if you take more than one microgram of carfentanil, you can die? ardyn gets at least a milligram of carfentanil in each of those four tranqs

remember kids

elephant tranquilizers are called elephant tranquilizers for a reason

another fun fact

typing "how much carfentanil can a person take before dying" makes you sound like a murderer

Chapter 14

Summary:

As the other four scramble about in a panic, Ardyn meets the man’s eyes. The man’s face turns from shock and fear to annoyance and rage. Ardyn just grins at him. That’s a good look on the man, too, but shock and fear is by far a better look. Shuffling his grip, Ardyn starts to squirm and kick his legs up. The cold metal and glass is smooth, far smoother than Ardyn is used to, but by the Six that won’t stop him from trying to find a proper foothold. If he could just get his feet planted somewhere properly, he could smash through the glass. And if he manages to smash through the glass, Ardyn’s almost certain he could end the man with the predatory look. And the doctors, too. They have offered him nothing of worth to spare them from his fury. And while he feels no ringing buzz in his skull accompanied with his fury, he knows what he feels must be akin to fury. They will most certainly not be spared.

Notes:

i write almost all of these chapters at work now because i know that ill be too busy playing ffxiv or scrolling tumblr to remember doing it at home lmao
work's usually pretty quiet anyways, and my manager doesnt mind if i write after cleaning and tending to customers lmao

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“There you are, brother~!”

“Aera!”

Ardyn chokes on the feeling of ichor crawling its way into his stomach and up his throat. He rolls over, dizzy and disoriented, to cough as hard as he can. The ichor there stubbornly resists, but splatters of thick oily black soon hit the stone beneath him. What manages to avoid his choking sinks back into his flesh, fleeing the suddenly hostile windpipe and gut to slink back into his muscles and bloodstream. The sensation of its retreat does nothing to soothe his nerves, tight and fraying from the nightmares he has awoken from. When his involuntary coughing subsides, Ardyn pushes himself to cough for a little bit longer. He keeps coughing until he’s certain he can no longer feel the ichor coiling in his stomach and throat. After that he heaves, sucking in great, deep lungfuls of air. He doesn’t catch his breath as quickly as he would like, but he doesn’t bother lingering on it.

A shudder passes through him, the hazy tendrils of his nightmares refusing to release him just yet. Ardyn doesn’t open his eyes when he finally catches his breath, and he doesn’t open them when he rolls back over onto his back, away from the splatters of ichor on the floor. Images of Somnus chasing him with a hundred voices flash in his head, images of Somnus snapping trees thicker than a house in half like twigs, images of tall stalks of dead grass cutting his legs, images of hiding in a thicket of trees so tightly packed together that Somnus had only been able to reach an arm in to grab at him. His eyes had been so big yet narrowed so tight that they seemed to glow. His mouth was just a little bit too big, his teeth just a few too many, a few inches too long. He’d been foaming at the mouth. He knows, logically, that was not his brother. That was not the brother he once knew. But that man had died a long time ago, back when Somnus had first begun burning those inflicted with the Starscourge.

A pang of phantom pain strikes him in the gut, just as harsh and sharp as the hit had been in his dreams. Instinctively, he moves a hand to his stomach to feel for wounds. Through the starchy, papery tunic, he felt nothing out of the ordinary. It did little, however, to ease the emotional pain the wound had brought him in his dreams. It hadn’t been Somnus who had dealt such a devastating blow. No, Somnus had dealt enough of those for his blows to be an empty sensation. It had been Aera, hollow and glassy-eyed, hands gripping her Astrals-given trident so tightly. Had it been any other situation, Ardyn would have admired the way her arms had rippled with lean muscles. Having his wife pierce his stomach with her favourite trident had soured the pleasure he could have taken from the tail end of that dream. Something inside him whispers, tells him he deserves it, tells him that she did it because he was the monster his brother had insisted he was. He shakes his head in the slightest, as if it would dislodge those traitorous feelings. That was not Aera, that could not have been Aera. Aera had loved him, had apologized to him even as she died in his arms, had always been there for him the from the moment they had officially met. It couldn’t have been his Aera…. Right? A sinking feeling descends in his gut, slowly consuming his insides as they travel downwards.

Another shudder passes through him, but this time it has nothing to do with his nightmares.

Belatedly, as he’s calming down from his nightmares, that wherever he’s been moved to this time is uncomfortably cold. Painfully cold, even. It’s now that Ardyn opens his eyes, squinting against the bright lights that perch high, high above him. They’re the same rows of glowing, humming lights that Ardyn is becoming oh so sick of. He looks around his new cell, noting that it’s bigger than the one he was in before, but not by much. It’s certainly much taller, metal walls stretching higher and higher up from the freezing stone floor he lies on. Ardyn can’t pick out where a door might be in this cell, but he certainly picks out windows, taller than any normal room would have any use for. The windows sit in the wall no doubt a story and a half up at least. There is definitely something decidedly not normal about this room. Then again, Ardyn hasn’t spent time in a normal room in a long time. But other than the windows, there is nothing else in the room. Nothing other than him.

The cold starts to bite a little bit more into his back, sinking in deeper and deeper until it felt as if it were scraping at his bones like teeth. Feeling a fierce ache starting to sink into his hip, Ardyn struggles to push himself to his feet. His feet are bare, and the cold of the stone floor stings in a way he doesn’t remember feeling before, but he does his best to ignore it. From his higher vantage point standing, Ardyn peers up at the windows above him. He can’t see too much, but what he can see fills his veins with a strange mix of rage and resignation.

Through the slowly frosting windows, Ardyn can see five figures. Four of them Ardyn doesn’t recognize, but they all wear some kind of garb like the doctors he’s seen had, with the addition of thin white coats that hung open and seem longer than a standard jacket. They all mean very little to Ardyn, just four more people acting as his jailers. The fifth person, however, Ardyn recognizes to be the man who had he had first seen in his stone cell. The man with the predatory look and wearing full regalia. It’s hard to make out from this distance, but Ardyn can see just enough to know that he’s still wearing that Six-awful outfit. The man is watching him intensely, playing with something idly in one hand as he stares. Ardyn glares back at him. Titan’s rock-hard nipples, he hates that man.

He isn’t sure what overcomes him, but Ardyn isn’t about to argue with it. In a flash of reddish pink light, the Rakshasa Blade lands heavy in his palm. Ardyn draws his arm back and throws it. Halfway up to the window, Ardyn disappears in a flash of reddish pink magic and follows after it. When the blade pierces the glass, Ardyn reappears, both hands gripping the hilt tight. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t surprised the glass didn’t shatter entirely into dangerous, crystalline shards. Something must have been strengthening it. Even glass that appears to be several inches thick should have crumbled when hit with the full force of his blade and magic. Instead, large and dangerous cracks split the glass, spider webbing outwards in all directions. His blade is stuck, though, and Ardyn is left to hang there by his blade. The look of shock and- to some extent- fear on the man’s face is very cathartic.

As the other four scramble about in a panic, Ardyn meets the man’s eyes. The man’s face turns from shock and fear to annoyance and rage. Ardyn just grins at him. That’s a good look on the man, too, but shock and fear is by far a better look. Shuffling his grip, Ardyn starts to squirm and kick his legs up. The cold metal and glass is smooth, far smoother than Ardyn is used to, but by the Six that won’t stop him from trying to find a proper foothold. If he could just get his feet planted somewhere properly, he could smash through the glass. And if he manages to smash through the glass, Ardyn’s almost certain he could end the man with the predatory look. And the doctors, too. They have offered him nothing of worth to spare them from his fury. And while he feels no ringing buzz in his skull accompanied with his fury, he knows what he feels must be akin to fury. They will most certainly not be spared.

Just as he manages to find a foothold just stable enough to hold him, troops rush into the room from the left. A door. Of course there would be an obvious escape in this little room the man with the predatory look has sequestered himself in. Something bitter wells up inside him, but he pushes the feeling away. His eyes are fixed upon the man with the predatory look, but the motion of the troops turning on him is enough to coax his eyes away. Each of them has one of those crossbow-like weapons, all of them turned on him. Some of them look slightly different from the others, and as if on cue a pinching phantom pain strikes him in the throat, the shoulder, and the chest. He spares himself a glance to reassure himself it was a phantom pain that had struck him, and not something real. There was no damage to his body, and the strange tunic with the split up the back remains untouched.

When Ardyn looks back up, there’s a new trooper amongst the group. Or, perhaps, one of them had simply set down their crossbow-like weapon. They all look alike, so much so that Ardyn has trouble counting them all in the room. The single different troop has what appears to be the beginnings of a club, though made of a shiny black metal instead of a smoothed and worn wood. It doesn’t have any discerning embellishments on it for him to classify it as a morning star, a mace, or a simple club, and the size of it alone has Ardyn wondering if it’s simply a smooth, rounded sheathe for a dagger. Whatever it is, it’s certainly some kind of weapon. The troop wields it like a club, gripping the weapon tightly in both hands and winding up for a strike. Ardyn hasn’t the ability to retaliate before the troop swings. There’s a piercing sound as metal connects with metal, and the Rakshasa Blade lurches in his hands. It’s enough to knock him off balance, which in turn is more than enough for his blade to dislodge from the glass.

Ardyn certainly wasn’t trained for combat the way his brother had been, but he thought himself rather graceful when he twists midair and throws his blade back to the ground. He streaks after in a flash of reddish pink magic, and reappears safely on the floor, hands gripping the hilt of the blade. The landing isn’t as smooth as he’d like, the shock of it jostling his bad leg. He does his best to ignore the pain and the biting cold once more when he turns to look up at the man with the predatory look.

The man has regained all composure, sitting silently and watching him attentively. One hand is raised, and all of the troops surrounding him- crossbow-like weapons still trained on Ardyn- stand still, no doubt waiting for the order to attack. He lets his eyes travel from one troop to another, observing their silent submission, waiting still as statues for their orders. His eyes linger on their weapons, and eventually his eyes settle once more on the man with the predatory look. For a very brief moment, Ardyn runs through the scenario of trying to continue making attempts on the man’s life. All of them end poorly, with his body attacked with metal fire and him losing consciousness on the still frozen floor beneath him. Or falling to the frozen floor. Or falling to the floor in the little room high above him. All of them seem to end with his body pelted with the metal fire and the strange pinching pains. There are no truly favourable outcomes.

He can’t contain the frustrated sound that rattles out of his throat like a growl. He dismisses his Rakshasa Blade back into his Armiger and turns his eyes away from the troops and men high above him to look around this new cell he’s in once more. Still nothing. Still empty. Still cold.

It’s cold enough that he notices his breath puffing out in front of him in translucent white clouds. It’s cold enough, he realizes, that it doesn’t matter if his skin is touching the stone floor or not. He’s freezing. It stings him down to his bones, biting easily through flesh just like a ravenous coeurl. His bad leg takes the brunt of it, just as it had before he was imprisoned for the first time. Desperate to retain some form of heat, Ardyn starts pacing. He paces around the tall cell, walking close to the edges, counting his steps, watching his breaths puff out in front of him, ignoring the pain spiking ever so slowly in his bad leg. Definitely ignoring the man with the predatory look sitting high above him.

It doesn’t work. As he paces this tall cell he’s been dumped in, Ardyn can feel his muscles growing colder and colder, his movements becoming jerkier and jerkier. His steps continue to get painful. They become so painful he can’t stop himself from limping, placing as little weight on his bad leg as possible while also trying to keep his other foot off of the freezing stone floor beneath him. Soon he starts a search for any amount of warmth in the tall cell. He wanders over to different walls, presses against the walls, wanders every square inch of the tall cell. The room is freezing all over. He keeps pacing, hoping that he may yet retain some form of warmth. His muscles tighten as he paces, and far too soon his body begins to refuse. His bad leg clicks as he limps, and it isn’t long before his knee and ankle are locking up. Even if his leg wasn’t locking up, his shivering is so bad it would be too difficult for him to move properly anyways, and every breath is so agonizingly cold that he tries to hold his breath. Anything to spare himself just a little bit of this freezing pain.

The ringing buzz comes back, creeping up slowly on him as he continues to get colder and colder, but there’s no rage that accompanies it this time. This time it feels subdued. This time it feels warm and welcoming. This time it feels almost like his mother’s embrace, warm and safe and soothing. It’s different, he knows. His mother’s embrace never felt so detached and estranged. But it was still warm, still reminiscent. The ringing buzz, though soft and soothing, slowly becomes overwhelming. A single tone song, serenading him towards…. Well, Ardyn isn’t sure what it’s serenading him towards. Blackness, perhaps. The void, maybe. The call of the ringing buzz is enough to lull him. Ardyn answers the call with little hesitance.

Ardyn leans up against the closest wall, and ever so slowly sinks down to sit. The stone floor is so painful where it touches, as is the metal wall, but he finds himself unable to care. A strange kind of numbness takes control, and it makes it difficult for him to raise his head. He manages just barely to lift his head and stares up at the windows. The troopers and the man are in the exact same positions as they were when he had looked after landing. The man with the predatory look still has a hand raised, and each of the troops still kept their crossbow-like weapons turned on him. The four doctors have tentatively returned to the window to watch him, though they look far less composed than the man does. Ardyn can’t bring himself to get pissy about it. Instead he heeds the song in his skull and allows his head to drop. Chin to chest, Ardyn looks at nothing. The ringing-buzz seems to close in on him, and he finds himself far too willing to listen. His eyes droop shut as the world around him seems to fade. To hell with the consequences. He’ll deal with them later. All that matters is that he’s temporarily free from everything.

It couldn’t have been more than a heartbeat that passes when Ardyn blinks his eyes open again. He feels hotter than he had previously. It’s hot enough that he feels as if he’s burning up. He tries to take a deep breath. Instead he chokes, coughing and trying to catch his breath. Temperature shock, he realizes, seizes his lungs, just like it used to when he’d enter the doctor’s building after walking over during the winter. The reminder of how he used to go breathless and choke at the intense difference in temperatures does not settle well inside his head. He barely has the chance to think on it as he chokes. He eventually catches his breath, but it leaves him feeling lightheaded and dizzy.

Taking a moment to breathe as deeply as his lungs will allow him, Ardyn pushes himself up and away from the wall. Shifting in his spot where he had undoubtedly fallen asleep, it’s suddenly made very clear to him that the stone and metal he had been sitting against was hot. It’s almost too hot, if he’s honest with himself. Hotter than anything he’s experienced before in his hometown at least. Even the worst of the summer days he’s lived through never made the stones this hot. And he feels hotter still when his skin crawls. Someone is still watching him.

Ardyn tilts his head up and back to look up at the windows. Somehow, the sight of the windows having been repaired or replaced isn’t as shocking as he thought it would be. He’s learning that the bastards running this place were nothing if not efficient. All of the troopers that had been beyond the windows are gone, and the number of doctors has dwindled down to only one. The man with the predatory look, of course, is still sitting there. He’s lost his poise, and is instead hunched forwards, elbows resting on a table. His chin is in one hand while the other hand twirls a bright yellow stick, and the way he looks down at him makes Ardyn shudder. He very much does not like this man. At the very least the doctor beside him has the decency to pretend like they weren’t looking. No, Ardyn does not like this man even a little bit.

It’s while he’s glaring up at the man with the predatory look that Ardyn realizes just how hot it really is inside this tall cell. Instead of his breaths puffing out in front of him like translucent clouds, the air in front of him shimmers and wavers. He’s seen the air like this before, has seen it in the middle of summer while he sat beneath his favourite tree, but never had it ever been so strong, been so intense. Ardyn makes a point of trying to show he’s unbothered by the drastic change in temperatures. He’s uncertain if he’s successful or not, and he certainly isn’t going to look but up at the man just to confirm if he’d made a good show of looking unbothered. It isn’t anything he hasn’t handled before, either. First it was freezing, and now it’s burning. It’s not like his previous cells had been any better temperature wise. The stone cell had been so dark and freezing cold he’s surprised he didn’t turn into an icicle long ago, and the two metal and stone cells he had been in before hadn’t been much of an improvement either. They were just as stagnant and chilled as the last, though perhaps the stone and metal ones less so than his stone cell.

Glancing around at the shimmering air around him, Ardyn considers taking up pacing again. He isn’t sure how long it’s been since he first closed his eyes, but his bad leg no longer feels locked, and instead throbs with a dull soreness that he knows is unlikely to fade in this heat. It would be good to sweat in this cell, as a way to help himself cool off. Astrals know that the air in this tall cell is certainly dry enough to ensure he wouldn’t be suffering any humidity if he were to try and sweat.

But when Ardyn looks up at the man with the predatory look again, he dismisses the thought. He isn’t sure what the man wants, or why he’s staring so intensely down at him, but Ardyn isn’t about to give him anything to work with. He’ll be as boring as he can damn well manage. Besides, his leg is still sore, and limping while his bad leg acts up is far too much effort for a little bit of sweat. He’ll start sweating soon enough, he’s sure.

Instead, Ardyn leans himself back up against the wall, giving an aborted hiss as the metal very nearly burns the exposed skin on his back. He does his best to close his eyes and ignore the ever rising temperatures in the room, doing his best to simply soak up the heat like it wasn’t hotter than a heated stone fresh out of a fire. It doesn’t get much easier the longer he sits against the floor and wall, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it gets much harder. He can feel his skin blistering, but he does his best to pay it no mind. It’s more important to him to bore the man watching him so intensely than it is to run about the boiling room. It’s certainly not like he wouldn’t be recovering from any burns he receives here, either. As far as he knows, he cannot die from physical injuries. And even if he does die due to the heat, at this point it could be considered a small mercy.

Ardyn can’t be sure how long he sits and waits in the tall cell, can’t be sure how long he forces himself to ignore his blistering and burning body through sheer willpower alone. It’s difficult to tell time in this place, just like it was when he had been locked away in his stone cell. But he’s certain a substantial amount of time passes before the ringing buzz rises in his skull once more. Once more the single tone song begins, quiet at first before it steadily grows more and more intense. Ardyn has no problems heeding the call of the song this time around. Instead of looking around and wondering and worrying about the man with the predatory look, Ardyn simply drops his head so his chin rests on his chest. It’s easy, he finds, to dive into the serenading sound until nothing remains. With any luck, the nothing would remain for the rest of time.

Notes:

almost 4k worth of words in this one baby~! my manager thinks im pretty talented for writing this fic. i dont think she knows anything about final fantasy but when i told her the chapter count and the word count from last chapter she said that it was kinda impressive. makes this baby fic writer feel good lol

Chapter 15

Summary:

“Tell me your name, and I will indulge you with mine.”

For a long moment the man with the predatory look regards him with a glare. The hatred Ardyn feels for this man is reflected loud and clear in his eyes. At the very least they could both agree that they hated one another, if nothing else.

“Verstael Besithia.”

Ah, how interesting a choice for a name. Clothed Beast? Wolf in sheep’s clothing, perhaps? It’s certainly a fitting name. Thankfully, he now has a name for the object of his hatred. Ardyn doesn’t miss a beat to respond with his own.

“Ardyn Izunia-Caelum.”

“Do you have any relations, blood or otherwise, to the Lucian Royal Family?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know, beast boy.”

Notes:

wow, i really just cranked out this chapter huh

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The world doesn’t fade away permanently like Ardyn had hoped it would. The sensation of boots pinning his wrists, shoulders, hips, and legs down is the first thing he can register. He’s on his front, he knows, even though he hadn’t let himself fade lying face down on the floor. Where boots press down on his body, his bones grind and click against themselves and the floor. It does his bad leg no favours, and they’re certainly not light, whoever they are, but Ardyn finds himself unable to complain. He’s brought this upon himself, he knows, what with his previous attempts on escaping and the half-assed attempt on the man with predatory look’s life. He still isn’t sure what brought upon the attempt of killing the man with the predatory look, but Ardyn files that idea away for later. He’ll make another attempt later. But they’d been asking for it as well. Especially the man with the predatory look. It’s not like people like them aren’t deserving of a little pain themselves for treating him like some kind of rabid monster. No matter what Somnus has told the masses, Ardyn is far from being some kind of contagious, bloodthirsty monster.

What Ardyn feels next is the ichor. Thick globs and speckles litter his back, ass, and the backs of his legs. The ichor isn’t moving, thankfully, but he can still feel how the skin underneath it is pulled tight. Pseudo scabs, then, from where his body had blistered while in contact with metal and stone far hotter than anyone should be forced to endure. There’s a slight chill sunken into his back. It’s no longer hot, and judging how his covered shoulders and part of his upper back feel warmer compared to his waist and everything below it, it isn’t much a stretch to assume whoever’s pinning him down has pulled the ties along the back of the tunic undone. His ass is likely bare for everyone to see. Oh joy.

Next, Ardyn is aware of someone’s hands running down his back. At least, he thinks it’s someone’s hands. They feel bizarre. Almost like someone has made gloves out of garula guts and covered them in a fine dust. Fingertips drag down his spine, tracing the hardened pseudo scabs of larger blisters and rubbing at the smaller pseudo scabs. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that’s for certain. Not painful, not really, but still uncomfortable. Blunt fingernails scrape and pick at one of the smaller scabs. It’s barely painful, barely anything to make note of. Depending on how long it’s been since he’s last been conscious, it’s likely the smaller scabs were ready to drop off and disappear into miasma. It’s significantly more painful when fingertips pick and scratch at one of the bigger pseudo scabs.

If the people holding him down and examining him weren’t aware that he was awake before, then they surely would be aware now. As blunt nails dig under the hardened ichor, Ardyn can’t suppress a short hiss. The picking doesn’t stop. Instead the boots pinning him down press harder, forcing complete submission while the person picking at his back scratches a little bit harder. He can feel when the pseudo scab finally gives, and the tearing sensation of ichor separating from flesh is certainly an unpleasant one. Ichor wells up in what little wound was left beneath his pseudo scab. A sharp hiss sounds from somewhere behind him and Ardyn can’t decide if he’s bitter about their obvious disgust or in agreement. He decides on bitter, but he isn’t given a chance to dwell on it long.

His arms are drawn upwards and back behind him by his wrists. A boot planted on his spine between the shoulder blades keeps him from rising and keeps his arms painfully taut. Cool metal clamps down around his arms, spanning from elbows to wrists, and hands grab him roughly under his arms. He’s hauled gracelessly to his feet, and Ardyn more or less staggers between two troopers who are standing far too close to him for his liking. For a brief moment, Ardyn thinks he’s being allowed to get his feet properly underneath him. Judging from how annoyed the troopers had been when they first brought him out of his stone cell, it wouldn’t be too outrageous an assumption that they would waste a moment for him to right himself than waste time and energy simply dragging him places. And perhaps that’s what had been intended with the brief pause.

When cold hands touch his spine to right the ties on the back of the papery, starchy tunic, Ardyn flinches. He hisses and squirms between the two troopers, twisting as best he can to face the one behind him. He isn’t sure when he’s opened his eyes, but getting confirmation that it was a pair of troopers holding him up under his arms does nothing to soothe him. The refuse to let him move more that just squirming, and whatever glances at the person behind him Ardyn can sneak are unsatisfying and frustrating. They don’t wear anything with any defining features, the fabric looking bland and boxy and so infuriatingly white. Not the man with the predatory look, at least. That much Ardyn can take comfort in, but it’s not much comfort when a faceless doctor has seen and is seeing all of Ardyn’s ass as they tie the tunic back into place.

And of course the whole ordeal feels as if it takes an eternity. Though their fingers are quick and deft, Ardyn feels as if the knots take eons to tie. It’s not soon enough for him when the doctor’s hands pull away from him. His restored modesty would definitely feel far more relieving if it had been him dressing himself in something more than just a bizarre, starchy tunic. And it’s barely a heartbeat later when the troopers holding him under his arms start to drag him away. He staggers at the first few steps, but adjusts to their pace rather quickly. They pass through a door Ardyn hadn’t realized was even in the tall cell in the first place, and beyond the door everything is far more confusing.

Other than a staircase filing away on one side of the door directly outside of the tall cell, there was no difference in the hallways beyond. Everything was a horrid, sterile white. Not a speck of dust or a smudge of dirt to be found anywhere on the walls. The strange, humming lights in the ceiling shine bright and harsh, and the complete and utter cleanness of the white walls appear even brighter than what they might have been had they not been spotless. The brightness of the halls irritates his right eye- the one that the man with the predatory look had gouged with a knife- and Ardyn closes that eye in particular to shield it from the majority of the light. It helps a little bit, but it’s still frustrating to keep one eye closed entirely while he’s being dragged around.

The troopers marching him through the halls force him around a corner, and finally something different appears. Guards. They look similar to the two troopers that are dragging him around, though they have a slightly different uniform. They too, like the doctors, wear uniforms of white. Beneath the main tunic and the chainmail, however, is another tunic. The sleeves are slightly longer, and they’re a muddy yellow colour instead of the green and grey of the troopers and soldiers. They each wield the same crossbow-like weapons he’s seen in the hands of every other trooper and soldier before. Some of them stand in pairs on either side of a chosen door or hallway. Others pace the halls in a slow, confident waltz. Guarding and patrolling. Something of importance is probably nearby, he thinks. He isn’t sure what it might be, but it shows how important this something might be if all of the guards are situated in these halls instead of the halls surrounding his previous cells.

None of them look as the two troopers holding him march him past, but Ardyn is sure to make it obvious he’s glowering at each of them. He takes no joy in the fact that no guards had been posted outside his previous cells, but he takes no joy in seeing them guarding something all the same. Whatever they’re guarding, Ardyn is sure he doesn’t like whatever it is. At the very least he hopes that they know how little he thinks of them from the way he swings his head around to glare and sneer at them as him and his handsy troopers pass.

Ardyn is forced around another corner, and this time he staggers. A decrease in elevation of the floor causes him to stumble. The troopers marching him along don’t even bat an eye at him, and if they do, Ardyn can’t see it behind their helmets. Ardyn struggles to catch up to them, and when he does he tosses each of them the dirtiest look he can manage. They pay him no mind. When Ardyn stumbles again, it’s around another corner and on an increased elevation of the floor. Ardyn shoots them both another look, doing his best to melt their helmets with his eyes alone. It doesn’t work. Part of him thinks he should give them a piece of his mind. A good tongue lashing used to set any of the teenagers straight when Ardyn was still a respected healer. Another part of him tells himself that anything he says would fall on deaf ears. If the man with the predatory look wasn’t listening to what Ardyn was demanding, it was more than likely the troopers weren’t going to listen either.

Instead Ardyn exacts what little revenge he can by glowering at everyone in the vicinity. Any trooper, soldier, doctor or guard passing them by as they marched was met with Ardyn’s hottest, angriest glare. His two darling escorts were given the same looks when they turned too sharply at a corner or when Ardyn staggered down and up single steps. No one seems to pay him any mind, and he can’t decide whether he appreciates no one noticing his foul attitude or if he’s infuriated by the lack of acknowledgement. The farther through the halls his two troopers brought him, the angrier Ardyn felt. There were no indications of where they were headed. No directions, no signs, hells, there weren’t even plaques on the doors to describe where each of them led. For all Ardyn knew, each guarded door held nothing more than cleaning supplies. A building this sterile and white no doubt takes a great deal of maintenance to remain that way.

By the time Ardyn’s two troopers turn him towards a door, the ringing buzz is back in Ardyn’s skull. It isn’t all consuming, not yet, but it certainly isn’t quiet either. Ardyn’s jerked roughly into the room by the two troopers, and before he can register anything in the room he’s thrown down to sit in a chair. It’s not a comfortable landing in the seat, considering the chair feels as if it’s made of metal and that his arms are still pulled tightly behind his back. The troopers ignore the abortive growl grinding out of his throat as they easily and efficiently maneuver his arms to rest around the low back of the chair. What sounds and feels like a chain is pulled up between his elbows and down past his wrists. Something clicks shut, and one of the troopers tugs at the chain slipped between his bound arms. Ah. They’ve locked him down to the floor, then. Something to keep his arms behind him and around the back of the chair. When hands leave the chain, Ardyn tugs on it himself. There’s barely enough slack for his arms to move an inch. Something to keep him seated as well, then. Considering that he’s had his throat cut, his right eye gouged, and has been left in a cell both too hot and too cold for ordinary people with fewer restraints than these, Ardyn doesn’t take this to be a good sign. And that certainly isn’t considering what they’ve pelted him with that’s stolen his consciousness from him.

The two troopers who had manhandled him all the way to this new cell leave just as brusquely as they had dealt with his restraints. And with no one to turn his rage upon, Ardyn huffs and looks around his new cell. The walls were the same bland grey metal as all the other cells before it, and the floor is a similar bland grey. This time, however, there are proper tiles on the floor, made of thin stone and stuck together using some kind of light grey mud. He’s never seen grey mud binding stone tiles before, but he supposes if he can find greyish clay near rivers then it certainly wouldn’t be impossible to find grey mud. The ceiling above him is made of the same metal of the walls, and there’s only one line of the ominous humming lights above him. The light in this cell is far softer than the light out in the halls, and Ardyn slowly eases his right eye open. It’s blurry and still irritated, but it feels far better in this light than it did in the light in the halls. In each corner of the cell’s ceiling is a black glass dome. In front of him is a single table. It too is a bland grey metal, and with a little bit of leaning, Ardyn finds that it’s been bolted into the floor. Strange. On the opposite of the table sits a chair with a back no doubt higher than the one he’s been sat down in. This one, unlike the one he sits in, is made of a dark wood with a glossy finish. It’s easily the nicest looking and the most natural piece of furniture in this cell.

Curiosity grips him. Ardyn shuffles in his chair, squirming around. The chair he sits in doesn’t budge. When he leans around again to look at the legs, he finds his chair is also bolted down. None of it bodes well with him, but instead of any kind of anxiety or fear, Ardyn simply feels angrier. Left alone in a dull cell, chained down like some kind of criminal, and unable to move more than an inch to get into a more comfortable position. The ringing buzz grows a little bit in volume.

There are no sundials or windows in this new cell to tell him what time it is, and while that in itself is no surprise to him, he can’t help the tiny snarl of anxiety that shoots through him. He can’t tell how long he’s left alone in this new cell. He can’t tell how long he spends shifting in his seat, can’t tell how long he spends twisting his arms and wrists around in his cuffs, can’t tell how long he spends looking around for something new to entertain him. His thoughts provide him no respite, replaying old nightmares that have fuzzed at the edges with time and whispering cruel, crude, and hurtful things to him. The ringing buzz in his skull grows a little bit louder the longer he’s left alone, and his anger grows alongside it.

Eventually the ringing buzz subsides, and his anger cools with it. When both are nearly gone from his system, someone enters. He’d been too angry before to hear the two troopers leaving properly, but hearing it now, Ardyn isn’t sure what kind of door it was that they passed through. There’s no turning of knobs or clicking of gears. Instead there’s a whisper of metal sliding past metal. A sliding door perhaps? But it doesn’t have the heavy roll of metal on wheels. Ardyn does his best to twist in his chair, craning his neck around to look at the door behind him. The man with the predatory look steps into the room, still dressed in his full regalia. All at once the ringing buzz is back full force in his skull. It takes far more effort than it should to suppress a snarl.

The man with the predatory look ignores him while he walks around the small cell, and Ardyn isn’t sure if he hates his lack of acknowledgement or his intense interest more. The man rounds the table that Ardyn sits in front of and takes a seat in the wooden chair on the other side. Ardyn is willing to bet every inch of his hair that the chair has some kind of cushion on it to soften the seat. And all the while Ardyn’s had to endure the bolts connecting his seat to the chair legs pressing circular marks into his ass. Ardyn’s eyes never leave the man as he gets himself organized.

A thin, flat piece of wood with a piece of metal at the top is placed on the table in front of him, a small stack of papers held between metal and wood. A long, thin, clear object with a streak of black in the centre appears from one of the man’s pockets and the man writes something on the stack of papers. A tube of ink, if Ardyn has to guess what the object is. He watches as the man with the predatory writes something down before the man looks up and catches his eyes. Ardyn glares at him. The man returns Ardyn’s glare with one of his own. The man doesn’t say anything, and Ardyn refuses to be the one to break the silence first. They stare one another down for a good, long time before finally the man looks back down at his paper. It doesn’t feel like a victory.

“State your name.”

Ardyn doesn’t miss a beat.

“Adagium.”

The man looks up and Ardyn simply glares harder. No one had asked him his name before any of this, let alone actually speak to him like he had some semblance of humanity. He doesn’t remember anyone asking him for his name when they removed him from the over glorified meat hooks in his first cell, and hearing this man ask him now after inflicting so much pain upon him has Ardyn’s blood boiling. The man returns Ardyn’s glare once more.

“Your name.”

“You seem so inclined to believe that I was referred to only as the Adagium before,” he starts, a sneer punctuating his words. “Whatever could have happened?”

His sneering makes the man’s eyes narrow, and he would be lying if he said he didn’t take immense pleasure in the expression.

“I was informed by medical personnel that you named yourself Ardyn.”

For a heartbeat Ardyn tries to think back. When had he told any doctor what his name was? There were a few times, perhaps, that he could have let his name slip, but not one instance jumps to the forefront of his mind more than any other did. Ardyn moves past the thought rather quickly, regarding the man before him coolly.

“I am surprised that a man in such regalia like yourself bothers to speak with those below you.”

The man’s retort is sharp and dismissive.

“They report directly to me on all matters.”

Ardyn can’t help but snort. The man’s gaze sharpens considerably at the sound.

“I will not ask you again to-“

“Equivalent exchange,” Ardyn butts in smoothly. His rage hasn’t dwindled since he first saw the man entering this cell, but it’s smoothed out enough for Ardyn to use his words like a weapon. The look of pure rage flits across the man’s face for a brief moment. Cool consideration masks it not even a blink later, but Ardyn takes satisfaction and pride in seeing such a look cross the man’s face, even if it was only for a moment. Ardyn continues when the man says nothing in response.

“Seeing as I have nothing to gain in our current encounter, I have no reasons to play nice with you and answer whatever silly questions you’ve brought me.”

Ardyn isn’t sure if he could force the man’s eyes to narrow even more than they are now, but he would certainly like to try. Ardyn offers an aloof shrug.

“Tell me your name, and I will indulge you with mine.”

For a long moment the man with the predatory look regards him with a glare. The hatred Ardyn feels for this man is reflected loud and clear in his eyes. At the very least they could both agree that they hated one another, if nothing else.

“Verstael Besithia.”

Ah, how interesting a choice for a name. Clothed Beast? Wolf in sheep’s clothing, perhaps? It’s certainly a fitting name. Thankfully, he now has a name for the object of his hatred. Ardyn doesn’t miss a beat to respond with his own.

“Ardyn Izunia-Caelum.”

“Do you have any relations, blood or otherwise, to the Lucian Royal Family?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know, beast boy.”

And oh how pleasurable it is to see such an unrestrained, hateful look on the man’s face. The only reason Ardyn was aware of the smug grin spreading across his own face was because of the clipped growl that rattles out of Verstael’s chest and throat.

“Answer the question.” Verstael spits out.

“Oh I did.” Ardyn responds.

“Answer the question properly.”

“It was a complete sentence.”

Verstael’s face twitches in a way that’s oh so satisfying. Ardyn takes it as his cue to continue.

“Nouns, verbs, adjectives, proper grammar and punctuation. I doubt there’s a way I could have been more proper in my response.”

Verstael’s voice is low and clipped when he speaks again, much to Ardyn’s delight.

“Do you have any relations to the Lucian Royal Family?”

“Oh, I’m afraid you’re not privy to that kind of information.”

A proper growls rattles out of Verstael this time, and he scribbles something rather violently down on the stack of papers in front of him. He seems to take a moment to collect himself, a moment secretly revels in, and speaks with a more level voice.

“What are the origins of your more magic based abilities?”

“A magician never tells their secrets.”

The civility Versatel had schooled into his voice was slipping.

“The origin of your abilities. Now.”

Deciding that he very much enjoys giving Verstael grief, Ardyn hams up a reaction. He recoils in mock surprise and offence, a soft gasp of feigned surprise leaving his lips.

“My my, forcing your guest to speak of things he does not desire to? Do manners mean nothing in this world anymore?”

“What is the origin of your affinity with magic?”

Ardyn tsks softly.

“Rewording your question won’t make me more inclined to answer. Certainly not with that tone of voice you so callously wield against me.”

Had Ardyn not been so consumed with contempt and hatred for the man in front of him, he would have jumped when Verstael leaps from his chair and slams his hands on the table in front of him. The dark glossy chair is sent crashing to the floor, but Verstael hardly seems to notice. Ardyn barely notices the sh*t eating grin spreading across his own face.

“You have displayed abilities commonly showcased and boasted by the Lucian Royal Family! You are capable of self sustained teleportation and summoning weapons from whatever hells the Royal Family keeps their arsenal! Your cloak bore the tattered remains of an insignia known to have belonged to the Royal Family since before the dawn of Insomnia! You even share the same damn last name as the Lucian Royal Family! It is undeniable that you have relations with the Lucians!”

When Verstael is finished his rant, he stands before him, hands still pressed to the table, eyes wild with anger and frustration. His breaths come out in barely restrained huffing and puffing, and the entire time Verstael seethes, Ardyn’s sh*t eating grin grows until it feels as if it would split his face. The sight seems to make Verstael even angrier. Ramuh’s wrinkly nuts Ardyn loves seeing this man frustrating and hateful. He loves it almost as much as he loves the look of shock and fear on him.

“I seem to have mistaken you for someone else,” Ardyn starts, painfully aware of how his voice strains with barely contained laughter. “You must be the sabertusk sent in to carry out orders from someone higher up.”

The light in Verstael’s eyes becomes dangerous, and storm clouds roll across his expression. But Ardyn does not stop. No, he was going to get every ounce of revenge out of this encounter that he could.

“If you cannot infer who or what I am from the evidence that you have gathered and presented to me, you must not be as intelligent as I first assumed.”

It’s the resounding crack and the strike of pain lancing through his cheek and down his neck that wipes his sh*t eating grin off of his face. Verstael stands, one arm crossed in front of his body, willing murder upon Ardyn with his eyes alone. And yet Ardyn does not feel the pain as strongly as he feels the startle of the strike. Ardyn hadn’t expected him to get physical. Then again, however, perhaps he should have. It wouldn’t be the first time Verstael had used physical violence against him. Ardyn can’t say he didn’t deserve such a strike. He was well aware of how much of an ass he was being towards the man, but Verstael has rightfully earned Ardyn’s ire. Instead of letting the strike get to him, Ardyn works his jaw, shifting himself to be more comfortable in his seat. And once more a sh*t eating grin stretches upon his face.

“Indeed, you are a mindless beast hiding beneath his clothes. Quick to anger and quicker to violence.”

Ardyn is awarded a backhand to his other cheek this time. Ardyn reels for only a moment, his eyes stinging ever so slightly with the threat of tears. All that Verstael has roused, however, is the ringing buzz in his skull. It’s so very loud now, and rage burns inside him. But delight overwhelms it. Ardyn does not act, does not push the ringing buzz harder, does not immediately wish for Verstael’s corruption and destruction. No, Ardyn is having way too much fun antagonizing him. Verstael slams both of his hands down on the table once more.

“You will tell me this instant or I will-!”

“Or you’ll what?”

Ardyn’s interruption seems to catch Verstael off guard. The man chokes on his words as they no doubt crash to a halt in his throat, and Ardyn leans forwards as far as his arms and the chain will let him.

“What will you do to me? Imprison me? Punish me? Kill me? There is nothing you can threaten me with the will elicit an adverse reaction from me.”

Verstael starts again, thunder crashing in his eyes and making his voice boom.

“I will have you-“

Ardyn has no trouble interrupting him with a smooth, hateful voice.

“Maimed? Slaughtered? Euthanized? Dismembered? Restrained?”

Verstael’s jaw clicks shut, and Ardyn trudges onwards, leaning back in his chair while ice clings to his words.

“Oh, many have tried, I assure you. But there is nothing to be done when I am living like this. You have no leverage over me, no matter how much you like to parade around the false idea that you do.”

And that’s when the lightning in Verstael’s eyes strike. Ardyn hadn’t been aware the other was still holding that tube of black ink until it cracks in his grip. Black ink dribbles out and stains the palm of the dark brown glove. The flat piece of wood and the stack of papers are retrieved and held to his chest, and without even looking back at Ardyn, Verstael all but stomps out of the room. Ardyn snorts. Like a child throwing a temper tantrum. The door slides shut- and he’s surprised to see the door slide shut all on its own- and Ardyn is left to his own devices.

When Verstael’s footsteps have left the range Ardyn can hear outside the door, he turns back around and settles comfortably into his chair. That sh*t eating, smug, and delighted feeling doesn’t leave him when the door slides open again, nor does it leave him when thunder claps in the small cell. Ichor explodes from the back of his head and his forehead, and Ardyn slumps forwards partially onto the table, as limp and lifeless as a rag doll.

Notes:

you ever hate a man so much that you take divine pleasure in making his life a living hell??? ardyn sure knows that feeling. sorry to y'all who like verstaeldyn, but i need ardyn to hate someone more than existence itself and himself so like.... verstael it is lmao. its plot important i promise, it just wont be plot important until waaaaaayyyyyyy way later lmao. we gotta get this dumb idiot outta the labs first.
that being said, this is in fact the last chapter i have officially planned. i only have 15 chapters fully planned, and chapter 16 is only partially planned. i might scrap what i have for chapter 16 but i can't guarantee any updates for a while because of it. gotta work out the finer details first, and then work on the fun stuff lol.
but i hope you all are enjoying! i might take the time to re-edit my first few chapters! i know theres some wonkiness in there somewhere that needs fixing! hopefully i can have another fifteen chapters planned and ready for writing soon! im actually having a really good time writing this fic!
i also physically, spiritually, and emotionally could not resist making a meme reference in this chapter. it sounds so funny thinking of ardyn saying it in that stupid slippery voice of his.

Chapter 16

Summary:

She gives him a knowing look, raising his medical dagger just high enough for him to have no excuse of being unable to see it. That, of course, does not stop him from indulging in his theatrics. With a slight gasp and his fingers reaching up to just barely hide his mouth, Ardyn endures the long suffering look of adoration she gives him

“Oh my! Wherever did you get such a ferocious looking weapon, my love?”

His heart is damn near about to burst with affection when she easily follows with her own theatrics.

“Believe it or not, dearest, but I seem to have found this tucked away in that ever so handy magic pocket of yours.”

“I swear to you upon the Six themselves, my love, I had no idea such a nefarious little blade was in there.”

Notes:

hey lads
bet you thought i was dead
i sure feel like it

approximately three or four years late with an update involving ardyn and aera slonking silly style. 6 whole k of it. you dont have to read the chapter if you dont want to because this is in fact my first time writing smut and i know thats not everyone's jam, but i will say that i try not to write something and not use it again later on. you can sit and ponder what that means for the future of this fic of course but there is assuredly going to be a future. im just bad at writing consistently lmao

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

“Ardyn! What-?!”

“Whatever is the matter, my angel? Is something not to your liking?”

Ardyn lets his voice trail, and though it’s not a comfortable feeling, he allows the residual sludge in the back of his throat roll with the hum of his voice. The tapering edge of his voice turns from a breathy whisper to something akin to a throaty purr. It’s unnatural and wrong, a sign of an unholy transformation. Men and women should not be able to purr, no matter how thick the phlegm is. But the sound of his purr makes her laugh. Her laugh is melodic, lilting and light, and he can’t get enough of it. The sound of it sends little sparks of warmth and pleasure racing through his body, lighting his nerves and filling his heart until it feels as though it may burst. The sound of her joy is worth so much more to him than his ill-ease of unholy transformation.

Through her laughter, Aera seems to try to find her voice, but Ardyn doesn’t let her get a word in. He’s desperate to hear more of her laugh, like a man lost in the Balouve Desert with an empty water skin. He leans forwards and presses the crown of his head beneath her chin and mimics what he’s seen mother coeurls do with their cubs, rubbing the top of his head and sides of his face against the soft skin of Aera’s chin and neck. It effectively cuts off whatever it was she was going to say, and rewards him with more of her laughter, startled and sweet. Six above, how he adores that laugh of hers.

Aera shoves at him, calloused hands pressing against his shoulder and cheek. He lets her shove him away, though he doesn’t allow himself to stop his purring, residual sludge vibrating in his throat like a barrel chested hum as one of his hands captures hers.

“Is that really you, making such a racket?”

It’s a bit of a challenge, holding his purr as he speaks, but he manages to ask, “Would you leave me, my love, should I admit as much?”

Though not an outright laugh, his perseverance earns him a sweet, sing-song giggle, and hearing even that is enough of a balm to withstand any discomfort his unholy purring causes him. There’s mirth in her eyes as she looks down at him, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.

“Well,” she hums, tapping a finger to her chin in thought. He would be lying if he said the sight of it didn’t make his heart stutter oh so sweetly in his chest. “I should have you know that I gave my hand to a man named Ardyn.”

“What a coincidence,” he says, still maintaining his uncomfortable purr. “That he should share a name with me.”

“The Ardyn I married certainly wasn’t part coeurl. I would know, as he shares everything with me.”

And if that isn’t an invitation for theatrics, Ardyn isn’t sure what is.

“Aera, my love, my darling, my angel,” and he struggles not to laugh and disrupt his purring when she rolls her beautiful blues at him. “I am afraid that I have kept a terrible secret from thee. Finally, after all these years together, I must confess such a horrid secret to you, for I cannot stand to keep it from you any longer.”

Briefly, Aera regards him with a serious look, no doubt uncertain by the conflict between his austere words and playful expression. To soothe any unrest he’s planted in her, he waggles his eyebrows in that mischievous way he knows she adores. Her smile quickly returns at the sight.

He beckons her closer with the hand not entwined with hers, glancing left and right when she does so, as if searching for the confirmation that they are indeed still alone in the middle of the woods. When he’s thoroughly satisfied that they’re both alone and that she’s thoroughly entranced with his theatrics, he leans close and whispers into her ear. He refuses to stop his purring when he whispers to her.

“I should have told you sooner, and I sincerely regret keeping you in the dark for all these years, but come night I simply cannot control myself and turn into a wild beast.”

It startles another miraculous laugh from her, and it only serves to egg him on.

“I grow fur, fang, and claw, my dear, and turn into one monster of a coeurl.”

Her laugh that he covets so very much grows in volume, and she kindly spares his ears by leaning back out of his space.

“You most certainly do not transform in the dead of night!”

“Oh, but I do, my love! It is beyond my control!”

When her laugh settles, she looks upon him with a cheeky grin that he covets almost as much as he covets her laughter. She reaches her hand to his jaw and runs her fingers into the beard that he has allowed to grow long in these past several months. He presses his cheek into her palm, weak to the way her nails scratch oh so gently through coarse, wavy hair.

“Well, if that truly is the case, then it would explain why I seem to never stop discovering your hairs all over my clothes. You’re certainly as hairy as a coeurl.”

“A curse indeed,” he murmurs, finally giving into his throat’s complaints to stop his unnatural purr. “A shame that it is midday now. You won’t be able to see just how much more I can grow when the moon shines high in the sky.”

Just like her laugh, her chuckle is a balm to his soul, and when she lets go of his hand to cup the other side of his jaw, a shiver of pure joy runs down his spine. He melts a little bit more into her touch, drinking up every ounce of attention she deigns to offer him. He would never admit it aloud, but he’s found himself terribly touch starved in these past months. Though perhaps, he doesn’t have to, not with the way he sinks into her attention.

He’s unaware that he’s closed his eyes, or even when he’s closed them, and is only brought back to attention when she gives a thoughtful hum. He cracks his eyes back open and looks up at her, greeted by her face scrunching up in thought. Another expression he treasures, with each little crease highlighting the laugh lines already carving their place on her face. And it’s there that he basks, pressing his rough cheek into her equally rough palm and looking up at her as if she’s hung the stars in the sky all by herself. Wonderful as she is, he wouldn’t be surprised if she had hung those stars herself.

“You know, Ardyn…”

He hums an inquisitive tone when she falters, unable to find his voice through the warmth she imbues in him with her attention.

“As much as I adore your wild man tendencies, I think I do prefer feeling your cheek against mine.”

“Oh? I thought you adored me just the way I am.”

His words earn him a slightly harsher scrape of nails through his beard, but it feels just as good as her gentle scratching does. He simply nuzzles his cheek into her palm further.

“Make no mistake, I do adore you, but I am less fond of the beard burn you inflict upon me in the throes of your passion.”

“Forgive me, my love,” he says, feeling a mix of contrition and smugness. “When one dedicates as much time to fleeing search parties as I, one tends to forget simpler routines.”

“Including shaving?”

“Especially shaving.”

She tilts her head, her grin turning just a little more knowing, her eyes glittering a little bit brighter with her mirth. She can see right through him and his pitiful lies, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think you just enjoy the thought of claiming me as your own.”

“Oh, always and forever, my love. But that is not the reason I enjoy it.”

Aera lifts a single golden brow, giving him an expectant look. It’s clear she knows he’s up to something, as much as he ever is, and he can’t help the sh*t eating grin that spreads across his face.

“I much prefer hearing what drama you have for me when we next meet. I do enjoy tormenting the villagers so.”

“Speaking of drama!” Aera barks out, and already Ardyn is laughing, knocked from his comfortable perch with his head in her hands. She swats at his arm, and he only laughs harder.

“Do you know how scandalized the priest was to see such marks upon my neck and face? I had to lie not only to the priest, but the wandering doctor who happened to be in the village at the time!”

“Oh? And what nefarious lie did you use to deceive them, my love?”

He earns himself another swat, this one just as light as the last, before Aera continues.

“I had to tell both the doctor and priest that I had simply encountered a startled daggerquill, and that in my surprise I had landed front first in a patch of poison ivy!”

And if he hadn’t been laughing hard enough his guts hurt, then he certainly is now. Area’s whine of “It’s not that funny, Ardyn!” is just loud enough for him to hear, but it takes him several moments to calm himself down. Aera glowers at him the whole time, though there is little heat in her gaze.

“Forgive me, Aera. I rarely get entertainment these days, so I have needed to become creative to find it.”

She pouts at him for a moment, the corners of her mouth pulling oh so adorably downwards, and it’s a moment he easily ruins by waggling his eyebrows at her once more. It breaks her pout into a grin, and he knows all is forgiven at the sight of it.

“If it truly bothers you so, I shall endeavour to be clean shaven the next time we meet.”

All at once, that delightful little pout is back.

“You won’t shave it now?”

“Why Aera, I would never dare to think of interrupting the precious little time I get to spend with you, my love.”

Ardyn leans up then, intent on pressing his lips to hers and in turn, intent on marking her with yet another beard burn for the old fogeys in the village to see. The pads of her fingers pressing against his lips stop him, and though he’s partially confused, he looks up at her with as much innocence as he can. A look crosses her face, and Ardyn can’t help the shiver that runs up and down his spine. He’s seen that look before, and he knows that whatever she has whirling around in that head of hers, it will undoubtedly be something he likes. She has rarely led him astray before, and each time she has had always been something akin to an adventure to reflect upon fondly.

“What if I were to shave your beard for you?”

Oh.

Oh, yes, he certainly likes the idea. There is one problem, however, and he voices as much to her.

“I simply do not have the tools you require for such an activity, my love. I’m afraid a sword as long as I am tall and a scythe as curved as my own would be poor choices for such a task.”

Another shudder rolls down his spine when Aera calls forth his very own medical dagger from his Armiger. It’s a sensation he is familiar with, though he is certain he will never get over the intimacy of her reaching into the hammer space that is so thoroughly connected to his being.

She gives him a knowing look, raising his medical dagger just high enough for him to have no excuse of being unable to see it. That, of course, does not stop him from indulging in his theatrics. With a slight gasp and his fingers reaching up to just barely hide his mouth, Ardyn endures the long suffering look of adoration she gives him

“Oh my! Wherever did you get such a ferocious looking weapon, my love?"

His heart is damn near about to burst with affection when she easily follows with her own theatrics.

“Believe it or not, dearest, but I seem to have found this tucked away in that ever so handy magic pocket of yours.”

“I swear to you upon the Six themselves, my love, I had no idea such a nefarious little blade was in there.”

“Oh? Is that so?”

The hand at his mouth drops down to draw an x across his chest, and he fixes her with a serious look. Or as serious a look he can manage while desperately trying not to grin.

“Cross my heart and hope to die, my beloved.”

“Yes, well, let us hope circ*mstances do not come to that. Come along.”

Ardyn isn’t given enough time to protest. Aera simply takes him by the wrist and tugs him along, firmly guiding him through the trees and fields to where a known stream lies. Though it dampens his dramatics, he follows her without question, ambling along behind her like a perfect little lamb. It takes a little bit of searching the edges of the stream, but Aera soon finds what it is she’s looking for. A small sandy patch near the stream’s edge, where pebbles are few and grasses soft, and a fallen tree is mourned by its few remaining peers.

“This will do.”

Aera urges him to sit, and sit he does, with his back against the rough bark of the fallen tree and his legs splayed in front of him, parallel to the gently flowing stream. Aera is quick to pin him there, plopping herself unceremoniously in his lap. Even that is thoughtful of his leg, her weight never baring more than a feather’s touch against his left thigh, and his heart threatens to melt under the weight of his affections for her.

Something else in him stirs when his medical dagger is dunked into the stream and lifted to his throat, blade hovering just above tender skin. Suddenly, he thinks he knows what devious little idea had wormed its way into his beloved’s head. He swallows harder than he would like, and though he means to sound suave and relaxed, he can’t hide the note of breathiness that threads his voice.

“Be gentle, won’t you?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

It’s then that blade meets skin and hair. Ever so careful, she draws the edge of the dagger up along his throat. Though sharp enough to kill, the dagger isn’t nearly sharp enough for a perfect shave, and the hair of his beard pulls at his skin ever so slightly before being severed. The feeling of it just barely dragging across his throat is enough to send goosebumps racing down his arms and tingles shooting up his spine. Perhaps it should feel threatening. Perhaps he should be nervous, or afraid. Ardyn instead feels a thrill that warms his blood.

When Aera is satisfied with the hair she’s shaved away, she leans sideways to dunk his medical dagger back in the stream, letting the red hair float away in the current. It’s surprising how quickly he accustomed himself to her proximity and warmth, and how chilled he feels when she’s no longer so deep in his lap. Then she’s back again, leaning back into his space and pressing the blade to his throat once more. The heat and proximity returns with her, and Ardyn finds he much prefers her when she is close enough to be held. Once more she drags the blade lightly across his skin, and once more a tingle shoots up his spine. And again, Aera leans away to rinse the dagger’s blade before bringing it back to his throat.

Little by little, she shaves away the unkempt hair on his throat, and little by little, Ardyn starts to relax. The tingles soften, and his goosebumps start to disappear. In the pattern of shaving, rinsing, and repeating, he finds any nerves he may have had are smoothening out. Having her so close to him like this is bliss; it matters not to him that she changes his appearance. By now she’s shaved the meat of one cheek bare, and he would allow her to continue to change him until he is unrecognizable should it keep her close to him. He trusts her, wholly and unwaveringly, with every fiber of his being.

A spark of heat ignites in his blood, and a shiver grips his body beyond his control.

Leaning back into his space, Aera presses closer. With the angle that he sits back against the trunk of the fallen tree, she rests herself more snugly in his lap, slotting against him in all of the right ways. She watches his shudder and hesitates with the blade, waiting for his shiver to pass. When he manages to settle she flashes him an innocent little smile.

“Doing all right?”

“Never better, my dear.”

Again, his voice is breathier than he would like.

“All right, well… Do tell me if you would like me to stop.”

“Of course.”

And she’s right back to it, bringing the blade across his jaw, nice and slow from his ear to the point of his chin. His blood still simmers in his veins, and a tingle still rattles up his spine, but the spark doesn’t happen again. Ardyn waits and watches, allowing her to tilt his head as needed while she relieves him of his beard, but she remains where she’s settled in his lap and that spark of heat doesn’t return. Perhaps he had been wrong about her devious little ideas after all? Perhaps it had all truly been one elaborate plan to have him shave.

Aera shifts in his lap, readjusting her position after rinsing the blade once again. She nudges her pelvis gently against his and that spark is back, gripping him with yet another shiver he can’t seem to control. Once again she waits for it to rattle its way out of his body from hips to head and extremities before she’s back to shaving his beard for him. Ever the picture of innocence, his dearest Aera even deigns to pick up a tune, humming an older song of the dangers of becoming too intimate before marriage. Minx. This time it takes far less time for her to try and readjust her position in his lap again. Again, that spark ignites in his blood, and this time his abdomen clenches without his consent. A small lick of pleasure, more intense than these past few heated sparks, runs through his pelvis, and it takes all of his self control to sit as still as he does.

Of course, Aera sees and feels his clenching muscles beneath her, and she draws the medical dagger away from him. Her humming forgotten, she gives him a concerned look, complete with pinched brows and a downturn to her mouth, but Ardyn can see the smugness in her eyes when she looks at him.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” she asks him, in the most innocent of voices. “If not, we can always stop.”

She’s barely finished her sentence when he shakes his head, forcing a confirmation of his well being out on a thin breath he finds difficult to suck in.

“Please, my love,” and doesn’t that sound terribly hoarse? “You’ve no need to worry. Please, continue as you are.”

“Well… If you are so certain…”

He has never felt more certain in his life. She rinses the medical dagger once more in the stream, and again when she comes back, she shimmies a little in his lap, her pelvis ever so perfectly aligned with his own. He can’t help the shiver that grips him yet again, nor can he help the sound he can’t quite strangle in his throat. The little lap of pleasure that has been rippling through his pelvis is growing with each little movement. With each stroke of the blade shearing hair away from his face, with the warmth of her in his lap, the warmth of her hands tilting his head just so, he can feel the effect she is having on him. That warmth leaves his jaw when Aera retreats again and there is little doubt she can feel the effects as well, perched as she is in his lap.

“Ardyn, perhaps we should stop.”

“N-No, no no, I… I’m all right, I’m all right.”

“I don’t know, you seem to be rather…”

She trails off, and though she modulates her voice to be the perfect specimen of uncertainty and concern, there is a heat in her eyes and the way her lips curl up at the edges that says she knows exactly what she’s doing to him. Well, there surely isn’t any harm in letting her know just how much he’s affected by her, is there?

He moves his hands to grip at her hips, careful not to dig in too tightly no matter how much his body would like him to, and instead of using his words, he simply grinds his hips up. That smugness tempered by the heat in her eyes vanishes as they widen, and a short, breathy gasp escapes her parted lips. And despite this very clearly being her mischievous little way to have him shave away his beard, her cheeks flush a tantalizing bright red, one he would love to see spread to the tips of her ears and down her neck.

“I’m afraid I’m becoming rather impatient, my love.”

His voice is still hoarse and rough, but he does his damnedest to have it come out at least a little suave. He gets the confirmation that he’s done something right when a deliciously curious little sound comes from Aera’s throat, and by the Six what he wouldn’t give to kiss every inch of it.

“If you would be so kind as to rid me of the rest of this hair, I would be more than delighted to show you what exactly I would rather be doing with you.”

“I-Is that so?”

Oh Astrals above, he loves her breathlessness.

“We both would enjoy it much more than just this foreplay, I assure you.”

That heat returns to her eyes, and once again Aera begins her task of shaving the rest of his beard away. And if the rest of his shave is patchy and rough, well, Ardyn certainly isn’t complaining about it, not when he has Aera perched so sweetly in his lap. There are certainly worse fates in this world than to suffer a few superficial cuts and a stray hair or two, especially when there are sweeter things to focus on.

The moment Aera shaves the last of his beard away, she tosses his medical dagger to the side, banishing it once again to his Armiger. Then her hands are on him, first cupping his face for a heated, hurried kiss, then one on his shoulder and the other gripping at the front of his tunic. Ardyn kisses her back with equal fervor, and when she pulls back for just a moment for a breath he dives forwards, trailing kiss after kiss along her jaw and down her neck. He lingers at the center of her neck, nipping and licking at her pulse point. A strangled keen leaves her, the sound making the heat in his hips curl ever so pleasantly. He stokes that heat with another roll of his hips, and this time it pulls a whine from the both of them. Another roll of his hips and Aera is scrambling with his belt, pulling at it until the tie comes loose.

While Aera deals with his belt, his hands finally leave her hips to grip at her dress. It’s a small loss, moving his hands from her waist, but it’s a bearable loss, especially when he starts pulling the fabric out from under her knees and up her thighs. She shimmies in his lap as he pulls, helping him along with his tugging until her lower half is free of the fabrics and she can safely sit back in his lap. He pushes the excess fabric up her thighs and bunches it up around her waist, and he can’t stop the groan that rips out of him.

“Aera, my love,” and he stops to take a shuddering breath when her hands brush past his co*ck in her efforts to hike his tunic up his torso. “You are remarkably indecent for the Lady Oracle of the village.”

She silences him with another kiss, one that she pushes teeth and tongue into, and one that he happily reciprocates. Delicious, sweet Aera, a taste he’ll never tire of, a feeling he’ll never take for granted. She licks inside of his mouth, her tongue running along the back of his teeth, and he moans breathlessly into the kiss. She’s an absolute storm when she wants to be, and Ardyn is ever so thankful she isn’t shy to be a storm in their passion. She pulls back when Ardyn’s lungs are begging for air, and he doesn’t bother to hide the choked gasp that she draws out of him when she grinds her c*nt against his dick.

“You, Ardyn,” and oh how he loves it when she speaks stern and breathless to him in the heat of things. “Get to run around in the forests and fields in your undergarments and a ratty old tunic. I, on the other hand, must wear a thick layered dress in the middle of the Cavaugh summer because having She Who Hears the Astrals wear anything less than full regalia is sinful.”

He opens his mouth to offer up an obligatory, half-hearted protest, to tease her, to retort, he isn’t sure but it doesn’t matter when she grinds against him again and another moan is pulled out of him. The rush of pleasure she keeps coaxing out of him is making his head feel fuzzy, like thoughts are melting into liquid and running through a sieve. She kisses him again, this time chaste and gentle, just a brush of her lips against his.

“Besides, without the undergarments, there’s one less barrier for us to overcome when it comes to moments like these.”

“S-Sound logic, my dearest. Forgive my insensitivities?”

“Forgiven and forgotten.” she whispers, giving him one more chaste kiss before leaning up out of his lap.

For a moment he whimpers, a sound he can’t help but make when her heat has left his lap and her weight no longer presses where he would like it most. His whimper becomes a long string of whines and keens when her hands grab at his braies and yanks the tie loose. She wastes no time in opening the cinched top, and once it’s fully loosened she pulls downwards, just enough to let his dick free of its confines and tuck the edges of the fabric beneath his balls.

“There. A seat befitting one of my stature.”

He barks his laugh, choked and breathless, and wiggles some to try and readjust himself in his braies. The fabric loosens its hold around his back, sliding just enough to relieve the pressure against his ass, but the wiggling means the fabric, rough in its weave, drags against the sensitive skin of his sac. It sends hot licks of pleasure shooting up his spine and forces a violent shudder. Another shudder grips him when Aera, still on her knees and off of his lap, takes his co*ck in one hand and squeezes, none too hard but just enough for him to feel the heat of her skin on his length. She gives him a few long, dry strokes, from root to tip, and Ardyn is keening again, his hands finding her hips and gripping as tight as he can around the folds of her bunched up dress.

But she doesn’t sit down.

She kneels above him, her knees braced on either side of his thighs, effectively pinning him on the ground up against the fallen tree. She holds onto his shaft, carefully curating a slow rhythm of up and down, fingers firm around his dick and sliding oh so perfectly against his foreskin. But she doesn’t sit down, doesn’t settle right where he desperately wants her. He tries to encourage her, pulling down gently on her hips. Still, she refuses, keeping one hand wrapped around his co*ck while the other rests on his shoulder, a sturdy support to prevent him from pulling her down onto his lap. He whines, a sound that escapes clenched teeth and he tugs on her hips again. His dick is free and her dress is out of the way of her c*nt and still she kneels strong, denying him a satisfaction he’s certain they would both enjoy. A musical little laugh is his reward when he tugs again.

“Come now, Ardyn. What happened to all of your composure?”

He means to hiss out that the time of their separation and his longing to see her, combined with her earlier teasing, has worn his patience thin, that his need has grown much too large for him to remember half of what he’s said when they had become a little more passionate. She cuts him off before he has the chance to spit anything out with a surprisingly rough jerk. Instead of his reply, she receives a keening sound that is not unfamiliar to the sound of a magnanir’s call during the first weeks of spring. Another laugh dances through the air, and she leans forwards just enough to kiss at the corners of his mouth, her kiss burning his skin with her smug little smile.

“Now, Ardyn. I know you have a lovely voice. You only need to ask.”

Again, before he can open his mouth to reply with something coherent, she gives him another rough jerk, and once again he’s crying out, high pitched and needy with how hot the pleasure is already running through him.

“If you ask me nicely, I’ll let you have exactly what you want.”

Once more, she gives him a rough jerk, and this time she stops her hand right at the tip and rubs the pad of her thumb against the edge of his glans. The moan she tears out of him is brutal and hoarse, and he can’t stop himself from trying to thrust his hips up into her hand. She stops him herself by releasing his co*ck all together. The loss is immediate, his skin allowed contact to the air around them that feels so devastatingly cool compared to the heat of her palm.

“You can do it, Ardyn. All you need to do is ask.”

Perhaps, if his need wasn’t so desperate, if he had been more coherent, he would fight her more about begging. Because that is what she wants from him. She wants him to beg for her, to beg that she deign to relieve him, that she grant him the pleasure that would send him hurtling into an org*sm. She’s a minx. But coherent thought has left him, and with her so close to him, the lingering feeling of her hand on his co*ck, her thumb rubbing tantalizing stripes along his frenulum and sending sharp jolts of pleasure through his system, he gives in. There’s nothing he can do while in her thrall, and truthfully, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Please, Aera, please, have mercy, please, I need it- I need you-”

It all comes tumbling out on gasping breaths, pleas for more, please, he needs more, he needs to feel her and touch her and more, just more, more, more, more. His thighs are trembling, a minor, twinging pain is tugging at his hip, his skin is breaking out into a sweat, but all he needs is her, more of her, to feel her in his lap, to be inside her. He needs more.

“That’s a good boy.”

He barely has time to let the praise sing through his veins, because Aera finally, finally, takes his co*ck in hand once more, and this time lines the head up with her entrance. He hasn’t prepared her, hasn’t even thought to try and ease her open with all of their play, he’s been so consumed with his own pleasure, but inch by agonizing inch, she sinks down onto him and it is divine.

His moan is damn near a snarl, the pleasure so immediately there again and intense he can barely register that his toes are curling and that he’s gripping her hips even tighter and that his spine is arching as she continues to sink onto him. His snarl turns to a long, shuddering groan as she goes, her own dims huffs and hums of pleasure still able to penetrate his fogging mind. And after what must be an eternity, she settles, his dick fully sheathed in her, surrounded on all sides by velvet warmth that twitches when he does.

They’re both panting, gasping like the air around them is thin and burning warmer the longer they sit there. He simply needs to catch his breath, to try and regain clarity now that he has her where he wants her. Then they can really begin, and while Ardyn normally isn’t fast, he certainly has stamina when and where it matters.

It’s Aera, of course, who catches her breath first, glancing up at him with her glittering blues so filled with adoration and mischief. He still needs a moment, still needs to catch his breath. Vaguely, there is a thought in the back of his mind to tease her, something about coupling with the village’s monster. Whether she’s aware of his ingrained desire to tease her is a question he’ll ponder another time when his head is less foggy and his dick is less wet. Aera rolls her hips in his lap, and what thoughts he’s had are gone again, leaving him on the rasping moan that slips from his lungs to mingle with her own.

Another roll or two of her hips and Ardyn is thoroughly roused. With his hands still clasped on her hips, he lifts her a few inches and brings her back down, thrusting up into her at the same time. She twitches, a delicious ripple moving from her pelvis up her torso. Her head tilts back just so, her eyes scrunching closed, her teeth flashing just a little past her wonderful lips. It’s intoxicating to his already drunken mind, and he desires to see so much more of it. He lifts again, and thrusts again, and another shudder grips her, a sigh so very sweet singing past her lips.

He presses up into her, again and again and again, mesmerized by her, chasing the pleasure that curls in jabs in his pelvis. Every twitch, every jerk, every cry. She’s wonderful. She’s amazing. She is everything Ardyn could have ever dreamed of, something he never thought he would be able to have. She is a gift like no other, one he will never tire of being with, someone who he would happily give all to see smile at him. And her neck is right there, bared a little more with each thrust into her, with every slide of velvet skin on velvet, and Six Above he cannot refuse any part of her.

He leans forwards, one hand sliding up from her hip to press her closer to him from the small of her back, and buries his face into her neck. He kisses and licks her neck, nipping at the skin in time with each thrust, with each bounce of her in his lap. She whimpers oh so beautifully, the sound shivering in her throat, and he just needs more of her. He sucks a mark there on her neck, dark and dashing, and inches his mouth down her neck, intent on leaving a trail of marks on her skin.

Mark after mark on her neck, he soon runs out of space, and when it happens, he trails his lips and tongue up the string of them, relishing in her shiver until he’s at her jaw. From there he presses kiss after kiss along her jaw until he reaches her mouth. She eagerly kisses him while they grind into one another. It’s sloppy and jarred with every drive into her, but he barely notices it. Not when each sound she makes is heavenly, not when each thrust strikes him at his core with a bolt of ever-growing pleasure.

One of her hands finds his hair, and tied back as it is, he feels her wind it around her hand and pull. Parted from her lips, the short cry is much more audible, but Ardyn hardly notices when it turns into a long, low keen when her teeth scrape at the edge of his jaw. The sharp, short bites of pleasure-pain heighten, and he picks up his speed, thrusting into her faster as she makes marks of her own around his throat.

It’s as she’s sucking a deep dark one on his pulse point that things start to tighten, that his rhythm is starting to falter and stagger, that his voice is turning rough from the sheer amount of groaning and gasping he’s doing. He’s getting close, inching ever towards an org*sm that promises to be powerful. Liquid heat is curling inside him, pouring through his veins and collecting between his legs. She’s still sucking a deep dark mark on his throat, right where everyone can see it, and each thrust up into her is earning him a clench around him, stronger than the last. He can last. He normally does. He may not be great at many things, but he knows he’s modestly good in bed, and can run Aera through until they’re both on the verge of passing out.

It’s just been too long. Too long since he’s last seen her, and longer still since they’ve last bed down. That heat builds fast, and the pleasure grows too large too quickly. Another pull of his hair and a sharp bite to the bruise on his throat and suddenly that pleasure lances through him, white hot and all-encompassing. He damn near screams as he c*ms, rutting up into her to try and milk it out as long as he can. She’s clenched tight around him as he ruts, hands grasped tight in his hair and the shoulder of his tunic, teeth buried deep in his throat.

He fades, only just a moment, and when he comes back to himself he’s wheezing hard, sweat soaked and thoroughly blissed out. Coherent thought is finally starting to trickle back into him while the remnants of a glorious org*sm warms his blood and skin. She’s still seated in his lap, his co*ck still deep inside her. But she’s still twitching and clenching, squirming so sweetly on him that it sends lovely aftershocks of pleasure sparking through his system. She releases her teeth from his neck to whine his name into his ear and, oh dear, she still hasn’t gotten her own release. That simply won’t do at all.

Ardyn takes a brief moment to rewet his lips and mouth, to catch his breath while Aera squirms in his lap. And then he moves, pulling her up and off of his spent co*ck in one smooth movement. The action draws a moan from the both of them, though hers is far more needy than his. It takes a little bit of shuffling, but he somehow manages to squirm his way down from where he rests on the log, down down down until he’s laid out on the soft sand of the stream’s bank.

“May the Six be thanked for the meal I have before me, and may they bless me with such a bounty again in my near future.”

And he pulls her down so that she rests on his face, where his tongue has perfect access to her cl*t and c*nt. And what a fine meal it is.

Notes:

would you believe me if i said that the prospect of writing smut scared me away from this sh*t for over four years? because thats 100% what happened lmao. but ive officially written smut and can move on with my life and this fic. hopefully it doesnt take another four years for the next chapter to come out lmao.

Chapter 17

Notes:

be aware!! there are some light mentions of gore, implied drowning, and a not-super-detailed-but-still-detailed mention of asphyxiation via hanging. this chapter is a bit of a shift from the last one with all of the mentioned torture disguised as research lol

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Ardyn is growing tired of this.

Day in and day out- as far as he is aware of days in this windowless, sunless place- he is awoken to some manner of cruelty. First it was those dreadful extreme temperatures, and then it was some sort of poison and venom immunities test. After that it was stamina testing, ranging between running on an endless revolving mat- and he means endless, the rough grit of that mat left horrid raw patches of skin and blisters upon the soles of his feet for hours- and swimming for an endless amount of time in a glass vat of water. Then the people in this strange place had decided to try crushing him between two massive slabs of metal, and what the experience that was, feeling his skull crack and then splatter like a pimple being popped. He’s ignoring, as well, the feeling of his ribs grinding and crunching, and the sharp crack of his pelvis snapping. And then, as if all of this wasn’t enough, they had the sheer heartlessness to hang him by his neck from a rather lengthy spool of metal rope, letting him just barely brush his toes upon the ground but not giving him nearly enough slack to actually relieve any pressure on his throat.

Oh, and he wouldn’t dare to forget the several occasions he had roused during some kind of surgery these people decided to try on him. He hasn’t the faintest clue what they had been trying to learn, cutting him open and hanging his intestines from metal hooks, only that he had awoken, hazy and bleary from whatever they had been pumping him full of. He doesn’t much remember what happened to him after those occasions, only that he had lost his grip on his rather slippery consciousness.

But day in and day out, Ardyn is subjected to one cruelty after another until he inevitably passes out, or until his body fails him and the sickness living in his marrow is forced to pull him back together, one shattered bone fragment at a time.

He is tired of this. He isn’t sure what he must have done to deserve this kind of treatment from these people, as not even what Somnus had done to him was that cruel. And truly, that’s rather incredible, considering what Somnus had done to the masses inflicted with the scourge, and what he had done to his own brother when he discovered that his body was full of the very plague he sought to destroy. All he knows is that he doesn’t deserve what is happening to him, and that he is powerless to stop it from happening.

And he’s tried to stop it from happening, oh he’s tried. Now, when he’s lucid and aware of his actions, it churns his stomach a little. But at the time it was all he could have done. He’s tried fighting back, with swinging fists and kicking legs. He’s tried with the scourge, using it to zip around and hurl himself into the bodies of others. He’s even tried with whatever he has hidden in his Armiger, and it’s not much he has in there. His broken medical dagger, the Rakshasa Blade, the split ends of his cane. Some people he’s dealt minor injuries, and some people he’s dealt fatal ones. But it doesn’t matter in the end. In the end he’s overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies forcing him to submit and by the pricks of tranquilizers from firearms. A frilly name for a weapon all the same, he had thought, in hysterics after bestowing the scourge upon another man and witnessing parts of his memories.

But there is nothing he can do to stop it, and he is oh so very tired of it all. At least some days it’s just some of these strangers dragging him to that steel room to interrogate him. He spits and hisses at them, sometimes outright ignores them, but they don’t go so far as to kill him on those days, not like Verstael had. They simply chain him to the chair and to the floor and ask the questions repeatedly, over and over and over until Ardyn is slumped and staring somewhere else, begging any and all Astrals who could still hear him to end his torment. After that, they simply haul him back to his cell and release him inside, free to pace and sit and pace some more.

At the very least, Ardyn hasn’t had to see Verstael in some time. He doesn’t know where the man has gone, or what specifically is now occupying his time, but Ardyn can’t help but be thankful and furious in equal measures. While he does his best to remain a healer in body, mind, and soul, he can’t help but want to see Verstael again, just so he can try to throttle the life out of him. But he is thankful not to see him. Verstael had been overseeing most of his cruelties, and though Ardyn can’t track days in his cell, the first day Verstael hadn’t come to oversee his misery is the first day his misery had been significantly lessened.

They still perform their bizarre surgeries, and they certainly still drag him around to try and interrogate him in that steel cell, but they have not yet forced him to endure additional cruelties. Ardyn’s not sure what else they could still do to him, outside of slinging Elemancy at him and seeing how long it takes before his body shuts down, but these people, these doctors and soldiers and guards, they have yet to do anything particularly vicious.

Ardyn is thankful, and also out of his mind with boredom.

At least while Verstael was there, he had the chance to think about how much he would have liked to tear his hair out from his scalp while he was enduring his tortures. Verstael had offered him a mental break from all of his suffering, in a way, by mentally inflicting such suffering back onto him. He’s in no position to actually force Verstael to suffer, and even in his blackest moods his stomach still knots up at the thought of torturing and killing for fun, but it was a way to help ease his own suffering. A way to ease his boredom.

Now, none of these doctors and soldiers and guards speak with him. They do not acknowledge him, do not offer any mental stimulus, and do not offer any torture. And it’s surprisingly difficult to want to think about inflicting pain upon these people compared to Verstael. He may not enjoy being chained down and asked question after mind-numbing question, and he may not enjoy the surgeries they continue to perform on him, but they don’t make him suffer during these times. At least with the surgeries, when he wakes, they put him right back to sleep, pump him full of some kind of painkiller to keep him from hurting. At least with their questioning, they don’t kill him because of insubordination and back talk. They simply bring him back to his cell, minimal manhandling required. As much as Ardyn is learning to dislike the masses, they don’t truly deserve his ire. At least, not the full weight of it.

And therein lies his problem, his thinks. Locked away as he is, understimulated as he is, he cannot bring himself to outright hate these people. Laying out flat on the cot in his otherwise barren cell, Ardyn truly has nothing to do, and tormenting Verstael in his mind is less exciting the longer he goes without seeing the man. He’s already counted every single rivet in this cell, counted every single edge in the metal plating, already counted his own sluggish heartbeat until he’s lost count and restarted hundreds of times before. There is simply nothing to do. He could always count the threads that make up the frankly horrid blanket he’s forced to use on his cot, but he already knows the thread count is pitifully low. He would quickly run out of threads to count before he could find an actual challenge in it, and he would be right back to square one.

Bored, in his cell, with nothing to do.

Kicking his one good leg over the edge of the cot, Ardyn stares blankly at the ceiling high above him. He’s already paced until his hip and knee had complained, and he’s already counted the number of times the electricity in the tubing overhead has flickered in the past five minutes. He’s got nothing to occupy his time, and honestly? He would take an interrogation at this point. He would happily follow the guards and soldiers out of his cell to that dreadfully tiny steel cell, if only so he could try to wind up one of the people in charge of asking him questions.

Actually, it should be nearing the time in which some guards come to his cell to retrieve him. Be it for another surgery, or for questioning, Ardyn isn’t sure. They don’t exactly include him when they’re crafting their schedules. But it’s been a rather long time since he’s been retrieved to do something these strangers want from him. He’s due to see another person soon, and it’s almost revolting how excited that thought makes him. Surrounded by hostiles and neutral-poor parties alike, Ardyn is excited to see how they will hurt and interrogate him next.

Well, at least it would be something to do.

Ardyn sits up, ignoring the way his left knee aches, and shuffles to sit at the edge of his cot facing the door. He knows, by now, which wall the cell door is on, simply by virtue of how frequently they retrieve him. And it is there he sits on the edge of his cot, staring blankly at the wall where the door opens up, waiting for the moment people come in to whisk him away to yet another tedious trial.

And he stares.

And he stares.

And he stares.

Ardyn takes to counting his heartbeat again, tapping his good knee with a finger and counting under his breath the seconds in a minute. After ten minutes pass, he switches to counting the rivets in the wall that the door is embedded into. Once he’s counted those rivets another five times, he switches to tapping his bare foot against the ground, counting each echo and trying to increase and decrease the number of audible echoes of subsequent taps.

…Are they not coming?

Surely they would have been here by now. It’s been around the length of time it takes for them to compile whatever data they’ve taken from him and prepare yet another method of data collection.

Perhaps his internal clock is off? It wouldn’t be the first time he’s misjudged when they would reappear to take him away again. With this dreadfully boring routine they’ve set him up on, and with the inability to physically see the flow of time passing him by, his starved mind has gotten him riled at least an hour before they were due to take him away again. Yes, yes, it’s likely that.

Ardyn resigns himself to counting the seconds out in a full hour. Minutes pass him rather slowly, but at least the activity is meditative and works to keep him minutely busy. He counts through an hour, and still no one arrives. Another hour, he tries, keeping track as best he can, and still there is no collection committee to take him away.

He can’t bring himself to count yet another hour. He’s done it once before, counting the seconds for an entire twenty-four hours before, and it had been a true test of willpower to actually keep time and finish the entire twenty-four hour period. It’s not something he wants to repeat again.

His leg is still too sore to keep pacing. He flexes the muscles slowly, feeling for his residual aches, and they throb angrily at him. He’s already spent far too much time in the past twenty-four hours pacing, and his leg requires at least another few hours before it settles back to its usual ache.

Playing with the echoes in his cell do nothing to keep him entertained, either. He taps his foot for long enough and hard enough that his right leg begins to ache as well.

Is this, perhaps, what going insane feels like?

He’s never really had to consider such a thing before. He’d at least been asleep for the most part in his cell on those dreadful hooks, and when he hadn’t been he had at least had some hallucinations to keep him busy. And before, when Verstael had been overseeing his tortures, he at least had stimulation to various scenarios, unpleasant though they were.

But here he is now, repeating the same actions over and over and over again, desperately hoping for different results every single time. The door doesn’t open no matter how many different games he plays in his head, and the door doesn’t open no matter how intensely he stares at it. Nothing changes, no matter what he does.

Perhaps he is, then, slowly going insane.

Notes:

complete tonal shift from loving sex between husband and wife to the unjust cruelties of a madman trying to understand how ardyn ticks in the most inhumane ways possible. i love annihilating ardyn. we'll get somewhere with the plot in the next chapter lol

Chapter 18

Notes:

idk what happened but suddenly i am filled with the desire to keep busting out chapters. maybe the cosmic dishwasher has finally returned unto me mine spoons.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Ardyn’s dreams, for the most part, are either playful affairs or nightmares he is thankful he usually doesn’t remember upon waking. When he has them, he either wakes into the bleak reality with memories of happier times, times spent with Aera and his family and other such pleasantries, or he wakes in a cold sweat, lungs struggling to bring air into his lungs, and anxiety that feels so intense it could likely cripple a coeurl.

But that, of course, only happens whenhe has dreams.

More often than not, Ardyn slips into slumber in his barren cell and sleeps dreamlessly until he wakes. It’s no more restful a sleep than when he dreams, be the dreams good or bad, but it is sleep nonetheless, and leaves him no more hopeful for something else when he wakes. Other times, he’s knocked out for his surgeries, whatever they’re for, and he sleeps dreamlessly like that for a couple of sleeps, too incapacitated by whatever it is the doctors pump him full of. Arguably, those sleeps are worse than when he has nightmares. At least with nightmares the suffering ends quickly. When he sleeps after those surgeries, he is groggy and slow for quite some time, longer than he would really like.

Today he expects things to go no differently. He hasn’t seen Verstael in a rather long time, and strangely enough, none of the doctors, soldiers, or guards have come to collect him for anything. He’s been left alone in this barren cell for a long time, and though the scourge in his marrow keeps him from feeling hungry, it does not keep him from feeling like he’s going mad. Sleep, at least, is an escape from that madness. And he had gone to sleep rather peacefully earlier, compared to endless staring at the ceiling high above his head, counting the flickers in the light of the tubes that hum with electricity, until his exhausted mind finally succumbs.

He rattles awake to the sound of the door to his cell opening. Ardyn, in his bleary state between full alertness and partially asleep, thinks that the soldiers and guards have finally come to collect him. Usually, they drag him off of the cot, force him to his knees, and bind his arms behind his back. After that, it’s anyone’s guess as to where he would be taken.

He staggers off the bed, fully expecting someone to grab him by the shoulders and force him to his knees. Not quite there, he sways where he stands, waiting for them to take control of the situation, as they normally do.

They don’t.

Blinking sleep out of his eyes and doing his best to chase the brain fog away, Ardyn stares at the soldiers and guards that stand just inside his cell. With so many people standing inside, the cell feels much smaller than it normally does, though thankfully not nearly as cramped feeling as his previous cell of stone and chains.

Time passes, and still they don’t approach him. They simply stand there and watch him, just as he stands there and watches them in turn. He waits, still certain that they will drag him away as they normally do. But they never do. Instead they wait, almost as if they’re waiting for him to come more fully to his senses. Little by little he does, and little by little he realizes that they aren’t here to just… grab him, and force him to bend to their will. They stand there so long, in fact, that Ardyn has had the chance to wake fully, brace himself, and relax again.

Curious and uneasy, yet determined to look unbothered, Ardyn raises his arms above his head and stretches. He watches them as some of the soldiers and guards seem to tense up, but they relax just as quickly when his spine gives a satisfying pop and his arms drop back down to his sides.

Well, this won’t do.

“And to what do I owe the pleasure of having such fine men and women here to wake me from my slumber on this fine day?”

Though he has now shown he is aware and ready, no one answers him, instead plowing forwards as though he hadn’t spoken.

“Ardyn Izunia, your assigned-”

“Caelum.”

The one guard stops talking the moment Ardyn interrupts him, his voice echoing rather pleasantly around the cell.

“Ardyn Izunia-Caelum. That is my name, as I am sure you’ve no doubt been made aware. I would ask that you refer to me as such, if you are to be using my full name.”

The silence is all-encompassing, once his voice stops bouncing around the cell. There are some impressive acoustics to this cell, he thinks. If only he hadn’t been locked away in this cell like some sort of dirty secret, he may have been able to appreciate it a little more fully. Though whether the soldiers and guards are silent due to them waiting for him to be finished, or if they too are enjoying the acoustics, Ardyn is uncertain. When they seem to be disinterested in continuing, Ardyn rolls his hand at the wrist a little in an encouraging motion.

“Carry on, then.”

Silences reigns for a moment more before the same guard speaks up again.

“Ardyn Izunia-”

“Caelum.”

“Your assigned dormitory has been changed. You are to come with us to your new arrangements by order of Chief Besithia.”

Dormitory? He mouths the word to himself, brows furrowing and expression souring a little. Ardyn is no architect, but he’s certain that a cell such as this wouldn’t count as a dormitory to even the most heartless of generals leading an army. Even foot soldiers meant for nothing more than cannon fodder and numbers were offered more than just a scratchy, uncomfortable cot in a chilled room. At least they could leave their dorms and wander amongst themselves. This is barely even a prison. There isn’t anywhere to piss.

“If this is what the ‘great and powerful’ Besithia considers to be a dormitory, then I truly dread to think of what he would consider a true prison.”

“If you’ll come with us.”

Speaking of taking a piss, this guard is certainly taking all the piss out of him. What fun is it when they refuse to banter with him? His first human interaction in who knows how long, and they barely offer him anything beyond an improperly spoken name and a demand, at best.

Well, Ardyn isn’t having it.

Scowling, he sits himself back down onto the edge of the cot he’d jumped out of, crosses his legs at the knee and folds his arms over his chest before giving the little huddle of soldiers and guards his best glare.

“Well, if this is how it’s going to be, I don’t think I will.”

Clearly, none of the guards or soldiers present seem to know how to handle this. Though Ardyn can’t see their faces, he cansee how their stances falter, as if they were expecting him to just prance out the door like nothing bad has ever happened to him in this place. There’s a bit of shuffling amongst their ranks, something that soothes Ardyn’s ruffled temper at least a little bit, before one of the guards exits the cell and down the hall. Or at least Ardyn thinksit was a guard. He can’t quite remember if the soldiers have the green gambeson or the yellow one.

The one who spoke last- the one in the green gambeson, so maybe a soldier- clears his throat, and makes a half-assed beckoning gesture.

“By order of Chief Besithia-”

By order of Chief Besithia~,” he mocks. “Really now, I heard you the first time. I simply have no desire to be anywhere near the man and his so-called dormitory.”

“We have been tasked to escort you to the new accommodations set aside for you.”

“And I told you, I have no interest in coming along. I shall wait right here, and should that horribly dressed sabertusk wish to see me elsewhere, he can move me himself.”

Just to prove his point, Ardyn kicks his legs up onto the cot and twists until he can lay back comfortably on the cot, arms behind his head and legs crossed at the ankles.

“So run along, now. Let the ‘Great Chief Besithia’ know that I will not move without good reason.”

And from there, Ardyn stoutly ignores them. He can hear them shuffling and shifting near the door, and he can certainly see them in the corner of his eye, but he refuses to acknowledge them any further. It’s a little difficult to do so, considering how small the cell is, but Ardyn is nothing if not stubborn and spiteful, and he is more than willing to wield both against these floundering pawns. To think that he had felt a little bit of excitement at the prospect of dealing with these people. How disappointing that they couldn’t provide any worthwhile entertainment. Don’t they know how dreadfully dull this cell is? They could have tried a little harder, at the very least.

Ardyn continues to glare holes into the ceiling high above him as two more of the guards shuffle off into the hall outside his cell. There had only been six in the first place, three in green and three in yellow. Perhaps he could try and force his way out? It certainly wouldn’t be ideal odds, considering he would need to take out three people with those bothersome firearms in a matter of seconds before the other three came rushing back in, but he’s pulled off feats more daring before. Maybe, just maybe, it would be worth it to try. Maybe it would be worth it to run from this place. It’s unlikely he’ll make it, considering how lost he was in this place and how much technology has evolved in the indeterminate amount of time between his imprisonment and his transferral to this place. But it would be entertainment, at least. Surely the potential entertainment of it all could be worth the humiliation of failing his daring escape?

He doesn’t start paying attention to the world around him again in time to stop the hands descending upon him. Gauntleted hands grab him tight around his forearms and drag him up and off of the cot by the front of his rather impractical tunic. Ardyn tries to swing a fist, to kick out his legs, but he doesn’t have much hope of fending off six fully armoured individuals who have already laid their hands upon him.

The men and women drag him to his feet, fisting his tunic and gripping his wrists and one of them- one he would have certainly bitten had it been a one-on-one fight- grabs a handful of his hair and twists tight. A hiss escapes him through clenched teeth, and though they have a tight grasp of his hair, he does still try to jerk his head out of their grip, no matter how much his scalp stings.

His hands are wrenched behind his back, and are held tight in one hand while the now free hands hook around his arms. Someone kicks the back of his leg- his right one, at least, though even if it wasn’t his bad leg he still doesn’t appreciate it- and the group of them begin to frogmarch him out of the cell.

Ardyn digs in his heels, as much as he can when he’s barefoot on slick steel plates, and shoves as much of his weight backwards into the people restraining him. They push him back as a unit, forcefully moving him through the halls, on their way to wherever it is they mean to call a dormitory. He continues to shove, continues to throw his weight back and lock his knees, but still the group moves him along, step by skidding step.

“Unhand me! Get your hands off of me!”

The only response is the hand in his hair shoving his head forwards with frankly unnecessary strength. He can feel a few of his hairs snap in the hold they have on him, and the inertia of the shove has his brain rattling in his skull. The ringing buzz is starting to come back, starting to fill his skull where brain matter does not occupy. Gritting his teeth, Ardyn tries again to jerk out of their hold. His reward is another shove to his skull, and the ringing buzz grows stronger.

His temper spikes when someone kicks his ankle none too gently, and he cannot stop the spill of ichor running from his eyes. Pitch splatters on the bleached floor, the drops pebbling on the slick surface in a way that’s somehow fascinating. It drips to the floor, smears under his heels while he struggles, and hits with such a satisfying splash and ripple. And somehow, that inspires him.

Ardyn stops struggling, and falls limp.

Though it yanks his scalp something fierce, Ardyn manages to take someone down with him. They topple directly on top of him, pulled by the sudden force of his weight dropping without warning. There is shouting and yelling, scrambling and scuffing, and even though his scalp aches and his knee hurts, it’s a thoroughly entertaining endeavor.

The experience is made even more gratifying when the lot of them try to haul him to his feet again and simply can’t. He sags in their hold, letting himself become dead weight as they struggle to try and leverage him into an upright position. The moment they become close to getting him on his feet, he lets himself sway and buckle, dropping a good distance before someone has to grab him by the shoulders to keep him from braining himself on the white floors.

Ichor doesn’t stop leaking from his eyes, and truthfully? He has no desire to try and stop it. The guards and soldiers, in their struggle to lift him, step in what falls to the floor and their feet slide. They can’t seem to lift his weight, nor can they find a foothold that isn’t starting to find droplets of scourge clinging to it. And frankly? Seeing it is only encouragement to let more ichor hit the floor. He isn’t sure how to, at first, so used to siphoning the plague into his own body. But soon enough, and with help from the ringing buzz poking at his instincts, scourge starts to drip from his lips and nose as well. With the additional help, the floors soon become too slick for a proper foothold to be found anywhere around him.

Eventually the guards and soldiers realize the contamination he’s releasing, and they drop him to back out of range of the scourge. It leaves Ardyn to slump onto his side, laying in the small, scattered smears of pitch on the floor.

He giggles.

He can’t help it. His temper is still there, still burning and fueling that ringing buzz, but there’s joy in it, too. He can’t help but giggle as they flee from him, stepping back out of range of the smears of starscourge as if they’re safe only mere inches away from it. As if people he once knew hadn’t died from the scourge when they contracted it mere inches away from the source.

Perhaps he’s edging into hysteria, but it feels like a pressure is being released from his chest. It feels like something is decompressing inside of him while he laughs, so he doesn’t bother trying to stop. He doesn’t stop giggling when these strangers mill about. He doesn’t stop giggling when one of them dashes off. He doesn’t stop giggling when he returns, towels in hand. All he can do is giggle, and let the scourge ooze out of him, coating the ground in a membrane of smearing pitch.

They drag him along the ground like that. Towels tied around his wrists, they drag him along. It tugs at his bare skin, pinching and chaffing, and it hurts terribly around the fine bones that make up his wrists, but he doesn’t stop giggling. He lets them drag him, dead weight and scourge, through the halls to wherever his next holding cell resides. He absentmindedly notes that he leaves a mess behind them, scourge slicking at least some of the floor from where it escapes his eyes and lips. It just fuels his giggles, carrying him on their hiccupping pitch until they finally drag him into a new room.

They peel the towels off of his wrists, and one of them tries to at least wipe the scourge from his face. More spills out, making the effort a futile one. They seem to realize this fairly quickly, and soon leave him be. Alone and cackling on the floor in a room he doesn’t have the energy or desire to examine. Eventually, Ardyn laughs himself into a dreamless slumber on the scourge-slick floor.

Notes:

ardyn is a ball of spite and stubbornness held together by scourge-glue. he is thoroughly enjoying his hysteria in his new room. now he can rot there for a bit lmao

Chapter 19

Notes:

do you know how hard it is to write a chapter when all you do is sit there and mash buttons because you got a new opera gx mod that makes nier automata menu sounds every time you press a new key??? its f*ckin hard lmao, no matter how much the fun new clickety clack encourages me to type LMAO.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

The first thing Ardyn realizes, when he finally stirs, is that he is naked. Not naked in the way he was before, with the strange, flimsy, starchy tunic that they had dressed him in for some inexplicable reason. No, Ardyn is truly and fully naked. Bare as the day he was born, scourge wiped clean from his skin, and laid out on a rather luxurious feeling bed with his dick out for all to see.

Truthfully, he doesn’t think he’s ever scrambled to cover himself so fast in his entire life. It’s a blur, jolting upright and yanking at the blanket beneath him to drape over his lap. The least he would like is a little bit of modesty, something he has been sorely lacking up to this point, and seems like he will continue lacking into the near future. Covering his lap does little to settle the chill that lingers in the air, but at the very least he will be decent enough to take in his more immediate surroundings.

And that is when he realizes that he is in a room. Not a cell. A room.

Ardyn had been laid out on a real bed. A bed that seems to have proper support in the mattress, pillows- more than one pillow!- that are downy compared to the lump his last arrangement had, and blankets that he is realizing are far softer and a much higher thread count than what he has been using. Two whole pillows, two whole blankets, and an actual damn bed.

Beyond the bed, there are what Ardyn can only assume are desks. They are not made of wood, and are instead made of steel. Sleek and shiny and thin, the desks have several thin sheets of cream parchment that hold several inches more of loose parchments. There are even chairs behind them, and though made of materials Ardyn can’t immediately identify, they are not simple wood or steel affairs and appear to even have a bit of cushion to them.

And further beyond the desks, there are shelves. These, too, are made of steel, and are made thin and tall to hold more than what a standard wood shelf could hold, but that is not the most exciting portion of the shelves. The most exciting portion is the fact that there are parchments on these shelves. Thousands of parchments. So many parchments they’ve been bound into books, and cased in tomes, and even in more of that bizarre material he can’t immediately identify.

There are actual things to do in this room.

His mood, lifting higher with each new thing about the room he sees, suddenly sours and sinks.

There are actual things to do in this room, other than pace and sleep. It seems rather suspicious that Verstael would deign to give him an actual room when he had so far been content to house Ardyn in a steel cell with a cot he himself wouldn’t even damn a prisoner with. There simply must be something more going on in this room than what initially meets the eye. There is just no way a man like Verstael Besithia would willingly give his toys something like this with no strings attached.

Granted, the room has no windows. The walls are still that same steel grey, and stretch up to the ceiling with no other fixtures upon them. And, while there is a door, the door itself has no windows, and appears to have far sturdier supports than the last cell had. Ardyn would bet a hefty sum of coin that, should he try to open the door, he would be unsuccessful. He is, of course, ignoring the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any mechanism in the room on the door that is made specifically to open it. It hasn’t stopped him before, but before he had a small window of which to make his escape with.

Despite the additional furnishing, this is very much still a cell.

What little of his good mood he had remaining vanishes like mist in the sun, and Ardyn decides he’s simply not going to deal with this. Instead, he grabs hold of the blankets, and with a little bit of fussing he manages to slip beneath them and cozy down into the bed. Even the jump in quality between this bed and his last cannot rekindle his good mood, so despite feeling warmer and more comfortable than he has in a very long time, Ardyn lets himself stew in bitterness and anger until he finally manages a doze.

And that is where Ardyn stays. Cozy in the bed provided, laying on his side, glaring sleepy holes into the steel wall beyond the available reading materials. He refuses to move, refuses to get up and explore this room more thoroughly. He is angry and upset and yearning for days when things were much simpler. He doesn’t want any of this, any of what has happened to him. A blasphemous part of himself says that, had he never accepted Bahamut’s blessing, he could be living with Aera, quiet and happy and without the pain and suffering that had come afterwards.

His yearning, however, backfires. He lays there, thinking of better times, of what-ifs and maybes, until his temper turns to sorrow and his spite turns to resignation. What-ifs and maybes bring him pain, bittersweet memories and sallow dreams that have been left to rot. That little house on the edge of town, surrounded by ruins and flowers, filled with their children running rampant and causing mischief. It’s nothing but a dream that will never see the light again. A dream that died the day Aera was cut down. Those children- three little girls, two little boys- will never see the world as he saw it. They would never get to run in the fields of rye, or climb trees and hills. They would never get into trouble, or make mistakes, or find the joys in the little things. All of the scenarios they had thought up together about their little family, about what they would do when Ardyn was no longer a wanted man and Aera was no longer the mouthpiece for the Astrals. They weren’t the grandest of dreams, no, but those had been their dreams.

And now they’re nothing more than ashes.

The melancholy hurts more than anything he’s experienced in this terrible place. He can’t bear to think of them any longer, not when the edges of his heart still feel so torn and tender, not when it feels like everything had happened but a few days ago.

He forces himself to get up out of the bed, and forces himself to pace the room. Something, anything, to take his mind and heart off of things that had been so ruthlessly torn from him. The pacing, however, doesn’t help. It gives his legs something to do, but nothing for his head to do. While he works his body, he can still think of the what-ifs and maybes. And despite not wanting to give into Verstael’s dubious gift of this new room, Ardyn has no choice but to pull something off one of the shelves at random. Anything to get his head away from those long lost dreams.

Ardyn sits himself on the edge of the bed, acutely aware of his nudity, and opens the tome he had grabbed.

He can’t read any of it.

He squints, moves the tome closer and farther away from his eyes. He tries to turn the tome upside-down, to hold it sideways. He can’t read the words on the parchment.

It feels like the final straw on the mesmenir’s back.

Without realizing how high his temper spikes, Ardyn tears sheafs of parchment from the tome and shreds it in his hands. When he’s torn all he can from the tome, he throws it hard against the closest wall, watching the stiff covers hit the ground.

It’s not enough.

The ringing buzz fills his skull as he wretches tome after tome, book after book, parchment after parchment off of the shelves. He rips them apart and scatters the destruction around him. The thousands of parchments, books, and tomes face his wrath and succumb to clawing hands and battering kicks. And when he eventually runs out of parchment to destroy, Ardyn moves onto the shelves. He grabs hold of them, and sturdy though they may be, Ardyn pulls them from where they’re anchored to the wall and throws them across the room. The sounds of metal colliding is horrifically loud in such a small room, but it does nothing to stop his tantrum.

And when Ardyn is finished throwing the shelves about, his temper spikes again. There is nothing left to destroy, nothing that would bring him joy, so he turns his hands to the tattered parchments and shreds them even smaller. He grabs handfuls of the stuff and crushes them into wads, throws them across the room and howls as they fly.

He doesn’t notice when tears stream down his cheeks.

So caught up in rampant destruction, Ardyn doesn’t truly notice when the doors to the room slide open. Not until something sharp digs into his shoulders and neck, and not until the soldiers streaming in start shouting.

Through the haze of his rage, Ardyn is aware his time is limited. He’s been struck by the firearms the soldiers carry, and that means he will soon succumb to forced slumber. But that doesn’t mean he can’t destroy them, too.

The ringing buzz deafens everything around him as he lunges at the nearest soldier. Miasma and ichor race from his palms and latch onto the soldier where he grabs them, and with a great heave, Ardyn throws them to the floor. He doesn’t think when he pumps the soldier full of the scourge, doesn’t think as memories from this person flash behind his eyes in an overstimulating whirlwind of colours, sights, and sounds. When they’re nothing more than a corpse beneath him, Ardyn lunges for another.

The firearms sound, again and again, as Ardyn grabs soldiers and fills them full of sickness. Each sound is punctuated by the pain of another dart sinking into him, another tranquilizer squirting into his muscles and blood. The ringing buzz pushes him farther than he expects to go, keeps him alert and rampant seven more bodies into his fit.

Eventually, however, the tranquilizers overpower the ringing buzz, and slowly but surely Ardyn’s body stops responding to the signals he gives it. Eventually, Ardyn sags and collapses in the wreckage, surrounded by corpses and paper scraps and old binder shells. Hands descend upon him, and Ardyn falls to slumber, cradled from the horrors of his new existence in the peace of unconsciousness.

Notes:

i feel like i havent really been doing a good job of displaying what kind of mental turmoil ardyn is under literally all the time here. hopefully this makes up for that lack. it can be incredibly stressful to go from a wanted man who the populace loves to science experiment for a madman who barely thinks youre a man. ardyn is not having a good time lmao

Chapter 20

Notes:

two chapters in one day? no problem!

im sick lmao

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Ardyn learns.

It takes some time, but he learns.

He learns the letters, the words, the language. He learns the routines of his captors, parts of their mad desires, and behaviours. It is a slow and rather grating process, but eventually, Ardyn learns.

And the more he learns, the more he sinks to apathy.

They take him apart to see how he ticks. They put stressors upon him until he can no longer function. They take their data from him to see how they can use him to their advantage, though Ardyn is certain they never will. They write their research, form their hypotheses, and record the results when they inflict it upon him.

Day in and day out, it is the same. Though, they do grant him freedoms.

He can wander the compound now, trailed by guards as he is. He has displayed enough appropriate behaviour that they no longer see him as a ticking time bomb, a threat that is going to explode at the slightest provocation. He can look out the windows, out into the wintery mountains, out at the lands that do not know him any more than he knows them. He submits to their testing, their blood draws, their physicals, and they reward him with food and drink and things to read.

All of it is bland, or too advanced for him to be able to understand. He’s tried and tried and tried, but despite being able to read the sentences written on the papers in front of him, words that are too long, too scientific, too foreign to his ancient tongue mean little to him. He cannot understand them, despite being able to read them. It’s nothing but their research, anyways, and Ardyn is exposed to enough of the fruits of their labours as it is. He has no real interest in learning more about these people, no matter how interested in him they are.

He chokes down what little food he can, praying his thanks to the Astrals that at least he has food. He reads bits and pieces of the research they leave him in his room, what little of it he can understand. He submits to them for their tests, for whatever data they need of him, no matter how invasive they become. Ardyn may never recover from the sperm sample testing, naked as they needed him for the extraction. How mortifying, to have another person view all of him while sliding a pinching needle where only Aera has ever touched. His apathy is ever-growing in this place.

Verstael is no more tolerable than when Ardyn first laid weary eyes on him, but at least it is more of the ‘endless chattering’ kind of intolerable than it is ‘mad and ruthless experiments’ kind. He talks Ardyn’s ears off when he is in an agreeable mood, when he isn’t fussing with whatever experiment has caught his fancy that day. Ardyn doesn’t much care for it when it happens, but he doesn’t much care to stop it, either. He simply nods or grunts at the appropriate times, and pretends to pay close attention to Verstael when he is required to look him in the eye, and it works out. Verstael chatters endlessly, and Ardyn barely absorbs any of it.

What’s the point, when he’s nearing his 2010th year on this star?

As far as Ardyn knows, the calendar has changed little, and his birthday comes and passes. He tells no one. No one will care. At least, no one would care in any appropriate fashion. Who knows what bizarre theory the science team will think up, should they recognize his birthday? Something pointless, he thinks. Something that only matters to the minds of those in the here and now, rather than him, who is living with his body in the present and soul thousands of years in the past.

In fact, Ardyn is rather lost at the moment. His guards are still with him, their firearms held in gauntleted hands, their forms stiff and unmoving. He could ask them to take him somewhere, but it will be pointless, in the end. They will take him through the labyrinth of this compound, and then he will be somewhere else, somewhere where he cannot see the sun setting somewhere behind the compound. The red light of it turns the snow a pleasant sort of orange colour, and the shadows stretch long and graceful. The sky is turning a rather breathtaking blue, rich and deep and bottomless, and the moon is already showing its face. A waxing gibbous, if Ardyn consults his stolen memories correctly. Objectively, the sight is likely beautiful. Colours from the light painting the world in a different sort of hue, making the realm look more rosy and quiet than it is. Subjectively, it is painful. Objectively, even.

The light that bounces off of the snow hits him where he stands in front of the window, and it burns. It hurts so terribly where it strikes him. He is certain that miasma is wafting off of him, peeling away from his drying skin, cracking away in flakes as if fleeing him will save it from the pain of the light only to shrivel and disappear in its dying rays. And yet, despite the pain, Ardyn continues to stand there in front of the window, allowing the light to peel away layers of his skin just as it always has during one of Verstael’s redundant stress tests. Faintly, he wishes he, too, could flee this place and shrivel and disappear in the sun’s light.

Unfortunately, if withstanding a month of non-stop UV light within the confines of a laboratory test room didn’t kill him, Ardyn has little faith that standing here before the window in the light of the sun’s last rays will kill him now. Never hurts to hope, though.

“Curfew is in ten minutes.”

One of the guards, he hazily recognizes. The scientists prefer to have Ardyn behind the locked doors of his cell before the sun sets completely. The reason why escapes Ardyn, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing does. He spends a moment more allowing the sun to strip away ever-regenerating layers of his skin before he signs and dips his head.

“Oh, very well. To my dormitory it is, then.”

He does not fight them when they usher him away from the window, nor does he fight them when they usher him into his cell. They do not like it when he calls it a cell. They all know it is nothing more than a cell, but the scientists and guards prefer to call it a ‘room’, or a ‘dormitory’. They all know he hates it. At least, they think he hates it. Ardyn has learned that it doesn’t matter if he does or does not like his cell. He will be returned to it either way. He simply pretends he hates it, if only to keep within what they expect his behaviour should be.

The doors slide closed behind him, and the hydraulic locks snap into place. He stands there for several seconds, staring both at the bed in the corner of the cell and out into the middle distance before he moves. He kneels before the bed, clasping his hands in front of his face, and prays. A simple prayer, one meant to appease Ifrit into raising the sun into the sky tomorrow, once his heavy arms have rested the night. He doesn’t make it through this prayer before the overhead lights shut off and the dim, red light of after-hours glows in the corners. He never makes it through the prayer before the overhead lights shut off. He continues his prayer in the dark, and once finished, he slips under the blankets and rolls onto his right side.

Tomorrow is another day.

Tomorrow brings another surgery. Ardyn hadn’t been fed the night before, and while he does not expect food- seeing as he can unfortunately continue on without it- he does know that on nights he does not get food, he will be taken to surgery the following morning. The guards wake him some time after the overhead lights come on while he sleeps, and then usher him through the compound to where they will be taking him apart. A scientist, one who normally accompanies the guards during their escort, tells him for what purpose he will be taken apart. Ardyn doesn’t listen.

It doesn’t matter.

Within the hour, they have him stripped, sterilized, and under anesthesia for surgery. Ardyn doesn’t know what they do. He doesn’t care. He wakes up some time later, groggy and uncomprehending. He says something to the technician there, the one assigned to monitor his recovery, before he passes out again. He doesn’t wake for some time, and when he wakes next, he is just as groggy. There is food, he can recognize, left for him on a bedside table. Ardyn eats perhaps one or two of the bland apple slices before he falls asleep again. He can’t be sure how many he eats, only that he eats something, and that he didn’t care for the taste of it.

His dreamless sleep turns restless, and a nightmare haunts him through the rest of it. Fields of rye, warm in colour, turn sour and dark when someone other than himself and Aera makes their presence known. Blood waters the rye, and a thunderous cacophony drowns out the world. He wakes to a loud banging and his heart racing in his chest.

“Ardyn Izunia. Chief Besithia would like to see you.”

It’s some time before Ardyn really gathers his wits, and by the time he’s heaved himself up to sit on his disheveled bed, he knows the messenger has long since left the other side of his cell door. Ardyn still spits out an exhausted “Izunia-Caelum.” at the door, though he knows no one hears him.

It doesn’t matter. It never did. Not before, and certainly not here.

Ardyn pushes himself to his feet, and after a moment of stumbling and finding his balance, groggily looks around his cell. Nothing much has changed. Where he remembers the plate holding apple slices is that infernal journal someone had given to him to write in. He hasn’t written a word, no matter how hard he’s pressed. The blankets of his bed have been kicked off to the very end, draping sadly at the foot where they normally are after a nightmare. Verstael must have come and gone at some point, because Ardyn recognizes the man’s personal journals lying around. One is cast on the desk, another on the coffee table with the bottles of wine he so does enjoy watching Ardyn drink. Alcoholism hasn’t killed him either, much to Ardyn’s chagrin.

A pair of shoes lay at the edge of the bed where the hems of the discarded blankets rest. He takes the time to slip them on, ill-fitting as they are. He knows all too well how chilled the floors of the compound become, especially near the windows. Though he doesn’t care if his skin blisters and peels against cold metal, it certainly hasn’t gotten him anywhere before, so there is no point in making a mess of the place.

He glances up at his cell door. No one is knocking, no one is calling. He heaves a sigh.

“Might as well head out.”

No response. Might as well get the impending chatter or torture over with.

The door opens for him when he presses the keypad. No one is beyond in the hallway that leads to his cell, though an armed guard passes the hall on their rounds. Where Ardyn has learned, so too has Verstael and his team. They know better than to leave him completely unwatched now. There are always guards around waiting for him to step out of line. If only those tranquilizers would actually stop his heart, rather than just knock him unconscious.

The end of the hall shows him into one of Verstael’s favourite work spaces. It’s bland and sterile, just like the rest of the compound, and so poorly lit that Ardyn can only vaguely see a puddle of light in the corner of the room, hidden behind walkways. It doesn’t matter.

The armed guard making their rounds passes him, taking a left towards the halls that aren’t locked down with iron bars towards where Ardyn knows Verstael will be waiting. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make walking down the empty hall any easier, but it doesn’t matter. Ardyn follows them down the hall. Taking his first step down the small staircase leading up to his cell, his outfit chafes. Specifically that one damn spot on the inside of his thigh, right where his leg connects to his hip, and just directly under his armpits.

“Ugh. I dare say this outfit wasn’t tailor made.”

The guard patrolling a few paces ahead of him doesn’t respond. They never do. Ardyn isn’t sure why he even bothers at this point. They have their jobs to do, and it does not involve talking to him. He always complains, and spits under his breath, but they never do anything. It doesn’t matter.

He follows them down, and while the guard turns left, Ardyn stops to stare out the window. The guard stops at yet another hall blocked by iron bars, right beside another one who was no doubt posted there. Waiting for him to make an escape, no doubt. For the most part, Ardyn ignores them to study the landscape. The same white and grey and pale as it was when he saw it last. The light that bounces off the snow-laden mountains still burns.

“Not the most enthralling view.”

Neither of the guards respond. They never do.

Ardyn doesn’t bother to linger until the light starts burning away layers of his skin. He instead turns right, and solemnly walks on down the halls, towards the place he knows Verstael is waiting for him. The door at the end of the hall with the green light above it and two armed guards standing on either side of it. Verstael’s favourite place to linger when he wants to speak to Ardyn. Always close to his cell, but never actually venturing into it when Ardyn is there and awake. It doesn’t matter.

He can hear some kind of music playing from within the closer he gets to the door. It’s neither impressive nor atrocious. It simply is, and it is simply something Verstael likes. Inoffensive and quiet, much unlike the man who listens to it. Ardyn couldn’t care either way. It’s just another thing he has no control over here. Best to simply enter and get everything over with.

The keypad allows him entrance when he presses the buttons, and Ardyn walks in. Same decorative wallpaper. Same decorative lighting fixtures. Same decorative landscapes hanging on the walls. Same red carpet. This time, Verstael has a dinner table in this room. He sits at the head of it, with a chair pulled close next to him on the side. The table itself is littered with dishes, some Ardyn has seen before, others he hasn’t. It doesn’t matter. Verstael sees him and lights up like a griffon seeing its next meal.

“Come. Have a seat.”

Ardyn would really rather not to.

He pulls out the chair next to Verstael and sits anyway. The sooner he gets this over with, the sooner he can return to his listless wandering, wondering when the Astrals will finally take mercy upon his soul and allow him into Etro’s tender embrace. Hopefully it will be soon. Seated as he is with Verstael eating beside him, Ardyn begins another prayer, one he has always said when lucid enough to eat. Hands clasped on the edge of the table and head bowed, he whispers.

“Gods above, we thank you for the bounty you have laid before us.”

“Don’t want your food getting cold, do you?”

Another prayer interrupted.

Ardyn unclasps his hands to wave one at Verstael in a slow, dismissive gesture. Somehow, this stops Verstael from jabbering on more. Instead, he goes back to eating whatever it is on his own plate, and Ardyn simply stares down at the grain of the wood of the table. Verstael’s utensils clink against the plate while Ardyn stares down at the table, and while he would prefer it if he could simply be swallowed whole by the earth beneath him, Ardyn knows he would never be so lucky.

“Are you enjoying your stay?”

A question so strange it forces Ardyn to look up at Verstael. There is no hint of understanding in Verstael’s eyes when Ardyn looks. He genuinely wants to know if Ardyn has been enjoying himself here. Frankly, he thinks the answer should be obvious. Should have been obvious since day one. Ardyn has not enjoyed anything since he last saw his beloved, hale and hearty and laughing at one of his terrible jokes. Her memory is faded, her laugh warped by time he doesn’t remember passing.

It doesn’t matter, in Verstael’s eyes. It never did.

“No.”

It’s the most honest he’s been in a while. He hasn’t had much to talk about, and perhaps he can convey it if he just answers with what little conviction he has left.

Verstael continues on as if he himself isn’t a contributing factor to Ardyn’s dissatisfaction.

“You’ve been asleep for years. Learning to appreciate the waking world will take time.”

There is nothing left to appreciate, he thinks. Not since Aera perished in his arms. Of all memories, the one of her blood coating his arms is one that never seems to. Ardyn watches as Verstael lifts a wine glass towards him, like he’s offering a toast.

“Perhaps I can help enlighten you while we dine.”

After that, Verstael takes a drink, and Ardyn has to look away. This is not the blonde-haired blue-eyed person he wants to spend a meal with. He is callous and thoughtless and could not give a damn about Ardyn’s deeper well-being.

It doesn’t matter. Anything Ardyn wants never does. He is simply dealt his hand and forced to play it, no matter how many times he loses. What more could he possibly lose now? Ardyn lays down one of his losing cards on the figurative table and expects harsh repercussions.

“How long has it been since you brought me here?”

“Two hundred and four days. Roughly seven months or so.”

Ardyn, who had lifted a hand to try and nurse a headache that hasn’t even begun to form yet is stunned. He asked a question, expecting to be ignored, and instead receives an answer. Factual, to the point, and without a riddle mixed in.

A fluke. There is no other explanation.

“Then again, the Lucians had you locked away in that prison for nearly two millennia. I’d be more surprised if you hadn’t lost all concept of time.”

Two millennia. The term used to describe two sets of one thousand years. Like he wants to be reminded of how long it’s been, of what has passed him by while he had been strung up to rot away in his cell. But he had received an answer, and a prompt one at that. He shouldn’t push his luck with it. He should be thankful to have received an answer at all.

“You must loathe those Lucians for what they did to you.”

It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care.

“What is this food?”

Ardyn has never known when to stop pushing his luck.

Somehow, it continues to hold out.

“Meat, cloned in this facility.”

“‘Cloned?’”

Foolish mistake. Verstael’s eyes light up like he’s given him the sun, and suddenly words are pouring from his mouth.

“We cultivated somatic cells, used them as donors to fuse the nucleus-transplant sells to the recipient oocytes, and then we-”

Enough. I’ve no ear for the ramblings of a lunatic.”

Verstael shoots a mild glare at him, but Ardyn pays him no mind. More big words with big scientific meanings that Verstael just expects him to understand with his ancient background. The headache he knew he would be nursing is starting to curl at the forefront of his temples, and it’s only thanks to the immediate silence following the outburst that keeps it from getting any worse.

But that’s twice, now, that Verstael has answered his questions, and with little hesitance, too. Bizarre. But perhaps Ardyn can learn something actually useful about it. About why he’s here. About why he’s still alive. About what’s going on with him. It’s difficult to make himself sound as dull and uninterested as he usually is when it comes to talking with Verstael, especially when Verstael seems so open to answering his questions suddenly.

“Was your examination of me a fruitful one?”

No backlash.

“Oh yes. You’ve proved far more fascinating than expected. No wonder they kept you locked away.”

The way Verstael says it sends a shudder up Ardyn’s spine, but he keeps it concealed well enough and instead casts his eyes towards Verstael once more. The man keeps talking.

“To think the powers of a daemon could dwell within the heart of a man. It’s incredible! The Starscourge doesn’t sap your life force. It gives you more!”

A wild gleam has taken over Verstael’s eyes, and while he does not turn it upon Ardyn right now, it is more than enough of a reminder for him to know exactly what he is.

“Your cells can regenerate themselves, and you can daemonify other life forms as well. There’s no doubt. You are-”

“A monster.”

Not a monster. A marvel.”

He can no longer keep his eyes on Verstael, and instead turns his gaze to the bread rolls that sit upon a plate before him. They look as real as everything else, though it’s likely that these were… cloned as well, as Verstael put it. Verstael rumbles a laugh, one just as grating as the one Ardyn first heard from him.

“I cannot wait to unravel all of your mysteries.”

This time, Ardyn can’t hide his shudder, and pretends it doesn’t happen. He keeps looking at the bread rolls and their golden-brown crust. Perhaps if he did not re-engage eye contact, this conversation would end sooner. Perhaps, if he continues to ask questions, he will get more information. Perhaps, he may wind up in yet another experiment. It doesn’t matter, either way.

“What is it you want from me, anyhow?”

It escapes him with such a defeated tone that Ardyn realizes how little he truly knows about the scientists here and their desires.

“What about me interests you so?”

“You said it yourself, didn’t you? You were chosen by the gods. And, frankly, with powers like yours, I’d say you’re nearly a god in your own right.”

This time, Ardyn doesn’t bother hiding or pretending he doesn’t shudder. Him? A god? Laughable. He is simply some fool who looked upon Bahamut’s blessing, and could not tell Them no when it came time to receive it. He had been so full of hope and wonder that he could not see the potential consequences for accepting such powers. He is no god. He is no better than a daemon. He is damned to walk this star without the promise of death to comfort him.

Verstael, unaware or uncaring of his turmoil, continues on like there is nothing greater in the world than Ardyn’s perceived might.

“We need those powers that you possess. With your strength on our side, we could finally put an end to the gruesome war with Lucis. You, too, must desire the fall of the kingdom that cast you into exile?”

This was a foolish endeavour. Ardyn should have remained silent. He shouldn’t have engaged. He should have maintained his status quo of nodding and grunting when the times were appropriate. None of this has been worthwhile, and has served no purpose other than to make him feel worse. None of this matters.

Standing up, Ardyn uses his superior height to loom over Verstael in a half-assed effort to get the man to stop talking.

“My desires,” he whispers. “Are all in the past.”

He turns to the door, done with the conversation and eager to find another window to stare out of while his guards watch him like a hawk. Perhaps this time he can find a west-facing window. Perhaps this time, he truly will flake away and die for real. He has no desire to continue on like this, as a husk of a man trapped in his own decayed shell. Maybe if he’s lucky, he will finally be able to move on.

“The man who wronged you may have died long ago, but his descendants live on to this day. Surely you must bear them some feelings of ill-will?”

Ardyn turns just enough to see Verstael rise to his feet, his meal forgotten, and turns away once more. Upset and anger churn in his gut, but resignation keeps them from growing any stronger.

“My feelings are none of your concern.”

Metal and cork tap first against red carpet, and then on patterned tiles. Verstael walks into his view and past him, and- somehow annoying him in his apathy- the door slides open for him without needing any input on the keypad on this side of the door.

“Come along.”

And then Verstael leaves, walking out of the room and further down the hall. Ardyn contemplates ignoring him, contemplates going back to his cell and lying down to wait until the next surgery the scientists want to put him through comes along. It doesn’t matter. None of it does, and none of it ever did. Ardyn follows Verstael out of the room and trails after him. Might as well get the torture over with.

Notes:

a 4k chapter after like 2 chapters of 2 and 1.5k respectively. i have decided that i am Tired of writing ardyn's suffering and would instead like to see him get caught up in his hubris. as a treat. so thats where we're headed now. cant wait for sh*t to hit the fan

Chapter 21

Notes:

three chapters in one day? im f*ckin nuts man im unhinged. i love f*cking ardyn up!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Verstael leads the way, and Ardyn trails behind him, the two guards from outside Verstael’s impromptu dining room following in their footsteps. Ardyn still contemplates returning to his cell, but once they enter that room the Verstael has been leading him to, he isn’t so sure he wants to return anymore. Verstael stops beside a console that sticks out of the walkway like a sore thumb, and flips a switch. Lights in the dark room come alive and illuminate it. It takes a moment for Ardyn’s eyes to adjust, but after that he’s following Verstael once more. It’s a far larger room than Ardyn has seen in the compound in some time, and there are not only shelves filled with research, but stairs leading down off of the walkways and into the belly of the room where tables and desks and archives lay.

“This is the fruit of my labour- a small portion of it, that is.”

It’s Verstael’s favourite workspace, the one closest to Ardyn’s cell.

“I envy you,” Verstael continues, walking further into the room as he goes. “A human life is too short to truly understand all there is to know about the world.”

As Ardyn follows him deeper in, he spies more hidden in the farther reaches of the room. A painting at least three times his height hangs in one corner, gold oil paints illuminated by white sterile lights. The puddle of light on the ground that Ardyn could see from outside the room appears to be a map, but far more detailed than any paper and ink map he’s ever borne witness to. There’s a cage in another corner, where faint chittering and hissing can be heard. And in another, a massive glass tank like the one that had been used during his swimming stamina test. There’s not just scientific nonsense in this room. There are true things to look at and examine, things Ardyn would not require Verstael’s education to understand.

Verstael must notice that his interest is piqued, that something in this room interests Ardyn enough to actually show it in some way or another. He sounds infinitely smug when he gestures Ardyn in further.

“Go on. Have a look.”

Ardyn barely pays the smug tone of it any mind. He hardly even registers that the two guards from outside Verstael’s dining room and the two from outside his own cell follow them in and spread out. Ardyn is, for the first time in a very long time, fascinated by something he sees before him. He steps past Verstael and towards the stairs leading into his favourite workspace.

“Do watch your step, won’t you?”

He ignores him and instead descends the stairs in a trance, captivated by the painting that hangs on the far wall. Even on a sterile laboratory wall it glitters with an elegance he only thought attainable by arts in museums. The contrast and shapes in the painting attract his eye and draws him close enough to see it as it should.

Ardyn has no real knowledge of the meaning behind the painting, but he can decipher the people and beings painted into it. He knows the Astrals and their common forms, of the daemons that lay at its bottom, and the king and his men at the top. The painting must be old. It’s visible not only in the cracks of the oil paint, but in the depictions as well. The holy figure at the very top strikes him so suddenly as Aera. The short hair, white robes, and serene expression can only be hers. Just below her is someone Ardyn can recognize as Somnus. The bastard brother who killed his love and locked him away. None of the figures around him looks like himself, but it doesn’t truly surprise him.

Verstael’s voice echoing from the small stand before the painting does. He takes a half-step back, but for once, what Verstael’s voice says is something of interest. It describes his observations about the painting, who each being in it may be, and what it all means. Ardyn, who was locked away before this image was painted, can at least appreciate some of what the recording dictates. He, too, is unfamiliar with most of the painting and its meaning. By the end of the recording, however, he feels he understands some of what is conveyed.

“The line of Izunia-Caelum was chosen to eradicate evil from Eos… And with the divine on their side, how could they fail?”

Though, Ardyn isn’t certain that it’s truly the line of Izunia-Caelum anymore. With how his brother had discarded him, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he cast aside the mantle of his brother’s origins and took up only his own. Something in the back of his mind niggles at his memory, bringing up the memories of Verstael’s first interrogation of him. ‘Relations to the Lucian Royal Family’, as he had put it, after Ardyn had divulged his full name. Unlikely, then, that Somnus would keep the name their mothers agreed upon.

Ardyn trails elsewhere after a while, unable to keep looking upon the visage of Aera and Somnus. It lands him at the base of the map. Diorama, more like, when Ardyn inspects it. It has been sculpted with each mountain and valley, each river and churning ocean, every island and continent that Ardyn had ever heard of when he was younger, and more still he has never even seen before. The plaque upon the stand before the map labels the whole of it as Eos.

“This is our world?”

There is so much he has never seen before, and when initiated, this stand produces recordings of a tinny voice that tells of the entire known history of Eos. Not in any great detail, not with every single thing that’s ever happened, but it’s more than Ardyn ever knew in his time, and more still than he knows now given where he’s been and what he’s been doing. Mind-boggling is the lifespan of the star they live upon, and what this star has seen. The beginning of the Astrals and their reign, the origins of humans, the blessings of fire and the rise of Solheim, the war of the Astrals and the fall of the Infernian. Ancient history older than even Ardyn, all told here on this map of the realm. And there is more, still, from after his imprisonment. The founding of Lucis, of Tenebrae and Accordo, the founding of Niflheim and the discovery of daemons. Where each Astral is said to have disappeared to after the war, and where some of them are rumored to exist to this day. It’s more information than Ardyn has had a chance to absorb in years, and he feels as though parts of it simply cannot be real, despite the clear dates and timelines included in it.

It’s too much, and he trails off to the next item that catches his eye.

Another painting, this one initially hidden from where he had stood next to Verstael. It depicts a landscape Ardyn feels he’s seen before, but cannot immediately recall. Not until the recording begins playing. Angelgard. The island of his imprisonment. The seat of where the gods themselves converse. He can’t bear to look upon it any longer, not when Verstael’s voice speaks of him as nothing more than a tool, a weapon to be turned upon his foes. He leaves before it finishes, moving away from the tank, away from the cage, closer to the center of the room where couches surround a coffee table.

And for all that Ardyn has listened to Verstael’s voice in the recordings, he forgets that Verstael is with him until the man chuckles, making his way down the stairs towards him.

“Fascinating, isn’t it? I pored over the ancient texts and found scarcely a mention of you. I barely believed you existed till I saw you with my own eyes. With your help, my research is proceeding smoothly. You have my thanks.”

Ardyn does not appreciate the look Verstael gives him, not as he would normally, and especially not now after taking in so much information, both about the world and about Ardyn’s own ‘potential’ for whatever it is that Verstael and Niflheim sees in him. Verstael moves through the center of the room, past Ardyn and past the diorama of Eos.

“This must be how the gods feel, looking down upon our world,” he begins, making a brief, sweeping gesture at the diorama before moving onwards. “Here we have a model of imperial territory. It includes our present lands, as well as our future acquisitions.”

Considering how much information is on the diorama, Ardyn suspects that ‘future acquisitions’ means all of Eos, no matter the cost or how long it takes. It’s uncomfortable, and he does not linger by the diorama, instead following Verstael to a set of stairs farther into the room. When he catches up with him, Verstael shoots him a look that makes the small hairs on the back of Ardyn’s neck stand on end.

“There’s something you should see,” he rumbles, turning to the stairs and beginning his ascent. “Come with me.”

Ardyn would rather do anything else at the moment. His traitorous legs follow him anyways, tolerating the chafing of his outfit as he climbs them behind Verstael.

“I’ve found something most interesting on the Rock of Ravatogh. If my experiment on this specimen succeeds, it might provide the information you’ve been looking for.”

So there is to be a torture of some kind after all. Ardyn is glad, in a small, shriveling part of his heart, that he did not eat when Verstael had offered. If it includes any amount of pain, then it’s likely he would vomit what he’d eaten right back up again. Better to do whatever it is Verstael wants of him on an empty stomach.

Verstael leads him up to and into a tunnel that descends farther into the compound. Ardyn is not one to be done in by small spaces, but the tightness of the tunnel and the echoing of their footsteps down the stairs makes his chest squeeze and lungs constrict. The air grows colder the farther down they descend, and by the time the make it to the bottom where another door resides, Ardyn’s knee is starting to throb. The door opens, and Ardyn shuffles through it, towards a towering window leading into a room lit with pale blue lights. Mist floats around the walkway they step onto, and beyond the window, past the frost and the icy air billowing into the chamber rests a being unlike any other Ardyn has seen.

His stomach drops and his heart races up his throat, and it’s through sick fascination that Ardyn keeps walking until he’s right before the window with Verstael at his side.

“Is that…”

“Ifrit, the Infernian.”

Hearing it aloud makes his heart and stomach trade places and for worms to writhe in his abdomen. He barely realizes the gasp he’s made, focused as he is on the sleeping form of an actual god. He’s laid out on his back, scars dragging gnarled paths through his chest and stomach. Ice curls over his skin and clings to his flesh, where fur does not cover his hips and thighs. Intricate bangles grace his wrists, and above a maroon head of hair curls a dozen horns and antlers, some of which bear damage and are missing pieces.

When he finds it, Ardyn’s voice is no more than a breathless, scandalized whisper.

“You subjugated a god… and brought him here?”

“He was sound asleep, just like the legends said he’d be, so we put him on ice.”

Ardyn stares, both in awe of the Astral asleep before them, and terrified of the Astral asleep before them. Niflheim, from what little Ardyn has learned of it, thirsts for power and takes whatever they can get their hands on in their conquest. Ardyn is aware of war does to a nation, and what can happen to those in charge, but never before had Ardyn ever considered a nation so foolish to try and capture a god for their own uses. Especially not the Infernian, who is said to have the worst temper and deepest hatred of mankind.

“Do you think you could turn him?”

If Ardyn had been cold before, then he must turn into sentient ice at what Verstael says. He turns towards the other, sees the vicious glint in his eyes, the curious tilt to his grin.

“Into a daemon!?

He isn’t sure why he needs to clarify, given what atrocities Ardyn is aware he has committed since his release from Angelgard and internment here. Verstael’s grin grows wider, more sabertusk-like.

“If you manage to daemonify a deity, you could learn truths no mere mortal could ever dream of knowing. You’ll access two thousand years of his memories, and, if you can control him, he’ll be a weapon of supreme power.”

Ardyn looks away from Verstael and back to the slumbering deity. Horror is curling in Ardyn’s gut, more fiercely than it’s ever had before. To turn a man is one thing, a sin that Ardyn, while not proud of bearing, is one he knows he can bear. But to turn an Astral of all things into a daemon, not only for his memories but in hopes of controlling him for his own purposes? That’s not a sin Ardyn thinks he can even fathom holding.

“An enticing offer, isn’t it?”

Verstael steps closer to him when Ardyn turns away entirely, both from him and from Ifrit.

“Just think,” he continues, his voice dipping into a low growl. “You could exact sweet revenge through divine retribution!”

Something about that burns him up inside, and Ardyn turns on his heel to take a step toward Verstael, to loom over him where he stands.

“How do you know what I want?”

Verstael just grins up at him with that twisted, manic grin of his.

“I don’t. But I know you have no other options.”

Then, he steps around Ardyn and begins walking towards a door at the end of this gods-forsaken hallway, and tosses back over his shoulder, “Well? Shall we?”

Ardyn shouldn’t. He’s been raised as a believer, a man devoted to the Astrals and all the gifts they bear. He prays for the sun to return at night, and prays that his food will not wither, he prays for safe travels and for the Astrals to bless the chocobos that would run carriages from one town to the next, a swift and safe trip. He is a healer, a tender of wounds and maladies, a man of kindness and selflessness, a man who would take the ills of his people into his own body and become a monster so that they may know peace and fulfillment.

Nothing matters. Nothing ever did, nothing ever does, and nothing ever will. Ardyn follows Verstael, sedate and unsure, towards the door and down the stairs that follows it.

“Come see the fruits of my magitek research. This way.” says Verstael. Ardyn follows him, helpless in his own body, powerless to change his fate.

“The ancient civilization of Solheim, forefathers of our magiteknology, once flourished on this land. Had they not incurred the wrath of the gods, they may have remained prosperous to this day.”

“And you wish to restore them to greatness.” Ardyn mumbles.

“To surpass them,” Verstael corrects, casting a glance over his shoulder at him. “Which is why I need you to lend me your strength. But I’m certain magiteknology and daemons are the keys to unlocking the door to a new future.”

Ardyn barely hears him. They reach the door at the very bottom of the stairs, and it slides open for them like the rest before it. It opens to an empty hangar room, one that looks somewhat like the workstation above, but far emptier. There are no works of passion here. Nothing but the walls leading to the room of a frozen Astral. An Astral that Verstael would have Ardyn turn into a daemon.

Each step they take makes Ardyn’s newfound anxiety spike higher and higher, to the point where he’s certain his heart will simply jump from his throat and scamper away into the snows outside the compound.

His anxiety is the only reason he stays frozen to the spot when ozone fills his senses and a rush of blue magic heralds the arrival of one of Somnus’ men. Verstael flinches and backpedals.

“Lucians!? But how?”

Ardyn says nothing, and instead watches as two others appear beside the first. He watches with blank eyes as they stand to full height and look at him. Two of them raise their hands to their ears, and one of them begins talking.

“Qun'mi squad. Adagium sighted!”

Ah yes. He’s the Adagium, isn’t he? His anxiety has him rooted to the spot, though he knows he should be running. He knows he should either fight or flee, and Ardyn has always been much better at fleeing than fighting. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Never did, never does, and never will. The three of them talk over one another, issuing commands or some such nonsense. Ardyn doesn’t much care, really.

“So, you’ve come to kill me, have you?”

His voice is much softer than he would have assumed it would be, but he is thankful it simply doesn’t shake. The guard in front of him looks him dead in the eye, and something about the hatred he finds there reminds him too much of Somnus.

“Or die trying.”

Three more appear behind him. He can hear the crackle of the magic that used to run in his brother’s veins, can smell the ozone of warps bringing someone to their destination. Somehow, Ardyn is able to turn around to look at the three that have landed behind him.

“Just as you would kill me, right brother?”

Somnus.

Notes:

not super happy with how the chapter begun but much more happy with how the middle and end parts of it went. lmao poor ardyn. ive written at least like 8k of f*cking him up today and i think thats pretty stellar.

Chapter 22

Notes:

3 chapters in one day and then 3 days for one chapter. you know how it is lmao

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

His brother’s voice layers upon itself, words overlapping in a crescendo of sound. Each man and woman around him wears his face, grinning and vicious in their advance. He can’t make out what each shadow of his brother says, but knows it’s not good, that his time is wearing thin. One day, Somnus will catch him. One day, Somnus will gut him like a fish. And one day, Somnus will cut Aera down, cleaving her from shoulder to hip, her blood spilling like a grotesque waterfall over the length of Ardyn’s arms and down his hands onto the ground.

He doesn’t realize when he’s drawn the Rakshasa Blade from his Armiger, only that he lashes out with it as the shadows of his brother advance. Cries of pain echo around him, none of them in Somnus’ voice, and three of the shadows collapse around him. Blood splatters against the hangar floor, thick and dark red against sterile grey, and where the other three had been are only lingering fractals from magic.

Reality snaps back into place much too quickly, and suddenly there are Lucian Guards in the garb of Somnus’ men swarming into the hangar. Ardyn doesn’t have a choice when it comes to fighting or fleeing. With so many of them appearing, he wouldn’t make it farther than a few hundred metres before they caught up with him.

One of them launches at him, lance aimed for his heart. Ardyn barely makes it, lifting his blade up to parry the strike. Instead of hitting his chest, the tip of the lance digs into the edge of his shoulder, tearing past the fabric of his shirt and landing a glancing blow to the muscle and bone beneath. The pain is hot enough to have him gritting his teeth, and before he can return the hit, the man leaps away and out of his range. Another takes his place, lunging in with a one-handed sword of her own. He barely makes the parry on her blade as well, but at least this time he avoids the bite of her blade. He isn’t so lucky when she follows the momentum and strikes him in his wounded shoulder with her fist.

The noise he makes is akin to a wounded sabertusk being kicked, and ichor spills where her fist draws back for another swing. When she winds up for another hit, he spins his own blade forwards, slashing across her front. Blood paints the floor alongside his ichor, and he kicks her away from him, grimacing when his hip and knee throb at the impact.

Another guard bellows as he charges him, and Ardyn easily steps out of his way. He means to aim a kick at his hip, something to knock the man off balance, but a bolt from a crossbow punctures his side, just above his pelvis. It’s all Ardyn can do to strangle his own cries of pain behind his teeth. Gripping the hilt of his blade tight, he winds up and swings, letting go of the hilt at the peak of the arc to throw the Rakshasa Blade right at the feet of the crossbowman. The shock of having a greatsword nearly take his foot off is enough to get the man to drop his bolt and fumble his crossbow, but it leaves him open for the other to regain his footing and slash at Ardyn with a dagger. It cuts easily through fabric and skin, and if this continues how it’s been going, Ardyn is certain his laboratory-provided shirt will be dyed black with his own sickness.

The man with the daggers manages another cut on Ardyn’s forearm before Ardyn is stepping out of his range. He can hear the crossbowman reload his bolt. He would really rather not use it, but he hasn’t much a choice. The Rakshasa Blade won’t return to him in time to deflect, and the man with the daggers is advancing again. Ardyn pulls the Scythe of the Sage out of the Armiger and swings. The length of the snath catches the man with the daggers in the side and the momentum of the swing drags him between Ardyn and the line of fire of the crossbowman.

Ardyn tries not to think of the sounds the man makes when the bolt strikes him in the back, and instead tosses him away. He can’t see much of the crossbowman’s face, only his eyes, but the way they’re widened suggests Ardyn has a moment to act before he recovers. He drops the lower grip, the rib of the blade banging against the steel of the hangar floor, and Ardyn reaches into the Armiger to throw a blade. The blade, sans handle, sinks into the crossbowman’s throat and he drops like a rock. His medical dagger. Ardyn tries not to think about the fact that the weapon he had only ever used to grant mercy now grants a brutal death.

Ardyn spends a moment too long looking at the downed body of the crossbowman. It gives a woman with a shield the chance to barrel into him, the heavy metal of the shield bowling him over. He hits the ground hard, and his scythe slips from his grip. He lands hard on his bad leg and can’t stop his yelp of pain. The man with the lance, the one he forgot to keep an eye on, is running at him, his lance held high and poised to strike between his carotid arteries. Pinned as he is beneath the woman with her shield, he has little chance to roll or get to his feet. They will kill him here, these men and women of Somnus. They will kill him and drag him back to Angelgard, back to his prison of stone and chains.

He doesn’t want to be imprisoned any longer.

The ringing buzz doesn’t come out like it normally does when Ardyn is in danger. It doesn’t build in his head, fill his skull where his brain doesn’t. More often than not, the ringing buzz rages into existence to move him about like a puppet on strings.

Instead, Ardyn vanishes into miasma of his own accord. He disappears from beneath the woman and her shield and skates across the floor away from them. He reforms on his feet, breathless and dizzy, several metres away, just in time to watch the man pull back at the last minute and dig the point of his lance into the steel of the floor, inches from penetrating the woman’s skull. The two of them manage to get themselves to their feet and turn to face him.

That’s all they have time for before the piping in the walls leading to the Astral’s containment cell burst into flames. Ardyn is far enough away from the resulting blast of fire and sparks, but the two guards that are still standing are not. One of them takes the brunt of the flames and falls, disappearing into nothing but a pile of ash before he even hits the ground. The woman is luckier and retreats, the loose fabric of her jacket burning behind her.

Verstael swears somewhere nearby, and frankly, in the midst of the fighting, Ardyn had completely forgotten Verstael was here in the first place. The fact that Somnus’ men hadn’t bothered to turn their attention to Verstael is foolish, he thinks in mild hysteria.

The flames grow ever brighter, the temperature climbing to unbearable levels, and dizzy and weakened as he is, Ardyn thinks he might keel over at the sight of a hand appearing through the fire. The hand connects up to an arm, and an arm to a torso. As fire licks over the massive limbs, Ardyn staggers back a step, away from the god awakening before them.

“I think we may actually die here.” Ardyn wheezes, unable to contain his hysteria.

Eyes the colour of molten rock land upon him, and Ardyn thinks he may combust on the spot under the intensity of their gaze.

The Infernian rises to his full height and the temperatures soar higher. It feels as though his lungs are coating in ash and his skin drying out and cracking. He says something in a tongue older than Ardyn thought possible, voice thunderous like an inferno tearing through a forest, and Ardyn winces as it rattles through his skull, gripping his temples in a vice-grip and burning him from head to toe. All he can do is hiss in pain, grip at his skull and tug at his sweat-matted hair.

“He’s… alive!”

“We must stop him before he destroys everything!”

“We?!”

Ardyn glances to where Verstael had been standing. Had been, are the keywords here. Verstael is already scaling the stairs they had first descended to reach this room, and of course, he is leaving Ardyn to face down an actual god all on his own. Somehow, when Ardyn accepted Bahamut’s blessings, he had not thought he would wind up here, so far in the future, watching his only tentative ally in the moment flee the scene and leave him to his fate before the god who hates humans the most. There would be no ‘we’ in this plan to stop the Astral of Fire, there would only be Ardyn, left once more for the daggerquils to tear his liver from his body.

Hells, there would be no ‘Ardyn’ to stop the Astral of Fire. He is weakened, dizzy from his sudden use of the scourge and painful from his wounds. The ichor trying to patch him together sizzles where it wells, foaming in the heat of the fires. Maybe, just maybe, he would actually die here.

What a bizarre thought.

Ardyn can only stagger on trembling legs step by wobbling step backwards as The Infernian approaches. One of the Astral’s steps eats up ground at an astonishing rate compared to his own pitiful stride, and before he knows it the Astral is standing before him.

The Infernian does not hesitate to grab hold of him, hand wrapping around Ardyn’s waist and squeezing tight. It punches the air straight out of his burning lungs, and where the god’s palm touches his shirt and pants, Ardyn swears his skin sears like it’s being branded. The Infernian lifts him into the air, tripling his sudden vertigo, and holds him aloft before his face. He speaks, but Ardyn cannot hear him, cannot understand what he says to him. All it does is squeeze his temples tighter, clamping down and pressing until he thinks his head will burst like an overripe pear dropped to the ground. And when Ardyn doesn’t respond to whatever The Infernian has said, the Astral squeezes him around the middle again, knocking what little air he has left from him.

Ardyn can’t breathe. He can’t think, not with The Infernian rumbling his ancient tongue at him. His torso feels as if skin and flesh is melding together with fabric and hot iron. The sickness in him roils through his veins, foaming where the hot air can reach it. Ardyn is weak, dizzy, and tired. The world is cruel, has left him behind, left him to rot where his brother had him hung and dumped him into the hands of a madman. Ardyn has devoted himself to the gods, devoted himself to the betterment of his village, the health of his people, the prosperity of his country. And here he is, suffering yet again, thankless and wounded and expected to carry on as if he is nothing more than the automatons described in ancient Solheim legends. He is breaking down. He cannot continue on like this. Does he not deserve a reward for what he’s done? For all of the people he’s saved, all of the suffering he’s endured, all of the work he has dedicated himself to?

Ardyn looks up, gasping in The Infernian’s grasp, to look into the eyes of molten rock.

There is no recognition there. He sees no understanding.

Ardyn bears his teeth, and sucks in a ragged breath.

“O Infernian,” he wheezes, barely able to speak through the heat filling his lungs and drying his eyes. “Grant me the power to take Somnus, his people, and his cursed kingdom…”

The Astral’s grip loosens ever so slightly around his torso, allowing Ardyn the chance to heave in a much needed breath.

“And burn them all to the ground!”

Ardyn latches onto The Infernian’s hand where it grips him around his middle, and despite how dizzy his last use of the starscourge has left him, Ardyn yanks it from where it slumbers within his marrow.

The Infernian’s spine snaps taut, arched like a bow, and his mouth parts in what can only be a silent gasp of pain. Ardyn’s hands feel as though they’re fusing with the inferno-hot flesh of The Infernian, but he refuses to stop. Even when his head begins to ring, even when the scourge he pumps into The Infernian through his massive hand bubbles and foams. Ardyn refuses to stop, heaving breaths hissing through bared teeth.

The memories that suddenly flash behind his eyes are too numerous, too opulent, too much. Ardyn falters as his sight fills with what was, will be, and could be. The Infernian, struck stiff as he was, loosens his grip on him, and Ardyn falls through his fingers to the steel floor. The sudden loss of the blazing memories disorients him, and he lands awkward on his feet. There’s a crunch from Ardyn’s ankle that has his legs crumpling beneath him, sending him sprawling onto his back. The burnt skin of his torso and palms pull something fierce at his flesh, and it’s all Ardyn can do to gasp in agony, head pounding and vertigo making the world swirl around him.

“Fool!”

The voice is forest-fire loud and rumbles like an inferno. It pierces at his skull, pressing in on his temples, and shakes him to his very core. Despite his pain, Ardyn tries to roll over, to get onto his hands and knees. He manages it, though it doesn’t come without his skin tearing through his burns, ichor bubbling forth and foaming against his flesh. He manages somehow to balance himself on his hands and good knee, and casts his glassy gaze over his shoulder.

The Infernian falls first to his knees, then to down to his elbows. A snarl of pained rage twists The Infernian’s face, and those molten rock eyes pin Ardyn where he is.

“You dare subjugate the divine?!”

He can hear him. He can understand him. The ancient tongue The Infernian speaks is recognizable to him now. It hurts, it’s painful to the highest degree, but Ardyn can understand him.

The Infernian is not struck dumbfounded by this, not like Ardyn is, and makes to claw his way forwards, towards Ardyn, claws digging into the steel floor below him. Ardyn staggers as best he can to his feet, ignoring the way more of his skin and muscles pull and tear beneath his clothes. He limps hard away, staggering back a few steps as pain shoots through both of his legs.

The Infernian does not make it that far. The strength seems to leave him mid-reach, and the Astral slumps to the floor with an earth-shaking thump. Molten rock eyes slide shut, and miasma begins to pour off of him. The awe-inspiring form of the Astral of Fire flakes away into clumps of vapourized ichor and miasma, and before Ardyn can think of what’s happening. Those clumps careen towards him.

It’s not the force of the Astral’s scourge that topples him; it’s the force of his memories rushing through him once more, filling every fibre of his being with knowledge no mortal should ever have access to.

The rise and fall of Solheim slips past him, the Great War flickers by, crumpling to the top of the Rock of Ravatogh washes over him. Thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds, it all courses through him in a way no other man’s memories have, digging grooves into his very being so that it might make itself home there yet never being able to carve out enough space for there is simply no room for it.

One memory, however, tears into him. It cleaves him in two, empties his organs, and crawls into the space that’s left behind.

The Crystal. Somnus. Aera. Him. In the Crystal. His face. His name. The voice of The Draconian ringing out so all the divine and their Messengers may hear.

“I was the one chosen to be king…?”

His own voice sounds so small, so meek in the following emptiness of the room. Ardyn can barely see the room, the walls and floors smudging into dark shapes and colours. Specks of light- or perhaps dying embers- float in his sights, filling the blankness of the air around him. Echoing voices bounce through his skull, softer than anything The Infernian could conjure. A smear of white on the ground draws his attention, and whimpering with pain, he staggers towards it.

The echoing voices don’t stop, continue to caress and kick his mind all at once through his skull. Pain shoots through his legs with each step, until finally, at the edge of the white smear, he collapses to his knees. He can’t focus, his eyes simply refuse to, and the voices beckon him. He tries to grip that smudge of white but he can’t, his burnt hands cracking and peeling and bubbling. The voices elicit memories to the forefront of his mind, but he can’t decipher what the are, if they are his or if they are stolen from another. These memories draw out another voice, another that snarls in the back of his head, that provokes and stings where it touches. The sounds it draws out of him are pathetic and raw, sounds he wouldn’t have dared made in front of anyone other than Aera.

That white smudge is tainted, turns purple and black, the snarling voice growing more forceful yet remaining incomprehensible, unregistering to his mind. Crystalline blue takes over his sights, and Ardyn howls. He doesn’t know why, can’t be certain with the way sights smear and merge with the innumerable memories flickering behind his eyes, but his chest seizes and emotion spikes. It’s the only thing he can do to howl out the misery that overtakes his body. The snarling voice crescendos, taking over all sound in his head, bearing down on him, cruel-hearted laughter kicking his consciousness until he is battered and sore and even more dizzy. A part of him prays, begs the gods to take the pain, the knowledge, the suffering away, begs for salvation and mercy. It prays and prays and prays, tearing at his vocal chords until he is hoarse and raw, rasping over words he cannot comprehend.

But salvation does not come. Divine intervention does not save him. The voices kick his brain, the sickness festers in his bones, and pain becomes all-consuming. It is not the divine that saves him, no. It is the sickness.

The ringing buzz hums to life, slow and quiet at first, but ever-strengthening. It distorts that snarling voice, eases the agony pulsing through his body, cradles him and his broken heart where he needs it most. It tends to him until his wounds are no more than muted, distant aches, until his head is empty and his vision dark. Where the gods fail him, the ringing buzz catches him.

The gods… The Astrals. They had never cared. They had never given anything that hadn’t come at a cost. Even now, taking The Infernian’s memories weighs heavy upon him, filling his head with thread after thread of thought and feelings. But that ringing buzz, gentle in its hum, soothing in its chill, tends to him where he is weakest, where he most desperately craves support.

The gods were never intent on helping them. They were never intent on anything other than lounging in the heavens, soaking up ill-deserved praise and worship. Prayers for help they leave unanswered, ignoring all those who seek guidance in favour of those who blindly worship. They had never favoured Ardyn, never thought of him more than a tool. They favoured his brother, vicious and quick-witted and willing to do whatever it was they told him. Eager to justify his cruelties as the work of the gods, while Ardyn was built into the monster for him to destroy.

“I’ll never forgive you, Somnus…”

The ringing buzz purrs to him, encourages him, cradles him as he pushes himself straight.

“This monster may not be able to destroy you, but I’ll see to it that I destroy everything you’ve built!”

Grief seizes him tight, but the ringing buzz encourages him up. He struggles to his feet and howls his grief. All of his misery, his pain, his sacrifice, it leaves him in a warped, unearthly howl.

“Hear me, gods above,” he snarls, ichor dripping from his face. “No longer shall I supplicate you for pardon. No longer shall I sojourn towards the light! The path I intend to tread is paved with blood and darkness! No longer shall I seek your guidance. This path is mine to tread alone.”

A dart strikes him hard in the back of the shoulder, and another in his neck. The ringing buzz howls in his veins, tugs at his bones. But all Ardyn can do is howl and laugh, gripped by righteous fury and rage, manic until his hazy sight goes fully dark.

Notes:

i do not think the end of that first part of episode ardyn would translate well to written format. its very good and theatrical for a game, but i dont think itd do well in writing. so it is not exact but i am the god of this little world and therefore made it to my liking lmao. finally f*cking done act one of this stupid fic. who is ready for ardyn's evil era???

The Dog Days Are Over - SolRegis (2024)
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