Chapter 1: Funeral
“And in the two hundred and forty fourth year of the war, the wielder of the Monado, great Lord Zanza, the lord of all Bionis and all those residing upon it, faced innumerable hordes on the battlefield, falling at the hands of the cowardly Mechon.”
A wail came from the crowd, probably originating from someone who had been paid to be upset. Shulk wondered how his father’s body had no wounds, and how the Monado had been recovered if he was overcome by a horde. Especially as his father had been confined to his bed by a shaking sickness for the last two weeks and was not even able to leave his room, let alone Zanais.
But he shouldn’t be cynical. This was his father, lying on the pyre. Dead. He shouldn’t question the official line; there was no use to questioning it. He should be sad thinking about the waste of life (his father had aged so rapidly, but he was only forty. Shulk could only hope that the Monado would not do the same to him), his lost family member, and the loss to his people or subjects or however he was meant to think of them.
He felt empty other than the overwhelming sense of dread. He had...not anticipated this moment coming so quickly, and that just added to his anxiety about what was to come. He knew that he would be the successor to the title of Lord Zanza; he’d known that for a year now, but he never thought it would come so soon.
His grandfather was still alive only three years ago. He had been killed by Mechon during the war that started outside of living Homs memory, though now he doubted whether his grandfather was killed by Mechon at all.
The Monado killed his father. Shulk saw from the beginning how he had to fight against it for the whole time he wielded it, but he’d never expected it to just decide to take everything a little further and age his body like that and bring a sickness upon him. There were whispers that he was unworthy, and that was why he was killed, which made Shulk afraid.
His father was the perfect Lord. He knew he would inherit the title from birth; there was never anyone else, and he trained all his life. He was so perfectly composed and regal at every moment, yet the Monado judged him as unworthy to rule the Bionis.
Shulk was practically the opposite of his father. Unprepared and unfit for rule in pretty much every way. The Monado would probably kill him the moment he tried to take it up. Hopefully it would just be fast, rather than the slow, drawn-out process of his father’s decline. He couldn’t realistically hope for anything more.
He had two weeks. Two weeks was the allotted mourning time, in which the Monado would lie on top of his father’s grave, as the ‘spirit of foresight drained from his body and back to its home’. In reality, Shulk could take up the Monado today and gain the gift of foresight, but that was not what tradition dictated and Shulk wasn’t going to argue with that. He wanted his life to last as long as it could.
“We shall mourn him, and we shall await the successor of the Monado with eager hearts.” The crowd repeated the words the person leading the ceremony had spoken in a low murmur not unlike a chant. Ceremonies like this never failed to unsettle him. He was only glad that he didn’t have to say anything like that; he didn’t have to worship himself, after all (gods, that sounded bad).
Mostly, he felt empty. This was probably the last time he’d be out in public that didn’t involve everyone literally having to worship the ground he walked on. But he couldn’t make the most of it or anything because...he couldn’t.
Maybe he wasn’t sad that his father was dead, exactly, and maybe he wasn’t grieving, but he didn’t feel like he could do much about anything at the moment. It was silly, because he was meant to be outside of fate and all of that, but he felt like he couldn’t do anything beyond what was expected of him. But he couldn’t feel how he was expected to feel, which meant he felt like he couldn’t act at all.
“Shulk,” a voice said quietly, and he jumped out of his thoughts and looked around. It was Reyn. He smiled at him, and Shulk managed to smile back. “I think it would be best if we went back now. So you can privately mourn.” Shulk could hear the sarcasm at that in Reyn’s voice, and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Was he that obvious, or did Reyn just know him that well?
“Okay,” he managed. His voice sounded sort of far away. He needed to get a handle on this and not worry Reyn, but he couldn’t. He felt so strange and distant and-
“Come on,” Reyn said, a little more insistently this time. He must have zoned out again. “I think you need some time away from all these people. I’ll get you something to eat when we get back to the palace, whether you want to eat it or not.” That meant that Reyn would eat it if he didn’t, probably. Shulk didn’t think he’d eat much today.
“Will you stay?” He asked. To any onlooker, it was an innocent request. The heir to the Monado asking his bodyguard to stay nearby on the day he was possibly most vulnerable. Perfectly normal. Reyn walked behind him as they returned to the palace and Shulk kept his head down, acting as if he was filled with sadness at his father being laid to rest.
As soon as they were in Shulk’s wing of the palace, he fell into step with Reyn and immediately reached out for his hand. It was their usual routine, yet Reyn seemed surprised today. Reyn squeezed his hand in a way that sort of served as comforting, but it was mostly grounding. “How are you feeling?”
“I…” His voice faded as soon as he started. “Give me a moment,” he managed, collecting his thoughts. Reyn just nodded, and they kept walking in silence for a few moments. “I feel okay.” Reyn scoffed. “As in, I feel fine, but I know I shouldn’t, because I just went to my father’s funeral.”
“If it helps, you don’t seem fine,” Reyn said, and Shulk just about managed a smile at that. “You’re all spacy and withdrawn. I mean, I know you don’t like people much, but that was on another level today.”
“I’ve felt worse recently,” he admitted. He hated talking so openly about this kind of thing, ever aware that people could easily use his weaknesses, but he knew it was safe to talk with Reyn. Talking to Reyn was good, even. It helped. “I’m worried about the future.”
“You don’t have to worry about it for long,” Reyn joked, and Shulk knew exactly where this one was going, but he didn’t stop him. “In a couple weeks you’ll be able to see the future. It does work like that, right? That’s not a fantasy your ancestors concocted?” Shulk smiled.
“I’ll be able to see the future,” he said. “My grandfather took me through it once and showed me what it was like, thinking I would never experience it. It’s really strange. I’m more worried that it will...do to me what it did to my father.”
Reyn was silent for a moment, which honestly just made him feel worse. That meant that he was worried about it too. He didn’t want Reyn to worry about whether he was going to be alive in three weeks or not. He wanted Reyn to be happy, and he knew that this was kind of an impossible situation to be happy in, but he wanted it anyway. “You’re better than that, man,” he said. Shulk tried to smile.
“You may not have liked him, but my father was very good at being Lord Zanza.” Despite being alone, he said that quietly; Reyn was supposed to be a normal citizen, and normal citizens didn’t have any feelings other than reverence for any of the wielders of the Monado. Reyn just wasn’t like that, and he knew Shulk’s father a little more personally, too.
“I’ll fight the Monado for you if it tries to take you away from me,” Reyn said, the conviction in his voice unwavering. Shulk’s breath caught in his chest; Reyn always knew just what to say. “Now come on, stop worrying. You can stress later. And if you- if you really think you’re- if it’s going to go south when you take up your title, well, we have two weeks to make the most of this, right?”
“I love you,” Shulk said, delighting more than a little in the way Reyn blushed. He squeezed his hand, and Reyn smiled at him again. “You’re right, we have two weeks, and I think I have a really good idea for what comes after.”
Chapter 2: Plans
Shulk shares his plan with Reyn.
When they were truly alone for the night and he knew that he didn’t have to do anything else for the day, Shulk settled down in Reyn’s quarters. This would take some explaining. “I’m going to end the war,” Shulk said.
“Wait, you can do that?” Reyn’s face held equal parts confusion, disbelief, and excitement. “You can just say ‘I’m gonna end it’ and then you just do it?”
“They’re all going to think I’m a god,” Shulk said, blanching a little internally at the thought. He didn’t really want people to see him as a god. He was just a person who’d been born into the right (or wrong) family. “They’d probably just lay down their weapons if I said to.”
“Don’t do that in the middle of a battle,” Reyn said, reaching forward to catch his hands. They were shaking, which he hadn’t noticed until Reyn held them still and the lack of movement shocked him.
“There’s a pause in the fighting for my succession,” Shulk said. “Religious events are outside of the times we’re allowed to fight, thanks to my grandfather.”
He didn’t like thinking about the succession at all. He just wanted to focus on after, and what he could do, and the lives he could save. “It makes a perfect time to declare an amnesty in the hope of ending the war. They’ve said repeatedly that they’re willing to negotiate, and they repeated that when the peace was called on my father’s death.”
“Wait, you mean your dad could have stopped it at any time?” Reyn asked. Shulk nodded, and his boyfriend developed a look of disgust. “He was a dick for not stopping it. People were dying.”
“People have been dying for two hundred and forty four years,” Shulk said with a faint sigh. He was very worried that the Monado would have a good reason the war shouldn’t end, but he couldn’t say that to Reyn. At this point, he would do anything to see the war’s conclusion. It killed so many people every year and everything in the world was strained on both sides; it had gone on for too long. “There have been quite a few Zanzas in that time.”
“All of ‘em are dicks,” Reyn said. “And you’re the not-dick. Seriously though, ending the war is great. Everyone will love you just as much as I do.” Reyn looked down for a moment and caught Shulk’s gaze. “Actually, maybe not quite as much as I do.”
“You’re gay,” Shulk said, managing an affectionate smile which just made Reyn’s face light up, prompting a grin. Gods, Reyn could make him feel better in an instant, even with the succession hanging over his head.
“And you’re thinking about bad things,” Reyn said, a stern note in his voice. He leaned down so he was more on Shulk’s level. “Just try not to think about it. You’re not meant to feel a thing, okay? It just- I mean, you saw your father do it. Nothing bad happened, right?”
“Reyn, he screamed, fell to the ground clutching his heart, and didn’t wake up for ten minutes,” he said. He didn’t want it. Gods, he really didn’t want it. He had no choice, and it would happen anyway, but... He didn’t know what would happen in that time. His father didn’t change after he woke up; he’d been completely fine (albeit with his voice a bit hoarse and his body cold from lying on the floor), but he had been the ideal Zanza already. Maybe Shulk would change when he...when it happened.
“I am so glad I don’t have to be there,” Reyn admitted quietly. “I wouldn’t be able to watch you- yeah.” He tugged on Shulk’s hands, pulling them both towards the fluffy sofa in Reyn’s room. “You said you’d do it alone, right?”
Shulk nodded. The only person he would trust being near him in that moment of ultimate vulnerability was Reyn, and he refused to even ask Reyn to suffer through watching that. He told the council that he wanted it to be a moment of reflection, which they bought; especially seeing as all his close relatives couldn’t exactly watch the ceremony as was customary.
“You’ll be fine,” Reyn said, and then he realised how empty that promise was and he shrugged. “Am I allowed to hug you really tightly afterwards, or will you be in a spiritual god bubble?”
“You can hug me if no one else is around,” he said. “If not, hugs will have to wait until I’m done for the day, I guess.” He didn’t like that Reyn couldn’t show affection in public. Realistically he could show a little— they were known to be very close friends— but neither of them wanted anyone suspecting anything. His goal was…
His goal was to marry Reyn, when he could. When he’d managed to get everything sorted, and things had settled down, and he’d produced the heir he was meant to (he hated even thinking about that particular hurdle), he would be able to marry the person he loved.
He didn’t know if Reyn would want to. Maybe he wanted to keep it informal, hidden, private. There were certainly many reasons to, and Shulk wouldn’t blame Reyn if he refused, but gods. He wanted it.
“You have a weird look on your face,” Reyn said. Shulk smiled weakly. “I know it’s not all that late, but maybe you should try and sleep? Today’s been weird and you know how-”
“I know,” he said. He knew how his mind couldn’t really take stress and sometimes it meant he wasn’t entirely present and that kind of thing worried Reyn, but he honestly felt better now, he’d just been thinking (unless he’d zoned out for longer without realising it). “But I don’t want to mess up my sleep schedule or anything. I’m meant to have a robe fitting thing tomorrow afternoon and I don’t want to be half asleep.”
“Fair,” Reyn said. “Just tell me when you’re getting tired, okay? I don’t want to keep you up when you need to sleep.”
“I’ll just fall asleep on you,” Shulk said with a grin. Reyn’s slightly worried look softened almost immediately. “Unless that annoys you, of course.”
“No!” Reyn protested immediately, and Shulk let out a chuckle. “Uh, no, no, it’s fine, and you- you know it’s fine. You shit, you know it’s fine, don’t ya?” Shulk only grinned in response, and Reyn just groaned. “Why are you like this.”
“I don’t think I get the ability to make a joke from my father,” he said. He felt a twinge of guilt at making a joke at his father’s expense considering the funeral was today, but he felt like his father deserved it. He hadn’t shown Shulk any respect in his life, so why should Shulk show him any in death?
“I swear, if the council heard you speaking like that they’d scream.” Reyn was smiling as he said it, though. They shared a mutual hatred of the council. “Honestly, they just scream every time you open your mouth about how you’re just a stand-in.”
“But they needed my signature and approval, so it didn’t really work that well,” Shulk said. His father had been so ill in the few weeks before his death that he’d been unable to conduct his usual business as Lord Zanza, so Shulk had taken over. It was very time-consuming, but it was a lot easier that his father or grandfather had ever made it out to be.
“Do you get to do real shit now?” Reyn asked, as if the shit he had been doing for his father wasn’t real. “Like, do you actually get to order them around and stuff?”
“Well, they know I’m not all-powerful, so they’re basically the only ones who know they can depose me. Then again, there’s no one for it to go to, and an argument about succession would just weaken their position and they could all go down. So yes, I do get to order them around, but tradition maintains that the spirit of the sword isn’t a fan of disrespecting advisors and stuff.”
“I bet that’s just made up,” Reyn said, and then he realised the implications and backtracked. “But yeah, you probably don’t want to risk it just in case-”
“In case what happened to my dad happens to me,” Shulk said with a sigh. “I bet they’ll want to get me to marry someone really quickly so I can make an heir just in case it decides to bump me off quickly too.”
Reyn shook his head immediately. “Don’t talk like that. Even if- even if it’s really likely that it’ll happen, please don’t talk like that. For my sake.”
“I know,” Shulk said, moving closer to Reyn so he could put his head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I just- it needed to be said because it could happen and I don’t want to get your hopes up but- I’m sorry. I won’t talk about it again. I sort of don’t want to think about it.”
“Tell me more about your plan for peace,” Reyn said. “You have two weeks to write a fancy speech persuading everyone they should give up the war, so tell me about what you want and maybe we can work something out?”
A good future. Yes, Shulk could tell Reyn all about the good future he could see in the distance. The only problem was he couldn’t see himself in that. He was only thankful that he had no foresight yet. If he really could see the future and he wasn’t there, then he’d really be worried.
Chapter 3: Dreams
Shulk tells Reyn what he wants the future to be.
“I want it to be- no, no, that’s not how to start. When I’m at the head of Bionis I want there to be peace. I want everyone all across the Bionis to be able to go outside at night without being worried about a Mechon catching them unawares in a raid they couldn’t hear the siren for. I want people to be able to let their children play in fields without fear of them being found by a stray Mechon or finding the wreckage of one and hurting themselves on it.
“I guess the way I see it is sunny, though maybe not all the time, and not in Valak Mountain or anything. That’s one thing, I want it to be safe to go to Valak Mountain sometimes. If there’s no threat of Mechon coming up through Sword Valley then we can have rescue teams based there with a little more reliability.
“And this is a really silly one, but... I want Sword Valley to not be a desert anymore. I want it to be full of life, so full of life that people can live there. Homs and Machina, that is, and Nopon and High Entia. Everyone who wants to live there should be able to.
“I want to end compulsory military service. I want to see how happy people are when they realise that their child will be coming home because they don’t have to fight anymore. I can’t wait for the day when it’s no longer normal for people to ask ‘when did you serve and where’. I just- I just want people to be happy, Reyn. Is that a stupid thing to say?”
“No way. It’s a good thing to want people to be happy, it’s just bad because all those people around you think that the only way to happiness is victory over the Mechonis.” Shulk remembered when Reyn was younger, when he sort of thought like that. When he thought that victory was the only way any of them could be happy. He understood why people held those views, because they were just everywhere and everyone believed it.
“I hope I can convince people there’s another way,” he said. “I think they’ll be more open to it when they realise the possibilities of not being at war constantly. Outside of the Mechonis, Homs very rarely fight wars, and everything with Nopon and High Entia is stable at the moment. Everything is okay, and hopefully I can get other people to see that fighting isn’t the answer without saying that, really, we never would have won.”
“You mean we wouldn’t have won?” Reyn said, and Shulk knew him well enough to tell that his tone was sarcastic. “But we have the Monado!”
“Yeah, the Monado, which we don’t use,” Shulk said, pulling a face. It was possible to use it, as far as he knew, but they never did. It was ceremonial at best and a nuisance at worse. According to his grandfather, it couldn’t even cut meat if you tried. Shulk didn’t know why his grandfather had tried to cut meat with the Monado, and he was pretty sure that at the time he asked why, but he couldn’t remember if he’d been given an answer.
“Can the Monado strike you down for blasphemy?” Reyn asked, and Shulk just giggled. “Can it do lightning? That would be cool.”
“It glows,” he said with a shrug. “That’s good enough to get people on their knees and saying they’ll do anything you ask. I’m sure if five hundred people tried hard enough they’d be able to get some lightning to strike me.”
“I hope they won’t try,” Reyn said, looking alarmed. “Maybe they should just get it to strike behind you so everything is lit up and you look even prettier than normal.”
“I don’t think lightning makes people look pretty.”
“You don’t need lightning to look pretty, but maybe it would make you look a tiny bit more intimidating, rather than looking like a wet leaf.” As he said it, Reyn leaned in and kissed his forehead.
“I am deeply offended,” he said, sticking his tongue out and pulling away. “I can use the Monado to strike you down.”
“You just said that no one uses the Monado,” Reyn said. “How would it take to striking someone down?”
“I mean, according to some legends, the Monado is pretty bloodthirsty,” Shulk said. “It hates peace, or something. Or maybe it was a genocide thing, I don’t exactly remember.”
“You should probably remember that before you let it into your head or whatever,” Reyn said, and then he sighed. “Will Monado brain let you declare peace?”
“The Monado doesn’t influence my actions,” Shulk said. “The whole point of it- you know, is for me to be outside of the influence of the passage of time, which it controls. So you’re influenced by the Monado, but not me. And at the moment, everyone is. The Monado is supposedly letting me say these words right now.”
“I don’t think the Monado bothers to control everyone’s thoughts all the time,” Reyn said. “I like to think I have free will.”
“Maybe you do, maybe you don’t,” Shulk said, and then he tapped the side of his nose. “Maybe reflexes come from the Monado. Do you think that sounds right?”
“You and your logic,” Reyn said with a shrug. “Do I have to respond to get cuddles?”
“Yes,” he said, shifting over to sit in Reyn’s lap. “Or you can listen to me talking about my vision of a utopia again.”
“I’d like that,” he said. Maybe he thought that Shulk could do it. Maybe he thought that if Shulk willed it into existence, it would happen. He kind of hoped that would be the case, because he really wanted it to.
“It’s really silly, but you know Mechonis?”
“Yes, Shulk, I know Mechonis.”
“That was rhetorical, Reyn,” he said with a grin. “I want to go to Mechonis. It’s probably stupid, but I really want to go. I want to go to Agniratha and actually meet Machina. I want to see the shrine they’ve made to their god. Actually, I’d like to meet the woman who hosts her in the same way I’ll be hosting Zanza. I want to ask her what life was like before the war and all of that. She remembers it, I think. I can’t remember how old most of them are.”
“Do you think they knew your mum at all?” Reyn asked. Shulk shook his head.
“The war is much older than my mother,” he said. “And she never went to Mechonis. They think we made it almost to the Varuz Chapel when she...yeah. Maybe she was trying to get to Mechonis. Maybe she was trying to get away. But I don’t know why she took me with her.”
“I think it’s worth asking,” Reyn said. “If they knew anything about her, or if they saw either of you back then.”
“I don’t think they have memories like that,” Shulk said. “I don’t remember what happened eleven years ago. Why would they remember it, when their lives are so much longer?”
“Maybe they would,” Reyn said. “You don’t know how their brains are structured. Maybe it was a detail that leapt out to them one day, or maybe they knew her. Remember when we used to theorise that she’d stolen you from the Machina?”
“Machina look nothing like Homs,” Shulk said with a laugh. He used to hate his family so much that he used to pretend that he wasn’t part of it. It was a fun pretend game with Reyn, but they grew out of it. Mostly because it didn’t make any sense.
“Maybe they do, we just haven’t seen them for thousands of years.”
“I mean, a Machina hasn’t set foot in Bionis for over two hundred years at this point,” Shulk said. “So I guess it’s possible. But Machina age slowly and I don’t, I age normally,”
“I don’t know,” Reyn said with another teasing smile. “You still look twelve to me.”
“Excuse you, I shave sometimes,” Shulk said. He shaved when he remembered, but that was very rarely. And no one else ever noticed that he was even growing a beard.
“When was the last time you shaved, then?” Reyn asked.
“Probably halfway through Highso,” Shulk said. And then he realised that it was Easpri and he hadn’t shaved for seven months. Reyn’s smug look was unbearable to behold.
“I shaved last night,” Reyn said proudly.
“That’s because your beard is almost bright orange and it looks really weird,” Shulk said, turning round to kiss Reyn’s nose. Reyn made a faintly annoyed noise.
“It’s auburn,” he protested.
“Sure it is.”
“Just shut up and tell me more about why you want to go to Agniratha,” Reyn said, and Shulk nodded.
“I’m sort of fascinated,” he said. “I know it’s not exactly a place that’s been left unscathed by the war because of all the air raids my father did, but it’s so huge and rises so high from the ground. I’ve heard it extends almost into the heart of the Mechonis, and I just want to experience that.” He skimmed over the air raids. He knew exactly what his father had done to get those Telethia for raiding the cities of Mechonis. It was why his father had wanted him to marry the High Entia princess.
“Also, I’d like to see the factories where they make the Mechon. I understand that it’s really industrial and also super dangerous because Mechon would probably just try to kill me on sight, but I want to see. I’m so curious about the way Mechon work, how they’re put together, how they gain that semi-autonomy and what they…everything about Mechon, honestly.”
“You’re a huge nerd,” Reyn said. “I don’t understand how you can be so enraptured by Mechon when you’ve spent your whole life worrying about how they’re going to kill you. If anyone held any ill will towards you then you’d be utterly done for, and I wouldn’t...I wouldn’t want you to go into that unless I was there to protect you. And also the entire Bionis army.”
“If we have peace, they wouldn’t dare,” Shulk said. “The Machina want peace. The Machina always want peace with Bionis, it’s just that all my forefathers want to fight things. They think they absolutely have to be the best; they want to be the biggest men or whatever.”
“And that’s why you’ll be a good Zanza,” Reyn decided. “You’ll never be the biggest man, you’re way too short, so you don’t try to be. Also you’re gay so you’ll never be weird and macho like all the other Zanzas.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Shulk said, but he liked the idea that he was immune to what he saw as the flaws of his father and possibly his grandfather too. “But the point is that the Machina won’t want to break the peace, and me being alive will probably be a condition of the peace. So I get to see how they make all their cool machines.”
“That’s your real goal, then?” Reyn asked with a smile. “Not the fact that all the people you’re ruling over have a happy life, and longer lives, but more that you get to look at robots.”
“Both,” Shulk said. “I would really like both. But honestly, if we get an improvement on the fear and ignorance of Bionis now, I would be happy. I would take a peace that doesn’t favour us. And I’d definitely sacrifice seeing the Mechon for peace.” Honestly, he would sacrifice himself and his happiness for everyone else’s happiness, but he didn’t want to tell Reyn that, because then Reyn would worry.
“I’d gladly never see a single Mechon ever again,” Reyn said with a laugh. “I’d be happy if you never saw a Mechon again either.”
And then the air raid siren started wailing, and Shulk just wanted to cry. There weren’t meant to be air raids now; the Mechon had broken the temporary truce.
Chapter 4: Interruption
The Mechon siren is going off but things don't seem right.
I did not plan for this to happen. I did not know I would do this. This fic was meant to be something else entirely, but I think I prefer it the way it's going.
“Wait, what’s going on?” Shulk called as three guards immediately burst into the room. He shot up off Reyn’s lap and hoped they hadn’t seen or heard anything. “Why is the siren going?”
“Mechon, sire,” one of them said. “They’re coming up through the arm.”
“I can’t believe they’d- something must be going on here.” Reyn stood up and moved in front of Shulk. The guards had weapons pointed at Reyn and Reyn’s shield was next to the sofa. The siren was still going, but when he looked out of the window no lights had gone on at the shelter entrances. No one was rushing out of their homes.
Shulk was suddenly more afraid of the men in front of him than the Mechon who were undoubtedly still on their titan. “Stand down,” he said, hoping his voice wasn’t shaking. “Earl Bowen is perfectly capable of escorting me to the shelter.” As he spoke, he moved as slowly as he could around the edge of the brown sofa.
“No, sire, you need to come with us as soon as possible or your life will be at risk. Remember the Mechon will be looking for you, or perhaps the Monado, which they’ll presume is on you. You need more than one guard and you need to come with us now.” The guards actually looked nervous, and the one on the left had a uniform that was too small for him. A new guard would never be posted so close to his quarters.
There was something wrong, and he needed a weapon if they were going to get out of this alive. “Well, that solves it,” Shulk said. The guards immediately looked confused. “I will go with Earl Bowen as my escort to where the late Lord Zanza lies.” They looked conflicted, which was the idea. This may just work. “If the Mechon are coming, our first priority should be the Monado. That is the only thing that can truly stop them.” He caught the shake in his voice and just about managed to summon an authoritative tone. “That will be what they are aiming for and we must get it somewhere safe.”
“Sire, that truly is a bad idea, someone else can deal with that-”
“The Monado is the sword of the heavenly Zanza, Lord of all Bionis and its peoples, including you,” Shulk said, hoping he could look even vaguely intimidating in his underobe. “It is our absolute priority and I will not leave that responsibility to anyone else. Now, allow us to pass or Earl Bowen will break through using force.” He threw Reyn’s driver to him and he caught it with a grim look at Shulk as he motioned his head to the door at the back of the room. Reyn wanted him to run. Shulk shook his head. There might be more people surrounding them and he needed to stay with Reyn if they had any hope at surviving.
“Sire, we cannot allow-” Reyn cut him off by bashing the flat of his driver into the man’s nose. The other two were slow to react, sure signs that they were not the senior guards they claimed to be. That gave Shulk time to jump over the back of the sofa and get away from the imminent danger of being shot by an ether rifle. He watched slightly fearfully as Reyn spun round to face the guard on his left and averted his eyes when the point of his blade went right through the man’s shoulder. He cried out, dropping his rifle, and Reyn kicked it over to the back of the sofa.
Shulk had never used an ether rifle before, but this was as good a time as any to learn as Reyn turned to face the final intruder. The man seemed afraid, but he stood with his sword in front of him anyway, darting around all of Reyn’s blows. Shulk narrowed his eyes, steadied the base of the rifle against the sofa, and pulled the trigger just as the man managed to get round behind Reyn and was getting ready to strike.
The man screamed and fell to the ground and Shulk smelt burning and-
“Shulk. It’s okay. Put the rifle down and grab the sword, you’ll find that a little easier,” Reyn had put an arm around his shoulder. When had he moved? “I don’t want to push you, but we need to move. He’ll probably be okay, you just caught his leg.”
Shulk nodded, feeling decidedly numb. He dropped the rifle, not realising how strong his grip on it had been. It was warm. And then he picked up the sword lying at the man’s side, ignoring the burning hole that went clean through his leg. He was glad they weren’t real soldiers, because if they had been they’d probably both be dead right now. “We need to get the Monado,” he said.
“Shulk, we- they’re trying to kill you! We need to get out of here right now. We don’t need the Monado, we just need you. You’re way more important than the stupid sword.”
“No, we do need the Monado,” Shulk said. “We need it because the Monado is what they need to secure power. If they give one of my cousins the Monado then he can take the position of Zanza and then I can never end the war. Because the council will make him continue it. If we take the Monado, then I am still the most powerful person here, even after an assassination attempt. Whoever this came from.” Reyn looked conflicted. “Please. For-for everyone who isn’t me, I need the Monado.”
“Fine,” Reyn said, taking Shulk’s left hand in his. “But please. We’ll need to fortify the position so you can...take up the mantle, I guess. And then we’ll need to run immediately. Where are we going to go?”
“South,” Shulk said, because they couldn’t go north from the head of the Bionis. “I don’t know if Alcamoth will be entirely safe, I presume this is quite large if not well-organised. The Nopon are nice but they won’t be any help. We could go further, down to the colonies, or we could-”
“No,” Reyn said. “I am never letting you go anywhere near Valak Mountain in any form of dangerous circumstance. I know you need the Machina to achieve peace, but we cannot go across the border, especially not with the Monado. It’s not safe.”
“The colonies, then,” Shulk said. “You still have an estate in Colony 9, right? You didn’t sell it?”
“I still have an estate in Colony 9, yes,” Reyn said. “But it’s not very...estate-y. It’s a house barely bigger than this suite.”
“Well, it’s not like we need any more,” Shulk said with a smile. “I think we can do that. It means we can lay low for a little and work out what comes next, after all.”
“Well, let’s go,” Reyn said. He didn’t exactly look happy, but he looked slightly reassured. The wailing of the siren continued, and he glanced around the room.
“Do we need to grab supplies? Clothes?” Shulk asked.
“Armour,” Reyn decided. “I don’t think I have anything that would fit you, though, and I imagine they’ve gone to your room too in case you try to go there.”
“Lighter stuff is much better, so I’ll try and go without,” Shulk said, even though it would probably just make Reyn worry. “You pick up some of your stuff, but not all the really heavy armour. We still need to be able to run.”
“No worries,” Reyn said, heading over to his wardrobe.
He grabbed a couple of pieces of armour and put them on while Shulk sat down on the sofa, trying to ignore the three attempted guards who were still out cold on the floor. He could smell blood now. He pulled up the hem of his robes and readjusted his ankle brace.
“Actually, Reyn, I really need real clothes,” he said. Reyn glanced over and grimaced.
“You need real shoes, too,” he said. “You won’t be able to walk far in the ones you have. I’ll stuff a couple socks in the end of mine and we can just hope for the best. And I think I still have some clothes from when I was about fifteen, those might fit you a tiny bit better and you can roll up the edges if you need.”
“That’d be great,” he said. While the underobe may be very comfy and he was partial to sleeping in it occasionally, it had no use as protection against the weather or otherwise, and it was almost impossible to move with any grace or speed, at least not without intense concentration. And concentration wasn’t his strong suit.
They grabbed clothes and managed to put an outfit together, and Shulk hoped that other people in on the plot weren’t getting impatient. They really needed to hurry and grab the Monado. “Ready to go?” Reyn asked, helping Shulk tie the shoelaces on the huge boots he’d managed to make fit him.
“I think so,” Shulk said, glancing around the room once more. The siren was still going, but there was still no one rushing around or going to the shelters; it really was just here. The room was dark, and it smelled of blood and burning flesh, and- “yeah, I don’t think I want to be here any longer.”
“Me neither,” Reyn said with a sigh. “Well, let’s get going. I have my keys and papers, so we’ll be sorted once we get to Colony 9. We just need to get the Monado and then we need to get out of here.”
“Well, let’s go then,” Shulk said with a frown, and they left the room behind.
It wasn’t difficult to get to the place where his father had been left to rest, actually. The castle was silent at this time of night and no one dared to go near the tomb. But as they approached the entrance, a figure stepped out of the shadows. “Shulk, stop.”
“Alvia, let us go past,” Reyn said. She moved further into the hallway, standing directly in front of the entrance to the tomb. “We need to get to the Monado. Don’t you know what’s going on?”
“The siren is going off in the west wing of the palace,” she said. Her voice was calm as always and her face was just so impassive. It was not the time, and Shulk felt himself getting a tiny bit angry. “But nowhere else. It got me out of bed, and I went down to the shelter, but none of the lights were on and no one was around. And I had a vision of you coming here, so I came too.”
“The council is trying to kill me before I can take the title, I think,” he said. “But I don’t know why.”
“I saw you declaring peace, and I mentioned it over dinner,” she said. Of course she did. Shulk couldn’t even bring himself to be angry; she told people everything she saw, that was just how it was. He should have known that something like this would happen when he made that decision. “I imagine they weren’t very pleased.”
“No shit,” Reyn said, stepping forwards again. “Now move out of the way. We’re leaving, and this is all your fault so you better not try to stop us.”
“I’ll help,” she said. “Shulk could be a while in there. And I don’t imagine you want to do the ceremony. I bet you want to stand out here and guard the door.” Her eyes flashed knowingly, dark blue in the dim light of the stone corridor.
“Fine,” Reyn said. “You can help. But if you do anything to him, I swear I will tear you limb from limb.”
“He kissed you in the vision,” Alvia said. Shulk felt his face flush bright red. Of course she knew all about the two of them. “So yes, I know you’ll tear me apart if I hurt him. But, surprisingly enough, as someone who sees rather more than the standard Homs or High Entia, I know that this isn’t a war that can be won. So I have no wish to stop it being ended. Shulk just happens to be the most direct path to peace.”
“Let’s get on with it then,” Shulk said. He did not want this at all. He didn’t want to leave Reyn alone in the corridor while he performed the ceremony on the day of the funeral, two weeks earlier than intended. He didn’t want to perform the ceremony at all, actually. But in this rather terrifying new situation, it was better to get this out of the way sooner rather than later, and that was a good enough reason for him.
Chapter 5: Succession
Shulk comes into his inheritance.
The tomb was completely silent. His father was there in the grave, he knew; the grave right in the centre. The second largest grave. The largest was reserved for the body of the original Lord Zanza, but Shulk didn’t know if there was even anything inside. The grave looked newer than five of the others in the room.
The Monado was sitting there so innocently on the top of his father’s grave. It was smaller than Reyn’s driver but larger than the sword currently resting at his waist, which he unsheathed and passed to Alvia. “To defend yourself if something happens,” he said. She smiled.
“I can begin, if you wish,” she said. “Every time I start a sentence, take another step closer to the tomb, and when I finish, put your hand on the hilt of the Monado and you probably won’t hear the rest. Tell me when you wake up.”
Having a seer tell him to say when he woke up was rather comforting, but didn’t entirely set him at ease. Shulk shot another glance back to the closed door of the tomb. Reyn was out there. “I’m ready,” he said.
“Oh Lord Zanza, creator of all Bionis and dominator of its peoples.” One step. “We call on you today to bless us with your presence once more, even as you lie beyond the grave.” Another. “Grant us your gift so we may once more hold dominion over life and death.” A third.
“May you help your successor to understand the nature of being.” Again. “Oh Lord Zanza, creator of all Bionis and dominator of its peoples.” He was getting so close to the grave now. “Hear our prayer, and bring us peace.” The end of the final sentence was new, Shulk noticed, but he didn’t have time to think about it before he put his hand on the hilt.
For a moment there was nothing. Just silence. Alvia was silent. He was silent. It was only a fraction of a second and he didn't even have time to react to it before the ground beneath him shifted and he felt himself hit the floor, but sort of distantly. He didn't feel like he was there anymore. He blinked, but his eyes were closed. Within moments, everything went dark.
It was darker than anything he'd ever seen, but as his eyes adjusted (why did they have to adjust? They were closed and he was dead) he could see thousands of tiny lights in the sky, surrounding him. Closer were rocks, but they were floating in the air. It didn't make sense, and he stood there for so long he got worried. Had something gone wrong? Was this death? Was he trapped here forever?
As he started to panic (how was he breathing heavily when he didn't need to breathe anymore?), a figure appeared in front of him. A man in golden and white robes just like the ones his grandfather and his father wore, just like the ones he was going to be fitted with the next day, except now that would never happen. His face was startlingly similar to his own and his hair was almost identical. It was eerie.
"Do you seek the succession of my soul?" He asked. This was Zanza. He was dead and speaking to Zanza. Fuck. Zanza held the Monado in his right hand loosely, almost carelessly. Shulk imagined that if he approved of him, he would give him the sword. If not, Shulk would have to take his chances and lunge for it. He needed to get back.
"I- yes. I do. I apologise for disturbing the sword so soon after the loss of its previous owner, but circumstances demand-"
"I know what has happened," he said. Shulk wished that he was better at reading faces because he had no idea how Zanza felt about what had happened. "The coup was conducted in an attempt to prevent the rightful heir to the Monado from conducting the affairs of Bionis as he wished." That implied approval of Shulk's position, which sounded good.
"I seek the succession of your soul regardless," he said. "With the name of Zanza belonging only to me, they cannot oppose my aims."
"The line is endangered should you remain here," he said. "Travel onwards, like you have planned, regardless of the visions you may see upon taking up the Monado."
"Then you'll gi- permit me to use it, and your power?" This was going a lot better than he thought it would. He didn't exactly want to rush it, but he needed to get back to Reyn so they could leave.
"The power is yours to take and wield as you choose," he said, handing Shulk the Monado. "The only condition is you must appoint a Homs successor before you die. The future is now yours to command."
"But you- you killed my father. I presumed he had displeased you in some way. If the future is mine to command, surely it was his to command also, yet your disapproval brought his end." He needed to know. His grandfather lived over a hundred years after taking up the Monado when he was already sixty. His father lived two and barely hit forty.
"Your father was not the appointed successor of the Monado," Zanza said, and then he disappeared, leaving the Monado to float in the empty space.
That response was more frustrating than anything. He needed to know more. He needed to know what on Bionis was going on, if there was anything he needed to do, everything. It was scary and this was all so unknown. He couldn’t do this.
No. He needed to calm down. He needed to get back to Alvia and Reyn so they could get away, and the only way to do that would be to take the Monado. He took a step forward, unable to stop fear jumping in his throat as he stepped onto nothing, but somehow it still held him. He took another step, and another, until he was close enough to the Monado to take it in his hand.
The moment he touched it, the scene shifted and his vision went slightly blurry. He saw himself at a distance, standing on a balcony wearing Zanza robes. The figure raised his Monado in the air and the whole crowd cheered. The vision shifted, and Reyn was- no. Shulk squeezed his eyes shut but the vision continued. Reyn was standing outside the tomb and there were soldiers surrounding him and one of them-
“I have to get back to Reyn,” he said. It sounded far away, and the vision continued. “No, no, I have to get up, I have to get back to Reyn.” But still nothing happened. With blurry vision, he saw troops marching against the Mechonis, and every one of them was slaughtered. He saw himself standing alone, so alone, and God he looked so empty. He saw a woman at his side, a woman he didn’t recognise, and she was holding a child and he still looked so empty.
“Please, I need to get back to Reyn,” he said, though he knew no one was listening. No one was here, he was dead, but he needed to save Reyn. He could tell that the second vision was the cause of all his suffering-
A final vision he couldn’t even bear to register came then. He didn’t want to think about it. He hadn’t wanted to see that. That was...he needed to move past that. He needed to wake up. He needed to make sure he never reached the point where he would do that. He needed to wake up, he needed to be not dead now or his life would be over for good. He needed to wake up he needed to wake up oh gods why couldn’t he just wake up now-
“Shulk, take it slowly.” It was far away, but that was Alvia’s voice. He could hear her, which meant he was alive again. He needed to get to Reyn now, they needed to save him. “Don’t try to get up yet, your heart has just been stopped for nearly twenty minutes. Give it a moment.”
“But-” he croaked. Alvia shook her head, putting an arm around him and moving him so he could sit up against the side of his father’s coffin. “Reyn is in danger. I saw it. And I saw-”
“I know,” she said, and her voice was calm but her face told a completely different story. Shulk was reminded of who was present right at the end of the final vision. “I know what you saw. I didn’t know that the moment that mattered came so soon. Give me a moment to get you in a stable position and then I’ll go and help him.”
“I have to come,” he protested. “I can-I can save him.” He coughed a few times and was slightly alarmed to see blood on his hand. “Even if I can’t fight, the Monado- they’ll do anything if I show them I hold the Monado.”
Alvia looked at him, looked at the door, and sighed. “You are correct,” she said. “Can you stand?”
His legs felt weak, and as he stood he had to steady himself on the tomb and gods his ankle was killing him, but he could stand. Just. It was going to be difficult to get away once he’d actually saved Reyn, but he would be able to save him. And then...then that vision wouldn’t come true. “I can do it,” he said.
“Try to stand up straight,” she said. “Hold the Monado vertically in front of you so they can see the whole thing, and see if you can make it glow. Speak to them like you’re a god and they’re ants you can crush in an instant, even though you’re wearing Reyn’s clothes and shoes that are three sizes too big.”
“Thanks,” he said, a little too exhausted to invest any sarcasm in his tone. “I’ll give it a shot and blast them with godly lightning if they don’t back down, right?”
“That’s the spirit,” she said, holding her arm out for him to grab if he needed to steady himself. “Let’s go save your boyfriend.”
It was worrying that, the moment they got the tomb door open, the noise started coming back in. He never would have heard that Reyn was in trouble out there if he hadn’t had that vision. Reyn would have died without the vision. “Stop!” He called, hoping his voice wouldn’t shake. “Cease this fighting at once!”
He held the Monado out in front of him, and as he did so the blade extended and lit up blue, a symbol displaying at its base. Honestly, he was slightly awed himself and he only just managed to keep his mouth closed. Reyn kept his shield up, but the four men attacking him immediately backed up a good six paces, looking utterly terrified.
“Leave this place,” he said, trying to lower his voice by an octave. “Mortals should know not to dare to contest Lord Zanza. Attempting to interrupt a sacred ceremony is punishable by death.”
The attackers just turned away and ran. And Reyn was safe. “Shulk!” he called immediately, rushing to his side to prop him up. That had taken pretty much the rest of his energy and he wasn’t sure he could move anymore. “You’re okay, oh thank everything you’re okay.”
“Begone mortal,” Shulk whispered, wrapping his arms around Reyn’s shoulders and pulling him as close as he could. He had been so scared that Reyn would fall here and then the rest of his life would be utterly miserable.
“Shh, you,” he said. Shulk could hear his voice shaking. “Honestly, that was pretty scary, except you looked about half a second from passing out.”
“I was dead two minutes ago,” Shulk groaned. “Cut me a break.”
“Why did you come so quickly?” Reyn asked, his face concerned. Then, without warning, he lifted Shulk off his feet and started making his way down the corridor the assailants had fled down. They needed to get out of the palace grounds.
“He had a vision,” Alvia explained. “Upon taking up the Monado, he saw you fall here, and then he saw what came after that. I don’t...want to think about what came after, and I doubt you want to know what would have become of the world.”
“Well hey, it’s not important now, because you changed the future!” Reyn said, and he actually sounded cheerful. Shulk loved him so much, and he was alive, gods he was alive and warm and holding him close and Shulk was just so happy that he was alive. For the first time, he was glad that the Monado had passed to him. If it hadn’t, Reyn would be dead.
Chapter 6: Escape
Shulk, Reyn, and Alvia plan what they're going to do next.
“What now?” Alvia asked. Shulk wasn’t even entirely sure where they were going at the moment, actually; he was tired and slightly dazed and Reyn was still carrying him as they hurried through the dimly lit palace grounds.
“No vision that’s telling you what we’re going to do, huh?” Reyn asked. For whatever reason, he’d never been too fond of Alvia, and he was always snappy with her. There was silence for a moment, and Reyn sighed. “The first plan is to get out of here. Shulk wants to find a way to end the war but I don’t think we should attempt the Mechonis border yet, so we’re heading south to where I have a house so we can plan better. This was a surprise to us, so this is all we’ve got right now.”
“You’re running away?” she asked. She didn’t seem surprised, but honestly nothing surprised her, and if anything did she never showed it. “I should join you, then.”
“Uh, why?” Reyn asked. Shulk shushed him, and Alvia snorted.
“Because there’s nothing for me here,” she said. “My place is meant to be as an advisor to the person who holds the Monado, and coming with you fulfils that as well as robbing the council of part of their symbols of power.”
Reyn clearly opened his mouth to protest, but Shulk shook his head. “She has a good reason, Reyn,” he said. “And it’s not like I can fight at the moment. It’s safer to travel as three rather than in a pair.”
“Fine,” Reyn said, shifting Shulk a little in his arms. “You are not heavy enough. On the run from assassins or not, I’m making you eat properly.”
“I’ll walk to Agniratha on my own if you’re going to complain about how much I weigh all the time,” he said, leaning up a little to kiss Reyn’s neck. He flushed pink immediately.
“I will drop you,” Reyn threatened, but his voice was just so damn gentle and Shulk knew he never would anyway.
“Are you planning on leaving through the gardens?” Alvia asked. “Because I don’t think I’m under suspicion. I can grab us some money and go out through the front gate. I’m sure I’ll be able to find you.”
“Sure,” Shulk said, at the same time that Reyn said no. Alvia looked at the pair of them, laughed, and turned to head into the palace.
“I’ll find you,” she said. “Don’t wait for me here, just get as far from the city as you can.”
“I guess we’ll see you around,” Shulk said, and Alvia nodded, waving as she went. “I can try and walk on my own for a bit,” he told Reyn.
“Sure,” he said, sounding a little distracted as he put Shulk back on the ground. “Are you okay? Can I- can I kiss you? You were- when I came to you earlier you were cold. Really cold. And I just need to make sure you’re still alive.”
“I promise I’m alive,” he said, standing on his tiptoes to catch Reyn’s lips in a gentle kiss. In response, Reyn cupped a hand under his chin and returned the gesture with a little more force. Shulk smiled and closed his eyes, bringing his right arm to rest on Reyn’s waist.
“We probably need to get moving,” Reyn said once he’d pulled away. Shulk felt slightly breathless. “Can I hug you first, or will your twig body break?” Shulk laughed and flung his arms around Reyn once more. He felt so safe and happy around him, warm and protected and just...in love. The thought of losing him was unbearable.
“I thought you were going to die,” he said.
“I probably was, if you saw it,” Reyn said. Shulk shuddered. In the vision, there had been at least six men. They’d still had time to save him, but he had no idea how close it had been. Perhaps it had only been a couple of minutes. Maybe he still had half an hour. Shulk had no way of knowing, and the only thing that was scarier was the knowledge of what he would have done without Reyn beside him.
“It’s over now,” he said. “I think we should just move on. Move past it, and go to something better.”
“I’m not sure what you’re expecting with my estate,” Reyn said with a laugh, taking Shulk’s right hand in his as they started walking again. His ankle wavered for a moment and it was difficult to get steady, but once he managed to remember the rhythm of walking he was fine. “No one’s been in there since I took two weeks of leave for my parents’ funeral.”
“Maybe there’ll be an arachno infestation when we get there,” he said with a giggle. Reyn absolutely loathed spiders.
“Or perhaps it’ll be full of caterpiles,” Reyn shot back. Shulk made a disgusted face just thinking about it. Eugh. “Seriously, it’s tiny and will be full of dust. It might even be completely trashed, seeing as I haven’t been there for three years.”
“It’s our best shot,” Shulk said, suddenly realising that they didn’t have that much if that was their best shot. “We may as well just aim there. I’m sure the Monado can get us a few nights of shelter as we make our way down before someone calls the guards on us because I’m not wearing enough gold.”
Reyn snorted. “Colony 9 is over two weeks away on foot,” he said. “And we need High Entia support to get down to Makna Forest. From there, our best shot is trying to find a Nopon caravan going to the lower levels of the Bionis. Once we can get past the leg, we’re pretty close.”
“What’s it like down there?” He asked, breathing a sigh of relief as they approached the back exit of the castle. No one there. He didn’t know why they hadn’t guarded it, but he was happy to just accept the convenience and leave. He didn’t think he could stay standing through another confrontation.
“It’s warmer,” Reyn said. “Have you even left the Bionis’ head before? Outside of going to Valak Mountain, I mean.” Shulk shook his head. He’d been to Alcamoth once while his father was conducting some negotiations, but even then he’d stayed in the city and only looked out of the window at the city. “Eryth Sea is kind of cold, but it’s still warmer than here, and the breeze smells of salt.”
“Because of the sea?” he asked. Reyn nodded. “I’ve seen paintings, it’s so bright there.”
“I hope there are shooting stars,” he said. “It’s really beautiful. Makna Forest is pretty too, but it’s so humid. It’s hot and everything is way greener than it is here. Also, the animals are huge. Like really huge.”
“Will we stop at Frontier Village?” Shulk asked. He’d met a few Nopon in his time, of course, but they weren’t exactly common in Upper Bionis and they preferred interacting with lower Homs rather than the ones living in Colony 3 or Zanais. His father used to say that it was because lower Homs were easier to scam; Shulk doubted that, considering he was a lot more gullible than Reyn.
“Definitely,” he said. “It’ll be much easier to get passage with Nopon merchants from there than anywhere else, honestly. Frontier Village merchants are pretty sly. If you don’t ask questions, they won’t ask any of you.” Shulk could see the merit in that. He imagined they wouldn’t want to display the Monado everywhere, that would just tip the council off as to where they were going, and as such they wouldn’t want to share much information about themselves either.
“You’ll probably need to do most of the talking,” he admitted. Though people from Upper Bionis weren’t exactly hated by the people lower down, once they got past Colony 3 they’d probably be more amenable to listening to Reyn. He may not have much practical experience of travel, but he knew for a fact that if someone who was basically a child started asking for things and said person had an Upper Bionis accent, he would just be seen as demanding and pompous.
“Yeah,” Reyn said with a small grin. “Once we get down to Colony 6 you’ll basically be an exotic noble. It’s pretty rare to get someone from so far north going so far south.” There had been a plan for Shulk to go travelling when he turned eighteen, but when his brother died in Lafal all those plans had been shot to pieces. He never got the chance, and now he was here, in this situation. Well, he was getting the opportunity to travel now, at least.
“What’s Colony 9 like?” He asked. Reyn had lived there for a good eight years of his life and he went back pretty frequently until three years ago. It had been his home far more than Zanais had, really. Reyn hated almost everything about Zanais. That said, he was pretty good at navigating it, because Shulk had no idea where they were and Reyn was still leading him down brightly lit streets. “Other than warmer, of course.”
“It’s not nearly as fancy as here,” Reyn said, indicating the palace that was now behind them and the streets of manors set back from the road that surrounded them. Every single one was gleaming white and red stone, and many were lit with tens if not hundreds of ether lights. “Everyone in Colony 9 worked, including my parents, and they were pretty much the richest people in the colony.”
Shulk would argue that plenty of people in Zanais worked, but he knew it would be a lie if he tried to say that. People in the castle worked, and the people in the marketplace worked, but most of the people in Zanais that you saw working were employed from outside of the city. “What kind of things did your parents do? Colony 9 is mostly industrial, right?”
Reyn smiled. “Colony 9 is pretty much separate from the economy up here, if I’m honest,” he said. “The only way you lordly types up here touch their lives is when people get called up to military service. Other than trade with Colony 8 and possibly 7, the economy basically runs on its own. People work in restaurants or run stalls in the market, or they’re in the local defence force, and the defence force is a public body which produces weapons and kills animals, which are traded to make money so they can pay the people who work there.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said with a smile as Reyn turned down another street Shulk had no hope of recognising. “Also, where are we headed right now?”
“My father took trading parties up to Tephra Cave to trade with Colony 8 and my mother was a teacher,” he said. “She was the noble, my father married into it, so she was vaguely educated. Honestly, in the last ten years up here I’ve made more money than my parents would have if they’d both lived to be sixty.”
“Reyn, tell me where we’re goiiiing,” he said, tugging on his hand. Reyn laughed.
“You’re such a noble brat. We’re going to West Gate Three because there are never any guards there at night and the border breaks into forest there. From there, we’ll keep going until we hit the Nopon trading trail and then we’ll get some sleep.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he said. He was utterly exhausted already. “How long will that take?”
“A couple hours, I think,” he said. “Providing we don’t run into anyone, that is.”
“I hope we don’t,” Shulk said, and the only reply he received was a gentle sound of acknowledgement and Reyn squeezing his hand as they walked through the night.
Chapter 7: Travel
Shulk and Reyn make their way towards Alcamoth.
Shulk slept fitfully for the few hours of sleep he could catch when they finally stopped. It was Easpri, but it was still pretty cold outside and what Reyn had given him wasn’t all that thick. He was cold, and uncomfortable, and even though he was absolutely exhausted he couldn’t stop his mind going to Reyn dead on the ground in that vision.
After a few hours, Reyn woke him up and asked if he could get some rest while Shulk watched for any sign of people approaching. At this time of night it would probably be fine, but if they were both sleeping it would be easy for them to get surrounded.
It was quiet out at this time of night, which was slightly nerve-wracking, as every tiny noise made Shulk jump out of his skin and then the resulting noise of him moving made him even more terrified that there was something out there in the dark. Reyn had said not to light a fire or any lamps (not that either of them had thought to bring one) in case someone saw, so his eyes kept tricking him and he kept thinking things were moving out there.
Eventually, the night passed. It was scary, and freezing, but as the hours progressed the sun rose and it got a tiny bit warmer. Shulk had watched the sun rise a few times, but never like this. Never out here where he needed to keep watching his surroundings or keep glancing at Reyn to make sure he was still breathing and didn’t look too cold. Once or twice he had to get up and jump up and down to get his blood moving again, but by the time the sun rose he was still frozen to his bones.
“Reyn,” he whispered, going over to him. He was still sleeping, but he’d said to wake him up once it was light enough to travel safely. “It’s morning.” Gently, he reached down and shook his shoulder. He felt bad when Reyn stirred and then shot up off the ground.
“Is everything okay?” He asked immediately, tensing even though he was still very clearly shaking off sleep. “No one coming or anything? Wait, is it morning already?” Shulk nodded. “Ah, okay. Time to get going then, I guess.”
They set off with no more words shared, hand in hand along the Nopon trading track that was completely devoid of life at this time. Shulk was feeling stiff and tired and just generally shit, but he knew from what Reyn had said that they wouldn’t reach Alcamoth for another few days at least and there weren’t many towns en route. The idea was that they wouldn’t stop anyway, as the more they stopped, the more people would see them and potentially be able to give information to guards.
Travelling was slow going, and Shulk knew it was his fault. Reyn was no stranger to physical activity and he did lots of things that involved hiking or travelling. In the meantime, Shulk just spent his whole time inside, reading books, and not doing the exercises he needed to do to strengthen his ankle. He wished he’d bothered to do that now, because he was struggling to walk at anything close to a normal pace and he knew he was slowing them down. If soldiers were chasing them, they would probably catch up very soon.
“I’m sorry I’m so slow,” he said quietly. He knew what Reyn would say in response, but he knew he had to say it anyway. “If my ankle wasn’t so shot, we’d be so much faster…”
“Don’t say a word,” Reyn said, squeezing Shulk’s hand as he said it. “We’re running away to save you, Shulk. There’s not exactly much point in me speeding up, seeing as you’re the one in danger. And the progress we’re making is fine, really. Just let me know if your ankle is playing up.”
“My ankle is playing up,” Shulk said immediately, and Reyn nudged him gently with his shoulder. “It’s always playing up. Mostly because it’s just not strong enough to walk on.”
“This is why we’re not going to Valak Mountain now,” Reyn said. “We’d definitely need a guide, and you’d need plenty of proper rest. Hell, I’d need proper rest before attempting to cross the border. We also need to lose whoever decided they don’t like you anymore. Seeing as you have the Monado I don’t think they’ll ever just lose interest. But at some point we’ll hopefully be off their radar for long enough that they can’t track where we’re trying to go.”
“I don’t think they’ll stop looking,” Shulk said. “They need me for everything. To have any kind of power, they need me, and they won’t ever be legitimate without the Monado. If they stopped looking, I’d be worried that they’d found some other way to secure their aims.”
“They can’t restart the war without you, right?” Reyn asked. Getting across the border would be impossible if there was combat there.
Shulk shook his head. “Technically, the war is over at the moment; it’s over until I’m officially instated as Lord Zanza, because without Zanza there’s no war. At least, that’s the deal we have with Mechonis, and we’re expected to do the same if the holder of their Monado dies, but she’s been alive longer than the war has been going on.”
“And what if they just continue the war without asking you?” Reyn asked. Shulk frowned, thinking about it for a moment. He could say they’d never never go against tradition, but they’d also just tried to assassinate him - presuming it was the council who’d ordered that, anyway.
“They would be committing political suicide should I ever return and become Lord Zanza,” he said. “If they restarted the war without my permission I could kill all of them by law. As it stands, they probably know that I know nothing about who ordered that attempt on my life, so all of them are safe for now. I suppose they could...I think they’d be hesitant to. They’re not infatuated with the idea of Zanza like some people, but they adhere to the traditions.”
“That’s why they don’t like you, right?” Reyn asked. “You’re not traditional enough.”
“I’m lucky I’m old enough,” he said. He’d turned eighteen only three weeks ago. If his father had died much sooner, he would have been unable to take up the mantle of Lord Zanza at all, at least until he came of age. “But I’m still way too young for their liking. I’m not interested in their political games or their senseless brutality, and they just don’t like that.”
“Also you’re gay,” Reyn said. Shulk stuck his tongue out at him.
“I’m not gay, I’m just taken,” he said. “By a man. In the metaphorical sense. Shoot. I’m tired. That’s what I meant by political games, anyway.” Instead of responding with anything intelligent, Reyn snickered at his joke and winked in an exaggerated manner.
“We can arrange for it to be literal if you like,” Reyn said, winking again. Shulk elbowed him in the ribs, and Reyn clutched his side, pretending to be wounded. “I’m hit! I think this is the end for me. Oh woe, felled by the sharpest elbow from the most beautiful fellow in the land! Now if only a fair prince could bestow a kiss of life upon me…”
“I’m not even a prince, you knob,” he said, pulling his hand up and placing a kiss on each of Reyn’s fingertips.
“A mighty lordling, then,” Reyn corrected, and Shulk just laughed.
“That’s not a real title,” he said. “In fact, my only title would be Heir to the Monado seeing as I’m my father’s direct heir. I’m not even Lord Zanza yet, because that involves a ceremony and a speech and stuff.”
“Shh, you’re so pedantic,” Reyn said. “I think my punctured lung is healing from your magical kiss. You’re lucky. My boyfriend would have exacted brutal vengeance upon you if I had died here.” Reyn...didn’t know how close he was when he said that, but Shulk didn’t want to think about that particular vision ever again.
“Well it’s a good job I was here, then,” he said with a grin. He felt a lot better now. Walking in silence was easier on his lungs, but it wasn’t exactly good for how he felt. “It’s a good job you’re here. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You would sit at home reading a book and you wouldn’t get enough sleep,” Reyn said, blatantly ignoring the implications of Shulk staying at home. “Also you probably wouldn’t eat enough, so it’s a good job I’m here. Also Shulk, I...I know it’s easier to stay motivated if we keep talking, but we...don’t have any water, or any food.”
Shulk nodded. He was getting desperately thirsty, but he hadn’t wanted to mention it to Reyn, considering that they had no water. He didn’t want to complain too much or put any pressure on him. So, for a while, they walked in silence, Shulk trying to disguise his limp as the hours wore on. Once it got to about midday, he was absolutely parched and starving and they hadn’t seen a sign of anyone.
“Wait,” Reyn said quietly, and pulled Shulk to a stop and hurriedly motioned for him to get out of the path. The ground was shaking. “Can you feel that?” Shulk nodded, and then his vision went blurry, cast with a strange light. A figure he couldn’t see properly sat on a Ponio, and they were thundering down the path. In the distance of the scene, there were two figures in the path.
“Someone coming towards us, riding a Ponio,” he mumbled, and Reyn looked at him with a strange look on his face for a moment.
“You saw it?” He asked. His voice was very slightly reverent, which was a tiny bit scary. He didn’t want Reyn, or anyone for that matter, to feel that way about his visions. Reyn treated Alvia with an acute amount of disrespect despite those visions, so it really shouldn’t change anything.
“Yeah,” he said. “They weren’t in a soldier’s uniform, though. They were at the top of the hill over there, I think, because from the perspective of the vision I could see us.”
“I thought you could see the future, not the present,” Reyn said.
“As it stands, we didn’t know they were coming, so we were standing in the road,” Shulk said. “We can change that, though, we just have to decide. Do you think they’ll have a water skin on them?” Reyn thought for a moment and then nodded.
“We could stay where they can see us, but I don’t really want to attract attention. Especially if they’re travelling faster than us,” he said.
“We don’t have to tell them who we are,” he said. “They’re looking for a pair of travellers, maybe three if Alvia has already left, and most of all they’re looking for the Monado. And me. So you could ask for some water.”
“But then you won’t get any,” Reyn said. “I’m not taking water and then leaving you without.”
“I’m going to faint in the middle of the road,” Shulk said, and Reyn just looked at him with wide eyes. “That person is coming from Zanais, so you pretend that we’re coming from Alcamoth. We can leave the Monado here in the undergrowth. We’re going to Zanais for the succession, but we ran out of water en route and we’re both very thirsty. I’m rather sickly and I’ve fainted in the road.”
“How do you even think of this stuff?” Reyn asked. “You didn’t see that in a vision, did you?”
“Nope,” Shulk said with a small smile. “When you’re fussing over your beloved friend, his name is Klaus, and yours is Dromarch. Just in case anyone has put out an order for us by name. And make sure you mention we’re travelling for the succession, seeing as the person might mention something if it’s already known I’m gone.”
“You’re a genius,” Reyn said, so Shulk took his hand again, dropped the Monado to the ground, covered it with dead grass, and started walking back towards Zanais. He could still feel the rider, but they weren’t yet over the crest of the hill. When he spotted the Ponio in the distance, he started leaning heavily on Reyn and exaggerated a limp. He looked up at Reyn and winked.
As the rider started coming down the hill, Shulk let out a cry, stumbled, and slipped to the ground. Playing his part perfectly, Reyn immediately fell down to his knees in the dirt and started shaking his shoulder. “Klaus? Klaus, come on! Please, get up, we need to keep going or we won’t reach Zanais by nightfall. Please, Klaus.”
Exactly as they’d planned, the rider slowed to a stop. Shulk had closed his eyes so he couldn’t see what was going on, but he heard someone get off a Ponio. “What’s going on here?” a man’s voice asked.
“Oh, I- I’m really sorry to bother you sir, but we’re coming from Alcamoth for the succession and we didn’t bring enough water with us. My friend is terribly sickly and he just can’t walk another step.” Reyn’s voice took on an accent of upper Bionis, and Shulk got the feeling his voice was being mimicked.
“Well it’s a good job I brought some water then, Reyn, if you’re giving up already,” the man said. Shulk felt Reyn’s pose stiffen behind him and he very much regretted leaving the Monado in the bushes. He wouldn’t be able to get up without Reyn’s help, and it looked like there was no getting out of this situation.
Chapter 8: Argument
Shulk and Reyn discover who the mystery man is.
“I don’t know any Reyn, sir,” Reyn said, doing really a good job verbally of pretending he was confused when Shulk could feel him reaching for his driver. “My name is Dromarch, sir, and this is my friend Klaus. If you could spare some water, sir, I’m sure we would be able to make it to the city.”
“You can get up off the floor, Shulk,” the man said, and gods, that voice was familiar in some way. Probably a member of the council; a young one. They were utterly screwed. “I do have some water, though. We shouldn’t waste any time here.”
“I think you’ve made a mistake here, sir,” Reyn protested. “My friend’s name is Klaus. He fainted, I’m not sure- Klaus, can you hear me?” Reyn gently shook him, and Shulk took that as his cue to pretend to stir weakly.
“Droma…?” His voice wasn’t as raspy as he would have liked, but it would have to do. He gazed up into Reyn’s very worried eyes. “What’s...going on?”
“You can give this up now,” the figure said, and he chuckled as he said it. Shulk looked up and caught a glance of him for the first time. Gods, he looked familiar too. Shulk squinted at him for a moment.
“Reyn, it’s Alvia,” he said. Reyn looked again and just groaned out loud while Alvia cheered, holding a hand out to Shulk to help him off the ground.
“Alvis now,” she said with a small grin. “I’m undercover. Taking on a new identity. And if you can be a gay Zanza then I can be a male Seer.” Looking again, Shulk could see why Reyn hadn’t recognised Alvis (which was a revelation, but somehow Shulk wasn’t too surprised). He’d (Shulk would stick with that, considering what had just been said) cut most of his hair off and completely changed what he was wearing.
“I’m not gay,” Shulk said with a small smile. “I’m thirsty and bi.”
“Fiine,” Alvis said, handing over a water skin. “You two are so absentminded. No water, no food, no money, no clothes that fit Shulk. Bet you were freezing last night, especially as you clearly didn’t travel through the night.”
“We wanted to be able to see people coming,” Reyn said. “So Shulk could faint in the middle of the road and pawn water off people. Where did you leave the Monado, thirsty bi?” Shulk shrugged and pointed vaguely in the direction of where they came from.
“You left the Monado by the side of the road?” Alvis asked, clearly slightly shocked. “Is that why you were so easy on the driver? Why on earth did you leave Shulk unarmed?”
“Can’t just carry the Monado out in the open,” Reyn said. “I found it! Probably shouldn’t touch it, so get your butt over here Shulk.”
“...you don’t have a sheath,” Alvis said. “Of course not. The Monado never needs one, because generally Lord Zanza doesn’t have to steal the Monado and run away from an assassination plot. Also, get on the Ponio, Shulk. You look like you’re about to keel over.”
“Encouraging,” he said dryly, but he didn’t try to hide his relief at the offer. He was very glad Alvis had brought a horse with him. He took the Monado from the ground before getting on the Ponio, and the three of them set off almost immediately.
This was all immediate, actually. Everything had happened so suddenly. Shulk was used to everything in his life being planned for him. When he was little, he had no control over anything, and everyone just took everything into their own hands. As he got older he gained control over small things, but never the big picture, so to speak. His father organised his life, which was all predetermined anyway, and the only thing no one had foreseen was Nadir’s death. Unless Alvis had seen it and just not mentioned it, but he wasn’t like that.
Unexpected things didn’t happen all that often, but now everything had changed in the space of less than a day and it was all completely different to before. He held the Monado, but he wasn’t Lord Zanza. Everything he’d planned, to make peace in a way that abided by the traditions of his people and his position, had completely fallen through and now he was left with...this. A Ponio, a glowing sword sans the title that came with it, and quite possibly half the nobility of Zanais plotting to kill him.
“So, Alvis, what are they saying? About- this?” He asked. “The disappearance of the Monado, what they tried to do last night. Do you have any idea what they’re going to release to the people?”
“They’re using the main road to Alcamoth to try and find you at the moment,” Alvis said. “They’re expecting you to go there and appeal to the Alcamoth Imperial Family for assistance in securing your succession, as far as I could tell. They’re pretty annoyed they couldn’t catch you last night; apparently they were expecting you to be in your suite and they sent a couple of people to make sure Reyn didn’t come to save you. None of them would say it, but I think they were planning to kill you.”
“They didn’t go in for killing us straight away,” Reyn said. “I think they were surprised. And they were inexperienced. We were pretty lucky that the council don’t know Shulk particularly well, or they would have known he was with me.”
“And they were doing it because I wanted peace?” Shulk asked.
“They didn’t say,” Alvis admitted. “They were probably disguising their words because I was there, if I’m honest. But they said they’d postpone the succession until they found you and they asked me to try and see where you were going. I said it was hidden because you’re outside the passage of fate, which is entirely false but they bought it.”
“So you are capable of lying,” Reyn said. “And there I thought you just said everything that came to mind without thinking about it first.”
“I tend to say what I see when I have a vision,” he said. His voice was very mild, like Alvis always was, but Shulk could tell he was annoyed. Reyn always provoked him. “Seeing as it’s very obvious to any onlookers that I’m having one, and they always ask what it was. If I pause, they will always accuse me of lying. So I just say what I see. Without seeing it themselves and understanding every moment of causation, it is very difficult to change the future.”
“But they did change it, for a while,” Shulk said. “You saw me declaring peace, but I saw myself continuing the war.”
“I saw you continuing the war also,” Alvis said. “Thankfully, they never succeeded in securing the pivotal moment.” He smiled, and then he glanced over at where Reyn was walking. “I have not had a vision since then, other than one telling me you were taking the Nopon track to Alcamoth.”
“I had one telling me that there was someone coming on horseback towards us,” Shulk said. “That’s why I had time to faint in the road.”
“You had me concerned for a moment, I’ll admit,” Alvis said. “I know you left in a hurry, but no water? Alcamoth is miles away.”
“We’re aware,” Reyn said. “But we were a little more worried about the people trying to stab us.” He sounded so tense that Shulk winced. He didn’t want them arguing. They were meant to work together and if they argued that just wasn’t going to happen. If they were at each other’s throats, they’d be in more danger if someone attacked them because they wouldn’t work together.
“Please stop insulting each other,” he said quietly, and of course they both heard him perfectly clearly. He hadn’t really intended for them to hear, it was more to himself, but if it got them to stop then fine.
Instead, they looked at each other and immediately started arguing again. “See? Shulk doesn’t appreciate your snarky interjections either,” Reyn said. “Stop trying to be so clever and start actually helping.”
“I think I’ve already helped,” Alvis said. “I brought a Ponio and food, water, and money. And information. It’s not that you’re unhelpful, of course, you did-”
“Stop right there,” Reyn said. “I’ve protected Shulk for years, and all you did was land us in this mess. Me and Shulk are lucky to be alive right now, and you’re the one who put us in danger in the first place.”
“I was not claiming anything to the contrary,” he said. “I was about to say that we’d both played a part in getting this far and making sure we all get further, before you interrupted me. I do not deny that it was my actions that caused this, because that is undoubtable, but I did not know any better and I have done my best to put it right.”
Reyn just scoffed. “You’ve come out here with a day’s worth of supplies and a single horse when there are three of us, and you’ve cut your hair off and changed a letter in your name. You have a long way to go to put this right.”
“I don’t think you fully understand my position,” Alvis said. “I’m meant to-”
“I know exactly what you’re ‘meant to do’,” Reyn snapped. “I know what the Seer and the Lord are meant to do behind closed doors. Don’t even pretend you don’t know about that. I bet your mother did just that with Shulk’s grandfather.”
“Maybe she did,” Alvis said. “But do not think I’m so shallow I would do the same. I perfectly understand that there is a bond between you and Shulk. I see no reason nor have no inclination to step between you in any way.”
“Except now you’re a man,” Reyn said. Reyn was such an idiot sometimes. Shulk just wanted to scream for them both to stop but he felt completely frozen in place. He couldn’t even move, and he hadn’t realised until now but his breathing was shallow. This was not good. He was panicking on horseback in the middle of nowhere and the two people he was closest to (the only people he was close to) seemed content to argue while it happened.
“Heaven forbid I feel comfortable in myself,” Alvis said. “The only link between this and Shulk is that both of us are abandoning the traditional execution of our posts. That just means I feel more open in leaving what I detest behind.”
“Shulk didn’t abandon anything,” Reyn said. “He didn’t choose to leave. You forced his hand. You forced us to leave, and even though you coulda stayed while Shulk couldn’t, you chose to ‘abandon your post’.”
“I am meant to be with Shulk just as much as you, his protector, is meant to be,” Alvis corrected. “The combined ability of two seers is much more effective than one and I did not wish for my abilities nor my status to be used by the council, particularly when remaining would have made me wretchedly unhappy.”
“I get the feeling that this is more about how you feel than what you actually think is best,” Reyn said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some horrible vision you’ve had about coming with us but you’re hiding it because you don’t like wearing dresses.” Shulk was honestly angry at Reyn right now; his comments were entirely uncalled for and he wasn’t being fair towards Alvis. Alvis was provoking him too, which wasn’t helping. At this point, the only thing he could hope for was that one of them would just stop.
“I hope you’re just getting angry because you dislike me and not because you genuinely believe I would do something like that,” Alvis said. Yeah, he really wasn’t helping matters. “I would never put the goal of peace in jeopardy unless I truly had no choice. I endured that court for nineteen years and Shulk has done much the same. Both of us could have survived longer if we needed to, but the truth is that the better option was to leave.”
“I can’t deal with your self-righteous bullshit right now,” Reyn snapped. “You sound like some noble in a kid’s picture book, teaching all the little children to stay in their place. Give me a water skin.” Wordlessly, Alvis handed Reyn one of the three water skins from his bag. “I’m going ahead to Alcamoth. I’ll find somewhere for us to stay. I can’t deal with your smarmy grin for any longer.”
And then he stormed off without even looking back at them. Shulk just felt numb inside. He couldn’t believe it had just- “I am so sorry, Shulk,” Alvis said. Shulk couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst into tears. It was so unfair. Why couldn’t he have just said something? Why couldn’t he stop them? Why was he so weak that they argued about him while he just sat on a Ponio and watched? “Shh, it’s okay. Should we stop for a bit? I’m sure you could do with some breakfast.” He glanced at the sky. “Lunch.”
Shulk could only nod, and Alvis took the reins of the Ponio and led it off the track. “Her name is Irina,” Alvis said. “She’s mine. I took her out of the city sometimes so I could escape. I couldn’t- you don’t mind that I came, do you?”
“Can we- later?” Shulk asked, and Alvis just nodded as Shulk shakily dismounted, landing awkwardly on his left leg. He winced as pain shot up through his ankle. “Fuck,” he said weakly.
“Language,” Alvis said with a tiny smile, and Shulk stuck his tongue out at him. With every passing second he felt more present again, but then he remembered Reyn. Reyn had stormed off. Reyn was alone with only water to get him the rest of the way to Alcamoth. He glanced back towards the road. “We can get going soon,” Alvis promised. “Reyn will be fine. I know it. And, again, I’m sorry I provoked him.”
“It’s okay,” he managed. “He doesn’t like you, but he’ll have to get over it.” He wanted this to be a team effort. He wanted everyone to get along. He just wanted to get through this, make it out the other side with all his limbs still attached, and gain peace for the people of Bionis. That was the only thing he wanted, and he was going to get it, consequences to his political standing be damned.
Chapter 9: Visions
Alvis and Shulk talk about the future.
Warning for references to sex and potential sexual exploitation in this chapter, as well as veiled references to suicidal thoughts
They sat in the grass together just a short ways back from the path. Irina grazed, and Alvis tied her to a tree just in case she decided she wanted to get moving. From the bag in his lap, Alvis fished out a couple of bread rolls and handed one to Shulk. He smiled and tried to hide how absolutely ravenous he was; he hadn’t eaten for a long time and for once he actually wanted to eat.
“Are you feeling better?” Alvis asked. “I’m sorry again. I should have realised it wasn’t a good idea to argue, but- I had to. I couldn’t stand in silence while Reyn accused me like that.”
“You’re both as bad as each other,” Shulk said with a sigh. “Reyn feels like he has to defend me. He told me once that pretty much the only thing my mother ever said to him was that I needed a friend and a protector, and I think he took that to heart. He was only eight.”
“That’s sort of sweet,” Alvis said. “I think my mother once told me that the world would be my oyster if I fucked your father and brother brainless. She never mentioned anything about you.”
“That is decidedly not sweet,” Shulk said. “She suggested you- with my father? Ew.” And now Shulk was having unwanted images of his prick of a brother saying unmentionable things to one of his best friends. Ew.
“I know,” Alvis said with a groan. “Not to speak ill of the dead, but your grandfather took advantage of my mother in a similar manner.”
“You are definitely speaking ill of the dead,” Shulk said. He didn’t like to think that his grandfather did something like that because he’d always loved his grandfather, but if Alvis said it? It was probably the truth. “But I did the same for my father yesterday and he- yesterday feels quite far away now.” Everything had felt like a blur since his father got ill and Shulk had been left to deal with basically everything with no prior experience. But it was a blur that dragged on slowly, with each individual day stretching on forever and blurring into each other. This was new.
“It does,” Alvis observed. “Until yesterday evening, I never imagined that everything could change so suddenly. I had expected you to do something about the war, but I didn’t ever think you would just…”
“What did the vision show?” He asked. It was silly to wonder what could have been now the future had changed at least twice since then, but he was curious. He wanted to know how he did it.
“You were standing above the people, and I couldn’t hear your words, but the soldiers gathered in front of you all dropped their weapons to the floor. The war has been going on for so long, but I imagine that’s what peace looks like.” Alvis’ voice was so full of happiness that Shulk was almost filled with the longing to go back and end the war just like that right now.
“Was there anything else, or just that?” Shulk asked.
“Only a more personal vision which I would rather not share,” Alvis said. “I’m sure you understand that there are things about possible futures better left unsaid.” Shulk knew exactly what he was referring to there, and he just nodded. “In that vision, I-I was the one who found you. I do not know why I was looking for you, but I only have one thing to say about it now. If ever, in the future, you reach a point like that, tell me. Tell someone.”
“I think those were exceptional circumstances,” he said, knowing that they were not, and even with Reyn at his side, he sometimes felt like that anyway. “But I would. The future is too precious for me to allow anything like that to happen. Especially to myself.”
“Thank you.” Alvis looked truly grateful there. “If you would permit me to say, I-”
“I think we can ditch the formalities at this point,” Shulk said with a smile, finishing off the last piece of his roll. “We can both be plain with each other from now on. I understand- I guess you’re going on quite an important journey at the moment too.”
“That was what I wanted to say,” Alvis said, and his smile widened. “I wanted to thank you for accepting this so readily. I’m sure you know there was an element of fear when I- told you. That the way I have been is in no way the person I want to be for the rest of my life. And I was scared. Gods, I was so scared, but you accepted it so readily and I just wanted to thank you.”
“You’re the same person,” Shulk said, smiling back at him. “Just with more practical clothing and a really bad haircut.”
Alvis pulled a face at him. “How dare you,” he said. “I’m the finest hairdresser in all of Zanais. You only need to look at your own haircut to tell you that.” He stood up, extending a hand to Shulk to help him up. “You can take Irina again if you like, but I’d prefer to take the chance to ride at some point.”
“That’s fine with me,” he said. “Please tell me you brought some scissors, though. I doubt the Monado would be much good at tidying that up for you.”
“Somehow, bringing scissors didn’t really cross my mind,” Alvis said. “I think I can live with a bad haircut for now. It’s going to grow back anyway, especially as it will be a fair few weeks before we reach our destination.”
“We better get going then, if only for the sake of tidying your hair up as soon as possible,” he said, mounting Irina and starting down the path at a slow walk, with Alvis quickly following. “There’d be room for both of us up here,” he noted.
“I don’t think Reyn would appreciate that,” Alvis said. Shulk imagined the reaction the pair of them arriving on horseback would provoke in Reyn, and he decided it would be a very very bad idea. “I feel I should put it out there again that I’m not interested in coming between you.”
“I think it’s Reyn you need to convince of that one,” he said. Alvis only nodded as they continued down the path in a decidedly comfortable silence.
They did encounter another traveller on the path, a pair of Nopon with an Armu between them carrying copious Monado-related merchandise. Alvis gently told them that the latest news from the capital was that the succession was being postponed, but he didn’t know why. Shulk smiled at the lie and asked them if they’d seen any other Homs on the track.
“We saw a big angry Hom-hom,” one of them said. Nopon were adorable and Shulk had to work very hard to keep a straight face as they had a conversation. “He was walking towards bird people city very quickly. We did not stop to chat.”
“Thank you very much,” Alvis said. “Have some gold for your trouble.” He tossed them a couple of tiny coins, and they went away chattering and smiling, though they didn’t thank them for the information.
“Why did you give them money?” Shulk asked once they were travelling again. “We were more helpful to them than they were to us.”
“They wouldn’t have left us alone unless I’d given them that money,” Alvis said with a small frown. “I gave them pittance, that was the smallest amount of change I had. They would have demanded much more if I hadn’t given it first. Nopon are like that.”
“Nopon are dicks,” Shulk said, and Alvis chuckled.
“They’re usually very good at business,” he said. “Too good for us to keep up, sadly. They may seem like idiots, but I’m pretty sure that’s an act. Your father always saw them as more of a threat to the war than the High Entia if they decided they didn’t like the system. The economy would collapse without Nopon, though maybe not those Nopon.”
“I feel sorry for them,” Shulk said, “though I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to sell Monado replicas. Sacrilege or something. Without the succession, they’ve made a dangerous trip for no reason, and I know it’s not cheap to find shelter in Zanais.”
“Once we get to Alcamoth, you’ll see a veritable pilgrimage of people coming to see the succession,” Alvis said. “Do you remember your father’s?”
“It was two years ago,” Shulk said. “I may be spacey, but I’m not that bad.” He remembered very little of the succession celebrations, actually. He’d spent most of them sitting in his room with Reyn trying not to think about all the important people who’d be in the dining hall if he went down there. He didn’t eat well until long after the celebrations were over.
“So you’ll remember that the streets were crowded. It’ll be much worse than it was for your father’s funeral, because unless you’re from Alcamoth or Colony 3 you can’t really afford to spend four weeks in Zanais.” Shulk remembered the mass of people who had been present yesterday afternoon and shuddered. He remembered the number of people in his vision. That was a lot of people. And all of them were coming to his succession with no hope of seeing it.
“I hope they’ll be okay,” Shulk said. He didn’t want people to suffer because of the choice he’d made. He hoped that, in the end, they’d be pleased that he was doing this. He was doing it for them. He was doing it so they didn’t have to go and die in a pointless war.
“You’re the person leading them, so I’m sure they will be. I may not see that in a vision, but I have faith.”
Chapter 10: Arrival
Shulk and Alvis arrive in Alcamoth.
Content warning for a panic attack
The sun was setting by the time they reached Alcamoth. Alvis was on the Ponio by this point, but they were both exhausted; neither of them was used to walking or travelling long distances. “I’m so tired,” Shulk groaned.
“That’s the third time you’ve said that in probably half an hour,” Alvis said with a quiet chuckle. “Have you honestly never been anywhere before?”
“Only in a carriage,” he said. “I’ve been to Alcamoth in a carriage, and when I went back we used one of their ships. And I stayed in the palace, so I know Reyn wouldn’t even call it travelling.”
“That’s not travelling, that’s bringing your teenage son on a diplomatic visit,” Alvis said. “My mother went everywhere with your grandfather and I went everywhere with her, but he never went any further south than Frontier Village, so I’ve been there. Do you remember what the trip was for?”
“It was telethia related,” he said grimly. Alvis didn’t respond for several moments.
“Ah,” he said. “You’ll...I think we need to make a detour to the Imperial Palace. I know it’s dangerous, but- I’m- you know. I don’t think that should be allowed to continue.”
“We need to go anyway,” Shulk said. “We need a craft to get through Eryth Sea and down to Frontier Village. I don’t want to straight up go in saying ‘I have the Monado, stop my family’s telethia programme and give us a ship’, though. I don’t really know how to approach it.”
“I technically serve their family as well,” Alvis said. “I could go in and ask for an audience with the Emperor, or perhaps the Prince, but I didn’t bring my gown so I’m not even sure if they’d believe me.”
“You look pretty different,” Shulk admitted. “I mean, neither me nor Reyn outright recognised you. I thought you were a member of the council because you were familiar but I couldn’t recall a name.”
“We could use Reyn’s title?” Alvis suggested. They were approaching the trading gate now. There was a single High Entia guard on the gate, and he just waved them through without even looking them over. Shulk would think about how he had to fix that because the guards were meant to check that they were actually trading something and they weren’t bringing weapons into the capital, but it suited them pretty well that he was lazy.
“Earl Bowen seeking an audience with the imperial family?” Shulk asked. He imagined Reyn attempting to hold a conversation with the emperor and laughed. “I want to see him in the fancy High Entia outfit.” Alvis laughed too.
“He should bulk out his title a bit,” he suggested. “Earl Reyn Bowen, consort of the Heir to the Monado.”
“Consort?” Shulk scoffed. Consort was putting it a little mildly.
“What did you want me to say?” Alvis’ smile took a slightly wicked note to it. “Keeper of the heart and the buttocks?”
“Stop,” he said, his face flushing bright red. “We’re in public. And we don’t even- just stop. We need to find Reyn.” Alvis only giggled, dismounting from Irina and leading her along the streets. Shulk realised suddenly that it was going to be very difficult to find somewhere she could stay tonight without paying an obscene amount extra. Maybe they’d have to buy her a room for herself.
“Does that mean it’s safe for the three of us to bunk together tonight?” Alvis asked with a wink. Honestly, Shulk would have preferred it if he could share a room with just Reyn, but he was aware they needed to save money as much as possible and Alvis had just challenged him like that so he had to rise to it.
“Of course it is,” Shulk said. “But if there’s only one bed I imagine you’ll have to sleep on the floor.” In all honesty he wouldn’t want to sleep in the same bed as Reyn without Reyn apologising for what he’d said to Alvis earlier. He was still mad about it and it had really upset him.
“Maybe we should put Reyn on the floor,” he suggested with a laugh, and Shulk imagined the fury that would cross Reyn’s face if he was asked to sleep on the floor while Shulk and Alvis shared a bed. Ouch. Alvis would probably get punched.
“Definitely not,” Shulk said. “If anything, we should just all go together. Reyn is warm and it would cancel out the need for heating.”
“Good idea,” Alvis said. “We’ll share, the three of us, in a single bed. Have you ever even slept in a single bed before?”
“I’ve slept on a sofa?” he suggested. That counted, right? It was a large sofa, but he had slept on Reyn’s sofa once when he hadn’t wanted to go back to his room in the middle of the night (it was too close to his brother’s room and his brother had been drunk).
“Good enough,” Alvis said. “This will most definitely be an education for you in how to live not like a literal god.”
“I am a literal god,” Shulk said, perfectly aware that he was in no way a god and was still entirely mortal, just with eyes that glowed occasionally.
“You are not,” he said with a smile. “Let’s stop for a bit. We’ve been walking for a while and I don’t think either of us were paying any attention to where we were going.” Shulk stopped walking, realising Alvis was right. He hadn’t even been taking in the streets, he’d just been talking. Oops.
They were at the edge of a large open space with a fountain in front of them. There was grass all around, and people were absolutely everywhere, walking up and down the paths, running through the grass, sitting on the benches. It was so alive and so entirely unlike Zanais. There were no guards at every corner. The majority of the population was High Entia, not Homs, and there were more Nopon than Homs to the extent that Shulk and Alvis probably stuck out like a sore thumb.
Everything was utterly huge and made of silver metal, but in a different way to Zanais. Everything was just large, rather than spaced out and empty, and while everything was big, the space was filled with so many tiny little details and it was so full of life that Shulk couldn’t hope to process it all. “I can still see the entrance,” he said, squinting at the slightly blurry opening to the city.
“That’s the entrance from Eryth Sea, Shulk,” Alvis said with a smile. “We came from the mountains.” Shulk looked up and saw he was right. They’d moved quite a way from the mountain entrance. “Do we have any idea where Reyn is?”
“Uh...he didn’t say, did he?” The moments of Reyn leaving were a slightly panicked blur for him and he didn’t quite remember what Reyn said he planned to do. All they knew was that he’d still been walking down the track an hour later. Maybe he’d been captured, maybe he was telling people everything that was going on right now. Maybe he was being tortured.
“He said he was going to find somewhere to stay,” Alvis said. “But he only has water, no money, so he can’t exactly book anything.” And now they didn’t know where they were and they didn’t know where Reyn was either. This was great. He was probably never going to see Reyn again and they’d be captured by the guards and Reyn was probably dead by now and-
“Shulk, calm down,” Alvis said. Oh. He was panicking. He was panicking a lot and there were definitely people staring at them now. “Shulk, shh. It’s okay. You’ll be okay. Come on, let’s go find a bench and we can sit down.” Alvis put a hand on his arm very gently and led him to a spot where they could sit. People were still staring and Shulk was very aware that they could get surrounded at any moment and-
“The Monado is still out,” he whispered. “Alvis. We need to hide it. Everyone will know who we are instantly and the guards from Zanais will have already been here.”
“I can’t touch it, Shulk, only you can.” People were staring people were definitely listening to what they were saying right now and there was no way on earth that they were safe, gods, they were going to die here, the council would just kill him or the guards or something because he had the Monado but no succession and-
“Shulk, please.” Alvis sounded stressed and that just made it worse Alvis was angry now too and everything was terrible his stupid panic was probably consigning Alvis back to a life he loathed. “Breathe in now. And breathe out. In, out. Try and slow your breathing as much as you can. Shulk, listen to me. You’re not, I can see you’re not, so just slow your breathing. I’m not asking you to calm down completely, just slow it down or you’ll pass out.”
He couldn’t do it. He could feel Alvis’ hand on his shoulder, he could hear things going on around him, but he wasn’t here. He felt so far away and wrong, everything was spinning slightly, and then just to top it all off his eyesight cut out and a vision came. In the blurry blue quality of all the visions, he could see himself sitting somewhere high up, watching the city. There were four guards at the door to the place he was standing. They parted, and a girl he vaguely remembered came into the room, and Alvis was behind her.
The vision ended, and he looked up. At some point, his breathing had evened. How long had it been? “Are you back?” Alvis asked. The light surrounding them had changed from yellow to orange, which meant the sun had set even more. Shulk was lying on the ground, and Alvis was sitting beside him on the grass.
“Was I- did I pass out?” He mumbled. Alvis nodded. “Ouch.”
“And when you woke up you went straight into a vision. You didn’t even look at me before you were gone.” Alvis looked very worried. “Can you tell me what you saw?”
“I was in a room with guards, somewhere above the city,” he said. “And you entered with someone I remember vaguely, but I don’t remember where I know her from. She’s High Entia.”
“If we were above the city, that implies we’ll be going up to the palace at some point. Do you remember the time of day?”
“Night,” Shulk said immediately. “It was dark outside, but the city was still pretty brightly lit.” There had been stars everywhere above him too. “Did most of the people go away?”
“Some people naturally expressed concern when you passed out,” Alvis said. “But I said it’s because you’re sick and we’re travelling to Frontier Village to consult a Nopon doctor who’s an expert in your illness because you’re getting worse.”
“That is surprisingly elaborate,” he said with a smile. “Are we going to stick to that one?”
“We can try,” Alvis said. “But I don’t think it’d last very long unless you can summon a panic attack on command like that.”
“I don’t think I can, but they happen frequently enough that I’m sure it’d be convincing,” he said. He felt drained, and the idea that he could convince people that he was deathly ill just by having a panic attack regularly was mildly funny. “Why- why have you taken your coat off? It’s freezing.”
“You were shivering and I thought maybe it would be a bad idea if you woke up after passing out and immediately found you had hypothermia,” Alvis said. He still looked incredibly worried. “Are you okay?”
“I’m better,” he said, shakily managing to sit up. Passing out was not fun, apparently. “I didn’t know you were my nanny and my Seer.”
“Well I am now,” he said. “And I’m also cold, so if I could have my coat back that would be great.” Shulk smiled and shrugged the coat off, vaguely wondering how Alvis had managed to wrap it round his shoulders when he’d been lying on the ground.
“Any sign of Reyn?” Shulk asked. Alvis shook his head. “How long was I out, actually?”
“Probably only fifteen minutes,” Alvis said. “It’s just that the sun has set a lot since then. We still have plenty of time to find Reyn and some shelter for the night, but I think if it comes to it we should go up to the palace and declare our presence. I think the imperial family answers to you rather than the council, so we should be okay if we do that.”
“I’m just worried about Reyn,” he admitted. “He could be anywhere by now and he’s so recognisable. I’m worried he’s been caught by guards or something and taken away. And...we know how that ends.”
“It needn’t,” Alvis said firmly. “And I very much doubt that has happened anyway. I think you underestimate Reyn a little; for all his potential problems around the nobility, he has a fairly decent amount of street smarts.”
“I know he does, but I’m still worried,” he said.
“You’re always worried.” Alvis smiled at him slightly fondly as he spoke and hooked an arm around his shoulder to help him up. “Do you think you can stand on your own? I need to lead Irina as well, and she’s getting a little impatient.”
“Where is she going to go tonight?” Shulk asked. He was getting increasingly aware that it was getting darker and colder and there was still no sign of Reyn. “I can walk on my own.”
“I thought we should try the slightly dodgier section of town tonight for a cheap place to stay,” Alvis said. “People don’t want to be asked questions, so I doubt they’ll ask us why we’re here. All we need is a room and a stable. Preferably more than one bed, but I’m sure we can live without.”
Shulk took a few steps before instantly forgetting that his left ankle hated supporting his weight, so he tripped on a crack in the path and fell face first towards a bench. “Ow,” he mumbled. He was pretty sure he had splinters in his nose. “That hurt.”
“Ladies and gentleman, here we have Mr Shulk ‘I can walk on my own’ Bionis.” Alvis stopped walking once more, hooked Irina’s reins round his arm, and held a hand out to Shulk. “Grab onto me if you feel like you’re going to fall again, walking disaster.”
“Shh,” Shulk said, unsteadily managing a few more steps. “Ouch. Ideally, my ankle needs a week of rest.”
“Your ankle also needs to catch up on ten years worth of exercises you never bothered to do to strengthen it,” Alvis said with a smile. “That really has come back to bite you.”
“And there I thought the death of my mother under unusual circumstances on a mountain I was not meant to be on would never affect me for the rest of my life,” Shulk said dryly. “Maybe we shouldn’t try the dodgy stuff. I don’t think I can fight.”
“Straight up to the imperial palace?” Alvis asked. “They’ll probably have a stable. I’m still worried that they’ll be more loyal to the council than to you.”
“The moment I mention the end of the telethia programme they’ll give us anything we want,” Shulk said. He tried not to think about that programme. It was so inhumane that thinking of it just made him...disgusted. “No one wants that thing except the people who want to continue the war.”
“Good point,” Alvis said. “I feel I should say again that I’m incredibly glad you’re nothing like your father. Serving under you if you were anything like him would have been hell.”
“You’re not serving under me,” Shulk said, and he smiled at his next thought. “You’re serving next to me by physically propping me up.”
“It was entirely a metaphor and in no way a literal translation of our current physical positions,” Alvis said, smiling back at him. “Let’s get the path up to the palace and see if they’ll take us. Get ready to flash them.”
“I-what?” Alvis started spluttering with laughter, and it took Shulk a moment. “With the Monado. Right. I am so tired. I think you need to be a tad more literal with me at this time of night, post passing out.”
“Fair,” Alvis said. “Come on, diplomatic engagements await.”
Chapter 11: Alcamoth
Shulk and Alvis enter the imperial palace.
The imperial palace was the only place in Alcamoth Shulk had ever been to, and it was pretty recognisable. Huge, built of silver metal, and towering over everything else in the city. It was absolutely massive and Shulk had only ever been in a few corridors. At the entrance, they were stopped by a pair of heavily armed guards. “Please sirs, declare your purpose before we allow you to enter.”
“I am Alvis Presyth and I come from Zanais with my travelling companion seeking assistance in travelling past Eryth Sea to the lower levels of the Bionis.” Alvis’ voice immediately took on an authoritative tone not unlike the one Shulk had heard him use to address the council.
“What business does a relative of the Imperial Seer have in lower Bionis?” The guard on the right asked. “Your companion must also declare himself.”
“Is that really necessary?” He asked. “We have important business, and as I am sure you are aware, the issue of succession is currently in question. It is imperative that I engage in my business as soon as possible.”
“I understand that,” the guard said, but her face didn’t seem to mirror her sentiment. “But as I am sure you are aware, said issues in the succession have brought soldiers from Zanais to the city, so we must be careful with who we let into the palace.”
“I am Urayas Bowen,” Shulk said. “A member of the Zanaisan council. Myself and Seer Alvis come as representatives from Shulk Bionis himself in regards to a settlement hoping to end the war.”
Both of the guards on the door stood stock still for a moment. These were the first people outside of Reyn and Alvis that the issue of peace had been mentioned to, and Shulk was honestly absolutely terrified about how they would react. “I-” the guard who had previously been so forbidding suddenly had a huge smile on her face. “Come right in, of course! I can organise an audience with his Highness the Prince Kallian for the Seer immediately. I hope you understand, sir, that as you are unknown to the family you will not be able to meet with them, but I assure you that there is no issue with you staying.”
Alvis looked at Shulk and smiled brightly. “I have a horse with me,” he said, indicating Irina, and the female guard nodded to her partner, who reached for the reins.
“We can take care of that. Naturally if you can arrange passage to lower Bionis then she will be able to come with you.” Alvis nodded and handed them over to her, glancing back at Shulk. Shulk was absolutely terrified, but he managed a smile back. He’d just lied his way into the imperial palace.
“Alvis, can I have your bag?” Shulk asked. He needed to hide the Monado as much as possible. They’d been hiding it partially under his clothes for now, but he couldn’t really afford to be alone with groups of people who knew he was lying and was in fact the person the guards had been looking for.
Alvis realised immediately and nodded, handing the bag to Shulk. He shuffled things around, hoping the remaining guard wasn’t looking at him too closely. When he looked up, she was staring at him. She caught his gaze and didn’t look away, instead winking to him and smiling again. He had absolutely no idea what that meant, but for now he was just going to hope it was a good thing.
The inside of the palace was fairly familiar to him in the sense that he vaguely remembered it between the slightly foggy stretches of him sitting in a room reading a book for hours while he was here. There were statues and carvings that dated back thousands of years at this point but he’d always been too shy to ask people what they were. He was still curious. When they reached the steps that he knew led to the transporter to the throne room, the guard passed Alvis on to someone else. Shulk watched him go, feeling anxiety rise in his throat again.
“I’m taking you to Whitewing Palace,” the woman said. “I will send the Seer after you later when...when she has finished her audience with his Highness the Prince Kallian.” Shulk didn’t make the effort to correct her simply because he knew that it would take a lot of explaining and would probably only complicate their situation further.
“Thank you,” he said as she led him along several corridors to a room he recognised from the vision. There were a few guards stationed at the door just as he had expected, but they were hopefully just for protection. If not, he had the Monado and the tiniest amount of energy left.
There was a large table with ten chairs, but Shulk ignored it all and the guards and sat on the ground to watch the city below. It was so beautiful down there, with the final remnants of the day sinking beneath the horizon. The sky was purple and the stars were just becoming visible. The city was dark, but a few people were still moving around. It was peaceful in the way Zanais never could be, because everything about Zanais was so stifling it could never feel at rest.
Inside the bag there were a couple of apples, and Shulk grabbed one. He suddenly remembered that Reyn hadn’t eaten all day and hoped he was still okay. Hopefully he’d found something to eat and somewhere to stay. Hopefully they’d be able to find each other soon.
He closed his eyes, imagining Reyn’s arms wrapping around his shoulders and bringing him close. Reyn was always so warm and gentle and comforting. He could really do with some of that right now. For now, though, he contented himself with staring out of the window and making sure his breathing stayed steady.
Quite a long time passed as he waited, watching the shooting stars outside but also the reflection in the glass to make sure there weren’t any more guards coming in. Alvis was taking a worryingly long time with the prince. Maybe they’d decided to arrest him. Maybe they thought Alvis was a threat. Maybe they were returning Alvis to the capital right now and it was all his fault. He knew he shouldn’t dwell on simple possibilities, but it was hard when he had no idea what was going on.
He was absolutely exhausted by the time the doors quietly opened and his vision came true. The guards parted and Alvis and a girl he recognised but didn’t quite remember entered the room. “Alvis,” he said, standing up and smiling. He’d been so worried he honestly wanted to go and hug him, but they were in front of people and he probably shouldn’t let on that they were close. “Was it okay?”
“We’re having more talks tomorrow,” Alvis said, and there was a pretty large smile on his face too. “Prince Kallian says he is willing to help our cause, but in regards to your proposals we both need to speak openly to the Emperor.” That meant they’d need to tell the truth and reveal who he really was.
“Happily,” Shulk said. He had set out to make a difference to people’s lives, and that was exactly what he was going to do today. He...he wanted to see people who were part of the telethia programme being freed. He wanted that to end. He wanted the war to end, and he wanted people to know that the war was going to end.
“That can wait until the morning,” the girl said. “If the pair of you could follow me, I can take you to your quarters for the night.” Her voice jogged Shulk’s memory and it suddenly dawned on him who she was.
“Oh!” he said. He looked at her again, and the memories were back. With it came a faint sense of dread, even though all of what he was worried about was in the past. “Princess, please beg my pardon, I’m not all that adept in recognising others.” He nodded his head to her in a way he hoped looked respectful.
“Heir Shulk,” she said with a smile, and the guards behind her visibly startled at the sound of his title. Did she not know that he wasn’t stating that openly at the moment? Did she even care? He barely remembered his conversations with the young High Entia woman. “Somehow, I’m not surprised. I don’t recall you being particularly social when we met previously.”
Shulk could feel himself blushing a little from embarrassment. He’d hated coming to Alcamoth. He hated all diplomatic engagements with the High Entia because of the ever-present hostile undercurrent caused by the telethia programme. “I’m not well known for my small talk,” he admitted.
“As long as what Seer Alvis has told us rings true in our talks tomorrow, you won’t need to be any good at small talk,” she said. She was smiling in much the same way that the guard at the entrance to the palace had been earlier. Clearly she knew he intended to bring peace. It was nice to see how pleased the suggestion of peace made people; it reaffirmed his aims when he saw smiles like those.
Princess Melia led them down several corridors before stopping in front of a door marked with the symbol of the Seer. “Seer Alvis mentioned that for the purpose of security you wished to share a suite,” she said. “There are two bedrooms within the Seer’s suite. I bid you both a good night and I hope you rest well.”
“Thank you, Melia,” Alvis said with a smile. “We very much appreciate your kindness, especially because of the pressure the Zanaisan council has put on you in the last couple of days.”
“No worries,” she said, smiling once more and turning back down the corridor to head in the direction of the main hall.
“Well, that was a success,” Alvis said. “I told Kallian about what had happened and what you were aiming to do and he was...excited, really. They’re also searching for Reyn as we speak, so I imagine he’ll be here by tomorrow evening.”
That took a huge load off Shulk’s mind and he smiled. “Honestly, I’m too tired to process how good that is right now,” he said, and Alvis laughed.
“I get the message, sleepy Shulk,” he said. “Let’s get some rest and we can talk about it in the morning.”
Chapter 12: Rest
Shulk wakes up in the Alcamoth palace.
Shulk woke up fairly late the next morning. The sun was already up, and when he dragged himself out of bed (he was regretting not changing into any form of nightclothes; he’d been wearing these for two days straight now and he was starting to feel thoroughly unclean) he could see that Alvis was already doing things in the main part of the suite.
“Good morning,” Alvis said with a smile. “It’s nearly ten already, you must have been really tired to sleep all that time.”
“I was,” he admitted. “Is there anything I can grab to eat?”
"I haven't tried to find anything yet," Alvis admitted. "I didn't want to leave the rooms without you being awake first, seeing as I know my way around the palace and you probably don't."
"I recognise small sections of the palace," Shulk said, knowing that did not help his case at all, "but I do admit that I have no idea where I'd find any food or where we are right now."
"These are my rooms," Alvis explained. "I haven't been here too frequently since my mother died because I was the primary Seer to your grandfather and father, but I've spent a lot of time here. Where you slept last night used to be my bedroom."
"Do you think I have dedicated rooms too?" He asked. He didn't exactly want to use them, but he was curious.
"Lord Zanza has dedicated rooms," Alvis said. "Which you stayed in last time you were here, I imagine, but somehow I doubt you remember it."
"I don’t, really," he said. "You know, when my brother was alive my father wanted me to marry Princess Melia?"
"Of course I know that," Alvis said. "My mother was probably the one who suggested a future marriage to the High Entia royalty, seeing as there hadn't been one for several generations. If I recall, it only fell through because the Emperor is undecided over who will succeed his throne."
"By our traditions it would be Kallian, and by the ones of your family it would be Melia," Shulk said. He winced slightly when he realised the implications of what he had said. "But the High Entia will most likely appoint her, won't they? They prefer to appoint as much Homs blood into their bloodline as possible, for obvious reasons."
Alvis shuddered at the thought of it. “Well, Melia is much younger than her brother, so I don’t know. He certainly has more experience and he’s spent a length of time in the public eye, unlike his sister. She’s a lot like you, actually, now I think of it. Her brother was prioritised for a long time as the eldest, and she’s never really travelled.”
“I don’t think she’s ever been to Zanais, actually,” Shulk said with a frown. “I never paid too much attention to what was going on in the diplomacy, at least not in the details, but Kallian was usually the one who visited, or perhaps Lorithia.”
“Your family always preferred Lorithia,” Alvis said. “She’s...in favour of the telethia programme, so they much preferred to engage with her in any discussions. She was more likely to accept new demands or sub par consolation.”
Shulk nodded. He’d never liked Lorithia; mostly because she scared him. She was so intimidating he just thoroughly disliked seeing her anywhere, so whenever she visited he would avoid the dining hall as much as possible. “Will she be at our meetings today?” he asked. He didn’t think he wanted to argue against her. Mostly because she was the kind of person who would let the council know what he was planning.
“I specifically requested that it be between myself, you, and the imperial family only,” he said. “Anything they have to further discuss with their advisors or their own council will be done without us for your safety.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I just...she would tell the council our plans, I know it, and now we’ve come here we need to keep it as low down as possible. I like the idea of spreading rumours about what I’m planning, just not where I’m going.”
“Rumours are a good idea,” Alvis said, clearly thinking. Shulk sat down on the other end of the sofa to him and watched him think for a few moments. “If the council tries anything at all, then you’ll have the general favour of the populace and they’ll probably doubt orders of the council if those are any different.”
“I don’t want to reveal where we’re going too much though,” Shulk said. If they spread rumours everywhere, then the council would have a trail of exactly where they were going and once they passed Colony 5 they’d probably work out that they were going all the way down the Bionis.
“I think the best course of action for now would be to ask the imperial family what they think the way to go is,” Alvis said. “They have a pretty good understanding of politics, probably a better understanding than ours, and we’re asking them to help us in a matter that affects their city extensively, so it’s probably a good idea to align our plans with their vision at least a little.”
“We’ll have to see, yeah,” Shulk said. “Should we go and grab some food? Did you pack any shirts that would fit me a little better than what I have now?”
Alvis glanced at him for a moment and chuckled. “Maybe save getting changed until after you’ve had a bath? I don’t imagine that shirt or your body is particularly pleasant at the moment.”
“Hang on, how are we going to wash our clothes if we’re moving?” Shulk asked. He really hadn’t thought about all the practicalities of this.
“We’ll have to set up camps along the way to get rest and such, we’d wash clothes in the river and then dry them in the sun,” Alvis explained. “We can also wash clothes when we’re in settlements and so on.” Shulk was very glad that he wasn’t alone right now. He would be completely lost on his own and both Alvis and Reyn seemed so capable in comparison.
“I don’t know what I’m doing at all,” he said with a laugh. “Are we going to get food now even though I probably look like shit?”
“Considering that you’re Urayas Bowen and not Shulk Bionis, I think you look fine,” Alvis said, and if that wasn’t a dig at Reyn he didn’t know what it was. “As long as we have time to clean up before the meeting, we’ll be okay, and I think we have until the early afternoon.”
Shulk nodded, and though he felt pretty self conscious about going anywhere in the palace while still looking like he’d walked here from Zanais through mud, he was absolutely starving and he really wanted to eat something. Even if eating something involved looking like a fool in front of important people from Alcamoth.
“Wait, won’t the nobles here recognise me?” He asked. It wasn’t that long ago that he was last here, and while he hadn’t spent much time with people he’d become a lot more important politically in the last few months and people had probably made some effort to remember him.
“They’ll recognise me,” Alvis said, “and I hope my presence will distract them from looking at you too closely. If they- no, you’re right, sorry. They might recognise you and then they could go anywhere and tell anyone if they’re hostile to us. I’ll go to the hall and ask one of the servers if some breakfast could be brought to us. Do you have anything you want?”
“Something warm that isn’t vegetables,” he said, screwing up his nose at the thought of being forced to eat tomatoes at this time in the morning. Ew. Alvis only laughed and left the room, promising he’d be back soon.
Shulk shifted on the sofa. This was strange. He was used to being at home. This was an entirely unfamiliar place and he was in a very unfamiliar setting, but he didn’t feel detached like he expected to. Sometimes when he was at home his mind just wandered and he’d come back to himself hours later with no idea what he had done in the last few hours, which was scary, but nothing like that had happened since he’d left.
Unable to sit still for a moment longer, he stood up from the sofa and went back into the room he’d slept in last night. He couldn’t lie and say he wasn’t curious about what was in here, seeing as Alvis said that this used to be his room. He wasn’t exactly going to look for Alvis’ diary or anything like that, he was just curious about the kinds of things that were kept in here.
Looking around the room, he could see Alvis’ influence and that of his mother's. The walls were smooth metal in keeping with the architecture of the rest of the palace, but the floor had a pale pink carpet and the curtains were pink. When it came to the items in the room, though, it was clear that Alvis had lived here. The bookcase was full of mostly fiction with language books stuffed in occasionally.
Shulk recognised some of these books. Buying books for each other was something they’d both done for as long as either of them could read, and he noticed that all the books he’d bought Alvis were all next to each other on the shelf. He smiled at it and contemplated opening one to see the notes he always wrote in the front, but he decided not to. That stuff was Alvis’ property now and it would be rude to intrude on it.
He moved over to the curtains, which had been closed when they got in last night, and pulled them open to let the light in. He squinted as it streamed in. The windows looked over the inner courtyard of the palace rather than the city, which would normally be a nice sight because of the gardens.
But what Shulk saw instead was not what he wanted to see. In the gardens were rows and rows of Zanaisan soldiers, all standing there. There were tents, too. They’d formed a camp in Alcamoth. They’d formed a camp in Alcamoth’s palace and Alvis didn’t know about it. Had they come last night, after they’d come to the rooms? Had they been here all along? If they were here, did they know he was here? Did they know about Alvis? What if Reyn made it here and they caught him?
The door of the rooms opened. “Shulk!” Alvis called. He poked his head around the doorframe. He was out of breath and he looked terrified. “I know where Reyn is. We need to get out. Now.”
Chapter 13: Message
Shulk and Alvis plan to leave the palace in Alcamoth.
“Where is he?” he asked immediately, going over to where he’d left his bag on the ground. “Is he okay? And do you have any idea what all those people are doing?” He nodded over to the window, which he’d hurriedly stepped away from just in case anyone happened to look up and see him.
Alvis looked over. “Shit, it’s worse than I thought,” he said. “Close those curtains?” Shulk did as he suggested, and turned to watch him pacing. “Gods, this is bad. I had a vision of Reyn in the lower levels of the city and a riot broke out against the Zanaisan forces, but there were only a couple of them. I have no idea when they got here or if the Imperial family have been hiding that from us, but we have to presume they kept it from us overnight.”
Shulk wished he’d opened the curtains last night. He wished they’d been more careful. Then they wouldn’t be in this mess right now. He looked over at the closed curtains again. “We need to go, don’t we?” He said. “I just...I wanted to end the Telethia programme. And we still need their help, but we obviously can’t stay.”
“We need to go,” Alvis agreed. “I’m worried about Irina. I don’t know what they’ll do in an attempt to get us to stay, and I don’t know if going to the stables at this time is safe, especially if the palace guards know that the Zanaisan forces are looking for us.” He glanced at the bookshelf to Shulk’s right.
“Do you think they’ll search this room?” Shulk asked. If they searched the room...it was a long shot, but it was the only thing they had left that might work. “Do you, ah, will we be able to take those with us?”
Alvis looked at them again, sadness on his face. “We shouldn’t,” he said. “Books weigh a lot and we don’t have that kind of space.”
“They’re important,” Shulk insisted. “We should take them if you want to.”
“Yours are almost certainly destroyed,” Alvis said sadly. “Seeing as they probably went through your whole room rather thoroughly while searching for you. They mean a lot, but not nearly as much as achieving our goal. This kind of thing could put us at jeopardy, if we’re weighed down carrying books and can’t travel quickly enough to escape them. Our advantage over them is they have all their armour and equipment.”
“Why don’t we just give them what they’re looking for then?” Shulk asked. Alvis looked at him, clearly confused. “They want to know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what we want. So why not tell them? Then they don’t have to tear the rooms apart looking for clues.”
“That would completely destroy the purpose of running from them now,” Alvis said. “The idea is they have no idea what we really want or where we’re going. If they know, we’re done for, because they can just cut us off.”
“We don’t have to tell them the truth,” Shulk said, moving to the desk in the corner of the room and pulling a pot of ink out of the drawers along with a quill and a sheet of paper. “We can just lie. I’ll write something, you can check it over? Do they know we’re here?”
“I have no idea,” Alvis said. “We have to presume they do, but I do wonder why they haven’t come for us already if they know we’re here. I imagine they’re waiting for Reyn, so we have to move quickly regardless. I don’t know who saw me this morning or who might tell them.”
Shulk nodded and sat at the desk, frowning at the sheet of paper before he began to write. ‘This proclamation is left by Shulk Bionis, True Heir to the Divine Monado, Host to the soul of His Holy Majesty the Lord Zanza and High Seer of His futures. It is an order both to His’ Shulk paused there. It felt strange to capitalise his own name, but that was how things went these days apparently. ‘People in the Holy City Zanais, those inhabiting the Imperial City of Alcamoth, as well as to the general populace of Bionis, under His dominion forevermore.’
Alvis looked over his shoulder. “Suitably pretentious,” he said. “I’m going to pack our stuff and plot a route. You get on with that, it looks like just what we need so far.”
‘The Heir seeks to bring an end to the war that ravages His people with every day it is maintained. He declares a general ceasefire until He is able to engage fruitfully with Her Holy Lady Meyneth of Mechonis. Any continuation of the conflict will be met with severe consequences on His accession to the position of Lord Zanza proper. In accordance with this, the conscription of an army should cease, including all activities in relation to the Telethia Programme.
‘The Telethia Programme performs great injustice upon the High Entia people, and the High Seer provides His personal assurance that such an action will never again be undertaken during His time within His knowledge. He trusts the ceasing of the Telethia Programme directly to the Imperial Family of Alcamoth.
‘As High Seer, Shulk Bionis aims to solve the conflict within His Titan before succeeding the position of His father, the late Lord Zanza. To achieve these ends, He will travel with His advisor the Seer Alvis Presyth and His companion Earl Reyn Bowen of Colony 9 across the Bionis’ Arm and into Mechonis to end the war entirely.
‘This proclamation should be copied and distributed to the peoples of Bionis by the order of Shulk Bionis, True Heir to the Divine Monado, Host to the soul of His Holy Majesty the Lord Zanza and High Seer of His futures.’
Shulk studied his work when he was done. Writing such a lengthy piece neatly and quickly was an absolute chore, but he felt it had come out as he wanted it to. It was formal enough, and it matched the proclamations he’d studied that came from his forefathers. He didn’t have the title of Lord Zanza yet, but he hoped his words would be taken seriously and copied as he ordered nonetheless. He didn’t like spreading lies to all the people of the realm, but it would help their cause. They needed people to know about the peace. Once people knew, it was out of the hands of the council at Zanais.
It would also be out of his hands, in a way, but only in the sense that it would go out to people who didn’t know about it before. They would then be able to make judgements and form their own ideas of their futures for themselves. Time would tell if people supported his decision here, but he had made it now.
“Looks good,” Alvis said. “Are we going to pin it on the door?”
“I thought we could take it out to the public and pin it up somewhere out there,” Shulk said. “Then no one will be able to miss it. If a Zanaisan guard comes here they might just tear it down, but I doubt someone from Alcamoth would do the same.”
“We can try,” Alvis said. “Reyn should be out on the lower level, which we can get to pretty easily providing we can get out of the palace in the first place. I don’t know if they’re going to try and stop us from leaving.”
“Are we able to grab some of your clothes or something?” Shulk asked, looking at the wardrobe doors in the wall next to the desk. “I think that, if anything, that’s the kind of weight we need to take with us.” Alvis followed his gaze and nodded.
“There are a couple of things we can take,” he said. “But we need to get moving.” He took the bag, which was starting to look rather full, and went into the wardrobe, clearly just grabbing the first few things that came into his view that were suitable before he came back out. “And now we really need to go.”
Shulk nodded. He was getting rather worried that someone would try to stop them, but the most important thing at this point was getting to Reyn. If Reyn was in any way hurt...Shulk would never be able to forgive himself, because it was sort of his fault that they got separated in the first place. If only he could have stopped them from being such idiots and arguing so much, they’d never be in this situation.
The corridors were empty when they first left the room, but Shulk did get the impression that it wasn’t a particularly well-frequented area of the palace. As they drew closer to the main hall, there were more people, but there was still no sign of any Zanaisan guards, just a lot of High Entia. More than normal.
“Why are they here?” Shulk wondered aloud, and a guard turned to look at him with surprise.
“You don’t know?” He asked. “Oh, you’re the visitors from last night? You might want to speak to these people then. This is the league against the Telethia Programme and they’re here to protest the presence of the forces from Zanais being here.”
“Perfect,” Alvis said immediately. “Shulk, I’m sure you know what to do here, then. Can you muster an authoritative voice?”
“Do you want me to read the whole thing?” He asked, taking the bag that Alvis offered to him and pulling the Monado out. The guard’s eyes went wide, and he mouthed the word ‘Shulk’ as understanding dawned on his face. “Or just a bit of it?” The other people in the room seemingly hadn’t noticed him, but Shulk bet that it wouldn’t last long.
“Read it until it starts to look like there’s going to be trouble,” Alvis said. “And once that happens, you can hand it to the nearest High Entia and run. I’m going to go ahead and start looking for Reyn. If you can’t find us later, just leave the city and hide on the level under the transporter. I’ll find you.” With that, he took the bag with all their things, turned around, and exited the hall out into the city.
“You’re- I- my Lord, I am so-”
“I’m not the Lord yet,” he said, trying to smile. He was slightly terrified. Slightly meaning almost literally pissing himself. He was so afraid. “Don’t worry about formalities. For now, I’m just the Heir, like I always have been.”
He moved over to the slightly raised section of the hall, past the crowd. People were looking at him. Some of them were staring. The noise in the room started to rise, and when he reached the spot where they could all see him, they went utterly silent as he raised the Monado skywards.
He read the piece of parchment, both his hands shaking. His voice was shaking. He was shaking. He didn’t know how they would react. In an effort to make sure they’d all see him, he hadn’t positioned himself very well in relation to the exit. If they decided they hated the proclamation and they wanted to tear him apart, they probably would, and if the Zanaisan guards came in he was probably done for.
Homs started entering the hall as he was coming to the end of his speech, and by this point his heart was beating so quickly he had no idea what to do. He couldn’t run away when the proclamation wasn’t finished. His voice was shaking so badly as he reached the final phrase that he was sure he physically wouldn’t be able to finish, but his mouth kept going and his voice kept sounding. He was afraid.
But when he was finished, the whole hall was filled with cheers. People went wild, and that swept everything away. Even the Zanaisan forces were smiling, their efforts to reach him almost entirely forgotten. He descended the steps cautiously, knowing his legs were shaking badly, and then he handed the piece of paper to the person who had been speaking to the crowd before. “See it done,” he managed, and then he broke into a run towards the exit of the palace.
Chapter 14: Escape
Shulk reunites with Reyn and they work on escaping upper Bionis.
The volume of the hall raised even more behind him, but he had no idea why. He couldn’t look back to see what was happening or he’d fall over. His ankle was in agony, still stiff from all the walking before. He needed to get down to the lower level, though. That was his goal.
He sprinted (as much as he was able) down the street and then over to a transporter. He didn’t even look back as he was on that, still running. If he went fast enough, he would catch up to Alvis and hopefully Reyn before they left. As he reached the lower level, as a whole crowd of people gathered on the lawns. Bad, because now he would have no hope of seeing where Alvis and Reyn were. There were so many people.
Out of the corner of his eye, standing just underneath the transporter, he could see whole crowds of people descending the two walkways and people swarming above. There were more people now than there had been in the hall. How could people move and gather so quickly? What was going on? He could see both High Entia and Homs in the crowd, but none of them looked like Alvis or Reyn. He couldn’t even make out what people were doing, because it sounded like there was conflict somewhere but he couldn’t see any.
There was the sound of an ether rifle firing, and that was when the screaming started. If he thought people had been rushing and panicking before, it had reached a whole other level now. People were so afraid. This wasn’t fair. He hadn’t wanted this to happen. It sounded like the Zanaisan forces had opened fire on the crowd, and as far as he could tell those High Entia had come to the palace for a peaceful protest with shouting and inconvenience, not to fight anyone. He hadn’t wanted to change things like this. He didn’t want his actions to hurt anyone.
“Shulk!” He heard Reyn call, and Shulk ran blindly in the direction of his voice. There were people swarming everywhere and he knew he had to get away. If people started paying attention to him, the Monado, anything, he could very easily be overrun, either by guards or an angry mob or people who just wanted to talk to him. “Shulk!”
Why couldn’t he find him? Reyn’s voice with its repeated calling was definitely getting closer, but he still couldn’t see him. Finally, he ran directly into someone’s chest, and he felt arms close around him, lift him off the ground, and swing him away from where the bulk of the crowd was. “Reyn?” He asked, looking up. It was Reyn.
“Gods, Shulk, people are going crazy for you here,” Reyn said, with that stupid worried grin on his face that just took his breath away. “Why do you have such rabid fans?”
“They’re shooting at the crowd, Reyn,” he said. “We need to get out.” Over Reyn’s shoulder, he could see Alvis looking worried. “We need to leave as soon as we can and I don’t think we can come back. They probably know what I look like too well now.”
“It’s okay,” Reyn said. “I set out a meeting place with a Nopon caravan I met last night. They smuggle people away from Upper Bionis for a fee.” Shulk almost frowned at the mention of likely very illegal activities, but there was only so much he could do in taking the moral high ground. They needed this. “We just have to avoid the Zanaisans until nightfall.”
“Let’s go then,” Shulk said, letting out a sigh of relief he hadn’t even known he was holding in. “Let’s just go.” He felt awful, leaving people here to this chaos, but they had to get out before Zanaisan forces managed to reach the lower level. If someone caught sight of them, they’d be in even more shit than they were before, and they couldn’t afford that. He just hoped that because of what he’d said here, the news would spread.
As they moved, people were still moving on either side of them. Shulk held Reyn’s left hand in his right as they moved toward the exit, and Alvis was always ahead of them, glancing back occasionally to check they were still there. People seemed to be rushing towards the exit of the city to get away from the people shooting and fighting on the higher levels, which meant two things; one good, one bad.
As everyone was leaving the city, the guards would not be able to distinguish a couple of people from the huge crowds. There was safety in numbers, and even more so in a case when they were attempting to remain anonymous. But the problem was that as there were people leaving the lower level, that meant that the Zanaisan soldiers were able to break into the lower level, which meant they had less time to escape. It was scary.
There was a huge crowd around the warp panel to leave the city, but people were managing to leave fairly steadily. No one was attempting to come back, either, which only meant good things. Shulk felt his breathing ease a little as they were able to escape onto the platform in Eryth Sea. In an attempt to clear the area, some people were jumping off the edges into the sea. “Can you swim?” Reyn asked, and both he and Alvis shook their heads immediately. “Pick a warp, Seer. You know this place better than us.”
“We’ll go towards the Ether Plant,” Alvis said. “That’s this warp here. It’s easier to hide under the platforms there and it has a very low wildlife population, at least in the sense of larger creatures.” Shulk had forgotten that dangerous wildlife was a thing in Eryth Sea. Ah. Staying safe until nightfall was looking less likely by the moment, but for now they just had to get away. At this moment, that was the most important thing.
“That’s a good idea,” Reyn said. “I think we just need a place to stop and hide out. We can work out what to do after that.”
It was significantly quieter as they made their way towards that warp panel. People were heading more towards the ones in front of them, getting to the ones as close to them as possible. They just wanted to get away, and Shulk felt really bad. The lives of these people were being disrupted, and it was all his fault. “I feel bad,” he said. “I didn’t know that ordering peace would cause this kind of chaos.”
“You had no way of knowing,” Reyn said softly. “It’s okay. You’re doing what you think is best, and you’re the one with the power here. And it is the best decision to make, it’s just that people weren’t expecting it and they want it now. This chaos is only because they want it sooner, right?”
“I suppose,” Shulk said. He was just clinging on to the happiness of the crowd and the woman before and just...everyone who had heard he was planning peace wanted it except the members of the Zanaisan council. That said something good about him, he hoped, or at least his aims. “I’m angry they fired on the crowd.”
“I think everyone is,” Alvis said. “I hope no one was hurt. High Entia are...particularly receptive to ether rifles, to say the least, but I only heard one shot. Hopefully it was just a warning to people to get them to disperse. I think they were trying to take on the forces they saw because they were practically occupying the palace.”
“Wait, the Zanaisan army was just camped out in the palace?” Reyn asked. “And you stayed there overnight? Are you both completely mad?”
“We didn’t know,” Shulk admitted, desperately hoping that Reyn wasn’t going to get angry again. He needed him to stay calm. This time, they really needed to stay together, or they might miss their opportunity to get away entirely. “I don’t know if they were there last night. There were tents, but I don’t think the imperial family would have let us stay if they thought we were in danger. At the very least, neither side knew that the other was there last night, or we wouldn’t be here now.”
“That’s exactly my point,” Reyn said, squeezing Shulk’s hand with as much tenderness as he could reasonably manage in a high stress situation. “You could have died last night, and then what could I have done? I’d be- I’d be lost without you, and trapped up here with a bunch of people who had hurt you.”
“They wouldn’t have killed me,” Shulk said firmly. “I know that at least. They would have captured Alvis and I and sent us back to Zanais for me to do my accession and then continue the war, most likely. So we wouldn’t be here, but we wouldn’t be dead either.” That life would have been miserable, but he just wanted to reassure Reyn that, whatever happened, he would be alive when this was all over.
“That’s not particularly reassuring,” Reyn said, but he was smiling now. “Well, you’re here now. You were fine. So we just need to keep going, and at nightfall we’re going to escape this place. They think we’re going to Valak Mountain, but we’re not, we’re going further south, and that works to our advantage. Did any Zanaisan forces hear what you said?”
“Yes,” Shulk said. “They heard me say that we were going across the border now. They’ll likely report as much back to their superiors. At least, I hope they will.”
“See?” Reyn said. “We’re fine now.” He said it even though there was no indication that Shulk was that worried about it. Reyn was the one who was worried, so he was probably just reassuring himself that they would be okay.
It was quite warm over by the Ether Plant, and Shulk was slightly dumbfounded by how beautiful it was. He had never imagined that something industrial could be beautiful, but it was just as elegant as everything else he’d seen in Alcamoth and it was surrounded by Eryth Sea, which was stunning as always. The sea was such a bright, clear blue that even though Shulk couldn’t swim, he sort of wanted to anyway.
“We probably should have gone somewhere by the beach,” Shulk said, looking down. “Then we would have actually had a chance at getting clean.” Reyn looked at him and laughed.
“We can’t wash our clothes in saltwater,” he said. “It’ll make them all stiff and smelly, so I think we can hold out until we reach Makna Forest, where there’s freshwater.”
“Is it hot in Makna Forest?” he asked. By the sound of it, the lower areas of Bionis were much warmer, and he’d never been anywhere warmer than Zanais in the middle of summer, which was lucky to go above the grass freezing at night.
“Warmer than anything you’ve ever experienced, I imagine,” Alvis said, sitting down on the grass. Under the Ether Plant it wasn’t particularly sunny, but they were hidden from sight and would be able to hear if someone was coming, and that was all they needed. “It’s very humid, which is basically a foreign concept here.”
“If there’s water in the air, shouldn’t it be sort of wet and cold?” Shulk asked. Reyn made a thoughtful noise before shrugging. “I guess I don’t know much about the weather.”
“I don’t either,” he said, sitting down heavily next to Alvis and pulling Shulk down too to sit on his lap. Reyn’s body wasn’t quite as warm as normal seeing as they’d just been exposed to the coastal wind, but he was still warmer than the ground. “We don’t need to know the weather to be able to travel there.”
“That makes no sense,” Alvis said with a gentle laugh. “Of course we need to know the conditions, or we could die. We’ll need to take a lot of water to Makna Forest because of the humidity. It’s very deceptive and you’ll sweat and lose all your body fluids before you know it.”
“No one had the chance to fill any bottles up though, right?” Reyn asked, a worried note invading his voice.
“I filled up a couple while Shulk was writing the proclamation,” Alvis said. “We have three full flasks, but I don’t know if that’ll be enough. It depends how far we are from Frontier Village when we land, especially as the wildlife there is less than friendly.”
“Fun,” Reyn said. “Well, we should be able to take them on, right? You both know how to use a sword and Shulk has the flipping Monado.”
“We should be fine, yes,” Alvis said. “For now, though, we wait. What kind of fees were those Nopon talking about and where are we meeting them?”
“A few pieces of gold per person,” Reyn said, sounding a little annoyed. “I told them it was a scam, and they said that if I needed it, I should be glad I wasn’t being asked to pay more. I told them it was a matter of life and death and they offered to charge more for insurance for the trip.”
“Fun,” Shulk said. He was liking Nopon merchants less and less the more he heard about them. They really did take no prisoners when they were looking for money. “I do so love being scammed.”
“I mean, we do need it,” Reyn said. “I don’t think we have any other options now we know that Zanais is occupying the city, and we can’t get a ship from Alcamoth down to the lower parts of the Bionis, so I think we’re stuck unless we use services of dubious legality.”
“It does sound like such a service could be easily abused,” Alvis said, but nothing more was said about how the Nopon running it could abuse their power. “We will just have to trust that we will be okay.”
“I think that’s all we can do,” Reyn said. “Well, at least later. For now, I’m sure there’s some food we can eat?”
“You’re always thinking about your stomach, Reyn,” Shulk said with a laugh, twisting to look up at him. Reyn grinned back in return, reaching for the bag that was lying on the ground between them. “There should still be a couple of things left, I hope.”
The rest of the morning, afternoon, and evening were spent without significant disruption. A couple of High Entia who were also on the island approached them asking if they were okay and if they needed any help when going back to the city, an offer they politely declined. Some Zanaisan guards showed up at one point, but they left after checking the higher levels and didn’t even bother looking below. Those were a few very tense minutes.
As night started to fall, the sky turning a whole variety of blues and purples, they finally decided to make a move towards the meeting place, which was conveniently close to the Ether Plant. There was a small group of Nopon clustered around a ship with a handful of High Entia surrounding it as well.
“Hi guys!” Reyn called, striding over with a very confident, domineering tone and posture. Shulk was rather relieved, because he didn’t want to have to command any kind of presence at this time of night. Despite having done nothing since the late morning, he was absolutely exhausted and his nerves had been ripped to shreds over the course of the day. “I’m here with my friends to enlist the help you offered me this morning.”
“Of course,” a blue Nopon standing at the front of the group said. “Providing you have the money to pay.” Reyn nodded to Alvis, who dug six small gold coins out of his bag and handed them to the Nopon. “That is satisfactory. We’ll be leaving soon, so get in and be ready to go.”
“Where will we be touching down?” Alvis asked.
“Just south of Frontier Village,” the Nopon said. “You will be able to walk there or further north to cross the bridge to Valak Mountain, or you could go south to the breach in the Bionis and make your way down.”
Alvis glanced at Shulk and Reyn. “Do you want to pass up Frontier Village?” He asked. “It might be best if we’re trying to go south quickly.”
“We need to stop at Frontier Village,” Reyn said. “To see if we can get a contract protecting a caravan or something. It’ll be easier to find one there than in Satorl Marsh.”
Shulk just nodded, watching things more than contributing as Alvis and Reyn discussed what they should do before getting into the back of the ship, which was clearly a cargo ship. The seats were very loosely attached to the ground and he could see the marks where crates would normally sit, but there wasn’t much they could do about the safety of it. They’d just have to hope for the best.
It was nice to see them getting on for once. He supposed it was because they weren’t working through anything personal, just sorting out practicalities. He wasn’t much use in this kind of conversation, too, which meant he couldn’t distract them from the matter at hand. “I hope this is safe,” he said quietly.
“It’s safe to the extent that the Nopon are flying it too and they want to live through this so they can use our money,” Reyn said. “I don’t see any way they can escape, so they have pretty good reasoning to fly it well.”
“Fair,” Shulk said, leaning over and resting his head on Reyn’s shoulder. “Do you mind if I sleep? I’m really tired.”
“You can sleep, but I doubt you’ll stay asleep once we get off the ground,” Reyn said with a smile. “Ship travel like this is probably more shaky than anything you’ve experienced before.”
“You know I sleep like a rock,” he said, and Reyn laughed, nodding. “If I fall asleep, we’d have to crash for me to wake up.”
“Well get some rest, sleepy Shulk,” Reyn said. “I’ll wake you up when we land if you’re not awake already, because we’ll have to get going to Frontier Village pretty quickly if we want to get there before dawn.”
“You can get some sleep too Reyn,” Alvis said. “I don’t imagine you slept all that well last night, but I got plenty and I slept more than you the night before as well. We need you alert for navigating Makna, because I’ve never been there without a guide.”
“Me neither,” Reyn admitted. “I usually hire a Nopon to help me with navigation if I need to, so I have no experience in this. But yeah, I’ll get some sleep, and we can put our heads together about where to go when we land.”
“Sleep well then,” Alvis said, and Shulk could hear the smile in his voice.
“G’night,” he replied, closing his eyes and settling further into Reyn’s chest as Reyn put his arms around him. This was much better. He could see a future now, in a non-literal way. They had a goal, they were moving towards it, and it looked like they were finally going to escape the constant pursuit of the past so they could really start aiming to change the future.
Chapter 15: Landing
The ship lands but they encounter a problem.
Shulk woke up as the ship touched down with a lot of rattling. That was concerning, and he could smell smoke, but they were here. They didn’t have to worry about smoke they could just leave behind.
He shifted against Reyn’s chest, watching as Reyn fairly stubbornly just refused to wake up. He shifted one way in his seat and then the other, but still the rattling didn’t wake him up. Shulk shot a grin at Alvis, who responded with a ‘what can you do’ sort of shrug. Reyn poked fun at him earlier for being a heavy sleeper, but now he wouldn’t budge.
“Tickle him,” Alvis said softly, drawing a giggle from one of the High Entia children opposite them. “That’ll wake him up.”
Shulk glanced at Reyn’s sleeping form and smiled before positioning himself for a sustained offensive. He started by digging his fingertips into Reyn’s sides, hoping that would wake him up. Reyn squeaked, and within moments he started flailing everywhere. Shulk grinned, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Alvis doubled over with laughter.
“Good morning,” he said, moving up to brush his fingertips against Reyn’s ribs. “You’ve been captured by enemy forces and they’re torturing you.” Reyn let out an exaggerated groan, trying to push Shulk’s hands away.
“The enemy forces are suspiciously puny,” Reyn said, grabbing hold of Shulk’s wrist. Even when trying to get him off, he was endlessly gentle, always aware that he was a lot stronger than Shulk when he wasn’t even trying. “Almost as if they’re not trying to hurt me.”
“Sure,” Shulk said, moving his free hand down again to tickle Reyn’s sides. “You’ve met the one foe who knows your most intimate weakness.”
“There are children here,” Alvis managed, still practically folded over from laughing so much. “Spare their eyes and leave the handsy stuff until you’re alone. And I mean alone, not when I’m here.” Shulk knew for a fact that he’d never been too overt with Reyn when he was around Alvis, but he could take the teasing. Now they were going to spend a lot of time together with practically no private time, he imagined it would be pretty likely that Alvis would get sick of seeing the pair of them.
“Please have mercy,” Reyn said. “Listen to the guy with the bad haircut, please, and spare me so we can leave this deathtrap.” Shulk laughed and finally retreated, stretching his legs and shifting back over to his own seat.
“You’re both hopeless,” Alvis said, judging that the rattling had finally come to the kind of stop that meant it was safe to stand up. Shulk hoped they weren’t balanced on a cliff edge and Alvis moving would shift all the weight and send them plummeting- he really shouldn’t think about things like that. He stood up and stretched and the ship only creaked once, so they were probably safe.
“Thanks,” Shulk said, following suit and getting up. He was still really sleepy, but he knew Alvis must be feeling worse at this point. “Should we get going? We should probably start moving as soon as possible so we can start going south before...they get here.” Shulk was suddenly aware that the people listening could say something if the Zanaisans turned up, so he tried not to specify what they were running from.
“Give Reyn time to wake up,” Alvis said with a laugh, and Reyn twisted round in his chair and groaned. “I think he’s still dreaming of whatever macho men dream about.”
“We dream about annoying small men waking us up,” Reyn said, and a couple of people in the ship with them laughed. Shulk felt a bit like he was putting on a performance for these people, and it made him uncomfortable.
“Come on Reyn, I want to go,” he said, catching Reyn’s left hand in his own and gently tugging. “Please?” Reyn caught on immediately, so with a heavy sigh he stood up and the three of them moved towards the door to the ship and left.
As they moved away from the ship, Shulk could see smoke pouring out of the front. He was rather worried about the Nopon who would be at the front of the ship, but they needed to move- no. “Can we go and check on the Nopon?” He asked. There was rather a lot of smoke and he couldn’t even see the spot where the pilot should have been.
“They’ll be fine,” Alvis said quickly, but at the same time Reyn nodded and turned around to head back towards the craft. “Ah, you’re both such softies. If they were doing something dangerous and charging for it when it wasn’t safe for them then it’s their fault.”
“What if they’re suffocating in there and we could save them if we act quickly?” Shulk asked. He wasn’t sure what was going on in his head at the moment, his heart was racing and his mind was going round in circles and he felt upset about almost nothing. It wasn’t a very nice feeling and he didn’t want it, but he didn’t feel like there was anything he could do. He had to act on this.
Covering his mouth with his sleeve, he leaned over to the space at the front of the ship and tried to pull the door open. His eyes were burning because of the thick black smoke and he felt faintly dizzy after taking even one shallow breath through his mouth. The door didn’t budge. Reyn let go of him and started tugging at the door as well.
“Shulk!” Alvis called. He was a little ways back, standing apart from the smoke. “Shulk, it’s going to explode! Both of you, get away from it now. If you can’t get them out, don’t-”
“Get the people in the back of the ship as far away as you can,” Shulk called back. “Reyn, can you kick the windows in?”
Reyn looked at him with worry on his face. “I will kick the window in as long as you stand back,” he said. “If this thing is going to blow...don’t sacrifice yourself for a couple of Nopon when your death is completely avoidable. There’s a reason Alvis got that vision.”
“Can’t I help?” Shulk asked, tugging at the door once more before giving up. His throat was absolutely burning but he refused to give up if there was any chance. Even if they were dead right now, he wanted to return their bodies to the Bionis.
“You can help Alvis get the kids away,” Reyn said. Shulk wanted to argue, but from the look on Reyn’s face he knew he wouldn’t convince him. “Go on, please. Please, Shulk. I won’t die, don’t worry.”
“Of course I’m going to worry,” he said, catching hold of Reyn’s hand. He could feel the heat pouring off the engine and he didn’t want to leave Reyn behind. He squeezed it once before pulling away and heading to the back of the ship.
As soon as he turned his back, he heard the glass of the ship shatter. That helped alleviate his worry slightly, but he was so afraid of the danger Reyn was in at the moment. He hurried over to where Alvis was explaining what was going on to people and trying to get them away. A tiny High Entia child was crying, and Shulk was suddenly aware that the child was there without parents.
“Shulk, take her with you,” Alvis said immediately. “The village is north of here, along the path. Don’t wait for us, you should get her to safety. I will follow you. But we need to explain what’s going on to the villagers and start organising things to move on as soon as possible.”
Shulk wanted to say no, but the child couldn’t be more than a toddler. He wondered where the parents were, what she could even be doing here, and thinking about that, he couldn’t leave her. It wouldn’t be fair to deny her this when he could help. “Okay,” he said with a sigh, holding out his arms. Alvis lifted her into them. She was heavy, but he knew he had to go. It was getting very hot and the smoke had reached them over here. “Stay safe. Please.”
Shulk had been walking for what must have been less than three minutes when he heard the explosion. He wanted to stop, but he knew an explosion could cause a forest fire and he needed to get this child to safety, if nothing else. He just desperately hoped that Reyn and Alvis were okay. He didn’t know what he’d do if they weren’t.
Chapter 16: Fire
Shulk continues away from the ship.
It was only as he was walking that he realised he didn’t even have a bag; Reyn had picked it up as they left the ship and presumably still had it. He was unarmed, because the Monado was in the bag. He had no water, no money, no clothes, no food, and no weapon. If Alvis and Reyn didn’t make it...he didn’t even know what would happen. He would have to go out searching for the Monado if they didn’t come soon.
Thinking about it made his eyes prickle. He had to stay strong, had to keep walking, at least for now. There were people all around him, and all of them were probably just as scared as he was. Any plans they had made had probably all just gone out of the window. And he had this child he was suddenly responsible for. He knew why Alvis had given her to him. It was so he wouldn’t go back and look for them.
“Are you okay there?” One of the people walking next to him asked. “We can wait for your friends. It shouldn’t take too long.”
“They m-might not be coming,” he said. Gods, he didn’t want to think about it. He was on the verge of tears already. He didn’t want it to end like this. All because he stupidly insisted they had to help the Nopon. “They won’t be far behind if they’re- if they’re coming, and we should get going in case there’s a fire.”
“You’re a brave young man,” the woman said, and smiled at him. She reminded him of someone, but for a moment he didn’t know who. “What’s your name?”
“Shulk,” he said, immediately cursing himself internally for not lying, but it wasn’t like it mattered. He’d be moving on soon enough, if he could. “It’s- a bit hard to be brave. But there’s not much else I can do.”
“I have a son your age,” she said, resting a hand on his shoulder after a few moments of silence. “He lives in upper Bionis, and I haven’t seen him for many years. I became estranged from the man I married and he took my two children with him, and somehow I feel...it’s too late to go back on that.”
Shulk shook his head immediately. He didn’t know why this woman was telling him this, but he felt like he should be able to help. “I mean, it depends how long you’ve been away, but I’m sure that if he remembers you, he misses you.” He thought instantly of his own mother. He couldn’t remember her face, or her voice, or anything about her, really, but he missed her.
“Thank you,” she said, a thoughtful smile on her face as she looked down at him. “Would you like me to take the baby? Knowing babies, she’s probably heavier than she looks.”
“I’m okay,” he said, “but thank you for offering.” If someone took the little girl away, he would probably run straight back to where the explosion happened, and if there was a fire and they were dead...he probably wouldn’t make it back to Frontier Village. It was better to keep moving.
“Any time,” she said. “My name is Lania. I feel I maybe owe you that after unloading my problems on you.”
“It’s no problem,” he said. He was floundering a little now; he was no good at making meaningless conversation. “I, uh, why did you leave upper Bionis, if you were there and your children are there?”
“I haven’t lived there for close to a decade now, I live in Colony 3,” she explained. “I went to see the succession, but then there was all that chaos in the city and I thought it would be better if I sat this one out. I don’t enjoy political unrest, especially not when it involves Zanaisans firing on unarmed citizens. That felt more like a beginning than an end, and I value my life.”
Shulk laughed slightly uneasily. He hoped she didn’t recognise him from the crowds in Alcamoth. “It’s a shame you had to leave so quickly,” he said. “Then again, it’s sort of cold- oh, you live in Colony 3. It’s probably quite warm in upper Bionis for you, sorry.”
“There’s no need to apologise,” she said. Her voice was sort of gentle, but there was a forceful tone to it that just demanded to be listened to. His mind scrambled for the right word for a moment before he settled on charismatic. “Colony 3 is rather cold. Are you headed that way?”
“No,” he said, and then he paused. “Maybe. I was- I was going to head south. My friend Reyn, the larger one-”
“Your boyfriend?” she asked. Her smile was so knowing Shulk almost wanted to sink through the ground.
“Y-yes, my boyfriend,” he said. “He has a house in Colony 9. We were going to stay there for a while. We were involved politically in Zanais, but obviously that’s fallen apart a little so we left. But if he’s not around- I have somewhere else I need to go.”
It was too much. He had been trying not to think about it, but talking about it- he kept thinking about the vision that showed Reyn dead on the ground. He screwed his eyes shut, unable to move. His legs locked in place and it took everything he had not to drop the baby in his arms.
Lania didn’t say anything for a moment and didn’t move, but then she held out her arms to take the little girl from him. Shulk’s hands flew to his ears, blocking out something - he didn’t know what. Everything hurt and he felt like nothing would ever be okay again. He wanted Reyn to be back with him. He wanted Alvis to be here. Honestly, he just wanted to be back at home. He wanted everything to be normal. He wanted to go back to how it was, even if that life was miserable in every way. He didn't want to be in danger anymore. He couldn't cope with it ever again.
"You said yourself that we need to move on," Lania said. Her voice was quiet, sort of soft like Alvis' sometimes was, but he didn't want to listen. He knew he had to move, logically, but he didn't want to and honestly he couldn't. He couldn't move when Alvis and Reyn could be...in a very bad situation. "It's not too much longer to the village. You can wait for them there, and it will be safe up there."
Shulk knew that it wouldn't be any safer in a wooden structure in a forest than in the forest itself if there was a forest fire caused by all of this. Either way, they'd all die. He may as well wait for Reyn and Alvis. His chest was heaving, partly from the smoke but mostly because he was sobbing and he couldn't stop. He could hear the little girl too, crying her heart out, but somehow it couldn't touch him. Not here.
His vision was blurred, but he could see flames lighting up on the edges of his sight. It was mostly smoke, though, and in the smoke there were figures moving. There were figures moving in the smoke from where they'd just come from! That could only mean one thing.
Even though he knew Alvis and Reyn would kill him for it, he ran towards the movement in the thick smoke. He had to see and he had to help. "Reyn!" He called, immediately breaking into coughing. In response, he heard a slightly weak call. Someone was alive and had responded to Reyn's name. “Reyn!”
“Shulk.” His voice was weak and raspy, but he was alive and replying and that was all that mattered to him right now. A few moments later, he saw the figure begin to emerge from the smoke. There was Reyn, and in his arms there was Alvis and a few other lumps lying on top of him. “I think we need to move,” Reyn said, and Shulk nodded. “Can you take a couple of Nopon? They’re heavier than they look but you should be able to-”
Reyn broke into coughing, huge horrible coughs wracking his body. Shulk moved forwards immediately, leaning in and taking a couple of the Nopon from Reyn’s arms. There were four of them, all covered in soot. “Are you okay?” he asked. Reyn didn’t look or sound okay, but it was worth asking.
“Think I got burned a bit,” he said. “And there was a lot of smoke. Is. Alvis fainted a bit after the explosion, I think it was because of the heat and because he hadn’t slept.” Shulk glanced at Alvis, who was also covered in soot because of the smoke. His eyes were closed and his face was definitely flushed. “We need to move and get them all somewhere cool.”
Shulk nodded and they started walking, following the figures who were now a fair distance down the path. Lania had continued too, probably to get the little girl to safety as soon as possible. He could still hear her crying as they walked through the surprisingly quiet forest. He’d imagined that Makna would be louder than this, full of the sounds of bird calls and insects, but it wasn’t. All he could hear was the sound of his own footsteps, the wind in the trees, and crackling behind them.
“Is the fire bad?” He asked. Reyn didn’t say anything, only nodding in response. “Is it going to spread, do you think?” Reyn nodded again. “Is there any way you can go faster, I know you’re injured and carrying heavy things, but please. I don’t want to get caught up in the fire if we can help it.”
Reyn nodded, managing to pick up his speed a little. He looked exhausted and absolutely awful and he just...Shulk felt so bad. This was all his fault, because he was an idiot and for some reason he had decided that they had to save those Nopon, putting Reyn and Alvis at risk while he just walked away unscathed. It wasn’t fair on either of them, even though he was relieved that the Nopon were still alive. They were warm and breathing in his arms.
It was a fairly slow trek, but eventually the village came into view. It was getting even warmer in the forest and he was getting very worried that the fire was going to catch up to them, but thankfully it never did. Shulk’s arms and legs ached but he knew that Reyn would be feeling all of that and worse, so he just kept going. He had to keep going.
Climbing the walkway to the village was the hardest part, but he knew that they were coming to the end of it all now and soon they’d be able to sit down. When they reached the top of the steps, Reyn heaved a huge groan and, after setting Alvis down, practically collapsed to the ground. Shulk did the same, and when he turned round he could see the whole of the area behind them was covered in thick black smoke. This was serious, and somehow Shulk felt it was all his fault.
“Are you okay?” Shulk asked, shifting closer to Reyn. His body was warm, as always, but for once Shulk didn’t find that comforting. Reyn looked so pained.
Reyn nodded, but he really didn’t look okay. “You look so worried,” he said with a faint chuckle. “Stop worrying. We’re alive. We’re all going to live through this, and we’ll all be fine. Your insistence saved four lives. Be proud of that, okay?”
“We should move inside and find you a doctor,” Shulk said. “And somewhere you can put water on those burns you said you have.”
“There’s a river below the main entrance,” Reyn said, heaving himself up with a wince and collecting Alvis in his arms once more. Shulk did the same with the Nopon, glancing back at the forest once more and feeling intense guilt prickling in his throat. He wished none of this had ever happened, honestly. Then none of these other people would ever have been caused so much suffering.
Chapter 17: Plans
Shulk, Reyn, and Alvis have a chance to rest for a short while in Frontier Village.
Reyn wouldn’t let Shulk see how badly he was burned, which was worrying, because that meant it was bad and he didn’t want Shulk to blame himself for the injury he’d caused. He made him leave and sit with Alvis while he got them checked.
Alvis woke up pretty quickly once they managed to get into a cooler space, but he was still pretty exhausted and didn’t quite seem to understand what was going on. It was strange to see that in Alvis, who was usually so collected and on top of everything. Honestly, it was slightly unnerving.
“How are you feeling?” He asked, sitting down next to him. There were a fair few people down here, including almost everyone who had come from the ship’s wreckage. A few of them were taking up their grievances with the Nopon, who had recently woken up and realised what had happened. People were, understandably, rather upset.
Alvis made a sort of noncommittal noise before replying. “I feel really weird,” he said. “Mostly dizzy. I think it was a mistake to not sleep. I feel really out of it.”
“Yeah, you fainted,” Shulk said, as if Alvis didn’t already know that. Shulk had already told him. “It was from the heat and not sleeping, probably. I think Reyn got pretty badly burnt, he doesn’t want me to be there while it gets checked out.”
“Try not to worry about it,” Alvis said. “You did the right thing there, and we all came out of it alive. A burn and being held up for a few days to rest is definitely worth it to save lives. Even if those Nopon aren’t particularly grateful at the moment.”
Shulk looked over at them and smiled. They looked a bit harassed. It was right that people were complaining, of course, but he still felt a little bad. He supposed they were lucky to be alive right now, which was of course why people were complaining, because if Alvis hadn’t had that vision telling him that it was going to explode soon, people might not have managed to get away in time.
“What did you see in that vision?” He asked. It had all happened so quickly that he hadn’t really understood what was going on.
“I don’t remember,” Alvis admitted. “I don’t remember anything after we landed, basically. From what you told me, I know roughly what happened, but I don’t know the details and it’s all just...a blank spot.”
“I know the feeling,” he said. Now he thought about it, he’d definitely blanked out at some point between picking up the Nopon and getting to sit down here, because when he tried to think back he couldn’t work out how he’d come to be down here. “It doesn’t matter too much, it just all happened so quickly and I sort of wanted to know what was going on.”
“Whatever I saw will just have to remain a mystery, I suppose,” Alvis said. He sounded a lot more like himself when he said that, and Shulk smiled, slightly relieved. This was all so surreal and he honestly still had very little idea what to do. “How are you feeling?”
“Guilty,” he said. There was no point pretending he didn’t. “There’s a fire raging outside that all the people of the village are rushing around trying to put out. And I know it’s not my fault, but it was Reyn who asked them if they could fly. And you’re injured and Reyn is injured and it’s all my fault because I insisted we stay behind to help those people, yet I’m the only one of us who’s fine.”
“Don’t feel guilty,” Alvis said. Shulk didn’t know how Alvis could say that when he was lying there hurt and Reyn was getting burns checked out. “You wanted to save those Nopon. We may both be deeply committed to you, but you don’t control us. Both myself and Reyn chose to put ourselves in danger of our own free will. You know that, because I’m not even in the flow of fate.”
“I suppose,” he said. He was still worried about Reyn and he felt bad about it. He didn’t think anyone could change that just by saying it was okay. “You probably need to get some more rest. You should at least get some sleep.”
“You should get sleep too,” Alvis said. “You barely snatched more than a couple of hours and this has all been very stressful, I know. So please, you get some sleep too. I think we’ll be safe here, you don’t have to watch us or anything.”
Shulk sighed. He was exhausted, yes, and he really wanted to sleep, but he didn’t feel safe here. He was in a completely unfamiliar place and he didn’t really know anyone. If there was something like before with the Zanaisans, they couldn’t afford to be taken by surprise here. “Where do you think the council think we are now?” He asked.
“Shulk, we’re safe,” he said. “They know that we left the city, most likely, but they didn’t see us during the day. We’re off their radar, they’ve lost track of where we are, but they’d presume that we’re still somewhere in upper Bionis because they probably didn’t know about the illegal shipping going on.”
“But once they realise we’re not there, won’t they come down here?” He asked.
“They won’t realise until at least the evening,” Alvis promised. “And even then, they’re not going to look here, I wouldn’t think. They’d imagine that we managed to get straight to Colony 3. And if they do come here, we can hide. We can prepare for that once we’ve all managed to get some rest.”
“You’re probably right,” Shulk said, trying to lean back on the wall behind him to get a little more comfortable. He found it quite easy to close his eyes and fall asleep, much easier than he’d expected it to be. He hadn’t quite realised how exhausted he’d really been until now.
When he woke up, he felt a lot better. It was quieter than earlier, and all he could hear was the sound of running water and people talking quietly. When he opened his eyes, he could see Reyn and Alvis both sat by the water, talking, though he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. They were talking without arguing, it seemed, which was great.
He stretched, regretting sleeping in such an unusual position, and stood up before making his way to the edge of the stream to join the two of them. They both had their shoes off and their feet in the water, and he followed suit, not realising until then how sore his feet were.
“Shulk, don’t do that without taking the ankle brace off, it’ll get wet and then constrict again if you try and put it on,” Alvis said. “Also, good morning.”
Shulk shot a mock grimace at him and pulled the brace off. He was right, of course, but it was such a hassle to adjust all the time that he tended to just leave it on, regardless of how bad that was meant to be for his ankle. “Good morning to you too, did you sleep well?”
“Not as well as you, evidently,” Alvis said with a smile. “But I think I got some form of rest when I was out earlier. I feel a lot more coherent now I got some more sleep, though.”
“I think I’m gonna sleep now,” Reyn said. “Now we don’t have to worry about getting ambushed while you all take a nap.” He stuck his tongue out at Shulk and moved away from the water up the bank a little. “Argh, my feet are cold now.”
“Maybe Shulk will warm them up,” Alvis said, pulling probably the most suggestive face Shulk had ever seen him pull. Shulk only scowled at him, reaching into the water and splashing Alvis. He squeaked, and both Shulk and Reyn burst into laughter. He looked so betrayed.
“I absolutely will not,” he said. “I’m not touching Reyn’s feet unless I have to.” That was just a strange thing to say. Why did Alvis even suggest that (he knew that it was to tease, but he was still in a faint sense of disbelief).
“I’m offended,” Reyn said, still laughing at the look on Alvis’ face. “I’m also going to sleep now.” He leaned over and put his arms around Shulk briefly before pulling away and moving up to where Shulk rested before.
“Goodnight,” Shulk said, and it was clear that within moments Reyn’s breathing evened out and he was asleep. He must have been absolutely exhausted by everything that had happened if he could now sleep through the pain he was probably going through. “Is he okay?”
“I think so,” Alvis said. “The burns are pretty bad on his back, but we got to them quickly enough that even the scarring should be minimal. We’ll only need a couple of days to rest before it should be safe to get going again. Nopon medicine is very good.”
“That’s a relief,” he said. Gods, he’d been so worried that he’d messed everything up with that stunt. “Were you talking about anything in particular?”
“Mostly he wanted to apologise for being rude to me,” he said. “I said he probably had to talk to you because he upset you too, but he didn’t really want to talk about it. He also wanted to talk about what we were going to do next.”
“So what is the plan?” Shulk asked. “Is it still our aim to cut through Makna Forest and head on to Satorl Marsh for now?”
“Yeah,” Alvis said. “Reyn suggested we find a caravan that needs protection for the route down the Bionis so we can offer our services. Honestly, we’ll probably offer to do it for free as we need guides to get through the forest and the marsh especially. Hopefully we can find someone going down at least to Gaur Plains.”
“Sounds good,” Shulk said, staring into the water. “I hope we can find someone soon. We probably don’t want to be in one place for too long, and we’re still unnervingly close to Zanais here. The further we go, the more likely they are to just give up, right?”
“I doubt they’ll ever give up looking for you,” Alvis admitted. “But it’s likely that once we’re off their radar for long enough, they’ll presume you’ve made it to Mechonis and I doubt they’ll be willing to risk disobeying your proclamation.”
Shulk nodded. The council were all about protecting their own interests, and he was the wildcard here at the moment. They didn’t know what he’d do, or who he’d support. From what he’d read, the tradition was that the current Lord Zanza would attempt to find a middle ground between council factions, but in times of war there were usually only groups that supported the war and groups that supported radical solutions to winning the war. Shulk didn’t support either of those.
“I hope it works out,” he said. When he got back to the council, he would have to do something in an effort to modernise a little, but he had no idea where to start with that kind of governing. His experience at the moment was doing his best to make sure he could moderate the decisions of the more radical side of the council to prevent suffering for the rest of the people of Bionis.
“It will,” Alvis said. “We’re on the right track, remember? It’s all going to be fine.” Shulk looked up and locked eyes with Alvis, who smiled in a sort of encouraging way.
“I hope so,” he said. “Hey, do you know if we’ll be able to find some food?”
“It seems I didn’t need to be worried about you being upset about this,” Alvis said with a laugh. “Sure, we can try and find something.” With that, he stood up, shook his feet to try and get some of the water off, and put his shoes back on. “Watch over your gay while I’m gone?”
“Of course,” he said with a grin, and watched Alvis climb the steps to the main level of the village. It looked like things were going to be okay.
Chapter 18: Negotiations
The squad work out how they're going to leave Frontier Village.
By the time a few days had passed, Shulk was getting used to living without a bedroom. It was uncomfortable without somewhere soft to sleep, but it was good enough, and it was surprisingly easy to adjust to. Being away from the palace, he was actually happier than he had ever been before.
Even though they had a goal and Reyn and Alvis were spending a lot of time resting, there was a lot of time for Shulk to just do whatever he wanted. He’d never been so far south before, and it was amazing to talk to so many Nopon. Reyn teased him a little about it, but he’d become very popular with the Nopon children, and hence all of the adults loved him.
He’d learned rather quickly that Nopon children were...a tad demanding. They wanted things all the time and, as a general rule, their parents didn’t know when to say no. They just got children whatever they wanted until they stopped screaming, and while Shulk didn’t know much about parenting, he didn’t think that gave the children the right message. It also didn’t help that Nopon seemed to tend towards having unmanageable numbers of children.
It was because of all those things that he ended up spending every afternoon with the assortment of offspring that the Nopon had. The numbers fluctuated day to day, but there were some days where he’d be surrounded by twenty Nopon children the moment he tried to go anywhere in the village. It was a good job he didn’t have any books with him to read, or he might have thrown one at one of the puffballs by now.
Generally, entertaining them involved playing catch, sorting out their frequent internal disputes, and trying to stay standing while they all rolled at his feet and grabbed at his ankles. It was occasionally painful, but honestly he was willing to weather their playful assault, because it meant that absolutely everyone in the village loved him. That would be very useful if some Zanaisan forces decided to show up and they had to hide.
There was one family of Nopon in particular who were an interesting bunch, to say the least. There were eleven of them, and they were infamous amongst the other people of the village, especially the children. All the others were forever asking them for their spare sweets, seeing as together they carried a veritable army of sweet food with them every single day. Shulk initially had no idea where their family got the money from, because generally the rich people of Frontier Village were rarely present, as they were always out actually conducting trade.
Quickly, however, he found out that this family was not in any way wealthy. They were just like any normal Nopon family, with the father running very average errands for shopkeepers from Frontier Village to Colony 4 and Colony 3. He didn’t make much money, and rarely had any work at all because he couldn’t really be trusted with valuable goods, so he borrowed all his money from somewhere. Shulk wasn’t exactly sure who was pulling the economic strings here, but there seemed to be a lot of money and not much work going on with many of the inhabitants.
Three days before the date of their planned departure, the three of them were looking for a trading party that was willing to take them on for free so they could travel together down the Bionis. So far, they’d spoken to several groups, but no one was willing to take them on for free. They seemed to pick up almost instantly on the fact that they needed the safety in numbers and started talking about charging them, and while they could afford that, they didn’t want to have to shell out on unnecessary costs.
However, the moment they left the trading floors and approached the upper levels, Shulk was immediately surrounded by the horde known as Riki’s family. All eleven of them started jumping on top of each other in an effort to reach his eye level and catch his attention to speak to him. “We need Shulk help!” they said.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, pointedly ignoring Alvis nudging Reyn and leaning over, presumably asking Reyn for the sixtieth time if he thought Shulk would make a good dad. Mentally, he counted the rapidly moving children and he thought he caught sight of all eleven, so a missing sibling wasn’t the issue.
“Dadapon told to be heropon!” One of them cried. “Dadapon told that he has to go far away or the debt men will come and take money some other way.”
Shulk immediately stopped gently trying to push the children away. There was no way he could ignore something like that. All of them seemed incredibly upset, and if he understood correctly, their father was being sent away because of his debts. “Sorry, I don’t know how you do things all that well,” he said. “What’s a heropon?”
“Heropon is for best Nopon in village!” one said. “But heropon is usually not very rich. Traders are never heropon. Dadapon told that being heropon is only way he can redeem money problems.” A fresh wave of wailing came from a couple of the younger Nopon.
“I’m sure your dad will be fine,” Reyn said, patting one of them on the head a little awkwardly. He regretted said decision instantly, as he was suddenly swarmed by six Nopon who all wanted cuddles.
“But last heropon never return!” one of them said. “And heropon before that not come home, and heropon before that very badly hurt and returned to Bionis last year.”
Shulk frowned at Alvis, who shrugged back and mouthed ‘up to you’. “I think we can help,” he said. All the Nopon around him cheered. “But we can’t stop him from leaving. I promise I will help him come home.”
Technically, he could go to the village elder, brandish the Monado at him, and tell him that Riki should stay because Shulk said so. But he knew that really he couldn’t do that. If he said Riki couldn’t go this time, they could easily tell him to leave the next time they needed a heropon. And if Riki didn’t go, they’d send someone else, so he’d only be delaying the inevitable and it would harm someone else. He couldn’t do that. Maybe it was just another vaguely stupid decision like the one he had made at the wreckage of the ship, but it was his choice to make.
“We can go to your dadapon and say we want to help him,” Shulk said, more out of an attempt to get Alvis and Reyn up to speed than actually to explain his motives to the children. “He still has to be heropon, but we’ll help him on his way in his heroic task.”
The Nopon family were very pleased by this, though Reyn and Alvis didn’t seem quite so impressed. “What if they ask him to invade Mechonis or something?” Reyn hissed into Shulk’s ear as the train of children led them up to their house. “Or if they want him to go to Eryth Sea?”
“Riki could come with us then,” Shulk said. “And once we’re done with our goals, we can give him anything he needs. From what I’ve gathered, the children will be okay when he’s gone. Maybe they’ll even learn to live with moderation.” Alvis seemed to accept this, but Reyn still wasn’t convinced.
“I don’t think you get it, Shulk,” he said. He looked sort of annoyed and Shulk was very worried that he’d made the wrong decision and Reyn was going to get angry again, but then he just sighed. “You can do what you want. I’ll follow it. I just hope it turns out okay.”
After that, arranging things with Riki was pretty easy. He was reluctant at first to come along with them, as ‘Heropons must be truly heroic and work only alone’, but he quickly came round to Reyn’s blunt statement that surely it was more appealing to not get eaten so he could come home to his children. From then, Riki was very agreeable.
His mission was to travel to Colony 7 to do some pollen-based agricultural work until the end of the year, which was a rather harmless task, as far as Shulk could tell, but maybe it was the travelling he was worried about. If it was something else then there didn’t seem like there was much he could do, which wasn’t a particularly good feeling. But this was all he could offer for now, and that would have to be good enough. It was better than nothing, he hoped.
With travel arrangements made with Riki guiding them down to Gaur Plains and the rest of them protecting him, they would be ready to go within the next few days. That was nerve-wracking, to say the least, because Shulk was starting to realise that the unknown was just as scary as it was exciting, but he knew it was for the best and he knew they had to move. The council wouldn’t stay away forever, so now was a good time to go. If they just kept pressing forwards, he hoped it would work out in the end.
Chapter 19: Makna Forest
The four travellers make their way through Makna Forest.
Makna Forest was very hot. Incredibly hot. Shulk hadn’t realised how hot a forest could be until he was in said forest, sweating like an armu in Sword Valley (except armu didn’t sweat, but he could just about appreciate the turn of phrase). Even though the sun rarely pierced the foliage above them, it was boiling hot down here. It made it hot hot, but without the pleasant feeling of sunlight against his skin.
Shulk had the Monado strapped to his back in case they were ambushed by anything, which had caused no small amount of hilarity when Riki had realised what was going on. Mostly he was flustered, and then he said something about how the new Lord Zanza was good with children and he left it, which was nice. It hadn’t really happened yet, but he didn’t like the idea of being worshipped as some kind of god. He didn’t know if that would get more or less likely as they went down the Bionis.
The people of the lower levels were well known for being ‘backwards’, at least by Zanaisan standards. They were alternately seen as faithless heathens and overly superstitious, depending on who you spoke to and their position on the divinity of the Host of Zanza. However, Reyn had mentioned a few times that they were distinctly disconnected from the upper Bionis, which really implied that they didn’t care all that much about the power structure and who was on top. They just wanted to live their lives.
“It’s too hot,” Shulk complained for at least the tenth time since he’d set out. Reyn groaned, but didn’t say anything in response. Alvis just shot a smile at him and kept walking. He knew that the more they got on with it, the sooner they’d be done, but the silence was almost as stifling as the heat.
“Shulk is not suited to forest weather,” Riki said. “Did you not come here when you were just a littlepon?”
Shulk’s head almost snapped round to look at Riki. “I think I did,” he said. When trying to plot what had happened over a decade ago with his mother, he and Reyn had managed to work out that he probably went to Alcamoth, Makna Forest, and then went through to Valak Mountain before it was all cut short. He’d never considered that his mother may have spoken to people while he was here. “Why did you say that? Do you recognise me?”
Riki looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded. “Small blond Homs child came to village many years ago. You look like him.”
“Was I with someone?” he asked. “The little boy- was he with a woman? And where did they say they were going?”
“They were going to Colony 3,” Riki said. “There was a lady with you, and a little girl who looked like you as well.”
That added something else to it. Shulk couldn’t quite believe that Riki had seen him. Riki had seen him, and his mother, and he remembered him and some of the things that happened and where they’d been going. “Who was the little girl?” he asked. Had someone else been lost? Was she linked to the purpose of all this?
“Riki cannot remember,” he said, and made a movement that Shulk was pretty sure was the Nopon equivalent of a shrug. “Riki not that old when it happened. First littlepon had just been born! Mamapon of Shulk was very helpful.”
“Did she say why she was going to Colony 3?” Shulk asked.
“To find new home,” Riki said. “She said that she was not welcome in home anymore, so she was bringing littlepon and sister’s littlepon to find a happy place. But she has been back many times since without littlepon, so I didn’t think she found happy place.”
His mother lived past the accident. His mother could even still be alive now. His mother had taken him up north and somehow abandoned him up there and then she’d kept travelling and going places. His mother had a sister he didn’t even know about, and he apparently had a cousin he didn’t know. He’d only met a handful of female cousins, and they were all on his father’s side.
“When was she last in the village?” he asked immediately. If it had been years he wouldn’t hold out much hope that he’d ever meet her again, but if it had been months...maybe he’d be able to find her. Maybe he’d be able to ask her why she had abandoned him and left him to the miserable life of living in his brother’s shadow.
“Lania left yesterday morning,” Riki said. “She said goodbye to Shulk and friends. Does Shulk not remember?”
Lania. Oh, gods, it was Lania. Lania, who came from Colony 3. Lania, who had been looking for her sons and going to see the succession but then gave up and came back down again. Lania, who had been so friendly and so pleased to hear from him every time he approached her. Lania, who had two children, and those two children had been taken by her husband. Lania, who didn’t like being in political situations.
“We have to go and find her,” he mumbled. She said she was planning to go up to Colony 3 but if there were going to be Zanaisan forces there then she didn’t want to go. She said she wasn’t sure about where she was going to go now, but she was just going to walk and see where it took her. She only left a day ago; she wouldn’t be that far away. The only problem was he had no idea which direction she’d decided to ‘just walk’ in.
“We can’t,” Reyn said. “It’s probably just a bunch of wishful thinking anyway, Shulk, and we can’t just stop to go chasing your dead mum.”
Shulk sighed and nodded. He knew they couldn’t. He knew they had more important things to do than to jeopardise their whole position by turning round and searching for someone who had supposedly been dead for a decade, but that didn’t stop him from being upset about it. It wasn’t fair that he couldn’t do the things he wanted to. He missed his mother and he desperately needed to know what had happened to her, how she had survived, why on Bionis she'd done that in the first place, who was the girl, why was she there, where was she now, but he couldn’t.
His eyes prickled and threatened to leak, so he just closed them and tried to ignore all his feelings. It wasn’t working, and the growing sense that Reyn was disappointed with him for being so terrible at living on the run and with a goal was just...he didn’t understand why Reyn was so angry these days.
“If she’s still around after all this time I doubt she’s going anywhere,” Alvis said. “You will be able to find her some other time. Maybe we’ll even run into her again. But Reyn is right, we need to keep pressing forward and hope that you can see her again. You won’t be able to see her again if we get caught by the council, after all.”
“I know,” he said. He sighed again, trying to ignore the traitorous tears falling from his eyes. Logically he knew what he should do. All of that was fine. But it was everything else that he was struggling with, and because of that the logical decision didn’t feel fair to the part of him that just really wanted answers from his mother. “Let’s just keep going.”
“We should reach the entrance to Bionis Interior soon,” Riki said. “Is not far, and from there it very easy to reach Satorl Marsh.”
From Satorl Marsh, they’d be able to reach Colony 5, where they were planning to stay the night. It was a town populated by all kinds of people, as it was an ancestral home of the High Entia, but it was close to Colony 6, which started as a Homs settlement, and Frontier Village, so there were generally all sorts.
Reyn had mentioned that it was a very interesting place. He said that, at night, it was possibly the most beautiful place in Bionis ‘and it wasn’t like Mechonis was known for being pretty, so it’s probably the most beautiful place in existence’. No one would tell him why it was so amazing, though. They said they wanted it to be a surprise for him when he saw it. The only thing Shulk knew was that there was an unusually high concentration of ether in the area, which made it a very rich town, probably richer than Frontier Village when it came down to averages.
Then again, Shulk was quickly learning that what he thought about a place and what he had been taught about it rarely matched up to the reality. What he was taught about Frontier Village mostly consisted of its interesting geography and the ‘successful energy trade’, and what he had been told by others who weren’t tutors or books could basically be summed up as ‘Nopon are conniving dicks’.
In reality, Frontier Village felt like it was teetering on the edge of some kind of economic crisis. All the wealth was concentrated in just a few and the Nopon’s lifestyle generally seemed to be far beyond their means of earning wealth in the first place. Half the people in the village had huge debt problems to the extent that the village had a system designed to expel people who were in debt and get them to do something that would improve the village economy without paying them. Whether it was coincidence or not that these people frequently died, Shulk couldn’t work out, but it was clearly a serious problem.
Shulk couldn’t see the village developing in any way that was favourable to all the people living there. From what he could see, absentee parents and excessive numbers of children were the norm. If this was the only way they could sustain the population, it was very unstable. If the war came to an end like he wanted it to, their population would probably dramatically increase, and then what would people do with the unequal distribution of wealth? Shulk didn’t want to think about it, but it was clear that the societies of Bionis were not quite as stable as they should be. It was probably his job to sort that out.
This whole thing of ruling Bionis looked like it was going to be a lot more complicated than he had initially thought, and he was starting to realise that it was probably no coincidence that whenever things were unstable, the council advised war. It was probably easier to deal with problems when you could just shove them to the side and prioritise killing as many machines as possible. Shulk just didn’t intend to take the easiest route.
Chapter 20: Capture
The group reach Satorl Marsh to a nasty surprise.
The change in temperature from Makna Forest to the inside of the Bionis was a whole new level of relief for Shulk. It wasn’t exactly cold inside, but it was so much cooler he couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief. He finally felt like he could breathe normally again, at least until he saw the inside of the cave they were in.
His eyes took a few moments to adjust from the bright light of the forest to the low glow of the cave, but the glow was probably the most alarming part. There were small capsules of...something. And they were glowing, and they looked almost organic. It hadn’t been until this moment that Shulk really believed that the Bionis was a living thing - he knew it was shaped like one, but he’d sort of thought it was part of the faith that was just made up of those detestable lies. But this showed him without a doubt that the inside of the Bionis was actually...living. It was a slightly scary realisation.
He was suddenly slightly afraid to take a breath. They were inside the Bionis, and the Bionis took life energy from people to sustain itself. Part of the point of the wars was to one day decrease the population of Mechonis enough that the titans would reawaken and the battle between them could be completed. At least, that was the story. He was slightly afraid that if he breathed too deeply the Bionis would realise how close he was and just...take him.
“It’s a bit eerie, isn’t it?” Reyn said in a hushed voice. “There’s something alive in here. I’ve heard that if you were to lie on the ground, you’d be able to feel it breathing.”
“And then if you fall asleep, your breathing syncs up with the Bionis and you’re absorbed,” Alvis said. All four of them picked up their pace without saying a word. They didn’t have particularly far to go to get out, thankfully.
Within minutes, they reached the other end of the passage and Shulk could see a dim light. It was the late afternoon in Satorl Marsh, and soon they’d be well on their way to the Colony. As they left the passage, Shulk could see the colony in the distance, a village set up around a fortress that had been repurposed after the ancient one was left to rot many years ago.
“Here it is,” Riki said, spreading his wing-like appendages as wide as he could. It didn’t leave much of an impression. “Satorl Marsh. Smelly and boring until glowy night time!” So it glowed...at the moment, Shulk had to agree with Riki that it was a bit smelly and boring.
As far as the eye could see, everything was in varying shades of brown and grey. The trees were grey and had no leaves, they were bare, and everything looked dead. Even the wildlife was all varying dark shades with nothing like the alarmingly huge pink caterpiles that could be seen in Makna Forest (those had been disgusting and slightly terrifying and Alvis had delighted in teasing him about it).
Shulk could smell the ether rising from the ground. It was not a pleasant scent at all and he sort of just wanted it to stop. For a moment he pinched his nose and tried to block the scent out, but then he realised that he could now just taste it and that was even worse. Either way, he’d be significantly increasing his ether exposure while he was here, and he wasn’t particularly used to that kind of thing.
“Let’s just keep moving,” Reyn said. “It’ll be easier to find somewhere to stay in Colony 5 before nightfall, after all.” Shulk nodded, and they caught the lift down the gate they stood on top of and arrived at a platform suspended just above a large pool of swampy water.
“Will we have to swim to get down?” Shulk asked, slightly concerned. He wasn’t at all able to swim, and he really didn’t think that swimming in murky water like the stuff here would be good for any of them. Riki especially, unless Nopon were able to float because of their exceptionally round bodies. He didn’t want any of them getting that in their mouths.
“No, but there will be wading involved, and probably swimming for Riki,” Reyn said. “That’s why I want to do this before nightfall. The water is pretty icy at night and it gets a lot harder to see what’s coming.”
“Wait,” Alvis said, holding an arm out in front of Reyn to stop him from going any further. “There are people here.”
“What?” Reyn said. Almost immediately, Shulk was aware that there were people behind almost every tree. Not just any people. Zanaisan soldiers. There were Zanaisan soldiers waiting for them. Someone must have told the council where they were going, and Shulk was now very aware that they’d probably been betrayed by the High Entians somehow. He couldn’t believe Melia would do that. He didn’t know what they even had to gain from telling the council where they were going, as the only time they would gain from that is if they wanted the Telethia programme, and surely the imperial family of Alcamoth didn't want their people to suffer. Shulk wanted to believe that they were better than that.
“We need to get them away somehow,” Alvis said. “Shulk, is there any way you can summon your godly powers or whatever and just tell them to leave? I’m not sure we can deal with this many.” His voice was hushed, and while it was blatantly clear that the Zanaisans knew they were there and they knew that they’d been spotted, no one had moved yet. Reyn hadn’t even drawn his weapons, which was rather impressive, really.
“What if they don’t go away?” Shulk asked. He stepped forward, looking for something central or raised he could stand on to make himself look more powerful. There was a symbol in the middle of the large walkway, clearly meant for someone to stand on for a ceremony of sorts to be conducted there.
“Then we will have to try to fight,” Alvis said.
“But they won't have any respect for Reyn’s life or Riki’s,” Shulk protested. “They may need us for their power play, that stuff’s all politics, but they don’t need Reyn or someone they see as some random Nopon.” Riki made a sound of protest, but quickly seemed to realise that there was no use and it really wasn’t the time for the protestations of him being some kind of legendary hero. He may pretend, but they all knew that it just wasn't the case. “I refuse to let them die.”
“Then if they won’t leave us alone we’ll have to let them take us alive and hope they don’t have any kind of orders to kill Reyn or Riki on sight,” Alvis said. He sounded so impassive, but Shulk hoped that meant he knew that they would be okay. “They won’t be taking us all the way back up yet, and if they take us prisoner maybe we'll be able to escape.”
“Those are our options, then,” Reyn said, and Shulk nodded. “Do your worst, Shulk. I want to fight ‘em, of course, but we can’t fight them if there are as many as I can see, and there are probably even more ready to fight that we can’t.” Shulk nodded again, and he stepped onto the symbol before trying to casually but also purposefully remove the Monado from his back.
“Zanaisans assembled here!” He called. He could see the people behind the trees startle a little as if they actually were sort of wishing they were still hidden. “Come out from where you are hiding and show yourselves! No true warrior of Bionis hides in front of their commander, after all. And that is what I am, am I not? I wield the Monado. You answer to me above all.”
Immediately, there was movement. As soon as the first person moved from behind the tree and started to wade through the water before where the four of them were standing in a loose semi-circle, the rest came too. People dropped from branches, emerged from behind crags, and a couple even stood up from where they had crouched, camouflaged as rocks, in the swampy water.
There were tens of them. From a quick headcount, Shulk could see twenty for sure, but more and more kept emerging. There was no hope that four of them could take on so many, and these were soldiers, not idle people recruited and just handed a weapon. All the people in the army at this point had weeks of training at least, because drafting had been paused on the death of his father as a sign of mourning.
“You are all men of the Bionis. You serve the Bionis and belong to the Bionis,” he said. “And I stand here, though uninitiated, as the head of the Bionis. I command all of you, yet all of you march against me when ordered. You hide yourselves here waiting for me to emerge. I wonder what you have been told to do, how you justify it. Am I supposed to be a thief of my own inheritance? Am I betraying myself by taking up what is rightfully mine? I do not understand your commanders’ or your own motives for doing this, but I merely ask you to rethink.”
Shulk hated speaking like this. He hated treating people like they were below him, but he had to. He had to save Reyn and Riki. He had to protect the peace he was aiming for and the High Entia children who may be turned into Telethia and the people who were all sent into this war with no choice in the matter when the war could never be won. He was doing something he did not like in the hope that it could prevent things that were worse, but he still felt bad about it.
“You are presumably here to capture myself and Seer Alvis. Maybe you feel as if you have to do this as you have been ordered to. Maybe you have been told to kill Earl Bowen and any other companions I may have gathered along my journey. But I will not let this happen. I present to you an ultimatum. You leave now, let us pass, and let us rest in Colony 5 before we move onwards. You can tell your superiors what has happened. You can tell them what I said to you, and you can tell them what I aim to do from here. But do not kill these people I hold dear to me, or I will never forgive the crime that you have enacted upon the person who has power over you all.
“If you are not willing to give up what you have been ordered to do, then so be it. I know that my small party is not enough to fight the large numbers of you who have been assembled here. I will come with you. Do not kill these people who are with me. That is all I ask.”
They were silent for a moment, and they all looked around at each other in an attempt at deciding what to do. A few people stepped to the side as if they were trying to part the way so the four of them could pass through unharmed, but then someone else shouted a wordless order to them, and they all snapped to attention. This was their leader, clearly, and now he stepped forwards.
“I will not let you pass just because you say some fancy words to us that mean nothing,” he said. “My name is Otharon and I command this contingent from Colony 6. We have been called to oppose you so you can be returned to where you are safe, removed from the influence of the people who are corrupting you to do all these things against the tradition of your elders. This is our motive and we see it as pure.”
“Surely I can set my own precedent,” Shulk said, his heart sinking. “Elders deserve to be respected but their time is past. If you truly wish to take me with you, however, do so. I do not wish to fight you here.”
“Then that is what I shall do,” he said. “I do not want to harm you or your companions, but I do ask that they lay down their weapons and surrender them to us. I am sure you are smart enough to understand that even if we cannot take the Monado from you, you cannot attempt to attack us or we will retaliate against the people you wish to protect.”
“I understand,” he said with a sigh. Some of the soldiers looked reluctant, however, and there was clearly a divide even as Reyn, Alvis, and Riki laid down their weapons and they were all surrounded by the soldiers. If the right one was posted to guard them or left in charge of them, Shulk was sure they would be safe and they might even be able to escape.
“For now, we shall travel to the fortress,” Otharon said. “That is where we are currently stationed and from the morning we will be able to take you north once more. I do not wish to travel under moonlight, and I am sure you are amenable to this aim.”
This man did not speak as Reyn did. He was clearly a higher up member of the Colony 6 structure, perhaps even educated further north, considering his accent. Shulk disliked him strongly and instantly. He didn’t have the friendly tone that the southerners he had spoken to had in their voices (not that he had spoken to very many, and Reyn was his main source, but the point still stood that he did not like this man).
“We can accept this, though I’m sure you understand that I’m not particularly pleased by this result,” Shulk said. He edged closer to Reyn, who tapped one of his fingers against Shulk's wrist once; their signal that he was okay, which was a relief. He could always rely on Reyn. “Any agreement I have made with you expires immediately if you harm any one of my companions.”
Otharon surveyed the four of them with a stern look on his face. “I am sure that will not be the case,” he said. “We have no reason to treat any of you cruelly. In fact, we could release your Nopon friend now, if you would like that.”
“That would be great,” Shulk said. “Riki, I think you’re free to go. I’m sorry we couldn’t keep our promise to you.” One of the guards poked Riki in the back with the end of his rifle, and Shulk watched as Reyn moved to protect him. Immediately, three soldiers seized hold of Reyn’s arms. Shulk could see this turning violent before his eyes but suddenly he felt frozen and he couldn’t do anything.
“Riki will not abandon sidekicks!” Riki said immediately, moving away from the soldier who had poked him back towards Shulk. “Riki is loyal to his underlings and will stay to protect them even as circumstances turn sour as nasty wildberry!”
Shulk grinned at Riki in thanks. If that had escalated any further, he didn’t know what would have happened. He was also pretty pleased that Riki saw it as worth his time to stick with them even when it was looking bad. That made him slightly more confident in this situation. “Step away from Earl Bowen,” he said. To his slight surprise, the soldiers stood down immediately without even a look at Otharon. Maybe the man didn’t have the kind of authority over them that he needed to maintain control in this.
“We will go towards Colony 5 now,” Otharon told them, and then he shouted another wordless command to his men. They all started marching at rather a fast pace in the direction they’d been hoping to travel in. It wasn’t exactly how they’d planned to make it to Colony 5, but it would do. They just had to work out where to go from here.
Chapter 21: Imprisonment
The four arrive in Colony 5.
People stared as they entered Colony 5. The colony itself was clustered around the fortress, with sections of the fortress being used as the marketplace, a military garrison, and a place for other more public aspects of life. The sun hadn’t even set by the time they made it to the colony, which was rather disappointing, as Shulk had really wanted to see what the marshes looked like at night and somehow he got the sense that he wouldn’t be going outside again this evening.
Hushed whispers surrounded them the whole time, and Shulk realised that, not only had they been arrested, but the Monado was very obvious on his back and Alvis wore the key around his neck that identified him as the Seer. Shulk wasn’t sure when he’d put that on, seeing as they were meant to be undercover, but he didn’t think it was all that important right now. He could ask when they weren’t all desperately trying to think of a way to get out of this mess.
The fortress was intimidating, to say the least. It was very old, built in ancient times possibly even before the civilisation of the giants was wiped out. It was built of very dark stone, and all the walls looked thick. Shulk noted idly that there was a lot of ivy on the walls, which would probably be climbable at a push. Better than trying to scale a wall without any form of leverage, anyway.
They were led inside quickly, where it was very dark. The walls were dark and the corridors were barely lit. There was a faint blue glow in the room, but Shulk realised quickly that it was coming from the Monado. He twisted his head round to see behind him, and the guards behind them were starting to look very nervous. Maybe they’d just realised that they actually had just taken the Heir to the Monado prisoner.
They were led through a whole multitude of corridors, and Shulk realised he had no idea how they’d get out if they managed to escape their cells. They wouldn’t be able to find their way out without a guide, that much was beyond doubt. Which meant that if they wanted to get out directly from imprisonment, they’d have to win an ally rather than just persuade someone to turn a blind eye.
They were led to an area where two cells faced each other. Shulk and Alvis were shoved into one and Reyn and Riki went into the other. Shulk noticed that there was a marked difference between the two: the one he and Alvis were in had a single bed where the other cell had none, and there were suspicious stains on the floor of the other one. That was decidedly concerning, but Shulk knew that for now he shouldn’t try his luck, so he didn’t say anything while Otharon locked their cells and ordered two members of the contingent to stay behind.
“Are you okay?” Reyn called across to Shulk. Shulk nodded. He was more concerned about Reyn and Riki, honestly, as they were the people who weren’t essential to the plans of the council. Where they’d been placed may just all be mind games, but it could signify something more, and Shulk was worried.
“No talking,” one of the guards immediately said. “You may be all high and mighty most of the time, but here, you’re prisoners. You can’t just have conversations.”
“Why not?” Reyn challenged. Shulk waved his hands at Reyn, desperately trying to signal that he shouldn’t wind them up. Reyn looked right at him and then seemed content to completely ignore his warning. “Why shouldn’t I speak? It’s not like you can stop me.”
“We can stop you if we want to,” one of them said. It was the other one now, and he sounded even more threatening than the other one. Shulk really didn’t like where this was going. He motioned again frantically, trying to tell Reyn he had to stop before they did something, but he ignored them. He just kept talking, just kept challenging them until-
“Shulk, he’s going to be okay.” It was probably hours later at this point. Any light that filtered in through the tiny dirty window down here had faded now, leaving only a strange glow Shulk presumed came from an ether lamp. Reyn had...they hadn’t been kind to him, and they’d made Shulk watch the whole thing with a growing fury.
At this point, he would happily kill all the soldiers in the fortress. They had broken his agreement and they’d hurt Reyn. Personally, no one was more important to him than Reyn, and he would honestly probably risk this whole mission just to ensure Reyn could be safe. If it would guarantee Reyn’s safety, he’d take a different route to peace. He was furious at these people who dared to think they could treat another Homs with such disregard.
The soldiers from before had been replaced by a woman; they probably needed to go and wash the blood off their fists and boots and laugh gleefully while they did it. Shulk imagined that it was exactly what they were doing at this point. “I feel like I should be checking him over too,” she said.
“I don’t think your commander will let you.” Alvis still managed to speak so evenly. Shulk had barely managed to stop crying for long enough to breathe. He didn’t know how Alvis did it. “You know, the real thing we’d all appreciate you doing is swapping me and Reyn in the cells.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to do that,” she said, but she only paused for a moment before moving to the keys on her belt. “I’m going to do it anyway, though. This is...I’m sure it doesn’t console you much, but all of this is wrong. I know what you declared in Alcamoth, the news already reached us down here, and I know that the side I’m fighting on is in the wrong.”
“Then let us go,” Alvis said. “Better still, lead us out of here, knowing that you’ve done what you feel is right.”
“I can’t,” she said. “Lord Bowen is in no fit state to move, I’m afraid. He won’t be able to travel for a few days, which buys you plenty of time too. There’s no way I’m letting Otharon leave with you to take you back up north with him in a condition like that. Any movement could reopen his wounds.”
Reyn was still lying propped up against the wall, barely conscious. It hurt Shulk’s heart to even think about it, and it made him sick with anger to see him there. He wanted to get revenge, but he knew he shouldn’t. He shouldn’t hurt his own people, but gods did he want to. The woman unlocked their cell door and then that of Reyn’s before she helped Alvis move Reyn over to the other cell. Shulk could still barely move, but he shuffled up next to the bed where they’d set Reyn down.
“It seems we have several more days to convince you to let us free, then,” Alvis said. The woman nodded, a slightly sly look on her face. Shulk didn’t trust her, but Alvis clearly did. Alvis was probably a better judge of it at this point; he was so angry at all these soldiers that he couldn’t think straight.
“It seems you do,” she said. “I’m going to put my medical supplies away and then I’ll be back. I’ll be your only guard for most of the night, so you should be able to sleep.” She left, leaving the cells unlocked with both doors open. Riki immediately came to join the three of them in the single (and now slightly cramped) cell.
“Do you need a hug?” Alvis asked as soon as she was gone. Wordlessly, Shulk nodded. Alvis leaned in, wrapping a single arm around Shulk’s shoulders and pulling him closer. “It’s going to be okay. Reyn is going to be perfectly fine. She’s a trained medic, and unlike the others she has integrity.”
Shulk knew he wouldn’t be able to say anything without bursting into ugly sobbing again, so he just returned the hug and tried not to get tears on Alvis’ coat. “In fact, and I know it’s still awful, but in doing that those soldiers played right into our hands. They were reluctant to follow Otharon before, and now the agreement with you has been broken the other soldiers will probably be rushing to appease you.”
Alvis kept his arms wrapped around Shulk for a while, until he was able to stop sniffling and relax slightly. His eyes burned and his mouth was dry. They didn’t have any water, which was certainly a problem. The only thing they had in the cell was the Monado. And there wasn’t exactly a way they could get out now, even when they were unsupervised, because Reyn couldn’t travel. Reyn could barely stay conscious.
“We’re going to be okay,” Alvis said again. “I can swear that to you. I will make sure that we’re okay. Remember that this isn’t our final option. If things get too dangerous, we can go back and work for peace in a different way.”
Shulk nodded. They’d come so far that at this point he couldn’t bear the idea of going back to Zanais. Especially as a prisoner. He’d be fine if they took the decision to go back willingly and planned around it, but if they went back captured...that took all the power he had taken into his own hands back out of them once more. He’d just be a puppet of the council, only enacting limited measures towards what he wanted. They couldn’t go back like this.
They just had to keep going. They had to get through this and out the other side. They had to get away, and then they could get back to moving towards peace. Shulk looked over at Reyn again. He was covered in blood, but it was all dry by now, and his chest was rising and falling evenly. It would be okay. He would be okay.
Chapter 22: Escape
The group's time in captivity ends.
It took a few days, but with the help of the woman (who had introduced herself as Sharla, a medic from the contingent), Reyn slowly recovered. In his words, his chest still ‘hurt like a bitch’, but he was on the mend and Sharla said he didn’t have any internal bleeding or anything he should be seriously worried about.
As she worked, she also helped them plan their escape. Almost everyone in the base except Otharon and a few of the men closest to him would be willing to turn a blind eye, and she would try and get their belongings before they were set to leave. Apparently their weapons had already been put in the stockpile, but as the bag mostly held money and a few personal belongings, they didn’t dare get rid of that for fear of angering Shulk more.
Shulk wondered if they knew that he already hated them with everything he had in him to hate. He was so angry at the people who thought they had the right to deprive him of his freedom and then hurt Reyn, breaking the agreement they’d made. He hoped they knew to stay away from him, because if they opposed him then he didn’t think he’d hold back in trying to secure his aims.
Sometimes, he wondered if he should have taken up the Monado, fled the city, and then gone back the next day once the dust had settled. Then, he would have been able to settle this without anyone getting hurt. But what was done was done and he knew that he would have been miserable sorting it there too. He had chosen this path and he was going to make the best of it that he could.
Reyn recovered slowly, but they still didn’t think it was safe to escape. Sharla had said it would be safe if they had a medic with them, but she couldn’t leave her post here because she was looking for someone. Shulk didn’t really understand why she would join a contingent stationed in a single spot to look for someone when she could probably just stay at home, but she didn’t seem to be forthcoming with any elaboration on what she’d already told them, so he left it alone.
And then that changed. Sharla burst in late one evening, earlier than she normally would to check on Reyn, and immediately started unlocking Alvis’ cell. With her, she had two large bags, including the one that had been taken from them nearly a week ago now. “I’m helping you escape,” she said. “And I’m going with you. Don’t look surprised, just come on, we need to move before they realise what I’m up to.”
Riki looked curious and pretty much dying to ask her why she’d changed her mind, but he didn’t say anything. Shulk felt pretty much the same way, but from the urgency in her voice Shulk was pretty sure that he just shouldn't question it. If they needed to go, they needed to go, and he could ask why later. For now, they should move.
“Finally,” Reyn said, pushing himself up from where he’d been sitting on the bed. “I was so bored down here. There’s only so many times you can have a conversation with Shulk about mechanics that you don’t understand a word of.” Reyn grinned at him and moved to take his hand almost immediately. Gladly, Shulk took it. They were finally on the move again.
Sharla gave Alvis the bag and insisted on holding the other one herself. “Reyn shouldn’t hold too much weight yet,” she explained, and Shulk nodded in agreement. He didn’t want to press him too hard when it was clear that he probably shouldn’t be doing too much. If Sharla wasn’t coming with them, it would have been incredibly risky to leave now.
“All the people assembled by the door will let us through,” Sharla said, “it’s getting to those doors that may be the problem. I don’t know, I haven’t scouted ahead, I just know that we have to leave now. It’s more worth it to risk leaving than to risk staying. Trust me.”
Shulk was now very worried, but he knew he shouldn’t question her here. If she’d been told something and then she explained it, they might attract unwanted attention. “Should we, I don’t know, try and pretend we’re meant to be here?” he asked.
“Yup,” Sharla said. “Most of the people here haven’t seen you. They have no idea who you are, but they know and trust me. People might work it out, but I’m pretty sure that they’ll be willing to ignore it. They have an excuse and can say they’ve never seen you before, after all.”
They walked at a rather brisk pace through the winding corridors of the fortress once more. Shulk was very glad that they had Sharla to guide them, because he would have been completely lost on his own. Reyn’s breathing had already become slightly too harsh for Shulk to be comfortable with it, but he knew they couldn’t stop to check if he was okay now. Shulk just squeezed his hand, and Reyn looked down and smiled at him. They kept walking.
There were whole hordes of guards around, and a couple said hello to Sharla as they passed. A few were staring at them, but no one ever tried to stop them. It was remarkable, honestly, and Shulk was pretty sure it had something to do with the Monado, now strapped to his back but open to be seen by anyone they passed. There was no mistaking him, honestly, especially if they knew he was being held prisoner here, but he wasn’t going to complain about them not doing their jobs properly; it benefited him just fine.
As they entered the final hallway, something Shulk recognised because it was grand enough to stick in his mind when they’d first entered, they heard shouts come from behind them. “Shulk, grab Riki!” Sharla called. “We need to make a run for it, they’re coming to stop us.” Shulk did as she asked and broke into a run. He knew his ankle was going to hate him for it later, but they had to escape now. They’d come so far.
“Open up the doors!” Sharla called ahead to the whole group of people who were standing in front of the door. They looked rather confused for several moments, and for a while they didn’t move, just looking at each other, trying to work out if they should follow the order of a woman who was running at the doors. It was blatantly obvious that they were trying to escape and they shouldn’t be here, but after a few moments of obvious deliberation, they moved to open the huge doors.
There was only a tiny gap available once they reached them, but Shulk bolted through it anyway, motioning to the guards to close the doors behind them before realising that they would probably be punished for doing that. When he realised his mistake and turned back, it was too late. They had already closed the doors at his order, clearly in defiance of the wishes of the people pursuing them. He had probably put them in terrible danger for the sake of only a few moments extra to escape.
Alvis slowed a little, but Sharla called to him to keep going. “We need to get free of the colony, at least,” she said. “It’ll involve travelling at night, which I know you wanted to avoid, but we have to. If we go out there, we buy even more time, because they’ll have to properly equip a party to search for us.”
Shulk didn’t quite know how she was managing to say all this while still running. His lungs were heaving and he knew he shouldn’t put so much stress on his body, particularly because he hadn’t done any movement for almost a week now, but he knew how important this was. He just also knew he’d regret it later.
“Once we get into a suitable spot to hide for a short while, we need to stop,” Reyn said. His voice sounded very strange. “We need to sort out what we’re doing and you probably need...to give me a checkup.”
“Fine, fine,” Sharla said, slowing her run a little. They were in the crowds of the colony now, so they would be harder to see from a distance. “I know just the place, but we need to go a little further, out of the colony. Just follow me.”
Chapter 23: Darker Places
The group move onwards to make it out of Satorl Marsh.
The cave they entered was lit with a faint red glow. Shulk knew without even asking that this was not the kind of place that a soldier of Bionis was meant to go to or even know about. This was the kind of place that could get military leaders fired with barely a five minute hearing.
There were small clusters of people, all selling wares that were clearly of dubious legality. Shulk knew that red pollen orbs were a restricted item used almost entirely for fuel for weapons, and selling them without a licence in a place like this was definitely illegal. Definitely.
“Are we...meant to be here?” Shulk asked, making sure to keep his voice low. He reached out to take the bag from Alvis so he could hide the Monado inside it, not wanting to attract too much attention. Attention was especially unwanted here, as these people seemed dangerous and Shulk doubted that they would hesitate in selling them all out if they thought they could get money for it.
“No one is meant to be here,” Sharla said in response. “There were orders for people to stop assembling here years ago at this point, it’s infamous, but they never stop coming here and people know that a lot of the approved trade of Colony 5 is only there because this is available to people too. So the local units who are stationed here just don’t bother to clear it out because it’s more effort than it’s worth.”
“Ah,” Shulk said. As an immediate reaction, he knew he should object to illegal activities being allowed anywhere, but the situation was never as the people in Zanais saw it. “I...see. But if no one is meant to be here, what are we doing here?”
“Soldiers can’t come here,” Sharla explained. “It’s illegal, and there are an abundance of soldiers. Kicking people out won’t affect things in the long run and it helps keep up discipline. They’ll kick me out regardless now, so I can be here. But they may think I won’t go here. It’s the safest bet, seeing as it’s out of the way. The marsh is dangerous at night and we need to be properly equipped.”
“I get it,” Reyn said. “Where can I sit down and sleep for a week?”
“You can sit down and take a nap for about half an hour,” Sharla said. “I just want to grab some food that’ll keep and it looks like Shulk needs some boots that are better equipped for long distance walking.” Shulk nodded. His feet were killing him, but when they were in Frontier Village they hadn’t been able to find anything substantial in his size.
“We have a little bit of money,” he said, mostly not wanting to let the traders in the area know that they had loads of money with them. They’d only increase the prices if they knew they could get away with it. “But because we’re travelling long distances we need to conserve it.”
“I get it,” Sharla said. “How big are your feet?”
“Small,” Alvis said, nudging Shulk in the ribs. “Everything about Shulk is tiny.”
“Except Shulk brain,” Riki said, wandering off in the direction of the closest food stand. “Shulk brain much bigger than Shulk body.”
“Thanks Riki,” Shulk said, smiling a little. Riki was sweet and not nearly as annoying as Shulk had expected him to be. He guessed the maturity came with the territory of being a father, but Riki always seemed very childish and often even insincere when he said things. He’d sort of thought that Riki was going to be a dead weight when they set off with him, but he’d been anything but.
They spent a little while looking for a pair of shoes that actually fit him, eventually setting on a pair of waterproofed boots designed for ‘traders who had children they couldn’t leave at home’, which was slightly embarrassing, but they fit and they were warm and they weren’t way too large. He couldn’t wait for his feet to not hurt constantly.
When they were done with that and Sharla had bought a pouch of dried salted meat, they headed back over to where Reyn was slumped against the wall. His breathing was slightly heavy but he didn’t look too pained anymore, just tired. “I am so ready to get out of this stupid swamp.”
“Agreed,” Sharla said, shifting the bag to be more central on her back. “So, after we get out of the marsh, what’s the plan?”
“We’ll share when we’re away from other ears,” Alvis said, lowering his voice even when he said that. “We don’t want anyone to know our exact plan because of the nature of...all of this. I’m sure you understand why.”
“Of course,” she said. Before leaving the cave, she scouted just outside the entrance for a few moments before beckoning them forwards. The sun was just starting its decline in the sky, and Shulk remembered his excitement from before about what the marshes looked like after night fell.
“We’ll go as far as we can now,” Sharla explained. “We’ll probably have to travel through the night if we want to have any chance of losing them. They’ll spend a long time searching the marshes because they won’t want to spread themselves too thin.”
“We want to head down the Bionis anyway,” Reyn said. “And Riki is meant to stop somewhere a little further down, too, on the leg.”
“I don’t think I can go home at this point,” Sharla said. “I’m from Colony 6, my little brother lives there with my parents, but seeing as I’ve deserted now...if I make contact with him I don’t think they’d treat my family kindly. They’ll probably go after them anyway for answers, I just need to make sure that they don’t have any to give.”
“It’s probably best if we make connections with the smallest number of people possible,” Alvis agreed. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt just because we needed a favour or wanted a place to stay. Even if we feel like they’re benefitting from our exchange, if the people looking for us find out…”
“Could you explain that?” Sharla asked. “I understand who Shulk is,” her eyes drifted to the bag which contained the Monado, “but I don’t understand why he’s here, or why you’re all here, or what you’re doing, or why the Council object to it.”
“Shulk is trying to end the war,” Alvis said, and Sharla’s eyes lit up immediately. “The Council weren’t a fan of that. I foolishly told them that it was going to happen because I saw it, but then they tried to kill him, which was not fun. So we ran away, technically stole the Monado, and we’re taking the peace process into our own hands.”
“Why are you going down the Bionis then?” Sharla asked, carefully skirting around a patch of very boggy ground. “What part of the peace involves that?”
“Laying low,” Reyn explained. “I have a house in Colony 9 and no one ever goes that far down the Bionis if they want to do anything. It makes no sense for us to go there, so we’re going there, making sure we know exactly what to do, and then we’re going to Mechonis.”
“Wait, you’re going to go to Mechonis?” Sharla asked. “Isn’t that incredibly dangerous? Won’t they just kill you? There’s a war on.”
“Every time a Lord Zanza dies, Mechonis signal that they wish to end the war,” Shulk said. “I didn’t get a chance to see more than a single message from them when I was standing in for my father, but they expressed the same sentiment again. They are yet to break the truce we have and I hope they never will. If I never declare the war as continued, then the fighting won’t resume.”
“Why didn’t it end ages ago, then?” Sharla asked. Shulk could only shrug at that question. He’d been wondering that, off and on. Was it the council? Was it some ideological thing that no one had been able to break free of? He’d always seen his grandfather as a good man, yet surely, if he was good, he would have ended the war.
“I don’t really know,” he admitted. “Maybe there was some compelling reason to continue, or maybe the same issue has been present with the council doing anything they can to obstruct us and my ancestors didn’t take this path.” What mattered now was that they were doing something to change this. At least that was how he saw it.
“I was always under the impression that they always attacked us and we couldn’t stop it,” Sharla said. “That’s why I stayed in the military. Not that I’m with them anymore, but…it all feels rather pointless now.”
“You were a field medic, right?” Reyn asked. “You were helping people survive, and you helped us get away. I don’t think that counts as pointless.”
“Riki agree!” Shulk had almost forgotten that Riki was there at that point. “Sharla very useful. Would not be here without her.”
In the dim blue lights of the marshes, Shulk saw Sharla smile. “Thanks,” she said. “Come on, we should keep up the pace. We’ve got a lot of land to cover before sunrise.”
Chapter 24: Colony 6
The party make their way through Satorl Marsh and into Colony 6.
Hello! It definitely hasn't been uh. Years since I updated. Nope
Anyway this fic got a minor overhaul in terms of proofreading in the last few weeks and also a MAJOR planning effort from me to work out what the rest of this is gonna look like. You may notice that we now have a predicted chapter count! I'm hoping to stick to it
A lot of what spurred me to continue writing this was the renewed interest it got in the wake of xcde's release. If you're new, thank you So Much for telling me you enjoyed this fic, it means a lot
Their pace through the marshes was fast; they had a lot of ground to cover and not much time until Colony 5’s forces launched a full search. If they were still in the marsh by dawn, they wouldn’t be safe.
It was difficult to keep up - Sharla was a trained soldier, and even with his injuries Reyn was pretty fast. Shulk, meanwhile, lagged behind, struggling to catch his breath as the others surged ahead.
It didn’t help that the scenery was so distracting. Every other minute, Shulk spotted something he wanted to get a look at, and while he knew he couldn’t that didn’t stop him drifting off into his thoughts.
Eventually, Alvis slowed his pace a little and fell back to walk in tandem with him. “Shulk,” he said, his voice low. His tone told Shulk that it was something he thought was important. “What do you make of our new ally?”
Shulk’s gaze flicked up towards Sharla, still at the head of their group. To her left walked Reyn, and to her right - and a little ways behind - walked Riki. She didn’t falter in her course, charting them seamlessly around pools of murky water. “I don’t know,” he said. “She has her own aims, for sure.”
“Ah, yes,” Alvis agreed. “She is looking for someone, correct? I wonder who it could be.”
“Whoever it is, she isn’t inclined to talk about it,” he said. Not that he minded that - everyone had secrets, or things they’d rather not share. Especially with people they’d just met. “I don’t think it conflicts with anything we’re aiming for.”
“Correct,” Alvis mused. His eyes, too, wandered around their landscape. It was almost charming to see someone as unflappable as him be taken in by the scenery around them. “I will be honest and say I have no clue. But if I see anything to the contrary, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
“Thanks,” Shulk said, and Alvis shot him a small smile. “Either way, I think we’re safe for now. She’d have no reason to do what she did before if she only wanted us dead.”
Alvis nodded, and they lapsed into silence. They stayed like that for a while, Shulk trying to focus on the feeling of his legs moving, one after the other, and resolutely not letting his thoughts drift. Tiredness was starting to weigh on his muscles, and even with the new shoes his ankle ached.
They kept walking throughout the night, even as Sharla’s pace began to slow. Finally, as the blue light of ether started to fade from the trees and fear mounted in Shulk’s chest, Sharla called for them to stop.
“We’re nearly at the end of the marshes,” she said. “Just a little ways to go, and then we’ll be out on the upper parts of the Bionis’ leg, over by Colony 6.”
“Are we going to stop there?” Shulk asked. He glanced over at Reyn, half doubled over and breathing heavily. They probably should stop, but at the same time it might not be safe.
“Maybe,” Sharla said, but the hesitance in her voice told Shulk that her thoughts mirrored his.
“Riki want to stop!” Riki chimed in. “Riki hungry, and so so tired. Need rest real bad.”
Alvis chuckled. “Who are we to deny the mighty Heropon?” he asked. When Shulk looked over at him, it was clear that his eyes, too, were fixed on Reyn. “Is there somewhere safe we can rest in the Colony?”
Sharla paused for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “Come on, we need to get going. It won’t take them as long to catch up to us as it took us to get here.”
From the marsh, there was only a short stretch of grass before they reached Colony 6. It was strange - it seemed so cut off from ‘civilisation’ in the way Shulk knew it (where were the towers? The ornamentally uniformed guards?), but there was so much light, so many structures.
People lived here - that much was clear. It was a well-fortified spot, at least for this far down the Bionis, and Shulk couldn’t help but let his eyes roam over all the different pieces of technology. Mobile artillery, trucks full of supplies, the occasional craft that could probably fly despite its bulkiness.
Colony 6 was ready for war, and Shulk hoped it would never come. If the war resumed, the colony would of course be a target - it was right on top of what Shulk knew was the largest ether deposit in all of Bionis.
This also meant that what he saw next surprised him more than he wanted to admit. Sharla led them through well-lit streets, pulling them into alleyways almost constantly as they went. It only took Shulk a couple of instances of that to work out why - they were avoiding the early risers roaming the streets at dawn.
“Why we need to hidey-hide?” Riki asked, after their third stop. Wherever they were going, it was taking a long time, and Reyn’s breathing got more ragged as they went.
“I’m known here,” Sharla explained. “This is where I grew up; I have family here, too. If anyone spots me, they’ll know I was here, and then they might talk. It could put people - us included - in danger.”
Riki nodded. “So where are we going?” Alvis asked.
“Somewhere people don’t talk,” Sharla answered, forging through another alleyway between two tall houses. Instead of walking through to the other end, however, she turned into a doorway, covered only by a sheet of fabric. “Keep your voices down, okay?”
They nodded, and Sharla led them further on into the darkness, until they reached a room in what was clearly a half abandoned house. The windows were boarded up, and only a thin slither of the coming daylight leaked through. “We should be able to rest here,” Sharla said. “Can anyone watch over our stuff? If we all sleep, something might get stolen.”
“I can,” Shulk said. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep immediately; there was something going on here, something Sharla had left unsaid, and he wanted to think it through first.
“Sure,” Sharla said with a smile. “Wake me up if anything at all happens, okay? And I mean anything. Your fancy accent won’t fly here.” Shulk nodded, watching as they all settled down to sleep. Fancy accent, huh. He supposed it was inevitable, the further they went down the Bionis.
Reyn was out like a light, clearly exhausted. And one they’d settled down, Shulk was alone. He looked around the room - it was dilapidated, sure, but there were definite signs it had been used recently. In the rooms they’d cautiously picked their way through, other people slept on the floor.
There was no furniture, but there were plenty of sleeping figures, and Shulk got the feeling that no one in those rooms owned the building. All the floors were carpeted with paper, and everyone’s clothes looked worn and old. There was actual, clear poverty here, despite the fact that Shulk had always been told that Colony 6 was rich and prosperous.
It put the actions of those in Colony 5 in a new light, he supposed. Most people didn’t live in that region from birth - they moved there, and the Defence Force formed almost half of the population. Maybe there were people for whom following their orders was the only thing separating them from a situation like this.
And if Sharla was familiar with this place...the gaps filled themselves in, really. The only question that remained was why she’d join and then leave so readily. Sharla didn’t seem like a violent person, but what was it about Shulk and his companions that spurred her to this end?
Most of the morning passed, and they were able to rest without incident. As the sun rose higher and the sky lightened, someone eventually approached Shulk. “I don't think I've seen you around before,” they said. ”What's your name, and how did you all get here?”
Shulk wasn't quite sure what to say. Sharla had told him not to speak to anyone, but he felt like he had to say something . But if he responded with the wrong thing, he could put all the others in danger, and he had no idea what the ‘right thing’ was. As the person’s gaze got more insistent, Shulk leaned over and shook Sharla’s shoulder. “There's someone here,” he said. “Can you talk to them?”
Sharla blinked sleepily and looked between him and the woman. Her eyes held some kind of recognition. “Don't worry about it,” she said. “You get some rest and I'll handle this.”
Shulk laid down, but couldn't get his mind to rest. Instead he ended up listening to the low rumble of voices as Sharla spoke to the woman she very clearly knew. “Sharla,” she said, “Why are you here? I thought you were looking for Gadolt.”
“I was,” Sharla said. “But something... came up. So I'm here now.”
“But why are you here?” she asked. “Surely you could go and see Juju. Why haven't you gone to see him? Is it something to do with the people here with you?” Her voice was questioning, insistent. Shulk didn’t even have to reply and he could feel himself tensing up at the probing words.
Shulk could hear Sharla’s firm tone as she replied. “Don't tell Juju I was here,” she warned. “It's important and I don't want him to worry about it.”
He couldn’t see the woman’s return expression but he got the feeling that she was confused. “Alright,” she said after a moment. “Just know that I'm cautious, but I'll leave you to rest. The people of Colony 6 are always here for you if you need them.”
Eventually, Shulk managed to drift into an uneasy rest. When he startled awake again, light streamed through the boarded windows and the sound of chattering rose around him. He groaned as he woke, attracting Sharla’s gaze.
“You didn't really get long to rest,” Sharla admitted, in a voice that sounded slightly apologetic. “I think it would be better to move on from here for now, but I'll find us somewhere to rest soon.”
“You better,” Reyn complained. “I feel like I didn't get any rest at all on the floor. What's this even made of - granite?”
“Probably,” Sharla said with a laugh. “There are a couple of places out of the way on the Bionis Leg. I'll try and find one that's large enough for all of us to get a break and then we can sleep properly.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Reyn replied. As he stretched, his back clicked in about three separate places. Shulk winced more than Reyn did. “Yeah, we could definitely do with that break sooner rather than later,” he said. “Sorry for being a pain.”
Shulk shook his head. “You’re not at fault here, Reyn. I’m tired too.”
Reyn looked over and shot him a small smile. “Well,” he said, “I guess the sooner we get moving the sooner we can find sometime to get some proper sleep. Lead the way, Sharla!”
Chapter 25: Overlooking Gaur Plains
The party make their way towards a spot they can take a much-needed break.
As they made their way out of the Colony and into the fields beyond, Shulk’s mouth dropped open. “It’s so green,” he said, half to himself. There’d been plenty of greenery in the forest, of course, but this was so flat it almost felt like there was more.
Reyn laughed. “You ain't seen nothing yet,” he said. “Once we make our way through the valley off to our left there's even more of it.”
“We're not going that way just yet,” Sharla said. “If you don't mind taking a detour, I'd like to go up to the right, there’s a space where we can avoid anyone else's eyes. It will be safe up there and we can get some sleep.”
“I'd be happy to do that,” Alvis said. He hadn't said much since they’d left Colony 6, but when Shulk looked over he could see shadows under his eyes. Sure, he was less sheltered than Shulk and hadn't been injured like Reyn, but it was clear he wasn't used to this either.
“We’ll go this way then,” Sharla said, turning them up the path and past a waterfall. As they walked, Sharla turned to him again. “Is it true that you're connected to the Bionis?” she asked.
Shulk honestly wasn't sure what she meant. “No, I can't feel it at all,'' he said. “I've never heard of anything like that before.”
“Really?” she asked. “It's quite a common story around here. The idea was that the Bionis used to move and it was Zanza who controlled it. I know there are plenty of lies going round, but I'd always assumed that was true.”
For all Shulk knew, maybe she was right. “It could be true,” he said with a shrug. “No one really knows what happened back when the original Zanza was around. The official story...I know no more about how true that is than you; I'm as much in the dark as anyone else.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” she said. “I mean, the titans are so...surely they moved some point? It seems a bit strange that they would have a humanoid shape but be unable to move.”
“I mean, stories definitely say that the Titans used to fight, and I can see that being true, but I'm not sure whether Zanza actually controlled it. I definitely don’t.” He laughed nervously as he spoke. Something about the conversation unnerved him, but he couldn’t put his finger on what.
“That could be a disaster,” Reyn said with a chuckle. “Imagine if you absentmindedly scratched your forehead while trying to- well, scratch your forehead I guess- but instead you accidentally wiped out all of Zanais.”
Shulk groaned. “I don't even want to think about that kind of possibility. I'm glad I can't control it.”
“Shulk could go bam bam pow!” Riki said, piping up for the first time in quite a while.
“Sure, but what would he go ‘bam bam pow’ to?” Reyn asked. There, Riki faltered.
“Sidekick have point,” he said, sounding almost peeved. Shulk chuckled - he was glad to move on from thoughts of controlling the ground beneath his feet.
Sharla led them on through a long uphill passage. It was dark and sort of damp, but eventually the sound of the rushing waterfall returned and daylight appeared in the distance. “Nearly there,” she said. “Just a little more.”
Shulk’s jaw dropped when they emerged from the passageway. It was so...there was so much. Below them, the plains stretched out almost endlessly. If he squinted, he could see hundreds of creatures; some sprinting the length of the plain, some grazing. Some were huge, and some were so tiny Shulk could barely even make them out.
“It’s beautiful,” he mumbled. It was a different kind of beauty to that of Eryth Sea, Frontier Village, or Satorl Marsh. But it was stunning, breathtaking, and so so expansive. Just looking at it, he was sure it would take days to cross.
Just beyond the lake (Lake Raguel, if he remembered correctly), a cluster of buildings were grouped together, encompassed by a low stone wall. A few buildings spilled out onto fields beyond. “That’s Colony 7?” Shulk asked.
Reyn nodded. “We might want to avoid it,” he said. “There are a lot of people over there.”
“What about Riki?” Shulk asked. “We sort of need to drop him off there, and it looks like there are a lot of monsters around here.”
“Wait,” Sharla said, “why is Riki going to Colony 7? Don’t Nopon normally do really dangerous work over there?”
Shulk frowned. “I have no idea,” he said. This was the first he’d really heard about it - the Nopon of Frontier Village had been very vague and he’d presumed that whatever it was, he didn’t need to know (or at least that it would be rude to ask). “What is it?”
“Nopon operate the machinery in the fields beyond the colony,” Sharla said. “There are lots of small, moving parts, hence the need for small operators. The problem is that it’s easy to get stuck if you’re inexperienced, which I imagine Riki is?”
Riki shuddered. “Riki never operate machinery before,” he said, shaking a little. Shulk immediately felt bad, and he thought of all the children waiting for Riki back in the village. “Riki no want to go to Colony 7.”
“I hardly see how this is our problem,” Alvis said with a frown.
“What do you mean, ‘not our problem’?” Reyn asked, his tone rising.
“Reyn-” Shulk tried to stop this from exploding into an argument, but Reyn shook his head.
“I get that you don’t wanna cause any problems, Shulk, but this is our problem. Riki’s life is worth just as much as any of ours, and he has all his littlepon to go back to when this is over. We can’t let him go to the Colony when he could be in danger.”
“Of course,” Alvis replied. “But the last thing we need is for the people of Frontier Village to hate us too, for violating a custom that appears to be ingrained.”
“I…” Shulk felt his heart leap in his chest as he spoke up, but he’d made his mind up. If he couldn’t put his foot down over something as small as this, how was he meant to lead anything at all? “I think we should take Riki down the rest of the Bionis with us. It’s not like they’re going to miss a single worker if he doesn’t show up - they’ll just think he got eaten, right?”
“Meh meh!” Riki complained. “Riki not tasty at all! Would not get eaten on way down Bionis!”
Reyn laughed. “I’m pretty sure you’d look plenty tasty to a monster,” he said.
Riki made a noise of discontent, provoking an even louder laugh from Reyn and Shala both. Shulk grinned as they all watched the way Riki jumped from one foot to another, complaining all the while about how he definitely wasn’t tasty.
“Shh,” Alvis said, with an urgency that brought everyone to a halt. “Get down, and be quiet.”
Immediately, they all crouched low. Shulk inched closer to the edge of the outcropping, following Alvis’ gaze as he looked across the plains. Soldiers, coming from Colony 6. They marched at a rapid pace, casting their gazes around them as they went. Whatever they were there for, they were clearly looking for something, and it set Shulk on edge.
“Are they looking for us?” Sharla whispered, pressing herself flat against the ground. Shulk followed her lead, looking cautiously out at the moving group.
“Probably,” Shulk said, keeping his voice low too. He didn’t know if they’d be able to spot him all the way up here, and it definitely looked like they were moving beyond anywhere they could spot the hiding place and more towards the Colony, but he couldn’t be too careful. “What else could they be doing down here?”
Reyn and Sharla just looked at him. “There are plenty of reasons,” Sharla explained. “There are a lot of monsters down here, and some of them are truly dangerous. They could easily just be on an early afternoon patrol to clear the route.”
Shulk nodded. “I hope that’s the case…” he said, but in all honesty he wasn’t that optimistic. He knew Zanais were adamant that he should return, and that they knew he’d travelled beyond Makna Forest to a lower point of the Bionis. They could easily be looking for him and the others; they knew he was here, roughly speaking.
He continued to watch, concern mounting in his chest, as the patrol continued. They made their way down through the valley and over Raguel Bridge, stopping several times along the way. Once, a group split off, and even though they were so far away that it made Shulk’s eyes hurt to look at them, his heart hammered all the while anyway.
Eventually, the whole group convened just outside Colony 7 and headed inside. Shulk let out a shuddering breath. “They’re done,” he reported, looking back over to the rest of the group. They’d all settled down to get some proper rest, and now - finally - Shulk felt like he might be able to give it a shot too.
Chapter 26: Observing Mechonis
The group make their way down Bionis Leg.
The final chapter count has been upped by one (1) because I miscounted, oops
Shulk’s ‘rest’ turned out to not be particularly restful. Beyond even the fact that the ground was hard and difficult to get comfortable on, his dreams were full of…
Gold, as far as the eye could see. Everywhere he looked, bright light that wouldn’t go away, even when he tried to squeeze his eyes closed tighter. It wasn’t a landscape he recognised - he was sure he’d never seen it before, and yet-
It was a familiar dream, and he knew what came next. One by one, all the lights went out, leaving him in darkness. It was cold, and as he continued to stumble forwards a small voice in his mind screamed at him to stop. He knew what came next.
He tripped, and pain lanced through his leg. He tumbled down, down, until a yawning chasm appeared before him. And just as his body tipped off the edge and pitched into darkness, certain death, he-
Alvis, who’d opted to take the second watch, looked at him questioningly when Shulk came to with a jolt, bolting upright. Gods, everything hurt. He must have cried out, because Alvis’ expression was full to the brim with concern.
“It’s nothing,” he mumbled. “I’m fine.”
Alvis looked at him with a frown. “Go back to sleep, then,” he suggested. He had Shulk there - try as he might, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep after that dream. He never could.
“I don’t feel like it,” he said with a sigh. Instead, he got up from the ground and went to sit over by Alvis. “Say, Alvis, do you know of anywhere that’s cold, but filled with golden light?”
“Perhaps somewhere on Mechonis,” he suggested, but Shulk shook his head. Somehow, he knew that wasn’t it. “The crystals of Valak Mountain glow gold by night, so it could be that.”
That would...make sense. Shulk didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before - everything always seemed to come back to that mountain. Was the dream a memory, then, warped by time? The only thing that remained of fragmented memories of an incident he had never been able to understand?
“It bothers you,” Alvis noted. Shulk grimaced and then nodded. There was no point hiding it. “It was rather long ago now. Why does it still bother you so much, do you think?”
“Of course it still bothers me,” Shulk said with a frown. How could it not ? It had left him ill, without a mother, and still held them up even as they travelled now, ten years later. “It’s had such a huge impact on my life. I can’t imagine how things would be if it had never happened.”
“If it hadn’t happened,” Alvis said, “do you think you’d still be doing this today? Trying to end the war?”
Shulk paused. “I like to think so,” he said. “It didn’t magic me up a moral compass or anything like that. So yes, I would still be doing this.”
“So,” Alvis said, his tone more pointed this time. “How much difference did that ill-fated trip to Valak Mountain make to your life?”
“It can impact me without changing my actions,” Shulk said. He knew that Alvis liked to question things, really think them through, but the answer to this one seemed obvious to him. “It’s changed the way I move, and the people I have around me. Maybe my mother would be here right now if all that hadn’t happened.”
“I suppose,” Alvis sasid. Then he opened his mouth to ask another question, but this time Shulk cut him off before he could get it out.
“There’s not much point thinking about it,” he said firmly. “If none of that had ever happened...that’s just a world that never came to be. Why would I think about that if I can think about the world I want to make instead?”
Alvis smiled. “And that’s why you shouldn’t think about it too much,” he said. Shulk stuck his tongue out at him, because Alvis was far too clever for his own good. How could he always know the answer to everything?
Eventually, the rest of the group stirred, and they were off again. Sharla seemed to know the way, and when her steps faltered, Reyn seemed to have a better idea as to where they should be heading too.
“Well, it’s pretty easy, honestly,” Reyn said sheepishly when Shulk brought it up. He seemed to be doing a lot better when it came to his injuries, too. “Just gotta head downhill from here. The caves are more of a challenge.”
“Caves?” Shulk asked.
“Yeah, Tephra Caves,” he answered. “The land runs out at the end of the plains, which is the Bionis’ kneecap. We’re headed down to the ankle, and there’s a cave network to reach it. There's a Colony inside the caves, but if you turn down the wrong path you can end up in a pretty sticky spot.”
Shulk nodded. “That makes sense. Do you know the caves?”
“A bit,” he answered. “It’s sort of hard to find a guide all the way down the Bionis, after all, and I had to get back home somehow. We’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure we’ll be great,” he said with a smile, reaching out to give Reyn’s hand a squeeze. Reyn smiled back at him before fixing his gaze on the fields still remaining ahead of them. They'd crossed more ground than Shulk expected, but they still had a long way to go. Especially if they wanted to take a break out of sight of the Colony.
“There is a campsite of sorts,” Reyn said, leading them west from the bridge. The Colony, and the cultivated fields that lay just south of it, were within a stone’s throw. Fortunately, it looked like the path they were on wasn’t all that well frequented, and they hadn't run into anyone curious enough to stop for a chat. “Hidden away past these woods. I think it’s an evac site?”
“Oh, I know the one!” Shara said, picking up her pace a little. Shulk’s ankle practically screamed at the thought of going any faster. “I’ve never been there, but when I was stationed in Colony 6 I was on evac duty in case it was needed.”
“Why Hom homs need second home?” Riki asked, frowning a little.
“In case of Mechon attacks,” Sharla explained. “We’re not all protected by the tree cover that makes Makna so difficult to attack. This is an out of the way - if pretty small - spot where people can run to in the case of emergencies. Normally we’d run to the bomb shelters, and we’ve never had to use this, but…”
“That’s not the point,” Reyn cut in. “The point is like Sharla said - no one uses it, and they'll be double not using it right now while the war is on pause. Ended, sorta. Sorry Shulk.”
“You don’t need to apologise to me,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s on pause for now. Until I make it official.” Reyn nodded. “Either way, it sounds like it’ll make a good spot to turn in for the night.”
It was - this time, when they settled down to sleep in a small cave with some dusty sleeping mats already laid out, Shulk managed to sleep all the way through the night. When he woke, he finally felt like himself again; for the first time since they’d left Frontier Village.
The next part of the journey was easier to manage now his whole body didn’t ache from head to foot, and by sunset they’d made it to the end of the leg. And there…
“That’s it,” Reyn said. “Mechonis. Our…”
“Our enemy, I guess,” Sharla said. “But not really?”
“Not really,” Shulk confirmed. “They don’t want this war. If I have anything to say about it, they won’t be our enemies again for a long time.”
They stayed there for a while, just standing to stare at Mechonis. “It’s strange,” Sharla said after a while.
“What is?” Alvis asked.
“Seeing the Mechonis like this. Normally, I’d never stand out on an exposed part of the Bionis and watch it. It’s just asking for trouble, really.”
Alvis chuckled. “It’s a little difficult to avoid looking at it when you live on the Bionis’ head,” he said.
“Well you have those fancy shelters and the encasing defence field,” Sharla shot back. “There’s no protection here. Just the open air, and the thing that’s spent my whole life trying to kill me staring down at me.”
For a moment, Shulk wondered if maybe it would be difficult to get people to agree to peace when they’d sent their whole lives living in fear of the next Mechon attack. He couldn’t blame people for being unsure. But this…
“It’s nice, I’d say,” Reyn said. “Sure, the Mechonis ain’t pretty or anything, but it’s better to see it when it’s not buzzing with all that activity. It’s more peaceful.”
“Mmmhmm,” Sharla agreed, humming with what sounded like approval. “Either way, this spot is pretty exposed. We should probably move on sooner rather than later.”
“Onwards!” Riki cried. And on they went.
Chapter 27: Homecoming
The group make their way through Tephra Cave and out the other side to Colony 9.
Tephra Cave wasn’t exactly what Shulk had expected, if he was being honest. He’d anticipated something dark, a little cold, and deserted but for the wildlife around them.
What he hadn’t expected was to make his way through a single lamp-lit passageway directly into a bright, bustling cavern packed with buildings. The streets were narrow, and the Colony itself had multiple levels with half the houses only accessible via suspended walkways. Down below, the paths wound around shallow pools of water that almost glowed.
“Wow, this place is really something,” Shulk said. Reyn nodded, almost puffing out his chest as he replied.
“Some of the Colonies this far down the Bionis are a little precarious,” he said, “but the Homs down here know what they’re doing. We can live anywhere.”
“Riki not sure that a good thing…” Riki said, grinning at the immediate rise he got out of Reyn.
“Say what you like, furball,” he said. “But whatever you do, say it quietly. We can’t avoid passing through this Colony, so we gotta be as inconspicuous as possible, alright?” Reyn looked to the rest of their group as he spoke.
Shulk nodded. They’d made it this far; there was no point throwing away their anonymity now. That said, as they hurried through the streets with their heads bowed, he couldn’t help but feel...guilty.
He hated that they all had to hide out here. It felt as if they couldn’t trust anyone, and that was no way to try and build a better future for the people of Bionis. Even the people they might be able to trust could only be put at risk through association with them, and he just- he hated it. He hated acting out a lie and skulking through the shadows.
Unfortunately, it seemed like the people of Colony 8 weren’t even going to let them do that. “Hey, travellers!” someone called, practically blocking their progress through the cavern. “Do you have any news from the upper Bionis?”
Reyn stepped out ahead of Sharla. “Not much, I’m afraid,” he said. “We’re pretty out of the loop. What’s your latest news?”
“Oh, who would have thought it?” the person asked, a smile spreading across her face. “Reyn Bowen, bringing news right from the head of the Bionis. How’s your princeling?”
Reyn shifted in a gesture that Shulk recognised as something he did when he was embarrassed. He couldn’t blame him; he was pretty keen on sinking into the ground himself. Clearly, they were talking about him, but he had no idea what Reyn was going to say - or what had been said before.
“It’s complicated,” Reyn answered. “There’s a lot going on in Zanais right now, because the previous Zanza died a few weeks back. On the battlefield, they say.” Reyn knew that was a lie, but Shulk wasn’t about to call him up on that. “There are some...well, you know how those upper Bionis folks are. There’s a lot of politics going on, so I’ll be down here for a while.”
“Well, it’s good to have you back,” she said. “I hope I’ll see you around again.”
“I’m sure you will,” Reyn replied with a smile, “but we really have to get moving now. There’s a lot of ground to cover before we reach Colony 9.”
The woman bade them farewell and let them pass. Shulk was very, very happy to move on and get away from curious eyes, but apparently his travelling companions had other ideas about him being out of the limelight.
“Reyn,” Riki asked. “How Colony lady know Shulk? Reyn talk about Hom hom friend often?”
Even with the stark shadows cast over Reyn’s face in the low light of the cave’s passages, Shulk could see a faint blush form on his face. “Well, yeah,” Reyn said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Shulk’s sorta been most of my life for years now.”
Then, it was Shuk’s turn to blush, especially when he saw the amused look Alvis shot at them both. “What do you mean?” Sharla asked, equal parts curiosity and laughter in her tone.
“I guess I’m basically Shulk’s bodyguard,” Reyn said. “Have been since I was pretty young, actually. It’s a politics thing rather than anything to do with me actually protecting Shulk from all that much, but it’s a minor deal and all that. I used to travel through here a lot, and people would always ask me what I was getting up to, being the kid of the only nobles in Colony 9.”
“Oh, I see,” Sharla said with a laugh. “Humble little me, brushing elbows with royalty and nobility. It’s almost funny.”
“Do not forget great honour of being sidekick of Heropon!” Riki chimed in, and Sharla laughed again, reaching down to ruffle the tuft of hair on the top of his head.
“Of course not,” she said. “Your prestige goes without saying, Riki. Unlike this raggedy lot.”
“Oi!” Reyn replied, apparently oblivious to how much fun Sharla was having winding him up. “I’m nothing special, sure, but I ain’t all that scruffy either.”
“Sure you’re not,” Sharla replied, laughing again. “Come on, I can feel a breeze up ahead. I think we’re nearly there.”
There wasn’t much light left as they emerged from the cave and out onto a hillside overlooking the very base of the Bionis. “Ahhh, he we are,” Reyn said, sucking in a deep breath of fresh air. “Home sweet home.”
Alvis did the same, and then choked on a laugh. “Reyn, it absolutely stinks of Armu.”
“Yep!” Reyn replied cheerily, starting off down the gentle incline that would lead them down to the Colony.
“Shouldn’t we stop?” Sharla asked, as the last of the day faded and they were left with only the bright light of the stars and the faint glimmer of one of the Colony lamps in the distance. “We've run out of daylight.”
“It’s probably better to keep going,” Reyn replied. “It’s not far off, and it’s a pretty easy trip. Nothing to scale and no swamps to wade through or anything like that.”
Knowing that he knew the area better than the rest of them, they pressed on. “How long has it been since you were last here?” Sharla asked, filling the silence that had settled. Shulk could understand that; there was something almost eerie about just how quiet it was down here.
“A couple of years,” Reyn answered. “My parents died in a cave-in and I had to come back to get everything sorted. After that, things got a little tense up in Zanais, so I couldn't really make the time to come back.”
‘A little tense’ was a mild way to word the chaos that had descended in the capital when Shulk’s father’s health continued to ail by the day. The issue of his brother only made it worse, and Reyn had always insisted on staying even when Shulk suggested that maybe he should visit home.
He wasn’t going to repeat the things Reyn had told him back then. They weren’t really for the ears of near-strangers like Riki and Sharla, no matter how much they’d already experienced together.
When they reached the Colony, it was still strangely quiet. “Where are the soldiers?” Sharla asked, looking around as Reyn guided them to the far entrance to the Colony.
Reyn just shrugged. “There’s nothing down here,” he said. “Why would there be any soldiers if there’s nothing to fight against? We have a military district and a defence force, but they don’t have a patrol or anything.”
Reyn grinned as they crossed the bridge to the main body of the Colony. “This is the residential district,” he said, keeping his voice low. “It’s not much, but it’s big enough for everyone.”
The description of ‘not much’ felt pretty accurate to Shulk. He didn’t know what he’d expected, especially not after he’d seen the last couple of Colonies, but this was...odd. The whole thing was suspended over water, and when he looked across the gap to another section walled in by buildings, he got the distinct impression that everything was stacked on top of something else.
In addition to that, the landscape was taken up by huge pillars Shulk recognised as anti-air guns. “If you don’t need to defend yourselves from much, why do you have such huge guns?” he asked.
Reyn flexed his muscles and grinned, prompting a groan from the rest of the group. “Debris falls from above sometimes,” he said. “This can destroy it automatically. It gets birds sometimes too, but not often.”
“Oh, that makes sense!” Shulk said. It seemed a little excessive to have such large guns for a little debris, but he supposed that if they worked, they worked.
The other thing he was struck by as they made their way through the streets was just how peaceful the whole place was. No one was wandering around at this time, but it didn’t feel empty like Zanais did. It was just...calm. It was nice.
Less nice was the sight that met them when they reached Reyn’s house. There was...not all that much there. It was slightly larger than the other houses on the street, but all the windows were smashed in and there were scuff marks on the door.
“Who could have done this?” Sharla asked, as Reyn opened the door. The key went back in his pack, unused; the lock was broken. The state of the house inside wasn’t that much better - aside from a heavy clock and table, it looked like pretty much everything was either gone or damp.
Reyn shrugged. “I was sorta expecting it,” he said. “I haven't been here for years, it might have looked like I wasn’t coming back. There were probably a few valuables left lying around, so I can’t really blame people for taking the opportunity.”
“But aren’t you, you know…” Shulk pivoted on his foot, looking around at the empty, dirty house. “You’re a local lord! I know you said your family weren’t rich , but weren’t they respected?”
“It doesn’t count for much down here, honestly,” Reyn said. “It doesn’t matter all that much anyway. I moved all the important stuff up to Zanais when my parents died.”
“What do we do now, then?” Alvis asked.
Reyn pulled a face. “We sleep on the floor, I guess,” he said. “We can sort all of this out in the morning.”
“So long as I get to sleep in a bed at some point, I’m fine,” Sharla said, stretching and clearly eyeing up the floor for the most comfortable spot. “Can we use anything to plug the gaps in the windows? It might rain.”
“It doesn’t rain down here,” Reyn said, and Shulk’s mouth dropped open. He supposed it made sense, seeing as this spot was so sheltered, but he hadn’t even thought about the possibility that it might not rain at all .
“It could still get a bit chilly,” Alvis reasoned. “Is there really nothing at all that we can use to keep the wind out?”
“Riki no think so,” Riki said, trotting around the edges of the large room they were in. “Reyn house stripped clean like peachy leg joint!”
“He’s got that right,” Reyn said, managing a light chuckle. “It’s fine, it’s not like the nights get particularly bitter here. We can get some stuff in the morning, if that’s alright with everyone.”
“It’s fine,” Shulk said, moving to sit down on the floor. “It’s not super uncomfortable down here.”
“Well, it looks like someone isn’t going to be cold,” Sharla said with a laugh, watching as Reyn lay down right next to him. “Hey Riki, do you fancy keeping me or Alvis warm?”
Shulk couldn’t help but smile as the three of them bickered on, chasing away the house’s silence. In turn, he curled in closer next to Reyn, throwing an arm over his body to keep him close through the night. Reyn looked down into his eyes, a tired smile on his face.
“You alright?” Reyn asked.
“Yeah,” Shulk said. A little unsure of what this could all mean for the future, but fine. There was something about Colony 9 that helped him feel like he could relax a little. Maybe, possibly, the immediate future would bring a little respite.
Chapter 28: Recognisable
The group run some errands in Colony 9 the next day.
“Right,” Reyn said, standing in front of the door the next morning. “There’s no food in the cupboards and we’re running out of fresh food in our supplies, so we need something for breakfast.”
“Oooh, Riki want to go!” Riki said, because of course he did.
“I’ll go too,” Sharla volunteered. “We should probably split so Reyn and I aren’t together - I can’t see Shulk or Alvis getting a fair price for anything.”
“Right you are,” Reyn said. “Could you try and get something for the windows, too? Some cloth would be fine, until we can get them fixed.”
“Sure thing,” Sharla said. “What are you off to do?”
“Going to a friend’s place,” Reyn explained. “I just want to catch up with him a little, see what the word is around here about everything going on, and maybe ask for some blankets or something to make this place a little comfier.”
“Are you going to tell him the truth?” Alvis asked. Reyn shrugged, and then nodded. “Is he that trustworthy?”
“Absolutely,” Reyn said firmly. “I’d trust him with my life.”
Alvis nodded. “Well, you will be,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah, alright,” Reyn said. “Wouldn’t hurt you to lighten up a little, would it?”
Alvis just smiled. “It wouldn’t,” he said. “But I won’t.”
Shulk decided that was a good time to head towards the door, before the bickering could continue. “Which way are we headed?” he asked.
“Just follow me,” Reyn said, moving ahead of Shulk as they went out into the street. There were far more people out and about than before, and Shulk felt uneasy with all the eyes on him.
Reyn walked them across one bridge and then left to cross another. More than once, he was stopped on the way by people who were clearly curious about who they were. “Who are your friends?” one man asked, just as Sharla and Riki attempted to head towards a food stall.
“Travellers from further up the Bionis,” Reyn explained. “There’s a bit of disturbance up there, so it’s safer to travel in groups right now.”
It was a half truth at best, but fortunately the man didn’t press. “Disturbance, eh? What’s going on up there, then? If you know.”
“‘Course I know, Leopold!” Reyn answered. “You know I’m never far from all the juiciest news up there. There’s a bit of a succession problem, the old Zanza died a few weeks back. Shulk is set to take over, but it’s...well, politics. That’s why I’m down here and not up there.”
“You’re not up there protecting him?” Leopold asked. “And there I thought he was usually your first priority.”
Reyn shook his head, and Shulk watched as Alvis stifled a smile. “He has allies,” he said, “but it’s all a bit messy. There’s talk of ending the war, and you know me and my big mouth, I’d just get in the way.”
Leopold’s jaw dropped. “ Ending the war?” he asked. “Gods, Reyn, why didn’t you lead with that? That’s news worth stopping you for.”
Reyn shrugged. “It’s all up in the air, and my news is several days old,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll hear something else within a couple weeks.”
Leopold huffed. “Well, I’m more inclined to listen to your news than whatever third hand crap will end up here in the next few weeks,” he said. “Thanks for your time, I’ll spread the word. You off to see Dunban?”
Reyn nodded. “It’s been a while,” he said.
“It really has,” Leopold said. “About that, anyway-”
“Sorry,” Reyn said with a grimace. “We sorta need to get moving. Lots to do today, I’m sure you get it.” With barely another word from Leopold, Reyn continued to lead them through the marketplace.
“This is the big ether lamp,” Reyn explained. “If anyone does get split up, it’s probably easiest to meet back here. But once you and Riki are done, Sharla, just head back to the house - we might be a while at Dunban’s.”
“Sure thing,” Shara said. “More food for us.”
“Hey, we’re operating on a limited-”
“I know, Reyn,” Sharla said with a laugh. “You think I can’t strike a bargain? You go ahead and see your friend - we’ll be waiting.”
Once Sharla and Riki split off from their group, Reyn led them another short distance towards the other end of the Colony. Shulk recognised it as the other entrance they’d passed on their way in the night before.
“A couple more people live on this end,” Reyn said, “including the man we’re going to see.” His face split into a grin as he spoke; come to think of it, Shulk did recognise the name Dunban. Reyn had definitely mentioned him before, probably in glowing compliments.
Reyn knocked on the door twice, and a voice came from within. “Come in, it’s unlocked!” the inhabitant called, and Reyn frowned before opening it.
“That’s odd,” Reyn said. The lower floor of the house was untidy but decidedly empty.
“That was Dunban’s voice, right?” Shulk asked, keeping his voice low. Reyn nodded.
“Just come on up!” Dunban called again, and Reyn’s frown deepened. One after the other, the three of them scaled the stairs, which opened out into a large bedroom.
“You alright, Dunban?” Reyn asked, approaching the bed. A man lay there, almost unmoving. Shulk’s eyes were immediately drawn to a series of long, jagged scars that crawled up his uncovered left arm.
“Right as rain, even,” Dunban said with a small laugh. “It’s been a while, Reyn. How much of the story-” he gestured towards his injured arm with the uninjured one- “would you like?”
“Whatever you want to tell,” Reyn said, pulling an extra chair up next to the bed. “We’re not really on a time limit, especially not when it comes to catching up with you. What happened?”
“A stroke of very bad luck, mixed with foolishness,” Dunban said. “I was called to serve again, for a while.” Shulk could see where this was going; another life ruined by his father’s war. “It’s a little difficult to avoid, with my kind of record.”
“Of course,” Reyn said. Now, Shulk remembered - Dunban was as close as Colony 9 got to a war hero.
“It was probably one of the last major battles before the pause in the war,” he explained. “It was a fast little bastard, too many legs. It latched on to the end of my sword, and before I could let go, released some kind of electrical charge that went right up my arm.”
“Ouch,” Reyn said. The wounds still looked bad; nearly fresh, even. It couldn’t have been that long ago, even if the war felt like an age away to Shulk.
“Ouch indeed,” Dunban agreed. “I’m unlikely to be able to use the arm again, apparently. I’ve been written off active service for the rest of my life as a result.”
“And you’re doing okay?” Reyn asked.
Dunban paused for a moment, and then nodded. “Mostly,” he answered. “Of course it’s frustrating, being as I am now, and things are far more difficult than I ever could have imagined with only one arm, but people take care of me.”
“Glad to hear it,” Reyn said, a small smile in his voice. He still sounded pretty torn up, though, and Shulk didn’t think he could blame him. It couldn’t be easy to see this, to miss this happening to someone Reyn clearly cared about a lot.
Dunban smiled back at him, only a hint of pain in his expression. Then, his eyes moved towards Shulk and Alvis, sat just a short distance away, and his expression lit up in recognition. “Ah!” he said. “This is Shulk, then?”
For a moment, Shulk considered denying it. Even though Reyn had assured him it was safe to tell at least part of the truth, he didn’t know if someone having the truth of his identity was a good idea; especially as it looked like Dunban wouldn’t be able to defend himself if Zanais came knocking.
Reyn chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “This is Shulk.”
“He fits the description,” Dunban said, and Shulk shifted uncomfortably under the force of his gaze. He got the distinct impression that Reyn used to talk about him a lot when he was at home, and he wasn’t sure he liked what that implied about what the people of Colony 9 knew about him.
“I’d be rather interested in hearing what that description is,” Alvis said, and Shulk and Reyn turned in tandem to shoot him a warning look. He raised an eyebrow. “Hair like soft-”
“Oi, watch it,” Reyn warned, and Alvis laughed.
Dunban laughed with him, and for a horrible moment when he opened his mouth, Shulk thought he was going to be embarrassed with exactly what Reyn used to say about him. “Enough about me,” he said instead, “what are you all doing here? You’re about as far away as you can get from the head.”
Dunban listened in silence as Reyn explained the truth - the full truth. The previous Lord Zanza’s death, Shulk’s aims, their escape from Zanais, Alcamoth, Makna Forest, Colony 5, and the last few days of travelling down the rest of the Bionis. “Also,” Reyn finished, “the house got stripped of almost everything a while ago and we need to be able to sleep. Is there any chance you have some spares we can grab or know where we can get some bedding?”
“Plenty, take whatever you need for now - the cloth merchant will be in the Colony again within the next few days,” Dunban said with a laugh. “Though that’s quite an entertaining request to make after the tale you just told. You’re taking quite the serious endeavour here.”
“We sure are,” Reyn said. “And we’re going to see it through to the end.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything else from the mighty Shulk,” Dunban replied. “What was it that you said about him again…?”
“Right, right, okay, that’s enough,” Reyn said, standing abruptly from his chair as Dunban laughed. “Thanks for your help, Dunban. I’ll stop by again soon, alright?”
“I look forward to it,” Dunban said with a smile.
They gathered up a pile of blankets from a cupboard downstairs and left soon afterwards, thanking Dunban again for his time. As they made their way back towards the commercial district, Shulk froze.
It had been a while since he’d experienced a vision, and it was no less jarring this time. In a scene blurred slightly with blue, Dunban stood. There was a sword clutched in his left arm and tears in his eyes. In front of him, a Mechon loomed large.
A Mechon with a face.
Shulk blinked as he returned to the present. Immediately, Reyn was next to him, his face full of concern. “Another vision?” he asked. That had Alvis’ eyes moving to Shulk too, and he let out a shaky breath.
“Later,” he said. He didn’t know exactly what the vision meant, but in public wasn’t the place to discuss it. “We can talk about it when we get back.”
“If you’re sure,” Alvis said, and Shulk nodded. He needed a moment to turn the vision over in his head, anyway. There was so much. So many things that were unsure, not least of all that Mechon.
Just as they crossed back towards the residential district, someone came to stop Reyn again. “Good to see ya again, Reyn!” the man said, standing almost directly in their path. His eyes fell almost immediately on Shulk.
“Dickson!” Reyn greeted with a grin. This wasn’t a name that Shulk recognised, though the man’s face seemed somehow familiar. “You back in the Colony for a bit?”
“For a while, actually,” he answered. “Meddling in all the stuff going on up north isn’t quite my speed.”
“I thought it’d be just your style,” Reyn said. “Unlike me. It’s a bit hectic up there for my tastes.”
Dickson shrugged. “Normally I’d say you were right,” he said, his eyes still fixed on Shulk. “But I think the real action is going on down here.” With that, he stepped aside. “Well, I won’t keep you,” he said.
Shulk tried not to meet the man’s eyes as they passed. There was something unnerving about him. “Who was that?” he asked, voice low as they continued back towards Reyn’s house.
“Oh, that’s just Dickson,” Reyn said. “Pay him no mind, he’s a character and he likes it that way. He moves around a lot and knows a lot of things, but he keeps most of it to himself. If he knows more about all this than he’s letting on, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’m also not worried.”
Shulk nodded, but couldn’t stop himself from shooting a glance back over his shoulder as they continued down the path. Dickson was still watching them.
Back at the house, they sat in a circle to eat some of the breakfast Sharla and Riki had prepared while they were gone, and Shulk could finally put words to the vision he’d seen. “I just don’t know what it means,” he said. “Machina have faces, but Mechon don’t. This was definitely a Mechon.”
“Where do you think it took place?” Sharla asked.
Shulk frowned, trying to recall the landscape. There was greenery, but also metal structures of some kind. Old metal structures. “It wasn’t anywhere on Bionis, that’s for sure,” he said. But that was all he could know for certain.
“And Dunban definitely held the sword in his left hand?” Reyn checked. Shulk nodded. “Strange. Dunban is right handed, but there’s also his injury. I wonder why you saw that.”
“Dundun used to be Mechon fighter, yes?” Riki asked, and Reyn nodded. “Can Shulk see past?”
This time, Alvis shook his head. “That was definitely a vision of the future,” he said. “No Homs has visited Mechonis in years. We don’t know when, or how, but Dunban will travel to Mechonis and see a faced Mechon.”
“I didn’t think Mechon even had faces,” Sharla said, and Shulk nodded.
“They don’t,” he confirmed. “There’s never been a Mechon with a face. Some of them are vaguely humanoid sometimes, but nothing like that. It was like- a person, really. Just without any of the...people parts.”
Sharla thought for a moment before shaking her head. “I just don’t understand,” she said. “That vision could mean anything, but we don’t know what that is until it happens. What’s even the point of an ability like that?”
“It’s more use than you’d think,” Alvis said. “Either way, we clearly cannot work more of it out now. Whatever the vision showed, its true meaning will become clear in time. That we can be sure of.”
Chapter 29: Limits
With a long time in Colony 9 ahead of them, the party have to work out how to make some money.
Warning during this chapter for some brief ableism - if that's something you'd rather avoid, skip from “Mostly, anyway. I’ll be doing better with some more time.” down to "He opened his mouth to speak again, and that was when Shulk managed to catch Reyn’s eye. He came over immediately."
The day wore on, and once the house was cleaned up a little it looked a lot more like they’d be able to stay for a while and not be horrendously uncomfortable. “How long do you think we should stay?” Sharla asked.
Reyn glanced at Shulk, who pursed his lips. Another decision to make. “A month or two?” he suggested. “We have time, but it’s not infinite. We don’t want to give the council up in Zanais a chance to reformulate their approach to this.”
“But we still have to stay off their radar for a while,” Alvis added. “If they know where we are, other people could be in danger, and if they know our aims and when we’ll be fulfilling them then they’ll block our path.”
“Two months is a pretty long time,” Reyn said. “We’re going to have to work and earn some money, especially with travelling to Valak Mountain to account for later.” Riki started shivering at the mere thought of it, and Shulk felt a pit of dread open in his stomach. Of course they hadn’t brought enough to last them.
“That should be fine, right?” Shulk asked, and Reyn shot him a reassuring nod. “Great,” he said. “We’ll get on that tomorrow, then.”
The next day, it was Reyn and Sharla who went out to ask around about what they could do to pick up a little extra money. The stocks they had for now were perfectly fine - more than fine, even, but Shulk could see how they’d dwindle with time. They wouldn’t be able to rely on charity when it was so important that the people of Colony 9 didn’t mind their presence here. It was safer for everyone that way.
“Well, we have good news and bad news,” Sharla said when she returned, Reyn in tow.
“The good news?” Alvis asked.
“There’s work to be had, and we can pick up some money like that,” Sharla says.
“That is good news,” Shulk said, a note of suspicion entering his voice. “What’s the bad news?”
“It’s hard work,” Reyn said. “Fieldwork. It’s something pretty much everyone has to chip in with and they always need an extra hand, but it’s pretty rough physically.”
Shulk frowned. That was definitely bad news, at least for him. He’d never done anything like that before, and he wasn’t exactly the most physically fit person in the world. He was better at that kind of thing now he’d done so much walking since leaving Zanais, but he still wasn’t anywhere close to the kind of stamina Reyn had.
Everyone was looking at him, too; they knew it was him who’d struggle the most with this proposal. “I think that sounds fine,” he said. “I can try, at least.”
“Thanks, Shulk,” Reyn said, a definite note of relief in his tone.
So the next day, they went out almost at the break of dawn (helped, of course, by the fact that they still didn’t have windows) to help in the fields. The fields themselves were just beyond the exit of the Colony, and they were long, thin strips of land that hugged the cliffs. Now Shulk understood why they needed to work so hard on it - it was a wonder they got enough to feed the Colony out of land like this.
And it was hard work. For a while, it was fine - Shulk had a little bit of stamina, a good night of sleep, and food in his stomach. There was plenty he could do. But after a while, he started to get tired. His breathing came in short bursts, and each breath brought an ache to his lungs that spread to his whole body.
He took a break when his vision started to swim a little. He half walked and half stumbled to the side of the field, his ankle screaming at him. He stood there for a while, catching his breath and taking slow, tentative sips from the water he’d brought with him. He’d be fine with time, he was sure.
With the way he ached when he shifted from one foot to the other, though, he wasn’t so certain.
He stayed for a while, probably longer than he should have, but the thought of dragging himself back to the centre of the field made his breath catch in his lungs. Eventually, an older man came over. “Doing alright there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Shulk said, his voice coming out far weaker than he wanted it to. The man raised an eyebrow at him. “Mostly, anyway. I’ll be doing better with some more time.”
“You’re from the upper Bionis, aren’t you?” the man asked after a while.
“Yes,” Shulk answered, a little wary. There wasn’t any point in hiding it, he supposed. “I’m from Alcamoth, but I travelled down here with Reyn for a while.”
“If you were from around here, you wouldn’t have to take a break after an hour of fieldwork.” There was something close to derision in the man’s voice, and Shulk felt his heart stop for just a moment. He didn’t want to think about where this conversation was going to go. “You wouldn’t have that kind of problem at all.”
The man’s eyes were on Shulk’s ankle, wrapped in its brace as usual, and Shulk frowned. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “Technically. I was injured in conditions that don’t exist this far down the Bionis.” Strictly speaking, he didn’t know exactly how he was injured in the first place, but there were no icy mountains down here and he was pretty sure the snow on Valak had something to do with how badly he’d been injured back then.
“Sickly kids don’t tend to last down here,” the man observed, and Shulk gripped his flask a little tighter. He did not need to hear this from someone else. He’d told it to himself enough already. “We can’t afford to coddle people who can’t apply themselves in a way that matters.”
Shulk threw the idea of ‘making sure the people of Colony 9 liked him’ to the wind. “I have my own skills, actually,” Shulk said, his voice tight. “The fact that they’re not used in a field doesn’t make them lesser.” And as Reyn had often told him, even if he had no skills at all it wouldn’t make him any less.
Shulk couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that much, but he had enough belief in himself that he could at least dismiss what the man was trying to imply. “I’m sure you do,” he said, but he didn’t look satisfied. He opened his mouth to speak again, and that was when Shulk managed to catch Reyn’s eye. He came over immediately.
“Heya, Shulk,” Reyn said, stopping just short of where Shulk and the other man were leaning against the fence. He pulled himself to his full height and shot a look at the man. “You doing okay?”
Shulk glanced at the man next to him and then shook his head. “I think I should head back,” he admitted. As much as he wanted to be able to keep going, he didn’t think his ankle would let him. He’d only hurt more over it later if he pushed on now.
“Sure thing,” Reyn said, his tone carefully cheerful. Shulk knew it wasn’t anything directed at him, though - it was about how that other man felt, what he’d said. “I’ll help you get back to the house.”
Shulk smiled up at him and watched as Reyn shot another very meaningful look at the older man. He didn’t often see Reyn when he was trying to look scary, but he could recognise it. This was definitely one of those times.
Reyn slung an arm around Shulk’s shoulder as they made their way back to the house, letting Shulk lean his weight on him. Each step shot stabbing pain up his leg, and Shulk was very, very glad he hadn’t even tried to go back to those fields. It was a wonder he hadn’t collapsed earlier.
“Right,” Reyn said the moment Shulk sat down on one of the makeshift beds on the floor. “What did he say?”
“You don’t need to worry about it,” Shulk said. Enough damage had been done already with him responding in the way he did. Reyn would probably be even less controlled, and they couldn’t afford for that to happen. “It’s not important anyway. I only really want to say...I’m sorry. For not being able to do this.”
“Nope,” Reyn said, and Shulk looked up at him. There was concern painted all over his face. “I’m not accepting an apology for something you don’t need to apologise for, alright? I shouldn’t have asked you to do it in the first place, I knew you were all brains and minimal brawn.”
Shulk paused. He didn’t know if he could quite believe what Reyn was saying, but Reyn was an up front person. He’d have to take it at face value, or they’d never get anywhere. “Okay,” he said. “It’s fine to say that, but what can I do? I want to help.”
Reyn hummed, clearly thinking for a moment. “I’ll take you over to the weapons development lab in the military district tomorrow,” he said. “You can talk about all your machine stuff and maybe they’ll be able to fit you into the team over there.”
“And if they can’t?” Shulk knew plenty about tightly controlled military budgets from the few months he’d spent filling in for his father, and he knew that the work done down here couldn’t be all that well-funded.
Reyn shrugged. “You have more education than probably almost anyone else in the Colony,” he said. “If you’re up for it, you could do some teaching. You’re good with kids.”
Shulk chuckled. He’d object, but Reyn had seen him in Frontier Village. There might be something to the proposal, at least. “That sounds like a good option,” he said. Reyn nodded, and there was a moment of slightly uncomfortable silence as he shifted on his feet. “You should get back,” he suggested.
“Yeah,” Reyn said. “You’ll be alright on your own?”
“Of course,” Shulk said. He’d be bored, sure, because they hadn’t got their hands on books or anything like that yet (if they ever would, considering the limits they’d have to place on spending), but he’d be fine.
“If you’re sure,” Reyn said, crouching down to kiss Shulk briefly before he left. Shulk smiled slightly to the empty house and tried to ignore the pain in his body. Hopefully things would be okay.
He still ached a lot the next day, but he could move more easily than before. The real struggle was staying still; all through the early morning, Shulk felt full to the brim with nervousness about the day to come.
He couldn’t shake the feeling as Reyn walked with him over to the military district. Especially given his scrape with the soldiers of Colony 5, he felt pretty wary letting Reyn anywhere near someone with a gun again. The nervousness persisted even as Reyn reassured him that he trusted the people down here, and because of Sharla’s attention he was doing a lot better anyway.
That apprehension melted away the moment they entered the lab. They were barely through introductions before Shulk was pulled into a conversation about one of the machines that a researcher was taking apart. It was fascinating, and the work being done was so advanced despite the equipment being significantly out of date. Reyn left a few minutes later, laughing to himself as he went.
“We don’t have much spare budget,” one of the researchers admitted, when Shulk was elbows deep in some Mechon casing that had fallen down from above, “but an extra pair of hands is worth shuffling the money around a little. If you’re willing to lend a hand, we’ll be happy to take it up with-”
“What’s all this racket?” came a call from the top of the staircase. Everyone in the room stilled slightly at the sound of the man’s voice, and Shulk too stopped what he was doing. This was probably his fault, after all.
“Sorry, sir,” one of the researchers said, stepping forwards. “Reyn came in with a friend who knows his way around mechanics, and-”
“Oh, Shulk!” Dickson said, his previously stern face almost immediately splitting into a smile. “I can’t say I’m surprised to see you here. You a fan of machines?”
“I’ve studied them a lot,” he explained, trying to still the slight nervous shake in his hands. “Obviously I don’t have a lot of experience working with them, especially not first hand like here, but I have a theoretical grounding, and-”
“I think he’s up for it,” one of the researchers said. “I know we have to stretch the money around a little anyway, but we have a lot of material and not enough people or time to go through it.”
“I hear you,” Dickson said, moving closer to the centre of the room. He held a hand out to Shulk, a small smile on his face. “I’ll offer you a job, if you think you can handle it.”
Shulk reached out and shook his hand. “I’ll do my best,” he promised. He could see this working out.
Chapter 30: Future
Their time in Colony 9 draws towards its end, and Shulk thinks about the future.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Time wore on in the Colony, and they settled into a routine easier than Shulk expected. Past their initial suspicion and general dislike of strangers from higher up the Bionis meddling in their business, people were very welcoming, and once they warmed up they were downright friendly.
Weeks passed with Shulk working in the weapon development lab and the rest of their group alternating between shifts helping in the fields and the occasional hand lent in defence force training by Sharla or teaching by Alvis. It wasn’t always easy work, but for Shulk every day was interesting and he felt like he learned new things all the time.
It was...good, honestly. With a little breathing room, he felt different to before, and Reyn’s easy familiarity with the rest of the Colony meant that he actually made a handful of friends.
Dunban was a constant, of course. They went round several times a week, and a few times Dunban visited them in the house that slowly developed into a home. They’d filled it with furniture and as the weeks went by the odd piece of clutter started to creep in too; it became a familiar space, one Shulk was always happy to return to.
Despite the friendliness, however, there were some boundaries that couldn’t be scaled through familiarity and a handful of weeks. A lack of shared history was definitely one of them, and it occasionally left them searching for answers. “Dunban’s house seems very large,” Alvis commented one evening. “Did others used to live there?”
“Alvis,” Sharla warned, “that’s not really any of our business - it’s Dunban’s.”
Reyn shrugged. “It’s not a secret - he used to live with his sister and parents. They’re all long gone now; his parents died fighting the Mechon years back, long before I can remember, and his sister...well, she just sort of vanished years ago now. Everyone’s pretty sure she’s dead too.”
“Oh, that’s so sad,” Sharla said. Her face was twisted into the troubled frown that told Shulk she was thinking, as she often did, about her brother. “It must be terrible, not knowing whether people dear to you are dead or alive, but having to assume the worst. No wonder he’s so carefully put together.”
“Dunban just isn’t a sad kind of person,” Reyn said with another shrug. “He’s basically just the coolest person ever. Even if it sucks that Fiora’s gone, he just kept going on like it was nothing! There’s nothing that can get him down, because he sees the good in everything. That’s what makes him so great.” He sounded proud, even.
Sharla let out a small laugh. “If you say so,” she said. There was something else she wasn’t saying, but Shulk wasn’t inclined to ask her what it was. Even though he knew her so much better now, Sharla was a private sort of person. There were lots of things he didn’t know about her, and he was pretty sure it was because she didn’t want it known.
Bar the handful of hiccups, however, things in Colony 9 were good. It all got off to a rough start, of course, but most things tended to. Now they were settled in, everything was actually - well, Colony 9 hadn’t changed much since they moved in, and Shulk’s overwhelming first impression was that it was peaceful.
Now, he knew better than ever that peaceful was exactly the word to describe it. He could almost...he could see himself living in Colony 9. Being happy here.
It wasn’t a happy realisation, though, and any time he caught himself relaxing at the sound of birdsong or eagerly anticipating another day in the lab, Shulk was reminded that there were so many things going on beyond the confines of the Colony. In the absence of Lord Zanza and the Monado, news from the top of the Bionis was suspiciously absent. Shulk knew something had to be happening up there - but he couldn’t know what.
All he knew was that the soldiers of Colony 9 that were serving in the Bionis Army at the time the war paused had not returned to the Colony. None of them had been declared dead, but none of them had come back for any kind of leave. They were still there, as were the forces from other Colonies, and everyone knew what that meant; someone, somewhere, had decided that the war wasn’t ending just yet. Even if it couldn’t continue.
With each day came a renewed reminder that Shulk had a goal to fulfil. He had to end the cycle of suffering on the Bionis and Mechonis, and then he had to take up the mantle of Lord Zanza and make sure it stayed that way.
He didn’t want to do it. He hated that when this quest was over, he’d have to settle into the governing and politics he never asked for. He was happy to take it up if it meant that people didn’t have to suffer, but he wasn’t happy that it had to be him.
It was hard to enjoy the peace quite so much with the constant knowledge of its impending end hanging over his head. Even if the war never resumed, even if it formally ended , he would never get to know peace.
They were coming towards the end of their time in the Colony when it happened. They were in the middle of a meal, one of the last ones they were due to invite Dunban round for, and it was- good. It always was; between them, they’d managed to pick up quite a knack for cooking at least something everyone liked, so the group meals where they had a guest or two around were always Shulk’s favourite days.
He got visions fairly frequently, but they were usually trivial things. Sometimes he got up in the morning and saw that he might drop something in the lab that day, at which point he paid closer attention to his tools and his grip on them. Sometimes he picked up a vegetable and saw the expression that would grace Riki’s face when he put it in a soup.
This wasn’t trivial. This was the large, ceremonial church in Zanais. This was Shulk, dressed in a suit, in front of the altar. This was someone he’d never seen before in a dress and veil walking up the aisle.
This was Reyn, sitting in the front row, clearly not marrying Shulk but instead having to watch as Shulk married someone else.
Shulk blinked tears out of his eyes as the vision cleared, and when he looked up, everyone was watching him. “Shulk?” Reyn asked. “You had a vision, right? Everything okay?”
Everyone looked so concerned, Reyn included, but all Shulk could think about was the look on Reyn’s face in the vision when he’d turned to watch the woman walk up the aisle. “I need some fresh air,” he said, pushing his chair away from the table and almost sprinting out of the room. If anyone called after him, he didn’t hear it.
He walked as fast as he could through the evening sun of the residential district and out towards the back of the Colony. From there, he knew where he needed to go; he scaled all the steps that led up to Outlook Park and stayed there, overlooking the Colony.
Seeing how small it was from up here didn’t make him feel any better. It just made him feel even smaller.
His thoughts whirled around in useless circles while he sat there, watching the sun set around him and the stars grow brighter in the sky. No one came looking for him, and Shulk honestly didn’t know if he felt good or bad about that. He didn’t want to see anyone else right now, but…
He really needed Reyn to hold him and tell him things were going to be okay.
He sat there for what felt like an age without really feeling any better. Eventually, he heard footsteps ascending the steps. He knew it was probably just a soldier from the defence force, checking why someone was out so late, but he felt something leap in his chest anyway.
“Shulk?” It was Dunban. “May I join you?”
Shulk sighed. “Sure,” he said. There was no real point in turning him away. Was there a point in anything at all, if things were going to end up like that vision?
“You know,” Dunban said after a moment of silence. His tone was careful, but his words didn’t sound rehearsed. “This was Fiora’s favourite spot in the whole Colony. When she was a child, she used to play up here with Reyn for hours on end.”
“Tell me about her?” Shulk asked. He’d never asked Dunban about the conspicuous absence in his home, the one they all knew was there.
“I suppose you’ve heard a little about her,” Dunban said. He sighed. “She was my little sister. There are children in the Colony now who don’t even remember that she ever existed, but when she was here - she was a bright light to everyone. She was stubborn, but so caring, and she believed so fiercely in everything she did.”
Dunban stayed silent for a few seconds, and when Shulk looked over, his hands were shaking a little. He shook his head. “There’s no point thinking about it now. It’s all in the past, and it’s better to look forwards than backwards. If you look ahead, you can’t trip on the things to come.”
He looked up at Shulk, clearly anticipating a reply, but Shulk hesitated. He didn’t know if looking ahead really helped, not when the future seemed so bleak.
“What’s weighing on you that makes it so hard to agree?” Dunban asked. Shulk winced; he was so obvious.
It was easier than he expected to explain. He went through the whole thing: his feelings about Colony 9, his worries about moving on. The vision, which he knew he couldn’t share with anyone else. It would hurt too many people.
When he was done, Dunban hummed. “That is a tricky one,” he said, as if Shulk had just handed him an unfinished puzzle. “You can change your visions, yes? They’re not set in stone.”
Shulk nodded. “Yes, I can.” Theoretically.
“Well, change it then.”
“If only it was so easy,” he said with a chuckle. “I can’t see that happening. Not even in the literal sense- I more mean… A marriage is planned so far in advance. It’s not like I can’t see it coming or anything. There must be a reason I choose to do that in the future, but I don’t know what it is, and-” And it scared him to think of what must push him to that.
Dunban nodded. “It’s certainly difficult,” he said. “But you know it’s coming, and now you know to keep your eyes on your happiness, right?” Shulk nodded, unsure of where he was going. “Maybe there’s a way for you to make that vision happier, and that’s why you saw it.”
“You’re right,” he said. There was always a reason to his visions, even if they weren’t immediately evident when he had them. From the smallest thing to the largest, they had a purpose . “Thank you, Dunban.”
“It’s no problem,” Dunban said. They lapsed into silence for a while, both of them sitting there and watching the stars.
“Why did you come all the way up here?” Shulk asked. Tentatively, he hoped that Dunban came to check on him, but they would have sent someone else if that was everyone’s aim. There must have been something else too.
“I wanted to see you were alright,” Dunban said, “but I also wanted to ask you something: I’d like to come with you to the Mechonis.”
“What?” Shulk asked. Dunban had barely left the Colony in all the time they’d been here. He was by no means ill, at least not anymore, but he didn’t go out much either. “Why all the way to Mechonis?”
“Do you know what happened to my sister?” Dunban asked. After a moment of hesitation, Shulk shook his head. He knew vaguely, but not completely. People didn’t tend to talk about it. “She disappeared during a Mechon raid, never to be seen again. She’s probably dead, but I want… She was young, Shulk. Not a military threat or even close to one. Just a child without parents, in the wrong place at the wrong time. I need to know why.”
“I understand,” Shulk said. Needing answers for something that happened in the past was a feeling he was no stranger to, and if Dunban could obtain some kind of closure by speaking to the Machina, maybe finding out what happened that day, he was happy to give him that opportunity. “So long as you think it’s safe for you to come with us.”
“Don’t count me out,” Dunban said with a laugh. “I may not have my right arm, but I can still fight.”
In that moment, something fell into place. Shulk’s vision of Dunban facing down a Mechon, sword in hand...it had to be a vision of the Mechonis, just as they’d thought. When Dunban came with them, he would see a faced Mechon, and it looked unnervingly to Shulk as if he would want to strike it down.
“Dunban,” he said. Dunban looked at him, a questioning expression forming on his face. “Whatever you do when you find your answers...let it be driven by understanding rather than rage. We’ve seen enough bloodshed.”
Dunban looked at him strangely, but nodded. “Of course, Shulk,” he said, standing from the bench. Shulk stood with him, finally feeling as if he could bear seeing everyone else again. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
Okay! I've absolutely adored working extensively on this fic this month (I've written ~18k for it this month), but from here updates may slow down a little. I fully intend to complete this fic to the best of my ability, though it may take a couple of months still! I want to see this story finished, though, so I WON'T abandon it like I did before