Chapter 1: Flames on the Blue
Lucina stared out at a tumultuous sea. The smell of burnt flesh still lingered in the salty air. Bits of charred wreckage bobbed up and down in the rough waves; the smoke that clogged the sky made it difficult to discern, but it seemed that a storm was brewing across the horizon. Lucina paid little mind to that though; her thoughts lingered on the innumerable dead the clash with the Valmese navy had produced. How many men had died today? How many people had lost their fathers? Their husbands? Their sons?
"Excuse me, Princess. Can I have a word?"
Lucina sighed, and turned to face the person she least wanted to see at this moment: Her father's murderer, Robin.
"Is this a bad time?" he asked in response to her glare.
Lucina considered firing back the same question at him; his face was haggard, he had bags under his eyes, and he hadn't bothered to shave the stubble growing on his chin. This was natural, though, given the weight he must currently be experiencing for enacting a plan that had killed so many in such a merciless way.
She blinked. Wait, that's not right. Something like that couldn't possibly bother someone like him. Not given what he will go on to do.
"Say what you wish," she said tensely.
Robin looked away, as if trying to decide how to phrase what he was about to say. This was unusual; generally, the tactician knew whatever he was going to say long before he did so.
"Did... Did I do ever something like this?" he asked, gesturing to the sea. "In your time, I mean."
Lucina wanted to scream. She wanted to throttle him. This is nothing compared to what you did!
Instead, she controlled herself. "Nothing quite like this," she said in a measured tone. "You enacted many clever traps against the Valmese forces, but in my time you fought them ten years from now, in Ylisse, and did not have the means to execute a plan like this."
"...That so..." Robin murmured, going to place his hands on the railings as he looked out at the water. His back was completely exposed to her.
"I had hoped that the other me had experienced something similar, and that he had arrived at an answer that could justify what I did today. I had hoped that you could aid me with this."
Lucina said nothing.
Robin sighed, then turned to face her. "Hey, Princess, why haven't you tried to kill me yet?"
Lucina's heart leapt into her throat. "Wh-what?! I-I would never-"
"Drop the act. You've wanted me dead since the moment you arrived in this time."
The former exalt was now actively forcing down a panic. She had known Robin was a cunning man, and had been as cautious as she could both in her interactions with him and in her observations of him. She had accepted that it would be impossible to hide her intentions from the tactician completely, but she was not in the slightest prepared for a direct confrontation with him.
"How can you make such a claim?!" she demanded with all of the self-righteousness that she could muster.
"It's simple. In your time, I murdered Chrom."
Lucina stared at him for a brief moment, then drew Falchion before she could even process a thought.
"Don't," Robin warned calmly.
Lucina paused, becoming aware of what she was about to do. She struggled to reign herself in, realizing that Robin was already perfectly positioned in the event that he was forced to fight her.
"You can't beat me," Robin continued, unperturbed. "You're not strong enough. Kjelle is nearly your equal, and I'm sure you saw what happened when she challenged me. And I am far, far more intimate with your fighting style than hers. So I would suggest listening to what I have to say." He smiled a bit sadly. "Besides, think of how sad Chrom would be."
"You-" she hissed.
Robin held his hand up, cutting her off. "Settle down. Though I'm sure you'll reject these words, Chrom is my most important friend. My only friend. I want him to live just as much as you do." He looked at her with a sidelong glance. "For the record, I was just hypothesizing about having killed Chrom in your time. That reaction cleanly proves me right, though."
She glared at him, gaze full of hatred. "How did you come to suspect such a thing?"
"I have a recurring nightmare. The same scene plays out in my dreams over and over again. Chrom and I fight Validar at the Dragon's Table. We defeat him. But in his death throes, he launches a final attack. I push Chrom out of the way, and take the attack in his stead. Validar somehow possesses me, and using my hands, strikes down Chrom."
The former exalt bit down hard on her lip, nearly drawing blood.
"Lucina," Robin continued. "Did you never think it strange that I woke up in that field the very same day you arrived in this time? I still don't know what caused me to lose my memories, but I suspect it's somehow connected to you. And likewise, so is this premonition."
The woman's grip tightened audibly on Falchion's hilt.
"I believe that the me of your time did not kill Chrom out of his own free will."
"Don't think that you can trick me!" Lucina spat.
Robin held up his hand once more. "Allow me to explain. Just give me the chance. After all, the reason you haven't killed me yet is because that's what you wanted to do, right?"
Lucina stepped back, shocked.
Robin had to suppress a grin. "Ah, it would seem another hypothesis has been confirmed. The other Robin was always in full possession of his memories."
Lucina couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Wh-what?!"
"Am I wrong?"
"...You are not. As best as I can deduce, the Robin of my time never had amnesia, and initially approached my father as an ex-Plegian."
"As I thought," the tactician nodded. "Why else would you spare my life? It should have been easy to kill me that first night, when I was still new to the world and couldn't possibly defend myself. Killing me then would've been tantamount to both saving your father and the world in your eyes." He looked back up at Lucina. "Yet you didn't. You allowed countless opportunities to slip through your fingers. And why? That's the question I keep circling back to, the one I have no answer for. Why spare me, when you know what I will go on to do? Perhaps you remember me as some doting uncle? Could it be that some latent affection for that man was what saved me?"
Lucina grimaced. Indeed, she had been fond of her "Uncle" Robin for the short time that she had known him. He had always been a quiet and furtive man, but the way he and her father had acted together, like true and genuine brothers, had given the little Lucina no doubt that the man belong alongside their family in Castle Ylisstol. She could remember the books he was constantly reading, she could remember his blunt but not unkind answers to her questions about the world, but the things that Lucina remembered most about him were his eyes, soft and sad.
It had made her hate him all the more, once she had learned the truth, once Lissa had confessed the revelation left behind by a dying Sir Frederick, the sole witness to Chrom's death. It had caused her rage to burn, to think that it had all been an act, that Robin had deceived them all so that he might commit a most unforgivable sin.
Before making her journey, she had hardened her heart. For the good of the world, for the sake of her father, that man who had been like family would die. But what her heart was not prepared for was finding a young Robin devoid of memory, a completely blank slate. She had been ready to murder a murderer, but was that what Robin would inevitably become now? Surely, Lucina had felt, with her father's guidance, this Robin could be kept off such a path. And so, she had parted ways with them, before the experience of being in her now-living father's presence overwhelmed her rationality and forced her to do something rash.
Many times, she had questioned her decision. Many times, she had felt the nagging urge to run Robin through while his back was turned, to then flee into the night so that her father would never understand what had happened. Lucina could not say with certainty that Robin was a good man. He was callous, and he came to keep his distance from anyone other than Chrom as time went on. But he had kept all of the Shepherds alive so far, something the Robin of her time had failed to do by this point. Because of him, the parents of her friends lived still, and he had yet to exhibit any displays that made her be suspicious of him being a Grimleal. And without question, his loyalty to Chrom was unshakable, no matter what angle Lucina looked at it from. And so, on her orders, the other future-past children, with the lone exception of Kjelle, had held off on attempts at assassinating Robin.
"...Why do you think that the other you did not kill my father?" the princess asked after some time.
Robin shook his head. "No, I'm certain that he did; it's just that he had no agency in the matter. But to answer your question, I think the other Robin, naturally, must have been a lot like me. And if he was, then I would hazard a guess that Chrom was the only person he was close to."
"And what makes you say that?"
He smiled forlornly. "I... I don't allow myself to get close to others easily. I think I finally understand why that is, but..." He waved his hand. "Never mind. That's not important. My point is, the Robin of your time was without question loyal to Ylisse."
Lucina raised an eyebrow. "What are you saying?"
"Think about it. Why would a Grimleal side with Ylisse against Plegia?" A hint of maliciousness gleamed in his eyes. "Do you have any, any idea how easily I could have crushed Ylisse? And that would have been even more so true for the other me. But neither of us did. Why is that? Ylisse is by far the most direct obstacle to the revival of Grima. It makes no sense for one seeking his resurrection to aid her."
There was truth to his words, Lucina had to admit. But one thing bothered her.
"Why... Why would reviving Grima even be a possible goal for you? Why do you speak as if the other Robin was once a Grimleal?"
"Ah, right. I'm jumping ahead of myself a bit. Well, it's not like I intend to hide this from you. It's the point around which everything revolves, after all."
Lucina looked at him in confusion as Robin calmly removed the glove from his right hand. For a moment, Lucina could not breathe as she stared at the Mark of Grima.
"I'm sure you know what this is," Robin said quietly. "Just like how Naga's blood flows through your veins, Grima's does through mine. ...No, actually, it's completely different. I am the chosen vessel of Grima. I am his Heart."
Lucina stood still for a moment, then lunged forward, drawing Falchion in a blur with the intent of striking the tactician down. Having expected this, Robin drew his sword in an instant and locked blades with her.
"You!" she screamed, voice filled with fury and hatred. Before her was the monster that destroyed her world.
"Ah, I see," Robin said somberly. "You didn't know about this part after all. I myself only remembered after Validar, my father, touched my mind. All of my locked up memories came flooding back shortly afterward. I was raised to become Grima incarnate." He grimaced. "No, even before that, I was bred to be so. I never had anything resembling a chance at a normal life."
"Silence!" Lucina shouted. "You expect me to feel pity for you, you damn monster?! How long have you hidden this from us?! From my father?!"
"Chrom already knows," Robin replied. "I told him almost immediately after I remembered."
Lucina nearly stepped back in shock, but managed to keep her pressure on Falchion. "You lie...! It's not possible that he would know this and yet...!"
Robin offered no argument.
"Grima, huh?" Chrom said. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He was sitting on a crate in the supply tent, shortly after the events on Carrion Isle. Robin stood before him. The prince glanced at his tactician. "...That's a bit of a problem."
"A bit of a problem" was a mild understatement. Robin wasn't sure if he should be grateful that Chrom wasn't trying to run him through.
"And you're sure about this?" Chrom asked.
Robin held out his right hand and removed his glove, revealing the Mark of Grima. "Without question. Ever since Validar approached me here, my memories have returned to me one by one. There's no question that he's my father. And now, I know for certain that I was raised to be the vessel for this Fell Dragon your daughter spoke of."
"My daughter..." Chrom blinked, then shook his head. "Sorry. Matter for a different time. I'm still getting used to all of this."
Robin smirked. "Honestly, in retrospect, I'm surprised that you figured out her nature as quickly as you did."
Robin chuckled, but his face became deathly serious a moment afterwards. "Chrom, you should kill me."
It took a moment for Chrom to process what he had just heard, but when he did, he shot to his feet. "Robin, what the hell do you think you're saying?" he shouted angrily.
"It's a simple, rational decision. If I die, the world is instantly saved. Grima cannot manifest without me. It would take centuries before the Grimleal could groom another heir."
"...What of the hierophant?"
Robin blinked, stunned that he had managed to overlook such a significant detail. He stepped away, hand on his chin. "...I do not have a twin brother, as far as I can remember. But it is possible he was kept in seclusion, locked away from the world... A spare vessel..." He turned back toward Chrom. "Well, that just adds an extra step to the plan. Kill me, then kill the hierophant. Oh, and defeat Walhart along the way. I suppose we should leave me alive until I help you take care of the Conqueror; I'm not sure you could handle a campaign like that by yourself. But after that-"
Chrom suddenly grabbed Robin by the shoulders forcefully. "Listen to me carefully, you bastard. I'm not letting you throw away your life like that! I don't care what you're supposed to become, you're my friend, dammit!"
Robin stared at him with wide eyes. "Chrom..."
"Promise me you'll live!"
Robin assessed Chrom quietly, then moved the man's hands off of his shoulders. "...Alright, alright. I promise. I'll try to think of another way. I'll do some reading on Grima."
Chrom gave a heavy sigh as his shoulders slumped. "Naga, Robin, don't scare me like that." He paused, trying to think of a way to lighten the mood. "Imagine how sad little Lucina would be if her favorite babysitter went away."
"Pity the bigger one doesn't care for me much," Robin said as the two exited the tent.
"Hey now, don't get any funny ideas," Chrom grinned. "She's still my daughter."
Robin gazed distantly at the horizon. "Don't worry. Something like that's the farthest thing from my mind."
"Why do you think I'm telling you all this, Lucina?" Robin asked.
"Why should I care?!" she retorted.
"It's because you are the one who has the most right to judge me."
Of all the things Robin could have said, this was not something Lucina was in the least prepared for.
Robin took advantage of this and knocked her back, creating a small distance between the two. "...In honesty, I wasn't even sure if I would go through with this when I came to you," he murmured. "I made a promise to Chrom, but... After today..." He gestured to the surrounding sea bleakly. "...Well, let's just say I've gotten a taste of what I might become, and I don't care for it. Chrom has been going on and on lately about how the future isn't set in stone, but I've never been as much of an optimist as him. Doesn't mesh particularly well with my line of work." He looked back towards Lucina, his eyes intense. "...Lucina, if anyone in this world has the right to decide whether I live or die, it is most certainly you. That is why I have told you everything that I know. If you decide I must die, I will die. If you decide I must live, I will live. Everything is in your hands now."
Lucina had no idea how she was supposed to react.
"So what will you do now?" Robin asked quietly. "Will you try to kill me?"
He dropped his sword. Its clatter against the deck seemed to echo off the sea's waves for an eternity. To Lucina, it was a clear and deliberate invitation. If she truly attempted it, Robin would likely allow her to kill him at this moment. But in her heart, she knew that this fact alone would not permit her to do so.
"...No," she said at long last. "Father believes in you. And you seem truly intent on not letting Validar have his way. And most importantly, I doubt that we will prevail against Valm without your aid. So for the time being, I will give you a chance."
"For the time being."
She nodded. "I will withhold judgment until after Walhart's fall. After that time, I will decide what must be done." With that, she sheathed Falchion.
"...I see. That is... troublesome."
Lucina blinked. "...What?"
He grinned. "Honestly, I had hoped you would kill me here and now. I figured you would agree I needed to die. I didn't think I would be given a chance to get up false hope!"
She could only stare at him, dumbfounded.
Robin laughed. "Well, I'm still waiting for the other boot to drop. No matter how I look at it, disposing of me after we finish off Walhart and the Plegian hierophant is still the most sensible thing to do. I trust you'll make the right choice in the end." He paused, pensive. "...I mean, it's not like I have a right to life, do I...?" He bent down, picked up his sword, sheathed it, and made to take his leave. But he stopped, then turned back toward Lucina. "Oh, one more thing, Princess... If at any time you suspect that I'll turn traitor, I want you to promise me that you'll kill me before I can kill Chrom. Then and there, Walhart be damned."
Once more, Lucina was left nearly speechless. "You... you have my word."
Robin gave a smile similar to a smirk as thanks, then turned and walked away.
Lucina rested her back against a wall, then sank to a sitting position, shaking. Had she made the right decision in granting this man—that monster—reprieve? Had she here and now doomed the world in a moment of weakness?
Robin... Just what are you?
Chapter 2: Smoldering Resistance
Say'ri sprinted down a port city's market street, panting heavily. Behind her, two armored knights were in pursuit. Though Say'ri had the edge in speed, she was exhausted, and the Valmese soldiers were more familiar with the settlement's layout than she was, knowing shortcuts that allowed them to close the gap. Having been disarmed during her attempt on Commander Farber's life, Say'ri now had no choice but to flee.
I pray thee, Naga, allow me to reach the Ylissean League, or all I have done is for naught...!
Waves crashed on the shore of Valm Harbor. Robin trudged along the beach, surveying the Valmese forces as the army made preparations for landfall. He kicked a bit of sand away from him. "Gods, and I thought there was a world's worth of this stuff back in Plegia..." he muttered.
He looked up, becoming aware of a presence. Lucina was approaching him, her movement stiff and edged.
"Hello, Princess. Taking a little stroll, are we?" Robin greeted.
"I have decided that I shall accompany you into battle today," she explained.
"Oh, you decided this, did you?" Robin asked sardonically.
"Yes," Lucina replied, completely oblivious to his sarcasm. "If I am to judge you, then I may not permit myself to do so with inadequate information. Furthermore, I still do not trust you fully. As such, I intend to observe you closely whenever I am able."
"And you came to this decision giving no thought to my intricately-laid battle plans and your already-established role in them, I take it?"
Lucina smiled. "Why, surely accommodating for this adjustment to your plans isn't beyond a grandmaster tactician's ability?" she said with mock innocence.
Robin sighed. Though he wished to say that he couldn't do something like that on such short notice, in truth he always had contingency plans for influential figures such as Chrom, Sumia, Lucina, and Basilio being suddenly incapacitated before a battle began. Illness—or more morbidly, assassination—was always a potentiality. Placing Lucina by his side in a new formation would be a trivial matter.
"...Fine, fine, do what you want. Just don't get in my way. If I wanted to babysit you I'd have never left Ylisstol."
Lucina tilted her head. "I do not follow your meaning."
"It's a joke. The baby- You know what, never mind."
Some minutes later, Robin, Chrom, Frederick, and Lucina were standing at the forefront of the group of Shepherds selected to form the strike team. While the main army held off Valmese forces approaching from the beach, this group would quickly make their way through the port city and strike down the Valmese commander, Farber. The Shepherds Robin had deemed to be ineffectual in this battle had been given strict orders to stay on the ship, both for their own safety and to safeguard against any attempts at commandeering.
Robin and Chrom were discussing last-minute details, while Lucina stood behind them, gaze incessantly wandering from Chrom, to Robin, to the Valmese, and then back to Chrom in an unbroken cycle. Robin could practically feel her eyes boring into the back of his head, but he made no show of noticing. He had nothing to hide, and if Lucina chose to strike him down at any moment, then his only complaint might be one regarding timing.
Just when Robin was about to give the order to advance, Chrom grabbed his shoulder and pointed. A woman whose features were similar to Lon'qu's (Chon'sinese, if Robin remembered correctly) was running through the streets. Frederick noted that she was being pursued, prompting Chrom to loudly declare that they would rescue her. Robin said nothing for or against this, merely observing the woman as she ran. After determining that it was indeed feasible to come to the woman's aid—laughably easy, to do so in fact—Robin turned toward his friend.
"Alright Chrom, quiz time. What's the best way to save that woman?"
Robin had recently taken to teaching Chrom anything he could about strategy and tactics, claiming that it would become necessary at points during this campaign to split up their forces. While Virion was already a quite capable secondary tactician and Chrom was not ignorant of basic warfare, Robin was concerned that they might end up separated for days at a time, necessitating that the exalt be capable of complete autonomy in leading his army.
A back-up plan isn't a back-up plan unless it itself has a built-in back-up plan, as Robin liked to say.
Chrom never argued against these precautions, but in truth he feared that his best friend was preparing him for the event that Robin would take his own life someday in order to avert the threat he would eventually pose as the Heart of Grima.
Focusing on the task at hand, Chrom squinted, surveying the area and assessing the Valmese force's composition and positioning. He tapped a finger to his chin, thinking for a few moments as he accounted for the soldiers under his command.
"I would send some mages to handle the knights that have cornered the woman. Our knights and fighters would protect them from cavalry while our own mounted units run sorties to dispatch the Valmese's own mages."
"Good answer. Completely wrong."
"Lissa. Rescue Staff," Robin commanded.
"On it!" the princess exclaimed cheerfully. She held up her rod, and in a flash of light a ward appeared in the distance around the cornered woman. She was instantaneously whisked away and transported to Lissa's side. Chrom and the woman stared at each other, each respectively dumbfounded. Lucina covered her face with her hand; she couldn't help but be a little embarrassed on her father's behalf. Robin, however, was bent over laughing at his friend's expression, and Lissa was indiscreetly snickering.
"Let's... Let's just get this over with..." Chrom muttered as he raised his hand to signal the attack.
Noire was taking a significant risk. She shouldn't be on this battlefield—had been ordered to stay off it in fact—but nevertheless she was slipping from vendor's stall to vendor's stall, trailing a certain tactician from a distance. She still wasn't sure what exactly she intended to do. Parts of her held Robin in reverence, and parts of her hated him from the bottom of her heart. When she was a small child, Robin was a man that her mother had spoken most highly of. After the exalt's death, however, Tharja had refused to speak of Robin, and once Noire's father was killed, his widow began to openly curse the grandmaster's name.
Noire had never been able to reconcile which of the two was the real Robin, the gallant hero or the depraved murderer, and the Robin she had found upon traveling back in time was a different personality entirely, cold and calculating.
But not cruel. There was a reason Noire wasn't in chains this moment. Even if only in part, Robin had helped save her from a horrid fate.
Noire's innate timidity had prevented her from approaching Robin, and she had had little difficulty adhering to Lucina's orders to refrain from harming him. However, what Lucina had recently revealed to their group was starting to shift her stance on the man.
Lucina's eyes were closed, and her arms were folded in front of her. She seemed to be having difficulty on deciding where to start with what she had to say. Before her sat Kjelle, Noire, Yarne, Severa, Nah, and Laurent in a semi-circle. Though Severa was showing signs of irritation, they each waited patiently; Lucina did not call their group together to discuss trivialities.
At last, Lucina opened her eyes. "What do you all think of Robin?" she asked abruptly.
The group looked to each other in confusion; that was as loaded as a question could get.
"He's strong," Kjelle said simply.
"He's a huge jerkass," Severa scowled.
"H-He's kind of mean, b-but he also doesn't seem all that bad..." Noire stammered.
"He is an outstanding tactician," Laurent stated. "I have determined little else about him, however."
Yarne and Nah looked at each other, then shrugged.
"I haven't been with the Shepherds long enough to form an opinion on him," Nah said.
"Me neither," Yarne added. "He's pretty scary sometimes though..."
Lucina silent for a few moments. "...Robin has regained the memories he had lost."
"So?" Kjelle asked bluntly.
"Why should we care?" Severa added with equal indifference.
"Because, among those memories, Robin found the knowledge that he is the Heart of Grima."
The six went rigid with shock.
"Y-You've got to be kidding me..." Severa muttered. "What the hell?! Is this some kind of joke?!"
"There's no way...!" Nah murmured.
The knight of the group simply stood up, and began to make her way to the cabin door.
"Kjelle, where are you going?" Lucina asked.
"To kill the bastard, of course," Kjelle replied without even turning to regard her liege.
"You will do no such thing."
Kjelle froze in her tracks, and the other five turned to look at Lucina in disbelief.
"...Care to repeat that?" Kjelle demanded.
"Robin has willingly placed his life in my hands. He has given me permission to end him at any time I see fit. As such, though you deserve to know of his true nature, you will not lay hands on him."
"Are you an idiot?" Kjelle asked through gritted teeth. "You must be, because Robin is definitely playing you like one."
"Godsdammit, Lucina!" Severa seethed in disbelief. "Not killing him while he was an amnesiac, I get! Innocent until he becomes guilty and all that! But when he's the godsdamned Heart of Grima?! What the hell are you thinking?!"
"...When I asked you all what you thought of him, not a one of you said that he is an evil man," Lucina murmured. "Even if he is meant to murder my father and become Grima, there still exists the possibility that he will do neither, and he strives for that possibility. I do not guarantee that he will be spared. But at the moment he is still vital for this campaign against Walhart."
"Be that as it may, you are asking us to take an unconscionable risk," Laurent interjected. "Even if we accept that Robin is not manipulating you in some manner, and account for his military contributions, we do not have the right to endanger the world, to undo all of the painful sacrifices and strenuous labors we and countless dead have offered, just for the sake of one man. If Robin acquiesces to laying down his life for the greater good, then all the better. I cannot condone his continued survival."
"I concur," Nah said. "Perhaps I'm not the best one to be saying this, but you're being childish, Lucina."
"...Do you all trust me?" Lucina asked quietly.
The group turned to look at each other. While none of them were in support of Lucina on the issue of Robin, they were all loyal to her without fault.
"We would not have followed you this far were that not the case," Laurent stated. "You have proven yourself time and again to be worthy of our fealty. Each of us would readily lay down our lives for you."
The others nodded in agreement, uttering short affirmations.
"You're still being an idiot, though," Kjelle added, to which Severa nodded again.
"Then I ask that you trust me in this as well," Lucina said, ignoring Kjelle. "There is no one who wishes for my father's safety as much as I... And I wish to undo our future just like the rest of you. But my father always spoke of Robin so highly, telling me of all the times that Robin had saved his life... I want to believe that that man exists. That he can be saved along with everyone else."
The group was uncomfortable, but they said nothing in protest. Each of their parents had recounted stories of Robin's deeds when they had been young. Learning that he was the man who had doomed the world had been like losing a personal hero for each of them.
"...And if we refuse your request?" Kjelle asked.
"...Then I shall have no choice but to stop you by my own hand," Lucina said firmly.
The two woman stared at each other for some moments, but at last Kjelle broke eye contact and sighed loudly. "Alright, alright. We'll leave him to you. Just... don't mess this up, Lucina. ...You know the consequences."
Lucina turned away. "...Indeed, I do..."
Little had been said by Noire during that meeting. She knew she wasn't as strong as the others, and had come back in time for a selfish reason: She simply wanted to see her parents again. While Gaius had died when she was young, and Tharja was terrifying at times, they were the only people who had ever made her feel truly safe. Losing them had been a tremendous blow to Noire's already frail psyche. And so when the archer began to reach the conclusion that she must kill Robin, it was not to protect the future, but to protect her mother and father.
Noire ducked behind a stall, scanning to make sure her mother was still alive and well on the frontlines before returning to her surveillance of Robin. The tactician and Lucina were making their way to the market square, fighting back to back. They complemented each other well—or at least, they could have. Robin, well accustomed to fighting alongside Chrom, knew how to cover all of Lucina's weaknesses, as well as how to signal to Lucina on how to cover his own. But Lucina, though a quick study, seemed to have scant interest in cooperation. Her attention was divided equally between enemy combatants and Robin himself.
The tactician seemed to have picked up with this, and immediately began expressing his dissatisfaction once the fighting had lulled. Noire couldn't make out what the man's argument with Lucina was about, but the end result was the princess storming away toward where her father continued to rout the Valmese.
It would be a simple thing to kill Robin now, Noire realized. At this distance, she couldn't possibly miss, and her target was still unaware that she was shadowing him. Robin, Grandmaster Tactician, would be felled by a seemingly stray arrow, and no one outside of her friends would ever suspect a thing. Lucina's proximity was a concern, but she couldn't possibly keep an eye on Robin at all times, not with a battle raging around them. Besides, she didn't exactly seem particularly happy with Robin right this moment.
All Noire had to do was let the arrow fly, and it would all be over.
And yet, she couldn't bring herself to do it. Trembling and cursing herself for a coward, Noire allowed her bowstring to go slack. She simply didn't have it in her to become a murderer. She didn't care if Lucina was right or wrong, if Robin was good or evil. She just wanted to protect her mother. If the day came when Robin truly did become a threat to Tharja, then Noire knew what she would have to do. But until then, her place was by her mother's side. Newly resolved, she turned to go to the sorceress's aid, only to run straight into a Valmese knight.
Noire shrieked loudly, and immediately drew her bowstring, knowing it to be a futile effort. The knight struck with his lance, and Noire desperately rolled to the side, narrowly dodging the strike. The Valmese soldier charged with surprising speed, ramming his plated shoulder into Noire's gut and sending her tumbling. The archer got to her knees, coughing, and scrambled for her bow, but the knight was upon her before she could get up, lance raised for the killing blow. Noire squeezed her eyes shut.
Suddenly, a bolt of lightning arced through the air and came crashing down on the knight, electrocuting him. He gave a bloodcurdling scream, then toppled over, dead, steam rising from his armor. A shadow loomed over Noire, and she turned with a start.
"What the hell do you think you're doing here, Noire?" Robin asked coldly and quietly.
"Eep! I, um, that is to say..."
Robin glared at her. "This isn't a place for an archer. You can't touch armored knights, as you just saw. Cavalry will ride you down before you can deal with them, and mages have the edge in a ranged fight since they have the advantage if they draw close. You're nothing but a liability right now."
"But I... Mother-"
"Tharja can take care of herself. Get the hell back on the ship." He frowned as he noticed that Noire was now trembling. "Ah shit, wait, don't go all "Bloo-""
"BLOOD AND THUNDER!"
"SHUT YOUR FILTHY MOUTH, TREASONOUS SWINE! I TRAVELED THROUGH AEONS TO PROTECT MY MOTHER FROM THE LIKES OF YOU!"
Robin narrowed his eyes, then snatched Noire's talisman off her neck. The effect was immediate.
"Eep! G-give that back! If I don't have my talisman, I-I'll..."
Robin held the pendant aloft, observing it. "Gods, Tharja did a number on this thing. The amount of hexes on this is making my skin crawl."
"W-wait, how can you tell that?"
Robin glanced at Noire. "I'm sure Lucina's already had a little chat with you all. My memories are my own again. As someone born into the Grimleal, it's natural that I can sense dark magic."
Noire's brow furrowed in confusion. "B-But Mother said you hated the Grimleal..."
Robin's eyes became distant. "Yes, and for good reason..." he trailed off, before coming to and remembering their situation. "Right. Active warzone. Noire. Ship. Now. "He tossed the talisman back to her. He hesitated for a moment. "...If you wish to discuss your mother, or myself, we can do so after the battle is over."
He turned away before Noire could respond, checking over the flow of the engagement. "Good, good, things are advancing fairly smoothly. And it looks like- Oh for the love of... YARNE, GET YOUR SCRAWNY ASS BACK ON THE BATTLEFIELD THIS INSTANT AND TAKE THOSE CAVALIERS DOWN, OR I'LL GIVE REALLY YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT, DAMMIT!"
He ran back to battlefield, and Noire registered that Lucina had been watching them. The princess had only become aware of Noire's peril an instant before Robin had slain the Valmese knight, else she would have intervened herself. Noire didn't question this in the slightest. She was also sure that Lucina would interrogate her about the incident later. But for now, the archer decided to obey Robin's orders and took off for the ship.
Elsewhere, Chrom was striking down Farber.
"We... are legion..." the commander sputtered as he slid off Falchion.
"Yeah, yeah. You're also dead," Chrom muttered as the surviving Valmese forces sounded the retreat.
"Merry, what fighting," the Chon'sinese woman, Say'ri, said as she approached Chrom after the battle had ended. "Would that we had even a thousand men of your caliber in the resistance, for Walhart would never have given Ylisse cause for concern."
Chrom chuckled, rubbing his head in embarrassment. "You resistance members must be quite skilled in your own right to have held out this long."
Say'ri gave a slight smile. "I thank you for your kind words, my lord. But Walhart has scattered us to the four winds, aided by my treacherous brother, Yen'fay. We are but shadows of our former selves."
"Family fighting family, huh?" Robin said suddenly as he and Lucina approached the two from behind. "That's real sad, but can't say I'm sympathetic."
Say'ri narrowed her eyes at his tone. "And who might this scoundrel be?"
"Umm... My grandmaster tactician, Robin of Ylisse," Chrom said somewhat apologetically.
"Th-the Robin?! This man?!"
"What, is that a problem?" Robin asked with his hands on his hips.
"N-no, good sir! I beg thy pardon for my offense!"
Robin raised an eyebrow, then turned to Chrom. "So who is she anyway? Why were the Valmese chasing her?"
Say'ri stared incredulously at Robin. It was the height of rudeness to the Chon'sinese to skip introductions, let alone ignore someone standing right in front of oneself entirely.
"I am Say'ri, Princess of Chon'sin and head of the Valmese Resistance Force."
"Oh? Well, my condolences for your losses and compliments for surviving as long as you have."
"Do you mock me, sir?"
"No, no, not at all. Walhart strikes me as the absolute eradication type; I mean it when I say evading him for as long as you have seems quite the ordeal..." Robin put his hand on his chin, and looked away, deep in thought about something. "Even more so when your very own brother serves under him..."
Lucina looked at him quizzically, not sure what he was insinuating, or if he was even insinuating anything at all.
Say'ri struggled to keep herself from glaring at the tactician. She turned back toward Chrom. "So, my lord, what do you plan to do next?"
"Well, we were discussing proceeding along the shoreline until we could march to a place called Wyvern Valley, and then cut into the mainland from there," Chrom explained.
"A surprisingly sound plan for ones unfamiliar with this continent's terrain. However, your path takes you a direction opposite of where you must go."
"Oh?" Robin asked.
Say'ri nodded. "If we wish to strike a true blow against Valm, then we must head to the Mila Tree, and rescue a woman Walhart's forces hold captive there: The Voice of Naga, Lady Tiki."
"The Lady Tiki?!" Lucina suddenly exclaimed, eyes full of wonder. "Companion to the Hero King?!"
Robin, Chrom, and Say'ri all turned to look at her in surprise, causing the former exalt to blush. Lucina cleared her throat. "I, um... I would like to meet her, if able. That is all..."
"Easy there, 'Marth'," Robin grinned, eliciting a petulant scowl from Lucina. The tactician turned back toward Say'ri. "And why do we need to rescue this 'Voice'?"
"The resistance forces will rally behind her presence," Say'ri replied. "However, it will be difficult to free her, for one of Walhart's top generals, Cervantes, has an entire legion stationed-"
"Let me stop you right there," Robin interrupted. "Not happening."
"What?!" Say'ri and Lucina exclaimed simultaneously in shock.
Robin folded his arms. "Even if this Tiki is a figure from legend, if she can keep a top general and an entire legion tied up just by sitting in some tree, then she's already of far more use to us there than she could be elsewhere."
"Y-you heartless fiend!" Say'ri seethed.
"Are you a child?" Robin asked quietly.
Say'ri stiffened with fury.
"We aren't playing a game here," Robin continued. "One misstep, and we could all die. I'm not gambling everything on some figurehead who might not even be able to do anything for us. Right now, Tiki provides us a concrete advantage right where she is, and we would be fools to sacrifice that when we're so sorely outnumbered by Walhart's men. We have to pick and choose our battles as carefully as we can."
Lucina wished to say something in protest, but found herself unable to find fault in Robin's argument. Her time as exalt had forced her to accept that sometimes it was impossible to preserve the individual while keeping the greater whole from harm.
"You... you would use the Divine Oracle as a pawn?!" Say'ri spat. "You are the lowest of the low!"
"Indeed," Robin agreed. "That is what it will take to surmount the odds we're up against. I'll take any advantage, no matter how underhanded. And as a leader, you need to learn how to separate your personal feelings about the Voice from your duty."
Say'ri's cheeks pinkened. "Wh-wha-?"
"Ah, as I thought. You do know her. I can only assume you must have met her some time before Walhart's conquest began. But that's irrelevant." Robin's expression was stern. "You're not going to convince me to change my mind, so if you're deadset on this, try swaying Chrom. I might listen to him, given that he actually knows something about leading people." With that the tactician took his leave, leaving a fuming Say'ri with Chrom and Lucina. The blue-haired princess hesitated a moment, then bowed to the black-haired in apology before rushing off after Robin. Chrom raised an eyebrow in surprise at his daughter's movement, then sighed and shook his head.
"Please excuse Robin, Say'ri. He doesn't get along with people well. It's hard to tell sometimes, but his heart is in the right place. He's just trying to think long-term and keep casualties to a minimum."
Say'ri scowled, but tilted her head in acknowledgement. "I will trust in your judgment on him, Lord Chrom. But in the meantime, do not think I am dissuaded from wishing to rescue Lady Tiki. I will talk your ear off if that is what it takes to convince you."
Chrom chuckled. "Well, so far ignoring Robin's advice has generally gone pretty poorly for me, but I'm more than willing to listen to what you have to say."
"Robin!" Lucina called as she caught up to the tactician.
"What is it, Princess? Here to chastise me for being an uncaring monster?" he asked defensively.
Lucina shook her head. "No, I have not." She grimaced. "I... absolutely detest situations such as this one, but... I am all too aware that Grima's shadow is looming over us, and Walhart blocks our way out from under it. His defeat must precede all else."
Robin relaxed somewhat. "Then what do you want?"
"I wished to ask you about Wyvern Valley."
"Hmm? Well, I don't know much about it; only that it's a large natural canyon, is connected to a river that leads into the mainland, and as the name suggests, is home to an abundance of wyverns. Why do you ask?"
"I suspect that we may find one of my comrades there."
"Oh?" Robin paused for a moment. "...Cherche's child?"
Lucina stared in surprise. "Why, yes. How did you know?"
"Minerva. Not difficult."
"What's this child like?"
"Gerome? He's... very withdrawn. He's quiet, and stern, but he's also loyal and gallant. He's saved my life more times than I count..."
Robin narrowed. "You describe him as if a lover."
"Wh-what?!" Lucina stammered, cheeks scarlet. "Don't be absurd! Gerome is a trusted comrade and a good friend, nothing more!"
"Methinks the lady doth protest much," Robin grinned.
"Take that back!" Lucina yelled. "I will not have you sully my honor!" She appeared ready to draw Falchion.
Robin's brows jumped. "Alright, alright, I'm sorry! Godsdamn, it was a joke! Don't get your smallclothes in such a twist!"
Lucina remained in an aggressive stance for a moment. Slowly, she registered that she was overreacting. The princess coughed, then composed herself. "...My apologies. My outburst was uncalled for." She gave Robin a sidelong glance. "...Besides, Gerome has eyes only for my sister."
"You have a sister?"
Lucina blinked innocently. "...The topic never came up?"
"You know, you should probably at least give Chrom and Sumia some heads-up about that..."
"...Yes, I suppose you are right. At any rate, when do you expect us to arrive at this Wyvern Valley?"
Robin shrugged. "Hard to say; depends on the kind of forces we run into. Two or three weeks, probably."
"I see." With that, Lucina began to walk away.
Robin quirked an eyebrow. "What? No thanks for the information, Princess?"
"I hardly consider myself in your debt," she replied.
"Oh? And what happened to keeping an eye on me?" Robin asked. "You really going to just let me wander about unattended?"
"You're gravely mistaken if you think that fraternizing with you is on my list of priorities. I have matters to attend to. Good day."
Robin watched her leave, face completely neutral. Once Lucina was gone from sight, the tactician turned to regard the sea, which could be glimpsed from the plaza he now stood in.
He put his hands behind his head as he listened to the waves crash.
"Well... Not exactly sure what else I was expecting..."
Chapter 3: Scion of Legend
A Risen stood atop a castle tower, watching the sun set in the distance. He wore an assassin's cowl, which framed his glowing red eyes in a mantle of shadow. To his left, another Risen approached, a female swordmaster. The Deadlord made no effort to acknowledge his fellow's presence, neither through sound nor motion.
"Greetings, Porcus," the swordmaster said after some time.
Porcus said nothing.
"I see the spark of intelligence in your gaze now. Have your memories of your past life finally returned?"
"...Yes." His voice was gravelly and deep, and kept to little more than a whisper. It was the voice of one unaccustomed to speaking, and the recency of his summoning exacerbated this.
"And who were you, once upon a time?"
Porcus turned to look at her out of the corner of her eye. "No one... in particular... Someone... whom the pages of history... had no need for..." He grinned, the first human gesture he had made so far. "A man who lived... and died... in the shadows."
The swordmaster frowned. Their group was a storied lot; Draco was the founder of the country of Roseanne, Canis was once a High Priestess of Naga, Gallus had been the first Grimleal Hierophant, and she herself had been an empress for Naga's sake! How could someone so anonymous have joined their ranks?
She sighed. Not that any of that mattered.
"What in the eighteen hells are you doing up here, anyway?" she asked, changing the topic.
"Eighteen hells... huh...? Wonder... which of them... you spent your time in..."
The swordmaster, Simia, narrowed her eyes, a glow or irritation leaking out from between painted lids.
"To answer your question..." Porcus continued. "Wanted to see... the sunset... Realized... I couldn't remember... what the last one I saw... looked like..."
"Can you not speak faster? Is your slurred speech sign of inbreeding?"
"Hahaha... I like you. Makes me regret... that we're both corpses..."
Simia crinkled her nose in disgust. "As if a commoner-"
"Easy there..." Porcus interrupted. "Blueblood, I take it?" he smiled wryly. "Or should I say... black blood, now...?" He chuckled.
Porcus made a placating gesture. "Ah... Don't be like that... We are... partners, now... Should try to... get along..." The Deadlord paused. "Speaking of which... We have... a mission?"
She nodded. "Aye. It would appear the Ylissean League is not headed for the Mila Tree as our master had hoped. We are instead to go to the Sages' Hamlet. The master predicts that they should be passing through the area near the time that we arrive. We are to take the heads of the exalts, both future-past and present, and, failing that, we shall silence the sages forevermore so that their knowledge of events yet to transpire may never be passed down."
"Hmph... Never cared much... for soothsaying..."
Porcus considered making a joke about Soothsires, but surmised that the reference would be lost upon Simia.
The swordmaster smiled. "Nor I. Our courts were filled to bursting with diviners who couldn't predict the weather, let alone the fate of a country. However, these men are no mere fortune peddlers. They are akin to prophets. 'Twould not do to allow their secrets to be shared."
"Very well... Let's go, then..." Porcus made to move past Simia, but stopped at her side."Ah... remembered one interesting thing... just now..."
Simia raised an eyebrow.
"The one called Mus... Knew him... when both of us... were alive..."
Simia's jaw dropped. "Impossible! Surely you jest!" Mus's origins were a complete mystery to her. Simia suspected that even their master did not know of them. She drew closer to the other Deadlord. "...But if you speak true, might you then know his past name?"
Porcus gave an unnerving smile that displayed razor-sharp teeth. "The one called Holy Emperor, in whose wake feasted naught but coyotes and wolves..."
The swordmaster's eyes widened.
Three Days Prior
Robin groggily opened his eyes. He became alert when he realized that there was a woman standing next to his bed, but this state quickly subsided once he recognized whom she was. He yawned, and blearily rubbed the sleep from his eyes before sitting up, sheets still covering his lower half.
"Good morning, Princess."
"It's nearly afternoon," Lucina replied sternly. "You slept through wake-up call."
"I'd have slept much longer, too, if you hadn't woken me. Still, it's strange for anyone to come into my tent uninvited, let alone you of all people. Something amiss?"
"Father has summoned you for a council with Lady Say'ri, Khans Flavia and Basilio, and myself."
"Ugh... No doubt so Say'ri can lobby us some more... Wonderful, this is exactly how I want to start my day." He sighed loudly, then waved a hand dismissively. "Alright, I'll be there shortly."
Lucina did not move. "I had intended to walk with you. Our destination is the same, and I have no assurance you will not simply go back to sleep."
Robin narrowed his eyes. "Uh, that's fine, but I still need to get ready for the day."
The princess tilted her head.
"Ok, let me rephrase this more bluntly: I'm completely naked underneath these sheets and can't do anything to address that while you're standing about." He smiled wickedly. "Well, I could, but I'm not so sure you'd appreciate that."
Lucina's cheeks quickly became a furious shade of scarlet, and she hurriedly exited the tent. Robin chuckled a bit before sliding out of bed. He reached into his rather untidy dresser and pulled out some clothes, eyes lingering on the work that had consumed his night as he dressed. Even if they were lacking in numbers, the resistance forces had granted him surprisingly useful information. It was terrifying information, but useful nonetheless. Walhart's men numbered over a million by most estimates, and his forces were split into three major divisions, with pockets of more soldiers scattered here and there. Apparently there had been a fourth division once, but the Ylissean League had already eradicated that group when they obliterated the Valmese navy.
The tactician walked over to a large map of Valm as he tugged on his coat. Walhart's division occupied the top part of the continent, Yen'fay's the southern peninsula, and the space in-between was governed by Cervantes. Any one of these divisions alone outnumbered the entire Ylissean League by a fair amount. But their size didn't make the divisions unbeatable. Massive forces were difficult to mobilize on a moment's notice, and could be tricked into stretching themselves thin enough so as to make their numbers more manageable.
Robin had originally planned to have the army travel alongside the coastline and—once they had ventured inland—rivers, in order to minimize their risk of being caught off guard and flanked by superior forces. But now that he had a rough idea of where all of the pieces were on the board, such restricted movement wasn't as necessary. He had spent all night drafting plans that sought to take advantage of the information presented to him, and in the early hours of dawn had finally found the outline of one that was beginning to look appealing to him.
The tactician scrunched up his eyes as he exited the tent, the sun's light far too bright for his liking. He found Lucina standing nearby. She was tapping her foot, her face's shade now down to a much more mellow pink.
Robin made a sweeping gesture. "Sorry for keeping you waiting. Shall we go?"
Lucina nodded curtly, and they began to make their way toward the command tent.
"Something the matter?" Robin teased.
"Of all the stories I had heard of you, none of them mentioned you being so indecent," she said flatly.
Robin laughed. "Indecent? Sorry to burst your bubble, Princess, but I'm sure many men sleep in the nude in the privacy of their own tents." He grinned. "Your father probably does too."
Lucina's cheeks ratcheted back up to crimson.
When the two arrived at the command tent they found Chrom, Basilio, and Flavia gathered around Say'ri, who was proudly displaying her swords. Flavia was admiring the craftsmanship and questioning Say'ri about the weapons had been forged, and from what Robin knew of lip-reading he gathered that Chrom and Basilio were discussing something about Lon'qu.
Chrom broke away from the conversation when he noticed Robin and Lucina. "Ah, there you are, Robin!"
"Yo, Chrom. I'm going to be very angry if you woke me up just to swoon over Say'ri's ever-so-special swords."
Chrom laughed. "It seems peacetime didn't change your sleeping habits at all, huh? But no, I've gathered everyone here so that we can deliberate on a very important issue."
"Let me guess," Robin sighed. "You want us to go save Tiki."
Chrom nodded. "I've been discussing the matter at length with Say'ri. She believes that we can rally the Valmese people behind us if we can save her. And the idea of just leaving that woman there..." The exalt grimaced. "Well, it just doesn't sit right with me."
"This is war, Chrom. A lot of things tend to not sit right with a lot of people."
"The decision isn't emotionally-driven," Chrom replied. "Say'ri makes some very convincing arguments."
"Oh yes, I'm sure she does. Just as I'm sure the ones I make are even more so."
"Why are you so obstinate in your refusal to aid the Voice?" Say'ri asked.
"Why are you so obstinate in your demand to do so?" Robin replied, examining his fingernails in a show of disinterest.
Say'ri clenched her fists, but did not allow her temper to flare. "Lady Tiki is the hope for countless thousands! Do you have any idea how many souls find solace in her wisdom?"
"I don't doubt that many people revere Tiki. I also don't doubt that Walhart already trampled down most of the people who were willing to take up the sword for her."
Say'ri's eyes became downcast. "It is true that the followers of Naga have suffered much at the hands of Walhart. But that does not mean that we have given up!"
"No, it simply means that you've been beaten. Tiki is little more than a trophy at the moment."
Say'ri was now beginning to lose the battle with her anger. "You-"
"Why do you suppose that Walhart imprisoned Tiki, rather than outright kill her?" Robin interrupted.
The other five blinked in surprise.
"As a captive, she's just proof of the impotency of the gods," he continued. "If Naga can't descend from on high and rescue her daughter, then what good is she? That's the kind of question Walhart wants the people to be asking themselves. A bird in a cage is less of a threat than a martyr."
"How so?" Chrom asked. "You aren't saying you think it would take Tiki's death to bring people under our banner, do you?"
Robin shrugged. "Right now, the people of this continent have lost their sovereignty, their freedom, their dignity, their livelihoods... But they can still cling to their faith. But if you take that away, then these people will have lost everything. And it's only when the people have nothing left to lose that real revolutions take place."
"All the more reason to free the Voice!" Say'ri exclaimed. "Naga's followers have cast down far worse tyrants!"
Robin shook his head. "You're being idealistic to the point of naivety. The people who were willing to fight have already done so. You and your Resistance should be well aware of that given how thoroughly Walhart kicked your shit up and down the continent, to the point that you can't even really be called a real army anymore."
Say'ri was now most definitely becoming furious. "You dare belittle the sacrifices of my comrades?!" she shouted.
Robin frowned. "Hmm. Alright, I'll apologize for that one. But my point is, you were on the verge of being wiped out before we arrived. Walhart never would have invaded us in the first place if he wasn't confident he already had these lands firmly under his heel. Any forces that Tiki's rescue could muster would probably be pitiful. Walhart's not all that concerned about some minor farmer insurrections. Regular people gaining the will to fight doesn't magically fix the issue of a million-strong army breathing down our necks."
"Many Ylisseans worship Naga too, you know," Chrom pointed out, gesturing to his brand. "Our own army would surely gain some morale from fighting alongside her daughter."
"Right, but given the fact that Ylisse's army is exhausted from two consecutive wars with Plegia, the bulk of our forces are Regna Feroxi. And most of them couldn't give a rat's ass about one god over another."
"Amen to that," Basilio agreed. "I've got nothing against Naga or this Tiki lady, but I'm not getting my arse killed for either of them."
Flavia nodded in agreement.
"Well, what of the people in the Valmese army itself?" Chrom countered. "There have to be people who were pressed into service in Walhart's armies; they might desert upon hearing news of her freedom."
"Ordinarily, you would have a point there, Chrom. If I thought that splintering those massive divisions just by freeing Tiki was feasible, I would already be working on plans for it." Robin looked at Chrom sharply. "But I don't think it's going to work out like that."
"How do you mean?" Flavia asked.
"I read the reports about the Valmese soldiers we captured at the harbor. Then I read them again, and then went to speak with each of those men myself because I needed to be sure what I learned was true." Robin turned back to the exalt, his face grave. "Chrom, this Walhart is as much of a god to his men as Naga is to you."
"What better way to fight a god than with another god, then?!" Say'ri asked.
Robin pointed a finger at the swordmaster. "Not half-bad rhetoric, but pointless if Naga herself isn't leading us. And frankly, I don't see her leaping up to come to our aid. In truth, I agree with some of Walhart's opinions on the subject of gods."
Say'ri growled. "Plegian, just because your god-"
"Do not call that thing my god!" Robin bellowed, causing all present to jump at his intensity.
"Easy there, Robin," Chrom said calmly, placing his hand on Robin's shoulder. "She doesn't know better." Robin took a deep breath, reigning himself back in. His eyes wandered to Lucina, who was looking at him with alarm. Her right hand had instinctively drifted to Falchion in response to his outburst.
"I know that you're just trying to make a rational decision, Robin," Chrom continued. "But are we really any better than Walhart if we throw away Tiki for our own convenience?"
Robin scowled. "Um, yes? Leagues better. We're not running around enslaving people and stirring up wars."
Chrom was beginning to grow agitated. "It's the principle of the thing!"
"I thought you just said this wasn't an emotional decision."
"It's not! But you can't base everything you do on facts and numbers!"
"My entire job is based on that! And let me tell you, Walhart's numbers are a hell of a lot bigger than ours!"
"All the more reason to try and subvert that advantage in any way we can!" Chrom retorted.
"Maybe so! But even then, there are just too many godsdamned hypotheticals to all this, Chrom! Assuming we can defeat Cervantes and his division before reinforcements arrive, assuming we can rescue Tiki, assuming she's willing and able to fight for us, assuming she boosts our morale a tad and gets some godsdamn farmers to join us, then what?! How many lives would we have to trade?! How many more when we inevitably get pinned down by the Valmese after wasting so much time at that tree?!"
A crowd of the Shepherds was now gathering around the group, drawn by the heated debate. Lucina noticed that her aunt and uncle were now standing near her. Lissa gave a little wave, and Lon'qu a terse nod, to which Lucina replied in kind.
In truth, the thought that Lucina was standing against Naga in being aligned with the Heart of Grima's position on the matter gave her no small amount of consternation.
"And hell, I could be wrong, Chrom!" Robin pressed on loudly. "Maybe saving Tiki is the best step forward! But I'm sure as hell not gambling our lives in order to find out!" He looked away. "...Hell, maybe we want the Valmese kill her..." Robin muttered.
Say'ri and Lucina gasped in shock, and Flavia whistled.
Chrom stared at Robin for a moment in disbelief, then suddenly struck him across the face with a strong right hook, which dropped the tactician to a kneel. Robin stared at the ground as he rubbed a split lip. He spat out a bit of blood.
"...I'll admit I crossed a line there," Robin muttered. "That said...!" He lunged upward and caught Chrom with a straight jab to the face. "You don't think I'm just going to sit back and take that, do you?!"
Chrom blinked and reached up to his nose, which was now leaking blood. He blinked again, then lashed out and connected with another strong right hook. Robin staggered, but was prepared this time and did not fall. He pivoted on his heel and delivered a powerful kick to Chrom's gut, causing the exalt to gag and take a few steps back. Robin mercilessly took advantage of this and pressed forward, striking Chrom with a right hook of his own. Chrom growled and grabbed Robin by the lapels, rearing back to give a headbutt. Robin perceived this, and likewise pulled his head back. Their foreheads met with a loud crack that caused all present to wince, and the two teetered away from each other, clutching their skulls in pain for a moment. They glared at each other, then jumped right back into the thick of it, a tangle of violence and swearing.
Having watched all of this with more than some alarm, Lucina made to step toward the two, intent on breaking up the fight, and suppress Robin by force if need be. She was stopped however, when Lissa placed a hand on her arm. Lucina turned toward her aunt in confusion, but Lissa simply shook her head.
"Shouldn't we stop them?!" Lucina asked.
"Nah, this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened. It's just boys being boys. Although the last time they went at it this hard was right after Emm died..."
Lucina bit her lip in uncertainty.
"They'll be fine," Lissa assured her. "It's just a fight between brothers."
"Sometimes words fail where a fist will not," Lon'qu said gruffly.
Lucina swallowed, and her hand drifted down to Falchion as she eyed Robin warily. Lissa and Lon'qu couldn't possibly know the real reason for her concern.
"Over-under on time?" Basilio asked.
"One minute," Flavia replied.
"Over, then. Wager?"
"Sounds fine. Chrom to win it."
Flavia smirked. "I'll say indecisive outcome."
"You can't save everyone, Chrom!" Robin yelled as he delivered a kick to Chrom's side.
"I know that!" Chrom yelled back as he struck Robin's jaw with an uppercut. "How could I not know that?! But even so, why can't I try?!"
"Because the world isn't that accommodating, you idiot!" Robin shouted, rearing back for a punch. He lashed out, just as Chrom threw a punch of his own. They both struck each other at the same time, and silence reigned over the camp for a moment before both staggered backward and fell on their haunches.
Basilio scowled and discreetly dropped a few silvers into a grinning Flavia's hand.
Chrom was breathing heavily, and wiped blood from his mouth. He looked up toward Robin, locking eyes.
"If I abandon Tiki..." Chrom panted. "How can I be sure I won't abandon you...?"
Robin went rigid for a moment, then said nothing as he slowly stood up and began to walk shakily back to his tent. Lucina's eyes trailed him as Lissa came up and crouched down beside her brother, already digging into her pouch for a healing stave. Lucina gave one last glance at her father, who was talking wearily with Lissa as he was being healed, before the princess turned and followed after the tactician.
Robin didn't turn his head at the sound of his tent flap opening. He didn't need to guess who had entered his quarters. "Look, I'm really not in the mood for this right now, Princess, so if you're going to say something then say it and begone."
"...Try as hard as I might, I still do not understand you," Lucina said quietly.
"Most people don't. Alright then, good talk. Ta-ta." He gestured for her to leave, never once looking at Lucina. When the woman did not budge, Robin turned to regard her coldly from where he sat on his bed. "Or perhaps you're here because of our little arrangement, and you're going to kill me over that bout of fisticuffs?"
"Don't be absurd. Do you honestly think me to be so petty?"
"Honestly, yes." Robin turned back away.
Lucina gestured to the mess of parchment and quills on Robin's desk, and the numerous spent candles. "Why do you go to such efforts?"
Robin quirked an eyebrow. "Because I want to win?" he answered in the tone of one trying to explain a simple concept to a child.
"If victory was your sole aim, then allying yourself with Grima would have been the easy choice. There is proof enough already of what the results of that union would be."
Robin's lip twitched. "Is there a point to this little visit?"
Lucina was silent for some moments. "...I believe that you actually wish to save Lady Tiki."
These were not words that Robin had been expecting. He rested his elbows on his knees. "Making quite the assumption there, aren't we? Last I checked, I was the loudest proponent of leaving Tiki to rot. ...Or worse." Robin glanced at Lucina. "Hell, did it occur to you that I might be deliberately abandoning this Voice or whatever they call her just because she's related to Naga?"
"Your actions have not at any point suggested that you would allow such pettiness to factor into your decision-making. One way or another, you have stifled your emotions in order to facilitate grander aims."
Robin's expression was difficult to read. He sighed. "You're the one I don't get, Princess."
Lucina raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"Why give me the time of day? Why do you put any trust in me whatsoever, knowing what you know?" He waved a hand in exasperation. "If anyone should be arguing against me here, it's you."
"...I will confess that I... have considered changing my position on this matter. However..." Lucina took a deep breath. "...I did not rest well last night. I was assailed by guilt over leaving Ladi Tiki to her fate. I had a nightmare about it, in fact, a horrid sequence in which I slew her dragon form with Falchion." The former exalt rubber her arm. "...When I awoke, my thoughts drifted to the nightmare you yourself had described. And for the first time... I questioned what difference there was between Tiki and you."
Robin's eyes shot wide.
Lucina was not finished speaking. "You still make me uneasy at times. And I will not deny that I occasionally question your intentions. But... I have been given cause to believe that you are not necessarily evil. If the fate that has been handed down to you is something you would defy... If that cruel cage was what entrapped your predecessor... then he might have been as much a victim as my father was."
"...For a 'victim', he packs a mean right hook," Robin snorted. "Speaking of which, I'm surprised you didn't try to intervene back there."
"I nearly did, before I was assured there was no malice inherent in the confrontation. I don't understand it entirely, but Owain and Inigo often had similar fights in my time. You and Father fought because each of you was concerned about the other's well-being is how it was explained to me. Is that not so?"
Robin looked away, scratching his chin. "Erm... Well, yeah, something to that effect, I suppose..." He sighed loudly. "Your father can be such an idiot sometimes... Never mind me killing him, he's going to get himself lodged on some soldier's lance at this rate..."
Lucina stiffened. Robin looked up.
"Ah, right, you don't do jokes. My bad. I promise you, I'm not going to let Chrom die. One way or another, the two of us will see to that."
Lucina was surprised at how sincere the man seemed.
"...Yes, we will." Her gaze drifted toward Robin's black eye. "Oh, I had forgotten. You've not had anyone treat your injuries. Hold on a moment; I'll return shortly." Before Robin could reply, she had ducked out from under the tent. Robin blinked a moment, then flopped down on his cot. He stared at the ceiling.
"...'Victim', huh? ...What a load of shit."
When Lucina return, she was carrying a small stave. She knelt in front of Robin and began to inspect his black eye.
"You can use healing magic?" Robin asked in surprise.
"Not well, but I am able. Aunt Lissa taught me some before she..." She coughed, then looked away. "Anyone who had any sort of talent at all for the skill learned it in my time."
"And you're actually going to use it on me?"
"You are this outfit's tactician. At the very least, you musn't be concussed.
Robin sneered. "It's nice to be thought of."
They were silent for some minutes as Lucina focused on her work. Her channeling of magic was clumsy, which Robin didn't find all that surprising given how extreme her physical capabilities were.
"Say, Princess," the tactician addressed his healer.
Lucina glanced up, but tried to keep her mind focused on her work. "Yes?"
"Tiki wasn't really involved with the Valm war during your time, right?"
"I find it unsettling how accurately you are able to discern these things..."
He shrugged. "It's not that hard. I figure that you would've mentioned something already if she had been a pivotal figure, is all."
"...And if I had said she was, would you have changed your mind?"
"No. Circumstances are different. Relying on knowledge of events that happened in a completely separate context would probably hurt more than it would help. Further, no offense, but your knowledge of that conflict has to by nature be imperfect."
"Then why ask?"
"The perspective is valuable, is all."
Lucina pursed her lips. "...Could it be that you are just searching for reassurance that you are making the right choice?"
Robin fell silent, and refused to meet Lucina's eyes.
No more words were exchanged until Lucina had finished the healing. Robin couldn't help but reflect that if their roles were reversed, he would never have been doing this; Lucina was putting herself at risk being so close to him in a manner that gave her little defense should he suddenly draw a knife or something of the sort.
I suppose that simply means she's just fundamentally a better person than I am, Robin mused.
When the healing was finished, Robin stretched and flexed, inspecting his body for any lingering soreness. Though it had taken some time, Lucina had done quite a commendable job.
"I'm going to go check on Father now," the swordsmaid said as she moved toward the exit.
Lucina paused and turned back to him.
Robin stiffened, then looked away, his cheeks slightly flushed. "...Thanks."
She nodded with a neutral expression, then took her leave.
In the end, the league abandoned the idea of heading toward the Mila Tree. The next day at the following war council, Robin laid out his newest plan: Take advantage of Walhart's roaming tendencies, head straight for the relatively unguarded imperial capital, dodging all three divisions as best they were able, seize it, and then set a trap for Walhart. If they could kill him, the war was as good as won; Walhart was the sphere of influence around which everything revolved. The leaders, Say'ri included, had all agreed to it, though the Chon'sinese princess had continued to glare daggers at Robin throughout the course of the meeting. Chrom and Robin had said little each other during that time.
The new plan still called for them to go through Wyvern Valley, as the path to it let them keep a good berth from the division headed by Cervantes, and the natural canyon would deposit them onto a path that would hopefully allow them to bypass both of Walhart's top commanders before either could catch up.
The Ylissean League marched for two days before the next incident occurred.
The bandit Gecko sat on top of an overturned cart, running a few coins through his fingers. The caravan had been pathetic; just a bunch of clerics with barely any spoils. The men had all gone down with hardly a fight, and there hadn't been any woman. Some sort of pilgrimage? he wondered.
"I almost feel bad for them," the wiry man chuckled. "Walhart's hard enough on the Naga-worshippers as is without us piling onto their troubles." He paused a moment, straining his ears, then quietly put the coins into his pocket before hopping off the cart. He walked over to another toppled cart, listening intently. His men, who had been in various stages of looting, looked at him curiously. Gecko surveyed the cart for a moment, then abruptly reached down and tore the cloth curtain from the window. A woman inside shrieked, and scrambled out of the sideways front exit. Gecko casually grabbed her by the hair, then threw her against a nearby tree. The woman crumpled to the ground, stunned. The bandit leader smiled cruelly. It seemed the attack hadn't been a waste after all.
The woman stirred, then screamed and crawled backwards until her back was against the tree, chest heaving in panic as her eyes darted from man to man. A bandit crouched down before her, chortling as he ran his tongue over a cracked tooth. "Hey boss, can I have this one?"
"She'd fetch a decent bit on the slave trade," Gecko replied, stroking his thin brown goatee. "Take her if you wish, but know that it'll cost you a month's share."
The man grinned. "Works for me." He reached out a meaty hand toward the woman, who was incoherently crying from fright now.
"Hey now, easy there love. I ain't gonna hurt you." The man smiled savagely. "Well, actually, that there's a lie, but I'll be sure and see that you- GAH!"
A plume of red sprayed from where the bandit's right arm had once been, and the severed appendage went wheeling through the air before it landed with a dull thud. He screamed and sunk to his knees, clutching the bleeding stump. A young man with black hair and a yellow myrmidon's outfit stood over him. Where he had appeared from, none present knew. One of his hands gripped a worn Killing Edge, and the other theatrically hovered over his face. "If you treasure your life, then back away from this woman!" he declared boldly.
"You bastard!" the bandit shrieked, moving to pull out his axe with his remaining hand, but the swordsman quickly cut the man's throat before he could do anything.
The stranger turned toward the woman, hand still covering part of his face."Fear not, fair maiden! Your savior has appeared! Now make haste, and flee as quickly as your legs can carry you! I shall deal with these cutthroats!"
The woman stared at him wide-eyed, rooted to the spot.
The young man raised an eyebrow. "Well? Get going!"
The woman jumped a bit, then gathered her wits and ran desperately away.
Gecko stared at the swordsman with a confused look. "And just who the bloody hell are you?"
"I am justice bound by no fate! I am righteous steel and hope for all life! I am Owain, Wanderer of Aeons!"
Each of these statements had been accompanied by a different pose.
The bandits stared at him incredulously for a moment, then their leader shook his head and sighed.
"I, Gecko, am going to be a warlord some day. I don't have time to play make-believe with brats." He turned toward one of his larger men, a hulking mountain of muscle. "Kill him."
The axeman chuckled and strode confidently over to Owain, whipping his weapon high.
"Try wandering in hell instead!" the bandit shouted before bringing his axe crashing down.
Owain stepped slightly, but just enough, to the right and flicked his wrist. Axe and sword reflected each other in their surfaces for a moment as they passed parallel, one cleaving through air and the other through flesh. Then the bandit screamed and toppled over backwards, writhing in a growing pool of his own blood before he became still. His axe was embedded in the ground an inch from Owain's foot. His comrades were startled into inaction by this; the man had been nearly twice Owain's size, and not a one of them had expected the swordsman to stand a chance, let alone kill him in a single stroke.
Owain casually stepped around the body, positioning himself directly across from Gecko. "I do not take a life lightly," he said, voice unusually somber. "Few understand better than I their worth. But villains like you, who don't comprehend how precious a human life is... No, who couldn't care less about them... I won't forgive any of you! I will cut each of you down, to the last!" With this Owain charged toward Gecko, Killing Edge held low. "Feel the wrath of my Sword Hand!"
Gecko immediately dropped into a combat stance and drew his own sword as Owain rapidly closed the gap between them, readying to strike.
"Path of...!" Owain screamed intensely.
He lashed out, his blade a blur.
Gecko diverted the attack with a quick parry.
"-anceeeee..." Owain trailed off weakly. He yelped as he was forced to leap backward to avoid a riposte. Realizing that he was about to be hemmed in by the now attentive bandits, and having this point accentuated by a narrowly-avoided axe-swing, Owain continued to dance backward until he could face all of the men at once.
"Hrmm... You're more skilled than I had anticipated, I'll grant you that," Owain admitted, posing with his free hand once more covering part of his face. "Ordinarily, it would be foolhardy for even one such as I to challenge you while you have so many followers at your side. However... I still have my most special technique! Prepare yourselves!"
Owain shifted his stance, and his eyes seemed to radiate power. Gecko cocked an eyebrow.
A beat passed, then Owain turned and sprinted away, quickly vanishing from sight as he fled into the woods.
Gecko and his bandits stood still for a few moments before they understood that they had just been played.
"Ugh! After him, you idiots!" Gecko snarled.
The Ylissean League was quite some distance from where Owain was at that moment. Robin was reading a book on horseback when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to find Chrom beside him.
"Hey," Chrom said quietly.
Chrom rubbed the back of his head. "Look, Robin, I'm um... I'm sorry for hitting you like I did."
Robin snapped the book shut and dropped it in his saddle-pouch. "I had it coming, I suppose. And for my part, I'm sorry for those things I said about your mother. I'm sure she was a nice lady."
"All in the past. But if you say that thing involving a pegasus and a griffon about her again, then I really will kick your teeth in."
They looked at each other for a moment, then both laughed.
"We can be pretty stupid sometimes, huh?" Chrom grinned.
Robin smiled broadly and was about to respond when his eyes went wide at something he saw in the distance. The tactician's face went slack. Chrom looked at him confusion, then followed his gaze. His own grin abruptly disappeared as well.
Owain stopped running for a moment and slouched against a tree.
"Guh..." He clutched at his side, where a shallow cut from an axe was still seeping blood. A stab wound from a mercenary's sword in his left shoulder was paining him as well, but thankfully it hadn't interfered with his swordplay. Owain took a few moments to catch his breath, then took off again.
It had simply been coincidence that he had stumbled upon the bandits. Whether they were actively seeking out the sages who lived nearby or were simply passing through, he couldn't tell, but at least they didn't seem familiar with the area, giving Owain a much-needed advantage. He had disposed of five of the bandits; the woods were an opportune setting for ambushes. But quite a few of the marauders remained, and to compound matters, now wyverns were flying overhead.
By the gods, where in blazes do bandits like these get godsdamned wyverns?! Owain wondered.
"Hey there, Lucina!" Lissa exclaimed cheerfully.
Her niece smiled. She hadn't realized she had been riding so close to family. "Oh! Hello, Aunt Lissa. How are you today?"
"Good, good! How about you?"
"I'm doing well." Lucina turned to look at the brightly-colored leaves lining the trees. "I was admiring the colors of autumn just now. Before coming to this era, I could scarce remember such vibrant hues."
"Hmm. Hey, speaking of the future, I have kids, right?"
Lucina blinked. "Forgive me, but I don't wish to divulge unnecessary information that might influence how this point in your life plays out."
"Oh, come on! I'm already married to Lonny! What could you possibly change now?"
"...Alright. You have a son named Owain."
"That's so cool!" Lissa exclaimed. What's he like?!"
"He's..." Lucina frowned, unsure how to describe Owain's eccentricities to someone who had never met him before. Her eyes flitted up to the fall leaves. She smiled as a thought occurred to her.
"He's very... colorful."
"'Colorful'? Like he was weird hair or something? ...Lucina? Lucina, are you ok? What are you looking at? And why are you sweating like that all of a sudden?"
Owain breathed a sigh of relief as he rubbed his healed midriff. After a close call with a pack of the bandits, he had been forced to retreat back to the idyllic Sage's Hamlet in order to have his wounds tended to. This tranquil, small collection of houses was nestled deep within Valmese forest, isolated from the world by design. Owain had stumbled upon this place and befriended its inhabitants by complete coincidence—or as Owain called it, "Destiny's Siren."
"My thanks, Melchior," the myrmidon grinned.
Finished tending to Owain's axe wound, the sage Melchior now moved to the swordsman's shoulder to begin working on the injury there, staff aglow. "It is I who should be thanking you, my young friend." He gestured to the other two visitors to his cottage, sages both and brothers all, similar in age and appearance. "Though we three who live here are magic-users, we are pacifists unversed in tomecraft. If not for your aid, I fear we would already be under the heel of those brigands you spoke of."
"Or under the ground," another of the sages, who was named Gaspar, added.
"But what do bandits want with you guys?" Owain asked, brow furrowed in thought. He gasped "Could they be after the legendary Mystletainn?!"
"As we have told you many times," the third sage said with some exasperation, "Mystletainn is not in our possession. It's a common mistake, but the sword we have is nothing special. It was made by a somewhat skilled but unrenowned blacksmith."
Owain was clearly skeptical.
"Perhaps the bastards are after our divinations," Gaspar muttered.
"They would do them little good," Melchior murmured. "I doubt scrawlings of the cosmos and cryptic prophecy would even fetch much coin on the markets."
"I absolutely can't allow them to have those!" Owain exclaimed decisively. "My mission depends on it!"
"Are you really going to fight them all on your own, though?" Gaspar asked. "We can still flee, you know."
"Indeed, your life is worth more than our possessions," the youngest sage added.
Owain folded his arms resolutely. "I shall not turn tail, Belth! How could I abandon you all after everything you've done for me? I was half-dead when you three found me, and I'd have been completely lost without the knowledge you shared." He grinned impudently. "And besides, you still haven't bequeathed Mystletainn to me yet!"
"Oh for the love of-" Gaspar began before Melchior cut him off with a raised hand.
"If you truly believe that you can defeat those men, then we will trust in you. We will wait here in case you need further healing. Do not be afraid to fall back to this place if you become injured again. But before you go, you should take this." Melchior walked over to a chest and opened it, withdrawing a long, thin object wrapped in cloth. He handed this to Owain, who hastily unwrapped it.
"It's nothing much, but the wards we've placed on it should help you-"
"Mystletainn!" Owain exclaimed gleefully. "At long last! So you did have it after all, and were simply testing me! Well fear not, friends, for I shall put this holy weapon to fitting use and smite the wicked who plague this fair hamlet!" He dashed out the door before the sages could say anything in response.
"W-wait, young friend that is not-...!" Melchior sighed and slouched his shoulders, for Owain was already long gone. "Well... Hopefully he'll figure out that isn't Mystletainn on his own..."
Gaspar snorted. "Unlikely."
The third sage chuckled. "Well, perhaps it would be better if he labored under that delusion for a while longer. It's been some time since he looked so lively."
"He's always lively, Belth!" Gaspar growled. "And another thing, Melchior! Why do you keep calling him 'young friend'? We're not old at all! We can't be more than ten years his seniors!"
Gaspar waited for a response, then frowned and turned to his friend when he found one wasn't forthcoming. The other two sages were staring up at black storm clouds through the cottage window.
"A fell darkness is approaching," Melchior whispered.
"So the weather's taken a turn for the worse, what's so-" Gaspar paused mid-query, eyes bulging as he stretched his fingers into the air. "...Oh." He swallowed nervously. "Perhaps we had best lock the doors, friends."
"Chrom, I'm not seeing things, right?" Robin asked.
"No, I see them too..." the exalt muttered grimly.
Obscured by the trees of the forest, hundreds of living corpses lumbered through the woods.
"Godsdammit, what the hell are Risen doing all the way out here in Valm?!"
"I don't know," Chrom replied. "But we have to do something about them. We're close to some villages."
Robin frowned. "Given our circumstances I would normally say we need to keep moving and ignore them. But these are Risen. Bandits at least would have the good sense to stay as far away from us as they could, but Risen will chase us down no matter what."
"So we should finish them off now before they become a problem," Chrom concluded.
Robin was already signaling formations with his hands.
"Halt, villain!" Owain cried as he leapt out of undergrowth. Gecko wheeled around to face him. Owain had chosen this moment carefully—Gecko only had two bodyguards at present. It had taken some time for Gecko's group to disperse, but the thick tangle of the forest had eventually forced them apart. Owain's patience had been rewarded with as a clear a shot at taking out Gecko as he was likely to be offered. The underlings were a problem, but Owain was sure the power of Mystletainn would more than compensate for that.
"What? You came back?" Gecko asked in disbelief. "Are you completely lacking in wits? Do you fancy yourself some hero out of a ballad, boy?"
"Ballad?" Owain questioned.
"You don't know what a ballad is? Were you raised under a rock?"
"...Something like that." Owain readied himself to attack, but paused.
A sound that was all-too-familiar to Owain began to echo throughout the woods, and he felt his gut clench up as the bandits looked around in confusion.
There's no way.
Burning red eyes illuminated the shadows of dusk. Mottled purple flesh bobbed through the black as an army of the dead trudged toward the men.
"It can't be..." Owain breathed. "Risen?! Why here? Why now?!"
"What the hell are those things?!" one of the bandits screamed. The other turned and ran away. He was immediately beset upon by Risen approaching from the rear, and was cut down within moments. Gecko scowled, then turned back toward Owain.
...A thought occurs to me, whelp. Perhaps it would be best we put aside our differences until these things have been dealt with."
"I'll confess to having a similar idea..." Owain agreed, taking a stance alongside his enemy.
Robin considered the League fortunate. While the number of Risen wasn't insignificant, they were lacking both in the quantity and quality necessary to make them a true threat to the main army. That said, entangling the league's force in the dense forest was a poor idea, so Robin had ordered the main body to continue marching while he dispatched the Shepherds—who were far more experienced with this scenario than regular service members—to clear off the Risen. The battle that had unfolded as a result was progressing favorably; the Shepherds were pushing ever deeper into the forest, and while more and more Risen continued to appear, they were weak and put up little resistance. Falchion whistled past Robin's head as Lucina decapitated an undead barbarian, and off to his side, Say'ri cut down Risen after Risen.
There was a flash of red, and it took Robin a moment to register that its hue did not belong to a Risen's eyes. Rather, it was the hair of Cordelia, who was running toward him, Stahl trailing close behind. Their daughter was noticeably absent.
"Robin! Severa's gone! We got separated by Risen and I lost sight of her!" Cordelia seemed nearly frantic with worry. Stahl was more composed, but the tautness of his neck muscles revealed the absence of his usual easy-going nature.
Lucina stiffened with alarm at the news, while Robin scowled and bit his thumb and Say'ri continued to keep the Risen at bay.
"Cordelia, go get your pegasus and scout the area," the tactician commanded. "You might be able to catch sight of her from the air. But do not get distanced from our formations. Don't go chasing after Severa even if you find her. Report to me instead so that I can organize a proper rescue party."
"But she's all alone!" Cordelia cried.
"We're not in a position where we can help her right now. She's spent most of her life dealing with Risen, and probably much stronger ones than this rabble." To accentuate his point, Robin blew away a Risen archer with a burst of lightning magic. "All we can do right now is have faith in her abilities." His gaze became more stern. "You have your orders. Go."
Cordelia looked torn, and turned toward her husband searchingly. Stahl placed a reassuring hand on his wife's shoulder and nodded. The two ran off toward the main army. Lucina watched them go.
"You're concerned?" Robin asked.
"Of course. But Severa is not the type to die easily; she's a natural-born prodigy. As you said, all I can do right now is have faith."
"I just know that when we find her she's going to give me an earful about faulty tactics or some shit like that," Robin grumbled.
In contrast to Severa, Owain had wound up cut off from his enemies. He had lost track of Gecko a while ago, much to the myrmidon's annoyance.
Owain hated fighting Risen. They were an audience unable to appreciate his theatrics.
"Evil creatures, return to your eternal rest! Sacred-"
Too caught up in his performance to notice it, Owain slipped on a pool of black blood and fell face-first, his Killing Edge and "Mystletainn" tumbling out of his grasp as he landed hard. He cursed and scrambled to his feet. Risen were bearing down on him, and for a moment Owain thought that he might just perhaps be in a serious bind.
Then in a blur of light that Owain recognized as the Galeforce magic, a figure danced between the Risen, cutting each down in an instant. The light faded, revealing a young woman holding a thin steel sword.
The girl flicked first her blade, clearing it of congealed black blood, then her hair, done up in olive-colored twintails. If being on her own had given her trouble, she wasn't showing it. She turned to look at Owain, an annoyed look on her face.
"Dumbass! What the hell do you think you're doing?! If I hadn't-" The woman's words died in her mouth, and she stared in shock at the swordsman. "...Owain?"
"S-Severa?!" A massive grin spread across Owain's face before he ran over and gripped her in a tight hug. "It really is you! I can't believe it!"
Severa stiffened in his embrace and seemed paralyzed for a moment, but then quickly stirred and began writhing in his grasp. "G-get off you idiot!" she screamed as she pushed Owain away. "Gods, wh-who told you could touch me?!" Her cheeks were now a deep crimson.
"Ah, s-sorry," Owain said has he looked away. "It's just, I thought... I was beginning to think I might be the only one who made it... I'd been here nearly a year, and I hadn't found any of the others..." He looked up suddenly. "Oh! Are they with you?!"
Severa blinked in surprise, then nodded. "A whole lot of us are here with Lucina... and our parents."
Owain stared at Severa for a moment, then dashed past her without a word, reaching down and scooping up his swords as he ran.
"H-Hey! Owain, get back here, you moron!" Severa demanded. "I know you want to see them, but this place is crawling with Risen!"
"All the more reason to be by parents' side! My Sword Hand guides me to them in this perilous hour!"
"They're with the rest of the Shepherds! They'll be fine! They don't need your help!"
The swordsman skidded to a halt. "Ah... Indeed, there are others in more dire need of my aid. It wouldn't do to let the hospitality of the sages be stained by their own blood... Very well then! Come! I, Owain Dark, the Scion of Legend, shall smite these fell beasts with the help of the radiant Severa!"
"Owain Dark?" Severa questioned as the two began to run towards a small group of Risen. "Gods, you are such a tool. And who the hell do you think you are, making me your sidekick?!" She gave him a sideways glance. "Y-you could say more things about me being radiant though..."
Robin, Lucina, and Say'ri stood on the edge of a clearing. Three small houses dotted the open meadow.
"What the hell is this place? Robin wondered aloud. "It's not on the map..."
"A hidden village?" Lucina asked as she sliced through a Risen myrmidon.
"There are tales of sages who live in these woods," Say'ri said as she cut down a mage. "Mayhaps these dwellings belong to them?"
"Hmm. Fortunate for them that we stumbled upon this place, then," Robin noted, incinerating a cavalier.
Robin raised as his eyebrows as he realized that a figure was approaching the middle of the hamlet, in a pace too slow and deliberate for the mindless Risen. And yet his skin crawled, for the person had eyes of glowing red and mottled purple skin nonetheless.
That Risen... It's not like the others. What the hell is this thing?
At that moment, Owain and Severa had arrived at the hamlet on the opposite end of where Robin, Lucina, and Say'ri now stood. They too were staring at the mysterious figure in the center of the copse.
"H-Hey, Owain?" Severa asked a bit uneasily. "Does that Risen over there look a bit... familiar to you, too?"
"Familiar...?" Owain murmured. His eyes suddenly jolted wide in shock. "Impossible... It can't be!
"That face... Those blades... This is impossible. That is the Jade Empress!" Say'ri breathed in disbelief. "But she has been dead for centuries...!"
"How... How can this be?," Lucina asked. "She shouldn't exist yet in this era!"
"Unbelievable..." Robin muttered. "They're supposed to be nothing more than myths... Is it really her?" He turned toward Lucina. "The Deadlord-"
Chapter 4: Scion of Legend II
A man who looked rather like a toad with appalling fashion taste and a man who seemed to be born from shadows walked together under the pale moonlight. The wider man sauntered as if the entirety of the Valmese forest was his own personal backyard, while the taller, deceased man's movement was so controlled and refined that it was almost as if he was gliding. Around them, Risen shambled through the dense foliage, but neither paid them any mind.
"Eeheehee... It's simply delicious irony, is it not, my dear sweet Porcus?" Excellus asked.
Porcus said nothing.
Walhart's tactician continued unperturbed. Frankly, he hated it when other people thought that they had things worth saying. "I once offered the fools in that hamlet the honor of becoming my servants. And they refused! Laughed even! Can you believe something so ludicrous?!"
"Easily," Porcus smirked.
Excellus scowled. "Watch your tongue, corpse! Do you have any idea how many methods I have at my disposal that can make you suffer?"
The Deadlord simply chuckled. Then his eyes darted to the man, blazing fiercely. "Try... them, then..."
Excellus glowered at Porcus for a moment more, but then, in an instant, as if he had suddenly switched out a pair of masks, wore a cheerful veneer. He smiled so broadly that one could count all of his teeth. "Forgive me, dear friend. I do lose my temper at times." If his tone had a taste, it would have been of rotten fruit. "But anyway, those idiots will get what's coming to them tonight. They'll lament the day they spited my charity! Being driven from the capital wasn't punishment enough, oh no! Eeheeheehee! And my lovely Say'ri is in for such a treat!"
"You... refer... to Simia...?"
"Ugh, dear Porcus, can you not speak a tad faster? Your faculties should be fully under your control by now." Excellus brought his hands up to his face gleefully, painted nails and gaudy rings gleaming in the moonlight as he drummed his fingers against his cheeks in anticipation. "But my oh my, am I ever so excited! The Chon'sinese adore the dead almost as much as the Grimleal do! For Say'ri to be pitted against her kin... If she were to be slain by her own venerable ancestor... Oh, it gives me such a warm, tingly feeling! You know, traditionally, you should be paired with Canis, my dear Porcus, but I simply could not pass up so delightful an opportunity! And I wouldn't even be breaking my pact were Say'ri to die at Simia's hand, not truly! Eeheeheehee!" The tactician put his hand to his brow in mock distress. "Oh, forgive me, Yen'fay! I could do nothing about the plague of the undead that so suddenly appeared! I, the great Excellus, tried oh so valiantly to save your sister, but alas, she was cut down, like a maiden in one of your country's barbarous tragic plays! Eeheeheehee!"
"You talk big... For someone borrowing his power..."
"Silence!" Excellus snapped. "It matters not who summoned you! I am your master!
Porcus sneered. "Puppets... should not look down on fellow puppets."
"I am the one pulling the strings here, fool!" Excellus growled. "I'll take the thrones of both Valm and Plegia for myself! I'll use any means I'm given!" He wheeled around. "That woman, Aversa, actually thinks she can outwit me? Absurd! Oh, and that brat of a 'Grandmaster'...! Plegia's precious child! The terms of the agreement said that I was to deliver him alive, but they didn't say in what condition! Eeheeheehee! I'll show him how a real tactician does thin- GYAAH!"
His words fell short, for Porcus had suddenly lunged forward and grabbed the bulbous man's tongue in his hand. Porcus stared at Excellus with cold eyes that radiated hatred. "Slime like you... who throw away anything... and anyone... to get ahead... do not deserve... that title... Call yourself 'tactician'... in my presence again... and I'll tear out this tongue. Of course... you are already quite used... to having body parts removed, yes? ...Ehehehehe..."
Excellus was trembling now, eyes bulging with fright. Porcus gave a look of utter contempt. He released the man's tongue, then turned and walked away. "Yes... scum like you... besmirch her name... by donning that title..."
The sorcerer was hacking and spitting, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "B-Bastard! Where do you think you're going?!"
"To carry out... your orders, of course... Off to kill... the scions of the Hero King..." Porcus stopped still for a moment. He began to chuckle quietly, an emanation that quickly escalated into howls of laughter.
"Ahahahaha! Now that is irony!" the Deadlord exclaimed, his shark-like teeth on full display as he grinned like a madman, dark blue hair framing his burning red eyes.
Simia sighed to herself, eyeing the surrounding cottages of the Sages' Hamlet. This was pathetic. She was a warrior, proud and regal. She should be dueling and besting the Ylissean exalt at this moment, and yet here she was, about to kill a lot of cowards because her master couldn't control his pettiness. The swordmaster shook her head in disgust. This kind of business should have been right up Porcus's alley, so why was she the one forced to dirty her hands on these weaklings?
The Deadlord growled and looked up at the night sky. She paused for a moment, realizing that the moon had been just as bright and full on the night she had died. A phantom pain flared in her breast a moment, and she reached up to touch a hole that was not there. The sensation passed quickly though as Simia became more and more enraptured by the moon. Unbidden, a poem spontaneously sprang to her tongue.
"Gleaming eye of night / Staring at fields of slaughter / All lights shall soon fade."
Simia blinked, then laughed to herself. She honestly hadn't believed that she had any of her human traits left save for her mastery of the blade and her pride as a warrior. She remained where she stood. She was in no hurry; as a Risen, many of the things that had once held sway over her when she was alive were now beyond her. But no one could keep her from savoring the moon and the stars. And if the sages became bold enough to poke their heads out from their shelter, then those would readily be removed from their shoulders. Simia began to hum one of her favorite melodies from ages past, regretting that she did not have an instrument to play on.
She abruptly stopped, then laughed at herself in exasperation. "Pretending to be human is folly. Many generations have passed since this Simia's death."
Simia contemplatively stared at the sky once more, and a faint smile played on her lips.
But that is not to say that a corpse cannot appreciate beauty.
"She's stopped moving..." Lucina murmured, crouching in the coverage of undergrowth.
"Simia, the ninth Deadlord," Robin recited from memory beside her. "Usually female, and always a master of the sword. But what is she doing in a place like this?"
"She must intend the sages harm!" Say'ri concluded.
"But why would a Deadlord care about them?" Robin questioned. "No, rather, why would whomever's controlling a Deadlord use it for something like this? No semblance of stealth, standing out in the open, so close to us..." He rubbed his chin. "Perhaps she's a decoy? Or maybe she is meant to kill the sages, while we're tied up dealing with-" Robin paused abruptly. "...Shit. Simia is the ninth Deadlord, out of twelve! There could be at least three more in this forest!"
"But if that's the case, then their real target-" Lucina stiffened. "Father!"
Immediately the blue-haired princess began to sprint back toward the other Shepherds her group had left behind.
"Hey, hey, wait a minute!" Robin shouted after her, but Lucina was already out of sight. "Don't go running off alon- Ugh!" The tactician slammed his fist against a tree. "Godsdammit!" He turned toward Say'ri. "Sorry, but Chrom takes priority over those sages. We're going after Lucina."
Say'ri shook her head. "Nay. I shall deal with the Jade Empress. You do as you must."
"Hey, I think I have a better idea! How about you not fight the absurdly strong murder-zombie all by yourself!"
"It is only fitting that I be the one to return her to her rest."
"Deadlords are worth entire armies," Robin said flatly. "You'll be killed."
"Then I die with honor," Say'ri replied resolutely.
Robin clutched his skull, grinding his teeth. "You do understand that I can't back you up here, right? If Chrom falls, we're done for. I have to make sure he doesn't have three of those things up his ass right now!"
"As I said, do what you must."
"Gah! What is it with you women?! Did you and Lucina decide together that tonight was Make Robin's Life as Difficult as Humanly Possible Night?!" The tactician sighed, deflating. He scratched the back of his head. "...I'll try to send reinforcements to you. Hold out for as long as you can. Kite Simia away from the sages and keep her interest without getting too close. Understand?"
"Aye," Sayri said, eyes never leaving the Deadlord.
As Robin turned away, he knew that Say'ri was lying through her teeth. The Chon'sinese princess had no intention of running away. She would stand her ground and shortly thereafter die upon it. Robin bit the inside of his cheek in frustration as he ran, hard enough to draw blood. There was nothing he could do. Chrom was in danger. The presence of a Deadlord made it clear to him that this was no random Risen attack. It was planned, purposeful. The Ylissean League had been targeted from the start, and if that was the case, then naturally whoever was behind this was after Chrom's head. Push came to shove, Say'ri's life wasn't even close to Chrom's. All Robin could do for her now was hope that she was skilled enough to survive until help arrived.
Severa peeked out from behind a tree trunk. "Why the hell is that Risen just standing there?" she muttered. "Gods, she is so creepy."
"I doubt we can count on her being so accommodating as to stay rooted to that spot all night," Owain declared, beginning to walk towards the Deadlord.
Severa reached out and grabbed him by the arm. "Hold on a second, dumbass! That's Simia! She's a Deadlord! You know you can't take her on!"
"Am I supposed to just sit back and let my friends die, then?!" Owain growled.
"Better than you dying!" Severa hissed.
Owain paused a moment, then grinned. "Why, Severa, I didn't think you cared!"
"Wh-wha-?!" she stammered, caught off-guard. Owain didn't notice the red on Severa's cheeks, though, because he had taken advantage of her moment's lapse in concentration in order to slip out of her grasp.
"Fear not. I'll show you just how strong I've become. With this Mystletainn, I'll defeat that abomination. I, Owain Dark-... Huh?"
Severa noticed too. A lone woman had walked out into the meadow, coming within ten feet of the Deadlord. The resemblance between the two was uncanny, from their faces, to their builds, to their hair, to the swords strapped to their waists.
"Who is that?" Severa asked.
"I don't know," Owain replied. "She's brave, though, to be approaching a Deadlord like that..." He frowned and furrowed his brow pensively.
Severa noticed that Owain had become still, watching the pair in the meadow intently. He had been about to step out from their cover, but was now pressed up against a tree trunk, peeking around it to survey what seemed about to become a battlefield.
"Severa," Owain said quietly. "We have to help her. Even if that thing is a Deadlord, it'll still be three against one. We can take it."
He instinctively wheeled around as he heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed. Severa was facing away from him, having adopted a combat stance. "I think we might need to be a little bit more worried about them," she warned tersely.
The myrmidon didn't need to ask whom she was referring to, because a horde of Risen was bounding toward them in plain sight.
Owain forced a grin as he drew his swords. "What good's a villain without underlings?"
Say'ri bowed deeply, her eyes pointed toward the ground. "It is an honor to be in thy presence, O Great Jade Empress."
"Oh? You speak the tongue of Chon'sin? And you know of this Simia?"
Say'ri's mouth twitched at the use of the Deadlord's title. "Aye, Lady Iza'mai. I am thy descendant from centuries after thy time, the first princess of the fifteenth clan, Say'ri."
The Deadlord spoke as if she were dealing with an irritating child.
Say'ri looked up questioningly. "'And' what, milady?"
She was answered by the sound of swords leaving their scabbards. Say'ri had only a moment to draw her own weapons, and in a heavy clash four blades locked against each other.
"I had thought you might have something to say worth hearing," the Deadlord said coldly. "Clearly, I was mistaken."
"My lady!" Say'ri shouted, arms trembling under the strain of containing the Risen's immense power. "I beg thee, fight whatever black sorcery thou art bound by!"The princess pushed Simia away, and the two began a rapid exchange of blows, the clamor of steel echoing in quick succession. Simia was impossibly quick and strong, and it took everything Say'ri could muster to not be cut down on the spot. Fearing being overwhelmed, the swordsmaid created another deadlock with the Deadlord, but Say'ri could barely keep their blades pushed together.
"I am thy kin, my lady!" Say'ri cried. "Thine own flesh and blood!"
"A corpse has no kin!" the Deadlord exclaimed gleefully to her wide-eyed descendant. "If you wish to become her family, then join this Simia in death!" The Jade Empress suddenly applied more force to her swords, knocking Say'ri's blades away. Simia pivoted and delivered a kick to her foe's now-exposed midriff, knocking Say'ri off of her feet and sending her flying through the air. The princess of Chon'sin collided with a tree, a sharp cracking sound resounding as her head struck the trunk. Say'ri dropped to the ground, vision swimming, before sinking to her knees and toppling over, unconscious.
"...Is that all?" Simia asked in disgust. She casually strolled over to Say'ri, nudging her with her foot. "...Hmph. Her swordplay was not that of an amateur. Perhaps I have simply grown too powerful?" The Risen looked upward at the night sky. "Or mayhaps the shock of this Simia trying to kill her so earnestly was too much for her to bear?"
Simia glanced back down to Say'ri. Her eyes suddenly shone as she noticed the swords still limply held in the woman's grasp. "Ah...! So this is where Kiku-ichimonji and Kazekiri found themselves in this era! What fortune! And here I had feared I would be forced to humble myself with Ashura and Kotetsu for a while longer!" Simia smiled, brandishing her own swords with mild disdain. She glanced back to Say'ri's face, then flipped the sword called Ashura upside-down and held the tip over Say'ri's throat. "Goodbye, pitiable daughter of mine." The Deadlord raised Ashura up.
A voice rang out through the meadow. "Halt right there, foul fiend!"
Simia paused, then turned to regard the newcomer. "Who dares speak to this Simia in such a manner?"
A tall young man was rapidly approaching, a much shorter young woman irritably following behind him. The pair stopped not ten feet from Simia, the man's hand obscuring part of his face as he stood in an odd pose. "I am Owain Dark, the Scion of Legend!" he exclaimed. "I am the whispering blade, and I am your second death, fell Deadlord!"
His companion simply sighed and drew her sword.
Simia narrowed her eyes. She didn't know how this man knew of her title, and she didn't particularly care. "You are mistaken," the Deadlord said as she adopted one of her preferred stances, one tailored for fighting two opponents at once.
"You are but a dead fool."
Robin was more than a tad vexed. The effects on his mood from actions by certain strong-willed women aside, the nature of this Risen attack was causing him significant concern. He had expected the Grimleal to stay out of Ylissean affairs during the Valmese War; it made sense for them to pit their two biggest obstacles, Chrom and Walhart, against each other and deal with the survivor afterward. If anything, the Grimleal should have been aiding the Ylisseans, much like how they had oh-so-generously offered up their warships and treasury. After all, history had already proven once before that they could defeat Chrom. And yet, these Risen were clearly being used with the intent of causing the collapse of the Ylissean League. It just didn't add up.
Who is behind this? Sister, perhaps?
Robin mentally filed away a note that Aversa being able to summon Risen would perfectly explain what had happened during the incident with Emmeryn, but that was a thought for another time. Right now he had to focus on finding and killing the caster pulling the Risen's strings. While this probably wouldn't dispel the ordinary Risen that had already been summoned, it would theoretically at least break the summoning contracts on the Deadlords and return them to dust and ash.
Frankly, Robin hoped that it wasn't Aversa behind all of this, because he did not relish the thought of having to kill the only person he could still tenuously consider family.
His thoughts were interrupted as he spotted two Shepherds up ahead. He hailed them immediately, knowing the margin of life and death for Say'ri could be as thin as a minute.
Assuming she hasn't already been killed, of course, he thought darkly.
Severa gritted her teeth as her sword connected with Simia's, sending spasms up the mercenary's arms. Beside her, Owain blocked the follow-up strike from Simia's other blade that would have disemboweled Severa. The myrmidon grunted, straining with both hands wrapped tightly around "Mystletainn"'s hilt, before managing to knock Simia's sword away, allowing him to fire off a quick slash at the Deadlord. Simia hopped backward, dodging the attack by a hair's breadth. Severa lunged forward before the Risen's feet had even touched the ground, jabbing with a quick and powerful thrust. Simia coolly deflected it, but was once again pushed onto the defensive as Owain circled around and came at her from her side. Simia scowled and lashed out. Their blades locked once more, and for the umpteenth time they three were caught in a standstill that prompted the two parties to push back and leap away from each other.
Both Owain and Severa were breathing somewhat heavily, while Simia calmly cricked her neck as if she had just gotten done warming-up. Owain was uncharacteristically silent; since their fight with the Deadlord had begun, he had not delivered a single speech, a single attack name, nor tried to use an unfamiliar dual-wielding style as he had been inclined to do against mindless Risen. This somewhat unnerved Severa; Owain's theatrics were usually used to either put his opponents off-kilter or to psych himself up, but the fact that he hadn't even tried to use any of his usual stunts indicated that he didn't believe there was even the slightest leeway for error.
Of course, Severa had been able to understand that fact before she had even crossed blades with the monster, but there still seemed something profoundly wrong to her about a deathly serious Owain. She would have greatly preferred the presence of his usual exuberant self right at that moment.
Owain nudged Severa with his arm, causing a jolt to run through the woman's body from the unexpected contact. The myrmidon gave the mercenary a quick glance, jerking his chin toward Simia while he shifted "Mystletainn" to his left hand and drew his old Killing Edge with his right. Then he focused his gaze on the Deadlord, sinking into a crouch. Severa swallowed, but nodded; she had understood his intention.
"I'm going to distract her. Wait for an opening and use Luna."
Severa dropped into a sprinter's crouch, channeling the magic of Galeforce through her body and the magic of Luna through her blade. Owain dashed forward as his friend did this, throwing himself at Simia. The Deadlord smirked, and met him with a hail of strikes. Owain grimaced and dug his feet into the ground, fighting furiously to keep from being overwhelmed. Simia's speed and might were incredible, and Owain was clearly in trouble, gradually being pushed back foot by foot as his defense became more and more frantic.
And still, Severa did not attack. She ground her teeth, frustrated that Owain was struggling on his own, but she knew that allowing her emotions to get in the way at such a critical juncture would prove fatal. Her timing had to be perfect, or they would both die. In truth, Severa was frightened. Scared of failing, scared of losing the person she cared for most.
Not that she would ever tell the idiot that though, of course.
Owain staggered a bit, and Simia's Kotetsu glanced off his arm, drawing a thin gash. The swordsman winced, but kicked out at Simia's knee, causing her to drop a bit. Owain swung at the Deadlord's neck, but Simia managed to block the strike with Ashura and preempted Owain's follow-up by forcing him to block an upwards blow from Ashura. The Deadlord spun, pivoting gracefully to slash at Owain's exposed side, forcing Owain to contort oddly to guard. Simia followed through with great strength, causing Owain himself to unwillingly pivot as his blades were dragged along with the Deadlord's, further exposing the young man. He was now badly-positioned and off-balance, and Simia punished this by delivering a savage heel kick to Owain's diaphragm. The myrmidon was sent flying away before landing in a rough, tumbling series of skids, gagging while struggling to breathe. Had Simia pursued, it would have been almost impossible for Owain to survive.
But Severa was already in motion, flying towards Simia in a flash of light, sword held out like a lance. Her timing and skill were impeccable, and any onlooker would have called her attack the work of a genius. It would only take her the briefest of instants to run the away-facing Deadlord through.
And it was this moment that Simia had been waiting for. With a gleam in her eyes she suddenly wheeled about, blades crossed in front of her. The tip of Severa's sword collided with those of Simia's, sparks flying as Simia strained to repel the piercing strength of Luna. For a second, the Deadlord was pushed back, scowling as her swords trembled. But then, with a mighty heave, Simia knocked the strike away, her swords held out like wings as the light of Severa's magics scattered like parting mists. Severa gaped in horror, unable to believe what she was seeing. Her strongest skills had just been countered by base physical strength. The Deadlord leered at the girl, a feral grin playing on painted lips.
A tremor of terror ran down Severa's spine, and it felt as if the entire world around her had frozen. She instinctively activated Galeforce again, dashing away as quickly as the magic could take her, careful to never take her eyes off of the Deadlord. Simia simply watched for a moment, then abruptly vanished in a blur of movement. Severa didn't even have time to process what she had just seen, for an instant later Simia was at her side, some fifty feet away from where they had both started. Severa felt time slow and her blood freeze in her veins as she turned to look into the Deadlord's eyes.
Simia smiled broadly, face bright with glee. "Think you to be the only one who can enhance their speed through spellcraft?! This Simia's Pass is far beyond your ken, mortal!"
The two landed with skids are their respective magics dissipated, and then Severa was immediately beset upon by Simia. The ferocity of the Deadlord's strikes now made their previous confrontation seem tame in comparison, and Severa was quickly becoming panicked as she was forced to react entirely on instinct due to her enemy's inhuman speed. The mercenary desperately searched for some avenue of escape, but none presented itself, and Owain was now much too far away to come to his ally's aid in time.
A significant distance away, Owain had just gotten to his feet, still coughing sporadically. He scanned the area for Severa and Simia, having lost track of them in-between his tumbling and their lightning-fast exchange. He caught sight of the duel an instant before one of Simia's blades slipped through Severa's guard to hamstring her left thigh, immediately hobbling the young woman. Owain gasped, horrified. "Severa!" The swordsman began to move without thinking.
Now falling, Severa was consumed by the fear of imminent death. She lashed out in terror, but Simia calmly parried and then twisted Severa's sword out of her grasp. Defenseless, Severa could do nothing as Simia's Ashura slipped by and sliced open her side. The mercenary screamed in pain as impact from the glancing blow threw her to the ground. Simia cackled and held Kotetsu overhead, ready to impale the prone girl. She swung down, and Severa squeezed her eyes shut, silently apologizing that she hadn't lived up to her mother's legacy and preparing to meet her in the afterlife.
And because of this, she did not see Owain instantly appear in front of her in the same blur of movement Simia had used earlier, his "Mystletainn" and Killing Edge catching Kotetsu with a loud clang. Simia's eyes widened, and she immediately leapt backward as Owain struck out wildly, fury in his eyes. Severa cracked her own eyes slowly before they snapped open in disbelief. "O-Owain...?! How did you...?!"
Simia regarded the man quietly. "That was the magic of Pass just now, was it not? I had not thought you to be capable of it."
Owain grinned. "In truth, monster, I believe it was beyond me until just this moment. In your arrogance, you have awoken a slumbering demon far beyond your reckoning!"
He neglected to mention that he very much doubted that he could use the technique twice; his body had acted on instinct to reach Severa in time.
Simia shrugged. "So be it. You've merely changed the order of your execution." She dashed forward, swords angled low. Owain held his ground, and the two engaged in a blinding contest of sword-strikes. Severa gaped in amazement at the speed with which the weapons swung through the air, Owain just barely managing to keep up with the Deadlord's savage assault. But Simia was still clearly advantaged, and though Owain did not lose a single inch of footing, more and more small cuts were appearing on him as the seconds passed.
Suddenly, Severa thought she saw a flash of green. She rubbed her eyes, thinking it to be caused by her already substantial blood loss, but the light remained. She gasped as she saw a number of Owain's injuries begin to fade, and realized that the searing pain in her midriff was abating and the bleeding was slowing. Off in the distance, she could see the same light where the Chon'sinese woman had been felled.
Healing magic...? But how? Severa wondered. Who...?
"Feh! Accursed sages!" Simia seethed, glancing back at the cottages. Owain grinned, revitalized by his recovery, and began pressing harder against the Deadlord. It appeared that little by little, Owain was somehow managing to make the fight more even. Though Simia still unquestionably held the edge in speed and strength, it was almost as if Owain was gaining a prescience of sorts, his swords coming to meet Simia's almost at the moment that her movements began.
Severa struggled to get on her feet, but her left leg still refused to comply with her demands. She cursed, sinking back down. All she could do right now was wait for the sages' healing to enable her to stand again. Until then, she could only contain her frustration at being unable to help.
Simia was beside herself with fury. The boy had not been this skilled earlier, she was certain of it. And yet he was still improving at an impossible rate, so much so that Simia no longer had a monopoly on the offensive and was now being forced to counter the occasional attack.
And then the unthinkable happened. The boy jabbed unexpectedly, and his blade glanced off Simia's before slicing open her cheek, ichorous black sliding down her face. Simia went rigid and immediately disengaged, distancing herself from the strange boy. She stared at nothing in shock as she raised her hand to her cheek, wiping away a bit of her black blood. She gazed at it in disbelief. She, Simia, had been injured by this whelp?!
The man laughed boldly and loudly. "You see, Simia?! I can feel my sleeping powers stirring! Mystletainn, the apocryphal brand, has chosen I, Owain Dark, as its rightful master!" This announcement came as the boy brandished the sword that was clearly not Mystletainn. But still, Simia noticed a faint magical glow around its hilt. Her eyes widened in rage as she understood; those damned sages must have given the boy this sword. It was not the brat himself that challenged her, but the artifices of magicians. The blade gave the boy abilities beyond his own.
"Know your place, wretch!" the Deadlord hissed. "For this Simia's face to be marred by the likes of you is a laughable disgrace, and one that will not go unanswered! I will show you what a true master of the blade is capable of!" She twirled her blades in practiced, ritualized movements, dropping down into an odd crouch that he had modeled off the movements of the actors in plays from her era.
"Know ye true fear. Know ye true might! Know ye true despair!" Her blades became cloaked in an eerie pale light.
Owain stiffened; his every instinct was screaming at him that something terrible was about to happen. He could practically feel the night's air around him grinding to a halt.
Simia uttered one brief word, so short and so quiet that Owain barely heard it.
And then in a blur of motion Owain couldn't comprehend, five Simias were suddenly before him, their ten blades swinging down at his body.
The exchange ended in an instant. Before Severa could even understand what had happened, Owain went flying through the pitch-black sky, blood trailing from terrible wounds all across his body. He landed with a horrendous crash nearly twenty feet away.
"Owain!" Severa screamed, voice hoarse with terror.
Simia rolled her neck, frowning. "My my, it would appear this Simia's technique has been diminished by the centuries. The boy managed to block more of it than this Simia expected of him. He even managed to keep his head." She suddenly grinned. "Not that it matters. He is most certainly dead all the same."
"You bitch!" Severa shouted, struggling to drag herself to her feet in spite of her injuries. "I'll kill you! I swear to the gods I'll kill you!"
Simia just laughed. "Save this Simia the trouble and simply slit your own belly. She has no more time to waste playing with the likes of you."
Severa ignored her, crawling over to her sword.
Simia sighed and shook her head. "So be it. I am not devoid of mercy. I'll send you to the grave as well." She twirled a sword and began to walk toward Severa.
There was a slight movement in the periphery of their vision, and Simia immediately froze. She turned her head. "Impossible..." she murmured.
Owain was standing. He was teetering, covered in blood, and ready to fall over at any moment, but he was standing all the same.
Not understanding how the man was still alive, Simia scrutinized the injuries that had been inflicted by Astra, and realized that they each had a faint glow around him. Furthermore, every one of them had stopped ever-so precariously short of his vital organs.
"Could it be? The magic of Miracle?" Simia asked, eyebrow raised. "How curious. I had thought it a skill that only clerics could learn."
Owain did not reply, staggering over to Severa's side as blood spilled from his mouth and wounds. The fear on Severa's face was now bordering on panic; she had never seen Owain so close to death before. The myrmidon smiled, an attempt at reassurance that was undercut by more blood escaping past his lips. He turned back toward Simia and brandished his blades with a flourish, but the movement lacked the emphatic touch of Owain's usual gestures.
Simia regarded Owain for a moment, then sighed and shook her head. "You are foolish beyond comprehension. I thought you to be truly dead. Had you but pretended that to be the case, you might have lived through this night."
"You expect me to just leave Severa to die?" Owain asked quietly. Meanwhile, Severa herself was silently pleading for him to do just that while he still had a chance.
"Naturally," Simia scoffed. "What else could you do, simpleton?"
Owain was quiet for a moment. Then he opened his mouth and began to speak mutedly. "People say that I'm a blowhard, a fool, a creep..."
Severa winced at those words, and in particular the way Owain listed the verbal abuse without a hint of anger or resentment. It would be just like him to have completely forgotten that she had previously berated him with those exact same insults.
"And they may be right," Owain admitted. "Call me what you like, but... Even if I am that kind of man, I am not the kind of man who could abandon Severa!" There were tremors in the young man's voice now. "I will never... I will never, ever watch someone important to me die because of my own weakness ever again!"
Severa's voice caught in her throat, her eyes watering. "O-Owain...!"
"Die yourself, then, and be spared the sight," Simia sneered. She leapt forward in a blur, blades singing through the air as they bore down on Owain. He feebly attempted to raise his swords in defense, but it was clear that even if he could somehow muster the speed to catch Simia's strikes, he lacked the strength needed to repel them.
Time seemed to stop for Severa. Pale moonlight glinted off Simia's wickedly gleaming blades, and the Deadlord's eyes burned fiercer still. A trickle of blood snaked down Owain's chin. Severa opened her mouth to scream.
But the sound that echoed throughout the meadow instead was the clash of steel against steel. Severa stared in disbelief, for Owain could not have possibly defended against Simia's unworldly attack.
And indeed, he had not. A man who was a head and a half taller than Owain, but whose scalp bore the same-colored hair as his, stood between him and the Deadlord. Three Killing Edges were locked against each other, metal quivering as the two wielders pushed against each other. The unusually tall man glanced at Owain and Severa, regarding them coolly. His gaze settled on Owain in particular.
"Hmph... Well said, boy. I seem to recall making a similar vow in my own youth."
Owain could barely speak through his shock. "F-Father...?"
Lon'qu gave a heave, forcing Simia to jump backwards. The Deadlord hopped to a halt, sizing up the newcomer from a safe distance.
A blue light suddenly appeared around Owain, and and one around Severa as well. Their wounds immediately began to heal, the soothing radiance easing their pain. Owain and Severa looked confusedly about for the source of this new magic, as it was far more potent than that of the sages. They quickly noticed a young woman, perhaps Severa's age, giving them a kind smile as she trotted up to them, a staff grasped in each hand.
Severa gaped. "You...! You're...!"
Owain swallowed, blinking back tears. But it was a useless effort, and they began to spill down his face. "Mother...!" he sobbed.
Lissa's eyes went wide. "'Mother'...? Then... you must be Owain, right?"
Her son swallowed wordlessly and nodded. Lissa stared at him a moment, then began to laugh, leaning in and gripping the young man in a tight hug. "You're Owain! That's great! You grow up to be so brave and strong! And is this your girlfriend? She's so pretty! Nice catch, you!" Lissa grinned, playfully giving Owain a light punch on the shoulder.
Severa and Owain both went red in the face, but before either could say anything there was another resounding cry of metal, followed by more and more in quick succession. Lon'qu and Simia were like hurricanes, rapidly stepping to and fro across the battlefield as they exchanged strike after strike.
Owain grabbed Lissa by the shoulder. "Mother, we need to escape! Even Father can't match that abomination!"
Lissa shook her head. "Have some faith. Your father's strong. He won't lose to that thing."
Owain was beginning to look frantic. "You don't understand! I won't have him die for me, not again! Simia is-"
He was interrupted by a loud cracking noise. Simia staggered away from Lon'qu, clutching at her bleeding and shattered nose. Lon'qu withdrew his elbow from where it had struck the Deadlord, sinking fluidly back into a stance before lashing out again. Owain gaped; in spite of the Deadlord having trampled him, Severa, and Say'ri with ease, Lon'qu was gaining an upper hand.
Lissa smiled. "See? I don't know what happened in your future, but I do know what happened in your father's past. He and that Risen might as well be worlds apart. He'll win, you'll see."
Owain swallowed and nodded silently, eyes fixated on the storm raging in the Sages' Hamlet.
It didn't take Porcus long to locate the exalt. Chrom was far from stealthy on a battlefield, a whirling dervish that cut down Risen after Risen in broad swathes. His wife fought beside him, skillfully wielding a lance as she covered her husband. For someone who had fallen flat on her face three times this morning before breakfast, she was a remarkably nimble fighter on foot. Porcus silently laughed to himself as he realized that these two reminded him of a certain couple. Scanning the area for possible obstacles, the Deadlord's eyes widened as they came across a large animal that was savagely tearing Risen into pieces. Porcus was amazed; he had only caught brief glimpses of members of the Beast Tribe in life, and couldn't believe that their species had managed to survive for over a millennium. What surprised him even more so was that this being was fighting alongside humans as an equal.
He sighed inaudibly. Astounding though this discovery was, if it got in his way it would be killed, just like any other interference with his work.
The Deadlord approached his target from the rear, careful to keep out of sight and downwind from the rabbit-creature, darting behind tree trunks whenever the group's attention was too focused on battle to notice his passing. Finally finding a location he deemed to be close enough, Porcus drew a bow and deftly notched an arrow. He much preferred a straight fight, contrary to his title's expectations, but he knew better than to put pleasure before business. He took careful aim at the back of Chrom's neck. The exalt was too busy fighting four Risen at once—and what's more, winning—to have any chance at sensing the arrow coming for him before it found its mark. Porcus drew the bowstring.
And then he paused, blinking. Something was not right. Porcus closed his eyes and reopened them. His jaw nearly dropped from shock when he had done so. A large man in full armor was standing behind Chrom, covering his back. Porcus blinked in astonishment; the man had such a total lack of presence that he had been overlooked to the point of invisibility. If Porcus had let his arrow loose just now, this general would have surely seen it coming and deflected it, ruining the chance for a quick and easy assassination.
Two bizarre existences in one night. Porcus shook his head in wonderment, but quickly refocused. He waited for an opportunity to re-position himself, careful to keep an eye on the strange armored man at all times, then rolled across the ground when the general's attention was diverted. He righted himself, verified that he could still see the bodyguard, then took aim at the exalt once more.
A black arrow hissed through the night.
Lucina crashed through undergrowth and swept through Risen, Falchion a blur. Every second passing was like a razor dragged across her throat. Her father was in danger, and with him, the world. Fervently she prayed to Naga, the goddess's daughter Tiki, and her own venerated ancestor, the Hero King, begging each and any of them to grant her but a sliver greater of haste so that she could shield her father from harm.
Regrettably, prayer had never been terribly effective for the princess.
Porcus's arrow bore down on Chrom's neck, swift and silent, deadly and precise. There was no one to dynamically intervene, no freak gust of wind to sweep the projectile off course, no last-second stumble to miraculously save the exalt's life. Fate had stepped aside, and deigned to allow this instant to play out unimpeded.
That was not to say that Chrom was without recourse, though. The azure pall of Aegis flared over the lord, the automatic magic intercepting the oncoming arrow just long enough for Chrom to become aware of its existence.
"Not good enough," Porcus smirked.
Like glass cracking, Aegis dissipated against the momentum of the Deadlord's arrow. The tip bore down on Chrom's neck, and the exalt wasn't swift enough to avoid it.
"One down," Porcus quietly declared.
The arrow glanced off flesh, flying harmlessly into the night. No wound had been inflicted.
Porcus's eyes shot wide. "What?!"
Chrom whipped his head about in bewilderment, then singled out the one thicket of foliage from where the attack could have originated. The exalt bellowed and charged forward, Falchion held at ready to deflect any further attempts at assassination.
From within his concealment, Porcus collected his wits, then smirked. Evidently, magic had advanced in some respects during his absence from the realm of the living.
The Deadlord determined that a retreat was in order. Much as he would have loved to test the Hero King's descendant in hand-to-hand combat, there were too many complicating factors for a direct engagement. Already, the exalt's wife, his bodyguard, and the overgrown rabbit were all turning toward where Porcus was hiding, drawn by the sound of their liege's war-cry.
With a mighty bound, Porcus leapt skyward into the forest canopy, up and over his quarry before the man ever caught sight of the corpse. The Deadlord had decided that he would need to remove himself from a range that allowed him to be detected by scent. Following this he would make another attempt while the heat of battle had forced the exalt's attention to become once again stretched—or failing that, Porcus at the very least required conditions where fewer irritants could interfere with a one-on-one duel. The tide of Risen still flowed, and so long as the mindless dead shambled forward, the sentient would be granted another chance at his aims.
Or so he thought, until jumping from branch to branch caused him to pass directly over a second member of the Beast Tribe.
Yarne looked up just in time to meet Porcus's surprised, glowing red eyes.
The Deadlord primed his bow.
The Taguel halfling shrieked.
Elsewhere, a Plegian sorcerer staggered, momentarily rendered light-headed by a sudden flush of pain. He nearly stumbled into the dancer at his side, who was at that moment gracefully and surgically cutting down a Risen sniper.
Startled, Olivia braced the white-haired man with her body. "Henry!" she yelled. "You're bleeding!"
The sorcerer raised his eyebrows at his wife, then glanced down at his midriff, where a faint laceration had appeared. "Oh, I am! Awesome!"
"What happened?!" Olivia questioned. She hadn't seen any Risen inflict a blow on her husband just now, so where had this sudden damage come from?
The sorcerer answered her with disproportionate cheer. "Don't worry, dear. I'll be fine. This isn't a big deal. Didn't get hit in any vital organs, and I can barely feel a thing. You know, the nerve damage."
"Henry, dear, do you know why this happened?!" Olivia demanded.
"Just a simple displacement-slash-transmutation hex I set up on Chrom. Robin asked me to do it. Assassination attempts and all that." Henry paused his explanation to disintegrate another sniper with dark magic, then resumed speaking. "The hex is pretty effective, but it's one-shot. A single instance of fatal damage gets redirected to me, and dispersed throughout my body where it won't cause lethal harm." He winked at his wife. "Naturally, I slapped one of these suckers on you ages ago."
Olivia blanched. "Wha-?! When did-?!"
"Silly, when you were sleeping, obviously!"
The sorcerer's wife was aghast, even as she nimbly disemboweled a berserker. "Henry, that's sweet of you, but this is the sort of thing we need to discuss beforehand!"
"No way I could have done that, nyahahaha! Wasn't even courting you yet. Would've been super weird."
Olivia blushed faintly. "You were that concerned for me even before we were married...? That's... That's so romantic!" Her eyes immediately narrowed. "Wait a minute, you came into my tent while I was sound asleep before we were even together?!"
"Oh come on, I didn't do anything creepy!"
"You put a hex on me! That's definitely creepy!"
"A good hex!" Henry protested as he blew away a crowd of fighters. "And in my defense, I was really freaked out at the time after what happened with that assassin! I couldn't possibly ever let anything happen to you!"
There was a lull in the fighting—the Risen in the immediate vicinity had been vanquished.
Henry approached his wife. "Olivia? You're not mad, are you?"
In reply, she slipped her free hand into his. "...No, it's fine, Henry. I know your heart was in the right place." She glanced at him. "But from now on, I'm expecting full disclosure on any hexes you have placed or intend on placing on me. Got it?"
"Nyahahaha! Oh man, where do I even begin?"
The twelfth Deadlord's arrow descended upon Yarne like an executioner's axe, or a butcher's cleaver. The halfling frantically scrambled away, just barely dodging the projectile. Yarne was granted no time for reprieve, though; Porcus was swift and not at all interested in witnesses. The Deadlord nocked two more arrows at once and let them fly. Yarne yelped and rolled backwards, but true to his pedigree, Porcus had anticipated this, and already set more missiles loose at where the Taguel's feet would touch down. Upon realizing his imminent peril, Yarne kicked out with all of his might to bound off of the ground, and just barely managed to avoid becoming perforated, pinioned to the earth, and fatally immobilized.
Unfortunately for him, Porcus was already multiple steps ahead.
"Nice try," the Deadlord said.
Two more arrows came streaking toward the airborne Taguel, who had no means with which to maneuver. The sheer size of the halfling's transformation was working against him to lethal effect.
So he undid it.
In a flash of light Yarne reverted to humanoid form, becoming thin enough to twist himself in midair and avoid imminent death. The arrows streaked past him, coming precariously close to striking vitals, but Yarne managed to escape unscathed. He landed and then immediately transformed again, ready to flee back to where reinforcements were waiting.
His self-preservation instinct proved unnecessary. Porcus had already vanished, ceding that he had been discovered—the exalt and his entourage would arrive any moment now.
Yarne blinked at empty space. "Wh-What the hell...?" he panted.
That Risen had been abnormally skilled. Generally, the creatures only thought to attack what was directly in front of them; strategy was something found in-
The Taguel's eyes bulged, and his ears shot up stiffly.
"...Oh... Oh no..."
Now actively growing frustrated, Porcus continued his withdrawal. Was his handler really so incompetent that he couldn't provide a basic overview of the enemy's composition and special forces? Unparalleled tactician, Porcus's ass. The exalt would already be dead if Porcus had been properly briefed, let alone if that sackless toad hadn't utterly wasted Simia's capabilities on a worthless vendetta.
The Deadlord sighed heavily. Well, he'd had more difficult assignments before, even if the ones handing them down hadn't been nearly so repulsive. The exalt was a seasoned warrior, and powerful, too, but he was exploitable. Porcus had fought Astram, fought Michalis, fought Hardin; this stripling wouldn't provide him with any real challenge.
Granted, Porcus had survived those encounters precisely because he hadn't been stupid enough to engage those pinnacles of humankind in straightforward conditions, but still, the point stood.
Judging enough distance to have been placed between himself and his prey, Porcus came to a halt, taking up precarious footing on thin branches with all the grace of a swallow.
The Beast Tribe members were a concern; instant detection awaited the Deadlord if he carelessly allowed himself to pass upwind of them. The exalt would be prepared for Porcus now, too; even if the man was drawn into an engagement, he would fight defensively, with one eye open for enemies coming at him from the shadows. What's more, he was skilled enough for this handicap to not sufficiently detriment his ability to handle masses of medium-grade Risen.
The Deadlord stood still in the moonlight. He took a deep breath his lungs no longer required, then placed his index finger and thumb within his mouth, stretching out his cheeks. A shrill whistle emanated throughout the night. All other noise seemed to be dispelled by the lonely note, and silence reigned throughout the darkness for some moments.
Then, slowly, a sea of glowing red eyes began to converge, flitting through gaps between trunks to congeal into a teeming throng.
Porcus smiled. Hide a tree among a forest, as the aphorism went.
"Mother, we need to leave, like right this second!" Yarne impressed, bouncing nervously on his hind legs. Around him in a semi-circle stood Chrom, Sumia, a Panne transformed likewise as her son, and—unbeknownst to the pure-blood humans—Kellam. Attempts to pursue Chrom's would-be assassin had been stymied, but in the meantime, the contingent of the Shepherds had managed to eradicate a significant enough number of Risen to earn needed breathing room.
"And why is that?" Panne questioned drolly.
"Why is that?!" Yarne repeated, on the verge of conniption. "Did you not listen to what I just said?!"
Chrom raised his hands. "Whoa, easy there, Yarne, easy."
The halfling shivered. "You don't understand, Your Grace, that thing's walking extinction! If I don't get all two Taguel away from this place before that abomination comes back, our whole race is doomed!"
Sumia cleared her throat. "Um, Yarne, sweetheart, while I agree this Risen's cause for concern, you did say those exact words when we were crossing that old bridge a few miles back."
"That thing was a deathtrap!" Yarne snapped. He pointed toward the direction the assassin had fled. "And that thing is a Deadlord! Even if we all fight it together, we might not be able to beat it! And for that reason, I'm suggesting we high-tail it out of here, as soon as human-and-Taguelly-possible!"
"No can do, Yarne," Chrom declared. "We can't expose the main forces to this many Risen. At the very least we have to pare their numbers down some before we can sound a retreat." The exalt shrugged. "Risen don't sleep, you know. We can't run from them forever."
"I sure don't mind trying!" Yarne shouted. "You don't get it, Your Grace, Deadlords are a different breed entirely!"
Chrom folded his arms. "Yeah, yeah. I know. I've read about Loptyr; I know all the stories. But if that's the case, then that's all the more reason to take this Deadlord out here and now. A demon like that could do unbelievable damage if we leave it alone."
Yarne's paws went to his head. "This is insane!" He turned toward Kellam. "Come on, Father, don't tell me you want to fight it too!"
Sumia and Chrom both jumped an inch.
"How does he do that?!" the queen whispered to her husband, eyeing the knight warily.
Kellam scratched his cheek. "Well, Son, I understand wanting to be safe, but..." He upturned his palms. "At the end of the day, that's just selfishness. A lot of people could get hurt if we don't do something about this Deadlord thing. Not everyone has the luxury of running away."
Panne scowled at her offspring. "And here I had thought we had made progress on instilling some valor within you. Our pact with the exalt stands, child. Abandon it if you like and shame your family and race, but I shall do no such thing."
Yarne was exasperated. "Mother, I'm not going to have those anymore if-"
He suddenly fell silent as a gust of wind washed over him, and both he and Panne cocked their heads westward.
Kellam blinked. "What's wrong, you two? Do you smell something? Is it back already?"
Yarne slouched. "Not exactly..." he muttered despondently.
Pair by pair, dots of scarlet light began to illuminate the group's surroundings.
The front wave of the Risen horde crashed against the exalt's entourage, breaking on the rock of superior capabilities. From a respectable distance, Porcus silently watched the fodder be returned to death proper, the Deadlord's arms folded and red eyes attentive even as his nominal brethren slipped past him, a mindless flood no different from a natural disaster save for origin. Though Porcus had no expectations for this rabble, perhaps if he was lucky—and the world was not—then the undead would strike down the Beast Tribe members for him and significantly reduce the complexity of his assigned task.
The Risen gathered here were many deep, deliberately staggered at Porcus's direction so that the obfuscation of the darkness and the tangle of trees would conceal the true breadth and depth of the ranks. This was an army by no means, but a handful of platoons could at least be expected to weather down even soldiers with this degree of competency. At present, the Risen had a facade of manageability, a vital deception intended on keeping the target from falling back to regroup. The last thing Porcus needed now was enemy reinforcement.
Which was exactly what just then arrived.
"Father!" Lucina shouted as she burst into view. She immediately fell into position alongside Chrom, who greeted her as warmly and unconcernedly as he would have had the woman just returned from a camping trip.
Porcus's eyes flared momentarily. "...Marth?!"
A beat passed, then the Deadlord straightened a bit, shaking his head. No, it had of course just been a trick of the moonlight. Still, the resemblance was uncanny, and now that Porcus got a good look at this newcomer, her similarities to Caeda were even more striking.
So, according to that (...Plegian? These nascent nations were such a hassle to keep track of.) woman, this new arrival was the future-past exalt Lucina. Porcus had to admit, while he had been alive, he wouldn't have given the notion of time travel any stock—well, perhaps just a little; he had been a touch gullible, enough so for his friends to convince him of clearly-ridiculous-in-retrospect myths. But at any rate, now, over a thousand years removed from his death, hardened and without a single scrap of naivety remaining, Porcus still had to concede that there were very few other plausible explanations for what he was witnessing. Two Falchions moved in sync to dispatch any Risen that strayed too close to a father-daughter whirlwind.
The Deadlord tilted his head. How unlucky for him. If he had known his secondary target was en route, he would have ignored the primary one in order to intercept the woman and eliminate her while she was alone and vulnerable. Maybe even used the corpse as a diversion. A morbid tactic, to be sure, but then, this particular job hadn't been particularly pleasant from the start. Excellus's summoning contracts were shoddy and opulent, just like the man himself, but they weren't easily bucked. And even then, Porcus had a foreboding sense that the worm wasn't the only one who had a few tendrils embedded in the twelfth Deadlord's very soul. Idly, Porcus considered testing his constraints, and willed himself to quit this place, leaving his "master" to his fate.
Predictably, the Deadlord's body ignored his command. Porcus gave a sigh of exasperation, then shrugged. This came as no shock; anti-harm clauses both direct and indirect were standard procedure. For all the gravity of the threat Porcus had delivered to Excellus earlier in the night, the truth of the matter was that he would need to bide his time carefully until an opportunity presented itself. The restrictions on him weren't perfect—being able to touch his summoner without repercussion was proof of that. He just needed to find a loophole. For now, though, he was forced to dance on the fat man's strings. So long as he remained within the parameters of his orders, he wouldn't be reduced to an autonomous puppet, which at present was all that he could ask for. Once again, he was shouldered with the dirty work, the reprehensible, unforgivable crimes that he had no particular desire to commit.
That was how things had always been, though. He had operated from the shadows so that the light would remain unsullied. This was just a different take on that script. Porcus had ever been merely a blade, and sometimes swords were used for the murder of the innocent and the righteous. That was the way of the world. If the exalts could break this blade, then more power to them, but Porcus fully expected to have cut them down come daybreak.
He moved closer to the clash, still shrouded by a curtain of anonymous undead. Words drifted to him on the wind: an explanation by the female exalt of Simia's existence and presence, and a reply from the male about Porcus's own. The girl seemed agitated, insistent; clearly, she was concerned for her father's safety. Porcus could see her tugging on the man's arm, like a child insisting to her parent that monsters lurked under the bed. In this case, said child was not at all wrong.
A thought struck the Deadlord, and a sharp-toothed grin played unbidden on his lips. He paused, then forced his face to settle back into an expressionless state. Yes, he had changed, even before becoming Porcus.
He never would have given such a horrid smile had Katarina still been alive.
The Deadlord drew two arrows against his bowstring, then began to slip through the crowd.
Chrom furrowed his brow as he and Lucina scythed through Risen in tandem. Though he had kept his opinions to himself, for some time now, these enemy forces had been giving him pause. Aside from the threat of this unknown Deadlord—Draco, based on Yarne's description, or perhaps Porcus—the ordinary Risen themselves were troubling. Generally, a pack of Risen tended to have some degree of uniformity, both in strength and nationality. But here, Chrom was at one second contending with advanced-class undead and the next felling Risen no stronger than the ones he had encountered the very night his daughter had arrived in this world. What's more, whereas these Risen should have been exclusively reanimated corpses of the dead from varying Valmese countries, he was certain that he was picking out individuals garbed in Ylissean, Plegian, and even Feroxi wear. Crossing the ocean should have been impossible for Risen, so how had these arrived here? The more Chrom analyzed the situation, the more suspect it presented itself as.
Another pressing factor was the sheer volume of Risen; there seemed to be no end to the monsters in sight. Even aerial scouts hadn't reported this degree of enemy presence. It was almost as if this was a deliberate ambush.
That thought nearly cost Chrom his arm, so much of a jolt as it was that he momentarily stilled to grasp its implications fully. The exalt hastily jerked his limb back to avoid losing it to a clumsy axe strike, then dismembered the offending Risen in retaliation before returning to introspection.
Yes, the threads were beginning to weave now, if only loosely. The presence of Deadlords, the inconsistencies of the inconsequential Risen, the nature of the attack itself... All of these factors pointed toward a human summoner pulling strings behind the scenes. Once this possibility had occurred to Chrom, it took root, cementing itself as the only plausible explanation. He had to tell Robin immediately, so that-
...No, that wasn't right. Robin was likely attending to equally pressing affairs right now. Hell, it was a safe bet that he had already come to this conclusion at least ten minutes ago. This was the exact scenario that the tactician had been preparing the exalt for, a moment when Chrom would need to act on his own judgment as Commander.
"Panne! Yarne!" he yelled at the Taguel.
The two turned to regard their liege, both temporarily halting their evisceration of Risen.
"There's a summoner!" Chrom informed them. "A human behind all of this! If we don't stop them, we're never going to be free of these things!" He swept his arm wide. "Find them, and take them down! Go!"
Panne wordlessly nodded and bolted off into the night, clipping through where the sea of Risen was thinnest. Alarmed, Yarne glanced back at Lucina. At her nod, the halfling followed after the last full-blooded Taguel.
Porcus paused, recognizing what had just transpired. Theoretically, his contract should have demanded that he immediately disengage and pursue the Beast Tribe members to keep them from reaching his master. But his conscious control of his body did not seem to wane when he elected to move forward with the assassination plot; apparently, direct orders held priority over passive protections.
The Deadlord grinned.
Robin ran as hard as he could, lungs burning and calves screaming. The longer he went without stumbling upon one of his comrades, the more unsettled he became. Lucina hadn't had that much of a head start, so why hadn't he caught up to her by now? Hell, where were all the Risen? Aside from one patch of them that he'd been left with no choice but to dispose of, Robin hadn't encountered any serious resistance up to this point. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end; instinct warned him that this absence of enemies was purposeful. Something of dire consequence was unfolding elsewhere, and he was completely powerless to brunt its impact.
No sooner had the tactician concluded this did he glimpse a much-needed sight. A pegasus had come into view, flying overhead. Robin hastily drew an Arcfire tome, and immediately shot a burst of the flame magic upward as a flare.
Tense seconds passed. Then, to Robin's relief, the pegasus wheeled around and galloped on air toward him. It descended to land before the tactician, and its rider, Cordelia, leaned out from over her mount to regard one of her commanding officers.
"Robin! What is it?! Did you find Severa?!"
"No time to worry about her!" Robin replied. "Things are going wrong, and they're going wrong fast! We need to find Lucina-" He paused, blinking. "We need to find Chrom, now."
Cordelia hesitated, torn between family and duty, then grimly nodded. "Hop on!"
"Mother, Father, we should retreat!" suggested Lucina, in a tone that would have been an order toward anyone else. "It's not safe here! We gain nothing by standing our ground!"
Chrom considered dissenting.
Then he determined that Robin would have called him a godsdamned moron for not falling back had the tactician been present. Indeed, the initial plan of exclusively sending elite soldiers with experience exterminating Risen into the fray had been sound when all available information had pointed toward minute enemy presence. Now that this assumption had been disavowed, it would likely be necessary for the Shepherds to re-integrate with the main army; the outfit would eventually be overwhelmed by weight of numbers at the current rate.
Still, that summoner did in fact need to be eliminated. If they were allowed to call forth yet more and more Risen, the main army would eventually be threatened with losses so great that the Ylissean League would become unable to contend with even a single one of Walhart's divisions. But where would a commander hide in a forest so thick? For the life of himself, Chrom couldn't deduce the answer. Trusting Taguel noses was the best that he could come up with on the spot. So, with that impasse reached, the question became a matter of how long the group here could repel the offensive that was being mounted against them. Down two fighters, Chrom didn't savor their long-term odds.
"...Alright," he conceded. "We'll try to regroup with some of the others. Gradually, though, not too fast. That Deadlord's probably still around here somewhere. We'll fight our way backward. Stay close, don't let up. Keep your eyes peeled for that bastard, wherever he is." The exalt glanced toward his bodyguard. "Kellam, take poi-" Chrom's voice trailed off abruptly as he caught sight of a movement out of the corner of his eye. He gaped.
"Shit, watch out!"
Directly above them, held by a cradle of branches, Porcus loosed two arrows at Lucina. Before anyone else could react, though, Chrom was already in motion. He shoved his daughter roughly out of harm's way. Aegis bubbled up around him without effect. Chrom's defensive skill did not withstand impact for even a moment, and his outstretched arm was perforated by the arrows.
Lucina landed with a skid, abject horror plain on her face.
Porcus dropped to the ground in an instant, crouched within the very center of the Shepherds' displaced formation. A drawn sword gleamed wickedly in his backhanded grasp, and this he slashed with untraceable speed at Chrom. The exalt only barely managed to defend himself, and would have been caught by the Deadlord's follow-up strike had the Queen of Ylisse not intervened. Sumia gave a furious war-shriek, stabbing with her lance at Porcus's heart. The Deadlord somersaulted away, chuckling all the while.
"How dare you hurt my husband!" Sumia shouted. "How dare you try to hurt my baby!"
Porcus tilted his head. "Hahaha... Feisty, this one..."
The Deadlord suddenly frowned. Something was wrong. On instinct, he threw himself airborne once more, and in doing so avoided a strike from Kellam.
Porcus grinned. "Oh yes... Almost forgot... about you..."
Lucina stared at her Father's mangled arm, then glared balefully at the one responsible for the injury. She fearlessly charged the Deadlord, Falchion bearing down at the assassin's neck. Porcus went to intercept the strike, but when a halo of blue fire erupted around the regalia, the Deadlord's red eyes bulged, and he thought better. Porcus initiated Pass to distance himself from the princess, narrowly avoiding being cleaved in two—weapon and all—by Aether.
"Oh..." he murmured. "That's certainly novel... Will deal with you... later..." Once more his body flickered as he called upon Pass. When he reappeared, his bow was primed, a singular arrow trained on Chrom.
"You'll not harm him again, monster!" Lucina shouted, voice biting. The light of Galeforce emanated from her, and she swept across the distance between herself and the Deadlord, once more bringing Aether down upon the assassin from overhead. Porcus danced to the side and yet again came away unscathed, crouched with sword drawn and poised to counter.
"Lucina, get back here!" Chrom ordered frantically, trying his damnedest to cut through interfering Risen with one-handed blows.
The princess suddenly became alert to how far-distanced she had become from her allies. In her all-consuming fervor to protect her father, she had lost sight of her positioning, an amateur mistake she instantly recognized that she never should have made.
Porcus waved a finger. "Error... in judgment!" he chided. With that said, he whistled, high and sharp. The nearby Risen entered a frenzy as a result, and surged forward. Within an instant, they had cut Lucina off from her parents, whose cries of worry were drowned out by the guttural growls of an undead phalanx.
Lucina's eyes shot wide. "What?!" She gulped, then turned to face Porcus once more, Falchion held defensively. Suddenly, she found herself confronting a Deadlord all alone. Everything that had unfolded within the span of the previous minute had advanced exactly according to Porcus's designs.
Thus, he mused, the butterfly flutters straight into the spider's web.
The sounds of swordsmasters clashing rang out across the Sages' Hamlet.
"Oho...! Perhaps not everyone in this era is worthless with a blade!" Simia exclaimed as she skidded backward.
Lon'qu did not answer, his Killing Edge a whir as he renewed his assault.
Owain and Severa watched in awe from where they helplessly sat, while Lissa, clutching a tome to her chest, split her attention between healing the two and keeping inquisitive Risen at bay. Already, her lightning magic had brought down a number of undead, and more and more of them continued to approach, moths drawn to the flame of combat's resounding clamor.
Lon'qu made an exceptionally well-placed strike, and his sword caught Simia in the shoulder. The Deadlord growled in fury, and her eyes flared even brighter than before.
Owain's teeth involuntarily set. He recognized this stance. Before he could utter a warning, Simia was in deadly motion.
"Five-Sword Style: Astra!"
To Lissa, Owain, and Severa, it seemed that for a moment that Simia had split into five separate beings, all striking simultaneously.
But to Lon'qu, it was as if four blurred images of the Deadlord had sprouted from her chest. They each swung their swords in a different order, and his eyes could distinguish the pattern.
This was not to say that he was skilled enough to completely neutralize the attack, however. The first set of strikes was deflected, and the second dodged. But the third connected, slipping past Lon'qu's guard and slicing open his side with a shallow cut. The fourth was blocked, but at the cost of Lon'qu's blade being jarred away from him, leaving him wide open. In a span of time lasting far less than a second, Lon'qu's eyes widened, and he stepped backward as quickly as he was able. In spite of this, Simia's blades struck home on the fifth strike, rending two deep crossing cuts into Lon'qu's chest. He leapt backward, blood trailing through the night air, and landed with roughly-kept footing, quickly righting himself in a defensive posture.
"Father!" Owain bellowed.
"Lonny!" Lissa gasped.
Lon'qu threw out a dissuading arm. "Stay back! This isn't over yet!" He glanced over his shoulder at his wife. "Lissa. Those Risen. Handle them. I'll be fine."
Lissa swallowed dryly. Her instinct was to set to healing her husband, but the faintly discernible figures stalking through the trees reminded her that Simia was not the only threat present, and moreover, Owain was not yet stable. Reluctantly, Lissa nodded. "Alright! But don't you dare lose, Lon'qu!"
The swordsman offered a rare smirk. "You know me better than that."
Simia held the pose of her finished attack for a few seconds longer, then straightened her back stiffly. She glowered at Lon'qu.
"That is twice now that this Simia's Astra has been survived. Her humiliation is unbearable."
Lon'qu ignored the Deadlord's words, replaying the events of Simia's attack in his head. He paid no heed to his devastating injuries; he hadn't time to be concerned about trivialities. He thought over the pattern of the Astra over and over. Though he had been frantically fighting for his life, not an instant of the exchange had been missed by Lon'qu's keen eyes. And finally, he found the moment hidden inside their battle that he had been looking for. An opening that Simia herself was surely unaware of.
The swordsman stood tall, and removed his sword's scabbard from his belt. He quietly re-sheathed his sword, a metallic click echoing through the vale.
Simia narrowed her eyes. "Could it be that you have the sense to accept the futility of your struggle?" she asked.
Lon'qu wordlessly crouched in a different stance, gripping the hilt of his sword in an underhanded grasp while his other hand tightly clutched the scabbard.
Despite his amazement at the moment's clash that had just occurred, Owain's eyes opened yet wider as he looked at the bizarre stance. An image of a clay water jug cut so perfectly in two that its contents had remained unshifted flashed through his mind. "Could he be...?" Owain wondered aloud.
Severa, still stunned by the speed of the exchange, looked at him in confusion.
Lissa's expression brightened. "Oh...! This is...!"
Lon'qu was completely still. "...Deadlord."
Simia arched an eyebrow.
"You seem to be disappointed that your Astra failed twice," Lon'qu noted. "So I will tell you now... It shall fail yet again."
Simia's face settled into a featureless state, a mask of murderous intent.
Lon'qu's face was one of stern, quiet confidence.
"Come, Deadlord. Show me your vaunted Astra once more. This time, you will be utterly defeated."
Chapter 6: Scion of Legend IV
Lucina had been eight years old the first time she had seen a Deadlord. She had watched Tigris disintegrate into ash, the Risen's chest split by Sir Vaike's axe, shortly before the warrior had himself toppled over dead.
A year later, the young princess had witnessed Gallus holding Sir Libra's head in an undead palm, like a philosopher contemplating the nuances of life.
On Lucina's twelfth birthday, Knight Commander Sully had returned to the castle bearing mortal wounds that were beyond even Aunt Lissa's talents. Lucina could have sworn that the red eyes of a swordmaster had peered at her from beyond the walls.
At fifteen, she had seen her mother's corpse splayed at Mus's feet.
And now, at twenty, she found herself with her blade locked against that of Porcus.
The Deadlord leaned in, eyes obscenely bright and ashen lips curled in amusement. "Pretty decent," he complimented as sparks flared at where the two combatants' swords met. "Almost as good... as Marth..."
Lucina's brows arched.
Porcus shoved the princess away as if the undead man was merely opening a door. "Of course... Marth was never... a fighter at heart..."
"Do not mock me!" Lucina growled, moving to ensure that the wall of Risen was not at her back. To the last, the creatures had turned their attention back toward Chrom's direction. Evidently, this Deadlord was utterly convinced that he alone was all that was necessary for the task at hand. Lucina readied Falchion. "You dare to claim that a cur such as yourself knew the Hero-King, demon?!"
"Quite well... actually..." Porcus flicked his blade out. A precise jab nearly pierced Lucina's throat. The former exalt deflected the attack solely by way of sheer reflex, at which point uneased shock bloomed across her face.
The Deadlord tilted his head. "He'd probably... be none too pleased with me... right now, though..."
With these words he resumed an offensive that was barely kept in check by his enemy's most strenuous endeavors. The girl was indeed skilled, but still not quite experienced enough to pose a real threat. Porcus noted in detached fashion that he wasn't exerting himself to his fullest—another valuable piece of information. It seemed that there was leeway for interpreting his commands; so long as he was making some genuine attempt to kill his target, his will would not be overwritten. Good. That knowledge would certainly have applications down the line, and might well even be of benefit here and now.
Still, token efforts were not permitted by the constraints of his summoning contract. Porcus intended on the death of this woman, even if he had no particular desire for that outcome. She would have to survive by her own merit. Which, to her credit, she was certainly trying to do, given how ferociously she countered his every blow. But the girl was tiring, that was plain to see. The current bout had already lasted some twenty-five seconds—an eternity in this context. The scion was slowing, her blade slipping.
Sensing that she was being overwhelmed, Lucina initiated Galeforce again, dancing away from the Deadlord on a trail of dazzling light. Her aim was not escape; this threat to her father's life, this aberration, couldn't possibly be allowed to stand. Instead, she sought to strike her enemy from the side, where his defense would be weaker.
Porcus narrowed his eyes. "Don't waste... my time..." With one activation of Pass, he was once again strafing Lucina. Porcus lashed his sword out like a serpent, and when his target managed to catch the strike with her regalia, the Deadlord threw his whole weight into the blow, diverting their weapons aside so that he could shoulder-tackle Lucina. The swordsmaid went tumbling, only barely keeping hold of Falchion and coughing sporadically.
The Twelfth smirked perversely. Well, this had been fun while it had lasted. Shame that the end was here. He reared back his blade, poising it like a physician's needle.
Porcus blinked, then shot his gaze upward, where something had flitted through his periphery. A pegasus hovered above him, a shadow standing in relief against the full moon.
A figure leapt from the aerial steed, plummeting with sword drawn and tome primed.
A cascade of wind fell upon the space that Porcus had occupied until just a moment ago. The Deadlord had bounded away, landing with some irritation ten feet away from the spell radius.
The winds lingered for a few moments so that they could dampen the descent of their caster, causing his coat to flare around him like a dragon's wings. Robin landed nimbly as the gale petered out. He stood between Lucina and her assailant.
Porcus straightened his back, then rolled his red eyes. "How aggravating... One interruption... after another... tonight..."
Lucina, agape, slowly rose as well. "...You!" she breathed.
The princess went unacknowledged, save for a quick glance from Robin to confirm that his ally was uninjured. The tactician directed his full focus toward the Risen before him. "Well, judging by that getup, you must be Porcus."
"Guilty as charged," the Twelfth admitted with an upturned palm.
Robin glowered at the Risen. "So, freak, who the hell are you?" he demanded. "What I mean by that is, who are you really?"
The Deadlord grinned. "Wouldn't know of me... even if I gave my name... Made sure of that... myself..."
Robin narrowed his eyes. "Cordelia!" he called upward without taking his sight off of Porcus. "Go help Chrom! I'll handle this!"
"Yessir!" came the Wing Commander's faint reply before she spurred her mount toward the horde of Risen to the rear.
"Hmph... Just two... Cocky... are we?" Porcus inquired rhetorically as he observed Cordelia's departure. "I'm a Deadlord... for a reason... you know..."
"You're Porcus, which means you're probably carrying a bow," Robin replied. "You do the math."
The Deadlord smirked in appreciation.
Robin calmly closed his Arcwind tome, stowed it, then pulled Thoron from his coat's pocket. His ace spell was one he still had some difficulty wielding, but anything less than it would be ineffectual against an enemy of this caliber.
Porcus pursed his lips. Now this was troublesome. Curiously, the same commands that spurred him to kill the exalt forbade him from harming this white-haired man, who appeared to be roughly on par with the primary target. The Deadlord sighed. The tides were threatening to turn yet again. Although he could handle the two before him even with the handicap of not applying lethal force toward the spellcaster, he wouldn't be able to do so swiftly, and might even come away with damage that would impede his ability to handle the present-day exalt. The Risen hordes were being pared down; the blue-haired man would break through the ranks any minute now, and beyond that concern, further reinforcement was surely inbound.
The Twelfth tilted his head. He had to kill the blue-haired woman, and leave the white-haired man alive? Well now, here was an opportunity for Porcus to further test the constraints of his bondage. There was no telling why his handlers desired this stranger's survival, but given the circumstances, the Deadlord wasn't inclined to believe that their altruism was what forcibly staid his hand.
Time to see just how much leeway his finesse could earn him.
Without preamble, Porcus dipped back into the forest, becoming subsumed by shadow and disappeared from sight.
Robin's face slackened. "He's... He's retreating?"
"No!" Lucina shouted. "He mustn't escape!" She darted past the tactician.
Robin was almost too startled to react. "Hey! Hey! Where the hell do you think you're going?!" Lacking alternatives, he dropped his tome, reached out, and snagged Lucina by the hair.
"Ow!" Lucina yelped as her head was jerked backward. "What is-?! You uncouth-! Unhand me this instant!"
"Are you out of your godsdamned mind?!" Robin snapped, ire smoldering as he warily eyed the Risen that had yet to take notice of the pair. "That thing was about to kill you! Can you really not piece together what's going to happen if you go charging in by yourself?! Did you not learn your lesson the first time you tried this shit?!"
"That Deadlord will continue to make attempts on my father's life!" Lucina retorted. "It must be eradicated here and now! Unhand me!" She began to kick at Robin's legs.
"Ow! Ow! Knock it off, you lunatic! What the hell is wrong with you?! I'm trying to keep you alive, godsdammit! For fuck's sake, why couldn't have Say'ri just been an outlier when it comes to challenging unparalleled monsters to single combat?! Do you have a fucking death wish or something?!" He put his free hand on his hip and adopted a patronizing tone. "I'm Lucina! My hobbies are training with my sword and daydreaming about how cool my dad is! My likes are tacky masks and trying to take on legendary Deadlords all by myself, and my dislikes are impulse control and thanking Robin for saving my ungrateful ass!"
"I do not sound like that."
"I know you don't actually sound like that! That's the whole-" Robin pinched the bridge of his nose. "You know what, we don't have time for this right now! I'll explain the intricacies of mockery to you later!"
Lucina was now giving serious consideration to cutting off her own hair in order to become disentangled from Robin's grasp—or perhaps even inflicting a flesh wound or three if such extremes became necessary. "You have no right to restrain me!" the princess spat. "I am not a craven! I do not fear demise! If by-"
She abruptly lost coherency when Robin remorselessly yanked on her hair.
"You dumbass," the tactician seethed while the princess writhed. "There's a difference between courage and a useless suicide! Do you have any idea what it would do to Chrom and Sumia if you went and got yourself killed for such a stupid reason?!"
"I do not understand your meaning," Lucina said, stone-faced. "There is no need to grieve for a wraith."
Robin was so taken aback that he allowed Lucina's tresses to slip from his fingers. "What?" A moment passed, after which Robin recognized his mistake. Expecting Lucina to bolt immediately, the tactician readied to pursue, only to realize that the princess was stationary.
"...Forgive me," Lucina murmured, scanning for any sign that Porcus lingered still. "The heat of battle consumed me, and clouded my judgment. You are correct; harrying that Deadlord is to no benefit. My place is at Father's side, ready to ward him from any and every danger."
A staccato burst of whistles pierced through the trees from a short distance away.
Robin glanced around himself as he knelt to recover his discarded tome. "Yeah... About that..."
Yet more Risen shambled into view. By the time they had been sighted, a perimeter had been formed around the two humans, thickest at the south.
Robin scowled. "That bastard... No wonder they've been moving so precisely. It's like he's playing chess." He narrowed his eyes in the direction of where Porcus had vanished. "Bad choice of game, freak. Only Virion ever beats me at that."
Lucina leveled Falchion at the encroaching Risen. "You have a strategy prepared, I take it?"
"Oh, so now you want to listen to me."
"I... apologize for my earlier imprudence."
Robin swapped his Thoron tome for Arcfire. "Pay close attention, Princess. I'll tear open their lines. You keep the stragglers off my back. We'll make a break for Chrom as soon as I've cleared enough of the Risen away."
Porcus reclined in a tree's bower, close-by and completely obscured from sight. This was interesting, very interesting indeed. Despite the restrictions placed upon him, Porcus had most certainly been able to direct the Risen toward the white-haired man, a decision that constituted intent for harm by any metric. However, when the Deadlord nocked an arrow and pointed it at the stranger, the Twelfth found his aim automatically drifting back toward the future-past exalt.
As expected, the generic Risen were being swept away like autumn leaves. Porcus considered. If left to their own devices, the two humans below would escape in a handful of minutes. But they would do so at a cost: energy would be expended, and reconnaissance would grant Porcus insight into how the pair operated. He already had a solid enough handle on what he could expect from the blue-haired woman, but the limits of the white-haired man remained untested.
Porcus leaned forward. The spellcaster was precise, using powerful magic to optimal effect, incinerating rows of Risen without apparent effort. The stranger did not become distracted, did not display concern over any singular Risen approaching him. He didn't so much as turn his head when the exalt would cut down an attacker a mere foot away from the man. Porcus pursed his lips. He couldn't easily discern if this was trust or apathy. When the spellcaster did bother to take his eyes off his work, it was only to search for Porcus himself.
There was little to be gained from dragging this out, the Deadlord determined. He wasn't learning anything about how these two would fight in tandem, and he suspected that he would be sussed out by the spellcaster sooner rather than later. Best to act now, before there could be intervention.
Porcus rose and bounded from tree limb to tree limb, careful not to give any branch an errant brush and unveil his location. Airborne, the Deadlord pulled his bowstring taut, then let loose two arrows.
A near-silent sound caught Lucina's ears. She spun and brought Falchion up to guard. Two malignant-looking arrows bounced off the blade. The princess breathed a sigh of relief. Those months of fighting masked and with limited peripheral vision had served her well, honing an alertness for incoming projectiles. Reflexes were not Aegis, though; if the arrows had come from just a bit closer, she would have been too slow to protect herself from them.
Robin took notice of what had just occurred, disengaging from the undead rabble and moving to within a foot of Lucina. "Over there, huh?" he asked, squinting at the darkness and compiling all possible lines of movement that the Deadlord could have taken from such a position.
As anticipated, two more arrows came streaking in from the left, and once again at Lucina. Robin, having already drawn Arcwind, calmly conjured a gale and swept the bolts off course.
"That volley was twenty feet farther than the first!" Lucina exclaimed as she struck down a Risen fighter. "How did he close such a distance without us noticing?!"
"He's a quick bastard, that's for sure," Robin muttered.
Quick, but predictable. If Robin excluded any venues of movement that risked discovery, then suddenly Porcus's prospective pathways became clear to see. Given that the canopy would become denser if the Deadlord didn't stray from his current trajectory, the Risen's seeming aversion to a straightforward fight would prompt him to double back. Which meant...
"Lucina, to the right!" Robin shouted even as arrows were shot. The princess spun and swatted the projectiles away just as Arcwind tore through the trees from which the attack had emanated, splintering branches and scattering leaves.
Robin furrowed his brow. Had it worked? ...No, that would be too simple, too unbecoming of a Deadlord. But surely the chaos of his coverage being stripped bare would have exposed Porcus's movements, even if only momentarily, even if he had retreated deeper into the forest. So where-
In the single second that Robin processed these thoughts, and the fraction of an instant that it took for insight to strike the tactician, Porcus had primed two more arrows as he soared through the night sky overhead. The tactician's eyes shot upward as understanding lanced through his brain: the Deadlord had already been airborne, even before Arcwind had been employed. It seemed that Porcus wasn't just swift of foot, but of mind as well.
"Above us!" Robin bellowed.
"Not bad, brat," Porcus praised before firing. The projectiles bore down on Lucina, but the warning had served its purpose; once again, the princess came away unscathed, this time cleanly dodging the arrows.
Porcus landed deftly, then sprung to the side as Robin once more attempted to blow the Deadlord away with Arcwind. The spell passed fruitlessly by, and Porcus lunged forward, besetting Lucina with a cascade of blows.
Robin gritted his teeth and activated Pass. He popped out of distorted space with his blade swinging down at the Deadlord, but Porcus simply fixed a sidelong red eye on the man, smirked, then spun and drove his boot into Robin's gut. The tactician was bowled over, and all the while, Porcus maintained his relentless assault on Lucina.
Porcus smiled. This was shaping up to be quite an informative exchange. Gradually, but certainly, he was accruing an understanding of the discretion available to him. The Deadlord had actually meant to break the white-haired man's neck via kick to the chin, but instead the blow had shifted as if with a will of its own to connect where it couldn't inflict even accidental lethal damage—in the gut, below ribs that could have broken and whose fragments could have torn internal organs. And Porcus hadn't even been able to drag his blade over to maim the man; his sword doggedly continued to descend upon the exalt instead. It seemed that even the risk of a severed artery wasn't acceptable.
Useful, very useful. He was like a blind man piecing together a mental map of a room by fumbling about in the dark. Soon enough, he would find the corner the fat man was hiding in, and then no summoning contract would be able to protect the wretch.
Porcus began to hum his favorite tune, a horn-based piece, now interspersed with a grunt of pain from the exalt as the Deadlord's sword slipped through her guard to slice open her forearm.
Robin scrabbled to his feet, cursing under his breath. What the hell had that been about just now? He had been wide open; surely Porcus could have hamstrung him at the very least. So why was the Deadlord so fixated on Lucina? The tactician furrowed his brow even as he threw himself back into the fray. To the last, every single one of those earlier arrows had been targeting the princess. But why would she be singled out? There was no reason to believe the Valmese knew of her origin, let alone her lineage. Even the Grimleal probably weren't aware of these things.
A nagging sentiment strained at the boundaries of Robin's mind even as Porcus's elbow caught him in the throat, and the Deadlord nearly hobbled the tactician with a blisteringly quick stomp to the knee. Was Robin forgetting something? Did there remain a fragment of his past that he had yet to recover?
Robin shook his head. Not the time. He had far more pressing concerns to address. He didn't have spare mental acuity to fritter away on the Grimleal-
His eyes shot wide. The Grimleal! They were the answer!
Robin grinned bitterly. For once, a small positive would come from his accursed blood.
Porcus was enjoying himself far more than he ever would have as a human. This wasn't to say that the Deadlord had disliked battle while alive, but rather that he had felt shame at going against his grandfather's teachings by reveling in the feverish hold of a life-and-death struggle. A knight fought out of necessity, not for pleasure.
But Porcus was far from a knight, now. There was no need to repress his feelings. A puppet bore no culpability, after all, so why not dance wildly on the strings? So what if the world burned? His world had ended long ago, having died in his own arms, cleaved by his own blade. So what if Marth's lineage disappeared? The kingdom they had worked together so tirelessly to build, the kingdom he had stained his hands red to support, had crumbled away, their hard-earned peace along with it. What a sad joke it had all amounted to. There would always be another Gharnef, always be another Dolhr, always be another Medeus. History was a pathetic jest, and the future a predictable rehash of the same tired gag. So why not laugh? Why not smile as his sword sang through the air? Why not indulge in the only talent he had ever possessed?
Because they wouldn't have approved.
Porcus narrowed his unnaturally-gleaming eyes, his mirth dissipated at a single thought, even as his blade continued to swing at Marth's descendant without heed to the Deadlord's dour mood. He sighed, the exhalation of a crypt being opened. His sword caught on Falchion, and held momentarily. Porcus leaned in. "Come now... little scion..." he goaded. "Try a bit... harder, please..."
The woman's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she visibly took offense to this request, having misinterpreted its intent. Well, whatever. No point bothering to clarify; a little fire would benefit the girl. She only needed to survive long enough for more help to arrive.
Speaking of which...
Porcus slipped to the side, and a silver sword streaked by where the Deadlord's shoulder had just been. "Same goes... for you..." the Twelfth said to Robin without so much as a backward glance.
Robin growled and swept his sword wide, which Porcus lazily hopped over before driving his own sword's pommel into the tactician's solar plexus. While Robin staggered, Porcus stabbed at Lucina again, coming perilously close to severing her carotid artery.
The Twelfth pursed his lips. Just what was the white-haired one expecting to accomplish like this? Surely by now he must have realized that magic would have greater efficacy. Was he that concerned about inadvertently harming his comrade? His priorities were grossly misplaced should that have been the case, given how the fight—if one could call so lopsided an affair such—was progressing.
With a flick of the wrist, Porcus twisted Falchion away—an all-too-familiar maneuver from his days of sparring with Marth. The scion to the king of Archanea gaped, her torso now completely defenseless.
Porcus grimaced. "Nothing personal." His sword fell with the speed of a diving hawk.
The air between the two distorted, and the white-haired man popped into view, directly in the strike's trajectory.
Porcus's eyes bulged in baffled shock. "What?!"
But beyond even his own conscious reaction, the Deadlord's body autonomously moved, correcting the flow of the attack as best as it was able. Porcus had sardonically referred to himself as a puppet, but here he was made to feel the accuracy of the metaphor in full: his body twisted and arched backward, like a flailing contortionist. The tip of the Deadlord's sword raked across the white-haired man's face.
For an instant's span, both Lucina and Porcus believed that Robin had been slain.
Then the tactician grunted in pain. A gash ran through his right eye, and blood was pouring down his face.
But still, as the flames of Ignis flared to life around him, Robin managed to smile, his strongest tome clutched tightly in his grasp and a hand pointed squarely at the Twelfth's chest.
Porcus's eyes widened yet further. "Oh, sh-"
A massive bolt of lightning tore through the night.
Lucina's face had scrunched up under the intensity of the spell's light. She forced herself to blink rapidly in an attempt to acclimate, and eventually her vision returned. Robin was slumped over before her, panting raggedly. Porcus stood some distance away. The Deadlord's right arm and the sword it carried had been vaporized completely, as had a column of trees and some ten ordinary Risen.
Lucina's jaw dropped.
Porcus, for his part, seemed equally amazed as black blood seeped from his shoulder. "What... the hell...?"
Robin was the least impressed of the three. His personal skill was so taxing on his stamina that he couldn't use it twice in succession. Moreover, his most powerful spell, fired at point-blank and enhanced to its absolute limit, had only managed to shear away a single limb from the Deadlord. Now Robin was so exhausted that he could barely stand, while Porcus, unhindered by a mortal body, would hardly be affected by his loss—which, given his nature, would likely be impermanent at that.
But as Robin parsed through his emergency gambits to determine which was most appropriate for this situation, Porcus cocked his head westward, ears straining at a scream that the humans couldn't hear.
"...Hmph." Contempt was plain on the Deadlord's face. "That worthless... sack of shit..." He shrugged, then turned his attention back toward Robin and Lucina. "Well fought... children... I'll take... my leave, now... Til next time...!"
The princess and the tactician stiffened. "What?" Lucina responded faintly.
Porcus smirked at Robin. "Nice stunt... You've got... guts, brat. Hurry... and get stronger... I'll be... looking forward to it... Ha ha ha..."
Without waiting for a reply, Porcus disappeared, his Pass's activation instantaneous. Robin and Lucina became alert, and their eyes darted around the glade, but Porcus seemed to have well and truly vanished.
"Has... Has he given up?" Lucina asked tentatively.
Robin wordlessly collapsed to a kneel, clutching at his injury with gritted teeth. This snapped Lucina's attention back toward the tactician.
"Your eye!" the princess breathed in shock.
"I don't think it passed through the middle," Robin wheezed. "If I'm lucky, the damage might just be cosmetic." He pointed toward some straggler Risen. "Handle those. I'm kind of... completely spent."
The princess took note of the remaining undead, then disposed of them within moments as Galeforce swept her across the grass. Compared to Porcus, foes as these might as well have been sparring dummies.
Once all enemy presence in the immediate vicinity had been dealt with, Lucina returned to stand before Robin. She crouched and stared numbly at the wounded man, incredulous. "You... You nearly sacrificed yourself for me."
"Wasn't trying to," Robin disavowed dispassionately. "I was certain he couldn't kill me. He's a puppet, and he has orders he can't disobey. Naturally, the Grimleal are going to take precautions against accidentally destroying the Heart."
Lucina hesitated. "You still took a substantial risk."
Robin fixed a dark gaze upon her. "Did I really? What great loss could there have possibly been?"
Lucina was left nearly aghast. Logically, Robin had a point, albeit a harsh one. So why was this apathetic retort disquieting? The princess grimaced. Twice in just this night the man had thrown himself into mortal peril, and both times to Lucina's benefit. Short of some unfathomably deep ploy, Robin by all appearances was intent on becoming a martyr.
Regret was welling inside the swordsmaid. She was responsible for the state that Robin was in now. If she hadn't been so impetuous, so arrogant...
"...I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I was foolish. I just... I couldn't bear the thought of losing Father again."
Robin narrowed his unmarred eye. "I'm not interested in your apologies, Princess, nor your excuses, for that matter." He exhaled heavily in irritation, blood still welling beneath his palm. "Just don't make the same mistake again. I might not be around to bail you out the next time you tackle a Deadlord like a fucking idiot."
Lucina flushed in embarrassment, but she knew the rebuke to be valid. Before she could answer to the admonishment, though, a flash of blue caught her eye. She turned to find Chrom rapidly approaching, his Falchion still cloaked in the azure light of the Aether that he had used to mow down the last of the Risen horde. Beside the exalt was his wife, and behind him, his subordinates.
"Father!" Lucina beamed. "Mother! You're alright! Thank Naga!"
Chrom smiled in relief. "You had me worried, Lucina. I was beginning to fear we wouldn't make it through in time." He embraced his daughter, and peeked over her head at the tactician. "Looks like I had no cause for concern, though. Leave it to Robin to show up out of nowhere when he's most needed."
"Someone in this outfit has to plan ahead," Robin said drolly.
Of course, he hadn't actually foreseen this specific outcome—he had gotten exceedingly lucky to arrive when he had. But no one present had to know that.
"How you holding up, Robin?" Chrom inquired.
Robin blithely removed his hand from his face to expose skin plastered in red.
"Holy shit!" Chrom shouted as he rushed over to his friend's side. "What the hell happened?!"
"Porcus, of course," Robin replied.
"Where is that bastard?!"
"Gone, apparently," Robin answered. "Seems he had more pressing engagements to attend to."
Sumia pursed her lips as she inspected the tactician's injury. "Sorry, Robin. I'm not good enough with a staff to do anything about this. You're going to need an expert."
Robin was unconcerned. "That's fine. I didn't expect anyone without serious clerical training to be able to handle this." He pursed his lips. "Oh... Speaking of which... Lissa and Lon'qu are fighting Simia as we speak. Someone should probably go check in on them."
Chrom's mouth opened involuntarily. "What?!"
Robin upturned a hand. "Alternatives were lacking. It was either that or let Say'ri die."
"Shit!" Chrom cursed. "Cordelia!"
"Lissa's in trouble! We're going now! We-"
"You're not going anywhere, except back to camp," Robin interjected. "Did you forget about your arm, dumbass?"
Chrom blinked, then looked down at where Porcus's arrows had perforated him, the prince's own wounds still seeping blood. "Uh... Yeah, I kind of had."
Robin pointed at cuts in the exalt's side that had been inflicted by lower-class Risen. "Not to mention those. Neither of us are in any condition to fight right now." Robin's declaration was flat and invited no argument. "Trust the others to keep Lissa safe, Chrom."
The exalt was visibly displeased, but nodded without objection.
"Sumia, you're coming with us," Robin continued. "We'll get your mount, and once I'm not at risk of bleeding to death I'll accompany you to the destination. Lucina, you go with Cordelia. You should be able to guide her to the hamlet."
The princess nodded, guilt plain on her face. "I will go with all haste. Aunt Lissa must not fall, and I have amends to make."
Robin's lip twisted sourly at these last few words, but he remained task-oriented. "Where are Panne and Yarne?"
"I sent them after the summoner," Chrom explained.
Robin arched his eyebrows. "Really? Nice work. You may have saved our asses by doing that." He snapped his fingers at the others. "You have your orders. Go."
As Lucina and Cordelia sprinted toward the latter's steed, Chrom helped Robin to stand with a shoulder carry. They began to amble back in the general direction of camp, with Sumia and Kellam acting as scout and protection, respectively.
"Thanks, Robin," Chrom said as they walked. "Lucina's strong, but she would have been in a lot of trouble back there if you hadn't stepped in. I'm grateful."
"...It's a shame she doesn't have your manners," Robin muttered.
Five minutes prior, the duel between Lon'qu and Simia had reached its climax.
"You?" the Deadlord hissed. "You, an insect, besting this Simia's Astra? That cannot even be qualified as a jest!"
"Then cut this joke short, if you can," Lon'qu replied stoically, his sword still sheathed.
The Ninth gnashed her teeth. "Be sundered! Be split into pieces, and scattered to the far reaches of the fifteen hells!" She dashed toward the man.
Lon'qu narrowed his eyes. "Deadlord, you've forgotten the clarity of life. You know nothing of purpose."
Simia leapt and sailed through the air.
Lon'qu readied himself, his hand clutched tightly around his blade's hilt. "One who is dead has surely lost sight of that flame. One who is dead cannot feel how hotly it burns."
Simia's expression was that of a goddess of war as she fell upon her foe, blades flashing quintuple.
"Five-Sword Style: Astra!"
Lon'qu's face was that of the shadow of death as he drew his sword for a single stroke.
"One-Sword Style: LETHALITY!"
A cricket's chirp was the only sound that could be heard throughout the Sages' Hamlet.