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The Emperor and the Goddess

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“The present…is all we have. We must cherish it, guard it…and if necessary, die for it. Above all, we must protect those days of peace we once enjoyed.”

Areadbhar shimmered in the fading light of the royal throne room, the eerie crimson glow of the relic weapon almost seeming to pulse alongside the heavy intonation of the King’s speech. It would have been quite the awe-inspiring sight, if Felix Fraldarius were given to such emotions as awe. He looked at the ceiling, the floor, the ancient pillars…anywhere that was not the face of his old friend.

His trained, active eyes fell upon his old classmates. Mercedes and Annette were quietly watching their old house leader with a combination of compassion and concern. Mercedes was resting an arm on Annette’s shoulder, squeezing each time the Boar’s voice sank into that frighteningly low timbre which seemed only to hint at the anguish underneath. Ashe was silently nodding along to his King’s words, his zeal for knighthood and revenge reopening Felix’s old familial wounds. And behind the prince, forever protecting and shielding him, was Dedue-always watching, always shadowing the Boar, providing the King some comfort and stability with just a glance and nod of the head.

There were things Felix did not see, however. He did not see Ingrid chastening him about how his cuffs were untidy and unbecoming, always seeming to know Felix better than he knew himself. He did not see Sylvain, wearing that stupid irritating grin he always had before he would playfully rustle Felix’s hair. Most of all, he didn’t really see Dimitri anymore.

“You must understand what Edelgard is,” intoned the King. “She is a manipulator. A deceiver. She stood alongside her fellow students, wearing the mask of a friend, as she planned a war that would bring bloodshed and despair to the people of the continent. She does not feel remorse, or guilt, or grief, as people like you or I do. Her only aim…her only wish is to hold Fodlan in the palm of her hand, crushing all those who dare to disagree with her. Even as we speak, the Alliance has fallen. Soon, she will come, enforcing her twisted morality on all of us. Her goal is the obliteration of the Archbishop of the Church of Seiros, and the Holy Kingdom that offers her shelter. Such evil cannot be allowed to fester…so soldiers of Faerghus…my friends…remember this.”

He stood and raised Areadbhar high. The soldiers of the Kingdom watched in awe as their leader stood before him, light shining down through the stained glass resting behind the throne.

“It may be true that the force of the Empire may outnumber ours…It may be true that they march toward our capital even now…but there is one thing that woman has not considered.”

He extended his arms wide.

“The soil of Faerghus is plentiful. It cannot provide the bounties of Adrestia’s fields, or the greenery of Leicester…but it is cold, and it is wide, and it is deep. It is the same ground that Loog once bled on as he battled to free our people from the tyranny of the Empire. And I promise you, my countrymen…”

The King’s voice echoed throughout that great hall.

“The Empire will run out of men, before the earth of Faerghus runs out of space for their bodies.”

An awed silence fell over the throne room, before the King turned to his right, where a woman stood cloaked in a winged headdress, her green eyes as hard as emeralds. Catherine stood behind her, Thunderbrand dangling from her hip.

“What say you, Lady Rhea?” said Dimitri with a nod.

“Do not call me by that name.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “That was a name meant for a time of peace. A time when I was not alone, abandoned by all those I considered family…” She clutched a hand to her chest, as Catherine moved behind her. “But that time is past. Now, it is time for me to hunt down my enemies again…now…I am Seiros.”

She stood, and met Dimitri’s gaze, and the two figures regarded each other warily.

“I know that look all too well. You desire vengeance, just as much as I do. To mete out punishment to sinners is a sacred duty with which we have been entrusted…and the Emperor’s head is what you wish for, is it not?”

The King of Faerghus nodded.

“I do. She is the one person I desire to punish, above all others. I have no interest in any other prey.”

The Archbishop nodded, and smiled.

“Good. I will take you at your word. She has disgraced the names of her ancestors, and the sacred covenant they held with the Church of Seiros. But I ask you one thing, King of Faerghus…”

The two figures looked at each other for a moment, as a hush fell over the assembly. It felt as if the King and the Archbishop had forgotten that anyone else was present.

“The other child…the one who stole not only my mother, but Seteth and Flayn as well…obliterating her existence is my duty.”  She gripped Dimitri’s arm, body trembling with anger. “No amount of repentance will bring such a wayward soul salvation. I will chain her to the Valley of Torment, until her very skin is flayed from her bones! I will bring my mother back, as is my sacred calling!”

Dimitri stared at her, his tired, gaunt face hidden under untidy strands of blond hair. Perhaps the other soldiers did not know, but Felix could see it from the way Dimitri tightened his hold on his relic-he didn’t trust her, and Felix wagered that she did not trust him either. It was an alliance of necessity, forged from a desire to punish the ones who had taken everything from them.

The King nodded.

“It will be done.”

The assembly departed after this strange anticlimax, hesitant to intrude upon the agonies that so clearly gripped the two leaders. They watched each other, unblinking, for only a second longer, before Dimitri turned away with a swirl of his massive cape. As the assembly dispersed, he walked toward Felix. The swordsman decided to pretend that he did not see his old friend. Felix was almost to the door when the words stopped him.

“Felix…”

The Fraldarius heir’s breath rose and fell, as he gathered himself before looking into the face of the beast.

“What do you want, Boar? Are you upset I didn’t clap for you, like the rest of your trained pets?  I’ve heard enough damn speeches about the glory of chivalry in my life to be dazzled by your meaningless prattle.”

Dimitri shook his head, his expression fraught for only a brief second.

“You grow more like him every…no…I need your help, my friend. I need you to join Ashe and Rodrigue at Arianrhod. The woman there…Cornelia…I do not trust her.”

“As if you trust anyone,” spat the swordsman. “The Archbishop, Cornelia, Rufus…it’s a fine collection of snakes you’ve amassed. No one else would want to associate with a bloodthirsty animal like you.”

“You still do.”

A small, genuine smile appeared on Dimitri’s face, sending Felix’s heart tumbling in his chest. It was the one thing Felix never could defend against. The King reached out, and grabbed Felix’s hand, startling the swordsman.

“I am surrounded by many who have lied to me, and even more who have turned away from me. People I once considered family, and dear, lifelong friends…” The King’s expression grew frightening before he breathed deeply, and the tension momentarily broke. “But I always have been able to rely on you. Please…I ask this of you, not as your King…but as Dimitri.”

Dimitri squeezed Felix’s fingers, and the greatest warrior of the Kingdom felt his face turn red. He needed to get away. Now.

“Whatever. I suppose it’s better than staying here at looking at the face of a friend who’s long dead. If that’s what you wish, Your Beastliness…”

He lowered his head, unable to look at Dimitri for even a second longer. He prepared himself to blot out Dimitri’s words of protest, before he heard it.

“Thank you. Please, take care, and remember...whatever may happen…you will always be my friend.”

Felix paused, looking up at the ancient palatial ceiling, dramatizing the Kingdom’s decisive victory over the Empire at the Tailtean Plains. The knights were dressed in shining silver, and the Goddess stood at their backs, guiding them toward a glorious, inevitable victory. There was no blood or crumpled armor in the picture. He wondered for a moment if any of the men in the picture had come home changed, and whether the people who loved them missed who they had been before.

He turned around, gave Dimitri a nod, and tore from the room, before his feet and his heart failed him.

 


Why was he so weak!

The second son of the Fraldarius family was sitting alone, hidden under the shade of the Faerghus forest. Glenn and his friends had been practicing swordfighting, like they always did, and Felix had lost to everyone, like he always did. He had gotten angry, and thrown a sword at Sylvain after he had called Felix a crybaby. After Ingrid had yelled at them both, Felix had stomped away to his favorite hiding place.

He knew that after this, Dimitri, Ingrid and Sylvain would never want to let him tag along again. Dad would yell at him, and he would go back to being ignored. He was just Glenn’s little brother after all, and Glenn was so strong and powerful and talented…Felix wasn’t jealous though! He just would stay here for a little while, until they all left.

But then, he heard a friend’s voice.

" Why are you crying, Felix?”

Felix quickly wiped away the water that had accumulated around his eyes, and looked up at Dimitri’s concerned face.

“I’m not crying. Boys don’t cry.”

“Oh…okay.”

Dimitri nodded at his friend’s words, seemingly lost in thought. There was something different in the way the prince acted-maybe it was his long, gleaming blond hair, or maybe it was the gentleness that reminded Felix more of the queen than anyone else-but Dimitri wasn’t like the other boys of Faerghus. There was something delicate there, a softness that not even Gustave’s training had managed to sand away. It made Felix Fraldarius happy, even if he didn’t understand why. Dimitri pointed to the spot on the ground, next to Felix.

“Can…I sit with you, just for a little while?”

Felix didn’t respond, and after a few awkward seconds, Dimitri took a seat anyway. They listened to the northern songbirds, nestled in the nearby trees, before the young prince finally spoke.

“Why did you run away?”

The constant churn of the boy’s mind stopped, as he realized the truth of Dimitri’s words. He was scared, and had run away like a coward…and even Felix hadn’t realized it. So often, Felix couldn’t understand anything about himself…from why the emotions seemed to bubble up inside him without warning, to why making eye contact with his friends was so difficult. But Dimitri seemed to understand. Dimitri seemed to like him anyway. He tried to stammer out some response.

“I…I…I’m weak. I need to get stronger, or none of you will want to be around me anymore…I’m not…“

Dimitri started to laugh, and for a moment, Felix felt a familiar tide of anger begin to swell inside, before he realized that the prince was not laughing at him.

“I’m weak too, Felix. A few months ago, Gustave woke me up before dawn. He took me into the woods, and told me I needed to bring a deer home. I…” Dimitri’s angelic face fell. “I didn’t like it. It’s cold up there when winter’s coming, and it was so dark, and…and…” the boy’s hand began to shake, filled with some great inner turmoil. “I don’t like hurting anything. Even if I’m supposed to.”

Felix wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what. He eventually settled on picking up a stick, drawing a few looping, aimless lines in the earth. There was something comforting in the action, something that allowed him to push aside all the feelings that always seemed too big to grasp.

“I just wish everyone liked me as much as Glenn.”

The words burst out of Felix, utterly shaming him. Glenn was wonderful! Dad thought so, and Ingrid and Sylvain and Dimitri thought so, and so did Felix. How could Felix be so upset and frustrated at his brother just for always beating him in sparring, and for the way his father’s eyes sparkled with pride when he talked about Glenn?

A hand fell on the second son of House Fraldarius’ shoulder, and Felix almost jumped at the contact. Dimitri was smiling at him, and Felix felt strange.

“You’ll always be my friend, Felix. No matter what.”

He stood, and reached out an arm, blond hair gleaming in the midday Faerghus sun.

“Let’s go find everyone, and you can spar with me one more time. Together.”

Felix stared at his friend’s outstretched palm with suspicion

“Why?”

Dimitri began to blush.

“I have a friend named El who’s always helping me get better at dancing. She’s really nice, and even though I’m so clumsy, she always is there to try again. She says that’s what friends do.” He nervously ran a hand through his hair, before reextending his arm. “And you’re my friend, Felix. No matter what happens to us…that will never change.”

Felix looked up at Dimitri’s smiling face, trying to piece together the meaning behind his friend’s words. As he looked at the young prince’s smile, and felt the rapid beating of his heart, everything in Felix’s confusing, chaotic existence suddenly made sense.

“Okay, Dimitri…one more spar.”

And even though he didn’t realize what the word meant, that was the day that Felix fell in love with the Prince of Faerghus.

 


 

Felix was a man of simple tastes, and a light traveler, so the preparation for his departure from Faerghus was accomplished in half a day. Rodrigue had already left a fortnight ago, and was busy preparing the garrisons and ensuring readiness for a siege. It made Felix grateful that Ashe was coming along-despite his infuriatingly childish worship of knighthood, the archer was a capable companion and a good man.

He could see that Ashe had stolen away to talk to Annette for a few moments, underneath the falling shadows of the cloudy northern skies. What they said to each other, no one but the two of them would ever know. Unwilling to disturb the fragility of the moment, Felix busied himself with both his saddlebag and the task of readying his horse for the journey.

“You are leaving.”

Felix refused to turn around.

“Do you ever tire of being the boar’s errand boy? What does he want from me this time?”

There was an awkward pause, one that contained all the weight of the two men’s history, before Dedue spoke.

“His Majesty does not know I am here. I am here to wish you well, and to ask you to remain safe.”

This forced Felix to turn around, and look at the broad-shouldered Duscur looming over him. His eyebrows arched.

“Why?”

“Because…I am simply the King’s vassal, as much as he wishes it were otherwise, and you are his friend. He does not have many of those left. The first time I met him, he was diving in front of the Kingdom’s spears, to protect my life. Whatever may have happened to him…that is the man you and I know. I know that despite your words, you are just as loyal to him as I am.”

Felix could feel the emotions building within him, along with all the memories of the abuse he had hurled at the man, and released it with a loud snort.

“You always are like this. No matter how bad the boar gets…you just silently stand by, letting him fall further and further into depravity. Why don’t you stand up for yourself, you dog? Do you think blind obedience is what he needs right now?”

Dedue bowed his head for a moment, his battleworn face impassable, before he looked at the swordsman.

“You knew him…before I entered his life. Despite what the King says, I truly do not know if my people were responsible for what happened to the Royal Family. If this is the case…I understand why people like you or Ingrid despise me. I understand why the people of the capital throw stones at me. I am a living symbol of all you have lost, and how the Dimitri you knew was taken from you. For that, I am sorry.”

He rested a large hand on Felix’s shoulder.

“I am a weapon. Whatever he asks me to do…I will do it. The least I can dare to offer His Majesty is unquestioned obedience, and if necessary, my life. But please…I ask that you keep yourself safe, for his sake. He is a man given to great passion, and I fear that losing you would be more than even he could stand.”

Felix gripped his saddlebag, arms blanched white as he tried to push down the swell of emotions he was feeling.

“I’ll be fine. You should worry about him, and yourself. If you’re going to insist on following him around at every moment, just make sure…to keep an eye on him. You’ve had a lot of practice over the years, after all, and it’s not like there’s anyone else around halfway competent.”

The ghost of a smile appeared across Dedue’s face, before he gave a slight bow. “Of course.” Before Felix could turn away, the Duscur unfurled a small bag with pleasant smells emanating from it.

“Mercedes and I…we prepared you some food for the journey. Freshly baked bread, and a few desserts, though I must ask you to eat a full meal beforehand.” His cheeks blushed red. “Mercedes told me to tell you that. She…was quite insistent on that point.”

A small smirk appeared on the corner of Felix’s face.

“You and Martriz, huh? You’re slyer than I thought.”

Dedue looked away, before extending an arm.

“Take care, Felix.”

The swordsman nodded.

“You too, Dedue.”

 


 

Until Glenn died, Felix had never realized how big the Fraldarius estate was. Hundreds of little places, memories of that time Ingrid had pushed Sylvain into the lake, or when Dimitri had uprooted a small tree in a single swing. The whole landscape was haunted by a past that now seemed to weigh down the very breath in Felix’s lungs. A year before, they all had been happy, so happy that they had not realized that this joy was not the natural state of the world. Other people died, but not Glenn. Not someone so young, or so good.

Felix kept staring at the painting his father had commissioned on the day Glenn received his commission to knighthood. Rodrigue was standing behind Glenn, his eyes shining with familial pride. Glenn’s armor seemed to almost gleam according to the artist’s brushstrokes, his eternally smiling face showing a maturity and self-possession that seemed to taunt Felix. The younger son wasn’t in the picture.

Felix may have inherited a Major Crest, but Glenn had inherited something else Felix valued more than any stupid Crest-his father’s heart. Oh, Rodrigue loved Felix, that was clear. He was heir to the estate, and carried a thousand expectations and hopes. But he wasn’t Glenn.

And no one-not Rodrigue, or Glenn, or Felix himself, was brave enough to mention that obvious truth. It was just another fact of Felix’s life, just as much as his feelings for Dimitri or his inability to beat Glenn in a spar.

He kept staring at the looming painting, hoping that somewhere in the endless minutes he gazed at it, something about his brother dying would eventually make sense. He wanted to talk to Dimitri, or Ingrid, or Sylvain, but Ingrid was dealing with another suitor back at her family’s estate, and Sylvain, as usual, was with her. It was awkward now. Though none of them knew it as children, marriage to Ingrid, or more specifically, the Crest of Daphnel, had been one of Rodrigue’s greatest triumphs. It would have meant money for the Galateas, and a noble status and Crest for Glenn.

Now, all those dreams were as broken and tarnished as the shattered armor that Felix had seen the day Glenn’s body was brought home. There had been no glory in chivalry or knighthood that day. There was just a dead boy, his body battered beyond recognition. There had only been a mother keening over a dead child, and a father muttering useless platitudes about dying as a “true knight.” Felix had watched, feeling like an interloper, before he went the courtyard alone and destroyed countless training dummies in a rage.

“Felix.”

Rodrigue’s arrival shook Felix out of the suffocating tide of memories.

“Father."

“My son, I thought you should know. Dimitri is here, in the guest room…he…he has returned from the sanctions placed on Duscur. I have offered him a place to stay, as he was injured-“ Rodrigue’s face fell. “I should never have allowed them to…”

Felix stomped forward.

“Dimitri’s hurt!?”

Felix had not even stopped to wait for his father’s response, weaving past the kitchen where Glenn used to sneak Felix pastries when no one was looking, and the path outside where Dimitri and Sylvain had beaten him countless times in duels with a lance. He needed to see Dimitri. He needed to make sure he was all right. He couldn’t lose him either.

He pushed open the door, and there was Dimitri, laying on the bed. His body was covered in spear wounds. There was a boy there, looming over him, and Felix felt himself start. It was one of the Duscur, one of the people that had killed Glenn! They were going to kill Dimitri too! That must be how Dimitri was hurt! Felix reached out an arm to yank him away from his friend. The boy from Duscur did not move, simply bowing his head, as if this treatment was what he had expected.

“NO! LEAVE HIM ALONE!”

Dimitri’s shout startled the Fraldarius heir, causing him to momentarily retreat. Felix could see a manic, panicked expression on his old friend’s face. It was immensely unnerving.

The Duscur boy finally spoke, in a deep, stern voice.

“Would you like some more chamomile tea? I will go to the kitchen and prepare some.”

Dimitri grasped the sides of his head, only able to nod after a few tense moments.

“Y-Yes. Thank you, Dedue.”

In a moment, Felix and Dimitri were alone again, and it seemed just as awkward and painful as the day that Dimitri had pleaded with Felix for forgiveness for his brother’s death. Once, Felix had felt like Dimitri was his anchor, his link to a world he so often did not understand. But ever since that terrible day, there had been an invisible wall between them, the dreadful things that Dimitri had seen and experienced severing the one thing Felix felt he could hold onto.

Felix felt like he was drowning. Somehow, he found a way to speak.

“You’re back. Good.”

Dimitri was curled up in a ball, clutching his arms to his chest. He slowly began to rock back and forth, faster and faster, some deep agitation threatening to spring forth. His eyes weren’t looking at Felix, or anything else in the room, their deep blue marred with intricate lines of bloodshot crimson. He simply stared ahead for a long time, and Felix did not feel brave enough to do anything other than repress the secret, shameful desire to grab Dimitri and hold him in his arms.

Dimitri finally spoke, his voice a horrible croak.

“They killed them all, Felix. All the people of Duscur. The knights…they slaughtered them. And Uncle Rufus and all the rest of the people there said that it was good. Ingrid and Sylvain’s dads sent people, and they…”

The prince grabbed his head, his pale northern skin washed into a deathly pallor.

“What did they do?”

Felix had to know.

“It…” Dimitri paused, trying to stop the trembling. “It wasn’t any different than the day that…that…my family…There was so much blood, and the smell…oh Goddess, the smell…” He gripped his head again, trying to blot out some terrible memory. “They were innocents, Felix! Old men and MOTHERS AND CHILDREN!” His voice rose to a terrible shout, filled with revulsion. “Duscur didn’t do it! They said it was justice, that it was right, but it was a slaughter!”

Felix jerked his head toward the door.

“Is that where you met him?”

Dimitri nodded.

“The knights killed his family, Felix. They were going to kill him. And I saw the look in his eyes…he was just as scared as I was, the day that those monsters…” A frightening shadow crossed the prince’s face, before it disappeared, and Felix’s old friend returned. “I couldn’t let him die. I…I felt like if I let him be hurt…there was a part of me that would die too.” He looked up at his friend, and for once, Felix did not look away. “I don’t understand it. Killing is wrong, but they said that what they did was justice. They said they were letting my family rest. The voices haven’t stopped though. My father keeps telling me to…I…don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to carry on. Nothing makes sense anymore. You…you understand, don’t you? Please…please tell me you understand.”

Felix looked at the man he loved, and wanted to say something, anything, to express the turmoil in his heart. The words wouldn’t come. He nodded, before awkwardly resting a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“When you’re feeling better, let’s spar. Okay? I need you…” He paused and coughed. “…To help me get stronger.”

The prince nodded, and for the first time, he smiled at Felix, sending the boy back to happier, simpler days.

“Of course, Felix. I’d like that a lot.”

 


 

Western Faerghus lacked Crests, and relics. Outside of the fading fortunes of House Dominic, there were few nobles in the western portion of the Kingdom that could ever hope to attain the status of Gautier, Fraldarius, or even Galatea. It was a recipe for unrest, and one that had caused constant strife to roil underneath the surface of the Kingdom for the past century.

What the western portion of Faerghus did have, however, was a stark and pleasing beauty, one that suited Felix’s temperament greatly. As the moonlight fell on the small lakes and forests that dotted the roads near Arianrhod, Felix pulled his cloak tightly over his head.

He had seen countless Imperial soldiers, much easier to avoid then his father or Ashe had been, but even more likely to lead to awkward questions and discovery. He weaved through the pines, toward the hidden dock on the shores of the nearest lake. Upon arriving he leaned against a nearby tree, his life of training preventing him from taking any more of a relaxed stance. There was nothing to do but wait. Only three people knew of the significance of this place, and Felix, despite how much he tried to conceal it from the world and himself, was a sentimentalist at heart.

He sat in the darkness, and thought of days long past, and of how much simpler the world had been before. He thought of Glenn, and chastened himself again for not being strong enough; he thought of Rodrigue, and tried to ignore the whispering voice that told him he could never surpass Glenn or Dimitri in his father’s heart; and most of all, he thought of the King, and the confusing, painful knot in Felix’s heart seemed to grow ever and ever tighter, until the proud swordsman slumped down to the earth beneath his feet, unable to stand.

The snapping of a twig disturbed Felix from his deliberations, and his hand reflexively gripped his sword…until he heard long, low sound, one indistinguishable from the call of an owl…unless you knew the voice better than almost anything else in the world.

Felix put a hand to his lips, and responded with an owl call of his own, one that echoed over the desolate and eerie pine branches of the northern forest. For a moment afterward, Felix sat, and waited, unwilling to admit to himself how much joy he had taken in the action.

“Felix.”

A familiar, stern, female voice, just above a whisper, cut through the air, before two figures emerged from the blackness. There was a vibrant shock of red hair, and a glint of green eyes, and Sylvain and Ingrid were there.

The Kingdom general looked at his two childhood friends, clad in the crimson armor of the Imperials, and neither party moved. There was so much that had gone unspoken, so much hurt and pain and grief, and it seemed to weigh down all three figures. So much needed to be spoken, but nothing could truly be said.

Sylvain was brave enough to make the first move, walking toward Felix, a familiar smile on his face.

“Who’d have thought that we’d ever be back here? You both were mad at me when I had to hide here because of that thing with Gwendel’s daughter, but, this time you can’t blame it all on me, can you?“

His brown eyes were shimmering, and he had almost reached Felix when the swordsman drew his weapon, pointing it at the Imperial general.

“Keep quiet and stay back. I agreed to this meeting out of respect for-“  He allowed the silence of the forest and a gesture of his hand to finish the sentence. “But you’re still traitors, and I will cut you down where you stand.“

He had almost finished with his tirade, sword still pointed at Sylvain, when he felt Ingrid’s arm pulling down the sword. For a moment she watched him, Felix again experiencing that old sensation of green eyes seeing right through him.

“Don’t you dare point that sword at us, Felix.” She held his wrist, and gave it a gentle squeeze. She was smiling-so intently it hurt Felix to look at it.  “Look at us. Please. We both needed to see you.”

In a burst of emotion that could have been either rage or joy, or perhaps both, Felix thrust his weapon into the earth beneath his feet, and allowed Ingrid to embrace him. For a moment, he just savored the feeling of being held, before hesitantly wrapping his arms around Ingrid’s back

“You…”

Felix tried to force the words out, only to feel Sylvain’s arm encircling his head, rustling his hair, just like he used to. He wanted to say how much he had missed them, and how empty the days had been, but even the greatest swordsman of Faerghus had limits on his bravery. In a fit of pique, he pushed away his two dear friends.

“So…” he huffed, gathering himself. “Is that all you wanted? Did you risk your bloodthirsty Emperor executing you for treason for a hug?”

Sylvain and Ingrid looked at each other a moment, some unspoken emotion between them that Felix could not begin to guess. They seemed to both be daring each other to speak the next few words. Finally, Sylvain broke the silence, fingers nervously navigating his cherry-red hair.

“Buddy…we…we asked you to meet with us, to…to…”

Ingrid let out a sigh.

“Come back with us.”

Felix stared at their faces, trying to determine if this was a joke, or a trick. He let out a cruel bark of a laugh.

“You’re even more foolish than you look. For years, I had to sit and listen to you blather on about honor and loyalty, and tell me how my brother’s death was the perfect ideal of chivalry. And the first chance you got, you abandoned your homeland and your friends. Some knight you are.”

Until he spoke the words aloud, he hadn’t realized how much he wanted Ingrid and Sylvain to hurt. To know how badly he had missed them, and how painful leaving him alone with his father and the Boar amid the dying embers of the Kingdom had been. He couldn’t control anything else, but at least he could use his rage as a cudgel, lashing out at the unfairness that had defined his young life. He felt a small, sickening surge of pride as Ingrid’s face fell, and Sylvain stepped in front of her.

“Felix, knock it off,” snarled Sylvain. “Come after me, if you’re going to do this. She doesn’t deserve-“

“No, Sylvain,” whispered Ingrid sadly. “He’s right. I’m…I’m not really a knight at all. I don’t deserve to call myself that anymore. I’ve betrayed everyone. House Galatea, my friends in the Kingdom, the Goddess…” She shut her eyes tight. “Glenn…”

Felix crossed his arms, and turned away, trying to avoid confronting what his words had done.

“Why don’t you stop with the self-pity, and tell me why you did this.”

He finally turned around, choosing to use the question as an apology for the outward spitefulness of his words. Sylvain seemed to be able to ignore it, grasping the meaning underneath.

“Felix…you know damn well why. What did you tell us all the time? ‘Does anyone else find the worship of chivalry grotesque?’ You always did have a way with a turn of phrase…” Sylvain chuckled for a moment at the memory, before his expression again grew serious. “When we were growing up, after what happened to Dimitri and Glenn…we each fell apart in our own ways. Ingrid and I were so miserable and angry, we’d given up. But you never did. You kept trying to get us to fight, and we…we didn’t. It’s just…the things we saw that year at Garreg Mach…we couldn’t pretend all of this was okay anymore.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Felix threw the words at his friend with all the force of weapon, trying to wound as much as he could. Sylvain seemed to want to speak, but instead turned to look at the tide rippling in the nearby lake. Ingrid placed a hand on his shoulder. Finally, after realizing Sylvain couldn’t continue, she continued in his place.

“Felix-“

“Quiet!” He snarled. “Do you understand what it was like, after you went on that damn mission instead of me, and it all started to fall apart? It was bad enough watching the Boar wear Dimitri’s face, but I had to sit there, the entire year, as my two supposed friends changed into people I didn’t recognize. Do you understand what that was like!?”

The sound echoed over the hollow, and Felix was thankful that his face was partly concealed in shadow. As he felt a burning sensation in his cheeks, he could only pray it was enough to hide his shame at this revelation. He knew that he needed to counterattack immediately.

“After all…look at who you’re siding with, and what you’ve done. The Boar needed you. Do you think you have anything to be proud of?”

Sylvain was quiet, before shaking his head slowly. “Probably not,” he whispered. “But I know that I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I sat by and did nothing either.” There was a strange look his eyes. “Edelgard said something to me, years ago…she asked me how many people had to suffer and die before we accepted this world was broken. And I couldn’t answer her. This was bigger than me, or Miklan, or House Gautier. How many kids had to be abused or abandoned for lacking a Crest before it was too much to ignore? Fifty? A thousand? A million?”

The swordsman waved his arm in disgust.

“You sound just like your Emperor. Justifying bloodshed and carnage behind pretty words. She’s a fool, and so are the both of you.” He gripped his sword as tightly as he could. “Trading lives, just like Rodrigue did when he talked about Glenn’s noble death. I thought you were smarter than that, but you’re no better than him, or the Boar.”

Sylvain lowered his head.

“I know that. I…my brother was an awful person, Felix, and he hurt me in ways I can’t even…I’m not…” Sylvain’s pale skin seemed to grow even paler in the moonlight. “By the time I was old enough to understand, I knew I’d taken everything from him. In a way, I had created him. He loathed me, and over the years, his anger twisted me into a person who was just as cruel and hateful as he was. But the world didn’t seem to care about what a monster I was becoming. All it cared about was that I had a Crest and he didn’t.” Sylvain’s eyes blazed with passion. “I refuse to believe in a Church and Kingdom that tosses aside people for something they can’t possibly control, or elevates a bastard like me for no reason. These people I’m with now…” He paused and smiled, patting Felix on the back. “They think I can be better than that. And sometimes, I almost believe them.”

Felix tried to wrap his mind around what his friend was saying, but there was an invisible chasm now. A gap that that seemed to separate him from the man he considered his best friend, and a woman who was as close as family. They had experienced things he had not, lived a life that had pulled them away from him, and once again, Felix Fraldarius was alone. This was an enemy he could not fight, or defeat in battle. No amount of strength could solve this problem, and Felix felt his emotions spinning out of control.

“Then there’s nothing more to say,” he sneered. “You’ve made your choice, and I’ve made mine. And when I meet you tomorrow, if you won’t step aside, I’ll cut you down where you stand.”

“Felix, please. Remember that promise when we were kids? How we swore to each other we’d di-“

Felix swatted away the trembling arm Sylvain had extended.

“You betrayed our friendship. Not me. Tomorrow, when I see you…you’re just another opportunity to test my strength, Imperial dog.”

A thousand ugly, painful emotions flitted across Sylvain’s face, his body shaking from a silent war waged between whether he should stay or leave. For a moment, he edged toward Felix, before he let out a shout of anger and turned back into darkness.

Ingrid called after him, and for a moment, Felix thought she would leave him alone in the clearing. But then she turned back, and stared at him.

“You’re his best friend. He’s missed you every single day. And I know you’ve missed him.”

Felix shook his head, the bitterness erupting forth. He couldn’t stop it now.

“Then why don’t you go comfort him? I have nothing more to say to either of you.”

“If you have nothing more to say, just listen to me. Please.”

She smiled a bittersweet smile, and Felix could not help but think about how in a kinder, better world, they would have been family. He was trapped in these visions so intently, he was caught by surprise when she placed a hand on his chin, forcing him to look into her piercing gaze. Her green eyes were shimmering in the twilight.

“I think about how you could have gone on that mission instead of me every day, and I know you think about it too,” she whispered. “After your brother died…there was a person I was becoming…a person so filled with bitterness and fear, it terrified me. I said and thought so many hideous, terrible things about Dedue and his people. I romanticized Glenn’s death until I had twisted the memory of your brother into something unrecognizable. I turned unquestioning obedience into an ideal, as you never ceased to remind me.” She let out a small, mirthless laugh. “When I was pursuing knighthood, I wasn’t chasing a dream…I was worshiping death.”

“I’m glad you finally found some sense,” grunted Felix. “A shame it took you betraying everything my brother loved.”

Ingrid didn’t seem to mind the acidic nature of Felix’s statement, simply nodding as if he had suggested they have some chamomile tea after a training session.

“Felix…I don’t fight for my King, or my country, or even for Glenn’s memory anymore,” said the pegasus knight. “Now, I fight for what I believe in, just like you always told me I should do.” She looked down at the earth of her homeland, struggling to speak. “Fodlan is like the land of Galatea…it’s decaying, and unless we have the courage to try something new, this continent’s spirit will wither just as much as my people’s crops have. Edelgard’s my friend…and her future…helping the people of this continent grow and flower, to rise up and be more….” She smiled. “I believe that’s what true knightly devotion should be.”

She squeezed Felix’s hand, but he remained silent. Her beautiful face fell.

“But I can’t help but feel that I don’t deserve this opportunity. That after everything you’ve lost…you deserved that chance instead. And for that, Felix…I am so sorry. Please…I hope you can forgive me.”

The greatest swordsman in Faerghus looked into his friend’s eye just a moment longer, before he broke away.

“Don’t apologize for doing what you did. What’s done is done. I needed to keep an eye on the Boar, and you had to follow this ridiculous dream of yours. We each did what we felt we had to do. What might have happened and who we might have been is just…” He turned his back to her. “I suppose this is goodbye, then.”

“I…suppose it is.”

Felix did not look back, afraid that his body would fail to obey his commands if he did. He was almost to the edge of the woods, when he stopped.

“You sounded like him tonight. Naïve. Foolish. Idealistic. He’d…he’d have been proud.”

He could hear Ingrid’s severe voice breaking as she tried to thank him, and he again had to fight the overwhelming urge to turn back. He thought of Sylvain and Ingrid and it seemed as if his soul was torn in two, but Felix Fraldarius had made his choice. He thought of a blond-haired boy extending an arm to him so many years ago, and he wondered if there had ever been another path he could have possibly walked. He left the clearing, and the two friends he loved, and marched toward his destiny.

 


 

The rebellion was a simple one. Former peasants and farmers, now bandits and criminals, pillaging and rampaging across the region in the wake of the Tragedy. This was part of what was expected as an heir to one of the great families of the Kingdom; to use the power of their Crests and relics to protect the innocent, punish the wicked, and maintain peace. Felix’s father had asked him to aid in this rebellion. He was already fifteen, after all-more than old enough to mete out the justice of Faerghus.

And Dimitri would be there.

Felix hadn’t seen him for a long time. There had been rumors of problems in the capital, and Rufus’ jealousy toward the nephew whose Crest entitled him to the throne. Despite the grimness of the situation, there was a fragile part of Felix’s heart that held on to that small glimmer of light in the darkness of today’s battle.

Or, at least he had, until he had seen his friend. Oh, Dimitri smiled at him, and greeted him with the same awkward, gentle wave he always did. He had asked how Ingrid and Sylvain were, and greeted Rodrigue with a firm handshake. But Felix could see it, even if no one else could. The bags under his friend’s eyes. The way the prince gripped his spear. How the vassal…Dedue…never stopped watching Dimitri. And most of all…that false, awful smile he now saw.

There was something empty there. Something so different than the Dimitri he knew. Felix tried to shake it off, tried to push the idea out of his head. Dimitri was his friend, and they were going to be together, just like the old days, before…everything had changed.

The battle, if you could call it that, was over quickly. Most of the bandits died quickly, Felix’s trained sword cleaving through the sloppy swings of these desperate, brutal men. More than once, a bandit’s ramshackle sword or shield shattered against the might of Faerghus steel. Felix tried to ignore the desperation in their eyes and their emaciated frames as he cut them down. Weakness on the battlefield got you killed, like Glenn. Felix needed to become stronger. That was all that mattered. That was all he could control.

Dimitri had pushed ahead, pursuing a few of what passed for leaders in this ragtag assembly of blackguards. That had left Felix to deal with a few of the stragglers. Since childhood, the Crest-bearing children of Faerghus were trained to fight, and Felix’s body responded automatically. A frantic overhead sword swing from one opponent was dodged, and a sword driven through the man’s neck. His companion was horrified by the blood, and shouted for his friend, and Felix pushed down the nausea that welled inside.

He dodged the attacks and ignored the screams of his opponent, driven into a frenzy by his companion’s death. One of them was going to kill each other, and Felix had resolved that he would not die that day. The noble parried before slicing the man’s leg, sending the thief to his knees. Felix knew what came next, and so did the bandit. Surrender was simply exchanging the sword for the hangman’s noose. The boy tried to ignore the bandit crying for his mother, and drove the blade into his chest, finishing the grim task as soon as possible. There wasn’t time or energy to feel anything else.

As he wiped the blood off his weapon, Felix looked around. Where was Dimitri? He should have finished off the others by now. Felix followed his friend’s last steps, walking into the shadows of the trees. As he entered the clearing, Felix stopped, even his battle-hardened sense stunned by what he was witnessing.

T here were a few bodies strewn about, bodies shattered by the tremendous strength of the prince’s Crest. But Felix’s trained eye could notice something, even if others could not. The spear marks marring these corpses…they had missed vital points. Gone against every tenant and strategy of how to wield a weapon. Once or twice would have been sloppiness, but this was deliberate. Purposeful. You only drove a weapon into a man’s side and arms and legs like that if you wanted him to suffer dreadfully.

Felix tried to ignore the skulking dread creeping up his spine, walking through the dead forest. It seemed as if even the birds had stopped chirping. He turned the corner, and he saw his childhood friend brandishing a lance above the last bandit.

“Did you really believe that we would let you get away with it?!”

The prince drove a lance into the man’s arm, extracting a howl of pain.

“Rodrigue told me what you’ve done. Pillaging villages. Rampaging without remorse. Killing innocents!”

He pulled the spear out, and thrust it into the man’s other arm. He was unaware that Felix was there, the prince’s sleep-deprived eyes marred with some terrible inner malice, as if all the world’s evil was spilling out of them. The prince’s breath rose and fell in long, heavy gulps, like that of a wild boar.

“Do you understand what your “rebellion” has cost?! I had to look the children of that village you destroyed in the eye! Do you know what you’ve done to them?! DO YOU!?" 

The man whimpered in pain.

“I… I was starving…my family in Galatea couldn’t feed us all anymore…they promised me…I’m sorry…”

“No. No, you aren’t.” Dimitri leaned forward. “I can hear them. My parents, and my friends, and all the people I watched die in the Tragedy. I can hear their voices, just like I can hear the voices of the people you brutalized. And you don’t understand pain. Not like they did. So…” He raised his spear. “I’m going to teach you. Slowly.”

" Dimitri.”

Felix felt rooted to the ground, but finally, he realized that he had been the one to speak. And now Dimitri was turning back to him, and for a brief second, there was so much shame and remorse and fear in his eyes, and Felix could see his scared, lost friend. But then the mask came back, and the false Dimitri collected himself. He let out an awkward cough.

“Ah…are you finished, Felix? I am simply delivering judgement on this last prisoner. Do you wish to find Rodrigue-”

Felix walked forward, and before Dimitri or the bandit could react, Fraldarius family steel was driven through the heart of the bandit.

  He glared at the man he loved.

“You enjoyed this. You slaughtered these people, and you savored every last second of it. You killed them in the most brutal way you possibly could, just so they would suffer...like a beast craving blood. You…” Felix stared at the body of the bandit, unable to stand the sight of this monster wearing his friend’s face. “Go away. Just looking at you makes me want to retch.”

Dimitri reached out a hand.

“Felix…I…they have to be punished. If killing is wrong, there must be men willing to…that’s what I’m supposed to do. I must stain myself in blood, so that others may live in happiness. What other purpose is there for a man like me?”

For a moment, Felix looked up at him, feeling all the emotions he could never express, all the secret whispers that he had kept locked inside each and every time he thought of Dimitri extending his hand to him all those years ago. He wanted to tell Dimitri of the one thing Felix wished for with all his heart, yet somehow knew could never be. But in that moment, with their bodies drenched with blood, something terrible erupted out of Felix.

“It seems you’ve already arrived at your answer, haven’t you? I hope you choke on it, boar prince.”

Felix stomped out of that Goddess-forsaken clearing, leaving Dimitri to stand alone among the bodies of the dead. Felix did not look back, afraid of what would happen if he did. He tried to push the memories of Dimitri smiling and laughing, arm wrapped around him as they sparred, face unburdened by the evil Felix had just seen.

His mind was in such turmoil, he almost did not hear Rodrigue’s voice. The man was smiling at Felix, as if there was something to be proud of. As if they had done something great today.

“Is it done? Where is the Prince, Felix? You should not leave him unaccompanied-“

His next words were cut off as Felix threw the full force of a punch into his father’s face, sending the elder Fraldarius crumpling to earth. He collected himself a moment, before wiping away the blood trickling from his nose.

“Felix…my son…why-“

“You said you’d protect him! You said that you’d watch over him, when he had no one left but us! You let them take him to the Punishment! How was letting him see people slaughtering children helpful?! Did you think that would appease Glenn?!” Felix snarled at Rodrigue, feeling something great and terrible gushing out from inside him. He jumped on his father and began to strike him as hard as he could. “You let them poison his mind! YOU LET THEM DO THIS TO HIM!”

He could feel his father’s men pull him off, but he kept struggling, staring at his father with a hatred that would never, ever abate, for as long as Felix would live. And as he thought of the scared, lost look in the prince’s eyes, and his terror and revulsion at what he had done, Felix knew the die was cast. Because like Dimitri had told him all those years ago-they would always be friends. No matter what.

 


 

Edelgard and Lysithea had a relationship that had long passed the bounds of close friendship, into something much more familial. That bond expressed itself in a multitude of ways: from the silent journey Edelgard would take past Lysithea’s room every evening, to the mage’s habit of bringing a baked sweet for the Emperor when the paperwork and duties of the throne seemed insurmountable. However, what they treasured most were the moments of silence.

They had both suffered in a way that few could begin to understand, and survived horrors that no words were adequate enough to convey. They had lived with death, and loss, and grief as constant companions. And as great a comfort as it was to meet someone who understood, it was even more meaningful to find someone to whom they did not have to explain why. Why they suffered those bouts of temper. Why they tried to hide how much they cared about other’s opinions of them under a façade of arrogance. And why sometimes, they just needed to sit, and be silent.

This evening, the night before the siege of Arianrhod would commence, they were sitting in Edelgard’s tent. The Emperor was reviewing the strategies the Strike Force had outlined, and her ever-present companion was idly glancing through memorandums and assorted minutia that the Imperial throne collected like specks of dust. Earlier, Lysithea had come in, her pale face paler from an obvious nightmare. Lysithea said that she was here because of concerns about the Strike Force’s defense against magic attacks, and Edelgard had not challenged the obvious lie. Edelgard had pretended that she wanted to stay up later, and review documents for her troops, and Lysithea had not challenged that lie either. When you loved someone enough, their happiness outweighed such silly, insignificant things as the truth.

Besides handing the Leicester noble a cup of tea, they had not spoken a word to each other for two hours, yet neither of them would have traded this moment for anything in the world. The Emperor stared at her map of Arianrhod as if it were an oracle, awaiting a sign from the heavens, but nothing seemed forthcoming. Lysithea’s outraged voice disturbed her from her musings.

“This…this is ridiculous!”

Edelgard turned, fingers resting underneath her chin as she stifled a yawn.

“What is, Lysithea?”

“This…this…story about you! It’s filth!”

Edelgard let out a long, drawn-out sigh.

“Hubert must have been gathering intelligence on the propaganda put out by those opposed to my rule-it usually turns out to have Thales’s fingers in it somehow. I haven’t had the opportunity to sample that particular piece, but they are all the same. Something about my masterminding the Tragedy of Duscur, or deposing my father from power by force. We are also promoting our own ideologies with similar rhetoric and strategy. This war is not fought just with sword and shield, but with pen and word. Please do not concern yourself with it further.”

Lysithea’s eyes narrowed, the same way they did before she was about to unleash a volley of dark magic upon an unsuspecting enemy.

“I wouldn’t normally, but this…” Lysithea seemed to want to say more, but fell silent.

Edelgard smiled. “What is it? Have I decided to commemorate my military victories by feasting on the clergy of the Church of Seiros?”

The mage looked downward.

“No…” She whispered. “These people denouncing you…they claim to have talked to a maid from Enbarr…and she said you and Ionius murdered your siblings, before framing Duke Aegir for the deed.”

Edelgard felt her mind whirl, as she was again transported to a cell with no light. She could hear her sister’s dying gasps, and smell the familiar coppery scent of blood. She could see Duke Aegir’s sneering face as her family was taken from her. She could feel the darkness closing around her again. The sound of her quill snapping in her hands drove her out of the nightmare, and back to sense.

“It’s ridiculous drivel,” said the Flame Emperor, her voice losing its warmth. “I did no such thing.”

This seemed to inflame Lysithea more. “Of course you didn’t! Do they think that anyone would knowingly choose to go through…to experience…” She looked down at her arms and the scars hidden beneath. “It was a relentless terror and agony…never even understanding why they were hurting you…” She clenched her fists tightly. “It’s not fair.”

“Lysithea…” said Edelgard softly. “When my father punished Hyrm territory, along with Ordelia for their rebellion…he was acting out of fear and weakness. He was a good man, attempting to centralize power to correct what he saw as a grievous wrong with the power of the consorts, but the consequences of that decision resonated in both our lives. It was what allowed those fiends to gain a foothold and eventually destroy the Hresvelg and Ordelia families. Perhaps, I do bear…”

Neither woman spoke, the shadows of the candlelight dancing on the roof of the canvas tent. Finally, Lysithea spoke, her voice artificially even.

“I don’t have to time for revenge…or time to feel angry anymore.” She was pleading with Edelgard, and even the stoic heart of the Flame Emperor could not remain unaffected. Her pugnaciousness returned in an instant. “So you listen to me, Edelgard von Hresvelg.”

There was nothing for the Emperor to do but nod.

“There will always be people who will hate us, Edelgard. Not even because of what we’ve done, but because of what we’ve survived. What’s that scripture of the Church say?”

Edelgard’s response was automatic, the emotion sapped from her voice.

“The Goddess loves and protects all that is beautiful.”

“Yes,” spat Lysithea. The young mage stood, clearly incensed beyond belief. She rubbed her pale pink eyes for a brief second. “My family was beautiful…and perhaps the Goddess may not have loved them, but I did. And they deserved to be protected.”

Edelgard could only nod, and watch the mage continued to pace.

“For these people, it is easier to pretend that a little girl masterminded the Tragedy of Duscur, than to believe that children could be carved apart, and no one would help them. It is easier to believe that a grown man was the innocent victim of a child’s plot. They need to believe that we deserved it somehow. Because the only alternative is that the world is not naturally just, and that Fodlan’s peace was built on the quiet suffering of millions like Marianne or Dorothea.”

She let out a cough, appearing exhausted from the outburst. Edelgard helped guide her to her seat, and began to fret over her.

“Lysithea…you must not exhaust yourself, especially the night before a battle. Linhardt says-“

The younger woman shook off Edelgard’s attempts to fuss over her, and met the Emperor dead in the eye.

“We are living symbols of the crooked unfairness of this world. Each and every time my body fails me, it denounces the Church’s teachings more than any manifesto ever could. And the same is true of your ideals. To admit that you are a person who came to these conclusions through suffering and loss…it means that this is a war of competing ethics, and not a struggle between blackest evil, and purest good.”

She smiled at her friend.

“After what I experienced, I never imagined…” Lysithea’s voice trailed off. “Regardless, I believe in you. This is no longer simply your dream, but ours. And we will make a future that our siblings would have wanted. A world where everyone can share in the peace they should have experienced.”

Edelgard grabbed Lysithea’s arm, a simple gesture that the Flame Emperor would never have given years ago. The princess had been stern and stiff, quick to anger with a heart of ice-but through the grace and faith of her friends, she had changed. The young mage flinched for a moment, before her face lit up with a smile.

The sound of rustling canvas disturbed the two women, and sent them hastily tumbling apart. It was hard to tell who appeared more mortified by Byleth’s sudden appearance, but either way, the Ashen Demon appeared as placid and unruffled as ever. She gave Lysithea a nod before returning her attention to the Emperor.

“Ingrid and Sylvain have returned. They didn’t see me, but it’s just as we thought. They talked to Felix, but he didn’t return with them.” She placed her hands behind her back. “Do you want me to say anything?”

“Thank you, my teacher, but no…” said Edelgard, shaking her head. “I certainly have no right to criticize others for their secrets. Please check in on them to ensure they are both of sound mind and spirit for the battle tomorrow, if you would be so kind.” Her eyes twinkled. “I don’t believe you’ll have any trouble finding a reason to worry about your old students.”

Byleth nodded, the merriment in her eyes betraying her stoic expression. “Especially my troublesome old house leader.” She turned to Lysithea. “Don’t you agree?”

The mage rolled her eyes.

“Please, leave me out of your antics, Professor. I am already dealing with enough nausea from Professor Hanneman’s tonics without having to witness you two behaving like children.”

This brought the hint of a smile to the Ashen Demon’s face, which quickly disappeared.

“Edelgard...” She spoke softly. “There’s something else.”

She gestured outside the tent, and Shamir appeared, holding the shoulder of a brown-haired girl with dark circles under her eyes and messy brown hair. It was so different from the happy, eager child the Emperor knew, it took Edelgard a moment to recognize who it was.

“Fleche.”

“Byleth and I found her while we were doing our nightly rounds,” said Shamir brusquely. “She hid herself among the merchants and the supply convoy. Good thing I pay closer attention than this vaunted mercenary does on patrol.” Her eyes twinkled as they met her best friend.

The Ashen Demon either missed or ignored Shamir’s deadpan humor, instead kneeling in front of Fleche.

“Why are-“

Byleth has only managed to speak for a second, before the downcast, wretched expression on the girl’s face turned into a frightening anger.

“Don’t you dare try to stop me. I…I’m going to kill them! The King, and the Archbishop, and all of them. I’m going to hurt them, just as much as they hurt my brother!”

Byleth’s eyes met Edelgard’s, but before either of them could speak, Lysithea interjected.

“And what did you mean to accomplish, exactly? Did you think that you could just walk up to the leaders of the opposing army and stab them with a knife? Randolph wouldn’t want you wasting your life on such a ridiculous plan.”

Fleche’s face fell, chastened by the mage’s words. “I…I was going to go behind Kingdom lines…claim that I was a refugee from the war, and offer my help. I thought that maybe…” The anger came roaring back. “I had to do something! I can’t stop thinking about how much he must have been hurting, and how I wasn’t there…” The girl’s voice lowered to a whisper. “My life is over, and I just want them to hurt as much as…as I…

Edelgard looked at the girl, face consumed by distress and anguish. She remembered her cruel, cold words to Byleth, long ago, pushing and prodding her teacher into standing up and fighting. They were the same words Edelgard had used to motivate herself, to pull herself out of the darkness of her past, and they were the words that had forged the detached, icy woman she had become.

“Fleche…” Edlegard paused, and placed her hands behind her back. “I want to challenge you.”

The girl looked up at the Emperor she had admired so deeply, but did not speak. Edelgard allowed her eyes to rest on Aymr, sitting in the corner of her chambers-as twisted and unnatural as the woman who held it in battle.

“I lost my family, long ago. And it has shaped everything about the person I have become. I have cast aside guilt, regret, and an unblemished conscience, all in pursuit of the creation of a new world. However, when I looked at you, the first time I met you…” She paused. “I was reminded of the person I once was. The person I wish I could still be, but no longer am. I cannot go back, but for a brief moment…I remembered.”

The Emperor smiled for a moment at Byleth and the girl, feeling the eyes of the other four women in the room resting on her. It felt more nerve-racking than any speech that she had given before, as if she was not just trying to reach Fleche, but also some deeply hidden portion of herself

“The true sign of the worth of my ideals will not be determined on the battlefield. When these days are over, and I have helped to remake this continent into a place where all are free to rise and fall by their own merits…there must be a place for the next generation, the ones who have not stained their hands in blood or blackened their souls, to step forward. They will determine whether this dream was worth pursuing.”

Fleche shook her head.

“Your Majesty…I…I don’t understand.”

A small, sad smile crossed the Emperor’s face.

“You are at a crossroads. You can become like me, and spend countless years so terrified of experiencing loss that you allow your heart to harden. You can pursue any means to achieve your ends, until you lose sight of everything you once were. Or…” She placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “You can hone that righteous wrath into something noble. Something that will turn that anger into compassion, and your rage into a deep-seated desire for justice. Something beautiful, that Randolph would be proud of.”

Edelgard, paused, and thought of her beloved sister’s face, the memories fuzzy from the passage of years, and the pain that had been inflicted upon what was once an innocent girl. She hoped Aggie was watching, somehow.

“I want you to be better than me, Fleche. I want you to be the person I could have been.”

Fleche looked up, going through an immense interior struggle, before she could not hold back the dam of emotions any longer. She grabbed Edelgard tightly, sobbing into her shoulder.

“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…I know I shouldn’t have…I just miss him so much…I just want to see him again…it’s…it’s not fair…”

Her words trailed off into strained, painful sobs, her body releasing all of her pent-up grief in a torrid flood. Edelgard was at a loss, and simply said the first words that came to mind.

“You’re right, Fleche…it isn’t fair.”

Byleth and Lysithea were both watching Edelgard intently, with what appeared to be a mixture of concern, grief, and pride. For countless minutes, they allowed Fleche’s emotions to tumble out of her, until the feelings were exhausted, and the girl finally found the strength to lift her head. She tried to stammer out an apology, before a black gloved hand fell on her shoulder.

“Kid. C’mon with me.”

Shamir had remained silent throughout the entire affair, but had stepped forward.

“If you’re going to wander around a military camp, you’re going to need to defend yourself, and find something to focus on.” Her normally detached face seemed to soften. “ I…need to correct something in my shot, so I’m going to go shoot some arrows…you ever handled a bow before?”

Fleche shook her head.

“No. And…and it’s…it’s so late…and why would you…”

The archer closed her eyes.

“Because I’ve lost people and partners I loved, Fleche. Not just to battle, but because they were so empty inside, they had to fill that void with blind devotion, until there was nothing of them left. I suppose....I’m fighting for them, too.” The archer paused, her voice falling to a whisper. “Maybe if I hadn’t kept my distance…she…” Shamir collected herself, and pushed a strand of hair off her forehead, before offering her hand to the girl. “C’mon, let’s go. Ladislava will yell at me for keeping you up too late.”

Fleche seemed powerless to resist, and without another word, accompanied the archer out of sight, and into the darkness. Edelgard could only watch the girl’s brown hair disappear, and take some small comfort in Byleth’s hand gently resting in hers.

 


 

“Petra, Ferdinand, pegasus knights on the left!”

Edelgard gestured toward her two generals, and without a word, they moved to intercept the target. Upon commencing the siege of the Kingdom fortress, a few pegasus knights had appeared over the ramparts of the city, attacking in suicidal charges that the Empire easily repelled. It seemed foolhardy, even considering the Kingdom’s blunt approach to military strategy.

From the corner of her eye, the Emperor could see Ferdinand dodge the knight’s attacks, maneuvering his horse as if it were an extension of his very being. It distracted the Faerghus warrior just long enough for Bernadetta’s arrows to find their mark, and send the Kingdom soldier tumbling to earth with a sickening thud.

As they advanced toward the front gate, Edelgard turned to the Agarthan next to her. “Monica.” For a few moments, her ally did not respond, so Edelgard repeated the name. The assassin turned and smiled. “Yeah?”

“Make sure that Ingrid’s group can rendezvous with us from the right. And…are you prepared?”

She nodded. “It’s what I was made for.”

Byleth and Hubert were already at Arianrhod’s front gates when Edelgard arrived, engaged in a deep discussion. Hubert gestured to the imposing entryway.

“We likely will not be able to breach the gates…perhaps Ingrid or Petra can fly in and release-“

Before he could finish the thought, the gate slowly opened, to the shock of the Strike Force, revealing a cadre of Kingdom cavalry prepared for a suicidal charge. At the front of the line was an elderly, stout man with a deeply scarred face and ashen-grey hair. Edelgard had only a moment to realize that the Kingdom had chosen to gamble on a frontal assault versus an extended siege, and to wonder whether chivalry or practicality was behind this decision, when the Faerghus soldiers advanced while bellowing an oath to the pride of their nation.

Edelgard stepped to the frontlines to shield her troops and to meet the commander, but Sylvain cut in front.

“Lord Gwendel!” He said with a smirk. “You know, despite the fact we’re in battle, I hope you know I don’t have any hard feelings for that time you tried to murder me for that rendezvous with your daughter. How is Elisabeth anyway?”

The man’s face, which resembled a chunk of granite, turned even more stern.

“Do not dare to speak to me, child. You have betrayed your homeland, and your King. That was the least of your sins!”

The two cavaliers’ weapons collided, while Edelgard and the Black Eagle Strike Force cut down wave after wave of Faerghus soldiers. There was so much sound and light on the battlefield-from Aymr and the Sword of the Creator’s frightening glow, to the booming explosions of Lysithea and Dorothea’s magic. The Kingdom soldiers were quickly becoming overwhelmed.

“Look, Gwendel!” said Sylvain with growing anger. “You and your men never had a chance! Cornelia’s just using you to soften us up! You’re dying for nothing!”

“Do you really expect a whelp like you to kill me? I am a knight of House Rowe, and I will fight to the end with the pride of Faerghus in my veins. Can you say the same?”

He charged with reckless abandon, forcing Sylvain to parry his attack out of the way. With no regard for his own safety, he shrugged off Petra's sword and Caspar’s gauntlets, focused on a distracted Bernadetta. Edelgard moved toward her friend in a desperate attempt to deflect the blow, when she saw the unmistakable flash of a warp spell.

Hubert had appeared in front of the archer, unleashing a plume of dark energy underneath the man’s steed, staggering the poor creature. Yet somehow, this was not enough to dull Gwendal’s will. He guided his dying animal toward Hubert, and leapt upon him with the weight of his mighty armor. Hubert’s body was pinned underneath the man’s legs, and the cavalier raised his spear in triumph.

“I may die, but I die knowing that I have eliminated the Emperor’s malicious shadow from this world. Give my regards to the pit, sorcerer.”

Edelgard was sprinting toward him, but she knew she could not reach him in time. Over the panicked beating of her heart, she heard Hubert begin to let out a chilling laugh. Dark energy coalesced around the mage’s fingertips.

“Oh…we shall burn together, my friend.”

Before the Kingdom general could drive his spear downward, Hubert brought his hands together around Gwendel’s exposed skull, and there was a blinding explosion of magical energy. When Edelgard’s vision returned, the headless body of Lord Gwendel staggered for a moment, before collapsing to the ground.

The Flame Emperor and Bernadetta were upon him in an instant, ostensibly checking his body for bruises and wounds, but in reality, more concerned with the dazed, empty look in his eyes.

“Why, Hubert?” said Bernadetta in anger. “W-why would you do something so reckless?”

This seemed to shock the mage back to sense. “For you, of course, Lady Bernadetta,” said Hubert with a quiet smile, as he staggered to his feet and wiped away the blood from his face. “Always for you.” He gave Edelgard a nod. “Go.”

Edelgard gave her childhood friend a knowing smile, and quickly advanced through the front gates of Arianrhod. The Strike Force had carved path through the Kingdom defenses, and Byleth had made her way toward the central square of the Silver Maiden.

Lord Rodrigue and his son stood in her path, tome and sword at the ready. Felix’s sword was raised, his eyes focused on Sylvain, who was behind Byleth’s shoulder. Ashe stood next to them, bow aimed at his old professor.

“Stand down,” said Byleth with an ethereal tranquility that belied the carnage of the battlefield. “We are here for Cornelia.” Rodrigue was about to respond, when Felix pushed past him.

“Hah,” scoffed the swordsman. “I’ve been waiting for this moment since I met you. The perfect opportunity to test my strength.” His sword gleamed in the light. “So come on, all of y-“

Without warning, an immense beam of light cut through the center of the square, eviscerating a few unfortunate soldiers from both the Kingdom and the Empire. At the top of the castle grounds, surrounded by multiple hulking mechanical golems, stood Cornelia. She was cloaked in the traditional red and black uniform of a mage, her dress adorned with countless feathers. She seemed almost a parody of a seductress, leaning against the ramparts with an inhuman coolness. Edelgard could feel the anger building inside her.

The woman’s beautiful face was marred with a malicious, inhuman sneer, and she let out a coquettish laugh at the carnage she had unleashed.

Rodrigue turned back toward the woman in anger.

“What are you doing?! Your machines are attacking our own troops! How dare you!”

She wagged a finger at the stunned general.

“Ah…you don’t know your part, fool. Why do you think I let them into the city so easily? This has all been part of our carefully crafted script…the delightful dance I have planned. And your time on the stage is at an end.” She extended her arms to the heavens. “My lovely dolls…kill them all!”

It was chaos, as the metal clanking of Cornelia’s creations firing bolts at Kingdom and Imperial soldier alike was mixed with the screams of dying soldiers. Rodrigue, Ashe, and Felix attempted to provide cover to their men, their enmity for the Empire momentarily forgotten.

Lysithea, Dorothea and Marianne had created a magical barrier in seconds, sheltering almost all of the Imperial troops, but even the power of the three mages shuddered against the immense beams of light that erupted from Cornelia’s mechanical weapons. It was a power no scheming, no planning could ever account for. A few of the Imperial generals were caught outside the barrier, and were forced to dodge and block a relentless stream of spells.

Byleth was trying to help Sylvain back toward the barrier, when to Edelgard’s horror, she realized that her teacher was oblivious to one of the titans aiming its weapon at her head. Edelgard pushed in front of her two close allies, raising her shield to block the attack.

That shield had protected Edelgard through countless battles, but as the continued force of the doll’s attacks collided with it, Edelgard felt it shudder from the strain. The Emperor’s forearm began to burn, and she saw the overwhelming heat turning her bulwark bright red. To lower it meant an instant death; to move meant exposing Sylvain and Byleth to attack. The Flame Emperor tried to ignore the pain.

The shield shattered with a deafening crack, and Edelgard was sent flying backwards. She tried to grip Aymr, but the attack had damaged a part of her hand, and she could no longer grip the weapon tightly. The golem adjusted its sight, and Edelgard had only a moment to see the disgusting smirk on Cornelia’s face.

My teacher…whatever happens, you must lead them onward.

Edelgard saw the flash of light, and reflexively prepared for the weapon to cut through her body…but instead she felt arms embracing her. Out of the corner of her vision, she could glimpse Sylvain charging toward the golems in a blind fury. The Emperor saw blond hair, and purple tassels, and the Emperor’s soul shattered from what she knew must have happened.

“Edelgard…” said Ingrid, breaths coming out in ragged gasps. “You’re…safe…”

There was an awful gaping wound in the knight’s side, and her strong arms were gripping the Emperor’s shoulders. There was a faraway look in her eyes, and a dreamy smile on her face.

“Ingrid.” The Emperor tried to keep her voice authoritative. “Focus on me. You’ll be all right. Remember? We…we finish this together.”

The knight weakly shook her head.

“Don’t you dare…be sad. I swore that…that…I’d protect what matters to…me…and you know…how stubborn I am…”

Her gloved fingers reached out and gently rested on Edelgard’s face.

“I’m…so happy I…met you. I know…I’m not Professor Byleth, and I never will be…but you…you helped me…cut my own path…no matter how much everyone else…believed I could never be anything else…”

“Ingrid…”

“Just…just smile…for me. That’s all I need.” She struggled to form the next words. “If you ever…feel sad…just…just remember…I’ll always be your…knight, and your best frie…”

The knight’s fingers went limp, and as the Flame Emperor stared ahead, there was hole in her heart where Ingrid was supposed to be.

Edelgard was barely able to register Linhardt and Byleth appearing, or her teacher’s reassurances that she would fix this. She could still see the empty look in Ingrid’s green eyes as the world turned grey, and the Divine Pulse enveloped her.

 


 

The clamor of battle enveloped Edelgard yet again. It was Arianrhod…but a different one. Mercedes was by her side, casting faith magic atop a steed. Alois was tearing through the Kingdom forces with reckless abandon. And…

“You okay, El?”

Annie smiled at Edelgard, and the use of her old name sent another jolt of regret down the Flame Emperor’s spine. She nodded.

" Good! Because Byleth and Felix need our help! C’mon!”

She waved her arms, flames materializing from thin air on her command to decimate her opponents. She looked so confident, and serene…just as much a believer in Edelgard as Ingrid was. It seemed like another of the Goddess’ cruel tricks.

They found Byleth and Felix locked in combat with Rodrigue, the father’s face filled with equal parts sadness and anger.

“My foolish son…you took it upon yourself to leave your family behind.”

Felix dodged his father’s spell, his grim, severe face somehow even more austere.

“I’m not coming back…I can’t serve the boar anymore. He’s…” The swordsman’s voice lowered to a growl. “He’s a monster. I’ve seen it firsthand.” He paused. “I owe it to…I need to stop him.”

“It is a father’s duty to settle his child’s failures.” Rodrigue let out a long, painful sigh. “Felix, for the honor of House Fraldarius…you will die, here and now!”

The battle was pitched, and Rodrigue dodged Byleth and Felix’s strikes with a quick, easy grace. The man was just as imposing an enemy as Hubert’s reports had predicted. However, even he could not defend against three enemies at once, and Annette’s Excalibur spell caught the noble in the chest, sending him flying from his horse.

“It’s over, old man,” said Felix, sword pointed at his father’s chest. “Are you going to continue embarrassing yourself further?”

“Heh,” For a moment, the familial resemblance between the two Fraldarius men was unmistakable, as Rodrigue let out a confident, battle-weary smile. “Did you really believe I would attack you on my own?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Felix looked down at his father, before a shadow crossed the skies above. A familiar humming noise assaulted Edelgard’s ears-the telltale sound of a relic weapon being activated. Felix turned back. “We have to move! She’s her-“

A spear drove into the center of Arianrhod's square, sending the four Imperial generals through the air. Despite Byleth’s attempts to shield her from the attack. Edelgard collided with a nearby stone wall, her body bruised and battered from the impact. As her vision refocused, she saw familiar golden strands of hair, and piercing green eyes staring back at her. Before Edelgard could react, she was tossed to the ground, Luin pointed at her throat.

“Your vile deeds disgust me, Flame Emperor. You have torn this continent asunder, and attacked the proud land of Faerghus! A wretch like you is completely unworthy to rule over Fodlan! I swear to you, heretic…no matter what path my lord takes, I will follow him to the death. I have sworn a vow to my ancestors, His Majesty, and myself…and right now…”

Ingrid looked down, a venomous hatred marring the face that Edelgard knew so intimately.

“His only desire is for your head…and I will give it to him.”