A part of you – the part of you left over from when you’d never worked with mages before, never fought on a real battlefield before – thinks that the sight of this many bodies, this much death, should be accompanied by the stench of blood. The air should reek with it, with the dead thick on the road leading north from Paltina.
Instead, the air still stinks like whatever explosives they used to collapse the bridge after Yggdra crossed it. Other than the obvious pain on the faces of the ones who died on their backs, there’s no real sign that the soldiers were just killed. You step gingerly around them, trying not to actually walk on any of the bodies. It would be disrespectful.
Behind them all, standing dead center in the middle of the road, is the mage who killed them in the first place.
“So, what the hell?” you ask conversationally, careful not to look threatening. You try not to let your grip on the axe slung over your shoulder grow too tense. “Soldiers don’t exactly just up and attack each other, so what gives? What’s your game?”
The mage closes the massive book he used to slaughter his retinue, smiling slightly. “Game…an apt choice of words. But whatever game I may or may not be playing is unimportant right now, whereas yours has just grown far more complicated.” His smile fades and his voice grows more serious; it’s hard to judge his demeanor when you can’t see his eyes. “The Bronquian Empire is now in possession of one Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz, and what its Emperor is planning cannot be allowed to happen. With my soldiers neutralized, you must fly after her with all due speed.”
You breathe in, sharp and shallow. “What are they going to do to her?”
“I will spare you the details; suffice to say, they will use her in a ritual involving Brongaa, and it is unlikely that she will survive the process. You must hurry.” The mage is expressionless as he speaks; his voice has taken on a deadened quality that creeps you out more than a little.
“Shit.” You repeat the curse when the mage draws a weapon in a flash; his robes and dress are loose enough that you should have stayed on guard for a hidden weapon in the first place, but you weren’t thinking. “Why tell me all that if you were going to try to kill me in the first place?” you say, lifting your axe from your shoulder and going into a guard stance.
The mage laughs then, but there’s no humor in it and not the slightest change in expression. Then he flips the sword down and back and grabs it by the blade between his thumb and forefinger, close to the hilt. It takes you a second to realize that he’s offering it to you. “I will fight by your side, for the time being,” he says emotionlessly, extending his arm to hold the sword out to you hilt-first.
You stare at him, thinking about the host of bodies you had to tiptoe around just to get to this guy while trying not to actually look at them. You think of Yggdra, of Yggdra maybe dying and this whole thing getting worse than it already is. You look at the metal mask covering the mage’s face and wish you could see past it, somehow discern whether he’s just a psycho, actually well-meaning, both, or neither.
You swing the axe back over your shoulder, then reach out with your free hand to take the mage’s sword. You plant it in the dirt beside you, then hold your hand out for a shake. “No offense, but you just showed that you really don’t need a sword,” you say with just a hint of humor.
After a moment, he reaches out to grasp your hand with his. His fingers are very soft. “Indeed,” he says, and something that is almost a smile ghosts across his face before he releases his grip and lets his arm hang at his side.
Signaling the others with your now-free hand to let them know it’s safe to approach, you shift your axe from one shoulder to the other, moving your neck a bit to relieve the ache. “By the way, what’s your name, again?” you ask. Looking at him again, there is something slightly familiar about what features of his you can actually see, but you can’t put your finger on it.
“You can call me Nessiah,” he says.
As the days spent in pursuit of your former allies pass, bile rises in your throat at the oddest times, bringing you to your knees and hands with the unpleasantness of it.
The part of you that is detached, the part that lets you so easily separate yourself from a situation and see the most elegant means of resolving it, is puzzled. Why are you so pained by this? This is not the most difficult choice you have ever made, nor the worst thing you have ever done. You are the indirect root cause of nearly all the wars and atrocities that have taken place on this surface world since your exile. You have been swimming in the blood of thousands – no, millions – since you first began to carry out your plan. For a moment, you can almost distract yourself with the delicious irony of this: that only you have eyes to see just how deeply stained your sword has become, in the hands of young Yggdra and her many predecessors.
How twisted your sense of morality has become, that a simple, personal betrayal against handful of humans you happen to have known for only three years outweighs hundreds of years’ worth of massacre carried out in accordance with your careful, methodical planning – at least, according to the clearly malfunctioning scales of your heart.
Your new allies do not trust you, some less than others. The thief is on his guard, though he cannot know how you benefited from the persecution, slaughter, and displacement of his people not so long past. The knight seethes in your presence, for it was his countrymen and fellow soldiers who died to ensure the princess’s escape. The noblewoman from Verlaine clearly recognizes you, but she says nothing – you may have provided some impetus, but her sins are her own, and if she will not speak to you, neither will she speak against you.
The only one who looks at you with anything other than suspicion or loathing is the one you cannot bear to look at for long. The undine’s eyes are bright and curious when she asks you about your eyes and your chains, and her voice fills with a rush of genuine guilt when you tell her that that is a little too personal for you to speak of to her. In a brief fit of what can only be actual madness, your hand closes around the Transmigragem in one of your pockets for as long as it takes you to realize that returning it to her would only expose the true extent of what you have done, which in turn would only lose you your last remaining handful of pawns.
At least most of this set hates you, so there is little chance of your growing attached.
Always in the back of your thoughts is the worry – the knowledge – that before all this is over, you will have to look Gulcasa in the eye and confirm to him what Zilva’s scouts have no doubt told him. You have seen him crumple after such losses before, and you cannot bear to be the one holding the knife that slides into his back.
You cannot think about Gulcasa.
As often as you come to the brink of vomiting in full view of your new companions, your mind meanders to the day you offered your sword to this rabble, how you had been so torn between handing the thief your blade or simply falling on it. Even now, you cannot decide if you made the right choice.
You wonder if you can even tell the difference between right and wrong anymore, if there is really even a solid distinction between the two, as you once believed.
The news that Leon has fallen and the Fantasinian princess has been freed hits you like an unexpected strike to the gut, but when Zilva’s scout hesitates before speaking further, you shove the pain away tighten your stance, try to stand firm. “Just say it, soldier,” you say. You are anything but calm, but if there is one thing that you have learned in the last three years, it is to stay strong when your people need you to be.
She speaks, says a pair of names, and though the color slowly drains from her face at whatever she's seeing on yours, she doesn’t look away from you until she has delivered her news and walked away.
You collapse like a puppet with its strings cut. Zilva catches you before your knees hit the ground. Maybe she says something; later, you can’t remember what or if she spoke at all, only that for the moments it took you to put yourself back together, she was your crutch.
You laugh a little, your self-control faltering and your mask of solidity gone: you have always treated your friends as crutches, and now that you are running out, you can barely even stand.
After you’ve come back to your senses, you crest a hill to see the lot of them approaching, and your dragon knights move to intercept their progress before you can say a word to stop them. You find your own mount and move to catch them, rushing toward the Fantasinians and searching, seeking for the pair your spy’s scout named.
You see Elena first, and it doesn’t take long for your eyes to meet – it is, after all, her job to spot you and relay that information to her commanding officer. Her eyes betray nothing, and you can’t imagine how she feels, though you think you can understand why she has betrayed you.
The silver-haired thief meets you, axe to scythe, and if you don’t defend yourself as well as you are capable of doing, it’s because you’re too busy searching in the chaos around you, looking around you and trying desperately to catch sight of the person you’ve wanted to be with for days, the person you’re terrified of seeing.
It’s only when the weapon is knocked from your hands as you fall from your mount that you see him, a brief glimpse of violet cloth and golden hair and chains, and then everything goes dark.
When you come to, it’s in a cell in Karona, your armor gone and your weapon taken. You feel nothing, until you look up to see Nessiah standing only feet away from your cell. Then you fall to pieces again.
“Gulcasa,” he says, and it’s fucking humiliating that hearing his voice immediately calms you down when it should do the exact opposite. “Gulcasa, please – listen –“
For a few moments listening is all you can do, wiping away your tears and swallowing around what feels like a blade in your throat. “Oh, I’ll listen,” you finally say, voice harsh and low. “And you’re going to explain.”
His expression shifts this way and that; even through your tears, you can see that he doesn’t know what to say. You think about your dead soldiers, about how much you’ve worried over the last week, about how it felt to hear that he had turned coat, and about how adamant you had been that the spies’ reports were wrong. You find yourself staring at his lips and get as pissed at yourself as you are at him. Looking at anything but Nessiah, you cast your eyes around the cell you’re in. “This is the cell we put Yggdra in,” you say, incredulous.
“I didn’t know,” Nessiah says in a rush. “I wasn’t one of the people who inspected the cells for clues,” he adds.
“No, you were probably too busy killing my countrymen,” you say with venom, then regret it: he bites at his lower lip before covering his mouth with his hand. “Fuck, Nessiah, just tell me why. I – I don’t get it.” You can’t bring yourself to swallow; it hurts too much.
Nessiah lowers his hand from his mouth, smooths out the front of his dress: the same lavender one he was wearing when you last saw him. He takes a deep breath. “I’ve –“ He closes his mouth again. “I’ve been – Gulcasa, I can’t,” he says, voice breaking, “I can’t –“
You look at him, and even as you wonder just how far back his betrayal goes, all you want is to hold a hand out to him and wrap your arm around his shoulders. So you get to your feet – taking a second or two to master your unsteady legs – then reach your arm through the bars to offer your hand. “Nessiah –“
“Don’t – Gulcasa, I.” He isn’t even breathing, lips tight in a line.
You stare at him, not moving your outstretched arm. “Nessiah, when – when they turned against me, you told me to kill them, to give them what they deserved, to pay the price for their betrayal. But – Nessiah, I let them go. I loved them. I’ll always love them. And I love you.” Nessiah’s shoulders start shaking. “I’m going to hold your hand or hug you or whatever the fuck you need, and you’re going to start talking, and when you’re done, no matter how awful the truth is, I’m still going to keep holding on. You know it’s true; it’s just how I am.” You look at him. “It’s your move.”
For a few moments, nothing happens. When he does move, it’s to cross the room in quick steps, sliding both his arms through the bars to cling to your dirty undershirt. His face plate clinks lightly against the bars of your cell. You rope one arm around his waist and kiss the side of his mouth before nestling your chin in the hollow between his neck and shoulder. “Now start talking,” you eventually say.
He breathes against your neck, clearly struggling to master his own voice. His chains shake just slightly, the noise subtle. Eventually, he takes another deep breath before starting, “My name wasn’t always Nessiah.”