Chrom woke with a start, the momentary panic of waking in a strange new place setting in until he remembered where he was.
He had been dreaming, but the dream had slipped from his mind as soon as he had awoken; a crucial battle beside a close friend, close as blood. With a sigh he gave up on clinging to the last vestiges of his dream and shook the last of the sleep out of his mind.
The fire had long since burned itself out, the embers offering little illumination to the night. Moonlight pierced through the canopy of leaves they were camped under like small spotlights, illuminating small patches of the forest floor around them. Some of the light reflecting off of Fredrick’s armour caught his attention out of the corner of his eye and made him look back at their little ‘camp’.
Fredrick was lying on his back, the most comfortable position he could be in and still wearing his armour. The man was nothing if not dedicated; Chrom could hardly stand sleeping in his leather training gear, let alone the ornate silver armour stored in his chambers in Ylisse. Lissa was curled up in her sleeping roll, using his own as her pillow. She had been through enough hardship for one day; Chrom had thought to ease his little sister’s burden at least a little. Besides, he had his cape; that was usually more than enough. No doubt Sully and Vaike would have given him grief about being such a doting brother if they were present, but at the moment he was safe to indulge his sister. The newest member of their little group was resting on his side, arm being used as a pillow on the opposite side of the fire. Robin had insisted that the night had been warm enough, and even then he had his thick coat to keep him warm.
Chrom sat watching the sleeping stranger for a moment. His brow furrowed as he slept, and Chrom found himself thinking idly that perhaps Robin was plagued by bad dreams, too. For a brief instant Chrom thought of waking the man for some companionship, after all the two of them had clicked almost instantly during the day, but thought better of it. Robin, too, had had a hard day and deserved uninterrupted sleep.
Chrom chuckled silently to himself, imagining Robin dreaming of battlefield tactics.
After the meal, Robin had impressed the three Shepherds with a surprising amount of tactical knowledge that seemed to spring up out of the amnesiac’s mind almost instantly. He, Chrom and Fredrick had spoken at length on the subject, Robin demonstrating a keen mind, as Lissa sat quietly and looked on uncomprehendingly. There were many tacticians in the service of the Ylissean military, not to mention the freelance ones that worked for mercenary companies and merchant guilds as consultants, but every one of them Chrom had met rubbed him the wrong way. They were, as a rule, usually unfit from a lifetime spent studying and drafting plans. They also gave off an insufferable air of superiority, far too similar to the average noblemen than Chrom wanted to be around. He was already formulating a way to ask the man to serve as the Shepherd’s official tactician; gods knew they sorely needed one, not to mention the man was skilled with a blade; and a mage as well!
No, Chrom thought. Naga sent you to us for a reason.
Interrupting Chrom’s musings on the future of his little troupe, something in the forest caught his attention; a sound, almost like ripping fabric.
Quietly so as not to wake the others, Chrom stood and took up his broadsword, Falchion.
The divine blade had served him well since his father had passed during his youth; he and the blade had been nigh inseparable. Falchion; the blade that had felled the dark dragon Medeus in the hands of the fabled hero-king Marth, from who the exalted line of Ylisse was descended. The blade had also been used by his ancestor the First Exalt to fell the dark dragon Grima, centuries later. It was a big legacy to live up to, an important legacy, especially as the one actually carrying the sword around all day.
Chrom squinted into the dark as the sound repeated, louder and closer this time. He took two steps before Lissa stirred, mumbling sleepily.
“Chrom? Where are you going?”
“Nowhere, sister. Just going for a walk.”
“Well let me come with you; I’m stiff from sleeping on the ground.”
Chrom sighed inwardly; Lissa had always been one of those annoying people that went from dead asleep to wide awake the instant her eyes opened, unlike him. So much for quickly investigating the noise on his own.
The brother and sister moved quietly out into the forest, away from where Fredrick and Robin were still sleeping and in the general direction of the noises Chrom had heard. Lissa was looking around, taking in the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the forest in the pre-dawn hours. Night birds were calling to each other quietly as the other animals slept; Chrom had always liked the world in the small hours of the morning, the quiet sense of peace that pervaded everything. Not to say he wasn’t fond of the chaos of daily life in Ylisse, but the early morning just before the sun rose in a forest was almost magical in its own way.
Chrom cringed at his poetic side, cursing his momentary distraction; what if he’d missed something while they’d been walking? This was why he hated operations at night.
Lissa was completely oblivious, though; simply enjoying what she obviously assumed was just a stroll through the woods, stretching and yawning, her back popping as she did.
They walked a few more feet to a large clearing before Chrom stopped, shaking his head. Aside from the Shepherds the forest was abandoned; completely abandoned, even the night birds had gone silent.
Wait, Chrom thought, his tired mind catching up. Birds silent is bad.
“Chrom? What happened to all the animals?” Lissa asked, looking around warily, the atmosphere finally sinking in on her.
Before Chrom could answer, the he heard the sound again; a ripping, tearing sound more like flesh being torn rather than cloth this time.
From the look on Lissa’s face she obviously heard it this time, too. The ground suddenly shook, a violent upheaval that almost managed to throw Chrom flat. As Lissa grabbed hold of her brother to avoid falling over the trees waved wildly, some even falling with loud crashes, uprooted completely by the quake.
This was wrong; the southern region of Ylisse never suffered from earthquakes. Further north, near the border, they were commonplace, but never of this magnitude. Chrom looked up, his eyes widening as he beheld the fiery light of ruin.
“Lissa,” Chrom said, his voice calm but firm. “Run.”
The girl looked up at him, confused, before she saw what he saw; dread settling in the pit of her stomach as her face became illuminated in the darkness.
Racing towards them was a wall of fire, tearing up the ground and burning the forest as it went. Trees twice as big around as some of the columns in the grand hall of the Ylissean palace went flying from the flames, as smaller fireballs fell from the sky ahead of the wave, causing destruction where they fell. The earth itself groaned and split as the fire reached it, huge cracks forming and massive slabs of ground heaving upwards meters into the sky, the landscape altering around them in seconds.
“Run!” He shouted again, giving her a shove to accentuate his point.
They raced as fast as they could through the forest in an almost blind panic, Lissa doing her best to keep up with the much fitter Chrom as he charged ahead. He veered to the left suddenly as a tree fell across their path, and Lissa stumbled, catching herself quickly and pressing on.
What nightmare is this? Chrom thought wildly, dodging trees as the ground quaked beneath his feet.
With a great crash the ground beneath Chrom and Lissa jumped up, sending them sprawling in a clearing at the base of a newly formed cliff.
Robin snorted himself awake, looking around as he wiped the drool away from the corner of his mouth. A strange noise had woken him from another dream…
“Chrom?” he asked, looking around.
The amnesiac found himself alone with a slumbering Frederick, the knight’s breathing calm and regular in the darkness.
Robin stood, stretching his arms above his head and letting out a little groan. Maybe Chrom had just taken his sister for a-
Robin fell flat on his back as the earth shifted and bounced beneath him, Frederick’s horse whinnying and doing its best to escape the rope tying it to the tree. The horse’s owner was on his feet instantly, even before the ground had stopped shaking.
“What’s going on!?” the knight shouted, looking around. “Where is milord and lady!?”
“How should I know!?” Robin shouted back, waiting for the ground to stop trembling so he could stand again.
As the shaking stopped Frederick dashed to his mount’s side, already hefting the heavy saddle back into place. Robin was about to say something else, but stopped when the scent of smoke reached him.
“Frederick, we need to find Chrom and Lissa now,” he said, standing and looking towards the forest.
The night sky was ablaze, literally, as flames danced through and above the forest. Just above them Robin could make out a vaguely human shape, but he couldn’t see more through the smoke and heat-haze rising from the burning forest.
“Get on!” the knight shouted, already in his saddle.
Robin shrugged, jumping up onto the back with little effort and gripping the back of Frederick’s plates. Without further warning the big knight kicked his horse into motion, racing off towards the flames.
Robin looked up again, straining his eyes to see if he could spot the human-shaped figure again, but the sky was empty.
“What’s going on!?” Lissa cried, getting unsteadily to her feet.
Chrom didn’t answer, instead looking in horror up to the sky.
The sky looked back; a giant, crystalline blue eye with a slit pupil like that of a snake or other reptile stared balefully down at the two Shepherds.
As the two looked on speechless, forms began to coalesce in the eye, taking vaguely human shapes, before reaching through its surface, and falling twenty feet to the forest floor. With inhuman slowness and malice, the two dark forms picked themselves up. They were wearing identical dark leather armour and masks, glowing red eyes staring with hate from eye slits and black miasma leaking from joints in the suits. To Chrom’s further dismay, they both held large, wickedly sharp looking axes.
“Lissa, stay behind me,” Chrom ordered in a voice much calmer than he felt.
Falchion was reassuring in his grip as he rushed the first of the creatures, an incoherent war cry escaping his lips as he slashed horizontally in a blow that should have neatly bisected the creature. It simply grunted, more black fog pouring from the wound, and swung its axe with impossible strength and speed. Chrom caught the weapon on his blade, grunting with the effort. Acting quickly, he transferred his weight, throwing the monster back and striking its head with Falchion’s pommel, before beheading it with his backswing. The monster turned to purple ash and smoke almost instantly, dissipating on the night wind.
All of this had only taken a few seconds, but as he turned to face the other foe Chrom heard his sister cry out. The other thing had crossed the distance faster than he had, and held its axe above its head, ready to strike. Lissa had fallen back, and held a tree branch in front of her defensively. Chrom’s gut lurched as he realized that he’d never cross the distance in time.
Calling his sister’s name, he tried anyway.
Lissa screamed as the creature brought down the axe. Chrom wasn’t sure how, but instead of his sister, a new man had interposed himself between her and the creature, holding the axe away from his back with a broadsword balanced on his shoulder. In the second Chrom stopped to process this, the new man turned his head and shouted for help as the creature pressed on the blade with all of its inhuman strength, forcing the man to one knee. Chrom acted instantly, slashing horizontally again, beheading the creature as the other man rose, slashing the opposite direction at its waist, making it disappear into purple mist like the first had.
The new man steadied himself, sheathing his broadsword, turning slightly as he did. Chrom was surprised to see the man wearing an ornate blue mask with slits for eyes; it appeared as if this was a day for mysterious strangers to enter his life.
More growls and grunts were coming from behind Chrom, and as he looked he saw more of the creatures beginning to converge out of the woods, but above the sounds of more of the strange creatures Chrom could hear the welcome sound of a horse at full gallop charging through the trees.
Chrom spun, expecting to see Fredrick riding to their rescue, but instead was met by a woman in white-edged red armour, large muscular arms bare, swinging a lance left and right like a madwoman, the strange shadowy creatures recoiling from her wrath. The silver-blue haired, absurdly well-dressed man behind her was clinging one-handed to her waist like a drowning man to a life preserver, his bow held out in the other hand in an obvious attempt to try and maintain balance, all semblance of his usual dignity gone.
The knight in red reigned her horse in close to where Chrom, Lissa and the masked stranger stood, allowing the archer to dismount.
“All right, ya ash-faced freaks! Who wants some first!?” she challenged, brandishing her lance at the encroaching creatures.
“Sully! Good timing,” Chrom said in way of greeting.
The female knight turned to look at him sideways, grinning wildly.
“And you said ‘stay at the barracks, this’ll be a quiet mission.’ This tears it, I’m never letting you and Fredrick out of my sight again; I always miss all the fun.”
“This is what you consider fun?” the archer Virion said, aghast at the number of the creatures advancing warily on them.
Chrom grimaced. There were at least two dozen of them now, all sporting axes or swords, and a few almost naked, sallow skinned creatures with elongated arms and cloth hoods armed with nothing but wicked looking claws, all shambling like the dead. If the other two were any indication, though, the shambling gait wouldn’t last. Their odds weren’t good.
Chrom revaluated their position as Fredrick barrelled through the crowd astride his warhorse like a bull charging a matador, Robin leaping from behind him as they came closer.
“Sully, with me!” Fredrick shouted, gesturing to the horde with one hand as he tossed Lissa’s staff to her with the other.
Without further prompting or comment, Sully levelled her lance and kicked her horse into action at the same time as Fredrick, the two of them charging back through the creatures, capturing their attention immediately as they tore through the enemy ranks.
“That’ll buy us some time,” Robin said, approaching Chrom and the others. “Are you unharmed?”
“We’re fine,” Chrom told the other man, sparing a still pale Lissa a glance to be sure.
She was standing her ground, staff clenched in shaking fists, but she nodded once to Chrom. He had to grin at his little sister’s determination to be a Shepherd. It was almost inspiring, in a way.
The masked man was standing stock still behind her, facing away and obviously evaluating the battlefield.
“Right then,” Robin said, turning and doing the same. “Fredrick and the other knight will clear the creatures and then hit their back ranks. We push through the front, and meet in the middle. Lissa, you and the archer stay back, but don’t fall behind or let yourselves get separated from us. Chrom; you, me and mister-mask over there are the frontline. Everybody clear?”
Chrom nodded, impressed by Robin’s tactical mind. Barely a minute to evaluate the scene, even after all the destruction that had unnerved him so, and he had a plan. His resolve to make the man the Shepherd’s new tactician grew stronger.
The masked man hesitated, almost looking about to object, before nodding assent, drawing his sword and turning to hide the bulk of the blade away from Chrom and the others; a curious action that could wait for explanation later, when strange creatures that had fallen out of the sky weren’t trying to kill them all.
Virion, however, simply couldn’t resist making his introductions to Robin, though.
“The ‘archer’?” he asked, feigning insult. “Sir, I’ll have you know I am the ‘archest-of-archers’! I am Virion, the man who strides large across history’s stage!”
Before he could continue, Robin shot him a glare.
“Can it, ruffles, and make with the shooty-shooty.”
“Ruffles?” Virion mumbled, deflated as he reached for an arrow from the full quiver on his back. “I swoop to the rescue and in return am scoffed and scorned…”
He kept muttering to himself but Chrom stopped listening, readying Falchion and forming an ad-hoc line with Robin and the masked stranger. The creatures had come much closer now, the momentary distraction of Sully and Fredrick’s charge forgotten, close enough that Chrom could hear their ragged breathing and make out the details of their masks and hoods.
The world seemed to slow to a stop as the two opposing forces faced each other, the creatures seemingly unsure of how to deal with a group that had so quickly gone from separate prey to a serious threat. All thanks to Robin’s quick thinking, Chrom mentally added, his opinion of the man steadily growing.
With shouted battle cries Fredrick and Sully smashed into the back of their foes at full speed, scattering enemies or crushing them underfoot.
“Now!” Robin shouted, charging into the creatures, sword at the ready.
Chrom and the masked man followed instantly, as Virion let loose his first arrow, dropping one of the creatures with a precision shot through the eye slit of its mask. At least the man wasn’t all talk, Chrom grimly thought as two more arrows in quick succession found targets.
Lissa stayed close to Virion, trying hard to be inconspicuous as they passed fallen creatures.
Chrom hacked left and right, style and form quickly being lost in the general melee, creatures falling away from him as he went. Robin and the masked man were doing the same, slashing and hacking at creatures that came within range, Virion shooting a steady stream of arrows into creatures, staggering them for the others to drop, or else simply dropping them himself with well-placed shots.
One of the creatures, bigger than the others, suddenly loomed above Robin, axe held high in challenge. Robin noticed the creature, reaching into his pouch, producing the spellbook he had used earlier. With quick had gestures he sent three bolts of lightning at the creature, striking it squarely and piercing its leather armour, black mist pouring from the wounds.
With a feral roar the creature closed the last of the distance, swinging at Robin. The tactician was too slow moving from its path, taking a glancing blow on his side through the thick cloak he wore.
Shouting in pain and shock he retreated a few steps, returning the spellbook to his pouch and readying his blade in a two handed grip.
Chrom fought desperately to reach him, the dark creatures falling before him. For the second time in so many minutes, though, he found himself too slow as the huge creature struck at Robin again.
Blows rained down on the tactician, forcing him back as he skilfully dodged or parried each attack.
Three arrows struck the creature in the chest and shoulder, Virion giving a sound of success that was very un-noble-like, before turning on the other creatures encroaching on him and Lissa as she shouted warning.
Robin took the opportunity to duck below the creature’s guard, stabbing upwards into its chest. The creature roared again, knocking Robin back with its free arm, sending the injured man sprawling, his blade still stuck fast in its chest.
The creature reached down with its free hand, and instead of pulling the sword out, snapped the blade off from where it protruded, tossing the broken pommel and half the sword aside.
Chrom watched in desperate glances, risking himself by taking his eyes off his own opponents. The creatures before him simply wouldn’t die, or when they did they were replaced by even more of the identical things.
Chrom shouted defiance, slashing horizontally, forgoing all thoughts of defence. The larger creature was closing on Robin, obviously wounded but still shuffling menacingly, almost like it was taking its time, savouring the coming kill.
Chrom’s wild swings were rewarded when one of the axe-wielding creatures fell, turning to the familiar black mist, but the other sword-wielding creature before him pressed its attack with more of the inhuman speed and strength they seemed to possess.
Chrom backpedalled, parrying desperately, sweat pouring down his face.
The bigger creature had reached Robin, who was desperately crawling backwards from his foe, holding the wound in his side. The bigger creature stomped down hard on the tactician’s chest, pinning him as it raised its axe, Robin crying out in pain.
Chrom cried out as the tactician closed his eyes, bracing for the killing blow.
Before the creature could land the blow, the masked man was on it, swinging his sword upwards and severing its arm at the elbow, arm and axe falling to the side in a stream of black mist, before he pirouetted and cut the creatures head clean from its shoulders. The head fell to the forest floor, bouncing once before dissipating to mist.
The other creatures became slower and seemed confused without their leader, and Chrom cut down the sword-wielding one pressing in on him without difficulty.
Doing a quick once over of the battlefield, Chrom was glad to see that the last few of the creatures were being rounded up by Sully and Fredrick, who weren’t seeming to have any more difficulty with them.
Chrom ran to his new friend, who had sat up, but was coughing violently.
“That hurt,” he wheezed between coughs. “That thing was ungodly heavy.”
The captain of the Shepherds couldn’t help but laugh in relief at the tactician’s poor attempt at humour.
“Just sit and bask in our victory,” Chrom told the man as Lissa and Virion approached.
Lissa set to work instantly with her staff, healing Robin’s wounds. The tactician, for that was all Chrom could think of him as now, sighed in relief as the healing magics did their work.
“Oh, I’m basking, all right,” Robin grumbled, forcing himself to his feet and thanking Lissa. “Basking in playing the insect underfoot. I will never step on another bug as long as I live.”
Favouring his injured side he limped over to Chrom as Sully and Fredrick pulled up. Sully was covered in small wounds and nicks in her armour, but Fredrick still looked resplendent like he was in a parade. Robin was beginning to notice a pattern with the knight.
“That appears to be all of them, milord,” the male knight said, surveying the battlefield.
The only evidence of the creatures was the scattered and broken weapons lying about; the creatures themselves had turned to mist and vanished once felled.
Virion was busy congratulating Robin’s tactical brilliance, complaining about the battle mussing his perfect hair and hitting on Sully all at once; Sully, for her part, had climbed down from her horse and was trying her best to ignore the man as Lissa worked on her wounds. Robin, Fredrick and Chrom all turned on the masked man, who was standing silently apart from the others; even with the mask, though, it was plain that he was staring at Chrom.
“So…” Robin started, drawing out the word as he limped to the masked man. “Thanks for saving me.”
The man nodded in Robin’s direction.
“Me too!” Lissa said, finishing with Sully and joining them. “I mean, for saving me. Thanks. For saving me.”
The masked man seemed to be trying to hide a smile at her words, and nodded again.
“You saved my sister’s life, and the life of my friend,” Chrom said after an awkward silence. “Not to mention you stood by our sides and fought bravely against those things. My name is Chrom. May I ask yours?”
The man was silent a moment, before nodding a third time.
“You may call me Marth.”
“Marth?” Chrom repeated. “As in the hero-king of old?”
“Well, you certainly fight like a hero, I’ll grant you that,” Chrom said with his best easy-going smile, trying to be friendly. “Where did you learn to handle a sword like that?”
The man sniffed. “I’m not here to talk about me. This world teeters at the edge of darkness; what you saw tonight was merely a prelude to the greater disaster yet to come. The warning has been delivered.”
With his piece said, the masked man turned and strode purposefully into the dark forest, leaving the five confused Shepherds and Robin standing, confused. It had sounded like the man’s voice had broken slightly at the end of the sentence.
“Well,” Robin said after the man had disappeared into the night. “That was… strange.”
“You didn’t see him fall out of the sky,” Lissa said tiredly, her unshakable cheer returning slightly.
“He fell out of the sky, too?” Chrom asked his sister incredulously.
“Not much for conversation, is he?” Virion said, twirling an arrow between his fingers.
“His skills obviously lie elsewhere,” Fredrick said, watching the forest where the mysterious masked man had disappeared. “I don’t doubt our paths will cross again.”
Chrom nodded agreement.
“We should make haste to ensure that the capital hasn’t befallen the same fate as this forest,” Fredrick said after a moment.
Chrom couldn’t help but agree. Now that the battle was over he realised that if the Capital had been affected by the same catastrophe as the forest had, then their skills would be sorely needed.
“Well? What’re we waiting for?” Robin asked no one in particular, setting off in a random direction, before stopping after a few steps.
“On second thought, I have no idea where I’m going. Does somebody else want to lead?”
Chrom rolled his eyes, patting the man on the shoulder as he passed him.
“Great with tactics; obviously not so much with directions,” Robin said cheerily as the first of the sun’s rays broke over the forest. “Hey, wait up! I’m still wounded, here!”