Basilio ignored the rain as it pattered on his bald head; he ignored the cries of the wounded as they were dragged back from the front; he ignored it all, focusing instead on the thrill of battle.
"It's been too long since I've done this!" the giant of a man roared happily as he barrelled through a squad of Valmese swordsmen.
"I feel ten years younger!" he added with a laugh. "Come on, you were the one begging to come along! Keep up!"
Flavia glared at him, rainwater splashing off of her red armour as a fresh wave of Feroxi soldiers formed a new line on the flank; that had been his goal, distract the Imperial forces long enough for a proper line to form, and he had done just that.
He chuckled as Flavia slapped him in the back of the head, the two Khans moving back to the front line.
They had taken barely a thousand of the finest Feroxi veterans they could get, and so far they had held their own against the tens of thousands Walhart commanded.
Basilio was having the time of his life; he hadn't been exaggerating when he said he felt ten years younger.
And Walhart was still nowhere to be seen.
Basilio reined his enjoyment in, lest it cloud his judgment. He jogged to the top of the small hill that the Feroxi archers and snipers, men and women covered in leather armour and camouflage netting shooting steady torrents of arrows at the Valmese forces, were currently stationed.
"Get ready to pull up, boys!" the older Khan shouted, holding his axe high as the Feroxi beneath him tightened their formations.
"Fighting retreat! Move into the forest and back to the field we passed earlier!"
Destiny my arse, Basilio thought with a vicious grin. Walhart's welcome to try me…
"Come on you lazy bastards!" Basilio called to his men, laughter in his voice. "I'm twice your age! You all need to train more if you can't keep up!"
He was distracted for a moment by the cawing of a big crow, circling above them.
A good omen? He wondered, watching the bird's progress.
It doesn't matter. Today I am the master of my own destiny.
Robin bent low, the hem of his coat brushing the dusty stones beneath his feet as he snuck through the cellars of Fort Steiger, hunting for any sign of Lucina.
He hesitated for a moment, blending into the shadows behind a pole for a moment as a guard walked by, completely oblivious of the tactician's presence.
Do I need to silence this one? He thought. Is he going to see me? Does it even matter?
As far as Robin was concerned, everything wearing Valmese colours was a target right now. They had hurt Morgan. They had kidnapped Lucina. Anything in red needed to be punished…
Robin shook his head, letting the guard pass unmolested before he continued his silent journey.
I'm a soldier, not a murderer, he reminded himself as he slunk away down the corridor, his hand relaxing from the grip on his sword.
Wait, no, I'm not a soldier either! I'm a… tactician? Guy? Oh forget it… I'm not a murderer. It doesn't matter what else I actually am.
"Killer," the voice whispered in him mind. "Murderer. It makes no difference how you justify it. One more to add to the body count. Go ahead."
The voice growled in his head, obviously not happy about being ignored as Robin slipped into a doorway, carefully closing the door behind him as he lit a weak fire spell at the end of his finger, creating a small cone of light and glinting off the sword poised to strike his throat.
"It's just me," he whispered.
Lon'qu nodded, lowering his sword and moving back.
"Find anything?" Severa whispered, her voice barely audible.
The tactician shook his head.
They'd been searching for hours; it was hard to tell exactly how long without the outside light, but there had been at least two changes of the Guard shifts upstairs that Lon'qu had noticed. They would need to stop to rest soon; night was wearing on, and it might be the only chance they'd get. Thoughts of Lucina being tortured or worse kept him from calling a halt, though, terrified for her.
They'd come upon the place where the encounter with the traitors from the Valmese Resistance had taken place, but there were no clues to be found. All that remained in the room was the magical resonance of a powerful spell and blood-stains on the floor.
They'd split up after that, finding an unused room to useas a rendezvous point, hoping to overhear something from the guards or find some trace of a trail to track.
Seiko and her spies were supposedly combing the rest of the fortress buildings, leaving the main structure that housed the throne room for Robin and his team. The spies could cover more ground anyway, so leaving the smaller area to the Shepherds had seemed like a good idea until Robin recalled that the 'smaller area' was still twice the size of the Ylisstol palace.
Severa had opted to remain in the room, her steel armour and lack of stealth training making her a liability on an operation like theirs.
Robin didn't regret taking the girl, though; he could see in her eyes the same guilt he felt for Lucina's kidnap. She needed to reclaim her confidence on this mission as much as Robin needed to rescue the Princess.
The tactician chuckled under his breath at his thought process.
Is that what I am now? He wondered absently as the trio waited for Say'ri and Gaius to return.
Am I a valiant hero, rescuing his Princess? That's a funny mental image after what happened today.
Lon'qu looked up questioningly, his insanely acute senses having picked up Robin's laughter.
The tactician shook his head, making the universal sign for don't worry about it.
So far they'd gotten lucky and hadn't needed to kill any guards; it looked like most of them were busy trying to secure the upper levels. Robin had no doubt that they'd eventually be sending squads down to secure the labyrinthine maze of cellars and storage rooms beneath the fortress, but he didn't intend to stay that long. If the worst came to pass and his calculations were off about how fast the Valmese forces would send squads into the cellars at least they had a lot of space to hide in. He shuddered, recalling the last time he had underestimated the response-time of the Valmese army's elite cavalry.
Robin hastily extinguished his magical flame, drawing his sword silently as the door opened and someone slipped inside.
"Tis just me," Say'ri whispered.
Robin relaxed a little and reignited his finger, shedding light on the small room again.
"Any luck?" he asked as the four Shepherds all leaned in close together.
"No," she said simply. "At one point I thought I had found a trail, but it merely turned out to be sacks of flour being dragged through the dust."
Robin cursed softly, going to run a hand through his hair before Severa stopped him.
"You're finger's still on fire," she whispered to his confused expression.
Robin snorted with barely contained laughter, earning a sour look from Lon'qu.
Say'ri shook her head as Robin ran his opposite hand through his hair.
"Old habits die hard," he muttered with a grin.
Say'ri brushed past him, moving deeper into the chamber they were occupying now that she had delivered her findings.
She confuses me, Robin admitted to himself as he watched her go.
First she insists on coming, now she's back to hating on me? Women… I'm never going to understand them.
Gaius sniffed a little, watching from his position on an abandoned landing above the squad of soldiers as the five men marched by.
He was only supposed to case out the basement, but he'd smelt roast meat coming from the kitchen, and as much as he loved sweets unfortunately he couldn't live off them alone.
He dropped down to the main corridor, aware of the thirty feet of sheer walls and nothing to hide behind as he sprinted silently towards the smells of the kitchen, slipping behind a post as he reached the end of the corridor.
Just in time, the ginger-haired thief thought as another couple of soldiers walked by, these two obviously off-duty.
Gaius couldn't help but grin; the thrill of near-misses like that one was why he'd become a thief in the first place. His skills were going to waste in the Shepherds, though; scouting wasn't stealing.
This, however, was espionage; espionage was kind of like stealing, just secrets and information instead of items.
I can always spice up any espionage missions, though, Gaius thought with a smirk, reaching quickly around the pole and snatching a pouch of coins off the belt of another passing soldier.
Like candy from a baby, he thought, tucking the pouch into his pocket.
Listening carefully before he stuck his head out to check the coast was clear, Gaius slippedfrom one column to another, until he was just outside the large kitchen.
"Did you hear the news?" one of the soldiers on cooking duty was asking as Gaius slipped into the room, ducking low behind a counter in the back.
"What news?" the other asked disinterestedly as Gaius reached up, snatching a piece of meat off the countertop.
Ooooh… Pork… Gaius thought happily as he began to wolf the roast down.
"They've got the Ylissean League on the run!"
"Yeah, so? They didn't stand a chance against General Pheros anyway."
Gaius scoffed. Didn't stand a chance? Apparently Robin had nearly torn her apart with his bare hands.
"Well…" the other soldier said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "Did you hear about the prisoner they took?"
Prisoner? Gaius thought, peeking over the counter to glance at the backs of the two men cleaning dishes.
"Yeah," the first soldier said excitedly. "They caught her during the fighting; apparently she even has the Brand of Ylisse! That means we have foreign royalty as our hostage!"
"I call bull-shit," the second soldier scoffed.
"No, seriously!" the first man insisted. "They've got her locked up in the fancy dungeon up in the General's tower! I saw her myself!"
All I needed to hear, Gaius thought triumphantly, snatching the entire roast from above him and slipping back the way he had come.
"Oh bloody hell!" he heard the second soldier shout when he was at the opposite end of the corridor.
"What stupid bastard thinks it's funny to steal the General's dinner, huh!?"
Gaius grinned again, cradling the roast to his chest.
Robin glanced up as the door opened again and Gaius slipped in.
"Who's hungry?" the thief asked slyly, holding up a tender looking roast in his hands.
"Where did you get that?" Robin asked cautiously, eying the thief.
"Kitchen," he replied around a mouthful of meat. "It's really good, too."
"Gaius, we were supposed to stick to the basement levels."
The ginger thief shrugged.
"I know that, Bubbles. But I got the information we needed, so no harm no foul, right?"
Robin perked up instantly.
"What? Where are they holding her?"
"Some fancy-sounding private dungeon in the General's tower," Gaius answered. "But before we head out we all need to eat something."
Robin nodded, resisting the urge to disagree with the man. The fact that his stomach was doing a one-voice opera at the scent of the meat helped his resolve.
"Alright, everyone dig in," Robin said. "We need to keep our strength up."
They ate silently after Gaius split the roast evenly, Robin tacitly leaving out the fact that it seemed like a sizeable chunk was already missing. Severa and Say'ri were hesitant at first, obviously not enamoured by the thought of eating like barbarians, but hunger soon overcame their social graces.
Their impromptu meal finished the small group rose and made ready to depart.
"You couldn't have swiped some wine too?" Severa grumbled, wiping her hands on her pants.
"Next time, Red," Gaius promised, taking a long swig from his waterskin.
"Are we ready to move?" Robin asked to a chorus of positives.
"Alright; Say'ri, you and Gaius lead, very carefully. Severa, you're with me. Lon'qu, watch our rear."
Morgan limped toward the forward command post, rain pattering off her coat and holding a hand to the burns that had only been partially closed on her chest in a vain attempt at steadying them.
She had to dodge around soldiers hurrying to and fro, using her sheathed sword as a sort of walking stick when she stumbled, hissing in pain.
Her father had said as soon as she was up and about she was supposed to be helping Prince Chrom with strategy, and she had slipped out of the wagon she was being forced to ride in…
She assumed that counted as 'up and about'.
"Dammit," Chrom cursed, leaning over a map with Sir Frederick, Duke Roark and Lord Liung. "Cordelia's scouts say that the eastern road is already blocked."
"We knew we were going to have to leave the roads eventually, milord," Frederick said evenly. "We must leave the wagons behind."
"Many of my men are wounded," Liung added. "We cannot abandon the wagons yet."
"It's still the dry season," Morgan said, her voice hoarse but firm as she approached the table. "If we follow the riverbed here we should be able to get further south and around Yen'fay's advance force."
"The girl is right," Roark said after a moment studying the map.
"I'll prepare the orders for the direction change," Frederick offered, waving down a passing runner.
"Morgan, are you sure you should be up?" Chrom asked worriedly.
Morgan waved his concern off.
"I promised Dad I'd help as soon as I was up and moving," she said, studying the map, before pointing to an area of low hills overlooking the road.
"If we send a group of archers here we can ambush the Imperial forces and drive them further back, too."
Frederick scratched his chin as Liung began to laugh.
"I like this girl," he said loudly. "She is young, but has the eyes of a hawk in flight! I will prepare what archers I still have immediately."
"I'll ready a mounted escort for them," Roark offered.
Chrom nodded as the man bowed, hurrying off with Roark and shouting orders in his harsh native language, accepting a long-bladed spear from one of his men as he walked.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Chrom asked softly, standing beside her as she studied the map.
"Honestly, I'm fine," she said without looking up. "I'm more upset about losing my favourite shirt than anything else."
"You are your father's daughter, I'll give you that much."
Morgan nodded, blushing at the unintended compliment.
"Sir?" one of Cordelia's Pegasus Knights asked, swooping in low and landing near the tent.
"Enemy's on the move again; Wing-Commander Cordelia insists we have to keep going."
"Alright, ready the men to move out."
The Pegasus Knight nodded, kicking her mount back into the sky as horns began to sound a further retreat.
"And you," Chrom said, turning to the tactician-in-training. "I don't want you out of my sight, understood?"
Morgan nodded, silently falling in with the rest of the retreating soldiers.
Basilio roared as he swung his axe, the weapon cutting through the rain as it flew through its arc, smashing aside the shield of the soldier he was facing. With a vicious backhand the Khan brought the man to his knees before bringing his axe back around and down with a satisfying crunch.
They were still fighting. They were still holding out.
His men still moved around him; good, strong men from the western peaks of Regna Ferox, their skin the same deep mahogany as his own, still fighting despite their fatigue.
Basilio was proud of them, but his heart skipped a beat as he watched a cavalry force decimate his front lines.
"Fall back and form up!" he shouted over the din of battle. "Don't let them surround us!"
Flavia was at his elbow, the younger, lighter skinned blonde Khan panting and covered in dirt and gore, her sword resting over an armoured shoulder.
"Easier said than done," she growled. "Their cavalry's riding right over top of us!"
Basilio scoffed, confidence filling him once again.
"We can hold them," he said, beginning to stride forward again. "Come on, woman; I'll show you how a true Khan fights!"
"Was that a creak in your voice?" Flavia asked cheekily, keeping pace with him. "Do I see fear in your eye, old man?"
The older man scoffed again, flexing his huge arms.
"Not bloody likely!" he roared, thumping a fist on his chest as the Valmese cavalry rounded for another charge.
"Alright, boys! Let's give these Imperial bastards a taste of our Feroxi pride!"
A cheer went up from the nearest Feroxi soldiers, falling in with the Khan as he began to charge.
"Now that's the oaf I know and love," Flavia muttered, falling in with the others, a vicious grin on her face.
They met the cavalry charge, many of the young Feroxi soldiers falling under their hooves while others threaded around the horses, striking out with swords and axes at the riders.
Basilio twirled and spun with the grace of a dancer, moving like water through the Valmese men and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Flavia shook her head as she beheld the standard she had to live up to, before redoubling her own efforts, her large sword swinging in wide arcs and knocking men from their mounts.
Flavia looked up as a new wave of heavily armoured cavalry swept in, smashing aside any resistance they encountered.
"Dammit," she cursed. "Oaf! Enemy soldiers, over-"
Her voice died in her throat as the cavalry parted, a man easily larger than Basilio towering above them atop the biggest warhorse she had ever seen slowly coming forward.
A few of the braver Feroxi troops moved to attack, but the newcomer threw his axe around in a massive figure-eight, slaying the three Feroxi soldiers without even looking. He continued to charge, gaining speed as he scythed through the frontline, killing every soldier he came across while the other Valmese cavalry hung back.
"They're swatting our troops like flies…" Basilio growled as he came up to Flavia.
"It must be some form of elite cavalry," Flavia guessed, before she looked at the apparent commander again.
"No… wait…" she breathed, her eyes going wide. "It's just one man!"
"You there!" the man called, reining his horse in and dismounting in one fluid motion, striding towards the two Khans purposefully, a booming, harsh voice that made even a veteran like Basilio's blood run cold.
"Do you command these forces!?"
His thick plate armour was the colour of fresh blood, his slab-faced features hard and cruel. Long white hair was tied back in a thin ponytail beneath a horned crown, two jutting red horns emerging from the front of the crimson metal circle.
"Aw crap," Basilio breathed, a tremor in his voice.
Before Flavia could stop him the Khan charged forward, brandishing his axe and shouting a traditional Feroxi warcry.
The red-armoured man stopped, stepping back with one foot before bringing the thick steel boot forward with blinding speed, smashing into Basilio's stomach and stopping the man dead as he fell to his knees, the wind knocked clean out of him.
Basilio rolled backwards as the man's axe descended, narrowly missing cleaving his head in two and carving a deep furrow through his shoulder-guard and the flesh beneath.
Flavia rushed forward, standing guard over the other Khan.
"Impressive," the red-armoured man said impassively. "You are the first to survive beyond a single stroke since Yen'fay."
"I don't… stand a chance," Flavia heard Basilio groan.
"Run!" the older Khan shouted to his surviving men. "Run while you can! Retreat, gods damn you!"
Flavia shook her head, brandishing her sword again.
"I'm not leaving you here!" she shouted over the rain and the fighting while the red-armoured man watched impassively.
Flavia shuddered as she met the man's eyes; cold and cruel, but more disturbingly milky white and dead.
Is he blind? Flavia wondered. He can't be… not with the way he fights…
"He's a… a demon, woman," Basilio gasped, forcing himself back to his feet. "I can only… keep him busy… while you escape!"
"Looks like the lad was right," Basilio muttered, referring to Laurent's warning. "D-damn…"
With another mighty roar Basilio threw himself forward again, axe high as he brought it down with blinding speed.
The red-armoured man, Flavia had no doubt he was actually Walhart, brought his own weapon up, sparks flying as the two axes collided.
The Emperor pushed Basilio back effortlessly, bringing his huge axe back around, only to have it bounce off of Flavia's sword.
"Get up out of the mud, old man!" she shouted to Basilio as she began hacking at Walhart's iron defence. "I'm here, aren't I? That means events can still be changed! Damn it all, oaf, you're not getting away from me that easily!"
Walhart swept her guard aside as if she was a novice, his gauntleted fist flashing out like lightning and smashing into her face, throwing the Khan off of her feet.
"Cease your incessant prattling!" Walhart roared, bringing his axe down in a high arc.
Basilio was suddenly over Flavia, the axe buried deep in his back as blood began leaking from his mouth and down his bare chest.
"Basilio!" Flavia screamed in terror.
The older Khan smiled as he fell when Walhart withdrew his axe.
Before the Emperor could press his attack a crowd of younger Feroxi soldiers, at least a hundred, charged toward Walhart to defend their Khan.
"Get him clear!" one of the shouted as the sheer numbers began to push the Emperor back.
Flavia nodded, taking the other Khan under one arm and dragging him away from the frontline.
Basilio coughed wetly as he reached into the pouch at his hip, shaking himself from her grip.
"Take this," he growled, forcing a gemstone into Flavia's hand as he collapsed to the sodden ground. "Make sure… make sure Chrom gets it…"
"Give it to him yourself you one-eyed clod of a man!" Flavia shouted, her voice cracking. "I'm not going anywhere and neither are you! Just hold on! Remember Robin's plan!? You can't die yet, you'll… you'll ruin everything!"
Basilio coughed as he laughed softly.
"F-fool woman…" he muttered, his one eye going hazy. "I… I'm done… get out of here… don't make it have… have been for no-nothing!"
Basilio reached one thick, bloodstained hand up, gripping the side of Flavia's face.
"For once just do what I say!" he shouted with the last of his strength, staring directly into her eyes. "Go, gods damn you! GO!"
He fell back, his hand dropping as he breathed laboriously, wet sucking sounds coming from his cloven chest.
Flavia looked up desperately, frustrated tears mingling with the rain running down her stricken face as she looked for a medic or a priest or someone, anyone that could save her friend.
Robin grimaced a little as he bumped his shoulder against the wall he was hiding next to, jarring a wound he had received a few hours ago assaulting the throne room.
Gods, it feels like that happened days ago now…
It had taken hours to sneak the party through the fortress' upper levels, where the guards were on high alert, on top of the hours they had spent skulking around the basement levels; Robin calculated that they had been moving through the fortress almost all night. Once dawn came their job would be all the harder; they had to move faster, or they would lose their chance.
Fortunately Gaius was an expert at infiltration; the former-thief moved like a cat, calling halts and telling others where to hide, creating distractions for the guards to chase after by throwing his voice or knowing exactly how a sound would echo to make it seem like it came from the opposite direction.
The ginger man's skills were almost awe-inspiring as he led the group through the Fort, never once making an unnecessary sound. For Robin, who had grown used to seeing Gaius as an unprofessional lout since their first meeting, this professional side of him was a marvel to behold.
So far, much to Robin's immense relief, they hadn't needed to silence a single guard.
Gaius was getting tired, though; Robin could tell by the way he shuffled up to corners rather than hop the way he usually did; it was evident in his posture when they stopped to rest; Robin could even see it in his eyes.
Checking a door to make sure the room was empty Robin waved the group inside, closing and bolting the door after them. There were still a lot of empty and unused rooms in the fortress; some even had beautiful wooden furniture, covered in white dust sheets.
The room Robin had chosen was another such room, looking like it hadn't been used in years.
Clouds of dust puffed around his feet as he crossed the room, looking out the barred window into the compound below. With a start Robin realized he was looking out onto the eastern fortress wall, and that they were already in the General's tower.
Spotting the river running parallel to the wall beneath them Robin began to formulate a quick-exit strategy for the group once they got to Lucina.
If we get to Lucina, Robin corrected himself bleakly.
"Get some rest here," he said. "Eat, drink, nap, I don't care; we move out again in fifteen. Severa, you take first watch."
The red-head nodded, positioning herself with an ear to the door, listening for any approaching soldiers or guards.
The tactician watched as both Gaius and Lon'qu removed their equipment; the thief carefully laying out his 'espionage kit' as he called it, full of grappling hooks, ropes, lock picks and whatever else a thief used in their line of work, while Lon'qu unslung the short bow he had acquired for the mission, laying it next to the quiver of arrows next to him.
Both men fell into a light sleep almost instantly, telling Robin all he needed to know about their current state of energy.
Severa looked up, giving Robin the signal to let them sleep, indicating that she'd keep watch the entire time. The girl was resilient, and had done much less than the other two men so far. She wasn't trained for this kind of mission, but if push came to shove and they had to fight their way out he was glad for the extra sword.
Say'ri sighed tiredly as she perched on a white-sheet-covered table across from the chair he was resting on, eying him intently.
"So far we have met success," she said in a voice little more than a whisper.
Now she wants to talk to me?
Robin nodded, stifling a yawn.
Night was wearing on, and they had been running and fighting all day. There was only so much further he could push them without proper rest.
In truth he was about to drop from exhaustion himself; he was still exhausted from the earlier fight that day, and his mana reserves hadn't yet had the chance to replenish, so he would be reduced to little more than parlour tricks and distractions if he had to rely on spells.
Gregor's final gift, the last vial of his revitalizing tonic that Morgan had been holding on to, had worn off hours ago, leaving Robin feeling tired and worse than before. Well, second last vial, but the last one he was saving.
Robin let out an involuntary shudder as he recalled the events leading to their current predicament. All his plans had been met with only partial success. People were being hurt, Lucina had been kidnapped, Morgan had almost been killed numerous times in the last twenty-four hours. His one small favour was that the voice had been mostly silent for the last few hours. He could still feel it, though, in a way it hadn't affected him before. He could feel a pulsing, burning sensation at his very core in his chest, like a smouldering ball of embers inside of him that he instinctively knew was the voice. It was still there, silently watching everything, waiting for him to slip up again so that it could take control permanently.
He realized with dread that he could lose control again at any time.
Robin glanced down to his covered hand. It wasn't wounded, but rather the bandages hid the six-eyed purple symbol that refused to dissipate.
The tactician nudged the bandages aside for a moment, resisting the urge to sigh when he caught sight of the purple line beneath.
Say'ri sighed, looking down and interrupting Robin's train of thought.
"I am sorry, Robin."
"For… for what?" he asked hesitantly.
Say'ri cast a quick glance at the others before shifting so she was sitting right next to Robin. Her armour brushed his shoulder as she took a seat next to him, making Robin a little nervous as he remembered what had happened in Valm Harbour.
"For everything," Say'ri said so low Robin was almost unsure he had heard it.
"This… this is a dangerous mission. Tis a hopeless situation. I wanted to say this to you… just in case."
Robin blinked a few times as the woman grew silent.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I don't intend to die," Robin said with a weak smile.
Say'ri looked back up at him, and Robin's breath momentarily caught in his throat.
I'd forgotten how beautiful she is when she's not glaring at me.
"We're all getting out of here," Robin assured her. "All of us. Lucina included."
Say'ri nodded once as she scooted a little further away from him, letting out a soft, bitter laugh.
"When you speak this way, I almost believe we will succeed."
"It's my job to make sure we do," Robin said with a tired laugh before growing sombre again. "Even if it is a job I've been failing pretty miserably at lately."
"I must be going mad," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "I drag you all on this suicide mission, and for what? To recue someone who's probably already dead… someone who-"
Robin's whispered rant was cut off as something slapped him in the back of the head.
He looked up into Severa's furious face as she grabbed him by the collar, hauling him to within an inch of her face.
Did I say all that out loud?
"You listen and you listen good," she growled, her voice a low, harsh whisper. "I followed you here to rescue my friend, and I can't do it alone. She's not dead, we're not dead, and that's the way it's going to stay, got it? Pull yourself together! We've already followed you this far, and now you're gonna bring us the rest of the way, okay!?"
Roughly releasing Robin's collar she returned to her position at the door, glaring at the handle as she listened through the thick wood again.
"She's right," Lon'qu said, while Robin was still staring at Severa's back in shock.
The tactician looked over to where both Lon'qu and Gaius were sitting up and looking at him.
"We've all followed you this far because we trust you, Bubbles," Gaius added, grinning as he stuck a candy into his mouth.
Robin was at a loss for words.
"But… I'm… In the throne room I could have killed you all… I'm not worthy of your tru-"
"Shut up," Lon'qu said flatly, cutting the tactician's self-pity off. "Were you not worthy of following, I would not have followed."
"We trust you, Robin," Gaius repeated as he and Lon'qu rose to their feet. "And so does Blue- er, Lucina. So let's not keep her waiting."
"Thank you, all of you," Robin said after a moment, looking away and trying to blink away the tears gathering in his eyes. "I don't deserve such loyal friends."
"You don't," Severa huffed from the door. "But we're here anyway, so get used to it. And get your head in the game already! Jeez…"
Thank you, Robin said in his head. All of you. You have no idea what… thank you.
Robin stood, Say'ri at his side.
"We all trust you," she said simply, looking away as he tried to make eye-contact.
Robin nodded, turning to her as the others prepared to move out, gathering their equipment.
Lucina… We're coming. Please… Just be okay.
Lucina woke with a cough and began looking around slowly, pain blossoming in her neck and shoulders as she did.
Where… where am I?
The room was small, but it was obviously a cell.
Memories flashed in her mind of a trap sprung in the cellar of Fortress Steiger; of Morgan being wounded and shouting for Severa to carry the girl to safety; of being overwhelmed in the split second she had dropped her guard and beaten into unconsciousness.
As she moved she realized her hands were manacled to a short chain, bolted to the stone floor beneath her. The manacles and chain were both thick and heavy, and her tired muscles struggled to move either.
As she managed to shift a little the bruises on her side flared, making her hiss and wince in pain. She realized that her long hair was matted to her face on her left side, no doubt a result of the head-wound that had rendered her unconscious.
Without even thinking hope blossomed unbidden in her thoughts.
They will know I am missing. Panicking will achieve nothing. I must remain calm and wait patiently. Father and Robin will come and recue me.
Her thoughts turned sour as she thought of the tactician.
He had… done exactly as he was supposed to. He deserved no ill will; he had only acted the way fate had intended.
Foolish girl. Stop living in your fantasies. You knew that the two of you could never…
And still, she had dared to hope.
He had been the first man to ever treat her as something other than a leader or a Princess. He had a way about him that relaxed her, and before long she had grown to trust him more than any other; as they spoke she had found herself opening up to the strange amnesiac, even before she had joined the Shepherds officially in Plegia. During her time disguised as 'Marth' his small and simple acts of kindness towards her, a complete stranger, had made the crushing loneliness of her task bearable. For two years as she had stood vigil over her parents and her present, infant self she had held the thoughts of her brief encounters with Robin close to her heart, allowing them to soothe her during periods of sadness and pain.
It wasn't until she realized she could never be with him that she seen the truth. That she loved him.
She had been a fool to hope that the flow of time would be altered and that he would somehow, magically choose her over the woman he was destined to be with.
Why am I dwelling in this now? She wondered, cursing her own weakness as she wiped her tears away on the sleeves of her tunic.
He was where he belonged, with Say'ri. Lady Say'ri would give birth to a young Morgan, and the older one would have the family she lost in the future.
Lucina couldn't help but imagine a small, blue haired Morgan of her own…
Stop it! She chided herself. It will never happen! He doesn't even know how you feel; he never will, so focus on escaping.
Lucina's gaze snapped up as voices were raised outside of her cell.
She had to move quickly if she wanted to escape.
With all her might, Lucina began to tug on the chains holding her down.
Pheros growled as Excellus popped into existence inside her personal apartment unannounced just as she was pulling her newly restored armour back on.
"What did I tell you about doing that, worm?" she ground out, glaring at the pudgy, toad of a man.
"My, my," Excellus sneered. "You had best hope the wind doesn't change, or your pretty face will be forever stuck in that sneer."
Excellus was Emperor Walhart's chief tactician and strategic adviser, if he weren't Pheros would have rid the world of the slime's taint years ago.
"What do you want?" she ground out, making a show of checking her sword before sheathing it at her hip.
Excellus clapped his hands together and smiled, his bloated lips puckering in such a way that made Pheros nauseous.
"I'm here to interrogate my prisoner," Excellus purred.
The way he emphasized the word 'interrogate' gave Pheros no doubt as to what he really meant. Her lips curled downwards in disgust as she grabbed her staff, holding it towards the man like a lance.
"Listen well, toad, for I shall not repeat myself," Pheros said in a low, dangerous voice.
"The woman in there is one of the Ylissean leaders, of the Exalted bloodline, and I will not allow your disgusting disrespect to go on a second longer. I will interrogate her myself. Get out of my sight."
Excellus' façade of good cheer dropped as he clicked his tongue in an annoying fashion.
"She is my prize, General," he said, his tone matching hers. "I will not be denied my victory."
"This is my fortress," Pheros growled, advancing with her staff still held out before her.
"In it every member of this great Imperial army is under my jurisdiction. The only man that may give me orders within these walls is the Conqueror himself."
Excellus had been steadily backing away until his back hit the wall behind him, Pheros' staff stopping inches from his shivering, red face.
"Do I make myself clear? Get. Out."
Excellus made his disgusting clicking sound again before teleporting across the room with the magical ring that their Lord had entrusted to him.
"You will not be able to hide behind these walls forever, witch," he snarled petulantly from a safe distance.
"Remember who is in command when you are outside these walls."
And with that final line he teleported away in a flash of light.
"I know who commands me," Pheros said softly, letting her staff fall.
"Emperor Walhart, until my dying breath."
Pheros turned, motioning forward one of her red-clad assistants.
"Prepare my tools. As unpleasant as I find it, the prisoner must be interrogated."
The man bowed low, rushing to retrieve the small box with Pheros' interrogation tools.
"For the good of the Empire," she added in a low tone, preparing herself for what was to come.
"General, perhaps you would allow one of the other officers to carry out the interrogation?" one of her Lieutenants asked hesitantly and in a low voice. "We know of your past in the church, ma'am. We know this isn't easy for you."
"I cannot give an order I would not carry out myself," Pheros said decisively, accepting the wooden box presented to her.
For someone like her, trained as a cleric and forced by circumstance into the hell that was war, someone that had grown used to the magical resonance and lingering death that accompanied it, the feeling the small box gave off was disconcerting. An aura of lingering pain and desperation surrounded it, pervaded it, and made her sick to her stomach.
"Open the cell," she ordered coldly, striding towards the small prison.
Robin worriedly glanced out the window as they climbed another set of stairs, coming out onto an abandoned apartment's main room.
This must be the General's quarters, Robin thought, looking around. Pretty messy for a woman's place.
"Through that door and to the end of the corridor," Say'ri said, indicating a wooden door to one side of the large room.
Robin nodded, gesturing Gaius forward.
As the thief began to pick the lock, Robin turned to the other three.
"No more games. No more hiding," Robin said, his voice returning to its natural volume.
"We go in, get Lucina and kill everything in our way. Then we make for the fortress wall, and escape via the river beneath it."
"Define 'via'," Severa asked hesitantly.
"Jump," Lon'qu said, drawing his sword and spinning back to the heavy door they had come in through.
"Ah, crap," Gaius cursed. "This door was magically warded; I just… broke the ward. Bad guys incoming."
Robin could already hear the sounds of running feet from the stairs they had just climbed and a second doorway leading out to the wall they would need to escape to, Severa and Say'ri fell in beside Lon'qu with their own swords in hand.
"Move, Gaius," Robin said, beginning to cast a wind spell. "I'll just blow the damn door down. We're busted anyway."
The thief nodded, withdrawing his lock picks and drawing his short, dagger-like sword, standing just behind the initial line of Shepherds.
"We'll hold them and secure the wall," Lon'qu said, dropping a bar across the door they came through. "Get Lucina."
The tactician nodded, focusing on the magic he was struggling to cast as the others ran towards the wall through an open doorway. Through it Robin could make out the pre-dawn light, filling him with confidence that they could actually escape in time.
With the extra boost in morale Robin grunted, releasing a powerful arcwind spell that blew the door clear off its hinges and threw it back into the guards behind it.
A few guards stumbled around, disoriented by the sudden explosion of the door. Robin was merciless, slicing and bashing the three guards out of his way, before he yanked the cell door at the end of the hallway open.
Inside Robin sagged and almost let out a sob. Lucina was hunched forward, breathing heavily and trembling as she held her shackled arms close to her chest, clearly severely beaten and yet still straining to pull the pin securing the heavy chain to the floor loose.
Robin slid to his knees next to her, hands going for the shackles as he began casting a small but powerful fire spell to burn through the locking mechanism.
Lucina started, pulling away and looking up with wild, panicked eyes.
"Lucina," Robin said softly, reaching out a hand to cup the side of her face. "Lucina, it's okay… it's me. I'm here to save you."
She stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment as the sounds of battle echoed through the hallway behind them as the first of the Valmese guards began engaging the Shepherds on the wall.
All of the sounds faded away as Robin watched comprehension dawn on the Princess' face, tears beginning to gather at the corners of her eyes.
"I… I had begun to give up hope…" she said brokenly as she brought her forehead to rest against Robin's. "But you came for me… you actually came for me…"
"Of course I did," Robin replied with a grin, reaching into his coat pocket and producing the last of Gregor's tonic.
"Here," he said gently, holding the open vial to Lucina's lips. "Drink this."
She did so, coughing as the harsh liquid passed her throat.
"Give it a few minutes and you'll feel good as new," Robin said, tossing the empty vial aside, a jet of blue flames emerging from the tip of his finger as he went to work on the lock on her manacles.
"I made you a promise; just because I made it to you doesn't mean you're exempt from it."
Lucina let out a light sob as Robin continued to work.
"They locked me in here," Lucina said, barely conscious. "They beat me… and chained me up like an animal… tortured me… told me terrible things… about what they would do to mother and father… and… you…"
Lucina looked into Robin's eyes as he glanced up.
"I gave them nothing."
Robin watched her as his spell kept cutting. Her armour had been taken away, and her clothes were dirty and torn. She was covered in wounds, her hair matted to the side of her face on one side with dried blood. She looked like she hadn't been fed or cared for at all; perhaps she hadn't been taken as a hostage, but as a future execution.
She shifted again as the sounds of fighting drifting through the main room intensified, her forehead still resting against his. Robin rolled his eyes as he tried to keep his spell aimed at the small key-hole without burning her, the metal finally beginning to melt.
"You should go," she said weakly. "I'm not… not worth the lives you'll spend to save me. Father needs you to… win the war, not me… Get the others to safety, Robin…"
Robin growled, shaking his head as he sensed the end of his task approaching.
"I'm not spending anyone's lives and I'm not leaving you behind, Lucina," he said seriously.
"I love you."
The Princess drew her head away from his, eyes wide at his declaration.
"But…" she said hesitantly. "But Lady Say'ri…"
"And I are not lovers," Robin said bluntly, speaking passionately and from his heart. "Nor will we ever be. How could I be with her when the only one I can think of is right in front of me? To hell with your future; it's already changed now that you're here with us. And… with me."
"I love you, Lucina," Robin repeated, his gaze firmly on his task of burning through the manacles. "I love you with all my heart."
"If I had a mouth I would be puking right now."
Lucina went silent as Robin concentrated on his spell.
With one final burst he melted the lock and tore the manacles from her wrists with a violent tug.
Oh gods, I'm about to get punched, aren't I? Robin cringed, shutting his eyes as Lucina rushed forward.
An impact indeed drove him back, but it was nowhere near as powerful as he had been expecting, and centred on his chest, not his face.
When he opened his eyes he realized the girl was holding onto him tightly, weeping into his shoulder.
"I never dreamed to hear those words from you," she whispered. "For you are in my heart, too."
Robin let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, returning Lucina's hug briefly before pulling back and shrugging his coat off.
"Here," he said, wrapping it around her shoulders to cover her ruined clothing. "This will protect you. We've got a lot to talk about, so stay close. We're getting out of here."
Robin rose to his feet, smiling grandly, a new lightness in his heart as he pulled Lucina up with him.
Leading the Princess by the hand and with his sword in the other Robin returned to the now silent main room, his heart sinking as he beheld the vision before him.
General Pheros stood there, sword drawn and facing the Tactician and the Princess, a cold look on her face as she faced them.
"I knew I'd find you at the centre of this mess," she hissed to Robin, her eyes glaring daggers at the man.
"What's so special about me?" he asked, careful to keep himself between the woman and Lucina as he slowly approached, rotating them so that she would be closer to the path leading to the wall.
"You have it too," she said quietly. "The same aura… the same power as Walhart… I saw it in your eyes yesterday, the eyes of a true warrior. Just like my Emperor."
"And what do you want from me?" he asked hesitantly.
"I want to kill you for the glory of Valm!" Pheros said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "A creature such as you has no place in the world my Lord is trying to build!"
Robin finally dropped Lucina's hand, falling back into a defensive stance with his sword.
"Lucina, make a break for the wall. Find the others and get out of here," he said, eyes never leaving Pheros'. "I'll take care of this one. Go, I'll be right behind you."
"Are you sure?" Lucina asked worriedly.
"Go!" Robin hissed. "Get out of here!"
Lucina nodded once and darted for the doorway. Pheros didn't even look at her.
"I am not without manners," Pheros said, drawing herself upright and saluting with her sword in a duellist's pose.
"I am General Pheros," she said in a clear, proud voice. "Right Hand of the Conqueror, Custodian of Fortress Steiger and proud warrior of Valm."
Robin drew himself up, emulating her salute.
"Robin, Tactician of the Shepherds," he said quickly.
Pheros nodded, satisfied.
Her sword flashed forward almost faster than Robin's eyes could follow. He somehow managed to get his own rapier up, but he was knocked back by the sheer brutality of the blow. Righteous fury in the name of her Emperor giving the woman strength, she pummelled Robin back across the room as he desperately tried to parry the blows.
Robin dodged underneath a high strike aimed at his neck, lashing out with his rapier as he desperately tried to put some distance between them. Pheros hesitated, her hand going to the fresh gash opened on her arm in mild surprise before she returned to glaring at the tactician.
"Yes," the voice hissed in his mind. "That's the spirit! Come on! Send her to hell with a story to tell when she gets there!"
Robin watched with a sickening sensation in his stomach as Pheros poured a blue liquid from a vial in her belt onto the wound, the rubbery substance sealing it almost instantly.
"You know," Pheros said almost conversationally as she cast the empty vial aside. "The woman was very strong. Even with all my ministrations, I could not get her to talk. It is rare that I am impressed like that."
Robin stayed silent as he watched her assume a ready stance, completely ignoring the wound at her side.
Holy crap, what do I do against this lady!? He thought, desperately bringing his sword up again. She's way more prepared for this than I am!
"All you have to do is ask…"
Not a chance. You stay out of this and keep quiet.
A familiar headache began to blossom behind Robin's eyes as Pheros darted forward again, their swords clashed and hollow laughter echoed through his head.
"You would stand at the side of a ruler that faces a God among men," Pheros said as they traded blows. "With such dark powers!? Such evil, serving the blood of Anri!?"
Her voice broke as she struck Robin's bruised shoulder, hard enough to make the tactician drop to his knees. He rolled to the side, again trying to desperately make enough space to fight back as his arm went numb.
"You do not deserve the honour!"
"If you don't let me fight we're going to die," the voice warned.
I'd rather die than cede control to you again!
Robin dodged again as her sword flashed out, bringing his own up and cutting a small line along her shoulder.
Pheros stopped for a second, ignoring the wound as she glared at Robin.
"Where is the darkness from yesterday?" she asked in a genuinely curious voice.
"That wasn't me!" Robin growled.
"Liar!" Pheros shouted, moving with lightning speed.
Robin yelped as she brought her pommel down on his shoulder again, driving him into a wall.
With a gasp the tactician doubled over as she drove her sword through his chest faster than he could react.
"What is this?" Pheros asked, her face mere inches from Robin's.
"You tear apart my honour guard like paper yesterday, and fell me in one stroke and now… you barely manage to hold your sword up as I beat you? What insolence is this!? How dare you mock me this way!?"
Robin groaned, feeling his consciousness ebb as he slipped into shock.
"Too bad, so sad," the voice sang as it exerted its dominance, Robin's eyes flooding with Dark Magic and turning black almost instantly.
Robin caught a flash of blue and black over the General's shoulder.
"Get off of him you bitch," Lucina said from behind her, bringing Falchion downwards in a wide arc, shearing Pheros' arm almost entirely from her body.
The woman shrieked in agony, falling off of Robin as Lucina pulled the sword from his chest, shocking him back to his senses.
The magic faded almost instantly as the voice, howling in rage, was forced back into the depths of his mind.
Like hell it's your turn. Stay where you belong. Better yet, find some other poor bastard to bother.
"Nice timing," the tactician mumbled, leaning on her shoulder. "But I thought I told you to get away."
"I forgot my sword," Lucina answered lamely, holding up her Falchion and smiling at Robin. "The others are holding the wall. Can you walk?"
"What's the point… of having a tactician… if no one listens to him anyway…" Robin muttered. His breathing was starting to become difficult.
Lucina chuckled and held her head close to his again for a moment, their brows touching again before she began dragging him.
The General's punctured my lung, he realized, pressing a hand to his chest.
"You look… good… in my coat…" he mumbled, every word a struggle.
"Do not try to speak," she said, trying to move him without being too rough.
Robin glanced up and wheezed an amused chuckle as he watched Lucina blush a little at his compliment.
Lucina dragged him out to the wall top where Severa, Say'ri, Lon'qu and Gaius were busy fighting off a horde of Valmese soldiers pressing them halfway across the massive wall.
Robin took a deep breath as he limped on Lucina's shoulder, letting his mana pool, before thrusting a hand upwards so hard and violently that the Princess nearly fell over from the movement.
A wall of ice, the same spell that he had used in Plegia to buy them time to escape from Gangrel's enslaved Risen, leapt up between the Shepherds and the soldiers.
Why do I only seem to use that spell when I'm half dead?
The Valmese began futilely beating on it, trying to break through the thick ice to no avail.
"Everyone over the wall! Now!" Robin ordered, lifting himself off of Lucina's shoulder and trying to hide the fact he was most likely dying.
"You don't have to tell me twice," Gaius said, sheathing his short sword and swan-diving off the top of the wall.
Lon'qu raised a questioning brow when he spotted the red stain spreading on Robin's new shirt, but the tactician gave him an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Nodding, the stoic swordsman leapt after Gaius, his sword still in hand.
"Uh… I probably should have mentioned I can't swim earlier," Severa said, a note of panic in her voice.
"Say'ri, can you take her?" he asked quickly, securing the pouch at his hip so his spellbook wouldn't get soaked.
The woman nodded, grabbing Severa tightly by the arm and dragging her to the wall.
Thankfully the Princess from Chon'sin obeyed his order with a stoic nod before dragging a screaming Severa over the ledge.
Robin looked over the opposite side of the wall and into the fortress. Thousands of red-armoured men milled below him, unsure about how to react to the infiltration team's presence without orders from their superiors.
"Time to go," Robin said to Lucina, taking her by the arm and dragging her to the edge.
"Not without you," she said, turning her hand in his grip and holding it tightly.
Before Robin could reply movement from the corner of his eye made him look up, Pheros rushing to the edge of the wall facing into the Fortress, leaving a wide trail of blood in her wake.
"They're escaping!" she shouted. "Send troops to the river! Kill them all in Walhart's name!"
Robin watched with dread as the soldiers began to coalesce into units, squad leaders shouting orders to prepare the pursuit now that they had a purpose.
We'll never get away in time, Robin thought as Pheros sunk to her knees, trying to remain upright as a pool of blood formed around her, her wounded arm hanging uselessly.
"You will die here with me," she growled to Robin. "I may not see the world my Lord is going to create… but I have seen it in my dreams… and that is enough…"
We're out of time, Robin realized as Lucina shuddered next to him, watching the Valmese soldiers preparing to exit the fortress after the Shepherds.
"Come on!" Lon'qu shouted from the shore below them.
They would never escape in time. Not unless…
Robin looked up, meeting Lucina's piercing blue eyes.
"Do you remember the promise I made to you?" he asked. "That no one else would die?"
She nodded, eyes never leaving his.
Robin leaned forward, wrapping an arm around her as his lips sought hers. For a brief second he was worried she would pull away, but Lucina softened in his arms, returning the kiss.
Her lips were soft as they parted slightly, accepting the tactician's kiss, Robin pressing her even tighter to his chest, willing the universe to stop so that they would never have to break apart.
For a fleeting moment Robin thought that everything would work out; that they would escape, he would get to live with and love Lucina forever, and when the war ended they would grow old together.
All of those thoughts faded as they finally separated.
"I have to break that promise now," he whispered.
Without warning Robin grabbed her and lifted her close to his body.
"Lon'qu!" he shouted, throwing Lucina into the river.
She called his name as she fell and Robin turned away, back towards the fortress, the image of her shocked face burning into his memory.
I can stop them, he told himself as he began pooling what little mana he had left. I can make sure they escape. I can make sure she lives. That they all live.
He could hear the Shepherds calling his name as he crossed the wall. They would go, though; there was no way for them to get back to him.
"Robin!" Lucina's hoarse voice shrieked from below him as she spluttered in the water.
Clenching his fists, Robin began to cast.
It's not enough… Robin realized instantly. I don't have enough mana left…
Robin swallowed hard, realizing the only way he'd make his plan work.
"You can't stop us all," Pheros muttered from where she lay bleeding.
"I don't need to," Robin answered, switching tracks for his spell and concentrating on a new one.
The tactician called and the darkness answered instantly, gleefully almost.
"So now you ask for my help?"
I'm not asking you. I'm telling you. Give me your power.
He felt more of the dark energy from the previous day begin to flood him as the voice laughed, and the brand on the back of his hand flashed, burning through the bandages. His shirt seared away almost instantly, scraps of fabric falling about his feet as dark purple concentric symbols began burning beneath his skin again, spreading up his neck and across his face.
Pheros began laughing.
"You are damned…" she spat. "You will… never see the… Earth Mother's para…dise…"
Robin looked over to the demented woman, his eyes going black with dark magic again as he opened his soul to the darkness.
"I'm going to need your body."
Take it, he offered, beginning a third spell. Just give me the power to protect her.
"Do you know what happens when opposing magical forces meet?" he asked Pheros, power beginning to flare from his hands.
"There's a chain reaction. Often resulting in a very, very large explosion."
Pheros paled, coughing wetly as she tried to pull herself back up.
"Fool. You… you'll die too…"
"But they won't," Robin said, nodding over his shoulder to where the Shepherds were still screaming, trying to get his attention on the opposite shore.
Lon'qu had just dragged Lucina out of the water and held her around the middle, the Princess desperately trying to get back to him.
The tactician turned, bracing one foot on the lip of the wall overlooking the fortress interior, a single tear rolling down his cheek.
"The earth will burn," Robin muttered, raising one hand as the ground began to quake beneath the fortress, opening and releasing magma and jets of black fire.
"The wind will slice to the bone," he growled, raising his other as green-blue twisters beginning to form and instantly tearing into the heavy stone structures.
Valmese forces began panicking, all thoughts of pursuing the Shepherds gone from the minds as they rushed to find shelter.
"The sky will shatter!" Robin roared, raising his hands high above his head as dark clouds coalesced, purple and normal lightning beginning to rain down, destroying buildings and leaving craters the size of houses in their wake.
Robin looked over to Pheros, who was watching the wholesale destruction of her fortress numbly.
"Death has come for us all," Robin whispered, releasing the final spell he had been working and sending a plume of dark magic into the centre-vortex of spells with an outstretched hand in an almost lazy motion.
The spells immediately reacted, folding in on each other and trying to occupy the same space. Under normal circumstances elemental magic would coexist harmlessly, but the addition of dark magic sent the spells into a state of flux as they wildly spiralled out of control.
"I'm beginning to regret this course of action," the voice said hesitantly as the Dark Magic faded from his eyes.
Robin glanced up, spotting what was probably Huginn circling overhead.
Good, he thought. At least Tharja can tell Morgan how I died…
Robin looked down as the spells finally lost shape and form, sucking in on themselves all at once. With a sound like a whip-crack they exploded outwards in a ball of blue magical fire, obliterating everything in its path.
"Luci-" Robin began, looking up to the sky, unable to finish her name as he was swallowed by the flames.