The wind whistled forlornly through the crater that was once Fortress Steiger. Rubble was everywhere, and the land itself reeked of death. Standing on the very precipice of the crater was a solitary giant clad in red armour, his beloved axe held head down and resting on the scorched earth as the lone man stood vigil above his soldiers.
Below him in the crater men and women worked tirelessly to find survivors, to clear away rubble in the vain hope of finding something living in the mess that was once one of his most prized fortresses.
Water from the ruined river was already beginning to pool at the bottom of the crater; soon this would be a lake, mercifully hiding his shameful defeat.
Walhart’s red-gauntleted hands tightened on his axe’s haft, his normally impassive face breaking into a scowl as his milky white eyes stared unseeing at the devastation.
But he could hear it.
He could hear the footsteps, the heartbeats and the breathing of every one of his soldiers in the crater, desperately digging for survivors.
After decades of training his senses Walhart could ‘see’ with his hearing and smell; his dead eyes meant nothing to him. He would carve them out if he weren’t so constantly busy, just to be rid of their nuisance. His other senses were more acute than ever, and he was more aware of his surroundings now than before he had lost his sight in a training accident to…
It didn’t matter anymore. It was ancient history he had forgotten; he was far superior now than he ever had been in the past, and that was all that mattered in the end.
But that’s how he could tell they wouldn’t find any survivors.
He could already tell the only living things in that crater were the men he had brought with him, but still he let them dig. He let their frustration and their anger grow. He allowed the fires of hate and war to be stoked by their raw emotions, giving them a reason to fight.
Walhart was a conqueror, but he understood human emotion. A man with a cause or purpose, especially one such as vengeance, was a dangerous adversary.
He took a deep breath, snorting out through his nose much like the horned bull his crown was made to represent.
The men feared him, but they respected him. He led them to victory, showed mercy against those that would follow his rule, and united men under his banner for one common goal.
He had long given up such trifling matters such as human emotion to better reach his goal of a unified world.
But for the first time in a long time, he felt something stirring in his breast.
Irritation quickly became anger, which quickly became rage.
How dare the Ylissean league strike at him thusly!? He would crush them beneath his boot like-
His thoughts interrupted as his head snapped up, his long white pony-tail flapping with the motion.
Without a word he leapt into the air, sliding down the ledge of the crater towards the disturbance he had heard, admonishing himself for being too distracted to notice it earlier.
He raced by the confused soldiers, an impossibly fast red blur leaping rubble like an antelope as if it were nothing.
At last, as he neared his goal, a single word erupted from his throat.
The men around him scrambled to obey, General Cervantes beginning to shout orders from nearby while priests surged forward to their lord’s summons.
Walhart slid to a halt, barely slowing his momentum as he dug in his heels and gripped an impossibly huge piece of wall rubble.
The giant of a man strained against the boulder-sized chunk of wall, other smaller soldiers rushing to assist him; even Cervantes heaved, the portly man’s face going red with effort beneath his massive moustache as they lifted the boulder off of…
“Pheros!” Cervantes exclaimed in surprise.
Walhart resisted the urge to grimace as the giant stone fell away to one side, knowing his efforts had been for naught.
He couldn’t see her, but he could tell she wasn’t long for this world.
He could hear her shattered bones grinding against each other, stabbing into her flesh from the inside. She was barely breathing, only one lung still working, the other crushed by the boulder. Her heart beat erratically, but still he caught the sound of her eyelids fluttering open.
“Lord… Walhart?” she asked in a broken voice.
Wordlessly the Conqueror knelt down beside his General.
“I’m sorry… sir…” she said in a wet voice as blood bubbled up past her lips.
Behind him Walhart heard Cervantes wave away the healers. There was no point. The other soldiers bowed their heads in respect as they stepped away, leaving the Conqueror alone with his two Generals.
“I let… them get… away…” Pheros wheezed. “I failed you…”
Walhart shook his massive head, not sure if Pheros could still see from her eyes.
“You followed your duty, General Pheros,” Walhart said in a proud voice. “You failed no one. You were defeated, and now you pay the price honour demands, but you have not failed. Such is the way of our creed.”
He heard the woman breathe out a shuddering sigh of relief.
“Thank you… Lord… But I must… warn you…”
Walhart leaned in closer, the scent of blood becoming overpowering.
“The Tactician, lord…” she said, desperately trying to warn him as she brought her head up to look directly into Walhart’s dead eyes. “He is… not human. He is… like you… be-beware… Lord… Walhart… his… power…”
Her head lolled to the side, and he heard her lips turn upwards one last time.
“I would have… followed you… to the end… sir…”
“I know,” Walhart said, reaching out as if to stroke her cheek, his face still impassive.
With a violent jerk he broke Pheros’ neck with one hand, mercifully ending her suffering.
“Rest easy, General Pheros of Steiger. I will avenge you myself.”
The Conqueror leaned forward in his chair, thumping his axe on the ground of his tent once in irritation.
“Cervantes,” he called out.
The General quickly bustled into his master’s private tent, a rare privilege that until a few hours ago had been Pheros’ alone.
“Status report,” Walhart ordered simply.
Cervantes cleared his throat, his breath whistling through the whiskers beneath his nose in an irritating fashion every time he took a breath.
“We have integrated the last of the survivors from the Central Army and the defectors from the Resistance into your Northern Army, Lord Walhart,” Cervantes said quickly. “Yen’fay is in pursuit of the Ylissean League with the Southern Army. He should have no trouble defeating them.”
“Where is Excellus?” Walhart asked distastefully.
He made no secret of his dislike of the tactician; the loathsome man was trying at the best of times. Lately, however, he had gone so far as to begin to usurp Walhart’s power to his own ends, as if the Emperor was ignorant to the fact; once the Ylissean League was dealt with Walhart would take great pleasure in killing the man himself. But until then he was still necessary.
“He was in his tent, milord, going over plans for the defence of the Capital in case Yen’fay is defeated.”
“I want to speak to him. Now.”
“Thy will be done, Lord,” Cervantes said, bowing low as he backed out of the tent.
Walhart resisted the urge to growl under his breath as he hefted his axe and sat it across his lap. The sounds from the camp around him were overpowering, and a lesser man with the Conqueror’s enhanced senses would have been driven mad by the cacophony.
He could hear the screams of anguish from the medical tents; of men so far gone their pride was forgotten as they begged for the relief of death.
He could hear orders being shouted; men running to and fro, preparing to march at the behest of their ruler once his mind was made up.
He could hear the incessant hammering of the smiths, who would be working through the night to ensure his army was properly outfitted for their march tomorrow.
At last he heard what he was listening for; the sounds of Cervantes’ heavy stomping followed by Excellus’ terrified shuffling.
Walhart allowed himself a rare smile.
He could smell Excellus’ fear from here.
The tent flaps opened, and Walhart heard Excellus’ sharp intake of breath. Laid out before him on a funeral pyre that would eventually be moved out into the main square in the camp was Pheros’ cleaned and prepared body.
“I have called you here tonight,” Walhart said in a low, dangerous growl without rising from his throne, his voice a deep, resonant boom reverberating within the chests of those present in the tent with him.
“To explain this,” he finished, indicating with one massive hand to the body of his favoured General.
Walhart, unable to see traditionally, had run his bare hands over her face once preparations had been finished for her funeral, making sure she looked at peace. She was in her dress uniform, her shattered sword gripped in her hands over her chest. It made his blood boil to think that she was dead; she, his right hand, had been taken by the Ylisseans.
Walhart’s jaw unconsciously clenched.
She had been taken, and Steiger lost, after Excellus’ promised fool-proof plans.
The Tactician audibly gulped; Walhart could smell the man’s fear-sweat. He didn’t have an excuse this time.
Excellus quickly prostrated himself, begging for mercy and forgiveness like a dog.
Walhart stood, his axe blade glinting dangerously in the torchlight.
“Stand up, Tactician,” Walhart ordered.
Excellus did so, a quivering disgrace to the red uniform of Valm he wore beneath his robes.
The Conqueror brought his axe down in a blinding red flash, shearing through the table beside the two men and sticking fast in the hard earth beneath the tent. Walhart grasped Excellus’ fat, almost non-existent neck with a single hand and lifted him off the ground, bringing them face to face.
“You are to go to Yen’fay,” Walhart ordered in a cold voice. “You are to ensure his victory by any means necessary. If you fail me again there will not be enough of you left for a funeral pyre.”
Walhart threw the Tactician bodily out of the tent, the fat man flying past General Cervantes and through the tent flaps.
“Do not stain my presence again until the Ylisseans have been taken care of, worm.”
With a wordless yelp Excellus fled into the night, and Walhart returned to his throne at the back of the tent, overlooking his favoured General.
Cervantes approached slowly, stopping to tug Walhart’s axe, the Wolf Berg, out of the ruins of the table and running a finger along the edge of the weapon.
Walhart already knew what his General was going to say; during the battle with the bald Feroxi man he had become overzealous and cracked the blade while fighting him and the damnable woman that had prevented the Conqueror’s kill.
“My lord, you may wish to have a smith reinforce the blade,” Cervantes said evenly. “There appears to be a new crack in it.”
Walhart nodded absently. He liked Cervantes; the man was a good General and a fine leader, but lacked the spark that had made Pheros worthy of his right hand.
“Very well,” Walhart said with a sigh like a bull snorting. “Bring me Sol in the meantime.”
The thin, curved blade fashioned after the wing of a wyvern was much lighter than his axe, but its durability was absurdly high for such a frail looking weapon. Originally a peace-offering from Yen’fay after his surrender, Walhart usually only wore the blade ceremoniously; but it would have to make due for his main weapon for the time being.
Excellus trembled; not with fear, but with rage and anger. How dare an unrefined creature such as Walhart, suited only for war and destruction, threaten him?
Him!? Excellus, most learned of all the Valmese Tacticians, whose very thoughts were what gave the Conqueror’s army life!?
Without him, the Conqueror would still be warring with Chon’sin!
Excellus took a trembling breath in a vain attempt to calm himself.
He still had Yen’fay in his pocket; his biggest obstacle, that annoying Ylissean tactician was supposedly dead; and now the biggest roadblock on his path to claiming power in the army, General Pheros, was dead, too.
Just these thoughts forced a smile to his greasy lips.
Sitting at the desk in his opulent tent he began to draft a new plan, involving the consolidation of the Central and Northern armies now that Pheros was dead. Once he was done with that, he would have some serf deliver it to Walhart as he made his departure for Yen’fay’s position.
There was a pawn he held absolute power over; as long as Yen’fay’s dearest sister was on the board, the man and his army was putty in Excellus’ hands.
Chrom sighed as the last piece of his ornate armour fell noisily to the ground, allowing himself to show rare weakness and swaying a little in exhaustion now that he was finally alone again.
A pair of soft, strong hands caught him from behind, holding him up until he’d regained his composure.
“Better?” Sumia asked quietly, resting her chin on his bare shoulder.
Chrom nodded, sighing as he felt some of the tension leave his body just from her mere presence.
They had put enough distance between the armies for a few hours rest before they would have to continue the retreat; Morgan, Virion and a number of the other division leaders were trying to formulate a plan, but the archer had chased Chrom away, insisting that he take what rest he could and assuring him that they could devise a plan worthy of Robin’s skill.
Rotating teams of scouts would be keeping an eye on the Valmese movements; the only good thing about having so many troops was they moved much, much slower than the Ylissean League.
Or what’s left of it, Chrom mentally amended himself. All told barely a third of our forces remain.
Despite the fact they only had a few hours to take rest Frederick had insisted on setting up a tent for Chrom’s privacy; the Knight Commander was dauntless in his attention to Chrom’s needs, whether they be real or imagined.
Moving for so long in full armour had taken its toll on Chrom, and he’d decided that if they were to continue their flight until someone came up with a plan, it would be in his usual, lighter gear.
No doubt Robin would admonish him for his choice when he returned, but Chrom was just so tired…
“Do you think they’re okay?” Chrom asked guiltily as Sumia led him to one of the two chairs in the tent, the only other furniture being the small table with a pitcher of fresh water in it.
“I’m sure they’ll catch up any minute now,” Sumia soothed as she sat Chrom down, moving behind him and unclasping the other shoulder guard he usually wore before beginning to knead at his tense shoulders.
“Robin had that fire in his eyes,” Sumia said encouragingly as Chrom relaxed beneath her hands. “It’ll take more than the entire Valmese army to stop him right now. You could add the entire Plegian army to the mix and he’d still find a way.”
Chrom nodded silently.
He felt wretchedly guilty about the way he’d treated his friend during the Steiger assault.
On one hand Robin had won the day single-handedly, annihilating the Valmese Honour Guard alone and securing victory by eliminating their command structure. But on the other his terrifying loss of control had put the lives of the Shepherds at risk, including Lissa’s…
His mind flashed back to the sight of Lissa recoiling, falling back through the magical barrier as black fire licked at her arm, burning flesh and cloth… Libra had acted instantly, healing the wound almost immediately to the point the only evidence of the injury was her tattered sleeve, but the look of fear on his baby sister’s face in that moment had pushed Chrom over the edge.
A few of the others had been singed by the flames, including himself. He looked down at the blackened silver breast-plate lying on the floor of the tent where he’d let it drop.
Robin wasn’t himself, Chrom reasoned. I know that for a fact. Those weren’t his eyes. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. And I…
Chrom had lost his composure and decked his best friend. Twice. Broken his nose, possibly his jaw.
His sister had been caught in the blast, and without a word her husband Lon’qu had followed Robin back into the fortress while Chrom had raged and acted like an impulsive child.
“I have to apologize,” Chrom said for the umpteenth time.
“I know,” Sumia repeated, the way she had every other time he’d said it, her hands pausing a moment before resuming their gentle rubbing. “We all do.”
In the brief interlude after the battle the Shepherds had almost all collectively treated Robin like a pariah, whispers and fear at the tactician’s out of character show of magical and physical strength and madness.
And yet still he’d gone back for Lucina, for Chrom’s daughter because he knew Chrom couldn’t. He entrusted the safety of his own wounded daughter to Chrom while he went on a suicide mission to rescue Lucina.
At least, it would have been a suicide mission for anyone else; if anyone stood a chance at pulling it off, Robin did.
Chrom believed that with all his heart.
He believed that any minute now, Robin would come sauntering into the camp, Lucina at his side and the rest of his team at his back, grinning triumphantly and asking why it was taking driving the Valmese forces back so long.
“I suppose I’d best get to work then,” he would say with an exaggerated sigh, grinning the way he always did as he headed for the tactical tables, completely downplaying the role he had played in the mission he’d just undertaken as he dauntlessly returned to work.
The way he always did.
Chrom had to believe it. The alternative was too painful to imagine…
“Any minute now,” Chrom muttered, trying to relax and enjoy his wife’s company.
Morgan grimaced, looking down at the maps spread-out on the table before her. Her wounds were all mostly healed, only a little stiffness remaining thanks to the attentive ministrations of the camp’s healers.
Their position could definitely have been better. Of course, her father would take one look at the maps and markings of troop dispositions and terrain, think for a few seconds and come up with a brilliant plan to save everyone almost instantly.
Unfortunately, Morgan still had some way to go before she was as skilled as her father.
“What if we send Roark’s knights out as a distraction again?” Virion offered, staring down at the map opposite her.
Morgan shook her head.
“We’ve done that three times already. They’ll be expecting it now; casualties will be unacceptably high.”
They were being pushed back further and further into the southern hinterlands. Scouts had confirmed that it was the southern army chasing them, made up of mostly Dynast soldiers around a core of Chon’sin’s main army and led by General Yen’fay, one of Walhart’s three most trusted military leaders.
And my Uncle… Morgan thought, momentarily becoming distracted.
She was just finding out now that she had a family and she had to face off against a member of it? Fate truly had a cruel sense of humour.
She shook her head; Father wouldn’t hesitate no matter what, so neither would she.
“Those Dynast traitors were quick to allow us to escape,” Roark pointed out, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t trust them not to attack us from the flanks while Yen’fay takes us head-on to curry favour with the main army.”
“So we need a battleground that essentially corners us in,” Virion clarified. “Well, we have been known to shine brightest while our backs are to the wall, so to speak…”
“What’s this pass here?” Morgan asked, pointing to a spot on the map between two mountains.
“The Demon’s Ingle,” Lord Liung explained. “The mountain on the left is an active volcano. We’d do well to steer clear of the area; it’s treacherous terrain at the best of times.”
An idea sprung unbidden into Morgan’s mind, and she clung to it, letting it take form the way her father had taught her to.
“If your gut gives you an idea, nine times out of ten you go with it,” he’d once told her when she’d been second guessing herself during a game of chess that she had subsequently lost.
“I think we should do the exact opposite,” Morgan said, excitement momentarily overcoming her fatigue.
“That’s it, the girl’s lost her marbles,” Roark said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Before Morgan could retort Virion stepped forward again.
“I’ve seen the same look on her father’s face, Duke Roark,” Virion said in his haughtiest tone. “I would show some respect were I you.”
The two Dukes stared each other down before Roark sighed and mumbled an apology; Virion rarely used his intimidating glare, but when he did few could stand before it.
“We can hardly afford such infighting at such a critical time,” Virion added in a softer tone, looking to Morgan.
“Now what was your idea, child?”
Morgan traced a finger around the pass, through a ravine, tactfully choosing not to point out the fact that he was technically only a few years older than her in this timeline with a barely supressed grin.
“We send the majority of the army through here,” she said, looking into the faces of the men around her.
“And the Shepherds challenge Yen’fay and his honour guard-”
She added, jabbing her finger directly onto the little volcano illustration.
“That way the main army gets a chance to rest, and we finish this fight without many casualties on either side; the Dynast soldiers let us pass almost completely unchallenged, so I’m reluctant to cause them too much damage, but if we can cut the head off the beast…”
“The beast’s soldiers will follow us for an offer of clemency,” Liung finished for her, a smile breaking out beneath his long moustache.
“You are indeed your father’s daughter,” Liung complimented her, making Morgan blush a little.
“Plus the flames from the volcano will provide us with protection from flanking attacks,” Virion said, catching on to Morgan’s plan and making some marks with a stick of red wax. “If we position our surviving mage forces here and here we can fan the flames into an impenetrable barrier.”
Morgan nodded excitedly.
“Miriel, Laurent, Ricken and Henry can lead them,” she said, making some notes on the roster sheet.
“You’ll lead the soldiers around the volcano through the pass, Duke Roark,” Morgan continued. “Lord Liung, I need you to form a small rearguard of your best warriors and follow the main army at a distance; no doubt the Valmese will take this chance to go after the retreating army again.”
“I shall lead the rearguard myself,” Liung said proudly, clapping a fist over his heart.
“I will prepare the Shepherds for battle,” Frederick said, silent until now. “Come, Roark; I will also assist you in preparing to lead the army. There are things you will need to be clear about.”
The three leaders left the open planning tent and Morgan slumped forward onto the table letting out a breath.
Virion laughed softly as he laid a comforting hand on her back.
“Intimidating, to be ordering around the leaders of an army, no?” he asked kindly.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Morgan mumbled as she fell into the chair Virion produced for her. “I don’t know how my father makes it seem so natural.”
“You may trust me when I say he was not always so,” the archer said with a smirk. “In fact, he used to be much more awkward about it than even you are now. It was indeed very amusing to watch.”
Morgan remained silent as she let her hand drop to her collar, brushing against the new burn scars that were mostly hidden by her clothes.
Severa had done her best to get Morgan to help quickly, but the longer one waited to magically heal a wound the more the chance of leaving a scar increased. Morgan now sported several large, leathery discoloured scars along the skin of her right shoulder and side as a result of Excellus’ sneak attack, mostly on her back.
“I hope father returns soon,” Morgan huffed, forcibly distracting herself. “He really makes this look much easier than it is.”
“I’m sure he will return any minute now,” Virion said soothingly. “However do we not have preparations to attend to now that we have a plan?”
Morgan nodded, and the two began to pack up the maps that covered the table. Frederick would organize for someone to come and stow the tent and furniture later.
“I notice you didn’t include the lady Tharja in your plans for the mages,” Virion added slyly as he clapped a folder closed.
“Please,” Morgan said dismissively. “At a time like this do you really think anything will get her more than a few feet away from me and Noire? It’s a tactician’s duty to know their soldier’s strengths and weaknesses; she’d go if I ordered her to, but she’ll only perform at optimal capacity where she can keep an eye on the two of us.”
Virion laughed heartily, wiping an exaggerated tear from his eye.
“Too true, dear Morgan,” the archer laughed. “Too true. You are indeed your father’s daughter.”
Morgan grinned a little before sobering.
Come on, dad, Morgan pleaded internally, stopping to look up at the storm clouds looming in the distance as she stepped out of the tent into the weak sunlight.
Don’t keep me waiting like this.
Rain fell in sheets around the small group of Shepherds huddled under an outcropping around the small fire that Lon’qu had deemed necessary to stave off hypothermia.
The seasons continued on their never-ending march through time, completely oblivious to the struggling and suffering of the humans at their mercy, dumping rain on them whether it was convenient or not.
Ever since they’d been forced to start running, Lon’qu had simply taken charge and so far no one had complained.
Lucina sat staring blankly into the fire, wet hair plastered to her face even though Robin’s magically altered coat had kept the rest of her mostly dry, holding it tight around her as if she would disappear if her grip on the leather lessened.
Severa was pressed close to her shoulder, the two women forced into close confines in the small space while Lon’qu, Gaius and Say’ri all sat around the rest of the fire. Lon’qu was on Lucina’s other side, but whether from his old gynophobia or respect for Lucina’s current mood had opted to leave a little distance between them.
Since the explosion that had marked the end of Fortress Steiger and Robin Lucina had barely said a word, mutely following the group and clinging to Robin’s coat for dear life.
Severa let out a soft sigh, shifting a little in the small space to try and get further away from the torrential rain without disturbing Lucina too much.
Severa had watched as Robin had thrown her from the top of the wall. She wasn’t sure if the others had noticed his wounds at that point, but even without the explosion there was no way he would have survived their flight back to the main army in that shape anyway.
He’d obviously known that, and chosen to ensure their escape.
But for both Severa and Lucina it was the second time they’d lost him now.
Severa had lost a man that was like an uncle, almost a surrogate father to her.
Lucina had apparently lost much, much more.
But still he’d died a hero.
Still, though, Lon’qu had raised his usually quiet voice to urge the tactician to follow them, and Gaius had voiced his confusion. Say’ri had caught on at about the same time as Severa when both women had seen the sad smile he’d directed down at them.
She’d already seen that look on the face of too damn many friends in her lifetime.
Tears began to prick at the corners of her eyes again, but she quickly blinked them away. With all of her suffering Lucina had yet to shed a single tear, despite obviously having been one of the people to have lost the most with Robin’s death.
No one present had missed that kiss. It was almost clichéd, but the shock had been quickly overwritten by the giant explosion that had thrown them all flat; Robin’s parting gift, the destruction of a fortress and the thousands of soldiers within it.
Then they had run, and kept running most of the day, ignoring the rain and only stopping when someone fell down to help them back to their feet. They had run until even Lon’qu was barely moving, and finally found this small alcove that Lon’qu had deemed ‘acceptable’ for their needs.
“We’ll need to keep moving soon,” Lon’qu said in his regular monotone, breaking the ephemeral atmosphere that had descended as everyone finally reflected on what happened that day.
“Lon’qu, we’ve barely slept or had rest for nearly two days now,” Gaius pointed out.
“It won’t matter if the Valmese find us,” the swordsman pointed out.
“Agreed,” Say’ri said shortly, not meeting anyone’s gaze.
“A few more minutes,” Severa said, indicating slightly towards Lucina with a slight nudge of her head.
Lon’qu looked to be about to protest, but silently nodded agreement.
“No,” Lucina said suddenly, rising to her feet and stepping out into the rain. “We should keep moving. The army needs to know that all they face for the time being is Yen’fay’s force. If we are to strike back now is the time.”
“If you’re sure,” Lon’qu said hesitantly, standing and kicking dirt onto the fire.
Grumbling incoherently Gaius stood, Say’ri and Severa wordlessly following as the group set off at a much slower march, led this time by Lucina. How long they could keep even this slower pace up Severa was unsure.
She didn’t have the heart to tell Lucina that there was no way they could strike back with the army’s current condition anyway as she followed her friend through the rain.
Yen’fay stood at the head of his rapidly assembling army, heedless of the rain pouring down around him.
The scouts were reporting that the Ylisseans had halted ahead, and he desperately wanted to close the gap and engage before they put any more distance between the two groups.
Although the only reason he was so desperate to engage, of course, were Walhart’s orders and his sense of duty. Deep down he was terrified of what he was going to find when battle was joined; or rather who he was expected to face.
“Must you stand out in the rain, General?” a high-pitched, mocking voice asked from behind Yen’fay, making his knuckles turn white on his sword’s hilt.
“Excellus,” Yen’fay spat, not even turning to face the tactician.
“Oh?” Excellus asked, clearly taking great lengths to remain out of Yen’fay’s weapon’s reach. “Is that any way to greet a friend?”
The toad of a man drew alongside the general, still just out of reach.
“My, my,” he purred. “Such a melancholic air about you today. Whatever is the matter?”
Excellus made a show of batting himself in the head like he’d just remembered something obvious as Yen’fay glowered at him.
“Oh, that’s right! Your beloved sister is marching with the Ylisseans, isn’t she? Dear me, I suppose I’d be in a foul mood too if I were in your boots!”
Yen’fay knew Excellus was testing his resolve. It was painfully obvious to the point of almost being insulting.
“Say’ri is a rebel and a traitor to the empire,” Yen’fay ground out, each word a dagger in his heart. “I have no sister.”
Excellus let out a high-pitched cackle. “Oh, very good, very good – right out of the book, that one!”
The tactician finally drew closer, his voice dropping to a dangerous whisper, just barely rising above the sound of the pounding rain.
“And I commend your acting ability,” Excellus hissed. “Very convincing. I think all of your men heard you, too.”
Yen’fay growled and nudged his blade an inch clear of its scabbard with his thumb, making sure Excellus saw the movement.
The damnable tactician simply drew back and laughed again.
“In any case I’m so glad I can trust you not to take it easy on her rag-tag little group. Yes, we both know you’d never let any of her comrades escape, don’t we?”
Yen’fay made a conscious effort to still his sword hand, taking deep, calming breaths as Excellus prattled on, eyes glaring murderously at the toad-like visage before him.
“I know this must be difficult, but think of it this way: you still have a family! A big, big family! The whole Imperial Army is your family now!”
Yen’fay finally lost his composure and unsheathed his sword, rounding on the tactician. Excellus was still shaking with mirth, even as the magic circle that grew from the ornate ring on his fat index finger grew to envelop him.
“Well, I should run,” he sneered to Yen’fay’s face. “Do tell your little sister I said hello. And goodbye.”
And with one final cackled laugh Excellus was gone in a flash of light, leaving Yen’fay standing alone, rain water running down the blade of his sword Amatsu, the sword of the ruler of Chon’sin.
Faint, splashing footsteps alerted Yen’fay to the approach of one of his men.
“Milord?” Keiji, Yen’fay’s second in command, asked in their native language, his usual brusque manner a welcome change to Excellus’ snide mannerisms. “The army stands ready. We await your word.”
Yen’fay nodded, not even bothering to sheathe Amatsu as he started walking south, towards the Ylissean positions.
“Close in on the Ylisseans,” Yen’fay said in a dead voice. “Show no mercy.”
Morgan looked up as the first of the raindrops began falling to the ground around them, instantly turning to steam on the hot stone beneath their feet.
In a word, it was hot.
In many more words, Morgan was beginning to regret this course of action as she wiped the sweat from her brow with the cuff of her coat sleeve.
“How you’re… wearing that coat…” Noire gasped, looking dangerously close to falling over next to Morgan.
“I’m fine,” Morgan said with an energetic smile.
She and Noire were standing on an outcropping that provided an eagle-eye view of the surrounding area, a tactical advantage that was usually sorely lacking in most battlefields. Morgan had taken the time to carefully analyse the terrain and commit the entire area to memory; every rock, every crevice, every piece of unstable ground; all of it was information she could use to tip the scales.
Beneath and behind them, within the ‘Demon’s Ingle’ proper the Shepherds were set up and waiting, knowing that Yen’fay now stood between them and leaving the hellish landscape, which was in itself enough motivation for Morgan to fight twice as hard as she usually did.
She turned, watching as Liung’s rearguard took up position at the mouth of the small ravine the rest of the remaining army had just finished streaming into away to the west. From her higher vantage point Morgan could see the entire army arrayed before her, and felt pangs of guilt that there were so few soldiers left…
Off in the distance she could see Yen’fay’s soldiers advancing like a line of black insects coating the space between the two mountains around them. There was still a limited amount of space in the pass to manoeuvre around the Shepherds, which was about to change.
“Okay!” Morgan shouted to the twenty-odd mages still strong enough to assist the Shepherds. “Commence operation fire-storm!”
Henry gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up, his eyes wild while Ricken quivered at the man’s excitement over apparent wholesale destruction. Miriel nodded once, her expression never changing as she pushed the rims of her glasses further up her nose, beginning to lead her team of mages at the same time as Henry.
Morgan shied back from the flames as they practically exploded along the edges of the pass, a signal and challenge Yen’fay would have to be blind to miss. They had set up underbrush and fuel so that the fires would burn on almost indefinitely, but the mages would most likely need to call down a storm before the fires spread to the light woodland to the immediate east of their position.
So we’ll have to wrap this up fast, Morgan thought, falling back to the Shepherds’ position with Noire while the now exhausted mages made their way down the ravine past Liung’s position.
Morgan stepped lightly, placing her feet carefully on the uneven ground. Patches of red hot earth seared the open air, making the whole area smell of steam and burnt vegetation, and now with the addition of the walls of flame to either side Yen’fay had nowhere to out-manoeuvre them.
Morgan’s confidence rose. They were going to beat back Yen’fay, regroup, maybe even make it back to Valm Harbour and unite with the other half of the army, fresh from Regna Ferox. If they dug in their heels here, they-
“M-Morgan!” Noire stammered, face ashen as she pointed to the bottom of the pass they stood atop. “Look!”
Morgan’s heart skipped a beat, thinking that Yen’fay had already sent an advance force to meet them, until she saw a familiar coat among the distant shapes.
She didn’t even pause to count the figures climbing the ravine she was so intent on meeting them.
“C’mon, Noire,” Morgan laughed, ecstatic at her father’s imminent return. “I’ll race you back down!”
“General Yen’fay!” Keiji called, sprinting towards the other man. “General! We’ve spotted a small group of Ylisseans in the forest to the east! It looks like stragglers trying to reach the rest of their force!”
“Show me,” Yen’fay said without preamble, following Keiji back to the eastern flank of their force.
Yen’fay’s hawk-like vision spotted them easily; six ragged and wounded warriors making their way as fast as their obviously exhausted bodies would allow them to through the light woodlands to the east.
“Shall we give chase?” Keiji asked, his opinion of the matter plain in the reluctance with which he asked the question.
No warrior of Chon’sin wanted the dishonour of battling wounded soldiers.
“Allow them their brief reprieve,” Yen’fay ordered, turning away. “It will make no difference in the end.”
“Of course, General,” Keiji answered with a low bow, waving away the archers that had already taken up position in case Yen’fay had decided otherwise.
The General’s heart beat faster. There was no mistaking the glint of white lacquered armour he’d seen between the trees…
As Yen’fay and Keiji returned to the head of the army they were momentarily stopped when two jets of smoke and flames shot into the air from the direction of the Demon’s Ingle.
“I knew they were desperate,” Keiji commented as they started walking again. “But they first choose to take to the Ingle, then give away their position?”
“It is a challenge,” Yen’fay said assuredly. “No doubt meant as a distraction while the majority of their forces escape. Send a force of Dynast troops through the ravine to the west. Send… Ji-hun and his men.”
“Milord, Ji-hun’s force is mostly conscripts,” Keiji said hesitantly. “If there is organized resistance they will be destroyed.”
“They are merely a distraction to keep the Ylisseans from regrouping,” Yen’fay explained coldly, telling himself that the fact Ji-hun had been one of the leaders of the resistance that had betrayed his sister had nothing to do with his decision to sacrifice the man and his forces.
“Of course, General,” Keiji said, waving down a runner and sending the orders off.
Yen’fay stood, looking at the smoke rising from the Demon’s Ingle now that the flames had died down again. The volcano itself looked about ready to erupt; there was a reason that the locals avoided the area, so why had…
Yen’fay’s eyes widened, a grim hope blossoming in his chest as he began to understand the Ylisseans’ intentions.
He quickly made his decision. In fact, it was a decision he’d made years ago when he had thrown away his honour and sworn fealty to Walhart… and broken his sister’s heart.
“Keiji,” he asked quietly in their native tongue. “Whom do you serve?”
“Milord?” his second asked confusedly.
“I asked you; whom do you swear fealty to?”
“To you, milord,” Keiji responded without a trace of hesitation, bowing low from the waist. “I and all the warriors of our homeland follow you, and you alone. Who you choose to take orders from is none of our concern. You are the king of Chon’sin. We follow you.”
“You follow the blood of the ruler of Chon’sin?” Yen’fay asked, turning to face his still bowing second.
Keiji looked up, confusion still evident on his face.
“Yes… yes milord. As we always have.”
“Swear to me,” Yen’fay said. “Renew your vow of fealty to the royal blood of Chon’sin.”
Keiji rose slowly, catching on to his master’s meaning, before dropping to one knee. Yen’fay looked up, the entire force of Chon’sin warriors doing the same without hesitation while the foreign conscripts looked on confused.
“I speak for every man and woman of Chon’sin present,” Keiji said, his voice heavy with emotion. “When I say that we serve the throne and royal line of Chon’sin and her ruler.”
“Whoever may bear that burden,” Keiji added in a low tone, looking up and meeting his lord’s gaze.
Yen’fay nodded, satisfied and strode forward, resting a hand on Keiji’s red-lacquered shoulder guard.
“You and our men will hold ground here,” Yen’fay said quietly as Keiji rose. “I will lead the remainder of the Southern Army against the Ylissean League. Remember the oath you have renewed here today, Keiji of Chon’sin.”
“Aye, milord,” Keiji said, his voice thick.
“Conscripts! Men of Valm!” Yen’fay shouted, speaking again in the common tongue. “With me! We will crush the Ylissean league for the glory of the Conqueror!”
A throaty roar went up from the conscripted Dynast forces as they fell in behind Yen’fay, the General beginning to march towards the Demon’s Ingle without looking back.
Keiji and the rest of the soldiers from Chon’sin remained silent, bowing their heads respectfully before taking up positions to hold the ground their lord had ordered them to.
The Shepherds had erected a pseudo-camp on some of the more stable ground inside the Demon’s Ingle, consisting primarily of a medical tent, a command tent and the two wagons that followed them everywhere. Jake and Olivia had stubbornly refused to abandon their comrades, even if they were non-combatants.
Chrom stretched his neck as he accepted a waterskin from Olivia, rolling his head back and forth a few times. Sumia had left his side some time ago to make ready with Cordelia and Cherche. The three fliers, along with the two manaketes, would according to Morgan’s strategy be playing ‘crowd control’ by making sure that the enemy force didn’t spread out too wide and overflow the small opening that had been left by the ravine and magical flames. Everyone else was fighting on foot; the superior mobility of the mounted Shepherds really counted for nothing in such close confines.
Yen’fay was close, Walhart no doubt not far behind him, and after so long spent running Chrom was restless; he wanted to fight again.
“Alright, Shepherds!” Chrom called to the waiting soldiers, Knights and assorted warriors.
“The enemy is almost upon us! Let’s be done with this and see to it that our comrades have a peaceful welcome!”
The tired roar that answered his speech lifted his spirits, which lifted even further when he caught Sumia’s gentle smile directed at him across the camp.
“Too late!” Morgan chirped, practically dropping out of the sky right in front of Chrom as she leapt from a higher vantage point, Noire climbing down much more cautiously.
“They’re here already!”
The excitement that spread through the Shepherds was almost a palatable thing as they bustled to close in on the ravine’s opening; shades of people could be seen through the ever-present gouts of steam, and the Shepherds were jostling to get a better look.
“Alright, that’s enough!” Frederick shouted. “Resume formations! We’re on the cusp of battle, here, people! Healers prepare for wounded! Everyone else back into formation!”
All the Shepherds except for Tharja and Virion grudgingly followed orders, reforming their ranks while Maribelle and Lissa pushed to the front, Olivia and Jake moving to assist them. Panne, too, looked like she was about to ignore Frederick’s orders, but instead her face took on an unnoticed look of confusion as the shapes in the steam solidified.
Lon’qu, limping a little and holding a wounded arm close to his body; Say’ri, shuffling tiredly but still holding herself up tall and proud; Gaius, obviously about to drop as he stumbled; and Severa, supporting Robin as they both made their way back to camp.
“Where’s… where’s Lucina?” Sumia asked quietly, suddenly standing with Chrom and Morgan, the reins of her pegasus firmly held in an anxious looking Cordelia’s hand.
Robin’s team drew closer, obviously hastening to reach the safety of friendly lines before Yen’fay’s attack began; but… they were a person short.
Had Robin been unable to rescue Lucina? No; no, Robin wouldn’t have returned empty handed, not after the way he’d set off to find her.
Chrom felt as if his heart stopped beating as he realized it wasn’t Robin being supported by Severa, but Lucina wearing Robin’s coat as the two women stepped out of the steam.
“What…” Morgan mumbled dumbfounded. “What’s going on? Where’s…”
She trailed off as the small team of Shepherds finally reached the lines, all practically collapsing as Olivia, Jake, Maribelle and Lissa moved to help them back to the medical tent.
“Where’s my father?” Morgan asked in a desperate voice.
Virion looked away, biting his lip so hard in frustration he tasted blood.
Tharja put her shaking hands on Morgan’s shoulders, holding her back as the girl desperately looked around, back towards the cloud of steam.
None of the team would meet anyone else’s eyes as they were led to the safety of the medical tent except Lucina, who picked herself up off of Severa’s shoulder and limped towards her father and the small group with him.
“I’m sorry,” was all she said, shrugging off Robin’s coat and handing it to Morgan, her face an emotionless mask.
Chrom couldn’t believe it; he wouldn’t believe it! The thought that Robin was dead, it was… it was ludicrous! It was laughable to think that a man that had defied the odds so many times, that had laughed in the face of death more often than he’d like to admit was…
“How?” Chrom finally managed past the lump that had formed in his throat.
“He… he gave his life so that we could escape,” Lucina said in a dull monotone, wavering a little as she spoke. “He managed to delay the… the majority of the army. All you face is Yen’fay’s force.”
Sumia gently took Lucina by the shoulders, tears streaming down the Pegasus Knight’s face, and led her in the direction of the medical tent.
“I’m sorry,” Chrom heard her repeat again, Lucina’s voice breaking.
Morgan was silent, staring down at her father’s coat clutched in her hands, her knuckles going white as she held it, her face hidden by her long bangs.
The young tactician took a few deep, shuddering breaths.
“This… this doesn’t change anything,” she said at last.
“The plan remains unchanged,” she said again in a stronger voice, still not looking up. “We… we can still win here today.”
“Morgan, we’d understand if you-” Chrom started before she cut him off.
“No!” she cried, face snapping up as tears ran freely down her cheeks. “I will not falter! It would be an insult to his memory if I were to falter… to fail now.”
Her head dropped again.
“I will put this somewhere safe,” she said in a shuddering voice, indicating to the coat in her hands. “I will compose myself, and I will lead the defence with you, Prince Chrom. They way my father would have. I… we don’t have the luxury of mourning now.”
Chrom nodded, and Morgan began to move back towards the wagons. She swayed, and Tharja caught her, supporting the girl as she walked.
“This… this is outrageous,” Virion hissed in a tone that Chrom had never heard from the man before.
“That they would dare to take Robin from us… merely the thought of it...”
Chrom nodded his agreement, a similar emotion rising unbidden in his chest as he strode forward to address the Shepherds.
It wasn’t sadness. It wasn’t loss or guilt. Those would come later, no doubt in crippling quantities.
At that moment Chrom felt a pure, white-hot rage the likes of which he had never experienced before; not even when Emm had sacrificed herself.
“Shepherds!” the prince roared. “This day the Conqueror has stolen someone from us that cannot be replaced!”
The Shepherds were silent as they watched their leader. Some had tears in their eyes. Some looked ready to explode with rage. All looked focused and prepared to face what was to come.
“Today we fight not for our homelands,” Chrom continued, “But for the memory of the man and friend that led us for so long, never faltering, never asking anything in return except our trust and friendship!”
Over his shoulder Chrom could hear the sounds of Valmese horns blaring and booted feet marching towards them; excellent timing on Yen’fay’s part.
“Today we fight for vengeance! For justice!”
Chrom spun, unsheathing Falchion and holding it high, facing the encroaching enemy. The blade blazed with blue fire from within, a sign that his cause was just.
“For Robin!” Chrom cried, taking the holy sword in a two-handed grip and charging forward.
“For Robin!” the Shepherds cried as one, thundering forward behind him without a hint of hesitation.
For a moment Chrom almost felt pity for what Yen’fay was about to face.
Morgan collapsed to her knees once she was out of the sight of the others behind Anna’s wagon, hugging her father’s coat to her chest and sobbing openly.
Tharja knelt down next to her, gently embracing the distraught girl.
“I’m okay,” Morgan said, forcing her emotions down as she stood and carefully folded her father’s coat, gently placing it in the wagon.
“Come on,” Morgan said without looking at Tharja as she jogged back to the front, wiping at her face with the cuff of her coat. “Prince Chrom needs us.”
Tharja hesitated a moment, a single tear running down one of her perfect cheeks as she reached out and stroked the carefully folded coat before closing her eyes and composing herself.
In one swift movement the Dark Mage drew her ceremonial dagger and ran it across her palm, adding a third scar to her hand and letting the blood drip to the scorched earth at her feet. She silently swore to the ghost of the man she had followed all over the world, the man she loved more than anyone else, that she would watch over his daughter and avenge his death.
Feeling the power of the forbidden spell ‘Vengeance’ beginning to course through her Tharja glowered in the direction of the battlefield and began to purposefully stride towards it, eyes blazing with excess mana the way she’d only ever seen one other person’s.
“No!” Lucina cried, struggling to escape from the hands holding her back. “I must go to the front! Father needs me! He-”
“Lucina, you can barely stand!” Lissa shouted over the hysterical woman’s screaming, trying in vain with Severa to hold her down. “You’ll just hinder your father and everyone else like this! Please, let us tend your wounds!”
As soon as Chrom had started his speech Lucina had gone berserk, desperately trying to get back to the fighting and doing her best in her weakened state to go through Severa and Lissa while Maribelle treated Gaius and Lon’qu and Say’ri waited off to one side.
“No!” she shouted, almost rabid. “I will not let his death be meaningless! I have to fight!”
Severa grunted as Lucina brought her knee up into her stomach, the air rushing out of her lungs as she reeled. Sensing an opening Lucina jerked an arm free, shoved Lissa off her other arm and lunged forward, fingers beginning to wrap around Falchion as-
“Enough!” Lon’qu roared, suddenly appearing before her and grabbing her by the throat, forcing her back onto the medical tent’s cot in one fluid, brutal motion.
“If you die then his sacrifice was meaningless!” Lon’qu continued as Lucina quieted, staring up at the swordsman with tears in her eyes.
“Am worse than useless right now!” Lon’qu cut her off. “Accept that or go off and get yourself killed!”
Lon’qu’s glare jerked to the side as Lissa laid a hand on his arm, and the appendage holding Lucina’s throat went slack, releasing her and falling to his side.
“I will not allow his sacrifice to be in vain either,” Lon’qu said quietly. “His sacrifice was for you, Lucina. If you die, then he died in vain. Let your wounds heal and have your vengeance; don’t throw your life away meaninglessly.”
Lon’qu quickly reached up to stroke Lissa’s cheek before returning to the cot he’d been sitting on while waiting for treatment, head bowed low.
Lucina rolled onto her side, facing away from the others as Lissa returned to the task of healing her, the blue-haired princess’ shoulders and back shaking with silent sobs.
Severa massaged her bruised stomach; by far she was the least wounded of the six that had returned from Steiger, so she was helping with the others as best as she could.
It cut her like a knife to see Lucina so broken; she’d watched her friend bottle up her emotions and become a ruler overnight when news of her parents’ deaths was delivered, never truly grieving for them. After watching the woman actually relax a little and behave like a normal human being for a few months Severa had hoped that her mental wounds were finally beginning to heal, obviously due in no small part to Robin.
Losing him had brought back all the pain Severa had already dealt with personally; what would it do to someone who had never actually grieved for any of her fallen friends or family?
Averting her gaze Severa looked to the other end of the tent to where Lon’qu sat with his head bowed and fists clenched, next to…
“Wait,” Severa said. “Where’s Say’ri?”
The white-armoured princess from Chon’sin had disappeared.