Invisible Ties

Chapter 41

The capital city of Valm was in an uproar. News of their supposedly undefeatable Emperor, the Conqueror that would rule the entire world, retreating from the field after being defeated by a lowly tactician had spread like wildfire through the populace and panic had begun to take root. As Morgan marched through the town at Chrom’s side the leering stares and shouted insults were beginning to take their toll on morale, but fortunately no one had thrown anything at them yet.

“Monsters! How do you sickos justify this!?”

“Invaders! Murderers!”

“My son was stationed at Steiger, you animals!”

“Go back to your dirt farms across the sea!”

Morgan looked out over the crowd as they jogged down the wide colonnade to the palace, central to the large city. The populace was angry and scared, and looking to take that out on someone, anyone that they could. Of course the easiest target would be the invading army that was forcing change upon their lives weather they wanted it or not.

The city itself was grand, and as yet untouched by the war that raged outside of its walls; the only enemy soldiers thus far to breach the gate had been the Shepherds, and they were a small unit that could easily outpace any guard squads. There was still fighting at the gate, being led by one of Roark’s lieutenants that was attempting to hold an exit point for the Shepherds, but aside from that the massive city was still pristine.

Huge dark stone buildings reached to the sky, delicate architecture making them seem almost like pieces of art in themselves rather than shops and homes. The streets were carefully paved and maintained, and there were small gardens set at regular intervals. The overall feel of wealth and prosperity was in stark contrast to the desperate poverty the travelling Shepherds had witnessed in the outlying villages and towns.

“It’s as if they’re happy under Walhart’s rule,” Morgan muttered to no one in particular.

From next to her she heard Virion sigh and droop his head a little, eyes focused on the ground. The archer had been incredibly downcast since they had entered the city for some reason that he had yet to divulge to Morgan.

“These people in the capital, they do not directly feel his cruelty,” the archer explained. “It is the Dynasts and kingdoms around his own that suffer, forced to be little more than slaves while his own nation prospers. He hides behind an ideology of equality, but it is merely the strong lording over the weak, like every other dictator in history.”

“You sound like you speak from experience,” Morgan tentatively prodded.

Virion let out a self-depreciating chuckle, running a hand through his long hair. “Yes. I suppose I do.”

Morgan blinked a few times, waiting for the usually talkative archer to continue explaining.

“It has been a very long time since I’ve been back to the Capital,” Virion added wistfully, looking around him. “It has not changed a bit.”

Morgan knew that her father’s friend had once been the ruler of the tiny Valmese kingdom of Rosanne, but no one could say more than that about him; his past was shrouded in secrecy, something he seemed to relish as a talking point, even if that talking point was ‘alas, I cannot speak of my most painful past!’ He simply loved the attention it gave him.

“It is much easier to enjoy the scenery while not being chased by angry guards, though,” he added with a forced smirk.

“Give it time,” Vaike chuckled from his other side. “’M sure they’ll realize we’re here sooner or later. We ain’t exactly bein’ subtle here.”

Priam darted from shadow to shadow, silent as the wind while he raced through the Capital City. Normally he would have simply fought his way through the city guard, destroying any that wished to oppose him, but this day was different. This day he had someplace to be, and he had to get there before the others did.

The older swordsman ducked low behind some crates, hand lightly resting on his sword’s grip poking over his shoulder as a squad of Guards raced by, running for the city gates and completely missing him.

Priam was almost disappointed they hadn’t spotted and challenged him, but reminded himself that he had a mission to fulfil.

Perhaps less a mission and more an old promise, though.

As he raced through the streets he was overcome with a bitter sense of nostalgia for his younger days as Captain of the City Guard, before Walhart had pressured him to take up the position of General. His Guards would have been checking every nook and cranny, especially if the city was under siege like this.

It seemed like so long ago, the time he spent as a youth with his two closest friends on these streets; the idealistic young knight who wanted nothing more than peace for his homeland; the pure, yet curious priestess who saw the good in everyone; and him, the newly appointed city guard whose only desire was to master the sword and live up to his ancient bloodline. They had been inseparable, even as they had advanced in ranks of their chosen orders. However the young Knight grew to despise the weakness he perceived in others after a training accident, though, and became cold and cruel. The priestess and the Guard had tried to reopen the Knight’s heart, but he had closed himself off forever.

Such memories had long lain dormant in Priam’s heart, but the feeling of nostalgia brought them back. Such days were long past, however; Walhart had long lost himself to madness, and Pheros was dead. He was alone now, but he had never forgotten his promise to Pheros.

“If the day comes where Walhart strays from the path of good and justice you must be the one to put him right. I lack your strength, my friend, or else I would do so myself. However all I can do is watch over him and protect him from others. It must be you that protects him from himself. Goodbye, Priam. I shall miss you, my friend.”

The priestess, Pheros, who had long ago given up her robes and mantle for the path of the sword and war, had said these words to him before he had fled into the night to protect his friends and loved ones from Walhart’s assassins. ‘The Conqueror’ had already been in power for years when he had deserted, poisoned against his friends and the common will of his people by the toad Excellus and the simpering yes-man Cervantes. When he had tried to speak to his friend his words had fallen on deaf ears, and that night assassins had come for him at Excellus’ order. Afterwards Priam had fled knowing that he could no longer make a difference by serving, but not before speaking with the only person he still trusted.

He had begged Pheros to join him, to form the core of a resistance movement that would operate from the shadows and work to restore peace to their homeland. They would start small, gather others to their cause like them; veterans that had grown weary of the Imperial bully tactics. They would stay on the road, living on handouts and working to slowly disassemble Walhart’s army piece by piece. She had listened to all his pleas and plans, heard out every word he had said, then sadly said her farewell to him. Not that Walhart had been able to see it, but she was still utterly loyal to the ideal that he had once sworn them to; the original, untainted ideal of a world without conflict, cared for by the strong so that the weak would not have to live in fear any longer. Walhart’s ideals had grown twisted and dark, but Pheros had been the shining light that had kept that ideal alive. She had died for that ideal, but Priam had sworn that it wouldn’t die with her.

And now, finally, Priam would make good on his promise to Pheros; he would put Walhart back on the path of righteousness, or die trying.

He had trained relentlessly for the last ten years. He had honed his mastery of the sword to an artform, where nobody could stand against him any longer. He was a god of the blade now, and only now could he face Walhart.

Above him the Imperial Palace loomed. He would simply walk in the front door and strike down any that stood between him and his target; no more sneaking, no more striking from the shadows. The way of the sword demanded justice, it demanded blood for blood, death for death. This day there would finally be a reckoning for all the evil Walhart had done. Priam wasn’t an agent of justice; he was acting as justice itself now.

Priam wasn’t wielding his sword as he marched up the stone steps; he was a part of it.

Walhart’s castle, in Chrom’s opinion, put to shame every other palace and castle he had ever seen, including his own back in Ylisstol. Giant stone buttresses held up a building at least three times the size of the Ylisstol palace, every surface covered in delicate edging and looming gargoyles. Complete with perfectly manicured lawns it absolutely screamed decadence at the top of its lungs, cementing in Chrom’s mind exactly what kind of man Walhart was. For all his talk of honour and righteousness he was nothing more than a bully that squandered his resources on his own inflated ego.

Between the rows of hedges and beautiful marble fountains of the palace grounds stood the remaining Valmese Honour Guard, waiting for the Shepherds.

“Form up!” Chrom shouted over his shoulder, stepping back as the Knights and armoured Shepherds, and Vaike, all stepped forward, forming a line and marching ahead, heedless of the hedges and gardens.

At Morgan’s urging he and Lucina would be joining her in the second rank where they could conserve their energy but still fight. Somehow they had to defeat Walhart, and the three of them were some of the best single-enemy combatants in the Shepherds. Lon’qu was with them, and Chrom would have liked him to join them against Walhart, even though his furs and leather armour wouldn’t be much protection against the Emperor. The stoic Feroxi swordsman knew the odds and had agreed to be part of the attack force anyway, though.

The Shepherds advanced quickly through the Honour Guard, sweeping aside their resistance with a combination of the blunt force of the skilled Knights in the front and the wrath of the mages in the rear of the group. From above the enemy soldiers were peppered by spears thrown by Sumia and Cordelia, Cherche fighting on the front with the other armoured fighters and Nowi and Nah holding in reserve.

As the Shepherds charged up the stone steps to the palace’s entry hall Chrom heard Morgan lean over to Lucina and ask “Is it just me, or does this seem too easy?”

Lucina shrugged as Vaike and Kellam began beating on the heavy oaken doors.

“No doubt there are scores more soldiers waiting for us within,” Lucina answered.

The doors smashed inwards, Vaike hooting and hollering victoriously, only to have the shouts of celebration die in his throat as his tanned face went pale. Arrayed before the Shepherds, filling the long, straight entry hall, was a sea of heavily armed and armoured Honour Guard, easily outnumbering the men they had just fought in the courtyard five to one.

“I hate being right,” Lucina muttered with a tired sigh.

“Where does he keep getting these guys!?” Morgan practically wailed, shoulders drooping before she picked herself back up and readied her magic tome.

While Chrom was forced to agree with the girl he couldn’t do so verbally, knowing that he needed to present a strong front for the Shepherds looking to him for leadership now more than ever.

“Shepherds!” Chrom shouted. “Advance!”

They flowed into the giant hall like a high-tide in the same formation they had taken the courtyard with; Kellam, Frederick, Sully, Stahl, Vaike and Donnel taking the front line while the rest of the combat Shepherds crowded in behind them, protecting their flanks and making sure none made it past them to the support Shepherds, who were either shooting magical bolts at the closely packed enemy, or else firing arrows randomly into the press. The hall was as impressive as the outside of the castle, easily high enough for the fliers to still move freely despite being indoors. With excited roars at Morgan’s signal Nowi and Nah changed into their dragon forms, taking to the air with Sumia, Cordelia and Cherche and beginning to rain destruction down on the more numerous foes. A near miss from a bolt of lightning struck the stones at Chrom’s feet, and before he could shout for someone to target the mages Miriel and Laurent shifted their focus, entering a devastating magical duel with the Valmese mages that left the soldiers beneath it reeling from the shock of spells being cancelled out by each other above them.

Over all of it Chrom could see Walhart at the back of the hall, standing before a giant, ornate throne holding an equally impressive-looking axe. He stood impassively, as if this threat to his very throne room was little more than a show he would watch to pass the time, glaring out at the performers motionlessly like a red-steel clad gargoyle.

However, for all their skill and strength, Chrom could see that the Shepherds weren’t making any progress against the Valmese force. Their enemy fought like men possessed under the cold, empty gaze of the Conqueror. Death came at them from the front, but if any man tried to turn and run death waited behind them, too; the Valmese soldiers were trapped between their Emperor and the Shepherds, and apparently they feared the wrath of their Emperor more than the blades of the Ylisseans.

“Fight on!” Chrom urged, deciding he had had enough of supporting the front line and shouldering to the front. “We must end this war here! Fight on, brave Shepherds! For Ylisse!”

Across the great hall Walhart twitched at Chrom’s cry, turning his head as if focusing in on only the young Exalt. With a satisfied smile closer to a snarl the Emperor shouldered his axe and slowly and methodically began to push through his soldiers in the direction of the Shepherds. Chrom watched all this happen before losing himself to the melee in front of him, vowing that this time the Conqueror would fall before him and not the other way around.

Morgan felt a spike of anxiety when she watched Walhart step down from the raised dais his throne sat on, but quashed it almost as soon as it sprung up. She would deal with that particular problem when it reared its ugly head and not before; she had an entire battle to worry about in the meantime, and she wasn’t about to let her father down by dying now that he had just come back from the dead.

“Vaike, will you please pull back for five minutes and let Lissa heal you!?”

“Lon’qu, watch the flanks; they’re trying to get sneaky now!”

“Panne, Yarne; leapfrog with the front line! Let’s try and make a little breathing room!”

Every time she addressed a problem, though, another rose to take its place; if the front line pushed forward, the flanks would start to collapse; if the mages took their attention off of the enemy spellcasters for just a moment to help with the infantry the support team was attacked; if Virion and Noire stopped shooting at the enemy archers they would start to target the flying Shepherds. Morgan was on the verge of pulling her hair out in frustration, but freely admitted that she didn’t have the luxury of time to do so at present.

The earlier confidence that her father had instilled in her when he had told them to finish the battle with the younger tactician in his place was quickly evaporating under the strain of the seemingly unstoppable and endless Valmese Honour Guard’s assault.

“Nowi! Nah!” Morgan shouted, waving her arms above her head to get the two manaketes’ attention. “Hit their flanks! Their flanks!”

“Henry, once they bunch up I need you to hit them as hard as you can.”

“Stagger the line! Create some space!”

Morgan kept shouting orders over the tumult of the battle; probably up there for the most vicious she had seen so far. The Shepherds were the very best that the Ylissean League had to offer, and they were being fought to a standstill. Even with Chrom once again leading from the front they were still barely maintaining their foothold.

Morgan hated to admit it, but they would have to pull back and rethink their strategy; they weren’t getting anywhere like this, and-

Reeling, the young tactician fell backwards with a new scorch mark on the breast of her tattered coat, the magical reinforcing thankfully protecting her from the worst of the spell. One of the enemy mages must have taken the opportunity to strike at her while Henry was too occupied to intercept the spell…

“Morgan! Are you alright!?” Anna said, grabbing her by the elbow and helping her back up.

“Fine,” Morgan replied, already eyeing the battlefield again. She could smell burnt hair as she stood, shrugging the coat back into place.

“Your head’s on fire!” Anna suddenly practically screamed, roughly patting at the smoking ends of Morgan’s hair.

“Well put it out!” Morgan shouted back, recalling her last experience with magical burns and finally beginning to panic as she danced around.

In the time it took the two women to put out the small flames licking at Morgan’s hair the Shepherds were finally pushed back a few meters, desperately fighting to regain the momentum they had lost almost immediately. Much to Morgan’s dismay the sound she had been dreading to hear the entire day rang out; the sound of one of the Shepherds falling.

Kellam went down, a large sword having finally broken through his thick armour and embedded himself in the Shepherd’s chest. Frederick instantly moved to cover the hole in the line he left, Lucina taking up position next to him, but no one could stop or be distracted by their fallen friend, lest they follow his fate.

“Anna! Help me!” Morgan shouted over the fighting, thin wisps of smoke still rising from her hair as she charged forward, intent on dragging the bigger man back to the healers.

The redheaded merchant hesitated a moment before doggedly following after the younger woman, muttering to herself the entire time about ‘seriously needing to talk to someone about increased hazard pay’.

Morgan skidded to her knees next to the fallen soldier; much to her relief he was still alive and trying to staunch his wound before he bled out.

“Hold on, Kellam,” Morgan muttered, hastily dragging the first aid kit she carried everywhere with her out of her pouch and beginning to apply pressure to the wound.

More cries from the Shepherds distracted the tactician as Anna joined her, forcing her to look back up to the front line. Chrom had taken a hit to his shoulder, and was still fighting one-handed while Libra tried to heal his injury. They were starting to tire; they couldn’t keep this up much longer…

“Can you drag him back to where it’s safe?” Morgan asked the merchant.

Anna nodded a mute affirmative, pale and tight-faced, before grabbing Kellam under the shoulders and dragging him back in the direction they had come. The soldier waved a weak thank you to Morgan as Anna dragged him to safety.

Desperately hoping to take a little attention off of the Shepherds fighting in the front, Morgan lashed out with her trusted elthunder spell sending arcs of bright lightning dancing along the Valmese soldiers. Much to her chagrin the encroaching horde barely slowed. Gritting her teeth, Morgan dug deep in desperation and began to cast a spell she hadn’t actually trialled in combat before.

“Chrom, I’m going to try something!” she shouted in warning, already channelling without waiting for his response.

A magic circle appeared beneath her feet, glowing bright light creating a small updraft that lifted Morgan’s burned hair about her face. She ignored it, focusing on getting her spell absolutely perfect; she wouldn’t get another chance at it.

“Devastation!” she cried, magic circles beginning to rotate around her outstretched hand, now, too as her eyes blazed white with mana. “The endless dark void! I call to the abyss!”

It was a spell she had been working on secretly with Tharja and Noire whenever she had time; thanks to Noire’s almost prodigious knowledge of dark magic incantations, and the experience that Tharja could bring to the matter she had developed a dangerous and deadly spell. She, like her father, hated using dark magic, but for some strange reason she had an innate affinity to the arte, making developing a ‘super-spell’ like this easier for her than trying to use her father’s elemental ones.

“Verrine!” Morgan roared, the white glow in her eyes turning to a burning black as she finished the incantation.

Much to Morgan’s relief she felt the casting go smoothly, and as the mana left her body a dark cloud began to gather around the enemies’ feet, resembling the clouds of vapour and ash that the Risen exploded into upon death more than anything else. Just as the first of the Valmese began to notice the clouds gathering around them ethereal hands began to form and grasp onto their legs, crawling up their armoured bodies or dragging them down to the ground. The Shepherds were stunned, watching on as dark ghostly limbs lashed out and began to tear at the Valmese soldiers, Morgan grunting and forcing herself to maintain control of the spell, lest it break free and dissipate before the Shepherds could regroup.

Descending into panic immediately the Imperial forces practically forgot they were meant to be fighting the Shepherds, striking hopelessly at the ghostly limbs that were dragging them down and tearing at exposed flesh with vicious hooked claws the shade of midnight.

Morgan had to resist the urge to giggle with renewed hope - It was working! Out of the corner of her eye she could see the Shepherds beginning to rally, wounds being healed and the line coalescing again. She blocked out the screams of the terrified and wounded Imperials, focusing only on holding on a few more seconds; every moment she maintained the spell was another moment that her friends took to ready themselves for what would most likely be the final push…

She could do it! She had to; her father would have no problems –

All of a sudden Morgan’s world inverted, her body going limp and her spell fizzling out almost instantly as she flew through the air.

“Heresy!” Walhart roared as he charged through the Shepherd line like it was nothing, his axe swinging in a wide arc that threw the other Shepherds to the sides as he barrelled on towards Morgan. “Blasphemy! You would dare to bring such unholy magic into my very throne room!? Know your place, vile insect!”

The young tactician landed hard, feeling stressed ribs that had only recently been healed break again as she hit the stone floor, all the breath escaping her lungs at once.

“I will grind you all to dust beneath my boot!” Walhart raged, the calm veneer he had been wearing earlier finally disappearing.

In the face of the Conqueror’s rage even his own Imperial soldiers seemed hesitant to follow their lord, holding back and watching, or else trying to assist those wounded by Morgan’s spell.

Frederick was first to leap to her defence, the big knight bringing his own axe down in a high arc, only to be sent flying before the blow could land by a vicious kick to his stomach, cracking the armour. Chrom and Lucina both charged at Walhart from behind, their twin Falchions tearing great rents in his back armour and shredding the already tattered cape Walhart was wearing, but he spun like a whirlwind and knocked their swords aside with his own weapon, forcing both royals back. Lon’qu darted in low, aiming to strike at the giant man’s flank, only to turn his attack into a rolling dodge as he narrowly avoided being stomped on. Walhart reached out and actually caught Yarne as he leapt to his friend’s defence, lifting the large transformed Taguel into the air and throwing him into a multitude of the other Shepherds.

“Worthless, all of you!” Walhart snarled, stomping towards Morgan again, who still lay reeling on the ground. “Weak! Pitiful! You will all die by my blade!”

He knocked Anna aside with barely any effort as she moved to defend Morgan, taking Severa out with the flat of his axe on the backswing, the moody red-haired girl’s head snapping back as a trail of blood jetted into the air from her injured mouth and she crumpled.

Morgan tried to rally herself, rolling onto her back and holding her sword across her chest for all the good it did; Walhart merely kicked the blade away before stomping down on her chest, breaking more ribs in the process. He ground his heel into her stomach before stomping again; Morgan felt something in her shoulder separate as she was driven further into the stones beneath her, forcing an involuntary shriek from her throat.

“Now die!” Walhart roared, towering over Morgan and preparing to bring his giant axe down.

Morgan closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable final blow to land, but after a few seconds when she found herself still breathing she risked cracking one eye. Walhart stood frozen above her, facing the palace doors with a look of utter contempt on his face.

“You,” he whispered, his voice so loaded with hatred and malice that it sent shivers up Morgan’s bruised spine.

The Conqueror lifted his foot from the tactician, now utterly ignoring her and the other Shepherds ringed around him with weapons trained on his massive form. The only thing that he cared about now was slowly, confidently striding through the broken doorway.

“Hello, old friend,” a scruffy-looking older man in mismatched Valmese and blue-painted armour plates said with a sad voice, reaching over his shoulder and drawing the biggest sword Morgan had ever seen, its ancient golden blade dully reflecting the dying sunlight from behind him. “Fitting that I should be the one to end you here, where our feud began, no?”

“Priam!” Walhart snapped, spitting the name like a curse. “You dare to darken my doorstep again, traitor!? I should have killed you when I had the chance!”

Morgan hissed as hands grabbed her beneath her arms, jarring the broken bones in her chest and her dislocated shoulder. Severa ignored her pain, blood running down her won chin from a split lip as she dragged her friend away from the source of their injuries. All of the Shepherds backed up, sensing a confrontation brewing as the Honour Guard soldiers did the same in the opposite direction.

The two combatants stared each other down, Walhart seething with barely contained fury while the other, smaller man, apparently named Priam, simply watched him, breathing deep and holding his giant sword in a two handed low-guard. Despite the fact that Walhart was easily nearly three times the size of the newcomer and head and shoulders above him, Priam didn’t seem nervous at all; instead he almost seemed excited, like he was looking forward to this.

“I think that this has gone on long enough,” Priam said at length, breaking the silence that had descended on the throne room and stepping forward. “You have nothing left to prove to anyone, old friend. It’s time to give this war a rest.”

“This stopped being about proving my strength decades ago!” Walhart bellowed, his deep and gravelly voice echoing throughout the silent hall. “I am the strongest, now! By that right this world belongs to me!”

Priam shook his head sadly, the long ends of the green headband he wore waving in the slight breeze as he did so.

“Do not make me kill you,” Priam seemed to beg. “Ragnell has tasted your blood once before. I will not hesitate to finish what I started.”

Walhart scoffed, holding his axe out one-handed as he took a step back into a side stance. “Then come, if you think you can stand against me.”

Priam seemed to deflate a moment before disappearing from sight, only to reappear in a shower of sparks before Walhart, their weapons locked. Morgan gaped; he had moved so fast she hadn’t even seen it! And Walhart had been able to counter the blow!

Morgan couldn’t help but wonder what manner of monsters were they in the presence of.

Walhart forced Priam’s blade down, and they disengaged with another shower of sparks before swinging wildly at each other. The two men’s weapons were little more than blurs as they circled figure eights around each other, almost as if performing an intricate dance. Time almost slowed down as the blurs of their weapons created a sort of bubble around their duel, neither weapon touching armour or its counterpart, slicing through the air with such speed they were practically invisible to the naked eye.

All at once the illusion was destroyed by a clap of thunder as the weapons met again with enough force to vibrate the very earth that their audience stood on. Watching the other Shepherds actually stumble and fall made Morgan grateful she was already on the ground.

The stranger Priam’s golden sword was a blur in his hands, never striking Walhart in the same place twice; new rents were torn in the Conqueror’s ornate armour, blood beginning to flow from his multitude of wounds and patter to the floor as he struggled to keep pace with the smaller man running circles around him. Priam would strike low, and when Walhart moved to block his sword was already elsewhere, striking high. This pattern was repeated again and again, Walhart only twice managing to get glancing blows past the swordsman’s blistering offensive, but where his blows landed Priam stumbled, his armour plates destroyed by the larger man’s axe.

The monster that had run roughshod over the Shepherds was being beaten down by a man half of his size as the Shepherds and Valmese Honour Guard sat and watched, too shocked to so much as move. Morgan could feel Severa’s hands, still under her arms, shaking in awed terror as she watched the two-man battle unfold.

Among the Valmese soldiers Morgan could hear whispers; ‘the golden swordsman’s returned’, and ‘this war is over now’. Whoever Priam was apparently his enemies had more than a healthy dose of fear for him. Morgan registered all of this as she began to go into shock from her injuries, the edges of her vision growing fuzzy as darkness closed in on her. She fought to remain awake, knowing that if she passed out she would just be a burden on those she was meant to be helping to lead.

Priam, stone faced and still breathing evenly, struck downward at Walhart’s thigh, puncturing the thick armour and landing a solid blow to his leg that would have crippled a normal combatant. However Walhart leaned forward, suddenly bringing his empty fist down on Priam’s shoulder like a hammer striking an anvil. The sound of shattering armour and breaking bones echoed through the hall, but Priam merely danced back out of the Conqueror’s range, silently switching to a single-handed stance as if pain were a foreign concept to him. Barely even limping as he left a trail of blood in his wake Walhart sought to close the gap by barrelling forwards, bellowing his rage like the bull he so resembled and forcing the smaller swordsman to roll left; as he did he brought his massive weapon up, running it along Walhart’s stomach armour in another shower of sparks, this time followed by a mist of Walhart’s blood coating his shoulder and back as he turned the Conqueror’s momentum against him.

The Emperor coughed blood onto the stone floor at his feet but barely slowed, spinning and bringing his axe around with enough force to actually make a sound as if the air itself were being torn. Priam rolled again, coming up with his sword being held back over his shoulder. With a grunt he brought it down into the empty space between them, a blast of golden mana shooting from the sword directly at Walhart, who swept it aside with his own weapon.

They stopped, then, both men wounded. Walhart clutched at the hole in his stomach armour as blood poured through, dying his greaves and boots a lighter shade of red. Priam rolled out his neck, careful not to move his shattered shoulder too much. With a grunt the smaller swordsman reached up and yanked the remainder of the plate from his shoulder and threw it to the side.

“You’re slow, Priam,” Walhart gasped, still managing to sound threatening as he desperately tried to take air in. “You must be getting old.”

The blue haired swordsman, now breathing just as heavily as Walhart, grinned self-depreciatingly as he leaned on his sword.

“True. I remember the last time we did this; you’ve improved quite a bit. I denied myself one of life’s true pleasures by putting this fight off for so long.”

Walhart chuckled, spitting blood onto the ground and running the back of his gauntlet across his chin before lifting his axe into a ready position again.

“Let’s end this, then, old friend,” he said, his deep voice eerily soft.

“Indeed,” Priam agreed, resting his sword on his good shoulder and crouching low, adopting a side-stance much like Walhart had used in their opening moves.

Tension built up as the two titans stared at each other again, their breathing slowing and their fists tightening around their weapons. An aura of murderous intent so thick that Morgan could practically see it lingered between the two, the men glaring wordlessly at each other, still as statues.

They both sported wounds that would have caused other men to curl up and wait to die; Morgan had no doubt that the only thing holding Walhart’s stomach in was the remains of his armour, while Priam winced every time he took a breath, his shoulder most likely crippled for life now. Yet still they faced each other with fire in their eyes, and none in their audience could even fathom interfering with the duel.

All at once they charged forward, Priam reaching up heedless of his wounded shoulder to bring Ragnell down with all his might as Walhart swung the Wolf Berg horizontally. Both men put everything into their blows, leaving no space for defence as their broken bodies were pushed past even their god-like limits.

It happened so fast Morgan wasn’t sure what the outcome was; Priam slid on his knees past Walhart, who stumbled forward a few more steps, both men sitting perfectly still for what seemed like an eternity.

With a clatter unbearably loud in the silence Walhart’s bisected breastplate fell to the hall’s stone floor in a shower of red vitae, seconds before the Emperor fell to his knees, blood pouring from a near-fatal wound across his torso. He caught himself before he could collapse with one hand supporting him, the other hanging limply to the ground before he gave in and dropped. Behind him Priam groaned, teetering sideways and falling onto his uninjured shoulder with a thud, his hand never leaving the grip of his sword.

Morgan was stunned. So was everyone else watching. She had fought against Walhart in single combat twice and he had utterly annihilated her both times; yet he lie broken and bleeding on the stones not ten meters from her.

“What…” Chrom said, finally speaking up.

The Exalt shook his head, striding forwards and clearing his throat, standing tall before the shocked and silent Valmese soldiers.

“Imperial soldiers!” Chrom called. “Walhart has been defeated! Throw down your weapons and you will not be harmed! This war is over!”

That was the last thing Morgan saw before she finally faded into unconsciousness.

Robin resisted the urge to run a hand through his hair as he guided Cynthia’s pegasus back towards the Ylissean League, having to remind himself that while she and many of the other Shepherds were proficient enough with the skill of flying to manage their mount one-handed, he was not.

He was, however, feeling wretchedly guilty about striking Excellus down in cold-blood. No matter what spin he put on it, no matter how much the other tactician had deserved his fate, Robin couldn’t see his actions as anything else besides murder.

He had tracked down and murdered Excellus.

The other man had been too dangerous to let live; he had been a blight on the world that had orchestrated the war in Valm as a senseless power-grabbing move; he had tried to kill not only Robin and Lucina, but had also left Morgan scarred for life; he had been the cause of the deaths of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of innocents. Excellus had deserved to die; he was little more than a rabid animal, and Robin had put him down like one.

The tactician sighed, trying to shake the thoughts clear as he began to fly over the rear ranks of the Ylissean League. Soldiers looked up as the lone pegasus passed over them, and Robin winced sympathetically every time he spotted the white of bandages or the red of wounds. This war had gone on far too long, and far too many people had lost their lives already. The soldiers that Ylisse would need to combat Grima in the future were seriously depleted; no doubt Lucina would be having words with him and her father about that fact once things settled down a little.

Flying over the rear lines of the League Robin saw for the first time just what toll this war was taking, and it broke his heart. Hundreds of soldiers lay wounded and bleeding, moaning piteously or shrieking in agonizing pain, waiting for the over-worked and exhausted healers to make their suffering end. Further back row upon row of bodies lie in orderly lines, black shrouds pulled over their faces as grim-faced soldiers stood vigil over them, dissuading the circling carrion birds from their fallen comrades.

Robin was no stranger to the price of war, not at this point, but he had only seen it on paper and from the frontlines, never from a birds-eye view before. He had never watched men die on such a horrific scale, never been faced with the abhorrent hopelessness of the dead and dying after a battle. He realized now that he had always cocooned himself within his tactics and strategies, using them as a buffer from the reality of war; after all, it was easier to think of the soldiers and units and battalions as pieces on a board. Rather than help the injured by volunteering at the medical tents like Lissa and Libra so often did, he had chosen to either blindly throw himself into his work or treat war like a game, drinking and carrying on after victory with the other Shepherds. But there was no glory in what he saw now. What Robin saw sickened him.

The only things stopping him from landing right then and there and lending his assistance to the exhausted priests and clerics were the thought of Cynthia hitting him with the same right-hook her father was known for, and the fact that in the distance he could still make out fighting.

Robin was first to admit that his skills, without factoring in his tactical knowledge, leaned further towards the martial than the healing arts. He had proven that he was capable of using the healing magic what felt like a lifetime ago back in Valm Harbour after their initial beachhead, when Lucina had been wounded and stubbornly refused to bother the three healers in the Shepherds, but Robin was a combat mage. Elemental magic came as almost second nature to him now, and it took mere seconds to accomplish spells that would take groups of the most accomplished mages to cast in minutes. Dark magic, too, came easily to him, but Robin still feared to tread that path, even more so now that the voice had finally left him.

But he couldn’t just go back to the command tent and bury himself under tactical tomes and planning; for some reason this time the thought of doing so didn’t sit well with him. He had been absent for too long; he had let others fight in his place for too long. He needed to fight.

“You’ll be able to find your way back to Cynthia on your own, right?” Robin asked the pegasus, bending low over its neck to whisper in its ear as he made his decision. “Yeah, you’re smart. You’ll be fine. Tell them not to worry about me, okay?”

Steeling his resolve, the tactician dug his heels into the beast’s ribs, forcing it to pick up speed again as he pulled the reins, angling it for where it looked like the Chon’sin army was still fighting against the last of the Imperial forces.

No more bodies would lie in those rows if he could help it.

Say’ri shouted her defiance to the heavens as she struck again and again with perfect form, Valmese soldiers falling before her like wheat before a scythe. She had lost track of the men she had killed that day, her once-pristine white armour and clothing almost unrecognizable beneath the dirt and the blood. Still she fought on, ignoring the multitude of small wounds, leading her brother’s soldiers, her soldiers, against their oppressors.

Too long had Chon’sin suffered under Valmese rule; too long had her country’s men been forced to leave their homeland and fight at the beck and call of strangers that knew nothing of their honour. She would fight until the end, selling herself dearly if that was what was needed of her. So far none had stood before her wrath for more than three blows, wilting beneath her endless fury.

Her soldiers struggled to keep up with her; she knew that the majority of the battle was over, and she knew from preliminary reports that Cervantes, the last of the Valmese Generals, had fallen to the noble savages from Regna Ferox, but that changed nothing. Walhart’s armies had taken everything from her, and now she had the perfect opportunity to seek her revenge.

Absently she noted that she was being blinded by bloodlust, lost in the melee as her soul cried out for vengeance for the fallen, but she no longer cared.

She absently wondered as she stepped into a lull in the fighting what Robin would think if he could see her now, covered in blood with wide eyes teetering on the brink of madness. Her own soldiers were no longer looking on her with respect and admiration, but with fear that grew with every enemy that fell before her sword.

Her exhausted muscles burned, and her lungs felt like they were unable to get enough air into her chest, but still she had to fight on. There were still enemies crashing upon her soldiers, so she would continue to fight until either they or she lay dead at the other’s feet.

A horn sounded from the Valmese lines, and over top of the foot soldiers heads’ Say’ri could see that the remaining cavalry forces were being gathered. Answering horns began to blow from her own lines as Keiji almost instantly caught on to their plans, and the exhausted Chon’sin lines began to shift, forming a bulwark of spears and polearms to combat this new threat. Behind them the dour commander was shouting his own cavalry into position, waving his masterfully crafted nodachi above his head, the long blade catching the light and inspiring the men around him.

Say’ri was forced to step back behind the front line, knowing that with only a sword she wouldn’t be much help against the enemy cavalry, and fell in with the second rank of swordsmen behind them.

Say’ri resisted the urge to growl as she wondered where the hell Roark or Liung were and why her army was facing down the Imperials alone; surely by now they would have noticed that the Chon’sin army was facing the worst of the fighting and sent reinforcements. Perhaps without Chrom or Morgan leading them they didn’t care about the disposable southern army, choosing to marshal their own forces and attack the last of the Imperials when they were weakened from fighting against her soldiers.

Say’ri realized at the same time as Keiji, though, that their men were moving too slowly; the Imperials were already in position, drawing back from the enemy army like a wave receding from a shore and preparing to charge while the Chon’sin lines were struggling to reform. All they could do was hope that Keiji could muster a counter-strike and pray that the League sent reinforcements.

I am not jumping this time, Robin thought to himself as he scanned the opposing armies. I’ve already filled my stupid quota for the day, so I’m not jumping again. Even if it was tremendously cool and fun, I’m not jumping again…

The Chon’sin army looked like it was in trouble; while they outnumbered the remaining Imperial forces it looked like there wasn’t an overwhelming strategy going on, like they had just been thrown into a melee and were expected to come out victorious. The Imperial force, wasn’t looking much better, but they still seemed to be focusing on basic tactics; form a line, strike hard, reform a line, hit the flanks with cavalry.

Robin tsked. He had expected better from Say’ri.

What they were doing so far separated from the Ylissean League Robin couldn’t even guess at; it was as if they weren’t cooperating at all, rather just sharing the same space as the foreign soldiers.

Eh, whatever, he reasoned, angling the pegasus downwards and aiming for the frontline. It’s still an easy win, just so long as I manage to get into contact with whoever’s in charge fast enough.

Robin landed the animal much more nimbly than he had so far, dismounting and giving it an encouraging slap on the rear. The pegasus whinnied and took to the air again, leaving Robin alone among the gaping Chon’sin soldiers.

“Who’s in command here?” he asked the nearest soldier, who pointed towards a thick knot of cavalrymen obviously preparing for an assault. Among the horsemen Robin spotted Keiji desperately trying to control the flow of the battle and organize the charge, looking confused and irritated, and mostly out of his depth.

Robin set off towards the horses. No doubt with a little more practice Keiji would make a fine leader, but by all accounts he had been thrown into the deep end. He was still relatively young for the position in Robin’s opinion, not that age really held much meaning among the Ylissean League anyway. Putting two fingers in his mouth Robin let out a loud, high pitched whistle to get the Chon’sin commander’s attention.

“Hi there,” he said when the soldiers around him all went quiet. “Need a hand?”

“I would dismount and show you proper respect, but we are a little busy right now,” Keiji said shortly, turning away from Robin. “If you wish to help then go join the second rank. We can manage.”

Robin sighed and rolled his eyes, dropping his head and taking a deep breath while the clamour in the Chon’sin lines began to pick up, mentally preparing himself. He had known this wouldn’t be easy, especially after the cold stares he’d gotten in the command tent, but if Keiji wanted to play hardball…

“Commander Keiji!” the tactician snapped, his loud shout echoing around them. “As ordered by the leader of the Ylissean League and Exalt of Ylisse Chrom the First I hereby order you to stand down and relinquish control of your forces to me immediately! Any attempt to subvert my authority will be considered an act of war against the sovereign kingdom of Ylisse on Chon’sin’s part! I tried to be nice about this, but we don’t have time for your arrogance! Now stand down!”

The silence was deafening this time, all eyes darting back and forth between the tactician and the commander to see what Keiji would do. Fists tightened on weapons and murderous glares were shot in Robin’s direction, but the soldiers around him held still, waiting to see what their commander would do. After a few seconds the Chon’sin commander dismounted his horse and approached Robin, red in the face as his men cleared a path between them.

“You listen to me you jumped-up dirt farmer-” Keiji hissed menacingly before Robin punched him in the face, taking the bigger man by surprise and knocking him flat.

“No, you listen,” Robin ground out dangerously, his sword suddenly pointed at Keiji’s throat. “I meant every word I just said, but more than that I’m here to help you, not replace you.”

Robin lowered his sword and held out his hand.

“I know you’re scared,” he added in a softer tone. “Hell, if you weren’t, I’d be wondering just what Say’ri saw in you to place you in charge of her entire army. But it’s that fear that tells me you’re a good man, capable of leading his soldiers to victory rather than wasting their lives on his foolish pride. So swallow that pride before it gets you and your men killed, and let’s finish this war. Together. For Ylisse and Chon’sin.”

Keiji looked at Robin’s hand for a moment like he was about to reject the tactician, but swallowed and nodded, grasping the proffered hand and allowing himself to be pulled up.

“You speak truth, tactician,” Keiji grudgingly admitted. “I can see why my Queen holds you in such high regard now.”

“Thanks,” Robin said with a grin, patting the commander on the shoulder. “Now get back on your horse and prepare your men. I’ll handle the rest.”

Keiji nodded again, spinning and striding back to his horse with his head high, shouting orders to the cavalrymen waiting for him. Robin rolled out his neck and cleared his throat, looking around him to the expectant faces.

“Right you lot!” he shouted, his voice carrying across the soldiers. “I want lances and pikes in a staggered row up front! Swords and shields behind them, no gap! Archers, I want you hitting the enemy flanks! Soften them up for Commander Keiji’s cavalry! Go!”

“You heard him!” Keiji roared above the sudden burst of horns as orders were distributed. “Move! For the glory of Chon’sin! This war ends today!”

“For freedom and liberty!” Robin shouted as he began elbowing his way past the rushing men.

“Start dragging the wounded back!” he added, seeing that many of the Chon’sin warriors sported wounds. “I don’t care if it’s a flesh wound or a missing limb! Go to the medical tent in the Ylissean camp!”

The Chon’sin soldiers began to follow Robin’s orders, spaces between the lines closing as they changed positions. Gaps were made by wounded men retreating, but were quickly filled by others.

“You,” Robin said, stopping one of the more mobile retreating wounded. “Find Duke Roark. Tell him ‘Robin says get your one-eyed arse over here with every Knight that can still ride.’ Can you do that?”

“Yes, sir,” the soldier said, snapping to attention before running off as fast as his wound would permit.

“We only have to hold out until reinforcements arrive!” Robin shouted as he walked the length of the line. “Help is coming! Hold the line a little longer! Archers, fire at will! Keiji, as soon as you see an opening you take it!”

“Pack it in close!” Robin shouted to the infantry, still too spread out. “Make it so that they can’t run over our lines! Come on; don’t make me take all the glory for myself!”

The steady rhythm of bows being fired began to sing out from behind Robin as he continued pacing back and forth, shouting encouragement and organizing the Chon’sin forces. Just as he was sure the Imperial cavalry would begin their charge soon someone caught the sleeve of his coat, stopping him short before he could shout more orders. He turned to see a vaguely familiar soldier covered in dirt and blood, her filthy hair plastered to her face with sweat and grime as she stared up at Robin with wide, disbelieving eyes. Something about her seemed oddly familiar, though, and as her shining blue eyes brimmed with tears realization hit Robin like a blow to the gut.

“Say’ri?” he asked in an awed whisper, turning to face her.

She was a mess, like she’d been rolling around on the battlefield rather than fighting. Her beautiful white armour was cracked and practically hanging off of her and her once-fine clothes were shredded and torn, wounds showing up beneath them.

“You…” she said in a broken voice. “I watched you die. I… Fie, Robin, you were dead…”

“I’m not dead, I’m right here,” he said as soothingly as he could over the sound of beating hooves as Keiji’s cavalry charged at the Valmese flank.

“Robin!” she cried, throwing herself at him in a tight embrace.

I should really start preparing myself for this reaction, Robin told himself as he patted the woman’s back.

“This really isn’t the time or place to talk about this,” he added, looking over his shoulder to the now static lines that were finally taking shape as he gently extracted himself from her grip. “Go with the rest of the wounded to the Ylissean medical tents and-”

“No!” Say’ri burst out suddenly, taking hold of Robin’s arm. “I will not leave you now! I left you behind at Steiger and-”

“Alright, fine!” Robin cut her off. “We really don’t have time to argue anyway! But you stay where I can see you and don’t take any stupid risks! I’m not explaining to Morgan that she just got her father back in time to lose her mother, too, understand?”

Say’ri nodded, releasing Robin’s arm and drawing her sword, her face hardening again. She really looked like hell to Robin, but he couldn’t spare any sympathy for her right now, not while he had a battle to win.

“Lancers prepare for impact!” Robin shouted as the Valmese lines surged forward. “Swordsmen, prepare to repel their charge! Ready!”

Robin struck with a few quick fire spells once he was sure that the Chon’sin lines were prepared; at least they could follow orders properly. The long, dry grass caught fire from the spell in a number of places, bringing large sections of the charging Valmese line to a grinding halt while the rest surged on around the flames. To Robin’s experienced eye this seemed like their last push, like this was all they had left. Of course the Chon’sin soldiers were in much the same boat, but now that he was giving the orders he doubted that they would fall against a rough charge like this. The Chon’sin soldiers wouldn’t be dragged into another melee; they had formed proper ranks, and even if the Imperial soldiers got past the lances there was no way they were getting past the swords. All they had to do was hold out a little longer…

Robin threw a few more quick fireballs out for good luck, small explosions tearing through the charging Valmese soldiers before he turned back to the men under his care. Keiji was leading the cavalry off to one flank in a desperate mounted battle progressing almost faster than he could follow, but at least he had tied up the enemy cavalry.

“Hold!” Robin shouted as he shouldered his way to the front of the second rank, Say’ri right behind him.

With a horrendous crash the Imperial charge hit the Chon’sin lines, driving many of them backwards, feet digging up large gouts of dirt as they struggled to remain standing, but for the time being the line held firm. Robin thrusted his new weapon over shoulders and around shields at the enemy pressing themselves to the line of shields, pressing himself close to the backs of the soldiers he was leading, suddenly warming up to the extra reach of his new sword. As he withdrew momentarily he sighed with relief seeing that the line had held.

“Archers! Take some of the pressure off!” he called to the bowmen some distance away.

Arrows began to rain down on the Imperial force, weakening their resolve and the strength of their push as they began to fall.

“Prepare to counter-push!” Robin shouted, orders being sent out by signallers with their horns. “We drive them back, open some space and move back to the Ylissean League! On my mark!”

“Push!” Robin roared, and as one the Chon’sin lines shoved, knocking the Imperial soldiers down and off of the line.

“Lancers withdraw! Swordsman forwards! Prepare to leapfrog!”

Robin raced forward with the second rank, his long sword cutting arcs within the Imperial forces as Say’ri desperately tried to keep pace with him; she must have taken a wound to her leg at some point, but still she followed Robin, striking down any soldiers that escaped his swings. Around them the swordsmen were hacking and slashing like their lives depended on it, running over the stunned Valmese lines. Much sooner than Robin had hoped for the Valmese began to rally, and he knew he had to change tactics.

“Lancers reform the line!” Robin shouted over the clamour of steel on steel and the screams of the dying, backpedalling with the swordsmen.

The swordsmen stepped back, lancers with shields taking up position again and forming a wall that the Imperials crashed into a second time. The Chon’sin held again, and just like before the lancers and those with longer blades struck around and over the shields, driving their enemy further back. Robin glanced over his shoulder as familiar horns blared in the distance, smiling wickedly.

“They’re breaking!” he shouted, turning back to the battle. “Push!”

The shield-bearing soldiers pushed forward again with all their strength, staggering the closest Imperial soldiers that were pressing to the line. However this time rather than pressing forward with the Chon’sin line opened to allow Roark and his Ylissean Knights to stream through.

“For Ylisse and the Exalt!” Roark roared, striking out with his lance as his banners flapped in the wind behind him.

“Alright, everyone make for the League’s position!” Robin shouted as the horsemen all but obliterated the Valmese line. “Hold formation and move slowly and we’ll make it there alive! Carry the wounded! Leave the dead!”

The Chon’sin warriors all sagged with relief as they retreated, Robin having to urge a few on by grabbing them and pulling them back up, telling them that they could rest once they were safe. Say’ri was silent by his side the entire time, watching him with a mixture of awe and admiration.

In the distance Robin could see Flavia’s banners flapping as her warriors raced after Roark; no doubt she was irked that he had asked for the Knights rather than her men, but Robin had needed someone that would close the distance faster. Checking over his shoulder Robin could see the Chon’sin light cavalry disengaging as Roark’s Knights spread out, Keiji leading his men as a rearguard for the infantry.

A shadow passed over Robin, followed by two much larger shadows as Huginn descended on his favourite perch and Cynthia and Gerome landed a small way away from him and Say’ri.

“Robin!” Cynthia called, ignoring the retreating soldiers being forced to now move around her and her pegasus.

“Robin, hurry! It’s Morgan! She…”

Robin didn’t hear the rest of what Cynthia said, a cold lump settling in the pit of his stomach instead as he stumbled to a halt. Trembling fingers gripped his hand from behind, Say’ri reacting much the same way he had. Robin turned to look back at her, nodding reassuringly.

Without another word he climbed up behind Gerome onto Minerva as Say’ri did the same on Cynthia’s pegasus and they took off in the direction of the camp that was quickly forming in the field outside the city.

“Gods, Morgan,” Robin whispered as Gerome pushed Minerva to fly faster than he had ever seen before. “Please be alright…”

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