Porcus silently cursed as he fled through the shadows, resisting the urge to growl as he held his tattered armour together with his wounded arm, his dagger clenched tightly in his other fist.
That damned Taguel had actually stopped him… him, darkness incarnate, from carrying out his objective. He was a weapon, one he took great pride in having never missed his target. He had never failed his master before, not like this.
For the first time in his centuries of Grima’s service Porcus finally felt shame, and it infuriated him.
He slowed as he came upon another battle, crouching low and letting the shadows envelop him as he watched Simia dancing between two Dark Mages. Bolts of darkness crackled between the two as they shared their power, obviously incredibly close and proficient at working together. Simia let out a low hiss as she leapt forward, only to be forced back by the spellcasters yet again while Porcus watched on.
The Deadlord let out a soft snort through his nose, lips turning upwards ever so slightly. His Risen had been wiped out by the Ylisseans, but as long as Simia was still fighting there was still a distraction. He could still escape, bide his time, call more servants to his side and strike again while his enemy was still reeling. All he had to do was get out of the city and wait for the next nightfall. Simia glanced up, the swordswoman’s eyes narrowing as her enhanced senses, another gift of their master’s, caught the movement of Porcus slipping by her battle, powerless to stop him as she struggled to defend herself.
Porcus found himself musing that together the two mages would probably even give Gallus or Ovis a run for their money as he slipped by them, ignoring Simia’s plight.
The woman mage, a true Plegian beauty with porcelain skin and ebony hair, glanced up, her glare penetrating directly through Porcus shroud of shadows. Fortunately for him, Simia chose that moment to renew her attack, and the mages were pushed back on the defensive.
Porcus frowned, the threads holding his mouth closed beginning to come loose from all the movement that day. First the Taguel manages to fight him to a standstill; then, the Tactician beat him practically into the ground; now the Dark Mage could see him!?
What manner of creatures were these Ylisseans? Validar was right; they needed to be dealt with before they could properly oppose the master, and quickly.
Set on his course, Porcus picked up his pace, dashing through the empty palace hallways. Twice an unfortunate servant, rushing to see what all the commotion was, was cut down in the darkness as Porcus raced by, barely even slowing but railing at the waste of perfectly good flesh. He was almost tempted to leave them be, but his frustration was so great that he simply had to kill something.
The Deadlord stopped at the top of the stairs, crouching in the shadows cast as a sound caught his attention. In a flash he changed his direction, bolting further back into the upper floor and dashing for the staircase to the atrium he’d spotted during his initial reconnoitrer. Once he got there he could get out through the great windows, scale the wall and escape into the town.
Dashing down the empty hallways Porcus was so confident in his plan that it wasn’t until he was almost at the atrium’s entrance that he heard another sound, still the same distance behind him. The Deadlord skidded to a halt, gripping his dagger tight as he crouched in a recessed doorway, waiting for his pursuer to show himself and glaring back the way he had come.
He waited, watching, eyes narrowed as the seconds turned to minutes. Rising slowly the Risen began backing towards the atrium again, eyes never leaving the direction the sound had come from and…
With a muffled gasp Porcus fell forwards a few steps, hand clutching at the new hole that had just been torn in his chest.
“You’re good,” a voice whispered from behind him. “It’s been a while since I’ve had to bring my A-game.”
The Deadlord turned, eyes wide with disbelief and bringing his dagger up. His pursuer caught Porcus’ weapon hand by the wrist, yanking it down and shoving his face within inches of the Risen’s.
“But that was my wife back there, you son of a bitch,” Gaius growled, mercilessly plunging his dagger into the Risen’s black heart.
Porcus let out a surprised gasp, the thread holding his mouth closed finally snapping once more.
Gaius stared down at the surprised look on the Risen’s face as its glowing red eyes finally faded, its open mouth showing nothing but the inky void of pure darkness within. The thief sniffed once, before bringing his heel down with all his might on the creature’s neck for good measure, causing an explosion of ashes and dust that heralded the end of one of the Deadlords.
Simia’s head snapped up as she heard the psychic death-cry of her companion, eliciting a fresh snarl from her lips as the two mages closed in again before backing off a little in the face of her rage.
The female of the two was faring better than her male counterpart, magic fairly radiating off of her as she stared down the Deadlord, her companion hanging back slightly as he attempted to catch his breath.
Simia saw her chance, reasoning that if she died here it would be worse than not returning to her master to attempt this mission again, and dashed forward, slashing low at the woman’s legs. The woman leapt back, retaliating with a rushed fire spell. Simia ignored the weak fireball that singed her clothes and burned her armour as she barrelled past the white-haired man, striking him hard in the face with the pommel of her sword as she passed to move him from her path. She raced to the end of the hallway and without a second thought went crashing through the plate glass window, ignoring the gashes to her face and arms as she fell to a roll in the grounds. A few more fireballs followed her, singing the ground where she had been standing, but she was already in motion again, pushing her inhuman muscles to their limits and racing for the palace gates and her escape.
Tharja stood watching the creature’s progress from the broken window, clicking her tongue in annoyance as she extinguished the magical fire she had just been about to throw; from this distance it would be pointless. The Risen moved fast compared to its mindless brethren…
“Is she bleeding!? Did you see!? Is she bleeding!?” Henry asked desperately as he held his head back, attempting to stop the blood running from his shattered nose as he stumbled around the hallway.
Tharja rolled her eyes. “No, but you are.”
“I know I am! I don’t care about me, what colour is her blood!? Aw, come on, I have to know! Tell me you saw it!”
“No,” Robin repeated over and over as he tried to stop the bleeding on Panne’s wounds, his hands slipping on her wet leather vest.
“No… no, no no no no no no no no no! No! Panne! Come on, Panne, wake up! Don’t die on me! You can’t die!”
The Taguel was unresponsive as he pressed his hands to her wounds, now as slick and coated with her blood as the floor around them.
“Dammit! Healer!” Robin roared down the empty hallway, his voice breaking as tears rose to his eyes. “What’s taking so long!? Someone!”
“C’mon Panne,” he pleaded, giving up on staunching the bleeding and lifting her by the shoulders, holding her close to his chest. “Don’t die. I promised no one else would die… you… you’ll miss the grandchildren… the family reunions… you can’t die now…”
“If you don’t stop shaking me… man-spawn… I will die…”
Robin’s eyes went wide as the Taguel moaned softly, opening her eyes slightly.
“Panne! Don’t try to talk, just… stay awake!”
“I was serious,” she groaned as Robin inadvertently shook her again. “Please… put me back down.”
“Sorry,” he chuckled, doing his best to calm himself and pressing his hands back down to her wounds as gently as he could, drawing a pained hiss from the woman.
Pounding footfalls came from behind him, at least four pairs of feet running either barefoot or in slippers. Sumia let out a panicked shriek when she saw the amount of blood and discarded Risen weapons on the floor, instantly flying for her daughter’s door, Chrom hot on her heels.
“Robin, let me see,” Lissa said gently yet firmly as she came up behind him and knelt down on the Taguel’s opposite side, not hesitating as she gently probed at the woman’s wounds.
The Ylissean princess held her staff above Panne’s midsection, channelling her magic and closing her eyes for a few seconds. As Robin watched some of the smaller wounds on Panne’s sides and arms closed, but the two deep punctures in her chest remained open and leaking vitae at an alarming rate.
“It… must’ve been another cursed blade,” Robin said in a small voice. “Lissa, can you do something about this!?”
“Of course I can, I’m a cleric after all,” the woman answered him with a reassuring grin, throwing her useless staff to one side and tearing off the long sleeves of her yellow nightgown. “I might not be as good as Libra is, but I’m still fully qualified!”
“Ah… she’s lost a lot of blood. I’ll need to work fast. Robin, I’m going to need you to help me; I need you to start by cutting her vest off. Can you do that?”
The tactician nodded, internally apologizing to the Taguel that was starting to breath in short, shallow gasps while Lissa leaned over her. He quickly grabbed his dagger, working the razor-sharp weapon as quickly and carefully as he could, slicing through the tough leather straps of her jerkin. The second Robin was done Lissa’s hands were in the gap, pulling the blood-soaked leather away and properly revealing her wounds.
“Sorry Panne, this is going to hurt,” Lissa apologized in a whisper, reassuringly stroking the other woman’s face as she gazed up at them with glazed eyes. “Robin, grab her shoulders and hold her down; the last thing we need is for her to make it worse by moving.”
Without warning Lissa quickly jammed her fingers into first one of the wounds, then the other, feeling around as quickly as she could and making Panne cry out in pain again. The tactician had barely gotten his hands on Panne’s now bare shoulders before she tried to reflexively jerk up and he had to exert all his effort to keep her on the ground, her own hands wrapping around his wrists in weak resistance.
Lissa let out a relieved sigh as her hands retreated again before gently pressing one of her torn sleeves to the wounds.
“We’re in luck. It doesn’t look like her lungs, heart or any major arteries were hit. One in her shoulder took a little nick, but if I can cauterize the artery now we can stitch her up and hopefully she’ll make it. Lon’qu, Virion, help me get her onto a bed. Cherche, go and get my bag from my room and the biggest candle you can find. Quickly!”
“What about me?” Robin asked, scooting back as the two other men moved to help Lissa.
“You’ve done enough, Robin,” Lissa said reassuringly as she placed the tattered leather vest back over Panne’s chest to preserve a little of her modesty. “Lucina, why don’t you take Robin and get him cleaned up?”
“No, I can still-”
“Do you know anything about conventional healing?” Lissa asked, cutting him off mid-protest, her voice suddenly containing an edge of steel.
“Then go and get some rest, Robin,” Lissa said, returning to her gentle tone. “You’ve done all you can. Leave the rest to me. You can trust me.”
Robin stepped back, Virion giving him an encouraging nod as they carried Panne to one of the closest rooms, leaving Robin staring blankly at the space they had been occupying seconds before. A soft hand touched Robin’s shoulder, making him jump and spin, the dagger still in his hand coming up reflexively. Lucina caught his wrist in her waiting hand, gently holding it in place until Robin realised who he was looking down at.
“Come on,” he said suddenly, brushing past her with a firm set to his features as a thought occurred to him. “That thing’s still in here and we-”
“Don’t bother,” a voice said from up the hall as Gaius quickly stepped into it, stopping when he was in front of Robin. “I took care of it.”
The thief handed Robin the Risen’s other dagger without another word, silently hurrying after the trio that had taken his wife and giving off puffs of purple ashes with every step he took. Palace guards were starting to swarm the halls now, torches being lit as they went, Cullen barking out orders at their head. Cherche rushed past him, having traded her axe for the medical bag she was clutching to her chest as she ran. Robin was only half aware of everything going on around him, caught enraptured by the black-bladed weapon clenched in his blood-soaked hands.
“Robin,” Lucina said gently, taking him by the arm. “Come here a moment.”
She pulled him a few steps further up the hall, stopping before the open door to her younger self’s room. Robin glanced up, watching as a tearful Sumia held a wailing baby Lucina, repeatedly thanking every deity she could think of as Chrom wrapped his arms around both of them, holding his wife and daughter to his chest.
Robin felt some of the tension leave him as he watched the family revel in their daughter’s safety, a soft sigh escaping him as he felt his shoulders relax a little. The older Lucina reached up, brushing his shoulder so softly he barely felt it through his coat. Robin went to grip her hand, hesitating as he realised his hands were still coated in Panne’s blood.
“I would very much like to wash my hands,” he said, feeling his gorge rise and holding it, determined not to make more of a mess on the carpets as he tucked the Risen’s dagger into his belt.
“Are you alright?” Lucina asked with evident concern.
Robin nodded, scrubbing his hands in the cold bucket of water the servants had brought for him.
“I’m not wounded,” he said distractedly, wincing as he dunked his hands in and the entire contents of the bucket turned red.
“That’s not what I meant,” Lucina said gently, coming up behind him.
Chrom had noticed them standing outside of Lucina’s room, telling Robin to go and clean himself up and prepare for an emergency staff meeting. Robin hadn’t said a word, allowing Lucina to lead him back to his room, still shell-shocked from the ordeal with Panne’s wounds.
Usually injuries were treated relatively quickly, or else there was so much going on that Robin didn’t get the chance to fixate on them. But the way Panne had been lying there, struggling to breathe and barely alive in his arms had affected him rather deeply. He’d never seen something like that, never watched the life fading from someone he’d been talking to only minutes ago. He’d mercifully been spared watching Gregor’s sacrifice, the big man saying farewell with a smile on his face, but Panne…
She’s not going to die, Robin forcibly told himself. She’s stronger than that. She has a family now… gods, I’m part her family if Morgan and Yarne have anything to say about it. She’ll pull through. I know she will. And then she’ll mock me for worrying about her so much.
The tactician mentally rallied, steeling himself; he could go to pieces later, but right now he needed his head to be clear. He needed to come up with a response.
“I’ll be fine,” Robin told her, shaking his hands dry and shrugging off his coat. “I’m sorry I went to pieces like that. But I… er, have to change now, so…”
Lucina raised a brow in response.
“Okay, fine, I just didn’t want to make you uncomfortable,” Robin said, rolling his eyes and tugging his bloodstained shirt over his head.
Lucina let out a small gasp, prompting Robin to glance down at his chest.
“What? What, did I take a hit?”
“I don’t know,” she said, moving the golden amulet aside to brush her fingers over the new burns on the tactician’s chest.
Robin cursed, rubbing his own fingers along the burns and wincing.
“Damn. Tharja did warn me it would get hot, but…”
“The amulet?” Lucina asked, glancing up at Robin.
“Yeah. It’s why Panne and I were running through the palace earlier; we were trying to find Tharja.”
Lucina nodded, taking this in stride. Of course they had spoken at length about Robin’s curse and his berserk losses of control prior to the assault on Steiger during their war with the Imperial Valm forces, so she knew as much about the curse Tharja was still working to identify as he did; including his secret shame, the Grimleal brand on his right hand that he kept hidden with a fingerless glove. So far only Morgan, Tharja and Lucina knew about it.
“Perhaps it also reacts to the presence of Risen?” she said hopefully as Robin pulled a fresh shirt over his head, shaking his hair out and pulling his coat back on, moving to begin bandaging his hand until Lissa could look at it. That had been the very first thing he’d done when they’d arrived back in Regna Ferox; he’d bought ten new shirts, just so he wouldn’t run out again.
“Maybe,” Robin said. “Hopefully. It would be nice to know I’m not about to go all psycho-killer again, in truth.”
Before they could continue their conversation the room’s door slammed open, making them both reflexively reach for their weapons.
“Dad! Are you okay!?” Morgan shouted, rushing into her father’s room with Yarne on her heels.
Robin relaxed where he was standing next to his table with Lucina as the princess returned to binding his injured hand, blinking a few times in mild surprise as Morgan plowed into his chest and forced Robin’s hand out of her grip.
“I was okay until you tackled me,” he chuckled weakly.
“Robin…” Yarne said, his voice small as he hesitated in the middle of the room, looking utterly lost. “My mother… is she…”
“I don’t know. Last I saw her Lissa was taking her somewhere for treatment.”
The half-Taguel nodded mutely. Morgan shot up again, wrapping him in a tight hug this time and burying her face in the tall boy’s chest as Lucina finished wrapping Robin’s hand.
“She’ll be fine,” Morgan soothed, Yarne nodding reflexively.
“We’re just about to go and meet with Chrom,” Robin offered as he stood, crossing the room and clapping a reassuring hand on Yarne’s shoulder. “Why don’t you come with us?”
The boy nodded, prompting Morgan to step back, wrapping her fingers around his hand and squeeze a little.
“Thanks,” he said to them both in a low voice. “It would be nice to have the distraction right about now.”
“This is an outrage!” Chrom shouted, pacing back and forth in his study. “This will not stand! These creatures have crossed the line! I will personally start leading Risen hunts through the forests and southlands and eradicate these monsters wherever they’re hiding!”
“Chrom, we don’t have time for that,” Robin sighed, holding his bandaged hand to his brow. “Think rationally here; they failed. Even the Risen aren’t stupid enough to try pulling this stunt again. This doesn’t change anything.”
“This changes everything!” the Exalt roared, rounding on Robin in his anger. “They attacked my family, Robin! My daughter! Half of my guards are dead and at least ten of my servants are, too! If you and Panne hadn’t shown up when you did-”
“Chrom, they’re my family now too, as you are so oft to remind me,” Robin reasoned in a level tone. “Take a breath. Listen to reason. We don’t have the manpower to start combing the countryside for a threat we don’t even know exists. When was the last time roaming Risen were reported? Before we left for Valm.”
“I know that,” Chrom growled, turning away from Robin and laying his hands flat on his desk.
“This doesn’t change anything,” Robin repeated. “We stick to the plan we’ve already got. Just… bump it up a little. It’s our best course of action, and you know it, although I would like to make a few subtle tweaks to it.”
Chrom turned to face him again, leaning back against his desk. Along with the two leaders Lucina, Morgan and Yarne were standing around the periphery of the room, the Princess watching everything with the eyes of a hawk while Morgan scribbled notes on everything being said, and Yarne listened intently, wincing every time Chrom’s voice rose.
“Curse your infinite logic. Let’s hear it,” the Exalt sighed, finally beginning to calm down.
“We leave the army, the entire army, here,” Robin said, already running numbers in his head. “We go back to running with only the Shepherds for now; we can move faster and we’re more than a match for just about anything that Grima can throw at us at this point. Plus that way, if we put the men into a state of high alert, tonight’s events won’t ever be repeated.”
Chrom nodded, and Robin took a deep breath, preparing to deliver the hardest part of his new plan to say.
“I also want to leave some of us behind,” he said at length.
“What?” Morgan asked, perking up so fast she dropped her quill.
“Robin, are you serious?” Lucina asked in shock.
“Who?” Chrom asked, obviously considering the option.
“The non-combatants; Jake, Olivia, Anna. A few of the younger Shepherds, like Ricken and Lissa. I don’t know yet, I’ll have to think about it properly first, make some lists and run some scenarios.”
“What about the future children?” Chrom asked.
“This is their fight, and they came a long way to fight it,” Robin shrugged. “Do you honestly think any of them would stay behind, even if we ordered them to?”
“Not a chance,” Yarne said forcefully, speaking for the first time since they had arrived.
“That’s a good attitude to have,” Lissa chuckled as she stepped into the room, Lon’qu and Virion behind her and looking around at the others as their gazes snapped to her. “I think we’ll all need a little bit of that fire for what’s coming.”
“Lissa! Is Panne…?” Robin asked, standing up again.
“Is my mother…?” Yarne asked, trailing off.
The blonde Ylissean princess, still wearing her blood-stained nightgown, let out a sigh, her head hanging.
“I’ve done everything I could,” she explained. “She’s stable, but she lost a lot of blood. It’s up to her now. Your father and Cherche are tending to her as we speak. Why don’t you go and see her? Lon’qu, honey, can you show Yarne to the room his mother’s in?”
The stoic swordsman nodded, indicating that Yarne should follow him.
“Thank you, milady,” Yarne said, bowing low and hurrying off with Lon’qu.
“I’ll leave the rosters up to you,” Chrom said, turning back to Robin. “But I’m still having Frederick send out riders to find Sable first thing in the morning. I want to be ready to move at a moment’s notice by noon tomorrow. Understood?”
“Alright, I’ll be ready by dawn,” Robin promised, making for the door until two sets of hands, one on each arm, stopped him.
“No, you’re going to get proper rest tonight, even if I have to sit there all night and make sure you do,” Lucina warned, glowering up at him.
“A tactician puts everyone at risk when they work tired,” Morgan added. “That’s one of the first things you taught me, remember?”
Chrom gave a soft chuckle. “I guess you’ll start working on it first thing in the morning?”
“I guess so,” Robin sighed, rolling his eyes.
“After breakfast,” Morgan said, releasing her grip on him at the same time Lucina did. “A tactician can’t think on an empty stomach, right?”
“Geez, how am I meant to argue with me?” Robin laughed, ruffling his daughter’s hair. “Fine; sleep, food, and then work. In that order. That okay with you?”
Aversa strode confidently through the Outer Sanctum of Grima in the Dragon’s Table temple, casting off her filthy travelling cloak as she went. One of the surviving acolytes would pick it up and tend to the garment, cleaning and repairing it before returning it to her room, the way they always did. That there were far fewer acolytes now than before didn’t bother her in the least; the thought of not having her cloak back again when she needed it was more bothersome than the lives of some measly mage-apprentices and Grima-adherents.
Footsteps from her side reminded her once again that she wasn’t alone, nor had she been through her entire journey. The silent, enigmatic Deadlord named Bovis had said perhaps three words in the weeks that they had been travelling together, speaking only when absolutely necessary and flat-out ignoring any of Aversa’s attempts at conversation.
Twice they had been beset by bandits, half-starved wretches forced to eke out an existence by harassing travellers and stealing what they could in the economic depression that Plegia had been left in in the wake of Gangrel’s ill-conceived war with Ylisse, and twice Bovis had calmly, silently and methodically slaughtered the entire bands with his bow and his sword without ever dismounting his nightmarish black horse or even removing his hood.
She had given up trying to speak to the silent creature after the first week, simply communicating by barking orders at him. She found the Deadlord to be wholly irritating, but unfortunately he was also incredibly useful.
They had spent the better part of two months riding the width and breadth of Plegia as Aversa tended to her master’s orders, carrying out her task and not once stopping to think about the effect that it would have once her role was complete.
As she walked, thinking only of delivering news of her success and the warm, relaxing bath that would come afterwards, she noticed Bovis had stopped, and was staring off towards the east.
“What is it?” Aversa snapped, not expecting a reply beyond the creature hastening to follow her.
“Porcus…” Bovis whispered in a deep, rich voice.
“What?” Aversa asked, genuinely curious now.
Bovis shook his head silently, taking off at a brisk jog past her and towards the Inner Sanctum.
“Hey!” Aversa called after him, frowning and breaking into a run to keep up; hardly the dignified entrance she had been going for, but she would be damned if she was going to let the Risen beat her there and steal her credit.
The outer sanctum was a circular room, arguably the size of the great hall of the Plegian Castle except wrapped around the magnificent Inner Sanctum. She had only been inside the Inner Sanctum itself three times so far; it was a sacred and holy place, a place of power so great it was where her master could gather his strength through meditation, or with the aid of a sacrifice he could summon servants as mighty as the Deadlords to do his bidding, filled to bursting with ancient relics and holy icons of Grima.
As Aversa rushed into the Inner Sanctum behind Bovis she heard an enraged shout and the sound of splintering timber.
She emerged into the central altar room to find Validar standing with the leader of the Deadlords, Mus, the first among their number wearing armour blacker than night, snarling through his neatly-trimmed beard as he hefted his lance from destroying one of the many pews in the room.
“Heresy!” Mus roared. “We come to do the will of the mighty Grima and this is how we are rewarded!? By being slaughtered!? Never before has a Deadlord fallen! Never!”
With another wordless shout of frustration the Deadlord struck out again, his ornate silver lance flashing as the black-bladed tip reduced another of the pews to kindling.
Validar looked on as emotionlessly as Bovis, leaving only Aversa to wonder at what happened. Breathing heavily now, the Risen leader straightened, tapping his lance on the stone floor twice.
“Validar, this is too far,” he growled, red eyes glinting dangerously.
Of all the Deadlords it seemed to Aversa that only Mus had the ability to speak as a human would, which somehow managed to make the hulking creature even more intimidating. Cruel glowing red eyes stared out of a handsome, angular face, long black hair kept swept away from his face and trimmed beard quivering with his twitching jaw. If not for his pale grey skin and glowing eyes Mus could have passed for a rather handsome human of middle years.
“Say something!” Mus thundered, looming over Validar.
“Are you just about done throwing your tantrum now?” the sorcerer snapped, glaring up at the Risen.
Bovis twitched beneath his travelling cloak, his hand no doubt moving to grip his sword. Aversa held no doubts that Validar had this well in hand, but just to be safe her own hand drifted to her spellbook. It obviously didn’t matter to Validar that Mus could break his neck with little more than a flick of his wrist; the tall Plegian simply stared up at the Risen with a look of contempt on his face.
“You forget yourself, human,” Mus warned. “You may be the master’s current pet, but you are nothing compared to the might of a Deadlord.”
“And yet the Ylissean dogs managed to slay Porcus,” Validar sneered, his face never changing expression. “Spare me the idle threats, Mus. We have more important things to think on.”
The huge Risen stood there, eying Validar for a moment before letting out a breath and backing down.
“Good,” Validar said. “You know what part you are to play in the next stage of our show. See to it.”
Mus growled and spat on the stone floor before storming out of the room, lance bouncing angrily against his pauldron as Bovis silently followed him after casting one final glance at Aversa.
“Is your task complete?” Validar asked her without preamble, stepping over the remains of one of the pews to go further into the sanctum.
“Yes, Lord Validar,” Aversa said with a slight bow. “The wards and circles are all in place. Algol and the Plegian Royal Guard are also awaiting your arrival at the Palace at your soonest convenience.”
“Good. Then everything is going as planned. You have something else to say. Out with it.”
Aversa started, unnerved as always by how the man could tell when she was holding something back.
“I am hesitant to involve the weaker bloodlines of the average citizens in this, Lord,” she admitted, tensing for the reprisal she had no doubt was coming. “They aren’t worthy.”
To her surprise Validar let out a soft laugh. “Unfortunately we no longer have the luxury of time, girl. We will do what we must to ensure our Lord’s plans succeed, no matter how hesitant you are. Now make ready to travel to the capital with me. Immediately.”
With that cold dismissal Aversa bowed again, backing a respectful distance away before turning and hurrying from the sanctum, thoughts awhirl wondering just what was capable of killing one of the Deadlords.
She supposed that it didn’t matter. There were still eleven more of them, and Porcus had been the youngest and weakest of their number. She still had eleven monstrous warriors and a legion of Risen to craft her strategies around.
A cold smile reached her lips as she thought of finally getting to face Robin on the field, tactics against tactics. He wouldn’t stand a chance, not now that she had grown so much mentally, and had so much to throw against him.
“My cloak had better be ready!” she shouted expectantly as she exited both of the Sanctums into the church proper.
The Dark Mage frowned. Her bath would have to wait a little longer, it seemed.
Robin let out a loud yawn as he shuffled into the palace’s huge kitchen the next morning. It was still early, and the majority of the staff was all still too frightened to leave their quarters, meaning that the cavernous space was almost empty of other people. Sitting comfortably at the large servant’s table in the corner and both eating oats out of the rough clay bowls the servants used were Morgan and Say’ri, talking quietly about the plans Morgan had evidently come up with for the next stage of the campaign against Grima.
“Mornin’ dad!” Morgan called chirpily when she spotted Robin.
“Yes, good morning, Robin,” Say’ri said brightly as the tactician filled a bowl for himself from the large pot sitting near the cooking fire. “I have heard from the others of your exploits last night. You are still as impressive a warrior as always, it seems.”
“Er… thanks?” he said cautiously, leaning his hip against the table next to Morgan.
“So when’re we leaving?” Morgan asked excitedly, stealing his attention back from the perplexing sight of Say’ri smiling casually in his direction. “Frederick and the other knights left this morning before first light, and I’m itching to get moving, too! I’ve been up since before dawn with them working on strategies, and I can’t wait to start putting them into action!”
“I haven’t finished my rosters yet, though,” Robin chuckled. “I haven’t even started them yet.”
“That’s okay, I’ve been making them adaptable enough for just about any circumstances!” Morgan assured him. “And they’re just rosters; I know how fast you power through them!”
“It’s good to see your energy’s back,” Robin chuckled before sobering a little. “How’s Yarne holding up?”
Morgan let out a little squeak, standing up quickly.
“Oh no! I forgot I was meant to be getting breakfast for Yarne and Gaius!” she cried, practically jumping the table to get to the pot. “They haven’t left Panne’s side since last night, so I offered to get them breakfast but then I ran into mom and I started talking to her and got distracted and-”
“Take a breath, child,” Say’ri laughed as Morgan cut off, gasping for air.
“I’ll be back in a minute!” she promised, dashing out of the kitchen and carrying two more clay bowls with spoons sticking out of them.
“Hold on, I’ll go with you,” Robin said, following after her. “I wanted to check in on Panne anyway.”
And being alone with Say’ri may not end well, Robin added, recalling her behaviour aboard the ship back from Valm.
“I will see you both at the Staff Meeting, then,” Say’ri called after them just as pleasantly as before, making Robin turn and glance at her curiously before hurrying after his daughter.
“Man, what is up with that woman?” Robin muttered as he caught up with Morgan.
“What do you mean?” she asked, balancing three bowls as she rushed through the halls.
“I mean that she was warming back up to me in Valm after I got back, right? And then she went all ‘ice queen’ on the boat to the point where we couldn’t even sit in the same room together for four months. Now she’s back to being nice to me? I just… I don’t get it. Why must she torture me so!?”
Morgan snorted with laughter as they ascended the great staircase, dodging past a troupe of armed guards on a patrol.
“Dad, she was cranky on the boat because she’s afraid of water,” Morgan explained. “Like… terrified. I spent all that time playing checkers with her because I was trying to distract her. You’re not the only one she was moody towards, trust me. And that’s why Chrom offered her your cabin; it had the smallest window. Didn’t he explain any of that to you?”
“Oh are you kidding me!?” Robin actually shouted, coming to a stop mid-staircase. “She’s been acting like she hated me for four months because she was afraid of a little water!?”
Morgan glanced back at her father, a wry grin on her face. “Come on dad. No one hates you. Mom just… isn’t great with her words, apparently. And I happen to know for a fact she’s not the only one with a little hydrophobia.”
“Yeah, be grateful you inherited my verbal eloquence,” the tactician deadpanned as they started walking again, ignoring his daughter’s jab.
They proceeded in silence, Robin hesitating as he passed the open door to Virion and Cherche’s room.
“You go on ahead,” he said, stopping. “I’ll catch up.”
Morgan shrugged before continuing on, not being distracted with her goal so close at hand as Robin stepped into the room. Virion was standing in the middle of the floor alone, his hand on his chin as he gazed thoughtfully out the window into the garden.
“Copper for your thoughts?” Robin asked, leaning back against the man’s desk on one side of the room and proceeding to continue his breakfast.
The archer looked up distractedly, brushing a lock of hair from his face.
“Ah, Robin, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Because you left your door open,” the tactician said around a mouthful of oats.
Virion looked back to the open door, letting out a tired chuckle. “So I did. What can I do for you on this finest of mornings?”
“You looked all thinky. That’s my bit. I came to put a stop to it. What’s on your mind that’s got you staring out the window like Gaius eyeing my dessert rations?”
Virion went silent, his gaze faltering again before he spoke, looking away from the tactician.
“Cherche will not be joining us on our quest,” he said at length.
“Is she okay?” Robin asked quickly, breakfast forgotten. “Was she wounded last night? Dammit, Virion, you should have said something-”
“Calm yourself, friend,” the archer laughed. “She is with Libra as we speak, but she is not wounded. She is… that is to say…”
Virion took a deep breath, looking up at Robin with a beaming smile on his face.
“I am to be a father.”
Robin’s jaw dropped, his mind instantly going blank. Out of the hundreds of thoughts vying for supremacy in his head, one rose unbidden to the fore.
“And you let her fight last night anyway!?” the tactician shouted after opening and closing his mouth a few times.
Virion stopped and blinked at Robin before bursting into laughter so hard he had to use the tactician’s shoulder to hold himself up. Robin grunted, unimpressed, and crossed his arms waiting for the archer to finish laughing.
“Ah, truly you have a gift for comedy my friend,” Virion chuckled, holding his sides.
“It was a perfectly valid question,” Robin pointed out.
“Then let me ask you this,” Virion propositioned. “In our lives is there a single woman that would ever do something we told them to do?”
“No,” Robin answered immediately, hanging his head and eliciting further laughter from the other man.
“Well, I guess congratulations are in order,” Robin said, finally letting the grin he’d been holding back break free. “We’ll have to celebrate once I get a moment of peace.”
“Pish-posh,” Virion said. “You and I both know you have better uses of your precious free time. Such as now; were you not on your way to see the most heroic of Taguel before your good nature distracted you?”
“Erk. Damn. You’re right,” Robin said, hurrying out of the room and shouting over his shoulder. “I’m telling Morgan that you’re the one that distracted me!”
“Be my guest!” Virion called after him. “I’ve got two children to hide behind now! Tell her to do her worst! Wait! You left your breakfast behind! Curse you, Robin; I’m not cleaning up after you! Get back here!”
There was a loud clap of a closing tome in the Royal Ylissean Library followed very closely by a satisfied groan as a pair of hands, one wearing a fingerless black glove, stretched above the pile of books on the desk.
“All done,” Robin sighed as he finished stretching.
It had only taken about an hour, but his rosters were complete. Now all he had to do was bring them to Chrom and wait for one of the riders Frederick had sent out to return with news.
Gathering up his reports Robin glanced out the window at the position of the sun; it was still at least another hour until his noon deadline, but he didn’t doubt that Chrom would want to hold the meeting as soon as possible.
The tactician sighed again, resting his hands behind his head and staring up at the library’s high ceiling in contemplation, recalling the visit he’d paid to Panne that morning. She had still been unconscious, her skin pale as Gaius sat by her bedside, gently holding one of her hands and looking lost. Yarne had been there as well, trying to convince his father to eat something while Morgan offered silent moral support for the boy. Robin’s heart had ached for the family, the feeling of guilt weighing heavily on him as he had spoken a little with Gaius about her progress. He couldn’t help but keep remembering the way he’d ordered her down the other path, straight to the Princess’ room while he’d dashed off to check on his friends, leaving her alone…
Stop it, Robin told himself sternly, standing and grabbing the sheaf of papers. She’s a soldier and this is a war. She’d hate knowing that you’re beating yourself up over this, and she’s far too stubborn to die like that anyway, so there’s nothing to worry about.
He passed Miriel on his way out of the library, busily researching whatever it was she was currently fascinated by as her husband did sit ups on the ground at her feet.
Vaike offered him a lazy wave as he passed, one Robin returned with little enthusiasm.
They’re not going to like this, he thought with another sigh, clutching the rosters tightly to his side.
“Now that we’re all here, we can begin,” Chrom said, standing at the head of the long meeting table as Frederick strode into the room.
“Forgive my tardiness, my lord,” Frederick said with a light bow as he crossed the room to his seat. “I had some last minute orders to give.”
Robin gave the Knight Commander a wink and a grin as he sat down opposite the tactician, basking in the fact he had beaten the punctual man somewhere for a change, earning a stern frown in response. The majority of the others were already there; every Shepherd that could still move was in attendance, crammed into the small room along with Cullen and a few of the more senior City Guard and Army officers. Robin resisted the urge to wince as his eyes fell on Gaius and Panne’s empty seats.
“I’ll start by saying I’ve received news from Libra in the barracks,” Chrom said sadly. “Donnel was attacked by Risen on the road last night and wounded.”
Shouts of disbelief echoed around the room as Robin hung his head; he’d been there an hour early, after all, which had been early enough to bear witness to the outraged Chrom breaking one of the wooden chairs in his frustration.
“What happened?” Cordelia asked above the murmuring that had broken out. “Is he going to be alright?”
“The reports state that some travellers found him after he fought the creatures off,” Robin answered for Chrom. “He’s going to be benched for this mission, but he’ll recover fully with the proper magical rehabilitation.”
“And what of the heroic Lady Panne?” Virion asked curiously.
“She’s stable,” Lissa supplied. “But she’s still unconscious. I’m not sure when or even if she’s going to wake up.”
Yarne made a depressed whine that went unnoticed by all but Morgan, who gripped his hand comfortingly beneath the table.
“We’ve also received news from Themis this morning,” Chrom ground out. “Maribelle and Kellam were attacked in their villa last night, too. Neither of them are wounded, but Duke Roark is insisting that they remain in the city for their protection and to help lead the Themis forces.”
“So, naturally, Maribelle is already halfway here,” Robin added, earning more than a few chuckles from around the room, everyone being well aware of just how headstrong the young noblewoman could be.
“We’ve already sent messengers to Jagen to ensure their safety; no word has yet reached us of any attacks on the people in the east, but we know how fast that can change,” Chrom went on. “Robin’s finished working on some rosters; I’m not going to sugar-coat it, people. Once we know where we’re going, we’ll be back to operating solely as the Shepherds rather than with the army, but even then not all of us are going on this mission.”
Some dissatisfied murmuring broke out at this statement, silenced almost immediately when Frederick cleared his throat, casting his signature ‘death-glare’ around the room.
“I’ll let him go over the details,” Chrom said, indicating the tactician take the floor as he sat back down.
“Sure, make me do the dirty-work,” Robin grumbled as he stood, earning more laughter and another scowl from Frederick.
“I know not all of you are going to agree with this plan,” Robin began, becoming serious. “However given our current situation and resources it’s the best one we’ve got. Sumia and Lissa will be remaining behind to lead the people of Yli-”
“No way!” Lissa burst out, cutting Robin off. “You’re not leaving me out now!”
“Lissa, please,” Chrom interjected. “Let him finish. Then everyone can yell at him at once.”
Robin rolled his eyes as more laughter broke out in the room, mostly centralised around Vaike’s general area as the young blonde woman sat back down with a dissatisfied glare at her brother.
At least spirits are high, Robin thought as he looked back down to his sheets of paper and the laughter died down.
“As I was saying, with word of the Risen attack on what was supposed to be the most secure place in Ylisse we need to present a strong Royal presence to pacify the populace and stop a panic from ensuing. Chrom’s needed on the field, and if the citizens can’t have their Exalt, then they’ll at least need to see their Queen and Princess taking care of matters at home. Understand?”
Lissa nodded dejectedly, looking very unhappy.
“So who’s staying here with us?” Sumia asked, nodding in agreement of Robin’s explanation.
“I have a list here,” Robin said, holding up the paper. “But I want to talk about who’s going on the mission team, first.”
“Fair enough,” Sumia said.
“Chrom, obviously you’ll be leading the team,” Robin explained, reaching for another sheet. “I’ve organised detailed rosters and tactics for the other dismounted Shepherds for you with the members of the team in mind that even an ape could understand; you’ll have Frederick and Cordelia to lead the Knights and the fliers, minus of course Cherche; congratulations, by the way.”
A smattering of applause broke out as Cherche blushed and looked down, Virion holding his head up high and beaming.
“Libra will be in charge of the healers, who at this point are Brady and, apparently, Maribelle. Tharja, you’ll be in charge of Henry and Laurent on the field; keep them on a short leash.”
The dark haired woman blinked a few times, a mystified look appearing on her face.
“Morgan will be in charge of the other basic stuff; camp rosters, guard rotations, that kind of thing. Any questions before I move on?”
“I have one,” Morgan said, raising her hand with a confused look on her face. “Why are you talking like you’re not going to be there?”
Robin blinked a few times before shrugging.
“Because I’m not.”
The room erupted into disbelieving shouts and denials as half of the occupants rose to their feet.
“Yer kiddin, right!?”
“No way! We can’t do this without you!”
“Why in Naga’s name are you abandoning us now?”
“Enough!” Frederick bellowed, rising to his feet and slamming his hands down on the table.
The entire room grew silent as they stared at Robin, waiting for an explanation.
“You were all there when Chrom put me in charge of the army,” Robin addressed the room. “The army’s staying here. I can’t be in charge of the army if I’m not with it, and I know you all heard about Morgan being appointed Tactician of the Shepherds. Why is that such a big deal?”
“You’re serious,” Sully muttered in the ensuing silence.
“I’m against this course of action,” Chrom said from his seat, not in the least surprised by Robin’s statement. “I was hoping that everyone might be able to collectively talk some sense into him where I failed.”
“Look, Morgan’s every bit the tactician, if not a superior one, that I am-” Robin started.
“It’s not about that,” Cordelia interjected. “Morgan’s a fine Tactician and every bit your equal indeed, but you’ve been leading us from the very beginning. You should be the one to see this through to its end.”
“This is your fight as much as anyone else’s, Robin,” Stahl urged.
“I’m not hearing any complaints from the children,” Robin snapped, looking for support.
“Hey, you’re the tactician,” Severa huffed. “Whether we agree with you or not shouldn’t matter. Which I don’t, by the way.”
“You’re… the hero-tactician, though,” Cynthia muttered, looking like a kicked puppy beside Owain, who was obviously physically restraining himself.
“Master you can’t possibly-”
“Enough,” Lucina interrupted, nodding at Robin. “I trust Robin’s judgement. His reasoning is sound, loathe as I am to admit it. We will follow Morgan.”
Thank Naga someone still has my back, Robin thought, smiling at Lucina.
“I’m not going.”
Every pair of eyes in the room turned to look at Morgan, sitting with her shoulders hunched and her fists clenched in her lap as she stared at the tabletop.
“I said I’m not going!” she repeated, her unwavering gaze meeting Robin’s.
“Morgan this isn’t a matter of ‘going’ or ‘not going’,” Robin sighed. “If I could I’d be the first one out the gates, but the army needs me here.”
“I’ll lead them,” Morgan declared. “You all know I can; I already have! You said yourself that I’m practically your equal, so there shouldn’t be any problems, right?”
“Morgan…” Robin said.
“She has a point,” Frederick muttered.
“Are you kidding me?” Robin asked, glaring at the Knight Commander that usually looked for any tiny flaw in Robin’s logic he could point out.
“I agree with my Knight Commander,” Chrom said, crossing his arms. “Wing Commander? What say you to leaving Morgan in Charge of the army?”
“Aye,” Cordelia answered with an apologetic smile in Robin’s direction.
“Come on guys, this isn’t-” Robin tried to say.
“Lord Cullen? What say you?” Chrom continued, ignoring Robin’s protests.
“If she’s every bit as good as you all say she is, then on behalf of the Ylissean Armed Forces I say aye,” the older man grunted.
“Then in my authority as Exalt of Ylisse I hereby confer upon Tactician Morgan the title of Grandmaster of the Ylissean Armed Forces and all the authority that goes with it, to act in whatever way she deems fit in the defence of the realm in the absence of myself and her father.”
“It’s settled, then,” Morgan said happily, smiling at her father across the table as he sunk back into his chair.
“What’s the point of having a tactician when no one listens to him anyway?” Robin groaned.
Robin sighed and rubbed his temples as he sunk into the chair in his room, resting his elbows on his knees and seething. It wasn’t so much that everyone had been upset about his decision; he’d been expecting that. He wasn’t even upset about being forced to lead the mission team with Chrom; that’s what he’d wanted to do in the first place. All the work he’d already done on the Army organization would go to Morgan, so it wasn’t being wasted. Hell, he was even proud of the girl for taking a stand like that and arguing with authority for what she thought was right.
But Robin would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t pissed off at having his authority undermined like that.
The tactician let out another angrier sigh as he jumped to his feet, deciding that he may as well prepare his things for travel again. He would travel light this time; one spare set of clothes, his tactical manual and his weapons. Food could come from the supply wagon; sleeping wasn’t an issue seeing as he had his coat and it was late spring; everything he needed would either go on his person or be left behind. There were a few more things he’d need to do before he left, chief among them talk to Morgan again, but right now he was too angry.
Robin picked up his tactical manual, sliding it into the pouch with his spellbook as a flash of blue cloth as a small pile of tomes fell off his desk. Robin bent to retrieve the blue cloth-bound book he’d taken from an abandoned house in the middle of a Plegian desert nearly two years ago now, blowing a year’s worth of dust off of it as he sank back into the chair, looking at the book in his hands.
“A beginner’s Guide to Battlefield Tactics,” Robin read, the title of the book bringing a small smile to his face.
The sensation of distant memories that he couldn’t recall, something he hadn’t dwelt on for quite some time came back to him as he brushed his fingers across the worn cover. He was surprised to find that his magical sense had improved in a year of fighting, the tactician picking up a weak resonance from the book that seemed oddly familiar.
Blinking a few times he set the book down on his lap, placing both hands squarely on the thick cover, concentrating.
After a few seconds he let out a sigh. The resonance was familiar, but that’s all he could tell. It made him feel young, though; the sense making him think that maybe he had had something to do with the original owner as a child.
Not that it matters when I can’t remember it, Robin thought, carelessly tossing the book onto the table with a soft thud.
A few moments passed before Robin rolled his eyes, getting up with a sigh and putting the book in his pouch with his spellbook and manual.
“Damn my sentimentality,” Robin muttered as he grabbed the thin, flat wooden box he’d been lugging around since Chon’sin and left the room.
A knock on her door made Morgan glance up from where she was re-inking her spells in her spellbook, a common piece of maintenance that any mage not willing to put up with lugging around the cheap disposable spell tomes had to put up with.
“Yes?” she called, setting down her quill and quickly ensuring her hair was neat.
The door opened, her father stepping through carrying a small box she’d seen him carrying a few times before they’d boarded the ship from Valm.
“Hey, kiddo,” Robin greeted. “Busy?”
“No, just killing time,” she said, looking a little awkward as Robin stepped into the room.
“I have something for y-”
“I’m so sorry I opposed you at the meeting!” Morgan burst out, jumping to her feet. “I… I didn’t mean to disrespect you, but the Shepherds trust you and…”
Robin chuckled, putting down the box he was holding and pulling his daughter into a hug, cutting her off mid-apology.
“Stop talking,” Robin said as they separated. “I don’t care, I didn’t want to stay in Ylisstol anyway. I’m proud of you for sticking to your opinion like that.”
Morgan breathed a sigh of relief as they both sunk into chairs at the small table in her new room. It already had a distinct ‘Morgan’ feel to it; a few tapestries Say’ri had given to her daughter were hanging on the walls, as well as a beautiful set of Chon’sin armour sitting on a rack in one corner that Robin didn’t recall seeing get packed onto the ship. Books were strewn about with sheafs of loose paper, and Robin’s old breastplate that Morgan had claimed while he’d been ‘dead’ sat atop the biggest pile with her sword leaning against it.
“What’s up, then?” she asked curiously. “Did you just come to check out my spiffy new room? Or are you just here to make sure I’m not canoodling with Yarne?”
“Ignoring that crack about you and Yarne that I really didn’t want to think about, I’m pretty sure I’m going to miss your actual birthday while we’re on this mission,” Robin said as he reached for the box. “So I thought I’d give you your present early. No cake, though; I don’t want to spoil your dinner.”
Morgan let out a delighted squeal as she opened the box, her eyes widening as she reached into it.
“Dad…” she whispered. “This… this is…”
“You’re an amnesiac, just like me,” Robin said with a soft smile. “When I saw that you didn’t take any mementos from the Hot Spring town in Chon’sin I thought you might like a souvenir of your first vacation with your father.”
Morgan nodded mutely as she pulled the beautiful yukata she had rented from Anna-two in the town out of the box, running the intricately patterned fabric over her fingers a few times before looking back up at her father.
“But these cost a fortune!” Morgan said, shocked.
Robin chuckled and shrugged.
“Don’t worry; apparently dying in battle gets you a huge bonus from the Ylissean Royalty, so I thought I’d put that to good use.”
Morgan nodded happily, carefully putting the garment back into the box.
“Thank you dad,” she said, sniffling a few times before stopping, her eyes widening as a thought occurred to her.
“Oh crap!” She cried. “I’m going to miss your birthday and I didn’t get anything for you!”
Robin burst out laughing so hard he almost fell off his chair.
“Don’t worry about it, ‘Grandmaster’ Morgan,” Robin laughed. “Getting me out of all the paperwork you’re about to be buried under was more than enough of a present.”