Morgan swayed a little as she walked through the Ylissean Royal Library, catching herself and bringing her fingers to her brow in confusion as a headache blossomed out of nowhere.
A moment of panic set in as her vision blurred and she momentarily forgot what she was doing, reaching out to steady herself against one of the great bookshelves and shaking her head a few times, blinking in the candlelight to try and clear her vision.
What the hell…? She wondered as the headache started to fade as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving her gasping and coated in sweat.
Where did that come from? She wondered, running a hand down her face. Maybe I should go see Lissa about that?
It had been less than a week since her Father and the others had set out for Plegia; if she dropped dead now when things were still quiet she’d never forgive herself.
Morgan had been meticulous in her planning, the exhausted Ylissean army standing ready to move out at any moment to anywhere on the continent. She was in constant contact with Raimi in Regna Ferox, who had the Feroxi tribes in a similar state. She didn’t doubt that they would be called on eventually, but the waiting would be hard on the men, who had already suffered so much in Valm. So, considering morale to be an important factor to army cohesion the way her father had taught her, she had organized a rotation of squads to take leave a few men at a time, sending them home for a few days to relax with their families before they came back. She’d also been organizing Risen hunts with Lady Cherche and the Pegasus Knights, making sure that the countryside was clear.
All that was left to do was wait, so she’d been looking for a book in the library she’d heard Miriel talking about, one describing esoteric half-finished spells that could be used as reference material in crafting new versions of-
Morgan let out an anguished cry, falling to her knees and clutching at her head, gasping as blood started to drip from her nose.
I’ve tried to help you once already, boy, and you’ve thrown that back in my face. I’m done playing.
If that was helping, then I can’t wait to see you try to kill me.
We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Take the Emblem.
No. I already told you no! Here’s a thought, why don’t you go ahead and suck my-
DO IT! TAKE IT NOW!
“Dad? What in Naga’s name…?” she groaned, wiping her face clean with her sleeve as she climbed unsteadily to her feet.
She looked around the abandoned library, searching for where the voices had been coming from. She could have sworn she’d heard her father arguing with someone, and it had sounded like he was in pain…
Not finding anyone, even after checking down all the aisles and under all the tables, Morgan let out a breath and decided not to press her luck by hanging around, creeped out at being alone in the library.
I’m never listening to any of Vaike’s stupid ghost-stories again, Morgan thought, grabbing the books she’d dropped and making for the door. Haunted library my foot. It’s just headaches and… weird hallucinations and… yeah, I’m going to go and see Lissa now.
As she walked towards the huge doors that were usually manned by Miriel and her team of attentive and over-worked staff Morgan paused, her breath catching in her throat as she heard a strange shuffling sound from outside in the hallway.
Silently cursing the fact that she had left her sword back in her room Morgan desperately tried to call a spell, any spell, to mind, terror freezing her in her tracks. The young tactician edged slowly towards the doorway wielding the large tome in her hands like a hammer, breathing in short, shallow breaths.
She let out a shriek and fell backwards as an ethereal figure dressed in a plain white dress stepped into the moonlight in the hallway, glancing at her with red eyes and-
“Morgan?” Panne asked, leaning against the great doors and holding her side. “What are you screaming about?”
The girl blinked up at the Taguel from the floor, wearing a plain white hospital robe instead of her usual leathers.
“Er… nothing,” Morgan laughed sheepishly before hiding her embarrassment by taking a stern countenance. “But what are you doing up? You’re supposed to be confined to your bed!”
“I heard screaming,” Panne deadpanned, quirking a brow at Morgan.
“Right!” Morgan said quickly. “I saw… a mouse?”
“I smell blood,” Panne said in the same tone.
“Paper cut?” Morgan said weakly.
Why am I lying? She wondered, laughing awkwardly and rubbing the back of her head.
Panne looked at her strangely for a moment before sighing.
“Very well. Then I shall return to my quarters.”
Panne had been up and about pretty much since the others left, much to the continued protests of both Gaius and Lissa. She was awake again, but still weak; far weaker than someone that had only been stabbed and lost a lot of blood. Tharja had said something about a curse, but Panne had scoffed her off, claiming she was fine and proceeding to make everyone worry as she forced herself to continue trying to act like nothing was wrong. At present she looked almost like a ghost herself; she was pale and her face was drawn, the woman coated in sweat and panting from her exertions.
“Hold on, let me help you,” Morgan said, taking the obviously struggling Taguel by the arm.
Panne nodded appreciatively as the tactician led her from the library, stealing one last glance into the great room over her shoulder and blinking a few times.
For the briefest of seconds she thought she’d seen an older man, rake thin and actually rather sinister looking, glaring at her from the shadows with twin red pinpricks where his eyes were hidden by shadow.
That’s it, no more studying after dinner, she told herself as she half-carried Panne back to her room. It’s making me go crazy.
Morgan groaned loudly, stretching her arms above her head after finishing the latest stack of regional patrol reports that Cullen had organised for her. Letting her arms drop she leaned back, glancing out the window at the cheery sunlight falling onto the royal gardens and letting out a soft sigh, starting to regret offering to take her father’s place in Ylisstol.
“Why is there always so much paperwork?” she moaned, letting her head thump on the table as she caught sight of the stack sitting in her ‘to do’ pile.
This was all just a ploy, she thought bleakly, glaring at the papers and silently willing them to spontaneously ignite. Dad knew if he said he’d stay here we’d all freak out and I’d offer to take his place. The man is an evil genius.
Morgan couldn’t help but think at least things had been going smoothly so far. Civil obedience was steady; the populace knew that something was going on because it was impossible to keep the fact that the Shepherds were gone a secret, but the presence of Princess Lissa and Queen Sumia seemed to calm the collective citizenry’s anxiety. Lissa was doing everything she could to make her presence as public as possible while Sumia tended to the daily running of the kingdom with Morgan and the rest of the Ylissean Council. Morgan, however, also had the added duty of co-ordinating with the military leaders still in Ylisstol, not to mention maintaining contact with Roark and Kellam in Themis, as well as Seth and the young Duchess in Jagen that was apparently Commander Frederick’s younger cousin.
Meaning, in short, that Morgan wasn’t getting a lot of ‘outside time’.
I really don’t think that the nation will descend into anarchy if I take a quick walk around the palace grounds, she reasoned, grabbing her coat off the back of her chair and tugging it on as she walked out of the office Lissa had prepared for her.
The small room was supposedly meant to have been for her father, but Robin was a little more ‘eccentric’ in where he liked to work. Morgan had asked about why he didn’t use the space; it was a nice office, almost more of a den, really, with a beautiful polished oak desk and shelves with copies of any book he could possibly need to use in crafting strategies, not to mention a very comfortable sofa off to one side facing a fireplace. He had simply replied to her query with “I like being around other people while I work. Reminds me why I work.”
Maybe that’s why I’m feeling so melancholy, Morgan mused as she descended the stairs to the great entry hall, waving back at the bolder members of the palace staff that greeted her.
I’m stuck inside, not reminding myself why I’m coming up with these plans. I’m losing touch with why I wanted to be a tactician. I need to get out a little more and reconnect with-BUNNY!
Morgan blinked a few times as she stepped outside, her excitement turning to disappointment as she realised that, while it was a Taguel she was looking at in the garden, it wasn’t the one she’d been pining for over the last week.
“Morning, Panne!” Morgan called to the Taguel woman resting beneath one of the great oak trees in the gardens. “Feeling better today?”
Yarne’s mother glanced up, favouring Morgan with a slightly less-severe look than she gave everyone else before nodding and going back to staring into space.
The Taguel woman, who was being touted as a hero-among-heroes by the guards and soldiers that had heard tell of her efforts to protect the young princess, single-handedly holding a horde of enemies away as they tore her up, fighting very near to her last breath, let out a breath that almost sounded like a satisfied sigh as she leaned back, basking in the sun on the soft grass.
“That looks relaxing. Mind if I join you?” Morgan asked hopefully.
“Of course, child,” Panne said without looking up.
Morgan happily flopped down, far from gracefully, and sprawled out on the grass next to the older woman. They sat in silence for a time, Panne watching the plants and grasses that made up the garden, occasionally glancing at one of the palace servants or gardeners as they went about their business while Morgan stared up at the brilliant blue sky.
“You know, I’m almost disappointed that we missed winter in Ylisstol,” Morgan sighed, still staring straight up. “I mean, I don’t remember it, but I would have seen them before, right? Feels like one of those holes in my memory I need to fill.”
“Do you have many of those?” Panne asked curiously.
“At least eighteen years’ worth,” Morgan answered with a sigh.
“You are very much like your father in some ways, and in many others, very unlike him.”
Morgan finally tore her eyes away from the sky, arching a brow questioningly. When she realised Panne still wasn’t even looking at her she sighed.
“Care to elaborate on that point?” Morgan asked, sitting up.
Panne glanced over at her, an uncomprehending look on her face.
“About how I’m different from my father?” Morgan pressed.
Panne shrugged, looking back to the gardens.
“I merely meant that he no longer seems to care about his lost memories.”
Morgan scratched her head a little.
“You think so?”
“I cannot speak for him, but I feel that his life, much like my own, has vastly improved since we all came together here. Why dwell on the past, on what was lost, when we all have so much happiness here and now?”
“I’m not dwelling, I’m just curious,” Morgan muttered.
Panne snorted. “Yes, and in that matter you two are irredeemably similar.”
The Taguel cocked her head to one side, listening to something Morgan couldn’t hear.
“The loud one that constantly speaks of money is calling for you,” she said, indicating back towards the palace with a nod of her head. “From the urgency in her voice, it sounds important.”
Morgan heaved a sigh. She’d barely been relaxing for more than fifteen minutes…
“Thanks Panne,” Morgan said as she stood up, dusting the loose grass off her coat. “Don’t over-do it, okay?”
The Taguel merely nodded, continuing to gaze into the distance as Morgan walked away.
Robin wordlessly grumbled as he tromped along the road, attempting to blow a wet strand of hair out of his face only to have it plop back into place to irritate him further.
“You know it won’t do you any good.” Chrom said with a wry smile on his face.
“Well you can at least let me try.” Robin shot back.
“They’ll all see right through it. You don’t stand a chance.”
“I disagree. It’s a tactician’s job to accomplish the unaccomplishable, right?”
“Is that even a word?”
“Stop laughing, damn you! It is now!”
“Come on, now; everyone’s just worried about you. You’re an important part of this army and-”
“And whose fault is that for making me so damn important!? Against my will and better judgement, I might add!?”
Chrom snorted, trying not to burst into laughter as they walked back into the camp. The sun had risen properly not that long ago, and they were all in desperate need of some proper rest. He was exhausted and still ached from the beating that the possessed Robin had given him, and Lucina looked like she hadn’t slept in day. Robin stank like a charnel house to the point where Chrom had begun to think to simply throw him into the river they had followed back to the camp and be done with it.
Which, he reflected as Robin pushed the sopping hair back from his face again with a scowl as his boots squelched on the road, hadn’t really improved the tactician’s mood all that much. Even if it did leave both himself and Lucina rolling around on the bank, laughing as the tactician flailed about in the water.
“And you call me an ass?” Robin grumbled as he noticed Chrom snickering quietly to himself.
The tactician looked up a little as he saw Lucina emulating her father, glancing at him and having to fight even harder against a fit of giggles that threatened to break free. He had to admit, it was much more endearing on her than on the Exalt.
“You know neither of you make my life easy,” he sighed, preparing himself for what was no doubt about to come as some of the Shepherds on the camp periphery noticed them. “I’ll say it one last time; you should have killed me back there, ‘cause that ship has sailed now if only because I am looking forward to rubbing the biggest ‘I told you so’ of my life in both of your faces later. Now let’s get this song and dance over with so I can go to sleep already.”
“Er… maybe you should do up your coat first,” Chrom pointed out, glancing at the lines of dark magic still etched across his skin clear as day.
“They need… no, they deserve to see it,” Robin sighed. “They need to know who they’re following. I wouldn’t feel right keeping it from them.”
Chrom clapped an understanding hand on the tactician’s shoulder, smiling a little as they walked, watching the small knot of Shepherds apparently on guard duty expand to become most of the group in the time it took them to approach.
“Robin!” Tharja called out, exploding from the camp and crossing the space between the trio and it in a flash.
The tactician held his arms up a little, sighing and grinning as he waited for the hug that was no doubt coming, instead finding his head snapping to one side and his teeth rattling as Tharja punched him in the face a lot harder than he had ever expected her to be able to hit.
“What the hell!?” Robin shouted in surprise, grateful for Lucina catching him as he fell.
“I should be asking you that!” the Dark Mage shouted in his face, tears streaming down hers as she grabbed his collar. “What the hell were you thinking!? Did you really think that you dying would save anyone!? How could you even think about doing that to us!?”
Robin looked down at the distraught mage, moving to put her in a comforting embrace before a thought struck him and he clasped his hands behind his back, leaning forward slightly.
“I haven’t said a word yet,” Robin pointed out, quirking his brow. “How would you know what happened back there?”
The Dark Mage sniffled, eyes going wide and releasing the tactician, taking a meek step back as Robin’s brow quirked higher, grinning down at her and sighing.
“I would appreciate it if you removed that hex now,” he said, pulling her into a quick hug before stepping by her and making to enter the camp with Chrom and Lucina.
“Master!” Owain shouted, charging to the front of the press. “Master, are you… un… harmed?”
The blonde boy trailed off, his eyes widening like everyone else’s as he regarded the tactician standing there openly displaying such sinister markings before them all. He knew for a fact that just looking at them made people uncomfortable; how Lucina and Chrom had dealt with it on the way back to camp was honestly beyond him.
Oh. That’s right. They threw me into a river, Robin thought sarcastically.
“Robin…” Stahl muttered, looking back and forth between his Exalt and the tactician. “What’s… when did you…”
“The hell’s all that shit?” Brady grunted, moving closer to inspect the markings. “Ma! Why didn’tcha mention this garbage?”
“Because I figured that Robin would want to explain it to us all,” Maribelle said, crossing her arms and glaring at him expectantly. “And why he felt the need to curse me to escape when I would have let him go had he explained his motives.”
“Er… sorry,” he mumbled, choosing to omit the fact that it had actually been Tharja that had cursed her, not him.
The tactician looked back and forth between his friends and comrades all staring at him with emotions ranging the gambit from worry to fear on their faces before taking a deep breath. He glanced back as Lucina placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, nodding encouragingly.
“Alright, I suppose I brought this on myself,” he muttered self-depreciatingly.
“There have been some questions about my parentage since, well, since I joined the Shepherds,” Robin began, standing tall and looking the other Shepherds in the eye. “I will state it plain. My name is Robin, and apparently I’m the Crown Prince of Plegia.”
Exclamations of surprise and shocked muttering met Robin’s statement as Owain burst into disbelieving laughter, stopping when his father came up and smacked him upside the head.
“Is this true?” Lon’qu asked seriously, hushing the crowd with his question and stepping past Owain.
“Tell them the rest,” Frederick demanded, stepping forward and glaring at Robin with open hostility, hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Er… yes, I was getting there,” the tactician mumbled. “Uh, this is where it gets kinda weird, so bear with me, but apparently my father is not only the King of Plegia, but also a crazy sorcerer that can magically control my mind, er… body? I dunno, let’s stick with mind, and is hell-bent on reviving Grima and destroying the world. And he kinda… mind-controlled me into giving him the Fire Emblem. After kicking Chrom in, uh, in the face. So… yeah. That happened. The marks are some kind of side-effect. I think. I’m not really a hundred percent, but I thought full disclosure might be prudent at this point.”
The crowd was silent, staring at Chrom for confirmation.
“It’s true. But I still trust him,” the Exalt shrugged. “He can fight it; we just have to keep Validar distracted next time we face him.”
“Milord you are not being rational-” Frederick began.
“Good enough for me,” Lon’qu said over the knight, stepping forward and shoving a sheaf of papers and maps into Robin’s hands before turning on his heel and striding back into the camp. “Here. You can keep your bloody job. Too much paperwork.”
“Thanks?” Robin said, dropping half the papers and ducking to retrieve them.
“Just like that?” Sully asked, shocked. “He gives away the most important heirloom House Ylisse has and you forgive him just like that?”
Lon’qu barely slowed as he passed her, narrowing his eyes slightly as if to say ‘yes, just like that’.
“It’s just like a hero from a fairy-tale!” Cynthia squealed excitedly. “A man born a Prince, no idea of his dark heritage grows up a pauper and becomes a great hero!”
“Yes!” Owain chimed in, adopting his favourite pose with his hand before his face. “For only the scions of heroes, the Justice Cabal, would be able to tell of Owain Dark’s master’s forsaken heritage and guide him to a more righteous path! It is truly glorious!”
“Er… right,” Inigo muttered. “I think you two need to get your heads checked.”
“You in or not?” Brady grunted from his side.
“What, following Robin? Of course,” the playboy shrugged. “He’s done pretty damn well so far.”
“You… really?” Kjelle asked, just as shocked as her mother. “He may have just killed us all! And you all decide to go along with this madness!?”
“We can’t trust him,” Gerome said quietly from the back of the group.
“I do, though,” Chrom repeated as the crowd began to argue.
“As do I,” Lucina piped in, standing at Robin’s side and gripping his hand tightly.
“I still trust you, Robin,” Cordelia said with a relieved smile on her face, Frederick by her side having fallen silent, casting her a glance out of the corner of his eye.
The others began to descend into arguments and accusations almost as quickly as Robin could blink, splitting into two clearly defined factions.
This must have been part of Validar’s plan all along; divide and conquer, Robin realised as he watched Stahl and Vaike almost come to blows before Chrom interposed himself between them.
“Alright, that’s enough for now!” Chrom shouted above the rising voices of the others. “Until I say otherwise, he’s still chief-tactician, and that’s a direct order! No arguments!”
“Let’s all get some rest for a few hours before moving out again,” The Exalt ordered, moving to disperse the crowd, some looking rather displeased with their Lord’s decision. “We have a lot to do. Lon’qu! I want you to organise a scouting party for us before you retire… Lon’qu? Where’d he disappear to?”
Robin shook his head, watching as his mere presence separated the Shepherds into factions the way he had been hoping it wouldn’t. However, there were a lot less people against him than he’d been expecting, mostly the knights and the dourer of the future children. Say’ri had remained silent, which had confused Robin; he’d thought for sure she’d take the opportunity to get a few barbs in, but apparently he had underestimated the Queen of Chon’sin.
They’re nuts, Robin thought, shaking his head. They’re all absolutely nuts. The evidence is right in front of them and still they choose blind faith in a man they just found out-
“Ah!” he said, hand snatching out to grab a black-clad shoulder as it tried to slip past him. “Remove the scrying hex. Now.”
Tharja wilted unhappily in his grip, looking down at her feet.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep it while you can still be controlled?” she asked hopefully.
“No,” Robin told her flatly. “We’re a little bit past this game now, Tharja.”
“Very well, I will get my hexing tools and meet you at your tent,” the Dark Mage huffed, whirling and stomping off.
Robin turned as well, coming face-to-face with Frederick scowling down at him.
“You may have all of them fooled, but not me,” he growled, nose to nose with the shorter tactician. “I will be there watching you, Robin. And when you slip, for any reason at all, I will be the one to end you. Am I making myself clear?”
Robin chuckled, taking a step back.
“I know that was meant to come across as a threat, but that’s actually very reassuring. Please, Frederick, don’t let me hurt anyone else. You’re the only one… ‘fanatical’ enough about our wellbeing for me to trust with that task.”
The Knight Commander glared at Robin for a few more moments, trying to sense even a hint of sarcasm in the smaller man’s statement, before grunting and turning away, walking off into the camp.
“Forgive him,” Cordelia said tiredly as they watched her husband start barking orders at the other Shepherds. “He just has a hard time properly conveying his emotions.”
“Oh, I think he got the ‘I still don’t like you’ message across just fine,” Robin chuckled. “Sorry if all this has caused… issues between you two.”
This time it was Cordelia’s turn to chuckle softly.
“I know for a fact that cutting you down in cold blood would have haunted him for the rest of his life,” she explained. “He may not act like it, but he is really quite fond of you.”
“You don’t say,” Robin deadpanned.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked in a low tone.
“I’ll be fine,” Robin answered her. “I just need some rest.”
Cordelia nodded, giving Robin one last smile before taking off after Frederick to make sure he didn’t work anyone to death. Robin sagged a little, letting out a sigh now that he was back to being mostly ignored by the others like usual. He caught a glimpse of Say’ri turning away from watching the Knight Commander, too; no doubt wondering how she could side with him in the future against the tactician.
“Well, I’m sure that went better than you were expecting it to,” Lucina commented, coming up behind him and gently taking his hand again.
“Yeah,” he sighed, running his free hand through his hair. “Sorry about the whole… kicking your father thing.”
“Stop apologizing already,” Lucina told him with a small grin, leading him by the hand through the camp.
“This couldn’t possibly come at a worse time,” Cullen was saying as Morgan walked into the meeting room, Anna on her heels.
The former-Knight Commander glanced up with Cherche, Lissa and Sumia as the other two women walked in, Morgan holding her hand out expectantly. Cullen chuckled a little as he passed her the reports he was going through.
“Someone want to give me the short version?” Morgan asked, eyes already speeding over the sheets.
“Risen,” Lissa said, making the young tactician blanch and lose her place in her reading.
“What!?” Morgan cried. “I thought that Cherche was-”
“I was,” the wyvern rider cut her off. “And I still am. But I must respect my limits, and the limits of the Pegasus Knights that Cordelia’s entrusted me with. The numbers we’re facing are still unknown.”
“And Sir Virion would have a fit if he knew I was merely riding with them right now,” she added, hand brushing over her stomach.
“Sorry,” Morgan said quickly. “You just caught me off guard. Er… can someone give me a little bit longer a version than Lissa did?”
“Cherche and the Knights came across a knot of Risen sacking a farming hamlet in the north-eastern foothills,” Sumia reported. “Unfortunately they were unable to save the residents, but they managed to destroy the Risen and return here unharmed.”
“So we’re not sure if this is an isolated incident or not?” Morgan asked, looking for the hamlet in question on the map spread out on the table.
“It could be,” Cullen mused, stroking his beard. “But with the Exalt and the core of the army away we can’t afford to take that chance.”
“I agree,” Sumia added.
“Alright, I’ll start running some scenarios,” Morgan mumbled, cupping her chin in thought. “We can’t move too far, too fast, but if we increase patrols in the northern regions and start co-ordinating with Seth’s people we should be able to comb the mountain passes and contain this without alerting the civilians before we’re done.”
“I agree that public order needs to be the most important factor right now,” Lissa said.
“Is there someone we can trust to liaise with Seth’s people?” Cullen asked.
“Anna?” Morgan asked, startling the merchant at the back of the room.
“I know it’s not exactly your usual work, but can you get to Jagen quickly and discretely?” Morgan asked.
“What kind of merchant would I be if I turned the offer to break into a foreign market down?” Anna said with a smirk after barely a second of thought.
“Technically their not ‘foreign’,” Morgan chuckled.
“Details, details,” the merchant said, waving a hand. “There’s no Anna presence there, so it counts. What do you need me to do?”
“We’re going to leave immediately to co-ordinate with Seth,” Morgan said decisively.
“’We’?” Sumia repeated.
Morgan’s response was to grin up from under her fringe as she looked down at the map, already starting to plan their route.
“We,” she repeated.
Robin let out an involuntary hiss as Tharja plucked one of the hairs out of his head, feeling an unfamiliar sensation of lightening as the scrying hex she’d placed on him was lifted. It was common practice in removing curses and hexes to confine them to a part of the body and remove that part; depending on how big or serious the spell was it could be as simple as yanking a couple of hairs out, or as complex as amputating a limb. It wasn’t uncommon to see Dark Mages wandering around Plegia missing fingers or sporting large scars where chunks of flesh had been cut out.
Robin was just grateful that Tharja was skilled enough to move the hex to a single hair.
“There,” she sighed, holding the long white hair up to her face. “It’s done. The hex is gone.”
“Thank you,” Robin sighed, falling backwards into his camp-chair. “That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?”
Tharja glared at him for a moment before spinning on her heel and stomping out.
“I’m keeping this hair,” she pouted over her shoulder as she went to leave the tent.
“Hold on a second!” the tactician called after her. “You and I need to have a little talk.”
Tharja hesitated, looking back over her shoulder. When she didn’t move Robin kicked the other camping chair towards her, prompting the Dark Mage to sigh and turn, but remain standing.
“How did you know all that Grima stuff?” Robin asked. “I’m not saying I don’t trust you or anything, I just… if you know anything, anything that might give me an edge over this bastard, I’d like to hear it.”
Tharja let out another sigh, her posture becoming less stiff as she visibly relaxed.
“Like I said,” she began to explain. “My training in the Dark Arts was very… thorough. From a young age we’re taught that all Dark Magic is derived from Grima’s power, and that we owe him not just our lives, but our obedience and our very souls because of it. That’s why so many of us end up either working for the King or the Grimleal.”
“Okay, so he’s not a benevolent god,” Robin said when Tharja grew silent again. “We already knew that. Is there anything else?”
Tharja nodded woodenly.
“Look, I know this is hard for you,” Robin said softly. “But any tiny little scrap of information could save my life.”
“It’s not just that it’s hard,” Tharja told him. “We’re cursed at birth to be unable to talk about it to outsiders; it’s… how our umbilical cords are cut, and it is completely irremovable. It’s a… struggle to talk about it with the Princess here.”
Lucina perked up a little where she was standing behind Robin.
“That’s hideous!” she said outraged. “What kind of depraved monster would do that to a newborn!?”
“My father,” Tharja sighed. “Robin’s father.”
“Wait… I have the curse, too?” Robin asked curiously.
“Although it appears when you lost your memories the curse lost most of its strength. There are so many other old curses and hexes layered on you that it’s difficult to tell.”
“And you never thought to mention this why?” he asked, frowning.
“I… assumed you knew,” Tharja said, honestly surprised. “It’s something that you should have been able to feel, even without knowledge of cursing, and it’s not usually something people talk about, even among Dark Mages. It shows weakness amongst us, that we were unable to keep from being cursed in the first place.”
Robin sighed, rubbing the back of his head in frustration.
“Maybe they’ve just always been there and I don’t know what living without them feels like.”
“Robin…” Lucina said softly, reaching out to gently grip his shoulders.
“I’m fine,” he said, reaching up to cover one of her hands with his right hand. “Tharja, can you do a catalogue of the curses on me? Maybe we can find the one that lets Validar control me and we can remove it, or at the very least render it inert.”
“I will need a sample,” Tharja pointed out after a few seconds of thoughts.
“What, one hair not enough?” Robin chuckled, already reaching up to his head.
With a quick yank he tore a lock of white hair out of his head near his temple, the pain dulled by the rest of the beating he’d taken the previous day.
“Here,” Robin said, a tired grin on his face as Tharja reached out. “Keep the change. Just… no more scrying hexes.”
The Dark Mage nodded, staring enraptured at the small bundle of white hairs as she turned and left the tent, no doubt already using her innate talents to sort through the curses that had been layered on him.
Robin snickered a little as Lucina looked on, worry evident on her tired features.
“Should you be worried about that?” she asked after a moment.
Robin’s snickering turned into a full-blown laugh as his head lolled backwards.
“No, she’s just being creepy,” he chuckled. “Don’t pay her any mind.”
Robin sat silently for a few seconds before letting out an exaggerated groan and sitting back up.
“I should probably be working right now, shouldn’t I?”
Lucina raised a silent brow at him.
“Fine, bathing first,” Robin grumbled, reaching for his towel. “Then I’ll commence saving the world. They’ve set the bathing tent up, right?”
Robin let out a satisfied groan, rubbing his head a few more times with his towel for good measure as he walked back to his tent, his filthy clothes under one arm and his mostly clean coat sitting where it belonged on his back.
He walked slowly through the fully assembled camp, thinking that perhaps they wouldn’t be moving out as fast as Chrom had been hoping to, especially if the bathing tent was set up.
He admittedly felt a little better now, but he still had a pounding headache, and his nose had started bleeding randomly again while he’d been cleaning himself earlier, making him have to change the water in the tub. It was starting to look like the lines on his arms were fading, but he’d been staring at them almost non-stop since he’d woken up, so he couldn’t really tell.
All in all, pretty crappy day so far, Robin groaned, slinging the towel around his neck as he walked.
“Pardon, Robin,” a familiar voice called out from behind Robin, making him cringe. “Could I have a word with you?”
Aaaaaand from bad to worse, he thought, sagging a little as he turned.
“Say’ri, what can I do for you?” he asked, suddenly grateful for the fresh shirt covering his chest.
The last thing he felt like doing was showing his marks off any more, especially to her.
The foreign ruler stepped out of her tent, Robin committing its location and appearance to memory so he could avoid it in future, looking at him strangely.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Er, fine I guess. I’m alive, and I have work to do. I can feel like crap later.”
She nodded, looking down to his right hand, the Mark of Grima prominently displayed on the back of it. He’d realised that there was no point trying to hide it any more.
“I have heard the others talking,” she said. “They are concerned about you. Many have voiced dissent. They trust Chrom and are willing to do as he orders, but are beginning to fear you. Many of the others are agreeing to follow you out of respect for him.”
“Gee, great pep-talk,” Robin deadpanned when she went silent. “Is this the part where you threaten to stab me if I show such much as a hint of evil-possession again? Because Frederick already beat you to that one.”
“What?” Say’ri asked, her head snapping up with a look of hurt on her face. “No! Fie, tactician, this is where I tell you I still trust you!”
Robin blinked a few times, her statement sinking in.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat that? I must still have some water in my ear…”
“Is that truly so hard to believe?” Say’ri asked, rolling her eyes. “I’ve seen you fight this off once before, in Steiger. I know you can do it.”
“Steiger was… a little different.”
“Fie, it matters not,” Say’ri said dismissively. “You’ve done nothing but good for the world. Nothing. If the others have forgotten that, I have not. Neither has Lord Chrom, or Princess Lucina. Keep that in mind. You still have allies. You’re not facing this alone.”
Robin nodded as the swordswoman turned to return to her tent.
And once again, I’ve supremely underestimated her, Robin realised, feeling a pang of guilt about the way he’d been thinking about her again lately.
“Hey, Say’ri,” he called after her.
She glanced back at him, a questioning look on her face.
“Thanks for the pep-talk,” Robin said, a genuine smile on his face.
Robin stepped into his tent, an apple being held in his mouth from the supply wagon, coming to an abrupt stop when he saw Lucina passed out asleep on his bedroll.
Did she wait here the entire time? he wondered, placing the half-eaten fruit down on his table and noticing that while she’d removed her blue armour and cape she was still in the tunic she’d been wearing the previous night.
Oh, and I needed a bath? Robin thought with a wry chuckle.
Smiling lightly to himself he crossed the tent and pulled the blanket he kept inside the bedroll over her, stroking her hair lightly before turning to start going over the papers Lon’qu had unceremoniously shoved into his chest earlier.
“Sorry,” Lucina mumbled, stalling Robin half-way to his table. “I did not mean to fall asleep.”
“That’s okay,” he said, moving back to crouch next to the bedroll. “I got to sleep for like six hours, apparently. Well, I was unconscious, but it’s kinda the same thing, right? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I think you’ve earned a rest.”
Lucina sat up, blinking the sleep out of her eyes.
“No. Not while everyone else is working.”
“I’m pretty sure not everyone’s working right now.”
“Yes,” Lucina said groggily as she drew the blankets back and stood. “But I have never once seen Sir Vaike do anything even remotely resembling work off of a battlefield.”
“You’ve never seen him in a tavern, then,” Robin chuckled as he stood with her.
Lucina smiled a little before looking down, closing in on herself the way he’d seen her do when she needed to prepare for something important. Robin had spent the entire time he’d been out of the tent dwelling on his current situation; playing things out differently in his head, making himself paranoid by imagining the others planning to kill him in reprisal even after they’d said they would still follow him, winding himself up and making himself paranoid. He had no doubt in his mind Lucina had been doing something very similar; if he’d learned one thing about her in the last year or so they had been travelling together it was that they quite often thought along similar lines.
Better nip this in the bud before it gets out of hand…
“Robin, I-” was as far as she got.
“Stop,” the tactician said gently, pulling her into a tight embrace. “Whatever happened back there… whatever we were planning to do, whatever we didn’t do, we’re both partly to blame. Me maybe a little more than you, but that’s beside the point. I’m not apologizing, and I won’t let you apologize. Got it?”
Lucina went stiff in his arms for a moment before relaxing and melting into him the way she usually did.
“I tried to kill you,” she said softly, self-loathing thick in her voice. “I’ve buried more friends than I can count. I gave up on anything besides surviving and sparing this world the calamity that destroyed mine; especially something I thought was as frivolous as love. I gave up my humanity to save the world. And I tried to kill the one man that makes me feel human again.”
“Er, I did kinda encourage you,” Robin pointed out, tightening his grip a little.
Lucina let out a soft sniffle, trying to bury her face deeper into Robin’s chest.
“And, in your defence,” Robin added, “the man that you love also turned out to be a sleeper agent for the evil sorcerer that brings about the end of the world, so I think your decision might have been justified under normal circumstances.”
“I don’t blame you, Robin,” she said quietly.
“And I don’t blame you,” he replied, planting a light kiss on the top of her head. “So we’re even. See? Now take a nap before you pass out.”
Lucina let out a soft chuckle before looking up at him.
“Robin, I’m so sor-”
“Ah! No!” Robin shouted, clamping a hand to her mouth. “No apologies! No! None! You’re not allowed! You’re tactician is ordering you not to for the sake of morale!”
Lucina laughed as she pried Robin’s hand off her mouth, leaning up and planting a light kiss on his lips.
“Alright, I think you’ve made your point-” she managed to say as she pulled away from Robin, letting out a surprised laugh as he pulled her back again.
“Just to make sure…” Robin muttered, leaning forward and bringing their lips together again.
Morgan hitched her pack further up her back as she struggled to match the punishing pace that Anna set, her legs already burning and lungs struggling to take in air as she powered after the seemingly unfazed merchant. Fortunately, she wasn’t the only one struggling, as Donnel groaned from next to her.
“The woman ain’t human,” he wheezed, clutching his own pack with one hand as his sword flapped against his hip, his other arm tightly bound in a sling. “I survived a big war an’ now I’ma drop dead from exhaustion in ma’ own yard…”
Morgan silently agreed, too exhausted to speak. They had set out that morning just after the meeting, Anna setting a punishing pace as she led them through the countryside and eventually the lower parts of the mountainous areas around Jagen. They were due to set up camp soon, but Anna was as bright and excited at the prospect of new customers as ever, and she might have forgotten…
“Alright!” Anna announced, suddenly coming to a stop in the middle of the path. “We’ll rest here tonight!”
“Oh thank Naga!” Donnel groaned as he and Morgan fell to the ground in a heap.
Anna chuckled a little, looking back at the other two.
“Sorry,” she said with a wink. “I was a travelling merchant before I joined the Shepherds. A little walk like this is nothing for me.”
“We’ve been hiking uphill for the last three hours!” Donnel cried in exasperation. “Fredrick runs me ragged an’ I’m still ‘bout to drop dead followin’ you!”
“Are we… really going to sleep… in the middle of the… road?” Morgan panted, fanning herself and wishing she’d worn lighter clothing under her coat.
“Yup!” Anna said brightly, rolling out a mat and beginning to set up shop on it. “This may be an important military mission for you, but for me it’s an important merchant mission! This is the best place for me to set up for the night, even if these roads don’t see a lot of traffic anymore!”
Anna let out a small squeal as she placed a few containers of lamp oil from her pack on the mat.
“I feel just like a journeyman merchant setting out again!” she cried, holding her face and smiling.
“I’ll start us a fire,” Donnel sighed, shrugging off his pack and climbing back to his feet.
“I guess I’ll… go and get… some water…” Morgan gasped, somehow clambering back to her feet and grabbing the almost empty waterskins in the process.
“Yup! I’ll wait for customers!” Anna said, plopping down in the middle of the mat surrounded by her wares.
Morgan couldn’t help but grin as she shuffled off towards the stream she’d seen flowing near the road earlier in the evening; according to her estimation (really more of a wild guess, but she’d never admit that), she should be able to find it a little way into the thin woods next to the road.
It was a quiet, cool evening that made Morgan almost forget about the important mission they were on. Of course Lissa and Sumia had objected, but it was the only real option; they were leaders, and they needed a leader to co-ordinate with the forces in Jagen, but neither of them could leave the city. Normally someone like Lon’qu or Cordelia would have been sent, but with the Shepherds gone and the army still spread so thin trying to cover their losses from the war with Valm they couldn’t afford to spare even a single junior officer, Morgan had been the only reasonable choice.
That was the reason she was leaving the city; not because she felt cooped up and buried under paperwork.
Nope. Not the paperwork. Not one bit.
Morgan snickered as she found the stream, recalling the way that Gaius had rolled his eyes and sighed “This is exactly what her father would have done. Why is everyone acting so surprised?”
Of course, Panne had demanded to go with them, possibly the only one feeling more cooped up than she was, but the Taguel was still unnaturally weak. Far too weak to put up with Anna’s relentless pace, let alone travel at an idyllic one. Donnel had wound up tagging along almost by accident; he’d been walking by when he’d heard Sumia and Lissa discussing their desire for Morgan and Anna to have some form of escort, and he hadn’t yet resumed active duty since his run-in with the Risen, so he had volunteered.
I bet he’s regretting that decision now, Morgan thought, plunging the empty waterskins into the flowing creek, recalling how the soldier had been just as exhausted as she was; no doubt more-so, considering the armour he was wearing.
The young tactician – ‘Grandmaster’ now, she corrected herself – perked up when she heard Anna let out another high-pitched shriek.
I should really hurry back and make sure she’s okay, Morgan thought, corking the waterskin she’d been filling and rising to her feet. But dammit if my legs aren’t telling me ‘no’.
Contrary to what she was thinking Morgan raced back through the forest, dodging trees and ignoring the snagging branches as she ran bent low with her hands already on her sword, the way her mother had taught her to do.
She skidded to a halt on the road, taking in the scene in a heartbeat and relaxing.
“Morgan!” Anna called, waving cheerfully. “Customers! We’ve got… wait, where’s the water?”
The Grandmaster groaned, straightening and leaving one hand lingering by her sword just in case.
“I heard you yell, and I thought you were in trouble,” she said.
“Aw, look at you, glaring at me the way your father does!” Anna cooed. “That’s so cute! But we still need the water! Chop-chop!”
Morgan stole one last glance at the two cloaked and hooded men as she turned on her heel, grumbling about what a slave-driver Anna was. She ran into Donnel as he was rushing back, a bundle of firewood under his injured arm and sword in hand with the other.
“What’s goin’ on?” he asked breathlessly.
“It’s just Anna squealing with delight at the thought of money,” Morgan deadpanned as she passed the young soldier.
“Aw shucks,” Donnel groaned, sheathing his sword. “I gone an’ broke Miss Lissa’s fancy sling for nuthin’.”
“Lissa taught me how to do it; I’ll make you another one,” Morgan promised as she went to retrieve the waterskins she’d abandoned.
There’s a thought, Morgan internally grunted as she watched Donnel shift the firewood he’d gathered to his good arm. Why didn’t I just take the skins back with me the first time?
Morgan sat at the fire a small distance away from Anna’s mat, watching while the plucky merchant spoke at break-neck speed with the two cloaked me, obviously haggling about something or other from the fierce look on her face.
“She’s lookin like she’s havin a lotta’ fun,” Donnel muttered, cradling his arm as the younger tactician made up another sling for him. “Thought I’d be used ta’ the weird goins’ on’a the Shepherds by now. Think I spent a bit too much time with the Knights.”
Morgan couldn’t help but snicker.
“Once you’re in there’s no getting out,” she chuckled. “Once a Shepherd, always a Shepherd.”
“That ain’t my gripe,” Donnel hissed as Morgan tightened the cloth around his shoulder. “My problem’s that more’n half’a the Shepherds’re nuts.”
“A little bit of controlled insanity goes a long way,” Morgan said with a wink as she scooted back to her own seat.
The soldier grunted, flexing his arm a little to check the sling, nodding in satisfaction after a few seconds. His wound had been caused by an arrow with a head made out of the same black steel that had scarred Robin’s face and left Panne in a coma for the better part of a week, but it had just been a single arrow. The strange part was the throbbing, swollen area around the wound, almost as if he had been magically poisoned. Henry had spent almost an entire day hovering over the younger man, poking and prodding and trying every dispelling hex and curative curse in his surprisingly varied repertoire, but nothing had helped.
“It ain’t ma sword arm,” Donnel had huffed when the Dark Mage had given up. “I ain’t useless just yet.”
Morgan grinned at the thought, turning a little to watch the two strangers talking with Anna out of the corner of her eye.
The shorter of the two, the one doing all the talking, waved almost emaciated hands around as he talked brightly with her, his black fingernails sharpened to dangerous looking points; the taller of the two sat silently by his side, still as a statue and staring straight ahead. It seemed to Morgan like he sat unnaturally still, but she was still a little spooked by the dream she’d had in the library the previous evening, so she reserved judgement on the strangers.
“Something about those two rubs me the wrong way,” she finally muttered, watching them shake hands with the merchant in turn as the trio finally stood.
“Don’t let Anna hear ya sayin that ‘bout her customers,” Donnel guffawed as he stirred the stew over the fire with his good hand. “Ya think Risen’re the scary ones? Yeesh, jus’ the thought’s makin me shiver.”
“Hey guys!” Anna said excitedly as she led the cloaked duo over. “I’ve decided to expand into the tourism industry! These two are heading to Jagen, too, so I said we’d guide them there the quick way! Make nice, now!”
With that perplexing statement and a wink she whirled, heading back to her small mat covered in goods, leaving the two travellers standing obviously just as perplexed as the two Shepherds. It wasn’t entirely uncommon to share a fire with other travellers on the road, especially if a merchant like Anna could make a quick coin out of it, but she had to know they were on an important mission here…
“Well… er… have a seat?” Donnel offered, indicating opposite the fire with the ladle in his hand.
“Thank you, sir,” the shorter of the two, the thin one, said.
The two travellers moved where the soldier had indicated, the taller of the two sitting without hesitation while the thin man remained standing.
“Beg pardon, sir, but is there a stream nearby?” he asked in a soft tone. “We’re almost out of water, see…”
“Yeah, just past those trees,” Morgan said helpfully.
“I’ll show ya,” Donnel offered, handing Morgan the ladle and standing.
The young tactician stole a glance at the stranger’s face in the firelight as Donnel led him off; his eyes were dark hollows, sinister looking beneath his great hood. His dark, thin face had a neat goatee, something that tugged at Morgan’s memories.
The young tactician started when she realised she was meant to be stirring the stew, shuffling over a little to the fire. She glanced up, catching a brief flash of light reflecting off of something under the quiet man’s hood as he angled his face downwards, piquing her curiosity.
“So…” she said at length. “I’m Morgan.”
The tall man remained silent, not even acknowledging her.
“Er… what’s your name?”
She blinked, her stirring slowing as she tried to assure herself she wasn’t imagining things. His voice had sounded cold, harsh, but oddly sad in a strange sort of way.
“That’s an… interesting name,” she said, shuffling uncomfortably and desperately wishing either Anna would stop hovering over her wares or Donnel would get back already.
The silent man nodded, giving Morgan another glimpse of something reflecting firelight beneath his hood. The young tactician stole another glance at the man across the fire, realising that almost all of his skin was completely covered; what Morgan could actually see of his flesh, predominantly his chin, was a shade that made him look sickly, but he held himself the same way that Lon’qu or Virion did.
Morgan decided then that he was dangerous.
A rustling from the trees heralded the return of Donnel and the other man, and Morgan gratefully scooted back away from the silent man as the soldier resumed his position over the pot.
“Hey Morgan,” Donnel said conversationally in his trademark drawl as they all got comfortable. “Nergal ‘ere was just tellin’ me he’s a mage, too! What’re the odds, eh?”
Morgan looked up at the smaller of the two strangers at this, the man chuckling bashfully and holding up his hands.
“No, no,” he assured her. “I’m hardly anything special. I’m more a scholar than anything else.”
Morgan nodded a little. That would explain his gaunt appearance; a lot of mages tended to forget to eat while they were working if Miriel and Ricken were any indication.
“Nergal’s an interesting name,” Morgan pointed out, recalling something she’d read at some point, possibly before she’d lost her memory.
“Oh?” the thin man asked, leaning forward expectantly. “How so?”
“It was the name of a pre-Naga god,” she recalled, watching him for reaction. “Said to pre-date even the stories of Anri and Medeus. Nergal was one of a pantheon in an old polytheistic religion; their god of the underworld.”
“Yes, top marks!” the thin man said excitedly. “My parents were scholars too, and evidently they saw a little of the old myths in me as a child. But did you know Nergal was also their god of knowledge and magic?”
Morgan blinked a couple of times in surprise.
“Er… no, I didn’t.”
“Yes, not many people do,” he explained. “I was quite excited when I found that information. Signs even point to him being a sort of precursor for the Earth-Dragon tribes but… that’s mere speculation on my part. I haven’t found any concrete proof yet.”
He perked up as if he’d just remembered something.
“Oh, where are my manners!” he said reaching forward. “Nergal, travelling scholar and part-time mage. Pleased to meet you.”
Morgan nodded, tentatively taking his hand and shaking it a few times.
“Morgan. Tactician,” she answered honestly, watching Draco out of the corner of her eye.
Nergal’s hands were thin, but Morgan found them oddly warm and almost familiar.
“And I assume my companion has already introduced himself?” the thin man asked as he and Morgan returned to their seats.
The taller of the two nodded once, still looking down.
“Sorry, he’s not one for much conversation,” Nergal said. “And again, sorry, but his predisposition to silence tends to make me a little talkative. But a tactician you say? Truly that’s an interesting profession to find camping by the road these days! Another hunter of knowledge, am I correct?”
Morgan nodded and the older man smiled.
“In truth my son is a tactician,” Nergal said, his voice becoming softer.
“Really?” Morgan asked. “I… learned it from my father.”
“He must be proud of you.”
“I like to think he is.”
Morgan caught herself, mentally berating herself for relaxing so much. What was it about the man that was lulling her into a sense of security? She couldn’t even see his eyes.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” she asked, trying to steer the conversation to less personal matters.
“We were trying to find a quicker route through the mountains,” Nergal explained. “With everything that’s going on lately I was… hoping to meet with my estranged Granddaughter, to be honest.”
Morgan nodded sceptically.
Uh-huh. Lead us into a false sense of security with a friendly appearance and a sob-story. Very believable performance, but I don’t buy it.
“It was quite lucky, to be honest, that we ran across you,” Nergal went on. “We’ve been lost in these foothills for nearly three days now and-”
Draco rose fluidly to his feet, startling the three other people around the fire as he drew an ornate longbow out from beneath his cloak, already nocking an arrow as he moved. Morgan was already on her feet, drawing her sword as she stood, but the silent man was faster, bringing his bow up and letting an arrow fly directly at her face. She shut her eyes, preparing for the familiar sensation of pain as she was pierced again, instead falling backwards as the arrow flew past her barely an inch from her face.
“Morgan!” Donnel shouted, drawing his sword one-handed and standing, stew forgotten.
“I’m fine!” she said, glancing behind her to where a Risen was collapsing, turning to ashes just inside the circle of firelight. “Anna! Get over here!”
“Oh dear,” Nergal groaned, rising to his feet and pulling a thick tome out of his cloak. “I was just about to say ‘I think we were being hunted’, as well.”