Invisible Ties

Chapter 58

Morgan resisted the urge to vomit in the brief flash of post-teleporting nausea that came after every time; the feeling of displacement was beginning to become a little less strange, but still she wondered how Validar just walked it off like he’d simply taken another step, casually flipping aside his robe as if they hadn’t just been standing out in the desert a second ago.

She caught herself quickly, though, determined to not show any weakness before the man as she followed the lanky sorcerer through the Sanctum.

Where before the huge curved audience chamber had been crowded with Dark Mages speaking in hushed tones and waiting for their part to play in Validar’s grand scheme now the large room was silent. Their footfalls echoed loudly through the room, bouncing off the high stone walls as Morgan glanced around curiously. Everything had been cleared away; the pews, the lecterns, the cases with relics inside them. The Outer Sanctum was a shell now, empty and void of anything besides dust and darkness.

Validar began to chuckle a little as they walked, making Morgan glance over at him curiously.

The sorcerer remained silent, though, leaving Morgan to wonder what was going on inside his twisted head as she followed him towards the Inner Sanctum.

“No,” he said suddenly, his hand darting out and stopping her in her tracks. “You go to the gallery and make sure the Dark Mages are prepared for their part in our play.”

Morgan glanced up over her shoulder at the darkened galleries overlooking the Outer Sanctum before nodding once and bowing deeply.

“Of course, Grandfather,” she said, her voice perfectly level.

She started slightly when his hand came to rest lightly on the top of her head, freezing in place mid-bow and not being sure how to proceed at the unexpected show of paternal affection.

“Soon, my child,” Validar said in the softest tone she had heard from the man as he gently stroked her hair. “Soon this will be over, and your future will be assured.”

With that perplexing statement he withdrew and spun, making for the Inner Sanctum. Morgan stood up tall, frowning slightly as she made her own way to the back of the large room and up the stairs to the wide gallery where nearly a thousand Dark Mages were waiting, reading through spellbooks or quietly debating in hushed whispers, some even just sat in silent contemplation.

Tharja had said her entire family were Dark Mages; were Noire’s grandparents in the press, too? Her aunts and uncles? Morgan shook the thought from her head. Now was hardly the time for idle fantasies.

One of the senior-ranked mages, a hunched old man wearing a skull cap that had introduced himself as Adri, noticed her and broke off whatever conversation he was having in low tones with another man before shuffling over to her and bowing low.

“My lady Morgan,” Adri greeted respectfully. “We were just discussing how the Master’s Deadlords seem to be adapting to this era. It is a quite intriguing topic to speculate about. Would you care to join us?”

“The master bade me ensure that you were ready for your part,” Morgan said coldly, her voice quiet yet still carrying as the rest of the Dark Mages took notice of her presence and grew silent.

They were all very aware of her lineage and circumstances, thanks in no small part to Validar’s gleeful boasting when they had returned to the Sanctum. A few of the bolder mages stared at her with open contempt, a few looking away, unable or unwilling to meet her gaze. Apparently even a fraternity as eccentric as the Dark Mages weren’t big on betrayal of family or oaths.

“I assure you, my lady Morgan, that we are prepared to play our part,” Adri said in his strangely high voice, not skipping a beat.

She nodded once, eyes still watching the crowd.

“I would still inspect the wards around the gallery.”

“Of course, my lady,” Adri said, bowing again and indicating that she follow him.

Daubed on the walls at regular intervals in fresh blood were six-foot tall magic circles, intricate fell rings that would channel the life-force of an entire nation into the Dark Dragon’s revival ceremony. Morgan resisted the urge to shudder, her eyes burning and her face steely as she stared at the circle, ensuring that there were no discrepancies and it was properly formed.

She nodded in satisfaction, and Adri began to shuffle in the direction of the next one. Morgan lingered a second behind him, and once his back was turned discretely reached out and deftly ran her finger along the wall before returning it to the pockets of her coat and following after the hunched Dark Mage.

“Come, my lady,” Adri said tiredly. “This next one is part of the spell that will power the barrier…”

Severa felt a small tremor run up her spine as she followed behind Libra and Owain, the trio charging towards the madly grinning form of the Deadlord wearing a blood-stained cleric’s raiment. Something about the Risen screamed for her attention, but between Libra’s constant prayer and Owain’s shouting about how he would ‘be victorious’ she couldn’t concentrate enough the way Lon’qu had been teaching her.

The female Risen’s fang-filled smile widened as they entered what had to have been her attack range, before darting forward faster than Severa’s eyes could follow.

One minute she was standing stock still, smiling at them with her axe casually resting on her shoulder as the Shepherds rushed her, the next she was between the two men in front of Severa, whirling with all the force of Lucina when the Princess was in a mood.

Owain’s eyes widened as he threw himself to one side, years spent fighting against the Risen of their own timeline making his reflexes sharp enough to avoid the blow, but Libra didn’t even realise what was happening until he skidded to his knees, the Risen’s axe embedded in the priest’s back just below his right shoulder blade.

The red-haired swordswoman skidded to a halt, eyes widening as she stared at the wicked countenance of the Risen’s ashen skin becoming splattered in Libra’s blood as she tore her axe free and kicked him flat for good measure. Severa’s hands shook and it took all of her effort to remain standing as she stared into the creature’s eyes.

They weren’t like they eyes of the normal Risen; a malign intelligence was behind the red glow, promising a painful end for the Shepherds.

That’s what she’d been able to see before; how pitifully outclassed they were compared to the Deadlord.

They were the closest servants of Grima; the vessels of all his power and hate, and just three Shepherds were supposed to overcome this one? It would take an army! It would take-

With an avenging snarl Owain rallied, his late-father’s treasured sword flashing towards the Risen woman’s neck as he spun and Severa snapped out of her haze. His form was perfect, and his blow would have been enough to cut down most enemies, but the strike never connected. The Risen simply wasn’t there any more, having ducked below his blade and danced out of his reach with grace and speed like Severa had never seen before.

Libra groaned, crawling away from the fight on the sand, and Severa finally fully snapped out of her reprieve. She wasn’t as weak as she had been in the past, facing down monsters as her friends and family fought and died around her; she was a warrior now, one of the Shepherds, and she would be damned if some Risen would stare her down.

With a shout of her own she charged the Risen from the opposite side as Owain, the two catching the Risen in a classic pincer manoeuvre. To Severa’s horror the creature simply laughed, catching her sword on its axe and slapping Owain’s blade aside bare-handed without even looking.

“What the hell is this thing!?” Severa shouted in dismay as she leapt backwards to avoid what would have been a crippling kick to her knee.

“An epic foe!” Owain responded full of his usual fire as he darted back in to engage the Risen.

Which, Severa reflected as the Risen leaned in past Owain’s lunge and grabbed at his wrist before flipping him onto his back, probably hadn’t been one of the boy’s smarter plans.

Before she could press her advantage Severa was on the Risen woman, swinging her sword in a great two-handed arc and actually managing to drive the smiling creature back a few steps. Its eyes widened and its smile faltered as it stumbled to one side, clutching at a wound in its stomach as Libra rose shakily to his feet behind where it had been standing before.

“Are you unharmed, children?” the priest asked, holding his axe one-handed, his melodious voice strained as the back of his white robes were stained red from his wound and black ichor dripped from the blade of his weapon.

“I’m fine,” Severa nodded, her eyes never leaving the Risen as she slowly shuffled to get around to the creature’s flank.

“Nothing wounded but my hero’s pride,” Owain muttered, standing and moving to cover Libra’s other side.

While they did this the Risen stared dumbfounded at the black blood coating its hand, more of the inky substance spilling out of the deep wound Libra had dealt her. She looked back and forth between the priest and her hand a few times, still uncomprehending, as if being wounded was a completely foreign concept for the creature.

“My… my blood?” the Risen rasped, her eyes widening a little further.

“Into her!” Libra snarled, darting forward with his axe low in a one-handed grip.

Owain and Severa were a moment behind him, the blonde boy bringing his thin sword down from high while Severa struck at the mid-level, the three Shepherds covering all angles.

The Risen creature didn’t even try to avoid their blows, still completely lost staring at the black blood on her hand. With a shrill shriek she stumbled backwards, three new wounds decorating her chest and stomach and spilling more of her black ichor onto the dirt in great spurts.

Severa sucked a breath through her clenched teeth. The Risen wasn’t falling. She hadn’t even dropped her axe.

The creature’s light armour was tattered and hanging off of her frame now, black blood splattering to the ground with every move she made. With the first cut Libra had given her there was a second axe wound near her hip, along with a puncture wound to the left side of her chest where a normal person’s heart would have been courtesy of Severa, and her throat had been slit by Owain’s precise blow that had danced between the other two weapons.

But she wasn’t even wavering. Anything else would have been dead three times over, and the Risen just continued to stare dumbfounded at the black vitae spilling out of it.

“Wh-wh-wh…” Owain stammered, stepping back a little as the Risen trembled and let out a soft moan.

With a second moan the creature clenched its fist and took a step forward, her axe swinging back and forth a little as she stared aghast at the black substance pouring out of her.

“No way!” Severa shrieked, close to panicking again. “It should be dead! It should be dead!”

“Calm yourselves,” Libra said calmly. “We will simply continue to strike until it falls.”

Severa watched in horror as the Risen finally looked back up at the trio, the wave of murderous intent radiating off of her making them all step back a little, even the unflappable priest. With a low, angry growl the Risen woman hefted her axe again, beginning to move towards them with a slow and purposeful gait, completely ignoring the wounds they had already given her.

“Go for the tendons,” Libra muttered, lifting his own axe up in one hand in a challenging posture. “Limit her movement. Strike low and fast while I distract her.”

The two younger warriors didn’t get a chance to argue as the injured priest darted forward to meet the Risen, his wounded arm hanging limply at his side as he spun with bewitching grace, striking three times with a speed and ferocity far greater than a gentle priest had right to have.

To their credit Owain and Severa only hesitated a moment before moving to opposite sides, planning to ambush the Risen from the flanks like before.

Libra fought like a man possessed, striking hard and fast and putting the Risen on the defensive; but for all his effort he only brought her to a stand-still and couldn’t push her back. His red-edged axe flashed faster and faster in his single-handed grip, his normally serene expression being replaced with a snarl that would have given any seasoned killer pause as he traded blows with the Risen. Severa hovered, waiting like Owain for the perfect moment to strike as she watched Libra’s perfect assault begin to slow and become more desperate. A few times she had been tempted to duck in and had restrained herself, remembering something that Lon’qu had taught her during a scouting mission when she had almost given their position away in her haste to act.

You wait until you know that the time is right; if the time never comes then you know you weren’t meant to strike. A battle is like a hunt. Wait, watch, listen, and the opportunity will present itself.

From the focused look on Owain’s face she could tell he was thinking along the same lines. But Libra was already wounded, and it was a bad one; there was no way he could keep this up much longer, especially with only one arm.

Libra still fought on, though, striking as hard and fast as his single arm would allow him to, never once giving the Risen the opportunity to strike back. Like Vaike he had developed his own unique axe-forms, all the more improved since the two men had begun to train together. But where Vaike relied on speed greater than most axemen would, Libra preferred to rely on his superior skill. He flipped the axe over the back of his hand and arms like a fire-twirler he’d asked to give him pointers, he spun and ducked and weaved with all the grace he’d learned from his beloved Olivia, he brushed aside all of the Risen’s attempts to even begin to fight back with a ferocity born of desperation, but his assault was beginning to take its toll. He stumbled, and in that instant the predatory smile returned to the Risen’s face.

Libra allowed himself a smile of his own as he fell backwards, his injured hand darting up and unexpectedly gripping the Risen’s axe on the haft just below the black-steel head, yanking it forward and pulling her off balance.

“Now!” he shouted desperately and unnecessarily.

Severa and Owain were already moving, the girl going low while the boy came in high. With a brutal shout Severa hacked at the Risen’s legs just below the knees while a grim-faced Owain brought his lighter sword down on the Risen’s over-extended weapon-arm.

With a muted groan the Risen fell to the desert floor in a widening pool of black blood, the three exhausted Shepherds backing away from her in case she actually managed to shrug their assault off and rise again.

She struggled, obviously trying to climb back to her feet and continue to fight, but to Severa’s immense relief this time she faltered and stayed on the ground. The Risen struggled to grip her axe with her main hand, a pained look crossing her face as the unresponsive fingers dug into the dirt on either side of the weapon’s haft before reaching out with her off-hand. She managed to lean forward and grip the weapon, but before she could lift it a simple leather boot stomped town on it, pinning it to the ground.

Staring up and hissing her hatred at Libra the Risen lunged, fangs bared. The priest’s own axe was already in motion, though, and he stumbled to one side in exhaustion as his blow landed, the Risen’s head bouncing away from her body a few feet before both parts of her disappeared in a puff of purple ashes and smoke.

“Return to the abyss that birthed you, foul creature,” Libra intoned weakly, falling to one knee. “Ashes to ashes… dust to… dust… Naga be praised… for our… v-victory.”

Severa reacted automatically, reaching out to steady the unconscious warrior-priest before he fell.

“Of course it’s us that get stuck getting him to Brady,” she groaned, lifting Libra as gently as she could and draping him over her shoulders.

Owain nodded, glancing around.

“Once again it falls to Owain, Scion of Legend, to ensure the safety of his fellow heroes!” the boy shouted, posing heroically. “Onwards, bravest Severa! We shall ensure that the Priest is brought safely into the bosom of-”

“Will you please shut up and help me already!?” Severa snapped, desperately trying not to get blood on her clothes.

The wind howled in Frederick’s ears as he pushed his warhorse faster and faster, pushing his faithful mount and partner to its limit as he desperately tried to outmanoeuvre the four Risen riders that continued matching his Knights move for move.

He had lost count of the times they had circled the ruins that the battle was taking place in; he had lost count of the times the rest of the Shepherds or Risen had been forced to dive out of their way or be trampled; he had even lost count of the times that either one of the Ylissean riders or the Risen had been close to falling.

A mounted battle was usually a quick and brutal affair, much like the regular jousting tournaments back in Ylisse; more often than not a cavalry unit would become bogged down in a melee and lose their advantage of superior mobility immediately after a charge into enemy lines. It had happened numerous times during the Valm Campaign, but Robin’s meticulous planning usually spared the Knights of that particular fate.

Similarly, a running-battle like the one they were currently engaged in was also a rare occurrence. Again similar to the jousting tournaments, a battle between riders would usually descend into a foot-melee once the opponent was dismounted.

A battle like this, more like a duel between cavalry units, was usually only something the most seasoned of warriors could accomplish; Kjelle, still relatively new to mounted combat, was beginning to falter. The horses, too, were beginning to grow weary. Ylissean warhorses were some of the best in the world; bred to be strong, hearty and have great stamina, but galloping full-tilt through ruins was exhausting even them quickly. Frederick’s own mount had been wide-eyed and frothing at the mouth now for far, far too long.

He had been also reduced to fighting with his axe, too; not something that he would have preferred, but his sword had been lost in a fierce clash between himself and the apparent Risen leader, and his lance was probably still embedded in the Risen Sniper that had been foolish enough to take its eye off its surroundings. He kept his axe specifically for fighting on foot; it wasn’t that he couldn’t use it on horseback, far from it, but the loss of accuracy caused in a mounted fight made using something with a longer or wider blade favourable.

He suddenly pulled hard on his horse’s reins, forcing the tired beast to the right as an arrow sailed through the space he’d been occupying moments ago.

“Stahl, kill the archer!” Frederick roared, pointing with his axe.

The green-armoured Knight nodded once, shifting his sword to his off-hand so that he could guide his own mount with more accuracy as the Ylissean pattern shifted, Kjelle taking her father’s place next to Frederick as Stahl pulled off a little to pursue the archer.

Frederick forced his horse back to the right, taking a swing at the Risen paladin leading the group as he did so. His axe-blade bounced off the creature’s pauldron, making it growl and spit before retaliating by bringing a long-bladed spear back over at Frederick. Sully caught the weapon with her own spear from Frederick’s side, but before she could press her advantage the dark-robed rider stabbed with a thin sword from around the paladin, and the two groups separated slightly again.

Frederick clicked his tongue in annoyance as they began to circle the ruins again; this was beginning to get ridiculous. As much as he hated to admit it, the Risen were equal to the Shepherd riders. But where the Shepherds’ mounts were mortal, the Risen uniform jet-black steeds were apparently as unnatural as their riders, seemingly unfazed by the battle.

An idea occurred to the Ylissean Knight Commander; an idea so insane that Robin may as well have come up with it himself. But at this point, if they didn’t end things quickly the horses would run themselves to death and the Knights’ fates would be sealed.

“Back into them! Take them from the side!” the Knight Commander roared, holding his axe high and leading the four Shepherds back towards the Risen.

Off towards the centre of the Ruins he caught a glimpse of Maribelle tending to the wounded; the mounted healer had given up trying to keep pace with them almost immediately, choosing instead to focus on saving lives rather than playing cavalry.

He snapped back to the battle at hand, the Risen startled by his abrupt change in tactics as the Ylissean Knights angled directly for their enemy. Sully, Kjelle and Stahl hesitated for a moment, too, but years of training took over and they followed Frederick without question.

Pushing their beleaguered mounts for one final burst of speed the four Shepherds overtook the Risen, only to wheel about and crash into the creatures’ formation from the side. It was a last ditch attack; a suicide charge.

Kjelle’s horse hit the archer’s with a nauseating sound of impacting flesh and her mount’s cries of pain, both riders going flying in a tangle of limbs. The girl had a determined set to her features as she used the momentum to drive her lance into the Risen’s stomach, and then Frederick lost sight of her. Sully was almost unseated, too, but Stahl reached over and yanked her back into the saddle; The Risen leader saw this, and before he could press the momentary advantage Frederick was on him, leaping from his own saddle and tackling the creature, bringing them both crashing to the ground as the remaining Ylissean and Risen riders sped away.

Roaring a deafening battle cry in Frederick’s face the Risen paladin lashed out, getting his foot beneath them while the Knight Commander attempted to rally and launching him backwards.

Behind him somewhere Frederick could hear Kjelle duelling with the archer, but the rider he was facing was a far more pressing concern.

He climbed unsteadily to his feet at the same time as the Risen, his hands wrapped tightly around his axe as the creature before him shook out an alien weapon in the shape of a spiked steel ball the size of his head on the end of a chain in one hand, it’s other holding a short, curved dagger.

“Your last breath approaches!” the Knight Commander promised the creature, surprised to find himself panting as he raised his axe.

The running-battle must have taken more out of him than he had thought.

Shaking the thoughts from his head Frederick charged, his foe moving to meet him with unnatural speed and another wordless snarl. He ducked on instinct, the spiked ball of the Risen’s weapon flying over his head as he led with his shoulder and crashed into the creature again. Both combatants were wearing riding armour; strong protection around the upper body, but weaker around the stomach and legs so as not to hinder movement. Taking advantage of this fact Frederick lashed out with his axe, striking at the creature’s lightly-armoured thigh in an attempt to impede its movement.

The Risen was faster though, and Frederick reeled as he was shoved backwards, an armour-clad knee racing up to crush his nose and snap his head backwards in the gap created.

He swung his axe desperately, shaking his head and trying to buy himself time to rally from the unexpected blow, but the Risen pressed its advantage, its strange weapon hitting the side of his breastplate and indenting the strong metal, throwing Frederick to the side with the force of the impact.

The Knight Commander landed awkwardly, managing to keep his feet beneath him as he turned to present his weapon and unwounded side.

The Risen hesitated at this, a small smile rising to its black lips as it nodded in satisfaction.

Frederick’s nose was broken, as were most likely at least three ribs, judging from the shooting pain in his side every time he drew breath. He shook it off, ignoring the pain and the blood running down his face as he drew himself up and adopted a ready-stance again, both hands gripping the haft of his axe.

In the distance Sully and Stahl were driving the last two of the Risen riders, apparently now a lot less dangerous without their leader, back towards where he and Kjelle were fighting their own respective opponents. He would have liked to check on the girl, too, but couldn’t risk turning away from his own foe.

His own attacks against it had been ineffective. Frederick had been counting on the stereotype that most mounted warriors were less skilled on foot; this creature seemed to be even more deadly, though.

The Risen charged first this time, Frederick diving to the side and rolling back to his feet before spinning and landing a solid hit to its lower back where the armour was thinner and eliciting a pained shout from the creature. His victory was short-lived, though, when a black armour-clad backhand smashed into his face, the blade of the Risen’s dagger carving a gouge out of his gorget as it passed.

He stumbled back again, this time actually falling as his head spun and stars danced before his vision. It felt like he’d been kicked in the face by a horse, not hit by a back-handed blow.

The Risen loomed above him, rotating its arm carefully to check for damage from Frederick’s attack. A small line of black blood leaked down from its hip onto its cuisses, but the wound went ignored. The Risen grinned triumphantly down at Frederick, advancing slowly with its weapons held up. He didn’t resist when the Risen kicked his axe away, leaving him defenceless.

Instead Frederick smiled his own triumphant grin up at the Risen.

The dark paladin stopped, its look of triumph turning to confusion before it, too, heard the sound that Frederick had.

The beating of massive wings.

“Out of my sight!” Cordelia cried, her pegasus swooping low as she drove her spear through the Risen’s back, the tip exploding out of the creature’s chest in a spray of black ichor and armour shards as she left it embedded in the paladin, passing over the two riders.

She brought her mount to a stop just behind Frederick, vaulting off and stooping to pick up Frederick’s axe as she rushed to his side. Her own armour was dirty, and a few small wounds covered her arms and legs, near misses from the Grimleal forces she and the other four had been left to deal with.

In the distance a draconian roar sounded, followed by a flash of magical dragon’s fire as the two riders facing off against Sully and Stahl were enveloped in the flames coming from either Tiki or Nah’s mouth. Gerome and Cynthia both converged on the Risen Kjelle had been apparently losing her battle against, the wounded girl retreating a bit as her friends entered the fray favouring one leg as she spat blood onto the dirt.

“You will all… burn… in Grima’s… fire…” the Risen paladin promised them as Cordelia advanced on it, Frederick’s large axe looking out of place in her smaller grip.

The Wing Commander frowned at the Risen began to laugh, before she brought Frederick’s axe down, silencing it in a cloud of familiar purple ashes without a word or a moment of hesitation.

Frederick let out a small sigh, letting his head fall backwards onto the dirt as he stared up at the morning sky. He absently noticed a few clouds in the distance, making a mental not to prepare Chrom’s cloak in case it rained…

His thoughts were interrupted at the sound of light armour clanking, something blocking his view of the sky. Blinking a little when a droplet landed on his face he wondered if it had already started to rain until his vision cleared and he realised Cordelia was above him, his head resting in her lap as she quietly sobbed.

He tried to reassure her he was alright, shifting his body a little and managing to groan slightly before she was on him.

“Thank Naga you’re okay!” she bawled, draping herself across his chest and clutching at the edges of his armour to tighten her grip on him.

“Yes,” he managed to groan into her shoulder as a smile spread on his bloodied face.

“I promised to stay close to you. To never make you sad,” he managed to mutter, raising one arm and gently resting it on her back as he attempted to return her relieved embrace. “I am fine, dear. I promise.”

Say’ri stole a glance at Robin as he strode forwards, a determined set to his features showing absolute trust in their allies to carry out their parts of the plan. Robin’s gaze was cool, his face a slight frown, but the tenseness in his shoulders and the clenching of his jaw gave his anger away.

No, it wasn’t anger. She had seen the tactician angry and in foul moods. This was something else. Something smouldering within him that at any moment could be kindled into white-hot rage.

The enemy leader, the one that the others had called Aversa, sat astride her black pegasus, grinning cruelly at the tactician and the Queen of Chon’sin as they approached. At her side was the last of the Deadlords, a slight woman not much larger than Say’ri, wearing Chon’sin style armour and glaring at Robin with an undisguised hunger in her glowing red eyes.

“Take the Deadlord,” Robin said in a low voice. “Aversa’s mine. Be careful.”

“Of course,” Say’ri nodded, her own eyes focusing only on the Deadlord woman.

Before she could return the tactician’s wish that he too be careful Robin darted forward like a shot, spear held out two-handed, obviously augmenting his movement with wind magic and throwing himself forwards. Aversa just grinned wider as the tactician sped towards her, kicking her black mount into the air and avoiding his attack. Robin threw three fireballs over his shoulder without even looking as he lashed out at the Risen with his spear, swinging it back around at chest height. The Deadlord caught the delicate weapon on the blade of her sword, the two becoming locked in a battle of strength.

Say’ri marvelled at the fact that the Risen was leaning two-handed against Robin’s blow, and he was holding her off with a single hand and not even looking, already casting another spell to attack Aversa circling above them, with the other.

The Risen laughed gleefully, the sound making Say’ri’s skin crawl as she sprinted forward, her own blade held low. Putting all of her rage and confusion behind her strike, Say’ri flowed around Robin as he disengaged with the Risen, the two moving inches from each other as if in a perfectly choreographed dance while they traded positions.

The Risen woman’s laugh turned to a snarl as Say’ri came between her and her prey, striking out with a blade of similar make to Say’ri’s as Robin moved after Aversa. They traded a few testing blows, each warrior prodding at the other’s defence and judging their skill appropriately before both stepping back.

“You are worthy,” the Risen nodded after a brief moment of silence between the two.

“I am more than worthy, monster,” Say’ri spat, stepping back with her right foot and bringing her sword up beside her face. “I am Say’ri, Queen of Chon’sin, and the moment you kidnapped my daughter you and your master sealed your pathetic fates.”

The Risen woman laughed, her rasping tone sending a fresh wave of disgusted chills up Say’ri’s spine.

“I am Simia,” she said, saluting Say’ri with her sword as an equal opponent. “I am Eleventh among the Deadlords. I will be your death.”

“Fie! Enough talk!” Say’ri roared, leaping forward again.

From her carefully coiled stance she exploded into motion, spinning and slashing horizontally at Simia’s neck in an over-powered feint, her blade pulling back at the last second to stab out at the Deadlord’s neck instead. Simia dodged backwards, the look of excitement returning to her face as she lunged at Say’ri. The gleaming silver of the Queen’s near-perfectly crafted sword met the black steel of the Risen’s, sparks actually flying as the blades clashed again and again as their duel became almost more of a dance.

The blades passed within inches of the combatants, Say’ri putting her lifetime of training and fighting to use as she weaved, leaned and struck around the Risen, Simia matching her move for move. Say’ri struck high, Simia blocked the blow and slid her own blade for the Queen’s throat; Say’ri leaned away, using the momentum to spin again and lashing out with a kick at the Risen’s midsection rather than her sword; Simia stepped into the blow, catching Say’ri’s leg by the thigh and moving to slash at her unprotected midsection, only to be sent sprawling by an open-hand strike to the nose.

The two women separated, Say’ri now panting a little as they glared at each other. The Deadlord looked annoyed that she couldn’t land even a glancing blow while Say’ri caught her breath.

Taking a deep breath Say’ri let one hand fall to her hip, adjusting her grip on her sword as she did something she had only conceived of recently.

“Brother, guide my hand,” she muttered, eyes narrowing as she drew Amatsu for the first time as Queen, holding both swords up at the ready.

The golden steel of Yen’fay’s sword glinted in the dawn’s light, Simia’s eyes widening slightly as Say’ri sunk into a seldom-used ancient Chon’sin stance with both swords. She had been practicing diligently since inheriting Amatsu, unwilling to give up her brother’s sword or her own favoured weapon. Fighting with two swords wasn’t unheard of in Chon’sin, in fact Seiko was rather proficient at the art, but it was always done with the shorter wakizashi, never the full-length katana. Katana were heavy, difficult to the point of being impossible to wield single handed, but Say’ri had been determined. She had been forced to put a little extra unsightly muscle on her arms and shoulders to accomplish the fighting form with her chosen blades, too, but the effort was about to pay off.

“Foolish,” Simia spat, looking warily at Say’ri’s stance. “Desperate. You will be slow. I will kill you.”

“Perhaps,” Say’ri said, allowing a small grin she attributed to far too much of Robin’s influence to show on her face.

“But are you willing to test that deduction?”

Simia took a breath and lunged into Say’ri’s striking range, her sword poised to pierce Say’ri’s heart. The Queen swept the blow aside with Amatsu, striking downwards with her own blade. Simia was forced to catch Say’ri’s blow on her pauldron and dance backwards again, growling as she tore the ruined plate from her suit and cast it aside.

“What was that about being slow, monster?” Say’ri asked confidently, sinking back into her stance as her face hardened again. “Submit!”

She moved like water, flowing forward and around Simia’s sword, pushing it aside and bringing Amatsu’s hilt down on the Risen’s face, sending her stumbling back again. Say’ri advanced slowly, threateningly on the creature; she was still mad and confused, and she wanted to vent.

“You cannot defeat me, creature!” she growled, not even bothering to sink into her stance again as she brushed Simia’s weak counter aside, the Risen just barely managing to avoid Say’ri’s reprisal swing.

“I am a Queen of war! A leader of soldiers and a war hero! What could possibly have entered your master’s mind that caused him to come between myself and my daughter!?”

She practically screamed the last part of her question, bringing both blades down on the Risen at once and forcing her to her knees as she caught them on her own sword.

“You are blind!” Simia spat back up at her, her eyes filled with scorn. “So blind you cannot see that your daughter is right! Blind just like when you murdered Yen’fay!”

Say’ri’s eyes widened and with a roar she brought her swords back, kicking Simia in the face with the toe of her boot and sending the Risen sprawling.

“Do not speak his name, wretch!” Say’ri snarled, raising Amatsu. “You know nothing of the sacrifice he made for his homeland! I will kill you with his sword!”

“But I do know,” Simia laughed, leaping to her feet and dancing out of Say’ri’s striking range. “Your dearest daughter told my master everything. Everything!”

“Then she will have told you that I never hesitated!” Say’ri shouted, lunging again with both swords.

Simia desperately blocked, managing to slip past Say’ri’s twin blades and out of her reach again, but sustaining a deep gash to her midsection as payment.

“Another day, Queen of Chon’sin,” Simia said with a smile as a dark magic-circle appeared suddenly on the ground between them.

In a blinding flash the towering Deadlord General that Chrom and Lucina had been fighting appeared, not even sparing Say’ri a glance as he roughly grabbed a grinning Simia by her wounded shoulder and teleported again.

“Craven!” Say’ri shrieked in stunned outrage. “Coward! Come back and die with honour!”

Her furious screams echoed in the emptiness around her, Say’ri’s hands clenching so her swords so hard she could have sworn she heard the handles creak. With a disgusted shout of annoyance she turned and began running to where Robin and Aversa had moved to, further towards the Dragon’s Table Sanctum.

Robin propelled himself forward with near-blinding speed, the wind whipping his hair and coat back as he leapt from the top of the ruins at Aversa, intent on bringing her back to the ground with his lance in her chest.

Of course it was never that easy, and the woman moved her black pegasus out of the way just in the nick of time, but Robin was getting closer with each attack he made. She struck out again and again with magic, a thin short sword that had been strapped to her mount’s saddle sitting unused in one hand, but he just let her spells harmlessly impact and dissipate against his coat.

She was far, far weaker than he was. However, he was trying to take her alive; blowing her out of the air with a Thoron spell probably wouldn’t leave much behind but ashes and perhaps a red smear on the dirt beneath her if he was lucky.

In his mind he shifted gears. He needed to change tactics; get her to come to him.

“I'll never understand minions like you and Excellus,” Robin called up to Aversa as she circled above him. “No lives of your own... Living only to serve the beck and call of your masters. Pathetic.”

“Oh? I might say as much about your relationship to the prince...” the woman called back, taking the bait and drifting a little lower. “And please, don't lump me with that half-witted little toad. Excellus was nothing but a pawn on our board. Another actor on our stage. His ambition was our insurance against Walhart's threat. If you had failed, he might have destroyed the empire from the inside. But in the end, he was just another puppet whose strings we had to cut.”

Robin dodged to one side as more fireballs threw up the dirt where he’d been standing.

“Then you've confirmed my theory,” he called, putting as much satisfaction as he could into the statement.

“Yes, I promised him the Plegian throne in exchange for the Emblem,” Aversa laughed. “He jumped at the offer! Well, as much as the fat little piggie could jump... Men are all the same. Learn their ambition, and you have them by the- Oho... Well, perhaps Excellus was a bit different in that respect.”

“Gross,” Robin sneered, throwing a few carefully placed lighting spells just above Aversa. “Here I thought him the lowest form of slime imaginable, but you win handily. And such a dirty mind for a lady. Tsk-tsk, Aversa.”

“Yes, well, we play the roles we're given, Robin, as you'll soon discover.”

“If we all stand on a great stage, I'll be happy to assist with your exit!” the tactician shouted, casting a few more lighting spells.

Aversa cackled, dodging even lower.

“Oh really now, how amusing,” she mocked. “You're so cute when you try to be clever. But Master Validar already considers you stronger and smarter than I... Whatever shall I do if he decides you're more witty as well? Perhaps I'd best kill you before you ripen and become his everything.”

Now! Robin thought, throwing himself upwards with a wind spell again and grabbing hold of the black pegasus’ neck.

“Who’s cute now?” he asked, grinning into Aversa’s shocked face. “And really? Ripen? Weak.”

She panicked instantly, casting an over-charged wind spell that would have blown her mount’s head off had Robin not deflected it at the last minute. He brought his lance in, attempting to use it as a pry-bar to unseat the sorceress, but Aversa grabbed to haft of the weapon, letting the reigns of her over-burdened mount fall from her hands. The creature did its best to stay level as Robin and Aversa fought over the lance, the tactician almost losing his grip numerous times as the pegasus rose and fell erratically, leaning side to side and trying to shake the added weight in the form of the struggling tactician. With a shout Aversa angled the pegasus low, forcing it to pick up speed. Robin instinctively clenched up at the smile on the sorceress’ face, knowing for some reason that nothing good ever came from that particular smile being on her face.

With a pained yelp he hit the side of the ruins furthest from the centre, the pegasus brushing him off and taking off back into the air as the stunned tactician tumbled into the dirt, coughing and spluttering as he climbed to his hands and knees.

She is making it really hard to want to take her alive, he thought with a grimace as he rose to his feet. Oh Naga, I am going to feel that one tomorrow. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Aversa laughed from her safe position back above him, making a vein in Robin’s forehead start to throb.

“Get down here so I can kick your ass!” Robin shouted up at her in frustration.

“I think not, mama’s boy!” she fired back, along with some rather pathetic excuses for flux spells.

“Skank!” Robin shouted up at her, cutting through the dark magic with his spear and dissipating them.

“Child!” She shouted back, attacking this time with a passable elfire spell.

“Just get down here so we can get this over with!” Robin repeated, his own elfire twice the size of hers flying into the air, the two conflicting spells cancelling each other out in a spectacular fireball. “I promise I won’t hurt you too badly!”

“That is exactly what I used to say to you before I used you for experiments when we were children!” Aversa laughed snidely, darting a little lower and using both hands to throw an arcwind spell at him.

Robin shrugged as he stepped back, the wind blades carving a gouge in the desert where he had just been standing, waiting for the wind to die down a little.

“You’re out of your league, dear sister!” he shouted up at her. “Just surrender and I’ll see to it that the Shepherds don’t kill you! I don’t promise I won’t kill you, but at least they won’t!”

“Sister!?” Aversa laughed hysterically. “We’re not related, you pathetic little fool! Validar raised me alongside you, but there are no blood ties between us!”

Robin stopped and blinked a few times, her words sinking in as she continued to laugh.

“Really?” he called up to her.

“It is one of the things I am most grateful for!” Aversa spat.

The tactician shrugged again.

“Good! Then I don’t feel an ounce of guilt for what I’m about to do!”

Before Aversa could respond Robin tossed his spear up a little, swapping his grip before launching it with all his might. He augmented the throw with a small burst of wind magic, the throw moving faster than Aversa could possibly dodge.

Aversa let out a shriek as she was thrown from the saddle of her pegasus, Robin’s spear sticking out of her shoulder. He watched her plummet towards the ground, an internal debate going on in his head as to whether or not to just let her die.

With a sigh he decided that he still had questions that needed answers, and shot another wind spell to cushion her fall. She still landed hard in a cloud of dust, but Robin assumed as he walked over to his not-sister that she wouldn’t be dead.

Weird, he thought as he walked. Those dreams made it really look like we were related. Huh. One more question to add to the list.

Fortunately, he had been right. As he neared Aversa let out a weak groan that turned into another shriek as Robin pulled his lance free without an ounce of compassion.

“That was too easy,” he muttered, resting the lance on his shoulder and looking around the ruins.

It had honestly been a tough decision to save the woman, but there were gaps in his memory that needed filling; he still had questions and every answer he managed to find just raised more. Besides, he still felt a lingering sense of sibling-like affection for the woman, no matter how big a pain she had become. Hopefully she could…

“Argh!” Robin growled, his thought process abruptly cutting off as a sharp pain shot through his calf.

He looked down to where a bloody and half-conscious Aversa had buried a knife in the back of his leg, gasping and obviously in pain as she attempted to ham-string him.

“You bitch! Don’t make me regret saving your life!”

“That is the… one thing I… promise to do!” Aversa gasped, jamming the small blade deeper into Robin’s leg.

“Oh that does it!” Robin shouted, reaching down and yanking the knife out of his leg and Aversa’s slack grip and smashing her in the temple with the butt of the weapon in one smooth movement.

He took a deep breath as Aversa went limp, running a hand through his hair in an attempt to calm himself down before throwing the knife to the side.

“And for future reference I already knew you were using Excellus!” he added angrily, grabbing the unconscious Aversa by the arm and beginning to drag her dead-weight back to where the others were starting to gather in the ruins again. “You and Validar aren’t really as smart as you think you are. But gods are you heavy!”

Robin grunted, panting heavily by the time he re-joined the others and dropped the still unconscious Aversa like a sack of potatoes behind him.

The Shepherds were congregated around one of the lighter tents that had been set up to offer some shade to Maribelle, Libra and Brady while they worked. From what he could see, it looked like just about everyone was wounded in some way and was just waiting around for the healers to get to them.

Frederick was sitting on a crate to one side obviously having just finished being healed, Severa and Cordelia fluttering around the man like he was a king. Tharja was sitting between an unresponsive Noire and the figure of what could only have been Henry lying on his back, the girl staring off into space while Tharja attempted to rouse the other Dark Mage while only using one arm. Kjelle attempted to escape the first-aid of her parents, Sully rolling her eyes and grabbing her daughter in an arm-lock to hold her still while Stahl laughed weakly and treated her wounds. Say’ri was standing apart from the others, so lost in thought as she glared at the dirt that she hadn’t even noticed Robin’s arrival. The others were all in a similar state; this was the most pathetic he’d ever seen the Shepherds look, even taking into account the time they’d walked most of the way back to Ylisstol after being defeated outside of Themis nearly four years ago.

“Everyone still alive?” he called out, limping forward another few steps. “Could all dead Shepherds please sound off so I can take you off the roster?”

A few tired chuckles met the tactician’s weak attempt at humour.

“I’m pretty close to dead,” Inigo muttered, raising his hand a little from where he was lying on his back near the other wounded and earning a few more laughs.

“The pain lets you know you’re alive, pretty-boy!” Vaike laughed, slapping his knees for good measure and bringing a small smile to Robin’s face as the others joined in.

“Alright, seriously; can someone give me a casualty report,” Robin sighed, running a hand through his now filthy hair.

“Everyone’s still alive,” Chrom supplied from the camp chair he was resting on, no doubt supplied by Frederick. “Everyone’s also wounded, so we’re going to need a little time before we can go on to the Sanctum and… Robin, what’s that behind you?”

The tactician stopped, casually looking over his shoulder at the dirty and bloodstained form of Aversa.

“Prisoner of war?” he said with a shrug. “Thought we could get some intel.”

“Is that… Aversa?” Cordelia asked, looking up from where she was applying a bandage to Frederick’s ribs with wide eyes.

The Knight Commander himself simply sighed and opted to remain quiet; Robin had no doubts in his mind that he’d be hearing from Frederick about this later, though.

“What!?” Maribelle shouted, forgetting that she was supposed to be healing the gash on Kjelle’s forehead and practically leaping towards Robin.

“Yes, and I need someone to heal her so she doesn’t bleed out before I can interrogate her,” Robin said indifferently.

“You want us to heal that witch?” Maribelle asked incredulously. “After everything she has done?”

“Yes,” Robin repeated tiredly. “After me. And everyone else. She gets low priority for stabbing me in the leg.”

Maribelle looked like Robin had just suggested she eat her parasol, but Libra stood and slowly made his way over to the unconscious woman, briefly placing a calming hand on Maribelle’s shoulder as he passed her.

“I will do it,” he said quietly. “Judging from her wounds she will not survive if we do not act now.”

“Fine, but tie her up afterwards and don’t be gentle,” Robin pouted, moving to cross his arms and thinking better of it when pain blossomed along his bruised back.

Chrom nodded, standing and moving to assist Libra.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said with a nod to the tactician, patting Robin’s shoulder as he passed.

Robin noticed Libra moving slowly, holding his left arm perfectly still and close to his chest in a makeshift sling as he readied his staff. Maribelle cast Aversa’s form one final withering glare before swallowing and moving to Robin’s side.

“You seem to be in need of immediate attention, though,” she said in a flat tone, taking him by the arm and leading him to the tent while the other Shepherds went back to repairing armour, waiting for their turn to see the healers or just resting after the battle.

Robin shrugged his coat off and pulled his shirt over his head without hesitation once he was under the shade of the small tent, and Maribelle let out a slight gasp.

“What did you do, leap off another pegasus?” Lucina asked, suddenly at his side with a concerned look on her face, making him jump and wince at the pain that the sudden movement caused.

“Well, kinda… not exactly…” Robin mumbled.

“Are you serious?” she asked, obviously trying to scold him but fighting back her laughter at the same time.

“I fell this time! It wasn’t my fault!” Robin protested as Maribelle sighed, no doubt rolling her eyes behind him as she readied her staff.

“Princess, did I not instruct you to take rest until one of us can take a look at your ribs?” the healer asked pointedly.

“I am fine,” Lucina protested, helping Robin sink into a sitting position before kneeling at his side.

“We really took a beating this time,” Robin said quietly, looking at the ground. “What the hell were those Deadlords made out of?”

“It is even worse when we realise that nearly half of them escaped,” Lucina said, equally quietly.

“Damn,” Robin sighed. “That’s going to come back to bite us. Was anyone seriously wounded?”

“Inigo has a concussion,” Brady reported matter-of-factly. “Libra’s not gonna be usin’ his arm again fer a while. Henry’s practically comatose. Noire’s comin’ down from one’a the worst damn anxiety-attacks I ever seen her have.”

“The list goes on,” Maribelle added absently, obviously focusing on her healing spell.

Robin let out a relieved sigh as the cool sensation of healing magic spread through his back before moving to the rest of his body; a multitude of scrapes and cuts he didn’t even realise he’d gotten closing along his arms and on his face as he watched, along with the stab-wound to his calf.

“I will never cease to be amazed by healing magic, he said, standing and pulling his shirt back on before his coat.

“Now get out of the way and let me heal someone that actually needs my care,” Maribelle said dismissively, giving Robin an encouraging shove.

“Geez, I’m glad you’re okay, too,” he muttered, earning a small giggle from Lucina as they stepped away from the tent.

She went stiff, though, gasping a little and massaging her ribs.

“You got kicked, didn’t you?” Robin asked, gently holding her up until she regained her composure.

“I did,” she admitted. “But I am not bleeding, and I am still moving, so I will wait until the others are taken care of.”

The tactician let a brief smile pass over his face at her selfless compassion before he grew serious again.

“Good, come help me interrogate my sister,” Robin said quickly, still favouring his now-healed leg while making to move back to where Libra was healing Aversa.

“Sister?” Lucina echoed, eyes widening as she followed the tactician.

“It’s complicated,” he groaned. “I’ll explain later. But she can give us intel on what’s waiting for us at the Dragon’s Table, so I don’t want to kill her just yet. Unless she stabs me again. Then I’m going to kill her.”

Libra was still leaning over the woman, Chrom just finishing binding her feet when Robin stopped beside them. Aversa’s hands were already tightly bound, making Robin slightly more at ease.

“She going to live?” he asked Libra.

The priest nodded, lowering his staff and letting out a breath.

“Yes. I have sealed the wound to her shoulder and mended the broken ribs, but she will still be sore for quite some time. I assume you would like me to leave her that way?”

“You read my mind, Padre,” Robin said with a small grin, adopting Gaius’ nick-name for the priest. “Why don’t you take the opportunity to rest a little?”

“Once the others are no longer wounded, I will,” Libra nodded, using his staff to help himself climb back to his feet.

Robin knelt down next to Aversa, the woman’s face frowning even in her sleep as he leaned over her unconscious form.

“Wake up!” he shouted suddenly, slapping her in the face.

“Robin!” Chrom shouted indignantly at his treatment of a prisoner, even one that had caused as much trouble for them as Aversa had.

His protests were silenced when Aversa spluttered and opened her eyes, breaking into a fit of coughing.

“Thirsty?” Robin asked lightly.

“Go to hell,” the sorceress growled, rolling slightly onto her side. “Just kill me already.”

“Sorry,” Robin shrugged. “I don’t kill family.”

“Family?” Chrom echoed in confusion.

“Apparently it’s complicated,” Lucina supplied.

“We’re not family!” Aversa coughed, glaring up at Robin. “We never were!”

Robin grinned and tapped the side of his head with one finger.

“I may be an amnesiac idiot, and you can fool me with words, but you can’t fool my instincts. I instinctively knew Morgan was my daughter, and I instinctively know you’re my sister, blood or no blood.”

“Your sentimentality always did make me sick, you know that?” Aversa groaned, rolling back onto her back and staring up at the sky.

Robin’s smile never faltered, even when he leaned over and jabbed his hand into Aversa’s shoulder, fingers digging into the flesh that had been recently healed by Libra and forcing an anguished cry out of the sorceress’ mouth. Chrom and Lucina watched on uncomfortably at Robin’s show of brutality, not sure how to react now that Aversa had confirmed their relationship.

“I said I wouldn’t kill you, not that I wasn’t very, very mad at you,” Robin lightly said as he withdrew his hand. “Now, unless you want me to make a matching scar on your other shoulder with my bare hands, you’re going to tell me everything I want to know. And I’ll know if you’re lying.”

“Why should I help you?” Aversa laughed weakly. “I was left as a sacrifice to slow you down! I accepted my death the moment Lord Validar passed his orders onto me! Face reality, dearest brother, you have lo-”

Robin finally snapped, his smile dropping as he grabbed Aversa’s collar and yanked her face to within an inch of his.

“You will help me because I’m telling you to,” he hissed in a dangerous tone. “You will help because I know you’re still human deep down, and you don’t want to see the entire world and everyone in it die. Tell me right now if I’m wrong. Tell me so I can put a twisted, broken creature that was once my sister out of its misery.”

They stared at each other a moment, Robin glaring murder down on a woman not used to being on the receiving end of such a look.

“Tell me!” Robin thundered in Aversa’s face when she remained silent.

He held her surprised gaze a moment longer before releasing the fabric bunched up in his fist, letting the sorceress fall back onto the ground.

“I thought you were an amnesiac,” Aversa said quietly. “How would you know what I was, or what I am?”

“Are you going to help me or not?” Robin asked, standing.

He reached into his pouch and pulled out his waterskin before kneeling back down and bringing the neck of the small skin to Aversa’s mouth.

“Drink. Then start talking,” Robin said flatly, before adding in a smaller tone, “Please. Please help me save Morgan.”

Aversa looked up at him for a moment, looking for any hint of falseness in his plea, before she sighed and brought her lips to the waterskin.

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