Invisible Ties

Chapter 62

Simia let out a vicious roar, smashing the tree she was standing next to into pieces with one swing of her black-bladed sword. The nameless-one stood silently off to one side of the small glen that was their rendezvous point with the others, his arms crossed as he watched Simia’s tantrum.

She’d been defeated by the tactician! Again! Never before, in life or in death, had she been so humiliated!

The sudden sound of dry chuckling made her spin, teeth still bared in a feral snarl as she glared at Anguilla and the other new Deadlord approaching with her. They were both coated with soot and gore, a triumphant smile on the mage’s face as the other simply looked on impassively.

“I assume the tactician defeated you agai-”

“Be silent!” Simia roared, cutting Anguilla off mid-speech and levelling her sword at the undead-mage.

The Mage-Risen’s glowing eyes narrowed as she let out a barely perceptible growl.

“I will kill him!” Simia thundered, eyes burning with hate. “My blade will be the last thing that he sees!”

“All evidence to the contrary,” Anguilla snorted, slapping Simia’s sword out of her face and stepping in towards the other Deadlord.

“How many humans did you have to feed off to heal the wounds he gave you?” the mage asked, quirking one blood-stained eyebrow at the red smear on the side of Simia’s chin. “How many times has he bested you? Cease your foolish, pride-driven prattling and leave him to Mus.”

Simia let out another wordless roar of frustration before spinning and stalking back in the direction of the burning refugee camp. The hulking Deadlord that had been following her looked alarmed for a moment, caught between following her and following their orders.

“Let her go,” Anguilla snapped, ending the other’s confusion. “If she wishes to be defeated again then that is her business. We have orders to return to Mount Origin.”

The bigger Deadlord frowned beneath dirty gauze wrappings, a movement that was not lost on Anguilla.

“She will not be alone,” the mage assured the other. “We are Risen. As long as Lord Grima yet exists, we are never alone.”

The bigger Deadlord nodded slowly, glancing over his shoulder at the direction of the refugee camp one more time before turning and following the other two deeper into the forest.

“Robin! Lucina!” Lissa cried when the two Shepherds emerged from the blazing refugee camp, their cloak and coat singed and covered in ash.

The blonde princess ran forward, wrapping her arms around Lucina in a tight hug before moving on to Robin.

“What took you so long? We were so worried about you!” she said as she stepped back from the tactician.

Robin nodded silently, leading her back to where the others were waiting at the edge of the ring created by the warrior statues.

“So I assume, then, that we’re the only ones that encountered the Deadlords?” he asked without preamble.

“Forget it, don’t answer that; those shocked looks on your faces are answer enough.”

“They were here?” Basilio asked, kneading the grip on his axe and glancing excitedly back towards the camp.

Robin nodded in response.

“I fought Simia, the one that seems to hate me so much, and another one that didn’t introduce himself. I assume Grima’s filled in the ranks a little while we’ve been travelling. But they’ve withdrawn for now. The fire was their doing.”

“Things in the camp are getting desperate, and this explains much,” Virion pointed out. “Is there nothing we can do to quell the tide of greatest violence?”

“This place was a hot-pot from the beginning,” Robin sighed, looking back at the flames. “He knew this would happen with the slightest nudge…”

“All the more reason to perform the Awakening and strike back at the monster,” Chrom said hotly. “That he uses refugees as bait to try and delay us… we need to stop him.”

“So what are we waiting for?” Robin asked, stepping towards the temple. “The faster we do this the faster we can do something to help these people.”

“Wait,” Sumia said, hesitating and looking around as the others started moving. “Where’s Aversa?”

“Gone,” Robin answered without turning back. “We lost her in the fire. She got away.”

“Shouldn’t we look for her, then?” Sumia asked, concern evident in her tone.

Robin slowly shook his head.

“There’s no point. She’s long gone by now.”

An awkward silence settled over the group as they exchanged glances with Lucina. The Princess shook her head slightly, and Chrom nodded his understanding.

“Very well, Robin,” Chrom said, breaking the silence. “Let’s press on.”

They moved forward with Chrom at their head, stopping when they reached the first of the statues; a striking woman with a long pony-tail and clothes and armaments similar to Say’ri’s stared out over the crowded and blazing plain before her with a proud expression on her face, next to a younger looking man in light armour with a huge sword and a regal cape.

“I don’t recognize any of these warriors,” Basilio muttered under his breath as they moved along the row of statues heading towards the path that led into the temple.

“They are the einherjar,” Tiki said reverently. “Carved in the likeness of the greatest heroes, they are said to protect this hallowed place from evil in times of great need. Your ancestors are no doubt among their number, too.”

They walked in silence, a newfound respect for the heroes watching over them as they moved along the stone ranks. The story also explained why the superstitious refugees were giving them such a wide berth, even now that their camp was burning down around them.

“I found him!” Lucina said from a small way ahead of the others.

There, standing guard over one side of the small paved path leading up to the temple, was King Marth the Saviour, the distinctive blade of Falchion held at rest, its point sticking into the ground. The weapon’s guard and hilt were different, but it was undoubtedly the same sword Chrom and Lucina wielded. Robin noticed with a slight smirk that the clothes the statue and Lucina were wearing were very similar.

“Wow,” Robin breathed, coming up behind Lucina. “You do bear a striking resemblance to him.”

“It is just the clothes,” Lucina said lamely, slapping Robin in the stomach lightly with the back of her hand as her cheeks darkened slightly.

The others laughed a little as they all moved further towards the seemingly abandoned temple.

Now that they were closer Robin noticed just how much loving attention to detail was on every surface and every ledge; painstakingly carved columns depicting Naga’s various feats during the time before humans had become the dominant species lined the building, holding up the domed ceiling in a similar pattern to the ruins that Robin had explored in Plegia. A few torches burned towards the back of the open temple, making Robin guess that someone was indeed inside; a caretaker or something similar. With a sharp intake of breath Robin caught a glimpse of the path leading up to the mountain’s summit and the uncountable stairs that made it up through the temple’s columns.

“Can we just perform the Awakening down here?” Robin groaned, eying the stairs with a growing feeling of despair.

“No, it has to be at the summit,” Tiki said, a note of tired laughter in her voice. “And no, we can’t fly up; the Exalted Blood must make the pilgrimage properly. It’s part of the rite.”

“Why is it always stairs?” the tactician groaned, hanging his head.

“I’m not carrying you this time,” Lucina said as she stepped by him, earning more than a few chuckles from the others.

They proceeded slowly through the drafty temple, admiring the delicate architecture and murals depicting Naga on every surface. Out of respect for the holy place they were in no weapons were drawn, but hands lingered close to hilts just in case. Personally, Robin could say he wasn’t one of the believers in Naga as a god, but considering so many others close to him were adherents he had long ago learned to respect their opinions and keep his trap shut. Or face the wrath of a very irked Libra once more…

“Shouldn’t there be a priest, or a caretaker, or… something in here?” he asked in a low tone as they crept along through the shadows of the beautiful temple.

“I don’t see anyone,” Basilio muttered, glancing around.

Lon’qu grunted agreement, doing the same.

“Panne, do you-” Robin started, looking back and abruptly trailing off.

“Panne?” he repeated, looking back to where the Taguel was still standing near the huge columns of the temple’s entrance. “What’s wrong?”

“Risen,” she said, sniffing the air before turning to face Robin and the others again.

The look on her face put Robin on edge instantly. She was terrified.

“How many?” Robin asked, dread growing in his chest.

“So many I can smell them above the smoke and the fear,” Panne said, striding over to the other Shepherds. “Hundreds, if not thousands.”

A collective curse rose from the Shepherds at their rotten luck as Robin ran a hand through his hair, altering his plans on the fly.

“Chrom, we have to do something!” Lissa cried, looking up at her brother with a stricken face. “Those refugees came here looking for protection, trying to get away from the fighting! We have to do something to save them!”

“We can’t,” Robin answered coldly in the Exalt’s place. “The only way we can help them is by performing the Awakening on Chrom. We need to keep moving.”

“They’ll die!” Lissa insisted. “This isn’t like Valm, Robin! There’s nowhere for these people to run to! The Risen will kill them all!”

“And everyone in the world will die if we don’t perform the Awakening!” Robin snapped suddenly. “I hate to say it, I really do, but dammit Lissa you need to prioritize! The lives of a few hundred refugees, or the lives of everyone!? Because that’s what we’re here for!”

Lissa blinked a few times, stunned into silence by Robin’s tirade. In the old days, back during the war with Plegia, Lissa might have burst into tears from being spoken to so harshly by someone she was so close to. But after surviving not one, but two horrendous wars in the space of five years she had become a harder person, and accepted Robin’s point with a nod, lowering her gaze to the ground.

“I don’t like it either,” Robin added in a softer tone. “But we need to think of the bigger picture. What could the ten of us possibly do alone against a horde like that except die for nothing?”

Silence reigned for a tense moment before the Princess eventually spoke.

“I’m sorry Robin. You’re right,” Lissa muttered, turning and walking towards the stairs to the mountain’s summit as the others watched.

One by one they followed her, until only Chrom and Lucina were still standing with Robin.

“Not the way I would have worded it, but you are right,” Chrom said, placing a hand on the tactician’s shoulder. “And she needed to hear it. Now let’s go so we can actually save some of these people.”

Robin nodded, following after Chrom with Lucina at his side.

To Robin’s mind, this was the part of being a tactician he hated. It was no surprise that in a group full of varied individuals like the Shepherds emotions could run high, especially given the way things had been going lately. But as the tactician it was part of his job to remind people that they had a job to do.

Even if it meant berating a friend and feeling wretched for abandoning hundreds to suffer and die while he stood and watched, he would-

Strong, slim fingers wrapped around his hand, causing his dark thoughts to be instantly derailed. Robin looked over, Lucina silently facing forward and walking beside him with her hand in his. Even through her gloves Robin could feel her warmth, and it set his spirit at ease. Out of everyone she was the one that understood those types of calls the best, having made them herself countless times, too.

The thought that he wasn’t alone in this anymore gave Robin the resolve he needed to quash his self-loathing a little longer, at least until the mission was done.

Which, unfortunately, still did nothing about the thousands of stairs he still had to climb.

“Why… is it… always… stairs…?” Robin gasped, finally pulling himself up over the last of the stone staircase.

“Oh it wasn’t that bad,” Chrom laughed, out of breath too. “I’m pretty sure the Milla Tree had more…”

“Dying…” Robin groaned, falling to his knees. “I’m… dying… water… need water…”

The rest of the Shepherds with them were in similar states of exhaustion, gasping and falling to the ground now that they were at the mountain’s summit. Robin had set a punishing pace, and for most of the time they had climbed at a brisk jog taking two stairs at a time. In the distance Robin could see an altar, similar to the one he’d seen in Plegia at the Dragon’s Table, but no one seemed inclined to rush over to it just yet.

“Five… five minute break,” Chrom gasped, managing to half-sit, half-fall on the ground at the top of the stairs.

Robin took a few deep breaths before forcing himself back to his feet.

“No time, everybody up,” he said, much to everyone’s great and vocal dissatisfaction.

“I really… really hate you right now,” Lissa moaned as she used a silent Lon’qu to pull herself up to her feet.

The Feroxi swordsman gave Robin an apologetic look as his wife leaned against his back; they both knew Lissa was just upset she couldn’t do anything for the refugees, and he had quietly tried to calm her down during their climb, but apparently she was still a little mad at Robin.

“I’m getting to old for this crap,” Basilio wheezed as Tiki helped pull him up.

“It’s not that bad!” the unflappable manakete laughed. “If you’re too old for this, what does that make me?”

“An eternally-youthful manakete,” the Khan grumbled.

Robin winced as he was suddenly beset by bright light, throwing a hand up to shield his eyes from the glare. Looking at the others doing the same he realised that they weren’t under attack, and had merely been climbing the mountain all night and it was now dawn. As his eyesight began to readjust to the daylight now washing over everyone Robin heard a gasp from Lissa.

“It’s beautiful,” the blonde woman muttered, both she and Lon’qu standing in a small sea of soft green grass set in a hollow, much the same as where Tiki had awoken her powers in Valm.

A few soft noises of agreement came out of the others as they tentatively stepped off of the dry, rocky path and into the grassy field. It was a strange sight to Robin; a soft, grassy field surrounded on all sides by the craggy peaks that one expected from the top of a mountain summit. Yet everywhere he looked in between he saw green. Even the temperature seemed to be different; comfortably warm as opposed to the unpleasant chill that had assailed them on the mountain climb.

“The Divine Dragon’s power flows through every blade of grass here,” Lucina said from Robin’s side, the awe evident in her voice as she looked around in wonder, a soft smile on her face.

“It’s amazing,” Sumia whispered reverently. “I can’t believe a place like this could exist.”

“Really?” Robin asked with a laugh. “You have two time-travelling daughters living with you, and this little garden is what you can’t believe?”

Sumia frowned slightly as she cleared her throat, clinging to Chrom’s arm and looking away from the source of her embarrassment.

“It was a… figure of speech,” she muttered, earning a fresh bout of laughter from the others as her old timid nature crept back to the fore.

Robin grinned along with Lucina laughing at his side, basking in the strange, calming energy pervading everything around them. It was as she had said; the energy of the Divine Dragon, Naga, was flowing through the entire space. He could feel it, like waves crashing on him gently in time to what felt like a heartbeat, the origin of which was the altar about the size of the huge bed that Chrom and Sumia shared in the palace back at Ylisstol, built in what Robin had no doubt was the exact centre of the hollow. He knew in his heart that in the shadow of the mountain the pilgrims and refugees were no doubt suffering, that Grima was still out there, and that there were potentially more monstrous Deadlords being created, but at that moment it all just washed away and Robin felt that he was truly at peace for the first time in a long time.

The tactician was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he almost walked into Chrom’s stationary back without realising that the Exalt had stopped.

“Er, what’s up?” he asked, looking around to the others.

Robin’s heart dropped as he beheld the grim faces staring outwards. Then he began to feel it, too.

“Something’s not right,” Chrom muttered, his hand anxiously kneading Falchion’s grip.

Robin let out another characteristic sigh, something he felt to be almost sacrilegious given the calming atmosphere, switching back into tactician-mode and drawing Sol from over his shoulder.

“Risen,” he said. “A lot of Risen. Just how close behind us were they…? Dammit, I hate it when Frederick’s right… I knew I should’ve brought the others… Nobody tell him I said that.”

“What!?” Tiki cried in dismay, spinning to face Robin as he continued muttering to himself.

“To arms!” Chrom urged the others. “They’ll be on us soon!”

“They… they’re trying to prevent the awakening!” Tiki said, her voice panicked. “We have to protect the altar!”

Chrom cast one look over his shoulder at the stone altar in the centre of the grassy hollow before nodding and drawing his sacred sword.

“You heard the Voice!” the Exalt said. “Protect the altar! Drive the Risen out of this sacred place!”

“Tiki, Panne, Virion, Lissa; protect the altar with your lives,” Robin ordered. “The rest of you, we’re the front line. Stick close. This is going to get… well, messy.”

“Define ‘messy’,” Basilio grunted, hefting his huge axe.

“The same kind of crap we always put up with,” Lon’qu responded before Robin could.

Not that he was going to say anything different, though. Basilio merely nodded, a predatory grin growing on his lined face.

“Good,” Robin heard the Khan mutter under his breath. “I was getting tired of waiting.”

The ill feeling in the air was beginning to become an audible sound; moaning and scrambling, falling rocks and pounding feet.

“There’s only one way into this hollow,” Robin said, falling back into one of Say’ri’s defensive stances he’d picked up second-hand from Morgan. “We’ve bottle-necked the bastards. Don’t worry if they get by us; the others will handle them. Just kill what’s in front of us and don’t hesitate for a moment.”

Basilio grunted a harsh laugh, swinging his axe in circles a few times to warm up his arms. Sumia nodded resolutely as she stepped back, preparing to use the longer reach of her lance to maximum effect. Lon’qu became perfectly still, holding his sword point-up close to his chest, one arm tucked back, with his legs spread wide to root him. Lucina and Chrom both stepped to the front, preparing to act the vanguard as they adopted the exact same stance. Robin felt a familiar stirring in his chest watching both the Falchion in Chrom’s hands and the one in Lucina’s began to blaze with blue fire from within as the first of the Risen flooded into the hollow.

“Into them!” Robin shouted.

“Shepherds! Charge!” Chrom roared, racing forwards in perfect sync with his daughter.

Arrows from Virion’s bow began to rain down on the Risen before they had gone more than a few steps, each shot a perfect kill as Risen began to dissipate into ash. The bolts stopped flying at the path, though, as Virion noticed a few of the braver or smarter Risen coming over the edges of the mountain into the hollow, and he was forced to start picking them off instead. Behind them there was a tell-tale draconian roar as Tiki shifted her form, Panne no doubt doing the same as they waited for the inevitable overflow that bypassed the main group. A blast of dragon’s fire mowed down the first rank of the Risen over the top of the others’ heads, the creatures flowing on unabated as if nothing happened.

Robin followed up Tiki’s attack with one of his own, skidding to a stop and doing something he hadn’t done in a very long time; he stabbed his sword into the ground and reached for his spellbook.

“Oh please Naga,” Robin prayed as he began channelling mana and flipping through his spellbook, “If you ever gave a damn about us let me get this spell right for once!”

A few times now he’d been forced to channel incomplete, rushed versions of this spell. He had learned most of the incantations by heart, but in the end magic was like cooking; if you rushed it, you’d get it wrong most of the time. Usually he could manage to get decent results even if he rushed, but he knew that if he wanted true destruction he would need to take his time. He could unlock the full power of the spell; he just needed to be patient.

Robin slapped his hand down on the page he was looking for, the others rushing by him as dark clouds began to gather overhead in a circular pattern.

“Echoes of lost ages,” Robin read, translating the ancient runic script inscribed on his page as he threw one hand up in the air. “Hammer of gods! Lord of storms I beseech you! Grant me your power!”

Electricity began to dance along the ground and rocks around Robin and the Risen, lighting flashing above them in the clouds in great white-gold forks. Robin dropped his hand, pointing squarely at the Risen.

“Mjlonir!” he roared, filling the hollow with a bright flash of light.

Bolts of lightning rained down on the Risen, shattering stone and turning the creatures to ash three at a time. Robin grinned savagely as he placed his tome back in its pouch and took up his sword again; just as he had thought, he was subconsciously harnessing the excess mana here, too, and the results were incredible to say the least.

Just before Chrom and Lucina met the first rank of the charging Risen the main part of the spell struck to the rear of the Risen formation, obliterating most of the innumerable creatures already on the summit of the mountain and clearing a huge gap between those Risen still charging up the stairs and those too close for Robin to have hit for fear of also hitting the others.

“Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow! That hurt like hell,” Robin muttered, holding his sword one-handed as he shook his still-smoking right hand.

Apparently he’d still managed to get the spell wrong somehow, judging from the blowback that had scorched his hand, or he’d simply misjudged just how much excess mana was floating around this place. Either way, he wasn’t about to argue with results.

Lucina and Chrom all but ignored Robin’s display of power and crashed into the Risen with all the force of a hurricane, the smaller creatures not turned to ash outright by the force of their charge sent flying through the air. Basilio and Lon’qu came next, spreading out wide and beginning to strike down the Risen flowing around the two royals, while Sumia struck like mercury around the others, the young Ylissean Queen’s lance a blur in her experienced hands.

However as the gap made by Tiki and Robin’s attacks was filled some of the masked creatures began to surge by the Shepherds. To Robin it looked like roughly one for every ten or so Risen felled was sneaking by; doing the math in his head he had no doubt that Tiki and Panne could handle them for a while, but if the fighting kept on too long they would all be overwhelmed.

With thoughts of ending the fighting as quickly as they could Robin charged forward, sword at the ready and…

“Wait… where’d all the Risen go?” he asked, coming to a stop just as Basilio stomped on the last of them in a cloud of purple ash.

“I don’t like this,” Chrom said, looking around at the deserted path.

Robin glanced over his shoulder, Tiki and Panne both having easily dealt with the Risen that had gotten by the defensive line, while Virion shrugged. So where, then, were the Risen reinforcements? They never travelled in such small groups.

The tactician crept forward to the stairs, the others fanning out around him, none of them knowing what to expect. When Robin got to the lip and looked down at an abandoned stone staircase and mountainside his brain tripped over itself, leaving him utterly at a loss.

“Uh… okay,” he said, scratching his head. “Is it just me, or is this getting a whole lot easier?”

“This isn’t right,” Chrom muttered, joining Robin.

“Are we really going to look a gift-horse in the mouth?” Basilio asked, kicking idly through the ashes and weapons left behind by the felled Risen while he waited for the others.

“Wait,” Robin said, squinting down at the camp below them. “What in Naga’s name…?”

A line of warriors had formed around the temple, but from so far away Robin couldn’t tell who they were or where they were from. Off in the south, too, it seemed like some of the refugees had formed an ad-hoc line to hold the Risen while the rest of them fled in the direction of Jagen.

“Reinforcements from Jagen?” Sumia asked, shading her eyes and looking down to the temple.

“Could be the statues for all we know,” Robin shrugged, turning and walking towards the altar. “Figures. The one time I don’t bring my spy-glass with me… Ah, whatever. Let’s make use of this time while we have it and worry about the Risen and whatever else after the Awakening. At least someone’s organized the refugees in the south, from the looks of things; there’ll be less deaths now.”

“That’ll make Lissa happy at the very least,” Chrom nodded, following the tactician.

“Lon’qu, watch the stairs,” Robin said over his shoulder.

The swordsman nodded once, leaning his blade against his shoulder before spinning and looking down at the path they had come from. As Robin and the others approached the altar Tiki and Panne both shifted back to their human forms, looking questioningly back over to Lon’qu.

“Don’t ask, I’ll explain later,” Robin sighed. “Let’s just get this show on the road before something else tries to kill us.”

“Okay,” Chrom said, unstrapping the Fire Emblem from his arm and holding it to his chest. “So… how do we do that?”

Robin almost fell over at the absurdity of his friend’s question, turning a shocked gaze on him as he collected himself.

“Are you kidding!? How long did you spend researching the ritual again!?” Robin half-shouted.

“Hey, books are your job,” Chrom said, frowning and looking away in embarrassment. “I learned the incantation, didn’t I? You’re the mage, you do the rest.”

“If your plan was to make me cast a spell to start the Awakening I kind of needed prior warning,” Robin groaned in exasperation. “You know, to actually learn the spell? What am I supposed to do, waggle my fingers at the altar and just throw raw mana at it?”

“I thought, seeing as you’d thought about literally every other scenario possible, you would have already looked into this,” Chrom responded hotly. “Or did your master plans and machinations not extend that far?”

“I… uh… shut up!” Robin came back lamely. “My master plans and machinations were supposed to prevent us from needing to do this in the first place! I never thought we’d actually have to do the Awakening so… I… kinda skipped it…”

“Unbelievable,” Virion muttered, face-palming while Panne and Basilio chuckled next to him.

“It was a complicated spell and I had better things to do at the time!” the tactician insisted to the laughing Shepherds.

Robin and Chrom’s argument was interrupted by Tiki’s laughter as the manakete stepped forward.

“I guess it’s a good thing that I came after all, huh?” she asked, grinning at the two men’s antics.

Robin grunted, shooting Chrom another dirty look.

“Fine. Tiki, do… whatever the Awakening… is,” Robin groused, crossing his arms and jerking his head over in Chrom’s direction.

“Pay attention in case we have to do this again,” Chrom said, pointedly looking at a surprised Lucina.

“Well, we’ve seen one already, so he’s bound to pick it up,” Tiki said, taking the Fire Emblem from Chrom and holding it gently. “In fact, you were the one Awakened in the first place, Robin. In Plegia.”

“Wait, what?” Robin asked, quirking one brow as everyone turned to look at him. “No I wasn’t. I seem to recall rejecting Grima rather forcefully.”

“You jumped into the flames,” Tiki said hesitantly. “When you grabbed the Emblem. I thought… you knew what you were doing.”

“Of course I didn’t know what I was doing!” Robin shouted, eyes growing wide now. “I never know what I’m doing! Ninety percent of what I do is made up on the spot!”

“There’s a comforting thought,” Basilio muttered, rolling his eye.

“That does explain why I’ve been so energetic lately, though…” Robin said, holding his chin in thought as his mood shifted suddenly. “And why that spell got away from me like that…”

“So does Robin hold the same power as Grima then, even though he rejected him?” Lucina asked.

Tiki shook her head sadly.

“He only absorbed a small fraction of the power,” she explained. “Much was lost while we were fighting, and the future-Robin stole the rest. It was an imperfect Awakening to begin with…”

“Well, it doesn’t really matter now,” Robin said with an exaggerated shrug. “Chrom, get going. C’mon, if I can do it, so can you.”

“There’s another comforting thought,” Basilio added with a chuckle.

“Alright,” Chrom nodded. “Tiki, lead the way. The rest of you, wait here.”

“Be careful, Chrom,” Lissa urged, clutching her staff close to her chest protectively.

“We must have faith in him, Aunt Lissa,” Lucina said, placing a comforting hand on the other woman’s shoulder.

“He’ll be fine,” Sumia said in the same airy, love-struck tone she used to use when she was talking about Chrom before the war in Plegia.

Robin rolled his eyes, the rest of the group pressing in close as Tiki and Chrom approached the altar. Something in the air changed as they neared the flat stone; the mana in the area began to swirl where before it had been a pulse. An invisible whirlpool of energy that Robin doubted anyone besides Tiki and himself could feel centred on the altar as she and Chrom stood before it.

“Mother!” Tiki called out in a clear voice, her personality shifting back to that of the holy maiden she was supposed to be and setting the Fire Emblem down in the centre of the stone slab.

“These humans have gathered the gemstones and present you with the ancient pact, the Shield of Seals! They seek your aid! Will you not answer them?”

Mother? Robin thought, glancing at Tiki in a new light. Is she… really the daughter of a god? Did we talk about this earlier? I thought it was figurative. Gah! Focus! Speculate later!

“Hear me, Naga!” Chrom intoned, displaying Falchion proudly. “I bear proof of our sacred covenant! In the name of the Exalted Blood, I ask for the divine dragon's power! Baptize me in fire that I may become your true son!”

Robin felt, rather than saw, the mana in the air come to a stand-still before converging all at once on the altar. Emerald green flames, the same colour as the ones Tiki had created in Valm when she had marshalled her power during the war, burst out of the altar and into the sky, enveloping the slab and shooting into the sky.

“Go, Chrom, and prove the purity of your cause,” Tiki said solemnly, placing her hand on his shoulder for a moment before stepping back.

To the Exalt’s credit he didn’t hesitate a moment, planting his sacred sword in the ground and putting one foot on the lip of the blazing stone before launching himself heedlessly upwards and disappearing into the green flames.

For a moment that stretched on for what seemed like forever the group held their breath, waiting to see what happened as Chrom slowed, his silhouette stopping in the centre of the altar.

Robin felt his heart stop, though, when his best friend threw his head back and let out a roar of unimaginable pain, his hands clenching into claws and reaching upwards as he screamed.

“Chrom!” Sumia cried, stepping forward.

“Father!” Lucina shouted in tandem with her mother, actually running forward a few paces before stopping.

All at once the fire froze in mid-air before exploding outwards, leaving Chrom standing unharmed on the gently smoking altar before he fell to his knees.

“I’m… alright,” he said, his voice full of wonder as he opened and closed his fists.

Robin and the others looked around in wonder as small green embers danced around them, caught up on the soft flow of mana that had started whirling around the altar again.

“Incredible,” Virion breathed, reaching out and catching one of the green embers in his open palm.

The small light vanished, sinking into his hand. The archer flexed his fingers and made a fist, staring in wonder at his appendage.

“Dammit, that was so much cooler than my Awakening,” Robin sulked, crossing his arms and pouting a little as Sumia and Lucina rushed to Chrom’s side.

The Ylissean Queen and future-Princess helped him down from the altar, supporting the shell-shocked man between them.

“He is fine,” Tiki said, appearing beside them and holding Falchion out to him hilt first. “Naga has found you worthy.”

Chrom smiled tiredly, taking his arm off of Lucina’s shoulders, accepting his holy sword before returning it to its sheath.

All at once everybody turned back to the altar as another bright flash of green light appeared above the Fire Emblem. Robin had to blink a few times before he registered what he was seeing.

There, floating just above the Fire Emblem, was a woman in white robes with familiar green hair.

“Holy Goddess,” Virion breathed, his eyes fairly bulging in astonishment.

“Literally,” Basilio added, quirking one brow.

Panne averted her eyes quickly, dropping her head and staring at the ground as she quaked at the deity’s presence much like Yarne used to around Robin.

The ethereal, translucent woman floated down from the altar, her feet remaining an inch off the ground as she hovered in space.

“Be welcome, Awakener. Your heart has been tested and deemed worthy. Cleansed in my fire, your desire has proven to be the stronger.”

“Naga?” Chrom asked, his eyes wide as he lifted himself off of his wife’s shoulder to stand on his own.

“Yes,” the spirit replied, nodding gracefully.

Her every move spoke of millennia of wisdom and power, and yet still she was graceful as a dancer as she floated towards the humans. For the first time in his life Robin found himself truly speechless in the face of another being. Her gaze passed over the group, lingering for a few seconds on Robin. As her eyes bored into his Robin felt as if his soul was being tested and he was being judged, a jolt of electricity travelling down his spine; apparently satisfied, the corners of Naga’s lips quirked ever-so-slightly upwards as her gaze continued to sweep across the others.

“Divine Naga, grant me the power to defeat Grima! The power to slay a god!” Chrom begged after a speechless moment, actually falling to one knee before the ancient spirit.

“Please,” he added in a small voice. “Grant me the power to protect the world my family lives in.”

Naga watched the grovelling Chrom impassively for a moment before her face broke into a sad grin. With fluid tenderness she knelt down in front of the Exalt, still floating in mid-air, and placed both hands on his shoulders.

“I will grant you what power I can,” she said softly. “But know this, Awakener; I cannot give you the power to slay a god.”

Chrom’s shocked face snapped up, but it was Lucina who spoke first.

“But milady, you are the divine dragon!” she cried. “You are the Goddess!”

Naga turned her sad smile onto Lucina before floating back to her upright position.

“So do sons of man name me,” the spirit explained, as if lecturing a favoured student. “But I am no creator. I possess not the powers of making or unmaking. And neither does Grima. Neither of us bears the power to destroy the other utterly.”

“So he talks a big game, but he’s not really omnipotent or all-powerful,” Robin said, mostly to himself, as he stroked his chin in thought again.

“Yes, very astute of you, Fellblood,” Naga chuckled, her smile changing to one of humour as she looked over to the tactician.

Robin had to admit, when Naga’s spirit smiled her resemblance to Tiki was uncanny.

“Fellblood?” Robin repeated, his brow quirking on impulse.

“Then what power can you grant me?” Chrom asked respectfully as he rose to his feet.

“With my blessing, thou may draw forth Falchion's true might,” Naga said, drifting over to Chrom’s side.

Naga’s spirit reached down to where Chrom’s hand was resting on Falchion’s pommel, clasping his larger hand and holding it in place before continuing to speak.

“The blade of the Exalts shall again strike like the dragon's fang. Your strength will then be my equal,” she said, a soft light enveloping Chrom’s hand before spreading to the sword beneath it.

“Will that be… enough to destroy Grima?” Chrom asked, his gaze falling to his hand as Naga drew back.

Naga looked away, her eyes settling on the ground as she drifted back towards the altar.

“Alas, Grima cannot be slain,” she said quietly, as if deeply ashamed of her own inability to provide further help. “Sleep alone can be your victory, just as your ancestor put the fell dragon to sleep a millennium ago. But you must weaken him first. Only as the final blow can my power be used to bind his.”

Silence settled on the group as Robin racked his brain for a plan, any plan, any scrap of knowledge that he could use to help them destroy Grima permanently.

“Isn’t there any way to destroy him for good?” Lissa asked desperately, echoing Robin’s thoughts.

“We must find some way to break this unholy cycle!” Chrom declared. “There must be a way! We can't just keep putting Grima back to sleep every few centuries. Otherwise we merely will his vengeance on our descendants.”

“There is, perchance, a power that could end Grima,” Naga explained hesitantly. “However... 'Twould be his own.”

“So he has to, what? Kill himself?” Robin asked, fairly certain smoke was about to start pouring out of his ears as he mentally flipped through every book on tactics or magic he had ever read.

“There is a way,” Naga said, staring pointedly back at Robin.

“Why are you staring at… me?” he asked, looking to make sure he wasn’t standing in front of someone.

“You are his avatar, Fellblood,” Naga explained, drifting towards Robin. “You are literally of Grima’s bloodline. You also absorbed a portion of his power, his essence, during his Awakening ritual. You and Grima are linked in this timeline in more ways than one.”

“So I could kill him?” Robin asked in astonishment. “Me? Then why the hell did we bother coming all the way out here!?”

“Because we didn’t know that,” Tiki laughed.

“But we do now!” Chrom said, his face lighting up. “If you and I are at the forefront of the attacking force nothing could stand in our way now that we’ve both been Awakened! Robin, you and I could end this cycle forever!”

“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here…” Robin muttered, looking to Naga.

“Could it work?” Lucina asked excitedly. “Could Robin strike a killing blow?”

“How? Where? He’s freaking huge!” Robin reasoned, being ignored by the excited Shepherds.

“There is a chance it may work,” Naga said, quieting the others. “But there would be consequences. Grima's heart and his avatar's are inexorably linked. The very soul of dragon and man can no longer be separated. Therefore, slaying Grima would also cause the end of Robin's life.”

Silence fell again as Naga’s news set in. Everyone looked to Robin at once, ten sets of eyes watching for his reaction as he took a deep breath.

“Piss off, dying once was enough for one lifetime,” he half-barked, half-laughed.

“There is...a chance you could survive, but it is small indeed,” Naga went on, grinning slightly at Robin’s crudeness. “You have bound your heart to those of many others in this world. If those ties prove strong enough, they may yet keep you in this reality. But I would not give you false hope. The chance you would live is insignificant. In truth, you will almost certainly cease to exist.”

“Is that supposed to encourage me?” Robin deadpanned, crossing his arms.

“No,” Chrom said flatly. “We will find another way. We’ve already lost enough to this monster.”

Lucina nodded agreement, moving to take Robin’s hand comfortingly.

“Can we worry about it later?” Robin asked. “We did what we came to, and we still have a valley full of Risen to kill.”

“He’s right, we can talk about this once the refugees are safe,” Chrom said, looking over at Naga.

The spirit smiled at the Shepherds for a moment and nodded as if impressed, floating back towards the altar.

“Very well, Awakener,” she said. “My Einherjar will protect the temple and the mountain, but can go no further; you must save the people. Use the power I have given you to protect these people, and then travel to Mount Origin, far to the west. I shall slumber within the Shield of Seals until then.”

“Wait, so it is the statues fighting down there?” Robin asked, being ignored again.

Naga looked over to Tiki, giving the manakete a maternal smile. The gemstones on the Fire Emblem flashed, and suddenly the Shepherds were alone on the mountaintop again. Chrom tentatively stepped forward to retrieve the Emblem, strapping it back to his arm before looking back at the others.

“Alright, let’s go kill some Risen!” Basilio cheered, running towards the stairs suddenly invigorated.

“We… we just met the Goddess,” Sumia breathed as the rest of the Shepherds followed the Khan. “We met Naga, the goddess…”

“Yes, and Robin just told her to ‘piss off’,” Virion said, obviously trying not to laugh at the thought.

“Oh Naga, I’m going to go to hell, aren’t I?” Robin moaned, slapping his palm to his forehead as they ran.

The others laughed while they began descending the stairway, Robin groaning and shaking his head. Perhaps it was just his imagination, but it sounded like there was an extra feminine voice laughing at him, coming from the general direction of Chrom’s wrist.

Robin crept forward from the temple at the base of the mountain cautiously, just behind Chrom.

Mid-morning sunlight broke through the clouds still lingering from his grand spell, and he had to admit that the refugee camp didn’t look a whole lot better in the light than it had in the dark.

“Where did the Risen go?” Robin asked, his voice a whisper. “Or the warriors that were holding them off?”

“I don’t know,” Chrom said, kicking at the discarded weapons on the ground and throwing up a small puff of purple ashes.

“It was the Einherjar,” Tiki said, looking up at the statue of Marth and smiling as they passed out of the ring of stone figures.

As she passed, Tiki reached up and stroked the statue’s arm, her fingers just barely brushing its surface.

“The statues came to life and protected the temple while we performed the Awakening, then went back to standing guard?” Robin asked disbelievingly, stopping and looking back at the manakete woman.

Tiki nodded, grinning sheepishly.

“You know, whatever; it’s still not the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to us lately,” Robin sighed.

“The refugees were holed-up in the south,” Chrom said, starting to walk towards the camp. “Let’s try going there and bringing them to Jagen.”

“Alright, let’s go play hero,” Robin said unenthusiastically.

Lucina hesitated a moment as the others started making for the camp, staring up at the face of the statue of Marth that was once more looking out into the distance.

“I don’t look that much like him…” she muttered to herself before hurrying to catch up with the others.

A hasty barricade of sharpened poles and splintered wood had been set up by the refugees, a few exhausted men in civilian clothes with battered and improvised weapons still standing guard as the Shepherds approached, no longer trying to conceal their identities.

Robin was honestly amazed they had been able to hold out against the numbers they had faced with such fortifications. Whoever had taken charge and made all this possible was obviously a very skilled tactician, or a very lucky leader; perhaps someone ex-military or something similar. Either way, it seemed like for the moment the refugees had held out and were taking some much needed rest.

Panne had confirmed, as they had stalked through the abandoned camp, that there were still a large number of Risen lurking in the vicinity, something that the refugee leader obviously had expected, too, judging from the fortifications and the fact no one was making a run for the forest. All around the fortified ‘wall’ had been cleared away, too, to create a space where the refugees could actually fight in.

“Whoever’s in charge here has a pretty solid grasp of the situation,” Basilio muttered from Robin’s side. “The fortifications are pretty good, too, considering what they had to work with.”

“Find the leader,” Robin suggested to Chrom. “I doubt the rank-and-file are going to know what’s going on besides ‘scary things are trying to kill us’.”

The Exalt nodded, picking up his pace to stand ahead of the Shepherds.

“You there!” Chrom called out in his most authoritative voice once they got closer. “Who is in charge here!?”

The refugee being spoken to, a man of middle-age sitting with his back to the closest pole with a sword across his lap looked up at the Shepherds. His jaw dropped after a few seconds when he recognized Chrom and Sumia and he scrambled into a kneeling position.

“Mi-milord!” the refugee said quickly. “It’s… I… what are you doing here?”

“Saving you,” Chrom answered simply, coming to a stop in front of the kneeling man. “Now please, sir; rise and show us to your leader.”

“O-of course, Lord Chrom,” the refugee said, head still bowed low as he dashed further into the fortified area. “She’s… she already left, along with the wounded and the people that couldn’t fight. They were heading to Jagen. We’re getting ready to follow them now, too.”

“What about the Risen?” Robin asked, coming alongside Chrom.

“We don’t know,” the man said. “They just… stopped attacking. The lady that took charge decided it was the best time to get the wounded out, but we had to hold as a rearguard to give them time to get away.”

Chrom nodded understanding, looking over his shoulder at Robin. The tactician shrugged, already knowing what he was thinking.

“Gather up the rest of the rearguard and go now,” The Exalt said. “We’ll cover your retreat. Make for the forest and link up with the others.”

“Y-yes milord, right away!” the refugee man said, falling over himself in his haste to carry out Chrom’s orders.

“Why can’t everyone we deal with be helpful like that?” Robin asked lightly as the rest of the Shepherds gathered around.

“So we don’t get to fight?” Basilio asked, doing his best to sound overly-disappointed.

“It appears that way,” Chrom said thoughtfully.

“I do not smell any more Risen,” Panne said helpfully.

“Yeah, I can’t sense any of them either,” Robin added.

“Damn,” Basilio huffed dejectedly.

“Putting aside the crazy Feroxi battle-lust for now,” Robin said slowly, “What do we do now? Just… travel to Jagen a whole hell of a lot slower than we intended to? Do we even have time for that now?”

“We’ll make time,” Chrom said. “I don’t trust the fact that the Risen suddenly vanished. They never pull back.”

“Sumia, do you think you could fly some recon?” Robin asked, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“Of course,” she replied quickly. “I just have to go back to the horses to get Palla and we’ll be in the air in moments.”

“Right,” Robin agreed. “Virion, Panne, go with her and bring the horses back here. Sumia, try not to get bogged down fighting anything; if you get attacked, come right back here. Understood?”

A trio of affirmatives rang out before the Shepherds in question disappeared into the abandoned and still-smouldering refugee camp.

“So what do we do now?” Lissa asked curiously.

“We’re the rearguard,” Robin shrugged, leaning heavily back against a pole. “We wait and we guard the rear.”

“And what, exactly, is going off and getting yourself killed going to accomplish?”

Simia spun, the perpetual snarl finally melting off her face in the presence of her master’s glib tone.

She had made it as far as the now-abandoned refugee camp, but had felt the presence of the mindless ones around her steadily decreasing the further she went, contrary to her mental orders of ‘attack’; by now they should have overwhelmed the camp, but all the evidence pointed to the contrary.

Now, sitting before her on a fallen pole was a shade of Grima’s avatar, grinning at her as it rested lazily.

“I know you heard me,” the shade, a form of ancient Dark projection magic, said, leaning forward slightly. “It wasn’t a rhetorical question.”

“I… I will kill him,” Simia insisted, finally feeling some of her seething hatred giving way to logic.

“No. You won’t,” the shade said, lithely hopping to its feet. “You can’t face him alone, which is what you are now that I’ve pulled the mindless ones back.”

“But lord, I-” Simia started, cut off when her master’s presence appeared behind her now.

“Who gave you permission to summon the mindless ones here?” he whispered into her ear in an icy tone.

“You are pressing my patience, Simia,” the shade added, suddenly perched atop one of the thin poles that had once held tents. “My orders were clear. Follow them.”

“I can kill him!” Simia insisted.

“I said no!” Grima thundered.

Suddenly the shade changed, a massive shadow of a dragon looming down on Simia with baleful glowing red eyes staring right through her. Simia quailed before Grima’s fury, stepping back and nearly falling to the ground in her terror.

“You are my servant!” Grima roared. “Mine! You will do as I say, or I will unmake you and use the energy to create another servant! One that follows orders! You are not privy to my great plans because you are a weapon! Nothing more!”

Just as sudden as his rage had started it dissipated, Grima’s shadow appearing again leaning with crossed arms against another pole.

“So what’s it going to be?” he asked lightly. “Revenge later, or death now? I assure you, you will get another crack at getting yourself impaled on his big fancy sword, don’t you worry about that.”

Simia lowered her gaze, nodding.

“I assume that means you’ll be a good girl and do as you’re told,” the shade said with a victorious smile as it started to dissipate.

“Don’t let it happen again. Next time I will not be so merciful,” it added just before disappearing completely.

As she cast one final look in the direction that she felt the tactician’s presence in Simia spun on her heel and began stomping off back towards the west.

“He can’t keep running forever,” she promised herself. “He’ll have to come to me eventually.”

Until then she would bide her time.

Finally, after all this time, she had found a man worth killing.

She wouldn’t let him get away again.

Robin leaned with his back against one of the sharpened posts marking the refugee fortifications, watching the exodus of their rearguard while he and the others waited for their horses.

The fact that the Risen had mysteriously pulled back made him nervous. Especially considering that their favoured tactic was ‘throw bodies at the problem and hope for the best’.

For a few minutes there he had felt like something was coming through the ruined camp, perhaps even one of the Deadlords coming to make a second pass at him, but after a while the presence had just faded, leaving him to lean and contemplate his current predicament in solitude. He almost would have preferred the attack, in all honesty.

He hated that he had been backed into a tactical corner, made all the worse now that Grima literally knew all his tricks. No doubt once he returned to Ylisstol Morgan would have a stack of reports up to her chin detailing the exact same thing that had happened here at Mount Prism, except all over the rest of Ylisse.

Robin sighed as he watched the small column of armed refugees disappearing towards the forest for a little longer.

He couldn’t be everywhere at once. He couldn’t do everything at once.

He was having rings run around him and his strategies for a change, and he didn’t like it one bit.

“Now I know how Gangrel must have felt,” Robin muttered to himself with a derisive chuckle.

“There’s a scary thought,” Chrom said as he walked up to Robin’s side, his boots crunching the gravel and debris beneath them. “Tell me you don’t want the Emblem now, too.”

“Not while it has a passenger that apparently shares her daughter’s sense of humour,” Robin muttered, eying the shield on Chrom’s arm and feeling pretty sure Naga was smiling at him in amusement.

“Heh, I can scarcely believe it,” Chrom muttered, resting his hand on the edge of the shield for a moment. “The Divine Dragon, Naga. It seems like a dream. Perhaps now we have the power to defeat Grima.”

“Yes, your shield is possessed by a goddess, and it’s still not the weirdest thing to happen to us,” Robin sighed theatrically.

“Oh?” Chrom laughed, giving Robin’s shoulder a light nudge. “And what takes the ‘number one weirdest’ spot then?”

“A monarch that takes in random amnesiac vagabonds and gives them unreasonable levels of power and authority because they outwit a few Plegian bandits?” the tactician shrugged, doing his best not to smile.

“And here was me being worried about you,” Chrom said, shaking his head with a grin. “Your horrible sense of humour is, as always, intact at least. You may just end up joking your way out of a job at this rate.”

“I do my best,” Robin added lightly.

The two men burst into laughter at that, Chrom so hard he had to support himself on his knees as he doubled over.

Robin looked off into the camp for a moment as their laughter died off, sighing.

“I’ve been thinking,” he started.

“That is what I pay you for,” Chrom said lightly.

“Another point to make later is when was the last time I was paid?” Robin deadpanned. “But right now I wanted to say… what if Naga was right, and the only way to kill Grima is-”

“Stop right there,” Chrom said seriously, cutting Robin off mid-sentence.

“You are not, under any circumstances, to think of this again,” he added. “That is a royal order from your Exalt. There must be a better way to kill Grima, one that does not cost your life. And, speaking plainly as Lucina’s father, it would crush her. And know that I would go into the very depths of hell to punish you for hurting my little girl.”

“That is an intensely terrifying thought,” Robin said, a slight grin rising to his face for a moment.

“But I’m not making any promises, Chrom,” the tactician added, looking away. “If the time comes, and we don’t have a better plan, I’m taking him down. No matter the cost.”

“I will stop you,” Chrom warned.

“You can try,” Robin said, grinning back at the Exalt’s threat. “We should argue about this after I do the research to find a better method, huh?”

“I can at least help you, right?” Chrom offered quietly.

“If the results of your last attempts at research are anything to go by, I think I’d be better off alone on this one,” Robin laughed.

“It’s what you pay me for, right?” Robin added, smiling up at the taller man.

Chrom just sighed, shaking his head at his friend’s stubbornness.

“I offered,” the Exalt said, leaning back against the same pole Robin was.

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