Twelve days after the tavern fire, the Shepherds were once again marching through the Valmese wilderness. The only signs of life were the occasional animals, the only civilization the merchant caravans they passed. Oh, and Risen, but they didn't count; they belonged to a category all their own.
In fact, it was because of the Risen that Gangrel had been (unwillingly) awakened before dawn this morning. The tiresome creatures were either getting smarter, or he was cursed. Gangrel preferred to think the latter—he had some evidence to support that theory.
To say that the red-haired Plegian was not a morning person would be a severe understatement: he held the hours before sunrise as a sacred time for sleeping and to encroach on those hours was to incur the wrath of the Mad King. And yet these Risen had done just that.
Yep, definitely cursed.
After dodging what had to be the thousandth attempt on his life this morning, Gangrel dispatched the dead warrior with a twitch of his wrist letting the Levin Sword's magical lightning to the rest.
"That's twelve," he said casually to the dark-haired woman beside him. Nisha rolled her eyes in an overdramatic-yet-playful sort of way.
"I can count," she informed him. "And I count that you're behind by nine now. I'm still winning."
"How is it that in the time it takes for me to kill twelve, you manage to kill twenty-one?" Gangrel asked, glancing at her, eyebrows raised. "Something tells me you're not playing fair, tactician."
Not that he'd really been expecting her to: the only reason he was fighting with any real effort behind it was because she had made a game of it, somehow always impossibly ahead in kills. Nisha wasn't above cheating if it kept him motivated, but he was getting tired of the game.
"I'm just that amazing," she replied, placing both her hands on her hips and facing him with a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it attitude. The smugness was so out of character for her—and so in character for him—that Gangrel almost released a bark of laughter. Almost.
In her attempts to lighten his mood, Nisha's guard had dropped, leaving her vulnerable. The strongest Risen had all been destroyed, and only the weakest undead still wandered the field. But all it took was one lucky shot and then—whether the Risen was tough or not—there would be no tactician for the Shepherds.
But Gangrel saw the distant sniper, and the path of the arrow. It took only a moment for his battle-born instincts to understand what was happening and to propel him into action. As the deadly projectile flew towards Nisha's unprotected back, the Mad King was suddenly moving, not a thought in his head as he shoved the dark-haired tactician out of harm's way except the desire to keep her from harm.
Nisha landed flat on the ground, her hood flying over her head. Gangrel hardly noticed: pain ripped through his side as the arrow pierced his flesh, striking home. The red-haired man gasped, his hand immediately covering the wound. When he felt the arrow shaft still buried in his side, he realized that what he'd hoped to be a glancing blow was in fact much, much worse. He clenched his teeth against the pain as he pulled the arrow free, resisting the urge to scream. Hot blood poured from the wound and he covered it with a hand, trying to stem the flow of precious liquid.
"What was that for?" Nisha asked, standing. Gangrel turned to face her, keeping his injured side away from her.
"Saving your life," he answered shortly. "Since you were obviously too busy to do it yourself."
The tactician flushed at his words, whether with shame or anger he could not tell. Her voice did not lose any of its sharpness when she answered, though her cheeks still held traces of pink.
"You could have given me a little warning. Said 'look out!' or something like that. And you didn't have to shove me so hard."
"Well, my deepest apologies," the Mad King drawled. "I didn't realize that you wanted an early death on this gods-forsaken battlefield. Maybe next time I'll just ignore you when you ask me to come along next time; it's clear you don't want me here."
"Don't say that," Nisha admonished him, folding her arms. "Of course I want you here. If I didn't then I wouldn't have—sniper!"
As she shouted the last word, she seized the front of the trickster's cloak and dragged him forward, out of the second arrow's path. Gangrel hissed in pain as his wound burned and more blood slipped between his fingers. After Nisha spared a second to dispatch the Risen, she continued her sentence, as if nothing had just happened.
"If I didn't want you here, I would have just left you behind, and I most certainly wouldn't have saved you just now."
"Good to know," the Mad King muttered, more to himself than to her. The amount of blood spreading from the arrow wound was taking most of his attention at the moment, and he didn't know how much more he could lose before he passed out. Even a vulnerary would have helped, but he had nothing. Why hadn't he thought of this before?! It should have been common sense, especially with that stupid curse. Oh, that accursed dark mage was going to rue the day she was born!
"Gangrel?" Nisha's voice cut through his angry thoughts of revenge, and he turned to face her automatically. "Are you—oh gods, you got hit, didn't you?"
The answer was so obvious that the Plegian laughed out loud, wincing as his side protested painfully. Nisha's tactician instinct kicked in a moment later, and she began rummaging in her cloak for something. She pulled free a long scarf and handed it to him, commanding him to tie it around the injury as she continued to rummage through her many deep pockets until she pulled out a concoction. She held the potion out to him and he finished knotting the cloth before he took it and swallowed.
"Why do you have this?" he asked, gritting his teeth at the pressure around the wound. Nisha checked the tightness of the wound's impromptu dressing before answering.
"After my little...encounter with the berserker a while back, I figured it would be best to play it safe. Anyway, it's good I have it now, right?"
"It would have been better if that Grimleal stalker of yours hadn't interfered in the first place!" Gangrel muttered angrily.
"You mean Tharja? What did she do?"
The Mad King silently cursed himself for saying anything; he'd thought Nisha wouldn't hear, but she had. Now he had to confess his suspicions, or she would pester him about it endlessly(as he had learned through unfortunate experience.
"The craven cursed me," he snarled through gritted teeth. "Ever since that village, the strongest Risen have marked me as their target, and not only that, but more Risen have been appearing than usual. A targeting curse is clearly the work of a Grimleal, and only one of them is stupid enough to try."
"But I made Tharja promise not to put permanent curses on anyone," Nisha said, mostly to herself, her face scrunched as she thought. Gangrel could almost hear the gears in her mind turning.
"The only thing Grimleal can be counted on is the breaking of their promises," the trickster remarked, tentatively touching his tightly bound side. When his fingers touched the crude bandage, he felt something that froze him on the spot: the cloth was already damp. Slowly, uncertainly, he removed his hand and stared at the fresh crimson blood that rested there. Despite the concoction starting to close the gash, it was bleeding through.
Nisha was saying something, but the words didn't reach him. All he could see was the red liquid there, on his palm. The sight filled him with dread as he slowly came to realize that he wasn't going to be able to stop the bleeding. There was nothing he could do.
With some difficulty, he tore his gaze away from the scarlet stain, managing to focus on Nisha's face. The tactician was watching him, fear and concern etched into her expression. He tried to speak up, to say something, to tell her what was wrong, but he couldn't find the strength. He didn't even realize the world was fading away until it was gone.
A shaft of light shone on Gangrel's closed eyes. It irritated him, but when the trickster tried to roll away from it, he was stopped by a sharp pain in his side.
All at once, what had happened came rushing back to him: Nisha, the arrow, the blood...
He didn't remember coming here though—he wasn't entirely sure where here was. Probably somewhere in the Shepherd's encampment, but he couldn't be sure.
Gangrel slowly sat up, cracking open his eyes to look around. Nothing but rows of empty cots and canvas walls. No sign of life; it was as if he'd been abandoned.
In that moment, he became aware of two things: first, that he was shirtless, and second, that tight bandages were wound tightly around his middle, restricting his movement some. A jolt of panic ran through him as he realized this, and his hand flew towards his throat. When his fingers touched the gold pendant resting on his bare chest, the Plegian took in a slow breath of relief that it hadn't been taken.
"If I were you, I wouldn't be sitting up just yet."
Gangrel whirled around at the voice, gritting his teeth as his side protested violently. Libra had calmly entered the tent, staff in hand, seemingly unaware of the effect he had just created.
"Well, you're not me," Gangrel sneered, rushing to maintain his image, "and you never could be; I'm far superior."
The fine-featured priest nodded, taking the blustered insult in stride as he approached the Mad King, and set about checking the bandages. As soon as he touched the well-wrapped wound, Gangrel inhaled sharply and shoved Libra away.
"I can take care of that myself!" he snapped. Libra did not protest, but he gave the trickster a look—a tired, why-must-you-be-stubborn kinda look. Gangrel didn't like it at all and scowled in return.
"I don't doubt that you can handle yourself—you rarely need healing at all—but now is one of those few times you actually require help," the blonde man sighed. "You may have removed the arrow and Nisha may have stopped yourself from bleeding out, but for you to tend to wound as serious as this, you would need more staff skill than you actually posses."
The argument may have only lasted for two minutes, but the only thing that was worse than having the argument with a self-righteous Ylissean dastard in the first place was losing it. As much as the trickster hated to admit it, Libra had a point—a point and more experience healing.
Libra didn't say a word as the red-haired man reluctantly perched himself on the cot's edge, silently submitting himself to the treatment, setting straight to work instead. Gangrel glared at the tent wall, arms folded tightly.
"That pendant you're wearing," the priest commented as he removed the constricting bandages, "it looks quite old. Is it a family heirloom?"
Gangrel automatically looked down at the tiny Levin sword, then remembered his seconds-old resolution to not show any interest in anything the Ylissean had to say, and looked back away at the tent wall.
"If it were, do you really think I would tell you?" the Mad King shot back. Libra smiled lightly and shook his head, a movement that the Mad King only caught in his periphery as he was too busy staring at the wall.
"Not really, no," the blonde replied calmly. "I was simply curious."
"Well don't be," Gangrel snapped. "It's just a cursed luck charm, and none of your blasted business."
"Very well. But answer me one thing," the feminine-featured man requested. When Gangrel remained silent, he took it as an affirmative and continued: "What would make you call a simple pendant a cursed luck charm?"
Gangrel realized too late that he'd inadvertently set him up for that one. Well, he wasn't going to dignify Libra with an answer, and gave no sign he had even heard the question. The white-clad man was silent, waiting for a response. The quiet stretched on, longer and longer, neither of the men giving up. The impasse reminded Gangrel of all the times he'd done this with Nisha, and he smirked at the memory.
I'm not going to win this, he thought, realizing that Libra was going to wait him out as long as he needed. Just like how Nisha had pulled so many answers from him before. Unfolding his arms, the Plegian fingered his pendant, his smirk becoming bitter. He laughed once, a mirthless bark, before answering with a question of his own:
"You wondered how in the devil I survived on the Border Wastes, like everyone else, didn't you?" He saw Libra's nod and pressed on. "The only one to blame for that is this blasted pendant. As long as I wear it, I just can't seem to die, no matter what happens to my body. But it's the cost of living that makes it cursed: whenever I survive, my life goes from whatever it was into a living Hell. That a satisfactory answer for you?"
Libra didn't answer, clearly pondering this new information. The priest remained silent, even after he'd finished unwrapping the bandages and picked up his staff to begin the healing. The healing magic made Gangrel drowsy, but it also made the wound in his side itch fiercely, as if a thousand ants were crawling over that spot. When Libra finished, he seated himself on the edge of an empty cot, his face impassive. Gangrel touched his newly repaired skin and cursed Tharja in his mind as a pervading of soreness still made his side ache on contact.
"Where are the rest of my clothes?!" the enraged Plegian demanded to know, standing abruptly, his ill temper returning in full force.
"Cherche washed the blood out and mended the damage while you were unconscious," Libra answered. "They are in the pile of laundry by the door."
Gangrel stalked over to the clothes pile, tossing aside everything in his path as he searched. Oh, Tharja was going to pay for daring to curse the Mad King! She and Aversa both! When he got his hands on her—
"Nisha mentioned something when she brought you in," Libra said, interrupting the Mad King's frenzied, enraged thoughts, causing the red-haired man to pause for a moment, forgetting why he was in such a rage. The blonde priest took advantage of the quiet and pressed on.
"She said that you suspect being cursed, and that Tharja is the caster. If you are preparing to take vengeance on her, then I would ask a favor: let me speak with her first, get her to take back or dispel the curse."
This "favor" Libra was asking was just ridiculous. Gangrel tried to imagine Tharja being talked into anything—beneficial or not—and couldn't. He gave up after a moment, laughing derisively.
"Come now, you can't really expect that to work!" he scoffed. "You can't reason with Grimleal—they're all fanatics!"
Apparently, Libra's opinion differed, because his expression was serious. The Ylissean priest stood and took a step closer to the trickster.
"You forget," Libra stated flatly, "that I am her husband; I have an influence in her decisions. I'm certain that if I speak with her—"
"Talk to her all you like," Gangrel drawled, pulling on his shirt, "but don't bet anything on changing her mind. I still mean to get her for cursing me, and on that day, there will be a reckoning. 'Till then, do what you'd like; she's still getting what's coming to her."
Libra's brow furrowed, an expression crossing his face that Gangrel didn't like at all. Finally, the blonde Ylissean spoke, revealing his thoughts:
"Sometimes I worry for you."
Once again, the Mad king was frozen in place, trying to understand what had just been said, but unable to believe it was possible. There had to be something he was missing here; it just didn't add up. After a long, silent moment, Gangrel abruptly stood, adjusting his cloak.
"If it's one of your stupid religious concerns for my immortal soul, then you can just shove it," he snapped, recovering from his moment of shock, anger returning. "No Ylissean has ever cared about a Plegian enough to feel the slightest concern or worry. To you, we're no better than heathens! None of you dastards could care less whether Plegia survives or not, so don't you dare act like it!"
"If it's so impossible for our peoples to care for one another, how do you explain your closeness to Nisha?"
Gangrel whirled on the priest.
"What are you talking about?" he growled, ready to attack. Libra, however, was oddly at ease, confident in his pronouncement. The Mad King searched for something to add to his question, something—anything—to make the other man doubt his words, but he never had the opportunity to say it.
"I'm not blind," Libra said calmly, "and I'm certain you know exactly what I'm talking about."
He did; Gangrel knew all too well what Libra was saying. But knowing something was very different from hearing it said aloud—and by a man whom he still considered something of an enemy.
All at once, he couldn't stand being trapped in the tent any longer: throwing the entrance open, the red-haired man stalked out into the camp, moving past tents and Shepherds with little regard for either. The rows of canvas structures ended at the treeline, but Gangrel didn't stop walking until all signs of people were gone and he was perfectly alone.
It was mid-day, he noticed as he leaned back against a tree, his gaze trained on the sky. Lunch was being prepared or served at this very moment. It didn't matter to him though; he had no appetite for neither food nor idle chatter.
Gangrel couldn't remember the last time his thoughts and emotions had been so jumbled, so volatile. He hadn't felt anything except rage and hatred this intently in years. The trickster could barely sort through the memories of the past few days without being consumed by one emotion or another. When had his life become so complicated? Somewhere after he met Nisha, of that he was fairly certain.
There lay the heart of the problem: Nisha. Kind, persistent, stubborn, and somehow—illogically but utterly—familiar. The only person Gangrel could trust with his thoughts, always ready to stand next to stand next to him. How had she done it?
Nisha what have you done to me? he thought, uncertain of the answer, and afraid to look deep enough to find out.
The sky was orange with evening light, softening into gold. Gangrel stretched, emerging from his thoughts, feeling hunger and thirst for the first time. Standing, he began to make his way towards the stream just outside the camp, deciding water was more important than food at the moment. The trees began to thin and the riverbank came into view a few minutes later. And at the water's edge...
Gangrel paused, uncertain whether to approach or not. The figure kneeling by the river, draped in the familiar dark cloak, seemed oblivious to his presence for the moment. Finally, he left the shade of the trees, joining the other person on the soft bank.
"Fancy meeting you here, tactician," he said softly, watching her out of the corner of his eye. She started a little at his words, but when she realized who it was, her face broke into a smile.
"Indeed," she replied. "I'm glad to see you awake and about. Did you get all fixed up?"
"Would I be outside if I weren't?"
"Do you really want an answer to that?"
Gangrel rolled his eyes, turning to face Nisha full on. She was still smiling, but now that he was looking close enough, he could see that despite her cheerful expression, she looked tired, worn.
"You look stressed," he said without thinking. Nisha sighed, her smile fading, and rubbed her temples.
"I feel it," she replied, looking down at the flowing water. "So much, happening all at once. I don't think anyone's really escaped."
"Tell me about it," Gangrel muttered, rubbing his sore neck. Nisha looked up, giving an apologetic grin before noticing the small self-massage.
"Something wrong with your neck?" she asked. The trickster shrugged, lowering his hand and helping himself to a quick drink from the stream. Much to his surprise, the tactician stood and moved closer to him.
"What are you doing?!" he demanded to know, startled when she rested both her hands on the back of his neck.
"Trying to help. Relax."
The Mad King was ready to protest, but when she began to massage his neck every complaint left his mind in an instant. His muscles released their tension and he enjoyed the feel of her hands at work. Gangrel closed his eyes, submitting himself entirely to her ministrations.
"There you go." Nisha's voice was gentle as it sounded in his ear. "Now stay perfectly still for a moment..."
A sense of alarm ran through him at those words. His eyes flew open, and he tried to stop her for a moment, unprepared for what she was going to do, but he was too late.
For a moment, Gangrel was certain she had killed him. But to his surprise, he was still breathing, his heart was still beating.
"There you go," Nisha said, still perfectly calm. "That should feel better."
The trickster turned his head to stare at Nisha, and realized that what she had done to him hadn't hurt at all. In fact, the pain and tension in his neck were all but gone. He quickly changed what he'd been about to say, the brief panic evaporating when he realized that he was unharmed.
"What in the world made you want to try that?" he inquired, feeling the back of his neck tentatively.
"Yen'fay actually gave me the idea," Nisha said, laughing a little. "I fell asleep on my desk, and my neck was hurting the next morning. Yen'fay took one look at me, and did that little trick right there. Scared me half to death too."
"I wonder why," Gangrel drawled, drawing a laugh from the dark-haired tactician. The Mad King couldn't resist grinning this time, so he allowed it to spread across his features as Nisha laughed. When she finished, she looked back at Gangrel, a genuine smile showing this time.
"I needed to laugh," she whispered, leaning closer so he could hear. "Thank you for helping me."
Gangrel nodded, unable to find words as he stared at her. They were so close, her face was the only thing in clear focus. Her eyes were magnificent: normally, they appeared almost black, but at this distance, Gangrel could see the deep brown of her irises clearly. He'd never noticed before what a beautiful color her eyes were.
Without really knowing what he was doing, he leaned in closer and paused. Nisha's smile faded and she watched him with those dark eyes, her gaze searching. Then, the young tactician leaned away, brushing her cloak off and standing.
"Excuse me, but I forgot I have a meeting with Chrom before supper," she said briskly. Was that a tremor in her voice? It couldn't be."I'll see you in the mess tent, okay?"
Gangrel made a noncommittal sound and Nisha walked away, her pace quick. She was gone in moments, but the red-haired man continued to stare after her, wondering why he felt an empty space forming in his chest.