"So, tactician, what tricky little plans have you got brewing in that head of yours today?" Gangrel asked slyly as Nisha attempted to read a map and walk at the same time. She looked up for the briefest of moments, a small frown creasing her brow.
"...but, if we make that detour..." she murmured, her focus sliding back to the paper, "...it will detract from our return time, and then there's morale to think about..."
Gangrel snorted, a bit miffed that she was ignoring him. Since they had battled together on the outskirts of the mountain village and had landed on the Valmese continent, the Mad King had begun to believe that the dark-haired woman had been serious when she said she would treat him no differently from the other Shepherds. With that change in thinking, he had begun to open himself up to her a little more, ceasing his original hostility. He was far from kind or friendly, but he was at least tolerable to be around. The problem with their budding good relationship was that Nisha was often busy and would leave their bantering suddenly to go take care of her duties, which annoyed the red-haired trickster.
As if summoned by his irritation, the blue-haired princeling chose that exact moment to arrive and question her about the day's route.
"I'm just don't know, Chrom," Nisha sighed, blowing a stray strand of hair out of her face. "If we go along the highway, it'll be faster, but with a company of our size, that's just asking for trouble. But any other route we take would take too long!"
Gangrel slid up to the frustrated tactician and peered over her shoulder at the map, much to Chrom's clear chagrin. The former king studied the worn parchment for a long while before breaking the silence.
"There's this trail here," he commented, tracing the path lightly. "It cuts across the empty country faster than the other roads, leads right to a town. What more could you ask for?"
"It's too close to the Wellspring of Truth," Chrom stated flatly, glaring at him. "I don't want to be within a mile of that place."
Gangrel noticed the Ylissean placing his hand on Falchion's hilt and surreptitiously did the same to his own weapon. Nisha didn't see the exchange, and looked over the route, her face unreadable.
"He does have a point, Chrom," she finally said, ignoring the look of fury directed at her. "With some minor adjusting of the march speed and schedule, we could go right past the spring without needing to stop anywhere nearby. I still don't get what you problem is with the Wellspring of Truth, though."
"The waters of the spring supposedly reflects one's true self," Chrom replied tersely. "And some of the true selves of this army are not something that need to be seen."
It was not lost on anyone present that he glared directly at the Mad King as he said it. Gangrel smirked at the bluenette man and gestured to himself.
"Are you saying that you don't want to see my amazing personality in all its glory? Oh, I'm wounded, dear Prince. I may never recover from this."
"I liked you better when you were dead," Chrom snapped. Gangrel laughed loudly.
"So did I."
"Alright, I'm drawing the line there," Nisha announced, closing the map and interrupting whatever retort the Exalt had been preparing to make. "Insult one another again and I swear I will send you out to fight risen alone. You're both adults, so start acting like it! I'm going to draw up the route, and when we march I expect you to treat one another with respect, or at least ignore each other. Am I understood?"
"Of course," Gangrel answered without hesitation. Chrom folded his arms and looked away, maintaining the countenance of a sulky child. Nisha raised an eyebrow at him, and he finally mumbled a half-hearted, "Fine."
"Good," she said firmly. "I'll hold you both to it. I'll be in my tent if you need anything."
As the tactician left, Mad King smirked at the Ylissean ruler. He received a glare in return.
"...I may have seen Aversa."
Of all the things Nisha could've said, that was the one Gangrel was least expecting. Aversa? In Valm?
"...You MAY have?" Chrom repeated, unknowingly echoing Gangrel's thoughts.
"She seemed...odd somehow," Nisha said slowly, uncertain. "She said I should give chase to learn the truth."
"If Aversa told you that, it isn't worth anything," the former king commented loudly from his position near the back of the army. Chrom shot him a glare—my, so many today, Gangrel thought—before returning his attention to his tactician.
"If she's alive, she could be spreading more of her venom across the land. Perhaps it's best if we made certain."
Gangrel opened his mouth to remind the princeling that he had wanted to avoid the spring just a few hours ago, but caught Nisha's glance and cut off his words. As the shepherds advanced into the ruins, Gangrel sidled over to the tactician, who ignored him as she selected troops and passed out weapons. When she finished, she turned back around to face him.
"You wanna partner with me?" she asked and Gangrel raised his eyebrow and smirked.
"Again? If we keep this pattern up, your lovely Shepherd friends will think my motives may not be entirely innocent."
"And that is when I will tell them that I keep my friends close and my enemies closer," she replied smartly. Gangrel threw his head back and laughed.
"Oh, your sharp tongue never fails to disappoint," he chortled, making her smile as well. "It's a wonder that you even need a blade. Bwahahaha!"
Nisha rolled her eyes, still grinning. As she took her place at the head of the army, the trickster waited in the back, pretending to adjust his weaponry as he swiped an extra concoction from an unsuspecting Donnel. He was securing the healing potion to his belt when he heard a gasp.
When he looked up, Gangrel could do nothing but agree: on the other side of the ruins stood another army, each member identical to the Shepherds, clad in red armor and holding different weapons. And there, in the back, Gangrel could see his own face, twisted into a sickeningly gleeful smile. An eerily familiar smile.
"Nisha..." Chrom said, clearly alarmed, "what's the plan?"
The dark-haired tactician studied her living reflection for a long moment. Then she shrugged.
"Pick someone you know how to beat," she suggested. "And don't die."
"I'm all for it!" Gaius crowed, vanishing deeper into the ruins without further prompting. As the Shepherds dispersed themselves, Gangrel stood close behind Nisha as she moved deeper into the ruins, his Levin sword drawn and ready, his deep red eyes scanning their surroundings for any sign of attack. Suddenly, Frederick on his mount burst free of a tight corner, baring down on them with incredible speed. Gangrel had just enough time to register that the horse's armor was red rather than blue before he dragged Nisha out of harm's way.
"Heh, so close," he muttered, mostly to himself. Nisha freed herself from his grasp and pointed at the fake Great Knight, blue flames wreathing her cloak as she used her Ignis skill.
"You're finished!" she cried, her Bolganone spell cooking the fake Frederick in his armor. The Mad King snorted and pretended not to be impressed and received a punch on the arm as a reward. As Nisha ran farther into the ruins, Gangrel trailed behind, keeping his eyes open for a particular enemy. As he passed a small nook, he paused a moment, considering the place for a moment. Shaking himself, he took a single step forward.
He got no farther: even as he moved, cold metal bit into the skin of his throat. Had he hesitated one second longer, the blade would have sliced open his jugular. As it was, the injury was only skin-deep. Didn't stop it from hurting though.
As he swore viciously, Gangrel turned back to his new enemy and was not surprised to see his own face leering back at him.
"Oh come now," his reflection mocked, "is that really the best you can do? A few filthy words? I am wholly underwhelmed."
"Bring it on, you lucky dastard," Gangrel challenged. "I wonder how underwhelmed you'll be when I cut you to pieces."
Nothing more needed to be said: they flew at each other, their swords connecting an a shower of sparks. They wrestled for leverage for a moment, before the silver sword proved stronger and turned aside the Levin sword with less effort. Backpedaling, Gangrel dodged several wild swipes, growling as one landed on his unshielded upper arm. As he got in close again, Gangrel used the Levin sword's magic to send a shock up the silver blade. His reflection dropped the sword instantly, but as the Mad King moved to land the final blow, he felt a sudden burning sensation on his wrist. The surprise caused him to drop his blade and left him defenseless against the long knife his reflection wielded.
"Time to die," the other fake Gangrel snarled. "And you know that I won't make it quick."
The slice on the wrist was quickly followed by other quick and painful slashes, across Gangrel's face, his arms, his torso. The wounds started shallow, but the dagger dragged across the cuts multiple times, deepening them so they wept blood profusely. Then, his reflection took the knife in both hands and plunged it into his gut. The sudden addition to his pain was too much, and the red-haired man fell to his knees, clutching the bleeding wound. He didn't even need to look up to know that the faker was raising the knife for the killing blow.
And so it ends, Gangrel thought, closing his eyes and waiting for merciful death.
It never came: a shadow crossed over him and he heard the clang of metal on metal. He looked up and saw a familiar shape, wrapped in an overlarge cloak, a black ponytail barely visible.
"Back off," Nisha hissed, her sword drawn.
His reflection whirled around to pick up the silver sword, Gangrel gathered what strength he had and lunged forward, seizing the discarded Levin sword as he went. As the fake Gangrel turned back around, the real man took his blade with both hands and used the force of his run to drive the twisted metal into his enemy's chest, ignoring his body screaming in pain.
The fake gasped softly at the injury, slowly slumping as the life left its body. Gangrel released the blade's hilt, letting his opponent sink to the ground, collapsing a moment later himself. He felt strong arms catch him as he fell, and laid limply in their grasp as he was dragged away. Once he was propped against a nearby wall, he could see that it had been Nisha who had helped him. He smiled bitterly as his injuries throbbed in protest of the movement.
"I now see...why I'm alive," he muttered through bloody lips. "I'm...blasted hard to kill."
"Shhh," Nisha told him. "Don't talk right now. You're hurt badly."
This elicited a laugh from Gangrel, albeit a painful one.
"What was your first clue, genius?" he scoffed. "The blood?"
"Shut up," Nisha snapped, freeing the concoction he'd stolen earlier from his belt and uncorking it. "And drink this."
The Pegian scowled, but obeyed, coughing weakly at the bitter flavor. He handed the clay pot back to the tactician, who took it and put it somewhere in the depths of her cloak. The woman then knelt next to him and slung one of his arms around her shoulders, helping him stand.
"Let's go find Lissa," she suggested. "She can patch you up."
Gangrel released a noncommittal grunt and staggered after her. As they walked, his wounds continued to drip blood, though the rate had slowed. Nisha ignored the red liquid as it spread on both her skin and cloak, not so much as glancing at the man she assisted. Gangrel suddenly stopped, struck by a question.
"Why are you helping me?" he asked as Nisha tugged him back into a walk. "No one else would've thought twice about leaving me to die. And don't you even think of that stupid 'because you're a Shepherd now' answer. With you or against you, I still have yet to pay for my crimes against Ylisse."
Nisha closed her mouth, clearly having been ready to give that exact reply. She thought about it a moment and shrugged, which made Gangrel hiss in pain.
"I'm not really sure. I guess...finding that note was what really convinced me you needed a second chance. Every word was honest regret, and I'm not heartless enough to let a man so desperate just die."
"I don't want your pity," he spat. Nisha rolled her eyes and answered just as sharply.
"Want it or not, you're gettin' it. And my 'pity' just saved your life. Again."
Silence fell between them, twisted and bitter. Gangrel kept his eyes turned to the ground as they continued. Nisha sighed after a strained moment, slowing her brisk walk a fraction.
"Look," she said quietly, "I'll say this once: you've done terrible things. You probably don't deserve the chances I've given you. But, part of being human is making mistakes, and I can't judge you for making bigger mistakes than mine. Hate me if you want, but my only motive is to help you. And I tell you now: I won't just turn my back on you because no one else believes in you. I saw your regrets. I know how much living must torture you. But I won't let you give up on life just yet; you've got an oath to fulfill, and I'll see you through it. I don't expect you to trust me, but I swear all I say on the eyes of Grima."
Her voice was firm, decided. Gangrel knew the moment he heard those words that there was no convincing her. He snorted derisively as they came into a large open area by the Wellspring of Truth. The Shepherds were already congregated there, and Lissa rushed over, staff in hand, the instant she saw them.
As the Princess had him sit and began tending to his injures, Nisha strode away without looking back. As the Mad King watched her retreating figure, he felt an unfamiliar urge bubble up inside him and his mouth blurted the words before he could stop himself.
The tactician turned at his call, raising an eyebrow. Gangrel struggled to force the words out for a moment, but finally, he managed to say it.
"Thanks. For what you said. And did. I owe you now."
Nisha blinked, clearly caught of guard, but she recovered quickly, smiling brilliantly.
"The honor is all mine," she replied, bowing slightly at the waist. Gangrel allowed himself a small grin, but it vanished as he yelped in pain.
"Blast it, Ylissean!" he snarled, jerking his arm away from Lissa. "If you can't just heal me without hurting me, then get away!"
Out of the corner of his eye, he could've sworn that he saw Nisha's shoulders shaking from laughter.