Gangrel looked down at the Valmese village distastefully from the hilltop. Weeks in the wilderness made civilization a stranger, one that the Mad King was not looking forward to engaging with.
Most of the Shepherds were relieved to finally replenish their supplies and have some time to themselves. Not the Mad King; the only thing worth doing would be a visit to the tavern for a drink or two. Even then, he wouldn't stay long.
People were not his forté. Sure, Gangrel could be convincing and charismatic when he wanted to be, but interactions with other human beings were difficult for him. He'd always been very removed from society, first as a thief, then as a king, now as a Ylissean war dog. Social behavior just didn't come naturally, and he'd never had the need to try especially hard, so why break the habit of a lifetime?
Nisha. That's why.
"Are you still sulking?"
Speak of the devil and she will appear, Gangrel thought wryly, turning to see the tactician coming up the hill to join him. He folded his arms and replied testily, "I don't sulk."
"Sure you do," she said, standing next to him and raising her eyebrow. "You were doing it just two seconds ago."
"Is this really necessary? It's not like I'm going to enjoy myself."
"It's like Frederick said on my first night with the Shepherds: 'Hardship builds character'. We get stronger by doing hard things; this can only benefit you."
"Whatever," Gangrel grumbled, scowling again at the houses below. Nisha sighed, rubbing the back of her neck.
"You're acting childish," she chided. "Seriously, did you do this back in Plegia? Lock yourself in the castle and never leave?"
The trickster decided not to answer her; she was right, of course, but he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of knowing that. Instead, he looked at her, his face blank.
"I am not being childish."
"Yes you are," she replied, clearly fighting a smile. "You're worse than Henry when he's sulky."
"That is simply not possible, my dear tactician," the red-haired man said flatly. Nisha rolled her eyes and looked ready to protest, but he cut her off.
"And if I really were acting childish," he added, "then I would have every right to do this."
On the last word, he seized her hood and pulled it up, blinding her. As she staggered in surprise, Gangrel bit back his grin.
"Real mature," Nisha said dryly. She was holding back laughter, however, and the Mad King could hear it in her voice. He felt a surge of satisfaction, but of course, now he wanted to smile even more, and he couldn't allow that; he was supposed to be in a bad mood, after all. There was no way he was going to enjoy this. Nope, not one bit.
His amusement vanished when he felt something cold brush across the back of his neck. It was gone in an instant, but he had a sneaking suspicion of what it was; he had lived long enough to know what dark magic felt like. He turned and looked back at the camp, frowning when he saw Aversa standing by Tharja, talking quietly. Those two...forever out to get him.
"What are you looking at?" Nisha asked, having lowered her hood so she could see again. She followed his gaze and saw the two Plegian women. "I wonder what they're doing; they don't normally talk to one another."
"Whatever it is, it can't be anything good," the Mad King said seriously. "When Grimleal gather in groups, trouble always follows."
"There's only two of them," the dark-haired woman protested. Gangrel raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. Nisha rolled her eyes waved him on. "We'd better get going."
Gangrel followed her down the hill, arms crossed and scowling. The young tactician rolled her eyes again and nudged him, as if warning him to behave. He nudged her back, a little harder than strictly necessary. When she turned to face him, he raised his eyebrows, daring her to do something about it. Nisha smirked and shoved him playfully, dodging his returned swipe.
"Nisha darling!" What remained of Gangrel's good mood evaporated promptly when he heard Maribelle's voice. The blonde noblewoman waved Nisha over, inviting her to join the group of Ylissean women. Nisha sighed and went to leave, pausing for a moment as she turned back to the Mad King.
"Behave," she warned him, before she ran to join her friends. Gangrel scowled at the group as they began their wanderings though the village. Shrugging to himself, he set out to find the tavern-which would hopefully be empty of any Shepherds.
Blasted Ylisseans, he thought bitterly as he made his way down the street. Always stealing Nisha from me at the worst possible time. They're doing it on purpose, I swear.
Maybe he could've had a good time—well, more like an okay time—and maybe he would have been proven wrong about visiting the town, but without Nisha, the incentive to enjoy himself simply fell dead to the floor. It was odd really, but he didn't ever really do anything outside her presence—well, nothing helpful anyway; mocking the Shepherds was the one thing he did of his own accord, but other than that, he simply had no motivation to do anything. Others in the army might call him lazy or useless, but he didn't care for what they thought; Nisha's opinion was the only one that really mattered to him anyway.
As he ducked into the tavern, he scanned the room to see who was inside. It appeared to be mostly locals, with one exception. That exception happened to be seated at a table, eating like a starving man, and dressed in familiar green armor. Every foul oath Gangrel knew immediately entered his mind, directed at the one person he hated with more passion than the others.
With difficulty, the Mad King kept his eyes away from the table—away from Stahl—and approached the bar. He ordered his drink, sliding his gold across the smooth wooden surface. The barkeep left to fulfill the order and Gangrel casually glanced around the tavern, letting his gaze settle on the young man for the briefest of moments and indulging himself with a stab of hate. When his drink arrived, he took it and drank a long swallow. The strong flavor made him grimace a little, but the alcohol sent a tingling warmth through his body. He had just taken a second swig and was beginning to relax when Stahl approached the bar to buy another meal.
"This is the third plate you've ordered," the barkeep protested. The paladin shrugged and Gangrel snickered.
"Word of advice," the trickster said to the barkeep, "if he has the gold to pay for it, keep feeding him; he'll eat everything here and be ready for more."
The barkeep didn't seem entirely convinced, but shut up and took the money, walking back into the kitchen. Stahl glanced sideways at the Mad King, smiling lightly.
"Should I thank you or be insulted?" he asked. Gangrel laughed bitterly at the question.
"Take it however you want; I don't control what other people think of me."
"I suppose that's true," the younger man remarked. "Still, got me more food, so that's a plus."
"It's always about food with you," Gangrel muttered. "Don't you take anything else as seriously?"
"Of course I do." Stahl seemed offended by the question. "I take my training and battles very seriously."
"How humiliating then, to get upstaged by someone as obsolete as me in battle. Repeatedly, I might add."
Maybe it was the alcohol in his drink, but Gangrel couldn't resist going back to his old game of pushing others' buttons. Everyone had a limit to how much taunting they could endure, and even the most tolerant would break eventually. He was curious to see how far he would have to go before the ever-optimistic paladin would lose his temper.
The first jab was well-fielded: Stahl only chuckled to himself before responding.
"Not at all; you've had years more experience, which have helped you become one of the greatest fighters among the Shepherds. I'm just average, no matter how hard I push myself. It's nothing new for me to be second best at battle; I just try to do my best with what skills I have."
"How dull, to be average at absolutely everything," Gangrel said dryly. "Average in battle, average size, average appearance, average skills..."
"Yep, absolutely everything," the Ylissean admitted. "Except for, you know, the eating."
"...average stamina," the Mad King continued, as if Stahl had said nothing, "average intelligence, average attractiveness—"
"Hold up a minute," the brunette protested, turning to face Gangrel full on. "What do you mean, 'average attractiveness'?"
"Well, not that you could ever hope to compete with this," Gangrel smirked, gesturing to himself, "but when women enter your presence, they never stop to stare at you. In fact, the only woman who endures you more than necessary is Nisha, and I can steal her attention without trying."
He'd hit a weak spot and they both knew it: Stahl's jaw and clenched at the last sentence, and his posture had stiffened. The young paladin took his plate from the barkeep, turning away and leaving for his table. As he walked away, he said over his shoulder, "Nisha's the tactician; she spends more time with you because you are newer to the Shepherds and need her to help along the adjustment."
Gangrel smiled wickedly. Now there was something he could play with. He followed the younger Ylissean and leaned against the round table, refusing to let this opportunity escape him.
"I'd assume after the first month, most there would have adjusted to their new life and she'd have moved on," he drawled. "Perhaps she happens to like my company; I enjoy hers, after all."
"Nisha is a good and honorable tactician," Stahl said, his hands curling into loose fists on the table. "Nothing will come before her responsibility to help the soldiers in need."
"Not even you?" Gangrel asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Another soft spot: the paladin tensed, glaring at the food before him with such intensity, it should have been charred in seconds.
"Enough," Stahl growled, his voice trembling. He didn't seem able to look up, barely hanging to his self-control. "I'm done with this conversation. Go back to your drink."
Gangrel's face twisted into an evil smirk. He'd finally broken through: the boy was his to play with now. The trickster stood, as if he were going to leave, though he had no intention to do so. He then paused in the motion, adding one last thing.
"I wonder exactly how far our dear tactician would go if she thought it would help me. Oh the possibilities..."
Stahl froze, his eyes widening.
"What are you insinuating?" he asked, his voice soft but unusually cold. Gangrel released a single bark of laughter, enjoying every second of Stahl's discomfort and anger.
"I suppose it depends on how twisted your mind is," the Mad King growled.
Oh how he enjoyed watching that boy's face turn white with rage! So simple-minded, so predictable, and so fun to manipulate. He should do this more often; he'd forgotten how much he enjoyed toying with people.
His cruel satisfaction evaporated as something icy cold burned on the back of his neck. Hissing in pain, he instinctively reached for the spot, but felt nothing. A chill that had nothing to do with the sensation on his neck spread through his veins as he realized what it was: a curse. And if Aversa had been working with Tharja to cast it...
A sound suddenly cut through the loud chatter of the tavern, the sound of a teleportation spell landing. All eyes turned to the spot in the middle of the floor, and all the patrons saw the sorcerer standing in the midst. Only two men were able to recognize what the gleaming red eyes and sewn skin meant. Gangrel slowly pulled a knife from his belt, preparing for a fight. Then he saw the starburst pattern on the red tome's cover and dread flooded through him.
Before anyone could react—Stahl was halfway through standing and drawing his own blade—the Risen Sorcerer swung its head at an almost unnatural angle, glaring straight at the Mad King. The icy spot on his neck burned, it was so cold.
Then the Risen struck: it had simply raised its arm when the rune circles swirled around it. The Valflame spell exploded in the center of the tavern, a rush of pure heat and flame. Gangrel fell to the ground, the blast knocking him off his feet. Despite the blazing temperatures, his Levin Sword Pendant—his cursed luck charm—felt cold against his chest. The Plegian struggled to stand, but a second wave hit him and he collapsed. His head struck something hard and reality drained away, replaced by the sudden blackness of unconsciousness.
The Shepherds all heard the explosion: the whole town heard the explosion. As locals screamed and panicked, Nisha pushed ahead of the crowd, trying to see. The throng prevented her from getting any closer, so the tactician turned to Tharja, who, thankfully for once, was close by.
"Is it Risen?" she asked, knowing the dark mage would be able to sense it if it were. Tharja's dark eyes narrowed as she stared at the flaming building.
"It was," the dark woman answered, "but it was consumed by the fire spell's energy. There aren't any other undead nearby, so the town should be safe."
"Still, we have to help put out that fire!" the tactician cried, trying to force her way past the people in front of her. A hand touched her shoulder, and she stopped, turning to see who it was. She found herself looking at Cordelia, who shook her head.
"The villagers are already handling it," the redhead pointed out, gesturing towards the forming bucket chain. "Chrom will want us back in camp; that's out rendezvous for emergencies. If we don't go, we could be counted as missing, or worse, assumed dead in the fire. Once Chrom has everyone accounted for, we can come back with more supplies and see if they need help here."
Nisha glanced at the burning tavern again, still uncertain. She wanted so badly to help, but the Exalt had ordered the rendezvous for situations like this. It was almost physically painful for the dark-haired, pulling away like that, but her sense of duty conquered her generous nature. This time.
Once everyone is accounted for, I'll come back, she promised herself. As she ran out of the village, she had no idea that she was leaving behind two of her soldiers, the only two whom had visited the tavern so far that day.
The scent of smoke was the first thing Gangrel noticed. He coughed, rising to one knee, squinting blearily in the brilliant orange light front he flames. It took a second to remember what had happened, but when he did, he shot to his feet, galvanized into action by the gravity of his situation.
The tavern was completely in flames: absolutely everything wooden was on fire, ceiling beams giving in and sending showers of sparks flying in the baked air as they landed. The smoke was thick in the air and made Gangrel's eyes sting. He coughed, eyes watering as he searched for an exit—any way to escape. His heart leapt when he saw a small square of sunlight where a part of the wall had fallen away, just big enough for him to fit through.
He ran towards the light, desperate to reach it, to get away from the deadly fire and smoke. He dodged around fallen tables and chairs, weaving through the flaming wooden objects. Then part of a ceiling beam gave in, and Gangrel dove to avoid it. He landed hard, and rose unsteadily to his feet, realizing just how close to sudden death he had become. As he turned back towards the daylight, he heard a faint groan and looked all around for the source of it. What he saw made him pause for a moment, allowing him to appreciate the irony.
Stahl lay on the ground, trapped under a heavy wooden table. He was barely conscious, his strong green armor the only thing keeping him from being crushed altogether.
"Help," the young paladin croaked, his voice barely audible over the crackling fire. "Someone help me."
But no one was coming to help: Gangrel was the only other person still alive in the tavern—alive and awake enough to help—and there was no way in the seven hells he was going to save that dastard. The Mad King turned his back on the Ylissean, resuming his escape from the burning building.
The boy will have to wait, just like all the others, Gangrel thought as he passed the bar, seeing the bartender out cold on the floor. But me, I'm getting out of here!
He was almost there: he could see the blue sky beyond the hole in the wall. So close to freedom and safety...
Suddenly, the Plegian stopped dead in his tracks. When he got out of here, the only place he had left to go was the Shepherd's camp. And when he got to the camp, he would have to reveal where Stahl was. And when they all knew that their comrade had died in the fire, the Shepherd would...Nisha would...
In truth, Gangrel knew exactly what she would do: weep for her friend, horrified by his death, grieved beyond comfort. But he couldn't think about that because he was stuck on a single image: the look in Nisha's eye as she learned that he had walked past the brunette youth to save himself, leaving the Paladin behind. He could see that moment with perfect clarity, every detail exactly as it would be in reality.
And in that instant he realized that he would never be able to bear seeing her in such pain.
"Please!" Stahl had managed to raise his voice enough to shout. "Please, anybody!"
Gangrel gritted his teeth. He hated the thought almost as much as he hated the verdant paladin, but he couldn't muster the strength to leave that boy to the death that surely awaited him.
"Please!" the Ylissean begged. "Don't leave me here!"
"Blast me for a fool!" Gangrel snarled, running back into the flames. "I'm not leaving you, boy!"
The table Stahl had been trapped under was extremely heavy, but its round shape helped the Mad King move it away, even if it was still difficult. The verdant paladin struggled to get to his feet, but only collapsed, coughing. Gangrel spared a second to roll his eyes in exasperation before he seized the boy by the shoulders, dragging him upwards. The green armor burned his hands on contact, and the red-haired Plegian reflexively let go. Stahl did not manage to stay upright for very long, toppling over again in seconds.
"This is why I don't play the hero," Gangrel muttered angrily to himself. "It's so much more work than it's worth."
Stahl didn't move again after he fell the second time, his chest heaving. The younger man's face was drenched in sweat, flushed from the heat.
He's roasting in his own armor, the trickster realized. At this rate, the boy would die in minutes from the heat, if smoke inhalation didn't get him first. There was only one way to get them both out alive.
Taking off his cloak, the Mad King wrapped the fabric around his hands so he could take of the blazing armor without burning his hands. It worked—to an extent; it was still very hot and uncomfortable. But as he finished removing Stahl's breastplate, part of the ceiling fell in, not five feet from them.
"Right, time's up," he said aloud to nobody in particular. Hefting the young man over his shoulders, Gangrel ran as quickly as he could through the burning wreckage, trying to reach the small exit he had seen earlier. As embers swirled around him, and smoke burned his eyes, the Mad King did his best to keep moving, despite his heavy, half-armored load. The effort was excruciating: all his instincts were screaming at him to leave the Ylissean behind, to save himself. But the image of Nisha kept him from doing just that.
The hole in the wall, the light, it was so close. Almost there, almost there...
With a final burst of effort, Gangrel threw himself and the paladin at the small opening, crashing through the weakened wall and landing hard on his side. The Mad King raised himself to one knee, his breathing heavy. Stahl rolled onto the ground, forgotten for the moment.
The hard part was over. Now, how best to gloat about this?
Nisha was trying to get a headcount, which was proving very difficult as the Shepherds wouldn't stop moving about, trying to locate their friends and/or families. Kellam was accounted for already, so the tactician didn't need to worry about him, and focused on the others, struggling not to recount people. She frowned, and counted again, trying to be sure if she was actually missing people. Then her blood ran cold.
"We're missing two!" she cried. Everyone looked around, trying to figure out who it was.
"I don't see Kellam. Where's he at?"Sully asked, craning her neck to see over those taller than her.
"He's following Donny around, like I told him to," Nisha informed the redhead, double checking to be sure he was actually there. "Who else isn't here?"
"I can't find Stahl!"
Sumia's panicked shout rose above the crowd, followed by a dozen scattered confirmations from other Shepherds. Nisha looked for the familiar cowlick of brown hair and green armor and felt her heart skip a beat when she couldn't find them. Who else was missing, she wondered. She began counting again, grouping everyone based on hair color—it was the easiest characteristic to keep track of, after all. A jolt of panic ran through her as she realized they were one redhead short. And Anna was the only trickster in that small group.
"Where's Gangrel?" the dark-haired tactician asked. Oh gods, he had been going to the tavern today, hadn't he? And the tavern had been on fire when she left town...
"Oh, there's no need to worry, tactician; I'm right here."
The familiar voice rose above the sounds of worry and panic flying through the army, and everyone fell silent. Nisha turned back toward the hill that stood above both camp and the village, unable to stop the relief that flooded through her. Gangrel was safe. The comfort was quickly followed by concern, and then worry as she recognized the figure slung over his shoulder.
"Oh gods, Stahl!"
The Mad King sauntered down the hill at a leisurely pace as Lissa and Libra both raced out from the crowd, staff in hand. He placed the unconscious paladin on the grass, smirking at the shocked expressions that greeted him. Nisha looked over the red-haired Plegian, trying to see if he was injured in any way. His hands were a little burned, but she could determine nothing else under the layers of ash and soot that were smudged over his skin, clothes, and hair.
"Where's his armor?" Lissa asked, gesturing at Stahl. Nisha looked down as well and realized that most of the young man's armor was in fact missing. She looked up at Gangrel, who raised an eyebrow cockily.
"Oh princess, I'm absolutely flattered you think I can carry a fully grown man in full armor through a blazing fire," he drawled. Lissa blushed and allowed Libra to bring her attentions back to Stahl. When he said it like that, it did make one feel rather silly for asking. And her relief aside, Nisha wasn't about to let the red-haired trickster get away with such a rude remark.
"Be nice," she chided him, swatting his arm. Gangrel's smirk widened, and Nisha couldn't resist the grin the sneaked across her features. She struggled to regain her serious face, much to the Mad King's obvious amusement.
"As you wish, almighty tactician," he said, standing. The young woman rolled her eyes at that. Gangrel was certainly his own person, unlike anyone else, his motivations mysterious and unknown. Sometimes it was vexing, but right now Nisha was just glad he was okay. That they were both okay. It was going to be alright.