Considering I trawled through so many pages of SAO art this morning, I thought it a shame not to share the ones that I liked best…
I seriously adore this series (Aincrad arc, at least) and all the characters in it. Wow.
Neko neko. Kawaii desu.
Speedpaint of Jayce as a catboy. Although I have fifty things to do tonight, I feel my time has not been wasted.
And for some reason I’m listening to the Corpse Party OST. Rock on.
Chapter 5: Pale Flower of Darkness Chapter 7: Cog of Destiny
Okay, so this chapter took longer than I thought it would… I don’t know, the beginnings of chapters are super easy to write! And then the second halves are always really hard. Anyway, it’s up, and we only have five left and an epilogue. Which is not bad. I wrote a little over 100,000 words, which is quite good, considering how busy with other things I’ve been. *checks to-do list* Hmm. Lots of things left to do. *restrains self from searching DA for more Cry fanart* This story will be done by Christmas. And then… I have many other ideas to set to words, so I’m sure I’ll keep going after that. Writing’s been a bit of an addiction this year, hasn’t it? : o
P.S. Harken has depression. I hope I didn’t botch the representation of that. Please forgive me if you feel that I did, and let me know how I can make it better.
Chapter 6: Battle Before Dawn
They were camped in a valley halfway between the Black Fang fortress and the prince’s manse. Sonia, Nino, and Jaffar appeared to be going on foot, instead of teleporting, which greatly relieved Ceniro – they would have time to catch up. But time itself was running short: they had only two days to return the Fire Emblem.
Currently, he was sitting quietly beside Eliwood and Harken, as Eliwood tried to ascertain what had happened to the knight. Harken was not forthcoming about his experiences beyond what he had already said, and it was quite obvious that he was in a heavy depression. Isadora was nowhere near any of them, but Legault had attached himself to her and was ensuring that she wouldn’t do anything foolish, for which Ceniro was grateful.
“Harken…” Eliwood said finally. “I know that you’re hurting, and I want to help…”
“You can’t help everyone, Lord Eliwood.”
“I can try! That’s why I am here. Harken, my father’s death killed me inside too, but I have to grieve for him later. We have to stop Nergal first.”
“I know. But it wasn’t your personal failure…”
“It wasn’t yours either. We’ve seen his power. …When Nergal is dead, will you feel better?”
“I don’t know.”
Eliwood nodded for a moment. “…And Isadora…”
Harken bowed his head almost to his knees.
“You should still try to talk to her, even if she’s avoiding you.”
“But… why? I abandoned her. Surely she has the right to banish me from her presence now that I am in her vicinity.”
“Because she still cares for you, very deeply. She’s hurting and confused and angry, sure, but staying away will only hurt her more. If you still care about her at all…”
“…I do care. But what does that mean, anymore?” Harken snorted.
Ceniro touched Eliwood’s shoulder. “Um… can I try?”
Eliwood nodded, patted Harken’s shoulder, got up, patted Ceniro’s shoulder, and left silently.
Ceniro scooted a little bit closer on the fallen log the three of them had been sitting on. “…Hi.”
They sat in silence together for a while. Harken watched the fire. Ceniro watched Harken. The knight’s face was stern, and Ceniro suspected that it was often stern, even before the world turned upside down, but there were also laugh-lines in the corners of his eyes, so he could smile, too.
“I had depression once,” Ceniro said. Harken glanced at him briefly. “It wasn’t anything like this… I was just a teenager trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, under external and internal pressures.”
“So you think you know how I feel, in spite of our differing circumstances?”
Ceniro’s lips twitched. “Our circumstances are wildly different… but yes. Eliwood might not, yet. Hector and Lyn, I don’t know.”
“You don’t use honorifics. Why not?”
“Um… I’m forgetful. And they don’t seem to mind. …Anyway, what worked for me might not work for you… I moved away from home, went to the Academy in Ostia. I was too busy for depression to keep its hold on me. My first few months, I didn’t do so well. But eventually… So, we’ll keep you busy here. There’s a lot of fighting.”
“You think I’ll just… get over it?”
“No. Not at all. But we can keep you functioning. You probably don’t want to talk to anyone, but there are people to talk to if ever you want to. And we’ll all keep telling you, until you believe if – it wasn’t your fault.”
“You say that, but it’s not true.”
“It is true,” Ceniro told him, with as much conviction as he’d ever had about anything. “You may be the flower of Pherae, but so few of you, and completely unprepared… Now we know what we’re facing. And we might still fail. But we have to try.”
“I’m with you for the trying,” Harken said. “And Isadora…”
“She’s with us, too.”
“Do I really have to talk to her? It…”
“Yes,” Ceniro said gently. “If for no other reason than that I may need you to fight side-by-side and I can’t have you overly distracted by wild emotions for each other.”
“We are knights of Pherae, we don’t get distracted.”
“All right. I guess you’re right. But still, talk to her. Even if your feelings for her seem useless and insignificant, they’re important. It will help both of you.”
“You know, then.”
“My sister is a very long-suffering woman,” Ceniro said with a slight smile. “Between my depression and my younger brother’s arrogance… I’m amazed she still loves us at all.”
“I see.” Harken stared at the fire a while more. “I will do as you bid. It is not on her to rescue me from this pit. I must do that myself. But perhaps she – and you – can help.” He paused, just as Ceniro was about to nod encouragingly. “But I don’t believe that.”
Ceniro shrugged. At least Harken was trying.
Harken looked up. “What’s that?”
Ceniro listened. “That would be… Dart and Farina. Throwing things at each other. I guess I’d better go sort them out…”
“Is that what you do? Sort people out?”
Ceniro chuckled. “I’m not a licensed therapist, by any means. No. I’m a tactician. That’s all. I tell people where to fight and how to not die in battle. Hopefully. But getting to know people… it’s not bad as a psychology course.” A particularly large crash resounded around the camp and he sighed. “I’ll be back later. If you want.” Harken made no reply, so he turned and scampered off to the two fighting soldiers.
“Are you stupid?” Farina yelled at Dart.
“No, you’re just a greedy little-”
“Come on, you guys!” Ceniro said, and gasped for air as Farina elbowed him in the gut.
Instantly she turned to him, contrite. “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry, sir! I didn’t know it was you. Um… well this is embarrassing!”
“Help the man to a seat now!” Dart barked, suiting action to words. “I guess we disturbed you, huh?”
“You disturbed everyone!” Hector snapped at them from a growing ring of spectators, holding an empty kettle that had a large dent in it now. “What the hell is wrong with you two?”
“Uhhhh…” Dart drawled.
“It’s his fault!” Farina pointed at Dart. “He’s an idiot! He has a treasure chart and he’s not going to take the treasure!”
Ceniro began to laugh, while Hector’s gaze darkened. “And you’re trying to kill each other over a treasure map?”
“Ummmm…” Dart said.
“This is important!” Farina said, but she was beginning to turn red.
“Yeah.” Hector did not sound convinced in the slightest.
“And I’m sorry for hitting the tactician! I was just worked up, and…”
“It’s all right,” Ceniro said, his breath finally back. “But please don’t fight in camp. It’s… not professional.”
That had the desired effect. Farina snapped to attention, while Dart rubbed his head, looking sheepish. “It won’t happen again!” Farina said, though not without a heated glare at the pirate.
“Nay… nay… I won’t be fighting in camp,” Dart said, nodding, and shot a smouldering look of his own at the pegasus knight.
“Keep your flirting to yourselves,” Hector said disgustedly, striding away. “Oh, Ceniro, we could use your help. Lyn’s trying to explain to Karel how everything works, and he’s not getting it.”
“Ah… okay.” Ceniro got up and hurried after Hector, his heart rate speeding up abruptly.
“Truce?” Farina asked. “While we’re with this group?”
“Truce,” Dart said. “They’re not interested in treasure, anyway.”
“…really works,” Lyn was saying as Hector and Ceniro walked up. The two Sacaeans were hardly to be seen in the darkness on the edge of camp, but Karel’s eyes gleamed in the light of the campfires. “So it’s in your best interest to-”
“Greetings,” Karel said to Hector. To Ceniro he said nothing.
“Don’t be rude,” Hector said to Karel. Lyn snorted but said nothing.
“He is not worth my time,” Karel said.
“Um, you are dead wrong,” Lyn said. “He’s the one here most worth your time. Just listen to what he has to say, all right?” She turned to him. Karel did not, but Ceniro could tell he was listening.
Ceniro gulped. “U-um. So. I-it’s true that I have no physical combat skills to speak of. And you scare the daylights out of me, but you knew that. But…” He wracked his brains to think what the Sword Demon’s gimmick was. “I can match you up against the strongest opponents in our battles.”
“Very well. You have my attention.” Karel turned and loomed over him. Ceniro would have been frightened except that Hector and Lyn were beside him. Never mind, he was still frightened. Karel could still kill him before they could intervene.
“W-well. I make the battle plans, and in order to achieve our goals, I try to send people to fight the enemy in the most strategic order on the battlefield. And you’re… one of – you’re the best. I wouldn’t waste you by sending you against scrubs. But when I do send you against scrubs, it’s only so that I can send you against tougher people later. D-does that makes sense?”
Karel was motionless for a long minute, just watching the tactician sweat and blink under his scrutiny. “Yes.” And he turned away and Ceniro sagged against Hector’s side.
“Lyn, did you explain about the farseer yet?”
“Yup. He’s all ready for you next battle.”
“But if I think your plans are stupid, I’m going after the strongest enemy anyway,” Karel said. “I can cut through whole armies. I care not for ‘strategies’.”
“You will care when we face Nergal and his strongest henchmen,” Hector growled. “Unless you want to be dead by stupidity.”
“I’m not stupid,” Karel said placidly, swinging back around to face Hector with a dangerous look in his eyes.
“No, but Ceniro’s a genius, so just do as he says, all right? His plans are never stupid. It’s how we got this far without you fighting with us. And Ceniro, if I can request that he doesn’t turn our army into a one-trick pony…”
“No fears for that,” Lyn said pertly. “If he wanted to do that, he would have done it with Pent.”
“Pent? The famed Mage General of Etruria?”
“You are not going after our strongest members just to test your strength,” Lyn said sharply.
Karel bowed his head once. “But after Nergal is defeated… I make no promises.”
“Please don’t kill any of our allies,” Ceniro said. “And by ‘our’ I mean ‘yours’ too.”
“Do as you will,” Karel said. “But remember my sword is sharp and eager for blood.”
“I think that’s the best we’ll get,” Lyn said. “Come on. I want to check on Nils. Eliwood was taking Ninian for some alone time when last I saw…”
And then Wil ran into Ceniro, fleeing from Wallace.
Just another evening in the life of a tactician.
Another evening later, the morning before the ceremony, and they were approaching the prince’s manse. It was a great old mansion on a large private estate in the country, facing north. There were no guards posted on the high walls that surrounded, at least none that Ceniro could see. Which was fortunate, because they wouldn’t be distracted or be a distraction, and unfortunate, because Ceniro had no way of knowing if they were too late or not.
Perhaps the fact that there were no guards means they were too late.
And then Lyn grabbed his arm. “They’re putting out the lights! What does that mean?” Sure enough, one by one, the lights in the manse were going out.
“We might be in time,” Ceniro said. “Move in! Quick! They’ve only just started!”
They burst in through the front door. Ceniro could hear fighting from somewhere on the first floor, but the farseer was not co-operating in the darkness. “Torches, people!” There was movement in the second corridor, moving rapidly away from them. “You guys, go that way! You, with me!” He himself took a torch, though it was almost redundant as Pent lit a torch staff and let its light blaze across their group, illuminating everything around them bright as day.
He rounded a corner behind Eliwood and almost bumped into him as he stumbled to a stop. “Ceniro! Isn’t that-”
A young girl with grass-green hair was huddled in an alcove. She looked like she had been crying, and was blinking in the light of the torch staff.
“It’s all right,” Eliwood said. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“Please!” she burst out, and Eliwood and Ceniro stiffened. He had been right. “Save the prince! He’s in his room. There are assassins coming for him!”
“Nino?” Eliwood asked. “Your name’s Nino, isn’t it?”
Her eyes widened to enormous sizes. “H-how did you know?”
“I’ve got the battle,” Ceniro said. “You explain to her what we know. Matthew! Kent! Sain! Take the lead, and watch out for Jaffar!”
“No!” Nino cried. “Jaffar’s not a bad person! I mean… he did bad things, but he’s the one who saved me! Ursula and her troops are trying to kill all three of us, Jaffar and the prince and me! Please don’t hurt him!”
Eliwood almost laughed. “I think we’re more worried about him hurting us. All right. If we see him, you have to talk to him and get him to not attack us. So, here’s what we know about the Black Fang…”
Enemies appeared between their group and the prince’s door. Ceniro set Lucius and Canas on them from behind the protective screen of the knights, though he worried about the expensive things in the manse and whether they’d have to pay for them afterwards. Still, the prince’s life was more important by far than the house.
“That’s right,” Pent said beside him. “It’d be preferable to burn down the whole manse rather than lose the prince’s life.”
“Eh?” Ceniro blurted out.
Pent chuckled. “I saw where you were looking. So don’t hold back with Erk and me. We can control it, but it doesn’t really matter in the end as long as we achieve our goals.”
“You’re right,” Ceniro said. “In that case, I need this hall cleared.” He checked the farseer. “Hmm. It appears that Karel is taking on the entire other wing. And there’s… Ah, there’s Jaffar. Karel! Don’t engage the red-headed assassin. He’s… neutral.”
“He is strong,” Karel hissed, and Ceniro’s skin crawled. “I would test him.”
Ceniro sighed in frustration. “Leave it!”
Karel didn’t even answer.
“All right, Eliwood, go in there and make sure the prince is safe. Lucius – oh, Hector – you too, both of you.” Hector’s group appeared down a connecting passage, reporting that area cleared for Black Fang.
“Prince Zephiel!” Eliwood cried as he burst into the room. “Are you all right?”
The prince had just taken down an assassin; his silver blade was stained with blood and he had a wild-eyed, frightened look on his face, though he hid it well as Eliwood, Hector, and Lucius entered the room. “Who are you?”
“We’re from Ly- Uh, we’re here to rescue you,” Hector said, nearly tripping over his words.
“Let us protect you. Your guards are unconscious or dead. This foe is strong. Stay back,” Eliwood offered.
“He’s not injured,” Lucius reported softly.
“Then come back and move forward with Louise,” Ceniro ordered. “There’s a nest of them making a barricade in this side chamber.
“I will not,” Zephiel said heatedly to Eliwood and Hector. “I know neither your names nor your motives.”
“I apologize. You are correct. But we cannot tell you,” Eliwood said.
“…I see. In that case, I will place my life in your hands. If you had wanted me dead, I would already be thus. I will trust you.”
“Upon my honour as a knight,” Eliwood said, “you can.”
Ceniro poked his head into the room. “Prince Zephiel? I need these two, but I’ll be leaving you other guards. Lowen, Fiora, Raven! Stay here with the prince. C’mon, you two. We have to go save Jaffar. Karel’s entirely too close to him and he’s not standing down at all.” He couldn’t risk Eliwood and Hector calling each other by name, and their names and appearances were entirely too distinctive.
They emerged into a great hall, a ball-room from the look of it. What Black Fang were in the room were transfixed by the duel going on at its centre, and so were their allies.
Jaffar and Karel were engaged in combat, both lightening swift, their swords glittering in the light of the moon that came streaming through the high-set windows in the hall.
Ceniro caught sight of a tall, slender woman clad in purple on the other side of the hall. “Karel! You’re going to get Bolting if you don’t move now!”
“Do we even care that much about Jaffar?” Hector demanded. “He’s a heartless killer. Shouldn’t we just let Karel deal with him and not have him stab us in the back later?”
“No!” Nino cried again. “Let me go out there, I can stop him!”
“Wait!” Eliwood cried, as thunder cracked and a bolt of lightening split the roof, striking the ground between the two master swordsmen dancing around each other. Karel’s hair caught on fire, and he flipped away, putting it out.
Nino took the time to run out, flinging her arms around the red-headed assassin, and even Karel couldn’t approach. “Jaffar!”
“Nino? …I told you to flee.”
“No, these people are helping us! Come with me, Jaffar!”
“There’s no point in saving a life without worth. I have been dead since the day I was born. …You gave me a soul, Nino. Go, and live. You deserve to live.”
It was probably the longest single statement anyone had heard from Jaffar ever, and even Hector gaped at it.
“No!” Nino cried stubbornly. “If you’re not coming, then I’m staying!”
“Nino…” Jaffar ruffled her hair. “Stay with that man.” He pointed at Eliwood. “He’ll protect you.” He gave her a little shove and turned away, dashing towards the woman in purple.
“Jaffar!” Nino wailed, as Eliwood caught her to hold her back.
The woman in purple laughed. “Tell me, Jaffar… Are you afraid to die? Now that you’ve gained this ‘soul’ you brag about?”
“You know that I am not, Ursula,” Jaffar said, and launching himself at her throat.
A cloud of fire and lightening surrounded the two, and when it faded and they could see again, there were two prone bodies there.
“Jaffar!” Nino screamed again, twisting free of Eliwood’s grip, snatching Erk’s healing staff, and running forward.
The remaining Black Fang, seeing the death of their leader, attacked, desperately, piecemeal, rather than be taken alive. Ceniro dispatched them swiftly.
Nino had somehow succeeded in healing Jaffar, though she looked entirely too young to know how to use both attack spells and healing spells. She tried to pick him up, but he opened his eyes and rolled to his feet in one smooth motion.
“All right!” Ceniro called to everyone. “Mission accomplished, withdraw!”
They fled out into the dark night, the farseer leading them unerringly back to camp, where Merlinus and a small group of guards waited for them. Ceniro told the army to go to bed, and then joined Eliwood, Hector, and Lyn, who were holding council over Jaffar and Nino.
Concerning Nino, the decision was unanimous and didn’t even have to be spoken. They wanted to take her into the group. A young, friendless girl, with a boundless optimism and a heart large enough to encompass a merciless killer? A young girl with a smile like sunshine who could summon gigantic fireballs and heal devastating injuries? Everyone was on board with that. Even Pent, who had told Ceniro so before he went to bed.
Jaffar was another matter, and everyone knew it. “Why did you not kill me?”
“I’d like to rip you limb from limb,” Hector growled. “But she says no, so I won’t.” He gestured to Nino.
Lyn was more diplomatic. “You didn’t kill the prince, so we won’t kill you.”
“He went against Sonia’s orders to save my life!” Nino chirped, holding onto Jaffar’s arm. “And then he went against her other orders to… well, I guess to make me happy!” Jaffar said nothing.
“He let the prince live to make you happy?” Eliwood asked.
“So naive,” Jaffar muttered. “Do you know how many of your allies have fallen by my hand?”
“…Like who…?” Lyn asked, wondering if she really wanted an answer.
“…That woman with the pink hair… On the Dread Isle…”
“You monster!” Hector roared, jumping forward. Eliwood and Lyn both grappled with him, trying to keep him from fulfilling his enraged purpose.
“Hector!” Eliwood yelled. “Calm down!”
“Get out of my way! I’m going to kill him!”
“Stop it!” Nino shouted, getting between Hector and his target. She was so brave, thought Ceniro. What must her life have been like, that she would stand fearlessly before Hector at his worst?
Hector ripped free of Eliwood and Lyn, knocked Nino aside – Ceniro caught her before she could fall to the ground – and raised his fist to strike Jaffar.
Who stood there, silently, unmoving.
“Why don’t you draw your sword?” Hector growled between his teeth.
“I’ve not been ordered to,” Jaffar said, with a flick of his eyes to Nino and Ceniro.
“What do you mean?” Hector demanded, but Jaffar didn’t answer.
“Please,” Nino said in a small voice. “I don’t know what he’s done to you… but please… please forgive him…”
Hector spun away with a flap of his cloak. “He’s nothing more than a tool. To Nergal, to you, to us, whatever. It serves nothing to break tools. But after Nergal is dead…” He took a deep breath. “I don’t forgive him anything. Not Leila’s murder, not the murder of a single good person. But if you’re coming with us… he can come as well.”
“There, that’s good enough, right, Nino?” Lyn asked kindly.
“Thank you!” Nino cried, all smiles now, and hugged Jaffar. “You won’t regret it, truly. Thank you!”
They returned at first light the next day. Ceniro was nervous, but he wasn’t the only one – Hector and Lyn were fidgeting, murmuring to each other in low voices. Only Eliwood seemed able to preserve his usual calm.
This was his second time meeting royalty. And the royalty of Bern didn’t have the same reputation as the royalty of Etruria… but Queen Hellene was of Etruria, wasn’t she? So perhaps it would be all right.
The manse did not look significantly worse for wear in the morning light, not even inside. The cleaning staff and guards had been busy, clearing away bodies, mopping up blood, hiding surface damage to the building. Ceniro wondered what the ballroom looked like. But they were led to the second floor, to the queen’s chambers, where there was no damage.
They had agreed to use their right names, so when the Queen entered the parlour and they rose, Pent made introductions. “Greetings, your majesty. I have with me Lord Eliwood of Pherae, Lord Hector of Ostia, Lady Lyndis of Caelin, and their esteemed tactician, Ceniro of Santaruz.”
They all bowed, Ceniro managing to dredge up some memories of remedial etiquette class at the Ostia Academy – aided and refreshed by Eliwood and Pent shortly after breakfast that morning.
The Queen didn’t seem particularly interested. “Yes, yes, very nice. The Fire Emblem? You have recovered it?”
“Queen Hellen, has no one mentioned what happened last night…?” Eliwood questioned delicately even as he felt in his pocket for the precious stone.
She waved a delicate hand dismissively. “Something about assassins breaking in, wasn’t it? I didn’t hear anyone. I have no time for such trifles. Quickly, the Emblem.”
He silently handed it to her, wrapped in a silk scarf.
“Ah, yes, this is truly the Fire Emblem. Now the throne shall pass to my darling Zephiel, and never that annoying Guinevere.”
“Queen Hellene,” Eliwood tried to interject, and Ceniro had an anxious feeling about his tone.
“Oh, yes,” she answered, not paying much attention to his tone. “I nearly forgot. Your reward. You wish to know the way to the Shrine of Seals, yes?”
“Before that,” Eliwood said, taking a hesitant step forward, “I must ask you something. Forgive me, but… what is His Royal Highness Prince Zephiel to you?”
“I beg your pardon?” Hellene demanded, her accent growing more pronounced as her expression darkened.
“He is your own son, is he not?” Eliwood said slowly. “Or is he only a pawn to secure the throne, like the Fire Emblem itself?”
“How dare you?” Hellene hissed, drawing her shawl tightly around herself as she clutched the Fire Emblem. “You insolent, ignorant child! You forget your place!”
“I do not forget,” Eliwood answered coolly. “But anything that places your own son’s life at risk-”
“What are you talking about? Those assassins-? They were naught but… General Murdock?”
The prince’s bodyguard was standing in the doorway, his face grave. “Your majesty, I must speak with you at once.” He glanced at the little group of nobles, and did a tiny double take at Eliwood and Hector. Ceniro’s heart went cold, but Murdock continued without any change of inflection. “Your foreign guests can attend to you later.”
“And that’s our cue,” Hector muttered to Lyn as they bowed and exited the room.
Eliwood led them straight down the stairs and out into the garden, aiming for the gate where their knights waited as escort. Halfway there, he slowed and turned to Pent and Louise. “I am truly sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, at least not until she had told us the way. I think I have doomed all of Elibe…”
“I agreed with you, if it’s any consolation,” Pent said, and Louise nodded.
“Poor Hellene…” she said. “Before she was married, she was very kind and gentle. She longed to be a good mother. And a good wife, before she learned that King Desmond was not one to change his ways even for his own wife…”
“She has suffered much,” Pent said. “It’s so sad her only comfort is her obsession with the succession…”
“Both his parents are alive,” Lyn said to Ceniro. “But they’re both… kind of awful. That’s the sad part…”
“Well,” Hector said to Eliwood, “what’s done is done. We’ll find another way to get where we’re going-”
The guards at the gate, at an unseen command, closed their lances in their path.
“What is this?” Eliwood asked, and Ceniro’s heart rate began to increase. Their knights, just outside, looked to him anxiously.
“Wait!” came a cry behind them, and they turned to see the queen herself, hurrying towards them on foot. “Go no further. I would speak with you more.”
“Queen Hellene?” Eliwood asked, startled. “You could have sent for us…”
“Leave us,” she panted to the guards, and they saluted and withdrew beyond earshot. “Your name was Eliwood, yes? And Hector?”
“Yes…Your Majesty?” they said in tandem.
She presented them with a slim book and something wrapped in the silk scarf. “I must thank you again and again, for what you have done for my Zephiel. Within this book is the location of the Shrine of Seals, and General Murdock has promised that the Army of Bern will withdraw from its vicinity for three days. I can make no promises for the King’s own regiments, but I have done what I can. This seal was a wedding present from Count Reglay,” and she cast a fond smile in Pent and Louise’s direction. “I had thought to save it for Zephiel… but… I have a premonition that you will need it more on your journey.”
Hector looked at Pent. “What did you tell Her Majesty?”
Pent shrugged. “Not much, really. There was something about a power-hungry druid in there…”
“He must be very powerful indeed, if you are going to the Shrine,” Hellene said. “And so I thought… you might be able to use this.”
“We will indeed,” Eliwood said. “Thank you so much, Your Majesty. But why so much, for us?”
“It is hardly enough to cover my debt to you, not as a queen, but as a mother. For saving Zephiel from the assassins… From the Blue Crow of the Black Fang… I have no words enough.”
Eliwood, overcome, bowed again to her.
“I take it we were recognized,” Hector said softly to Ceniro.
Hellene smiled brightly at them. “My Zephiel is a bright lad, and General Murdock is no slouch either. They figured out it was you last night.”
“Your Majesty…” Eliwood said.
“You had better get going,” Hellene told them briskly. “Three days should just be enough time for you to get to the Shrine and out of the danger zone again, assuming you do not need to linger. Go on! Be off with you! And good fortune with you. I have no wish for His Majesty to declare war on evil druids.”
“Thank you!” Eliwood said again, and they bowed to her and left quickly. They mounted up on their borrowed horses and the knights – Marcus, Lowen, Isadora, Harken, Kent, Sain, and Oswin – fell in behind them.
“That went really well, actually,” Hector said. “I wonder what changed her mind?”
“General Murdock said something, obviously,” Lyn said pointedly. “What’s the seal for, Eliwood?”
“It’s… an item of great power. My father had one… It confers great strength on someone. Enhances the abilities they already have…”
“Oh,” Pent said, and rummaged inside his jacket until he brought out an identical medallion. “I have been forgetting. I have one too. From Lord Athos, to you.”
“To us?” Hector asked. “Why would the old man give us that… through you?”
“He wanted me to wait until an appropriate time. Perhaps that time was before now… but now you have two.”
“Ceniro, you hold onto these,” Eliwood said, handing him both seals and the map to the Shrine of Seals. “I trust you will know who to give them to.”
“I will think about it,” Ceniro said. “Oh! And Athos gave me this vial, as well. He said it enhances natural abilities as well… But I gather, in a different way?”
“Ah, yes,” Pent said, looking at it as carefully as he could without falling off his horse. “Afa’s Drops. They will help someone grow more quickly in their skills over time, while a Heaven’s Seal works immediately and only on someone already powerful.”
“Hmm.” Ceniro thought. “I wonder… The youngest in our army would benefit the most, then. And those would be… Nino, Rebecca, Erk, and Nils.”
“I vote for Nino,” Lyn said. “She might be able to use magic, but I overheard her telling Erk this morning that she doesn’t even know how to read. Imagine that! What kind of abusive mother is Sonia, not even teaching her child to read?”
“And why didn’t anyone else teach her to read?” Hector asked.
“She doesn’t know how to read?” Pent asked. “Then her skill with magic is truly astonishing, for… you must have noticed, us mages – and monks and shamans – go through spellbooks like food for a starving man.”
“Anyway, it’s your decision,” Eliwood told Ceniro. “Any of those people you mentioned would do well with a little boost, I’m sure.”
“And the Heaven’s Seals?” Ceniro asked.
“As long as you don’t use them both on Pent,” Hector joked. “He’s already fearsome enough. Or Louise! She’d be able to shoot the stars out of the sky if you did that.”
“That’s a Sacaean saying,” Lyn exclaimed. “How did you know that?”
“I dunno? I heard someone say it once. Kind of catchy, no?”
“No, don’t use the Seals on us,” Pent said. “I’m already the Mage General of Etruria, and Louise is the best shot in the land. We’re fine. I suggest using them on two of these three, here.” He pointed to Eliwood, Lyn, and Hector.
“Why us?” Eliwood asked.
“You are the leaders of the army,” Pent said. “It is by your strength of will, the charisma of your leadership, that most of these people follow on your suicidal quest.”
“To be sure,” Louise added, “most of them would volunteer to save the world if they found out about it through other means. But none of them have the qualities you three have. You were born to lead.”
“And I don’t think you’ve even begun to appreciate your own potential,” Pent said. “Don’t you think, Ceniro?”
“I think that you all are too lucky,” Ceniro said. “You’re all attractive young people born into the nobility, responsible and strong and liked enough to be the best examples of nobles in our generation, and you’re some of the best fighters in our army. It’s not for nothing that I field you in the front every battle, and it’s not just because I’m afraid Lyn or Hector will take my head off if I make them sit in the back with Merlinus. Pent’s right. I’m giving you all Heaven’s Seals, as soon as we find a third one.”
“You are all too kind,” Eliwood said, laughing.
“Yeah, shut up, tactician,” Hector said, ribbing him. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
They travelled all that day without incident, following the map in Ceniro’s book. Pent asked about it, but hadn’t yet looked. He said he was undecided as to whether he would inform General Douglas and King Mordred of the Shrine’s whereabouts or even that they had visited it. Ceniro left it up to him, remembering what Pent had said the year before – that it was only his job to worry about the battles, and not the politics. He trusted him.
They camped in another of the old, abandoned fortress that seemed to litter that part of Bern. After the rest had settled down for sleep, except for the night watch, Ceniro went for a walk along the crumbling battlements. Lyn joined him after a while.
“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked him.
“It’s not that… look at this land under the moonlight. The jagged white mountains, the dark forests…”
“Oh you,” she said, and laughed softly.
“What about you?”
“I saw you go.”
“Ah, yes, Sacaean sharpness of senses.”
“It’s not for nothing we say our best can shoot down the stars…”
“Do you shoot at all?”
“I know how. But it’s not my best skill. I prefer to engage the enemy directly; I have more control that way.”
“Did you want to talk to me about anything in particular?”
“No, why? Did you want to be alone?”
“Oh, never when you’re around,” he said, smiling. “You know that.”
“Do I, though?”
He locked eyes with her. She was just teasing. He hoped. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said readily.
“You’re too wild and free to be limited to just me,” he said to her.
“Well, I’m not giving my love to all the men in Elibe, either,” she retorted. “Or women.”
“That’s not what I-”
“I know, silly. Why don’t you think you’re good enough?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really have a good answer for you, except… is anyone good enough?”
“I dunno,” Lyn teased him. “Now, um… Hector might be a brute, but he’s a secretly kind and generous one…”
“…And he shares your sense of humour,” he pointed out without missing a beat.
She started. “Really?” She gazed into the distance thoughtfully. “I guess he does. I thought I was more refined than that.”
“You are, you just laugh at the same things,” Ceniro said. “And the things you said are true, he is a good man. And he is a lord, he could do much better for you than I could.”
“I don’t want better.” She slung her arms around his neck, pulling him to face her. “Oh no, don’t tell me I’ve scared you and seeded doubt in your mind?”
“Um…” She had, but he didn’t want to admit it. He had to stay strong.
Abruptly she yanked his head down to mash her lips into his, and he gave a muffled squeak even as his arms tightened around her. And then he made a noise low in his throat, almost a growl – who knew that such a noise could come out of him? – and he gently, gently pinned her against the wall – although she could break free easily if she wanted to. She made a delighted hum into his mouth as his hands caressed the curves of her sides.
She giggled when they broke apart. “That was nice.”
He had been thinking with half his brain, even as the other half was completely overwhelmed by the situation he was in. “You know… if you did want to go with him… I wouldn’t stop you. He would be a much better choice for you.”
“Ceniro, shut up. Stop saying that. Don’t make me-” and her eyes changed to determination and she pulled him back in for more kisses.
His brain was slowly melting, both halves. Dimly, he hoped they weren’t attacked at that moment, because he would not be able to function properly, and probably neither would Lyn…
“Ceniro! Ceniro?” came floating up from the farseer in its pouch at his belt. He growled again in annoyance – Lyn giggled – and pulled it out.
“Legault has something to tell us. Can you meet us at the eastern gate? And can you find Lyndis, too?”
“Lyn’s with me,” he said.
“Oooh,” Hector said, obviously listening in from next to Eliwood.
“Please don’t,” Ceniro said, still nettled and not entirely in his right mind. “We’ll be right there.”
“Trouble?” Lyn asked.
Ceniro huffed and nodded.
She laughed and reached up to pat his head, although he was only an inch or two taller than she was. “You’re cute when you’re disgruntled.”
He blinked at her, uncomprehending, and she brushed past him with a smile to jog down the stairs to the gate.
Legault was crouched in the shadows just outside the gate, staring out into the woods. Eliwood and Hector were standing behind him on either side, looking in the same direction.
“What happened?” Ceniro asked.
Legault looked up at him. “Little Nino’s run off, and Jaffar with her.”
“But… why?” Lyn asked.
“She… wants to talk to her mother.”
“She’s a good lass. She’s not abandoning you, certainly not for that woman. It’s a loose end she doesn’t want to leave lying around, though.”
“Fair enough,” Lyn said. “We’re not just going to let them go alone, though, right?”
“Certainly not,” Eliwood said. “We’re following them right away, if we can.” He looked at Ceniro.
“I can pick some people,” Ceniro said. “Sonia is probably a fearsome opponent. But our allies need rest, too. I won’t take everyone.”
“That’s fine,” Eliwood said. “We’re in your hands. Right, Hector?”
“Hector?” Lyn asked, when Hector made no answer.
“He killed Leila,” Hector said quietly. “Jaffar’s a murderer and I can’t forgive him. Even to have him in the group disturbs me. Do we need his strength so much we must save him, too?”
“No, that’s not it,” Eliwood said. “I wanted those two to live on. Their lives… They’ve been so hard. That’s why we need to follow them, not for their strength. My feelings were confirmed in Bern. The Black Fang is not all evil. They’re being manipulated by Nergal. Some of them must be fighting against their better judgment.”
“Is that what you think about Jaffar?” Hector demanded.
“I don’t know,” Eliwood said. “But he’s changed, certainly. He’s no longer… completely emotionless.”
“A soulless husk,” Legault muttered. “That’s what I said when I first saw him a few months back. But you’re right. He cares for little Nino.”
“I think you’re both right,” Lyn said. “Ceniro?”
“I-I… yes, you’re right. Hector, you don’t think he’s changed even a little?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hector snapped. “He’s my enemy. He always will be. But don’t think I won’t go along with you! He has to live… so he can suffer for what he’s done! There! Happy yet?”
“Hector…” Eliwood began.
Hector took a deep breath, let it out, and turned to Eliwood with a normal smile. “I’m done. I said my piece. No more ranting from me. Now hurry up, Ceniro, pick our soldiers!” He began to stride off into the woods. “Lyn, if Ceniro’s farseer doesn’t work so well in the dark, we’ll need your tracking skills. Come on!”
“W-wait!” Lyn cried. “Honestly, it’s hot and cold with you! So annoying…”
The farseer could track Nino, since she was an ally, and they travelled maybe an hour to the east to the foot of a mountain. An old but graceful structure was buried at its foot, built around a tall waterfall.
If the Black Fang had posted sentries, they were impossible to see in the shadows. “Legault, where would they have put sentries around here?”
“They’ll be hiding beneath those overhangs,” Legault said, pointing.
“Ah, okay. I see. Then Wil, Louise, Rath, try to take them out, silently. I see one there, one there, and one there.”
“There’s also two behind that pillar.”
“Eliwood, Lyn, get those two.”
They were not further challenged as they moved quickly towards the gate. Ceniro felt a moment of concern at robbing his best troops of a proper night’s sleep, but there was not much sense in worrying overly much about it – Sonia was dangerous, and he needed the best to counter her. And the stealthiest, so he had not brought Wallace or Serra – although Serra could probably be trusted to hold her tongue – and he had not brought Matthew, because he feared that the thief would have even more problems with ‘helping’ Jaffar than Hector did.
Instead, he had brought the original members of Lyn’s Legion, Kent, Sain, and Wil, and the three Pegasus Sisters, and Pent and Louise. He also brought Lucius, Raven and Priscilla, Rath, and Canas.
The door was slightly open. “Someone must have passed through here in a hurry,” Lyn said. “I hope that’s not a bad sign.”
“Maybe it was Nino?” Eliwood said.
“No, it’s not her,” Ceniro said. “She’s still inside. There’s Jaffar – he’s finally showing up – and a lady Sage. I assume that’s Sonia.”
“Let’s get in there!” Eliwood said, and Ceniro let him creep forward to slip inside the door.
There was an antechamber, and another door, into the Water Temple proper. The sound of voices could be heard clearly.
The first thing Ceniro heard clearly was Jaffar saying sternly “Stay back. I will take care of this woman.”
Sonia laughed, a harsh and brittle laugh. “’Stay back!’ How noble of you! Perhaps you have changed after all. No matter. I pass judgement on you as traitors to the Black Fang. I sentence you to death!”
“I won’t allow that!” Eliwood cried, slamming the inner doors open. Ceniro hurried the others inside – he didn’t put it past Sonia to have rigged the doors to shut, and leaving Eliwood in there alone would be disaster, despite the lord’s amazing martial skills. Jaffar was crouched defensively in front of Nino, who was cowering, signs of fresh tears on her cheeks. “Nino, Jaffar, are you okay?”
Sonia laughed again. “Such sweet and loyal friends you have made, Nino. But to a one, they shall all die!”
The door swung shut behind them, as Ceniro feared. Jaffar darted forward, but Sonia disappeared, teleporting a short way away. The Temple was filled with water, except for a series of narrow stone walkways winding their way through in a meandering, maze-like fashion to a dias at the far end. “You are the wicked ones who hurt my Lord Nergal. I will not let you die quickly!” Sonia said from her new vantage point, but she did not begin casting – yet. “I’ll create paths for you to come to me. But if you prefer to stay where you are and die there, suit yourself! The only certainty you can count on is that you will die.”
She teleported away to the distant dias, and from hidden passages around the room, Black Fang soldiers began to emerge, including a large number of wyvern riders. No, not Black Fang… Ceniro caught a glimpse of one, and the golden eyes were enough to confirm his suspicions – this group of Black Fang was not populated by the missing mercenaries of Elibe, but by pure morphs.
Legault tested the door. “Sealed with magic. Only way out is to kill her. Not like that’s any great loss.”
“Well then,” Pent said drily. “We’d best get to her before she starts casting Bolting on us, eh, Ceniro?”
Canas was at Nino’s side, talking to her in a kindly way. “It’s all right, miss. We’ve come to help you. Just follow Ceniro’s directions, and we’ll all go back to camp together, all right?”
“I’m s-so s-sorry!” Nino sobbed. “I just wanted – and she’s not even my real mother!”
“Well that explains a lot,” Hector said. “Ceniro! Your orders?”
“Narrow walkways will make it difficult to fight, except for Eliwood. Probably slippery too, so Kent, Sain, Rath, Priscilla, you may wish to dismount. If you feel you can handle it, stay mounted, though. Mobility will be important. Pent, Louise, Wil, Rath, Nino, Lucius, Canas, those wyverns are going to be dangerous in a few moments. Can you take them out while I co-ordinate everyone else?”
“Just leave it to us!” Wil sang out, nocking an arrow to his bow.
“Jaffar, Lyn, as the most agile, move on to the next platform. Eliwood-”
Jaffar was leaping lightly across the flagstones to the next wide area, but as Lyn moved forward to follow, there was a click and the stone beneath her feet began to sink into the water. “Whoa!”
Hector’s arm shot out and grabbed Lyn’s waist, letting her pull herself to dry ground. “Here you go!”
She stood beside him, eyes frazzled. “Th-thanks. For helping.”
He shrugged. “Mm. Did you get wet?”
She laughed a little. “That’s not a problem. I’m fine.”
“That’s good,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his head in an embarrassed way.
Lyn frowned at him, uncertain. “Hector… are you okay?”
“Lyn, do you think it’s possible to jump that gap?” Ceniro said. “I’d rather Jaffar didn’t take on that many axe-wielders alone.”
“Why not?” Hector mumbled, but Lyn looked appraisingly at the gap.
“Yes, I think I can make that. Don’t know if Hector can, though…”
“Hey! I can totally make it over there, even if I have to swim. Just go, crazy lady.”
“Everyone look out!” Nino shrilled, and Ceniro looked up in time to see a small thundercloud forming over his head.
Chapter 5: Pale Flower of Darkness Chapter 7: Cog of Destiny
Mark, son of Ceniro of Santaruz, son of Caro of Santaruz, son of Carson of Araphen. I was driving home from choir today, thinking about that AU in which Ceniro (*SPOILERS*) doesn’t die, and Ceniro himself came up to me, slightly embarrassed.
“So… uh… this is my son. His name is Mark, and he’s, well…”
“Daaaaad, you’re such a pain! I hate you! Why’d you drag me out here?”
Ah. A whiny little genius brat?
“I’m not going into boring old tactics like my dad! I’m going to be a great Sacaean archer! The talk of Elibe! Like Prince Innes of Magvel!”
“I don’t know where he gets these ideas… he’s only quarter Sacaean…”
“Shut up, dad!”
I looked at the new kid appraisingly. He was in his mid-teens, with leaf-green hair that could really use a cut, and brown eyes that were alert, if perpetually exasperated. It seems Ceniro has a handful.
“His mother and I love him, but… we really don’t know what to do with him.”
“And mom and dad are always traveling! It’s stupid, they should be, like, lords or something. They tell me they fought in this big important war that no one knows about, coz it was secret, but they have powerful friends – surely they shouldn’t have to do this running around!”
“Leave me alone, dad! You’re stupid!”
“Mark, I’m one of the most patient men in Elibe, and you would try even Eliwood’s temper. Can you leave off the insults?”
“Fiiiiine… Can I go back to my game now? This is boring.”
“…Lyn, can you come help me deal with our son?”
Powered by WordPress. All original characters, settings, and art are © Jennifer Mitchell. She claims no ownership of any characters, settings, stories, concepts, or art that belongs to other people, including but not restricted to Nintendo, the Tolkien estate, and Games Workshop.