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.
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?”
I’m not finishing this story before November 30th unless I really move on it, which is not likely to happen. XD But it will be finished soon after, don’t worry. I’m not going to let it languish! Just the last couple of days I’ve been busy with actual work and been too tired to write decent stuff. But here is another chapter.
Chapter 5: Pale Flower of Darkness
Hyperion nose-dived into the rocky soil, screaming and clawing the whole way down. Heath was flung off and lay unmoving. Priscilla was rapidly moving out of position, no longer screaming Heath’s name, urging her mare to a gallop.
“Pegasus knights, give Priscilla some cover!” Ceniro called. The rest of the battlefield was fortunately more or less taking care of itself, and right now he just cared about saving Heath and luring Vaida into a trap that would at least force her to withdraw, if not kill her.
Priscilla got to Heath’s side, dropped off her horse, and knelt beside him. Vaida was swinging around, when a trio of lightening-fast white flashes got in her way. Her wyvern snapped at them, but they were too quick and dodged away.
“Careful, Fiora,” Ceniro urged them. “Don’t go anywhere near the hill to your southwest, there are archers there. Louise, Rebecca, there appears to be a small abandoned tower to your north – get as high as you can and they’ll lead Vaida across your line of fire.”
“Yup!” Rebecca chirped, already sprinting for the tower.
“Wallace, Lowen, give the ladies some cover. Bartre! Geitz! Eliwood’s about to be attacked by another wyvern rider. Give him back-up! Farina, Vaida’s about to lose interest in your group and go after Dart. Get her back on track. Fiora, Florina, pull back a bit so she doesn’t feel boxed in. Raven, Rath, go protect Priscilla.”
Vaida was yelling her own orders to her troops as she dove at the hapless axeman, who was distracted by the mages he was facing. Farina landed behind him, facing Vaida. “Look here, you’re too slow! What do you feed that thing, iron weights?”
“What a pleasant greeting, buzzing featherduster!” Vaida cackled. “Perhaps I will start with you after all!”
Farina laughed abrasively. “I bet I can fill you full of holes before you even get close!”
“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” Dart turned, confused, and would have been fried by a fireball if Lucius hadn’t shoved him rather hard – for his size – at that moment.
Farina’s pegasus sprang into the air, showing superb handling, and Dart gaped after the two women as they zig-zagged their way across the battlefield. “Dart!” Ceniro cried, and the pirate started before turning back to his real opponents.
Farina banked around the tower, coming dangerously close to hitting it. Vaida had no such concerns and plowed through half of it, continuing out the other side with her wyvern barely scratched. Rebecca and Louise’s arrows were accurate, but it wasn’t doing nearly as much as Ceniro thought it would.
“Rebecca! Louise! Are you all right?”
“We’re fine, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with our arrows,” Louise said, next to the twang of her bow. Ceniro could see them, crouching exposed in the new hole Vaida had left in the tower.
“I do,” Pent said. “She has some sort of magic shielding. Some kind of dark magic…”
“Lucius! Serra! Need you front and centre!”
“Hello!” Pent greeted the two of them. “Here’s what we’ll do.”
“Is that possible?” Serra asked. “We have, like, five seconds to figure it out.”
“Follow my lead,” Pent said, and an instant later a thunderbolt crashed down from heaven, leaving blue and white sparkles in its wake, and sizzled through Vaida’s wyvern’s wing.
Vaida instantly jerked her wyvern around. “Umbriel! Grrr… if I had more time, you’d pay for that! And I’m losing too many men… Everyone, retreat! Back to HQ! Move it!” Unsteadily, the wyvern came about, labouring painfully through the air. One of Vaida’s allies healed it, but still she flew away, leading her troops north.
“Is Heath all right?” Ceniro asked into the farseer.
“He’s fine,” Priscilla said. “It’s poor Hyperion who’s in trouble now…”
“He’s alive, but his wing is torn, and the healing is going slowly,” Heath himself reported. “Thank you for not killing her.”
“Wasn’t for lack of trying,” Rebecca snarked. “She really is strong. I hope we don’t have to fight her again.”
“Well,” Eliwood said from behind Ceniro. “I guess that worked out.”
“It did, didn’t it?” Ceniro said. “Where did Ninian go, anyway?”
“Lord Eliwood!” Ninian called, and Ceniro turned to see her descending from the mountain beside them.
“Ninian!” Eliwood scrambled up to her and took her hand to help her down. “Wasn’t it dangerous up there?”
“I’m sorry for leaving momentarily, Lord Eliwood… I had… some things to sort out.”
“I understand, and it’s good you remained hidden during the battle. That woman was targeting you and Nils.”
Nils, too, approached them, riding behind Isadora. He slipped off and stood next to his sister. “What are we going to do, Lord Eliwood? Nergal’s power is slowly returning. That woman was shielded by his magic.”
“It won’t be long,” Ninian said, fretfully. “His full power… We won’t be able to withstand it.”
“He’ll shield all his forces that way?” Hector asked. “That seems like it would take a lot of power. If he’s goading King Desmond into a war with someone, then he just might get that power…”
“I don’t know,” Nils said. “I mean, obviously he’s trying to get someone to start a war. I don’t know if he’ll bother shielding all his people. He might try, though. Since we’re the only ones that know about him, we’re the only ones his people have to fight, so not many will really need shielding.”
“I see…” Eliwood said.
“Where are they getting all these people, though?” Ceniro asked in slight exasperation.
Eliwood looked at Hector. “Those mercenaries you told me were disappearing?”
“Obviously, but… how?” Hector considered. “How much would they have to pay to field several armies worth of mercenaries to fight us to the death every other day?”
“There are a lot of wicked men in the world,” Lyn said. “And greedy ones. And women, too. There’s only, what, thirty-five of us? And not all of us are fighters. They’re not fielding full armies.”
“That was an expression,” Hector said. “Still, they don’t seem to have limits on their manpower. And that bothers me.”
“It bothers all of us,” Ceniro said. His gaze drifted to where Serra and Farina were arguing about jewelry. “Well, all of us who bother to think about such things…”
“It would bother them, too, if we mentioned it,” Lyn said, smiling, “and then they wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it. And you don’t want to do that to either of those two, do you?”
Ceniro looked up at her, startled. “I wasn’t intending to imply some in our group are… slow.”
“I know, just teasing. But you know what?” Lyn said. “We’re all idiots. We should be following her. She might go fast on her wyvern, but she had footsoldiers with her. Ceniro, you can find them, right?”
“I can, but they might see the occasional flash. I think it might be more expedient to send some of our own after them. For instance, perhaps if you go with Rath, you can give me oral reports. The farseer can handle that. I’ll turn off its scanning function.”
“Right.” Lyn swung up behind Rath. “We’re off. We’ll be in touch. Don’t fall too far behind!”
“We’re right behind you,” Eliwood assured her, and the two Sacaeans rode off.
Two days later, Lyn and Rath had led them high into the mountains north of the Bern Castle. The Black Fang headquarters, the current ones at least, were situated in a massive but crumbling old fortress in a cold, windy region that was currently covered in snow, despite it still only being late summer or early fall.
As Eliwood, Hector, and Ceniro and a select number of their soldiers caught up to Lyn and Rath, Vaida was winging away in another direction, a black look on her face.
“Stay low,” Ceniro warned the army, both the ones up the mountain and the ones at its foot, yet again.
“Well, you were right on,” Eliwood murmured to Lyn.
She grinned at him. “You doubted us?” Rath’s lips curved upwards in a smile briefly, before returning to his normal impassive expression. “I must admit, partly they’ve let down their guard. You can see their tracks in the snow plain as day. The entrance is this way.”
“Right! Let’s see what we can find!” Hector, too, grinned and began to crouch-walk towards the gate, followed by Lyn.
Eliwood shook his head at Ceniro. “How is it those two always seem to be having so much fun?”
Ceniro shrugged as a smile tugged at his own lips. “Good friends make anything fun, I suppose? Let’s not fall behind.”
Hector looked around at the fortress as they began to slip inside. “What a complicated place.”
The guards were not many – not expecting attack, considering it was a secret place – and easy to subdue without much noise. When they were done, Eliwood held up a hand and listened. “I hear… voices. That woman… Sonia… she’s here.”
“Good,” Lyn said. “Then it’s likely that she has the Fire Emblem with her.”
“This way,” Eliwood said, although they could all hear the faint murmurs on the wind.
They crouched below a window, one of many in a colonnade between buildings. It was horribly exposed from the walls of the fortress, but there wasn’t much choice for hearing inside. A young girl squeaked for joy. “A mission! A mission for me, truly? Oh, Mother, thank you!”
“Yes indeed,” said Sonia, her voice kind and proud, but Ceniro didn’t trust it somehow. “And it’s a big job, for the King of Bern.”
The girl gasped. “The king? Why… such an important job for me?”
Someone shifted, someone in heavy armour. “Sonia, such a dangerous mission for this child… This is not a good idea.”
“You’re right,” said Sonia. “This is really a job for your sons. However, since they have gone missing…” Hector mouthed an ‘oh shit’ at Eliwood, who nodded, grim-faced. “…my daughter will see to it. And I will have no complaints from you about it. After all, she will not be alone. Jaffar!”
All four of them stiffened, and their guards, a little way away and out of sight of the enemy, glanced at them anxiously.
“Oh, Jaffar, should you be up?” the girl asked anxiously. “Don’t your wounds hurt?” Hector made an incredulous face. Whether it was that the assassin had been wounded, or that someone cared enough to inquire, Ceniro didn’t know.
“Must you be so rude?” Sonia said to her. “It really is quite irritating. Jaffar, you know the mission, yes?” There was the sound of the armoured man moving, and a door opening and closing.
“The king wants his son assassinated,” Jaffar said monotonously.
“The prince?” the girl questioned, still anxious. “But… why? He’s his son, isn’t he?”
“Nino! Be quiet!” Sonia snapped, and the girl stifled herself, apologizing. “Jaffar, this mission is yours, and you’re to take Nino.”
“You’re not serious?” Jaffar asked, surprise leaking into even his voice.
“I am. She is my daughter, and the time has come for her to prove herself.”
“…Don’t do this,” Jaffar said. “This is too much for her.”
“If you’re there, there should be no problems. I’ll brook no disagreement. We must have the king in our debt. Those are Lord Nergal’s explicit orders. Nino! You understand the consequences if you fail, don’t you?”
“Um… yes.” Nino still sounded subdued.
“Then we’ll be off to investigate the prince’s manse. I’ll give you further details once we are closer. Kenneth! You are in charge while we are away. You know how vital it is that nothing happens to it.”
“I will guard it with my life.”
There was the sound of teleportation, and Ceniro’s farseer showed the room to be empty.
“Unbelievable,” Hector muttered, after Ceniro showed him they were clear. “They mean to assassinate the prince, too? On the orders of the king? That was what he was asking about…”
“Having the Fire Emblem becomes useless if the prince is dead!” Lyn said. “We have to find it as quickly as possible and intercept them! Or just intercept them. What do you think?” she asked Ceniro.
“If we talk to the girl, Nino, she might be sympathetic,” Eliwood said first. “Jaffar may be incredibly dangerous, but we’ll just have to work around that.”
“We could split up,” Ceniro said. “Take the fast units back towards the manse and try to intercept when Sonia isn’t looking, leave the others here to clear the castle and find- ah!”
Someone had teleported to the snow in front of them. “Hello, trespassers. I bid you welcome. Imagine, the stronghold of a guild of assassins, infiltrated. Quite amusing, isn’t it?” It was the man Sonia had named Kenneth, to judge from his voice; he was a bishop of St. Elimine from his robes. “However, you shall not leave. I have power and authority while Sonia is away!”
“But you’re a bishop!” Eliwood said, distracted. “What are you doing in this place, with these people?”
“Are you referring to my relationship with the “gods”? Are you still held in thrall of such a concept? You’ve met Lord Nergal, haven’t you? Then there is something you must know. Gods are lies created by the weakness in all mankind. …If a god truly exists, then it is my lord Nergal. Only him.”
“Eliwood, don’t waste time with the crazy person,” Hector said, standing and drawing his axe. “Let’s get out of here!”
“You can’t!” came a cry from the gate, and they turned to see Ninian, Nils, and Legault and Isadora – on foot – approaching them quickly.
“I am so sorry, my lord!” Isadora called. “I could not stop them, so I came to protect them!”
“He’s evil!” Nils cried, pointing at Kenneth. “He’s raised a barrier around this place!”
“Nothing is more beautiful than the suffering of men,” said Kenneth, smiling in a way that made shivers run down Ceniro’s spine. “When I’m watching, I’m afloat in an ocean of pure bliss… I will watch you for a long, long time.” He teleported away again.
“He’s still here,” Ninian said. “But… close. Still in the fortress. You will have to kill him to raise the barrier.”
“Got it!” Eliwood said. “Ceniro! Your orders?”
“Nils, how are you feeling?” Ceniro asked.
Nils smiled. “I think I can actually assist you, if you need me!”
“Fantastic. All right. We must search this whole place…” Ceniro breathed a long sigh as he looked around at the buildings towering around them and down at his farseer. “Right. Legault, you’ve never been here before?”
“Nope, sorry. But I can open doors for you if you need them.”
“Okay. There’s one around the side of this building. Isadora, Hector, you’re with him. You’ll be facing a general with a lance and two mages. Eliwood, Lyn, Guy, head down that way; there’s some more mages heading in this direction. Dorcas, Rath, Raven, Priscilla, head down that other direction – there are wyvern riders waiting at the end of the corridor. Take them by surprise if you can, I don’t think they’re aware of us yet. Ninian, you go with Eliwood, Nils, you go with Rath.” He himself followed Hector.
“Ceniro!” Pent said in his ear. “What about us?”
“Can you get through the barrier? If not, stay put. General Marcus, you’re in charge while we’re in here. I’ll bring everyone out alive, just wait for us. If you’re looking for Isadora, Ninian, Nils, or Legault, they snuck in just now; they’re fine.”
“…No, we can’t get in,” Marcus said at length. “I don’t understand it, or like it, but we will wait.”
Hector booted in the door the instant Legault gave the all-clear, and they rushed into a bare, square stone room. The general was in motion, primed to attack; Hector parried and twirled his axe around to aim the lance in another direction. The mages were casting, cards from a card game still fluttering through the air around them. Isadora flung herself at one, cutting open the mercenary’s arm, and Legault high-kicked the other one in the chin. Ceniro belatedly realized that he was capable of physically helping his allies as well, so after a moment to check that no one was headed into a trap, probably, he grabbed his staff and clocked Legault’s mage in the head; the man fell like a brick.
“Why, thank you, kind master,” Legault teased. “Shall I make sure he doesn’t wake up and cause us trouble later?”
Ceniro hesitated. The proper thing to say was ‘yes’, and Legault would have no trouble carrying it out. However… it never sat well with him. “Um… no. I’ll deal with him. Hector, there’s a swordsman incoming from upstairs. Isadora, you take point. Hector, we’ll need your strength, but he will have the advantage so go carefully-”
The swordsman burst into the room, his sword raised to strike, and Isadora caught it on her blade. For a moment or two, the two battled, seemingly equally matched. Then suddenly Isadora’s eyes widened and all the strength seemed to go out of her hand. “Harken!?”
Ceniro, who had been trying to direct the rest of the groups while not being distracted by the knights duelling in front of him, looked up sharply.
The swordsman pulled up his helmet to look into Isadora’s face properly, and then pulled it off completely. “Isadora!? What are you doing here??”
“I could ask you the same thing! And fighting for them? Harken, what happened to you?”
“I… I failed in my duty… I am no longer worthy to be a knight of Pherae. Before that villain’s magic, we were annihilated… and I watched my liege be taken away, powerless…”
“And so you joined them? Why?” Tears were beginning to fall from Isadora’s eyes, but her expression was still murderous.
“I wanted revenge… but I could do nothing alone… so I joined them, to strike them where they’re vulnerable. I swear, Isadora…”
“What do you swear?” she spat, and punched him in the face. “That’s for making me think you were dead, and that’s for not sending word, and that’s for joining the enemy, and that’s for not coming to help Lord Eliwood, and that-”
“All right, Isadora,” Hector said, and grabbed her arms. “Ease off the man or you’ll find him just to kill him again.”
“That’s the point!” Isadora sobbed. “He’s my fiancé, and he let me think he was dead while he went off to play anti-hero! Harken, I don’t even know you anymore!”
“Isadora,” Ceniro said gently. “Go join Rath’s group. Legault, make sure she gets there. Raven, come to the tower.”
“On my way,” grunted the other swordsman. Legault took Isadora’s arm and pulled her quickly to the door.
Harken was sprawled at the bottom of the tower’s stairs, his eye swelling, bleeding from the lips and nose. Isadora had not pulled any punches. He blinked up at Hector. “What will you do with me?”
“What happened to Lord Elbert is not your fault,” Hector said, giving him a hand up. “Join us. I know Isadora’s mad at you, but we actually have a pretty big group, and we’re fighting against Nergal. Eliwood’s with us.”
Harken looked away. “But I am no longer a knight of Pherae.”
Hector rolled his eyes, then schooled his face to calmness when Harken looked up again. “I’m not of Pherae, so maybe it’s not my place to say anything. But do you think Lord Elbert would want you to throw away your life like this? Eliwood was waiting for you, any of you, to return. We’re in a war now, a private, secret war against Nergal. If you were ever a true knight of Pherae, you need to be with him.”
Harken set his jaw in determination. “Then my life is his. May it serve him better than it served his father. …Thank you, Lord Hector of Ostia.”
“You’re not just going to commit suicide under Ceniro’s command, either,” Hector said. “This is our tactician. You will follow his orders, and try not to get yourself killed.”
“Understood.” He bowed to Ceniro. “I am at your service, sir.”
“Okay,” Ceniro said. “We need to move on to the next building. There are wyverns in it, so Hector, you’ll need to take point again. Raven, H-harken, you’ll flank him. Do you have a vulnerary? You might want a vulnerary. And, um, don’t call me sir.”
“There’s a lot of guys here,” Dorcas interrupted as they began to move out. “I’m not sure we’re enough for them.”
“You’ll be fine. Head behind the pillar to your left. Rath, charge down the hall, make a loop, and come back. Trust me. Priscilla, Isadora is severely emotionally compromised right now so try to keep an eye on her.”
Harken cast a curious eye at him, but said nothing. Ceniro thought of explaining why he was talking to people who weren’t present, but the knight was intimidating him. He would get Eliwood to do it later.
They were running through the snow to the other building when white lights appeared around them.
“Crap!” Ceniro yelled. “Purge! Get out of here!”
“That’s no joke,” Raven growled. “He’s tougher than he looked!”
“Agreed,” Ceniro said. “And he can see us, or he has a spotter. Get under cover! Those alcoves, go!”
Light magic was slamming into the snow, sending it flying everywhere, as the four men sprinted for cover in the shelter of the side of the fortress wall.
Ceniro peeked out to accurately judge the distance to the doors they were trying to reach. They were shut. “Legault, how close are you to the big double doors across from the main gate?”
“Ehhh… I could be there in two minutes. Dora here’s doing okay, but she’s still occasionally screaming with rage and then the baddies here start trying to target her.”
“Understood. Rath, move into Isadora’s six and stay there. Try to hook up with Eliwood and Lyn’s group – should be two chambers north of you. Legault, we’re going to need you to open this door – while we’re getting Purged on.”
“Are you sure it’s locked?” Legault asked smoothly.
“Um… no. But if it is, we can’t stick around waiting for you to get here.”
“Fair enough. On my way.”
Ten seconds later, Legault’s head appeared around the corner of the building to their left, caught sight of them, and came running over lithely. “That door?”
“Yeah. We’re going in five… four… three… two… go!” They rose to their feet and ran for the door. A blast of light caught Hector and knocked him head-over-heels into the snow, but Raven – after the barest hesitation, which puzzled Ceniro – hauled him to his feet and pushed him along.
Legault glanced at the lock and pushed the door open. “After you, gentlemen.”
Ceniro laughed shortly. “Thanks. Stick around, we might need you again. Harken, get that guy.”
“Sir.” Harken was not going to shake that habit, was he?
The room they were in was large and full of pillars. Ceniro flattened himself against the wall and wondered if the bishop would use Purge indoors. Under his orders, the four fighters fanned out and engaged the enemies in the room, smoothly moving from point to point, subduing the enemy.
“Ceniro!” Lyn said softly from wherever she was, but he pricked up his ears.
“Some really creepy Sacaean with the longest hair I’ve ever seen just told me I need to get stronger, and he would join us to make sure I did. He didn’t seem to be with the Black Fang, because he was killing them, too. He’s terrifyingly good. Or maybe just terrifying. What do you make of that?”
“Is that… the Sword Demon?” Ceniro gaped. “You convinced the Sword Demon to join us?”
“Who? Is he really good? He looks dangerous. Feels dangerous. He says his name is Karel. Are you sure he should join us?”
“I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that you convinced him to join just by being yourself, I’m just amazed that – Rath, there’s a mage trying to sneak up on Dorcas – he was even here. What’s he doing here?”
“Ceniro! Stop babbling.”
“Lyn, he’s the kind of man to face down entire armies and leave none alive. He’s incredibly dangerous. No one in Elibe can match him. If he’s fighting for us… we might have a way to deal with Jaffar. If he’s willing to take my orders.”
“Why don’t you talk to him and find out?”
Ceniro gulped. “Y-yes, I suppose I should…”
“Stop being nervous! I’m standing right next to him, for crying out loud!”
“Ah! That doesn’t help!” Ceniro took some deep breaths. “You’re fearless, not like me, and possibly in danger, which makes me even more stressed! You know what? I’m going to come join you and hope that I don’t freeze up talking to him. Less awkward than my voice appearing out of thin air. Head through the door on your right and I’ll meet you there. It’ll take me a few minutes.”
“Okay. This way,” she said, presumably to the Sword Demon, as Eliwood, Guy, and Ninian had received the tail end of Ceniro’s message.
“This way,” Ceniro said, pointing, and Hector and the two swordsmen followed him. There shouldn’t be any enemies in their way, so he really run -
…and dodge the arrow that hissed out of an alcove at him. It snagged in his cloak, barely slowing him, but he yelped anyway. Harken dove into the alcove and reappeared with a bloody sword a moment later.
“Thanks,” Ceniro gasped, and let Raven take the lead.
But there were no more incidents, and they nearly collided with the rest of the group in the antechamber to a narrow hall. Ceniro saw Eliwood do a double-take at the sight of Harken, but the lord wisely saved his questions for later.
Lyn pointed to the tall, slim man with his strongly-built chest partly exposed through his robes. “Karel, Ceniro. Ceniro, Karel.”
“H-hi,” Ceniro said. “Um.”
“You are weak,” Karel said in a low gravelly voice, with a smile of contempt. “And you lead us?”
Lyn rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t have to be the greatest fighter ever to have the greatest brain ever.”
“Everyone move!” Ceniro yelled, as suddenly Purge began to form around them once more. “Get in that room! Go!”
Kenneth was waiting for them, apparently unconcerned that they had defeated most of his forces with their tiny band, and that none of his spells had taken them down – at least for long.
“You’re doing much better than I had anticipated. But it’s about time to put an end to this.” He raised his hands and began to chant.
“Did you know we had the Sword Demon with us?” Hector asked, swatting at light sparkles with his axe. The bishop’s face did not change. It was possible he hadn’t heard Hector.
“K-karel, get him!” Ceniro said. “Eliwood, there’s reinforcements coming through the door on the left; take Rath and deal with them. Lyn, Hector, door on the right. Harken, Raven, Dorcas, watch our backs. Priscilla, Hector could use your staff. Isadora, Legault, on me.”
Karel leapt forward, his dark hair forming a comet-tail behind him. Divine exploded around him, and Ceniro lost sight of him. Then a crimson katana flashed once, and the bishop fell to the floor.
Priscilla healed Karel, who was mildly bleeding, as the others stopped the last of the enemy forces.
“I wonder,” Lyn said, kneeling over the body. “I wonder if it’s at all terrifying to lose yourself entirely… To fall completely under the sway of Nergal’s power…”
“You could ask Canas about falling to darkness,” Ceniro suggested. “Probably not the same thing.”
“Nergal’s driving everyone mad,” Eliwood said softly. “Another reason to stop him…”
“I agree completely,” Lyn said, and stood. Her boot brushed the body as she turned, and something thumped to the floor. “…Hey! What could this be? ”
She picked up a large, ruby-like stone from the floor beside the bishop. A golden dragon was wrapped around the stone, and it nestled in the palm of her hand like a glittering red star.
“Is that the Fire Emblem?” Eliwood asked, staring at it.
“He had it all along?” Hector groaned. “Well, let’s take it and go! Two objectives down, two left to go!”
“Which two?” Ceniro asked. “We’ve lowered the barrier and recovered the Fire Emblem…”
“Save the prince and return the Fire Emblem,” Hector said. “And then we’ll be one step closer to our real objective.”
“Very goal-oriented,” Lyn teased. “You’re right. Let’s get out of here!”
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