November 20, 2014

Rekka no Ken: The Tactician and the Dragons: Epilogue

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Chapter 11: Light

 

Well, it’s finally done. Not necessarily well, but it’s done. I had to take a break for various things (Trigun! <3) and now it’s occurred to me that Sinterklaas is coming up, so I should probably devote some attention to that. Also my brother and his friends are diverting with their multiplayer games. Also it’s freakin’ snowing now.

…Expect the AU sequel to start coming out soon.

 

Epilogue

 

Eliwood stood in the little cemetery of Dorborough, the tiny village where Ceniro’s family lived. Behind him stood the rest of the group, including Eliwood’s mother Eleanora, the pirate captain Fargus, and Ceniro’s Ostian friend Renee. Lyndis, Hector, and Ninian stood at Eliwood’s left, and Ceniro’s family, his father, mother, sister, and brother stood to his right. All around him was the sound of muffled sniffles. Hector’s face was like stone, and Lyndis’s face was white but composed.

The villagers were in attendence as well, some of them for Ceniro’s family’s sake, but most of them to be of service for the unusual gathering of lords, ladies, and knights. Eliwood imagined the village had never seen such a gathering, from the way the people looked in awe at the lords and ladies and with apprehension, not to mention confusion, at the tough mercenaries who were half of their group.

They’d arrived in Badon from Valor a few days prior. Hector had sent a fast messenger to Ostia, and they had set out southeast towards Santaruz immediately, sending messages ahead to Dorborough and Pherae. Captain Fargus had insisted on accompanying them, after his sailor Dart had given him a full account on the trip over. Eliwood was grateful.

Lyndis spent much of the journey to herself, riding a little away from the others, though Florina tailed her. She hardly ate, and though she was normally emotional, she hardly cried. Eliwood knew how she felt. It was the same way he felt when his father died. It was almost the way he felt now… although Ninian at his side tacitly reminded him that he wasn’t alone. He wished he could remind Lyndis of that somehow.

It was Hector, surprisingly enough, who was making inroads on Lyndis’s mute grief. He didn’t have much to say, but he stayed near her through the journey, and Eliwood could tell she appreciated him being there as much as she appreciated Florina being there. Although Florina was still shy of Hector…

They’d arrived in Dorborough at the same time as Renee and Eleanora that afternoon, and the villagers were ready for them. Eliwood had gone to the family, saying small words of support and sympathy. Lyndis had told him a little of what Ceniro had told her of his family, so Eliwood knew something of what to expect. The mother was passionately inconsolable, the sister was grieving but composed, the father was silent, and the brother was apathetic. But they followed him, as Marcus gathered the rest of the villagers, to the little cemetery where Merlinus, Kent, and Sain were setting everything up while Dorcas and Bartre dug Ceniro’s grave.

Now, in front of Eliwood was the plain, polished casket that their dear friend was laid in. He was laid with his staff, and the farseer, and Lyndis had placed her earrings in his hand. Eliwood would have given him a more richly decorated casket, but he knew Ceniro wouldn’t have wanted that.

At least he could say something for him. “Family… Friends… Honoured companions… It’s time to give our farewells to Ceniro, son of Caro, son of Conrad.” Already he had to pause and take a deep breath to restrain his emotions. “He was one of the most brilliant tactical minds of our generation, or perhaps in the world today… but he was also a man of great integrity and inner strength. In my recent journey to find my father and avenge his death, Ceniro was always at my side not only as our strategist, but as one of my closest friends. He always did his best for us, and sought to keep all of us safe through our many perils, and not only that, but to make us happy and to strengthen the bonds that already existed between us.” He reached down and took Ninian’s hand, and she squeezed it. “He has always done this for everyone he traveled with.”

“He was a quiet man, a patient man, with his own doubts and fears and loves, and he was taken from us far too soon. We were so close to the end of our journey, but through no fault of his own, he was slain on the battlefield by an arrow before any of our healers could-”

“That’s exactly why I didn’t want him to go!” his mother burst out, sobbing. “I always knew he’d come to a bad end, messing around with his learning and his traipsing about! Carrying on with wild Sacaean women and all these fancy warring lords…” Lyn didn’t react, though Hector raised an eyebrow. “If only he’d been content to stay home and be a carpenter like his father, I wouldn’t have lost my s-s-s-son…” Eliwood turned to her and caught her as she fell to her knees, embracing her warmly.

Ceniro’s sister looked uncomfortable. “Mom… he wouldn’t have wanted…”

“Don’t tell me what my boy wanted, Anlie! How could a quiet boy like him have ever survived the life he chose? If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. And now it’s too late, it’s too late…”

Pent shuffled a bit and looked slightly guilty. Louise patted his arm comfortingly.

“Patsi?” Eliwood said softly. “I know you and Ceniro didn’t always get along about his profession…”

“And you and your noble friends dragged him to his death, Marquess Pherae!”

“Patsi,” said Ceniro’s father Caro soothingly. Eliwood saw the resemblance between him and Ceniro quite clearly, in his quietness and patience, and in a physical resemblance, although Caro’s face was weathered and lined, and his shoulders broad and strong, and Ceniro’s face had been smooth and youthful with only a couple creases in the corners of his eyes, and his shoulders were, like the rest of him, thin. Perhaps the father was even quieter than the son.

“…But I know that he loved you and the rest of his family very much.”

“Oh, he didn’t say that. He always hated that I didn’t want him to get his schooling in Ostia or wander around as a penniless vagabond. What sort of a life was that? He was always doing his own thing, his family forgotten.”

“He never forgot you,” Lyn said, finally. “He didn’t say much, but I know he thought of you. He spoke to me of all of you, and how he hoped you were doing well. He wanted to see the world, but he also wanted to see you and hoped that someday you would accept what he was.”

Patsi stared at Lyn with wide, tear-streaming eyes, and bowed her head, sobbing and clinging to Eliwood’s arm. “And I… I-I drove him away… with my nagging and scolding… Maybe he would have stayed at home and been safe if I hadn’t pushed him so…”

“I don’t think so,” Eliwood said. “I think he wanted to go, and only regretted that you didn’t like it. But he was forever stopping to see the view, to look at the sky, the trees, the rivers, even in the midst of battle. He wanted to see everything; only everything was large enough for him.”

Patsi only cried. Anlie came forward. “I’m sorry, my lord,” she said to Eliwood, her own eyes red as she helped her mother up and away.

“Don’t be,” Eliwood assured her. “I… think my mother feels exactly the same. But the fact is… without Ceniro, we would not have come through to the end, and you know… he was as good as they come. We never lost anyone in battle, and while he couldn’t control or foresee everything, he is one of the reasons we can all stand here today alive and able to keep living.”

“So my son’s death was an ‘acceptable loss’, or whatever you fighting people call it?” Patsi said bitterly.

“No,” Eliwood said. “No loss is ever acceptable. He thought so too, and that is why we all owe him a great debt, a debt that cannot be repaid. But if there is anything that any of us can do for you or your family, it shall be done. You have my word.”

“He helped save the world,” Lyndis said flatly.

Patsi laughed hysterically. “You can’t say that. That only happens in fairytales. The world’s not in any danger.”

“It’s good you think so,” Hector murmured, quietly enough that she didn’t seem to hear him.

Ceniro’s sister Anlie stepped forward. “Lord Eliwood… Lady Lyndis, um, Lord Hector, I do thank you for your kind words about my brother. I… wish I could see him again, when he turns up unexpectedly the way he does, all tired and hungry and skinnier than ever… with his large glad eyes and his smile… but I know you took care of him, and I do thank you for that too.” She sniffled. “I miss him. But I know he was doing the right thing, wherever he was. Please… let’s lay him to rest.”

Eliwood nodded. “Let’s do that. Together.”

When the casket was finally lowered into the ground and covered with earth, then Lyndis fell to her knees and began to cry. Hector knelt beside her, an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him. Eliwood and Ninian wept together, hand in hand, and Ceniro’s sister began to cry almost as hard as her mother.

 

When all was done, and the villagers and the soldiers began to disperse, Anlie recovered herself as much as she could and came over to Lyndis. “Lady Lyndis? Um… I… well, earlier this year, when my brother came home last, he told me about you. He talked about a lot of things, but I could tell that you were very special to him.” She almost burst into tears again, but stopped herself with a great effort.

“Yeah, they hooked up eventually,” Hector said, and Lyndis punched him in the leg. “Ow! Woman, I’m only telling what happened!”

“Shut up, Hector,” Lyndis said, and Hector shut up.

Anlie looked surprised at their banter. “Oh… well… that’s good! I was wondering. But he said you were the most beautiful woman he knew, and not just because of your face or your hair or your eyes, but also because you were strong in arm and spirit, and graceful and determined. Though… you know… knew Ceniro as well as I do… when I asked if he would marry you, where you would live with his wandering ways, he laughed and said he wasn’t good enough for you, that you were spending time with your family but you really belonged to Sacae…”

Lyndis hiccuped. “He got over that eventually, I think. Thank you for telling me this.”

Anlie considered her quietly. “I can tell you loved him back. I can tell you’re a good person, whatever my mother may say, and I know it’s not the time to say it, but I wish… I wish you to find happiness someday.”

“Thank you,” Lyndis said.

“I agree,” Pent said, coming over as well with Louise. “You already know this, but Ceniro… well, he didn’t speak of you much, but I could see how much he cared for you in every word.” He turned to Anlie and bowed. “Pent of Reglay, and this is my wife, Louise. We worked with Ceniro last year.”

Anlie’s eyes opened wide. “You’re THE Count Reglay? Oh my word, Ceniro almost talked of you more than Lady Lyndis when he visited.”

Pent chuckled. “He did seem taken with my skills and interests.”

“Not only that, but he looked up to you almost as… as an older brother, the way he spoke. He was so happy to find another person who spoke to him as himself and not as… a peasant boy.”

“Of course,” Louise said. “He was so dear to us, we couldn’t do otherwise. I wish we could have done more for him…”

Anlie curtseyed low. “You did so much for him already, all of you. On behalf of my family, and my brother, thank you for everything.”

Louise stepped forward gracefully and hugged her. “It’s all right, my dear. You don’t have to be so formal. It’s all right to grieve for him, even in front of us.” Anlie clung to her.

Eliwood had gone over to Ceniro’s brother. “Drew, wasn’t it? I understand you were serving at Castle Santaruz when I passed through a couple months ago.”

“What of it? …My lord,” Drew said, not meeting his eyes.

“I wondered if you would like a similar position at Castle Pherae? As a way of showing my thanks to Ceniro, because I can’t give them to him directly…”

“No thanks, my lord,” Drew said, and bowed and walked away abruptly.

Eliwood scratched his head. “What was that all about?”

Ninian joined him. “I think he’s been influenced by his mother to see outside influences as corrupting. Castle Santaruz is a safe, dull place, where he can be more than a boy from a small village, but not likely to come to harm… I think. But Castle Pherae is too far away, and in a different canton…”

Eliwood stared at her. “You’re brilliant. How did you know that?”

“Ah… I just listened? That’s what the subtext told me…”

“I am going to need your help in ruling Pherae, certainly,” Eliwood said with a small smile. “Ninian, have I told you that I love you?”

“Several times, Lord Eliwood,” Ninian said, smiling back. “But more often doesn’t hurt.”

He smiled and embraced her.

 

A month later, most of the mercenaries had gone, but the Ostia, Pherae, Caelin, and Etrurian groups were in Ostia for Hector’s Ascension to Marquess. It hadn’t taken long for Hector to be acclaimed the new Marquess Ostia, but somewhat longer to make preparations for it. But now, the day had arrived, and Eliwood and Ninian were speaking privately to Hector beforehand.

“Ugh,” Hector groaned, slouching in a chair in his navy-blue best dress uniform. “If only it was over and I could get to work…”

“Hector, sit up,” Eliwood scolded. “You’ll wrinkle your beautiful coat.”

“You sound like Oswin,” Hector said, and slouched further. “I hate these clothes. They’re so uncomfortable!”

“They look good on you,” Lyndis said, leaning on the arm of the chair. “But Hector? Wanting to get to work? What is the world coming to?”

“I never thought I’d be leader of all Lycia – at least, not so soon!” Hector groused at her. “But… now that everyone knows my brother’s dead, the throne can’t be left empty forever.”

“What does sitting on the throne have to do with work?” Lyndis asked.

Hector looked unusually serious, standing and going over to the window overlooking the courtyard. “My brother let me play around for quite a while.”

“Fighting Nergal wasn’t exactly playing around…” Eliwood said.

“No, but… If I don’t grow up soon and accept that I can’t just be a glorified mercenary-lord, he might start screaming at me from beyond the grave…”

Eliwood and Lyndis laughed heartily.

Hector snorted. “What? I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“You’re going to be just fine,” Eliwood said. “Remember, you have the support of Pherae and Caelin. Not to mention of the heirs of the defunct House of Cornwell. And friendly ties to Etruria.”

“You made a lot of connections, didn’t you?” Ninian said. “You’ll be a fine Marquess, Lord Hector. You are honest and compassionate, and stern enough that your lords and knights will listen to you.”

“Yeah, but they also know me as an incorrigible, violent goof-up,” Hector said, grinning at her. “Thanks, Ninian. I’m going to do my best, of course. I can steer this ship.”

“I thought you didn’t like ships,” Lyndis said.

“I don’t mind ‘em. It’s you who doesn’t like ships,” Hector answered. “By the way, you meant what you said, about visiting?”

“Of course I did,” Lyndis said. “It was part of our deal, wasn’t it? And Sacaeans never go back on their word.”

“Sorry, what?” Eliwood said. “You made a deal?”

“Yeah,” Hector said. “When her grandfather retires, or passes away, or whatever, Caelin will be put under Ostian protection. There’s no distant family close enough to inherit, surprisingly, so I guess it’s becoming an Ostian protectorate – at least until your kids decide they’d rather be Marquesses than Sacaean nomads.” He made a face, and Lyndis made a face back at him.

“But what was the deal?” Ninian asked.

“That in exchange, I’d visit Ostia now and then,” Lyndis said.

“Once every two years!” Hector cried. “You said every two years, and I’m holding you to that.”

Eliwood looked at them both. “I feel that this is something you both would have done anyway.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Lyndis said, and shrugged. “But making it a ‘deal’ is more interesting and binding. Anyway, yes, Hector, I will come and visit. I might even come and visit next year, if I miss you all enough.”

“If you miss us enough? Who’s this ‘us’?” Hector asked suspiciously.

“Well, Serra, of course. She wants to give me fashion advice,” Lyndis said wickedly, and Hector choked and bent over coughing violently.

“You wouldn’t consider traveling south to Pherae as well, would you?” Eliwood asked. “We’d certainly be happy to see you too.”

For a moment Lyndis’s eyes were clouded, but then she smiled. “Yes, of course, I can do that. Ceniro said it was a very lovely place, and I’ve never really been, except that one time when Athos teleported us there and then we had to leave the next day in such a hurry…”

“Come when you can,” Ninian said happily, and Lyn smiled and nodded.

 

And a month after that, an even smaller group was gathered in Castle Pherae for Eliwood’s Ascension to Marquess Pherae. As Eliwood had done for him, Hector was with him in the hour beforehand. “Lookin’ good, Eliwood!”

“Does it?” Eliwood asked doubtfully, looking at the blue-white silk jacket and fidgeting with the hems of the sleeves. “I feel… awkward.”

“You look splendid,” Ninian said happily, straightening his cloak. “You look even more lordly than usual.”

“This is also when you’re formally announcing your engagement, right?” Hector asked. “Took you long enough.”

“Well, I spoke with Mother, and she said I might as well wait for today,” Eliwood said. “Anyone of any importance already knows, anyway.”

“Okay, so, well…” Hector said.

Eliwood and Ninian waited.

“When are you guys gonna bang?” Hector said finally, a giant shit-eating grin on his face.

Eliwood almost punched him, but settled for awkward, near-hysterical laughter. “H-Hector!”

“Lord Hector, you are terrible,” Ninian said, but she, too, was smiling, though blushing.

“I know,” Hector said unrepentantly. “But hey, now you’re less nervous about the ceremony, right?”

Eliwood coughed. “Er… yes. So, have you heard from the others?”

“Which ones of the others? I’ve only heard from a few.”

“Me too,” Eliwood said.

“Well… Lyn and her friend Florina and Florina’s boyfriend Wil are all going together… And I think Fiora and her boyfriend Kent are headed up to Ilia, which means that Sain fellow is now Commander of Caelin.”

“Indeed,” Eliwood murmured. “I’m sure he’ll do well.”

“You think?” Hector said. “With all that flirting he did as a married man?”

“It’s his way of being silly,” Ninian said calmly. “It’s a terrible habit, I’m sure, but I met his wife, and she’s just the same. He’s a very good knight underneath.”

“If you say so,” Hector said, shrugging. “My people are all still in Ostia, of course, although you know Oswin’s with me. Pent and Louise and Erk went off to Etruria shortly after my Ascension, though they sent you best wishes.”

“I know,” Eliwood said. “They also sent a letter. Let’s see… All my knights are here, and so are some other people… Lowen’s marrying Rebecca, did you know that? Dorcas is here with his wife, and since Merlinus’s new merchant venture already failed I’ve asked him to help Marcus run the castle.”

“He does good work?” Hector asked.

“You would know,” Eliwood said. “The best. Oh, and little Nino is living somewhere in Pherae with her guardian.”

“Right,” Hector said. “It’s a good place for her.”

“I haven’t heard much from the others. I think General Wallace is wandering again, St. Elimine only knows where he’ll end up this time. Lucius has started an orphanage in Araphen, and Canas has returned home to his wife.”

“You’re much better informed than I am,” Hector complained. “Maybe I should kick Matthew again and make sure I’m getting all the reports… I know that Hawkeye went back to the desert. He has a daughter, doesn’t he? Priscilla’s gone back to the Caerleons in Etruria. And… I don’t know the rest.”

“Me either,” Eliwood said. “But they’re out there somewhere, doing whatever they do. …You ever think about Lord Athos’s last words?”

“Yeah,” Hector said quietly. “An evil star rises in Bern? You don’t suppose there will be more trouble with King Desmond?”

“I don’t know,” Eliwood said.

“Even I don’t know,” Ninian said. “I’ll only know when it grows strong, and by then it might be too late…”

“We have Armads and Durandal, right? So we can fight against whatever happens, keep the peace, whatever needs doing.”

“I don’t think we should use them,” Eliwood said. “We’re strong enough to, yes, but they’re too strong to be used against normal people. We shouldn’t even use them as a deterrent. I… think we should hide them again, where we found them.”

“The traps are gone, and the spirits, too,” Hector said.

“I know,” Eliwood said. “But it’s better than having them in our castles. Besides, Lord Athos didn’t say when this evil would rise. We might be too old to fight by the time it happens.”

“So we teach our kids to fight,” Hector said. “Which I’d be doing in any case, because it’s not a safe world out there, and I wouldn’t want my son to be less of a fighter than I was!”

“And who are you having kids with?” Eliwood prodded his friend, grinning almost as wide as Hector had been before.

“Shut up! I’m still young, and I’m not going to die in some silly skirmish before I’ve had time to marry some lady. Anyway, I think you’re probably right. As usual.”

“About what?”

“I’ll go hide Armads again sometime. Maybe I’ll ask Lyn to come with. It’ll be our little groups, just like our journey. Could use you, too. You have to put Durandal back in the north of Ostia, right? Come with us to the Western Isles!”

“That is tempting,” Eliwood said. “I’ll consider it carefully. Next year, when Lyndis is in Ostia?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Hector said.

“Wait… You and Lyndis?”

“What about me and Lyndis?”

“Well… you know…”

Hector folded his arms and stared at Eliwood, who was slowly turning as red as his hair. Ninian giggled.

Eliwood pointed at his fiancee. “See, she knows what I’m talking about!”

“Well, I don’t,” Hector said airily. “But yeah. I know I can’t keep her around forever. Like Ceniro said, she belongs to Sacae. But I’m glad she visits.”

“I think she will stay with you more and more,” Ninian said. “She likes you too, but she needs time.”

Hector nodded. “I understand that. I can wait. And she can visit Sacae whenever she wants.”

Eliwood smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “I think you have nothing to worry about.”

“What!? Me? And here I was, trying to tell you the same thing. Isn’t it about time?”

Eliwood blinked, and then gasped. “Oh! It is! My mother is waiting. Come, Ninian!”

“I’m here!” she said, and took his arm.

Hector chuckled. “Have fun, you two.”

 

Chapter 11: Light

November 12, 2014

Rekka no Ken: The Tactician and the Dragons: Light

« ... »

Chapter 10: Victory or Death          Epilogue

 

Today’s soundtracks: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2, 2nd movement for Ceniro’s… brief… memorial thingy, Aldnoah/FE7/FF7 for the morph/Nergal fight, and Archangel by Two Steps from Hell for the dragon fight. (Shout-out to my friend Tricia for introducing that one to me.)

This chapter gave me more trouble than the others… I basically had to write the Nergal fight twice. Again. :P

ONLY THE EPILOGUE LEFT COME LET US PRE-CELEBRATE THE COMPLETION OF A DECADE-LONG PROJECT

I hope not too many of my other projects take this long. : P

…I’m already starting the AU sequel and I haven’t started the epilogue yet. : P

 

Chapter 11: Light

 

“Who was she talking about?” Lyndis asked, favouring her hand until Erk hurried up to heal it for her. “When she said something about the one who already gave his life for Nergal?”

“I have no idea,” Eliwood said. “Maybe a fellow morph? Or one of the Black Fang? I thought morphs didn’t have feelings. But Sonia did… Or seemed to, at any rate. But Limstella never thought she was human like Sonia did.”

“I know who she was talking about,” Nils said, approaching. “Ephidel.”

Lyndis recoiled. “That creepy guy?”

“Limstella was the most advanced morph, but Nergal didn’t give her emotions. Still, it seems like while they were here at the Dragon’s Gate – at least while we were here – she was with Ephidel as much as possible. And he didn’t seem to avoid her.” Nils considered. “I guess even abominations can have feelings.”

“Well, they’re together now,” Hector said. “He blew up when that first dragon blew up.”

“And now Limstella was blown up by Lyndis’s amazing work, and the pegasus knights’ spectacular attack,” Eliwood said.

Hector moved to Lyndis’s side and began checking her over. She pushed him away. “Stop that. What are you doing? I’m fine. Erk healed me.”

“Well…” Hector said seriously, “I feel like I should, since… Ceniro’s not here to do it.”

“Ceniro…” She turned to the group, recuperating from their ordeal under Excalibur the wind spell. Ceniro’s body was still draped over Priscilla’s horse. “I haven’t seen him yet.”

“Me either.”

Together they headed over, Eliwood following. Hector lifted the tactician’s limp body from the horse and laid him on the grass nearby. Lyndis flung her arms around Ceniro’s neck and laid her head on his bloodied chest.

Pent and Louise drew near, as did Kent and Sain, Wil and Florina and Fiora, Matthew and Erk and Dorcas, and those who had been especially close to him before. They stood silently in a ring, offering silent sympathy to Lyndis, Eliwood, and Hector.

“He shouldn’t…” Hector began.

Eliwood knew what he meant. The body was too still, too pale. It brought back to him all too forcefully memories of his father, on this very island, and Ninian, still fresh and painful in his mind.

He had caused plenty of death since setting out on this journey some months ago. He’d seen even more death. All he wanted was peace, but it seemed peace was a tenuous, intangible state, and pursuit of it had only caused death close to him.

But… He bowed his head and closed his eyes. If he had not sought peace, if he had not gone after his father and learned what he did, there would now be certain death not just of those dear to him but everyone. And that he couldn’t allow.

It was still hard to see his friend, dead. Slow tears trickled down his cheeks.

Lyndis’s shoulders were shaking. He could imagine what she was going through, though she was different than him – more tempestuous, less patient.

“I’m sorry,” Nils said from behind him. “He was always kind to us. He looked out for us… He helped make Ninian happy…”

Lyndis finally raised her head. “He kept us alive, destroyed our enemies, and made many of us happy. Especially me. And so I am going to remove Nergal’s head from his body.”

“That’s far too merciful,” Hector said.

“As long as he ceases to live, I don’t care how it is done,” Lyndis said, wiping her eyes. “It’s… it’s not fair that he should live and Ceniro-!”

Hector put a hand on her shoulder. “I know.”

“I can’t have my revenge on the Talliver. But I can have my revenge on Nergal.” Lyndis stood, her hand on her sword. “Eliwood. Are you ready?”

Eliwood started, wiping his own eyes. “N-no, I’m not. Athos isn’t here yet.”

“Greybeard’s late,” Hector said. “I’m about ready to head in without him, too.”

“Wait a moment,” Nils said. “I… I should tell you, before you go in, our side of the story. I know you heard Lord Athos’s side of the story. But Ninian and I… you should know, too.”

“All right,” Eliwood said. It would give him time to prepare, as well.

Nils took a deep breath and closed his eyes, organizing his thoughts. The others sat down around him. Lyndis pulled Ceniro’s body so it rested with its head in her lap. Eliwood directed the knights to keep watch while the others mended their injuries and rested.

Nils opened his eyes and began. “A thousand years ago, humans chased dragonkind from the land, exiled us. We had no place to go… not on this world. So we used the Dragon’s Gate to flee into another world. When we passed through this chasm in space and time, many of us were lost. Still, we endured the journey. We found humans there, too, but they were few in number. We had a few skirmishes, but at last, we found a home. We were stable there, happy, even.”

“So…” Hector interrupted.

“Some thought back on our former home, and when we did, his voice reached out to us. You see, Ninian was a medium in the other world, an oracle of sorts. She sat at the Dragon Shrine, and she held much power.”

“Was it just the two of you?” Lyndis asked.

“Yes,” Nils said. “We were orphans, but with Ninian’s power, it didn’t matter. Anyway, we were in prayer at the shrine when it happened… We heard a voice calling to us from the Dragon’s Gate. It was the voice of an old friend… We knew we weren’t supposed to open the gate and return to this world. We had no idea that the owner of that voice was Nergal… But something unexpected happened. When we opened the Dragon’s Gate and traveled here again, we had lost almost all of our strength… The quintessence left within us was less even than that of an average human. In order to sustain ourselves, in order to breathe the air of this world, we took human form. We placed our energies within a dragonstone. But our dragonstone was taken… stolen. Nergal hoped to use it as a tool to summon other dragons… until we escaped. We couldn’t let our foolishness condemn our friends back home. Disguised as a dancer and a bard, we fled and wandered from country to country. That’s when we first met Lady Lyn, one year ago. ”

Lyndis started. “Oh! Of course you were! That whole time… Nergal was after you. And those black-robed men… But why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were so kind to us,” Nils said quietly. “We didn’t want any harm to come to you because of our problems.”

“But…” said Lyndis.

“It’s in the past now,” Hector said. “We helped them eventually, right?”

Nils nodded. “After we left Lyn at Caelin, we were eventually captured again… We decided that the only way to escape was to cut short our own lives. But that was when we met Lord Elbert.” Eliwood’s eyes widened. “He was so strong, so kind… He knew what we were… and what we had done, and he never once condemned us. On the contrary, he tried to set us at ease with stories… Stories of his family, of his homeland.

Eliwood bowed his head. “Father…”

“Ninian and I… We listened to his stories, and we grew to love his gentle wife and his son. Premonition… No, that is too strong a word, but we felt his son would be the one to save us. That’s what we felt. That’s why…. That’s why, Lord Eliwood!” Nils turned to him with a fervour, clutching his scarf tightly. “That’s why… I believe in you. Even though Ninian’s gone, I will continue to protect you. I have to. That… That’s Ninian’s wish. It’s our wish.”

“Nils…” Eliwood said, more tears coming into his eyes.

“You’re the only one who can defeat Nergal,” Nils said earnestly, his crimson eyes boring into Eliwood’s blue ones. “I believe in you. We all believe in you.”

“We do!” Hector said. “We can do this, Eliwood!”

“That’s right!” Lyndis agreed. “Ceniro got us this far. It would be a poor tribute to him to give this less than our all!”

“Everyone…” Eliwood said, and stood. He had to run his sleeve over his eyes again, but he felt like he could smile again. “You’re right. There’s no power on this earth that can overcome our combined strength! Let’s go! The Dragon’s Gate awaits!”

“Were you gonna wait for Greybeard?” Hector asked, standing as well.

“I’m here,” Athos said, appearing at the top of the stairs.

“Were you successful?” Lyndis demanded.

“I was,” Athos said. He inclined his head. “I am sorry to hear of the loss of your tactician. He was a good man, and the final battle will be all the more difficult without him.”

“Thank you,” Eliwood said.

“And now… Eliwood, take Durandal now. Hector, Armads.”

Eliwood reached out to take the giant sword and Hector the giant axe, and the very touch of the weapon sent a jolt up his arm. “What… what is…”

“I managed to infuse them with holy magic that should rend Nergal’s dark cloak, and allow us to harm him,” Athos said. “Lyndis, this is for you.”

Lyndis took the nodachi curiously. “What is this…?”

“This is the Sol Katti, the partner of the Mani Katti. It is not a legendary weapon, but its blade contains much power, and it has also been infused with holy magic.”

“Thank you!” Lyndis said, sliding it into her belt beside the Mani Katti. Eliwood buckled on Durandal’s harness, and Hector simply slung Armads over his shoulder.

“I myself have Forblaze and Aureola, the holy magic that Saint Elimine wielded.” Athos turned to Nils. “Nils, is Nergal back there?”

Nils closed his eyes, concentrating. “Yes, he is. But… what could he be doing? There is immense power, but it feels… strange.”

“He should have lost most of his henchmen in that last battle,” Athos said. “Your plan worked well. But… I read energy, too, if only a little. Nils is right. The sense of it is different than before. Brace yourselves. He is formidable!”

“Then, let’s choose who’s going with us,” Eliwood said, but was stopped by a tug at his cloak.

Rebecca stood there with serious eyes. “Aren’t we all going?”

“No,” Eliwood said. “I can’t allow that.”

“Why not?” Nino asked, popping up beside Rebecca. “We can help!”

“I’m not letting you go into danger!” Eliwood said.

“Is it because we’re kids!?” and both girls’ eyes flashed.

“I’m no stranger to fighting now, Lord Eliwood,” said Rebecca, holding tight to her bow.

“It’s not that,” Eliwood said. “There’s no guarantee that any of us will come out alive. I want you to be able to live. I can’t ask you to throw away your lives in this place.”

“You’re not asking us, Lord Eliwood. We’re asking you.”

“I know… I don’t want to be a burden on Jaffar,” Nino said, looking down. “He’s always watching out for me, keeping me from harm. But we can fight, Lord Eliwood, and we want to.”

“With what?” Hector asked. “You’ve got a steel bow there, young lady – how are you expecting to so much as scratch Nergal? Or you might be a prodigy, but regular spells do nothing to him.”

“I know,” Rebecca said. “But we can at least be a distraction.”

“Or maybe everyone will die at once,” Hector said.

“Hector!” Lyndis reprimanded him.

He shrugged. “It’s true. Nergal hasn’t really shown us his magic. What if we walk straight into some dark magic spell that just blasts us instantly into oblivion? Doesn’t matter how many of us there are then.”

Guy stepped up. “Ceniro would take a chance on us.”

“I’m not Ceniro,” Eliwood said softly.

“Please,” Erk said. “Let us fight. Like you said, he trained us well. There might be others than him in there that we can take down for you. We’ll stay away from Nergal.”

Eliwood stood silently, looking up into the ominous dark maw of the Dragon’s Gate. “All right. But when I say, you will withdraw and leave the rest to us, understood?”

“Understood,” chorused Rebecca and Nino, brightening up.

“But as for you…” Hector said, suddenly swinging around and looking at Merlinus.

The merchant blanched. “M-m-me?”

Hector smiled. “You’re made of sterner stuff than I realized. I’d have thought you would have fled by now.”

“Thank you for everything,” Lyndis said. “You’ve been such a big help.”

Merlinus’s face fell, and he began to sniffle. “Oh… I thought as much. You’re not taking me in with you…”

“What are we supposed to do?” Hector said. “Oh, that’s disgusting. Cry if you must, but blow your nose! Anyway, you can’t fight, and we’ll be taking the weapons we need with us, so you don’t need to stick around here.”

“Here,” Eliwood said, pulling an envelope from his pocket. “Take this and return to Fargus.”

“W-what is it?” Merlinus asked, wiping his nose on his sleeve and taking the envelope.

“It’s a letter of introduction. Take this to Ostia, and you’ll be able to do good business there.” He shrugged and grinned a little. “Of course, if we fail in our mission, it’s just a worthless slip of paper.”

“But…” Merlinus looked down at the envelope. “I must protest!! For the rest of my days, I’ve vowed in my heart to continue serving you! Please, oh please! Do not abandon me!”

Eliwood rocked back on his heels, taken aback by the passionate plea of the merchant.

“Then get on that boat and pray for our safe return!” Hector barked.

“Have faith in us,” Lyndis said. “Wait for us.”

Merlinus sniffled some more. “I… I understand. Until the end of time, my lords and lady. I will wait for you until the end of time. Please… come back… safely… Please!”

“Yeah, okay. We’re going. Bye.” Hector turned and headed up to the Dragon’s Gate, finished with the conversation.

Eliwood nodded at him in friendly fashion. “We’ll be back. But don’t stay here. It’s probably not safe. Master Renault, if you could go with him part of the way to make sure it’s safe…”

The bishop bowed. “I will do so.”

 

Eliwood collected his horse and went to the top of the stairs. With the dark entrance behind him, he turned to face the army.

“Gonna make a speech?” Hector asked him.

“Of course,” Eliwood murmured back, then cleared his throat. “Everyone! It’s been a long, hard journey to get here. No matter where we came from, or why we joined this group, we have been united in a common goal – to defeat Nergal! To prevent him from destroying all life on Elibe and bringing back dragons to destroy them as well, we are committed to this path! As I look around at you all, I see not one person who wishes to turn back here. If you did, no one would think less of you. I thank you, my friends, for your loyalty and heart that have brought us here today.”

He bowed his head slightly. “It’s true that we have lost our tactician, and that our combined skill in strategy is no match for his. But we will continue on in his name, and fight for him! For Ceniro! For Ninian, and my father, and Leila of Ostia, and the good heart of the Black Fang, and all those dear to us we have lost on this perilous journey!”

“Now let us go and fight! We shall fight for the memory of our friends, and for hope for the future!” The army gave a scattered cheer. He mounted Oren and turned to enter the Dragon’s Gate. Hector, Lyndis, and Athos were beside him.

“That’s so typical of you,” Hector said.

“Huh?”

“It really is,” Lyndis said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Eliwood said. “I just spoke from the heart…”

“There you go again!” Hector said.

“Hush,” Lyndis warned them. “It’s time for business. It was straight to the back up these long stairs, wasn’t it, Eliwood?”

“Yes,” Eliwood said. “It’s a fairly large area up there. We should have room to manoeuvre, even if there isn’t a lot of cover.”

“We should probably pick the people who we’re not sending away if things go sideways,” Hector said. “Can I see that?”

Eliwood passed him the farseer.

“Let’s take… Oswin, Marcus, Wallace, Isadora, Vaida, Harken, Karel, Pent and Louise, the pegasus sisters, Canas, and…”

“And?” Lyndis asked.

“I don’t want to take Jaffar, but he’s very useful.”

“So take him,” Lyndis said.

“I know, I know. My personal feelings don’t matter. Much. Does that sound good to you guys?”

“Sounds good to me,” Eliwood said. “It has fighters of all different kinds… we have flyers, we have an archer, we have fast swordsmen, we have anima and dark… hmm, we need a light magic user…”

“I can take care of light magic,” Athos said. “Perhaps… I shall speak with Pent. I think he might be ready for Forblaze.”

“Truly!?” Pent’s voice echoed through the tunnel. “Thank you, master!”

“Are we finally ready?” Hector said.

“We better be,” Lyndis said. “There’s the top of the stairs. And Nergal’s undoubtedly heard us coming.”

“He could not but sense our approach,” Athos assured her.

Eliwood was the first to the top of the stairs, but Lyndis was the first to speak. “I offer you no greeting. You’re a dead man!”

Nergal turned to face them, his heavy black robes swirling around him. “You’re too late! I am calling dragons through the gate. Soon I will claim their quintessence, and become like unto a god among mortals!”

“How many lives have you taken to achieve this!?” Eliwood cried. “How many innocents have you murdered or caused to be destroyed in your quest for power?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Nergal said. “How many lives have you destroyed, you hypocrite!? You especially, Eliwood, but all of you, you have taken many lives since you set out on your little trip. You may pretend you regret it, but the end result is still the same, regardless of your intention.”

“But,” Eliwood began earnestly. “I did only what was necessary to stop you from hurting other people even more. Intentions do matter! I don’t go around hurting people for my own purposes! We all rely on each other, the greatest no less than the weakest!”

“I wonder if the greatest would agree. I think not. In any case, let me show you my greatest works since Limstella,” Nergal said, and raised his arms.

Eliwood, Lyndis, Hector and the others flinched and braced themselves, but all that happened was eight teleports appeared and revealed eight morphs. Eliwood flinched again, seeing their faces.

Nergal smiled. “You are impressed? Or have you only seen a familiar face?”

“Marquess Laus!” cried Hector in disbelief.

“Lloyd and Linus?” Lyndis echoed.

“Father!” cried Nino in heartbreak.

The eight morphs were exact copies of Lord Darin and the seven strongest Black Fang members – Uhai, Ursula, Jerme, Kenneth, Lloyd, Linus, and Brendan Reed.

Nergal was still smiling, pleased at their horrified reaction. “I took the essences of strong people and improved them. See, with enough energy, I can work miracles! Wouldn’t you like a new father, Eliwood? Or Hector, a replacement brother?”

“What- How did you-” Hector stammered.

“A heartless puppet might be good for your fragile little human soul,” Nergal said, chuckling.

Hector lowered his head, glaring from under his brows. “You’re the heartless puppet.”

“And you are my greatest annoyance,” Nergal snapped. “If it hadn’t been for your participation, Eliwood would have been easy to dispose of. Why would you risk your life time and time again for something as tenuous as ‘friendship’?”

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Lyndis said. “How do you think we got here if it wasn’t for friendship? We may not all get along unconditionally, but we couldn’t have made it without trusting each other this much either!”

“You can’t understand,” Hector growled. “I don’t expect you to understand. You’ve forgotten what it means to be human!”

“If you ever knew in the first place,” Lyndis muttered.

“You are the ones who can’t understand!” Nergal said, gesturing dramatically. “You say this is good, and this is evil, but all your pathetic morality has been made up to fit your pathetic lives! There is no such thing as good or evil. I am above your petty beliefs. I pursue the only true goal worthy of pursuing!”

“Which is?” Lyndis demanded.

“Power. It is the only thing of use in this world. That’s why I took these people and made them more powerful! I intend to do similar things with myself!”

“Nergal,” said Athos. “You still have not stopped to reconsider your ideas since we fought…”

“You, of all people, I thought might understand,” Nergal hissed, clenching a fist in front of him. “All living things take energy from somewhere and change it to suit their needs. Plants take it from the sun and soil. Animals take it from plants and other animals. Humans take it from plants and animals. Is not the logical next step to discard these earthly things and work with pure energy itself? The knowledge of Arcadia has shown us the road to the ultimate transformation. And yet you will not take that road!”

“I am not against the quest for knowledge,” Athos said. “Nor even against the quest for power. But that quest must be driven from within. To fuel your quest with the stolen lives of others, this brings not wisdom but abomination.”

Nergal cackled in bitter glee. “I remember! I still remember! Those words are unchanged from when you first said them ages back. When you and the dragons conspired to bury me!

With those words, he whipped off the black lopsided turban he had been wearing since they had met him, revealing a horrific scar on the left side of his face. His left eye was swollen and the pupil rolled lazily. Lyndis covered her mouth in horror.

“Look at this wound!” Nergal roared. “The wound I took from your magic!! It was a mistake. The only person who understood… The man I thought my truest friend… It was a mistake to try and destroy me.” He laughed again. “It confirmed some things for me. That trust brings betrayal. That friends bring weakness!”

Eliwood could restrain himself no longer. “If that is what you learned from your encounter, then you are a fool. Do you believe for a moment that, when Athos struck down his closest friend, he felt nothing!? His heart bled for you, and yet you refuse to understand that!” Athos looked at the young man in amazement.

Hector took a heavy step forward. “What happened in the past, what reasons drive you… None of these matter! I don’t care what you think or what you did; your actions are unforgivable! I have no pity whatsoever for a creature as pathetic as you! That’s why… that’s why I’m going to stop you here today!”

“I’m with Hector,” Lyndis said. “You’ve taken many from us who were dear to us, good people, including some of the people standing here with you because of your foul magic! It’s thanks to you that Eliwood’s father died… that Ninian died… that the man I love died! You had better pray that Hector’s axe finds you before my sword does!”

“And what do your opinions matter, little girl from Sacae!?”

Lyndis tossed her dark green hair and held her head high. “The nomads of the plains do not abandon their fellow tribespeople. Even if I had lost nothing on this journey… Eliwood and Hector are my dear friends. Their sorrow is my sorrow. Their anger is my anger!”

“And yet…” Eliwood said, “even now, there is no hatred in my heart. You who were born human, you who lost the heart that defines your humanity… For you, I have nothing but pity.”

“Pity?” Nergal snorted, as if the word were from a foreign language. “Amusing. A weak fool like you has ‘pity’ for me? Interesting… Now, if you hope to defeat me, you may have your chance. Of course, you will have to best my morphs first!” He snapped his fingers, and the morphs closed ranks in front of him as he turned to walk to the back of the hall by the Dragon’s Gate.

Hector jumped to stand in front of Eliwood. “Listen to me! This is my fight now! Everyone, stay back!”

“What are you talking about?” Lyndis said. “This is my fight! Don’t be stupid!”

“This fight is mine alone!” said Eliwood. “You’re the ones who should stay back; protect the others!”

Pent stepped forward. “I thought you settled this before. We are all fighting together, are we not? We’ve come this far. Don’t forget that!”

“Don’t forget me!” Nils cried. “And… Ninian. I’m sure she’s here as well. And Ceniro.”

“Ceniro wouldn’t miss out on this,” Lyndis said. “Certainly.”

“Thank you, everyone,” Eliwood said. “Now… let’s go! We have to get past these morphs and destroy Nergal!”

“Ready on your orders,” Marcus said.

“Be careful!” Eliwood said to the army. “Watch each other and stay safe! This will be difficult, but I can’t direct you. I’m not Ceniro, and I’m going to be fighting alongside you like I always have. Pick your targets carefully!”

Pent raised a hand. “Any particular priorities?”

“The two magic users could rip us apart, but so could the Reed brothers. And the swordsman. And Brendan Reed.”

“Don’t forget Marquess Laus, he was no walk in the park when he was alive, and supposedly he’s stronger now,” Hector said.

“If I may suggest,” Pent said, “take out the magic users first. Surely you can hold off the others long enough to do that.”

“All right!” Eliwood said. “Does everyone have their target? Then charge!”

With various warcries, or grim silence, they ran towards the line of morphs, who wasted no time in charging back.

“Magic users stay back!” Oswin shouted. “Let us be your shield!” He blocked a mighty blow from Darin’s lance and attacked back, but the blow harmlessly bounced off Darin’s armour.

Nino ignored him, darting through the melee until she came to face Brendan Reed. “Father…”

The hulking shape of Brendan glared down at her, completely unresponsive. He raised his axe over his head.

“Father…! I’ll put an end to this! I’m sorry-!” Nino’s garments began to flutter as magic power gathered around her. But she was going to be too slow to cast…

She squeaked as an arm yanked her away, and Jaffar jumped in front of her, but the great axe was blocked instead by Dorcas’s own. The arm belonged to Legault. “Oh, it sucks to see the Commander like this… Don’t worry, little Nino, we’re with you.”

“Thanks, Uncle Legault…” she gasped.

Eliwood himself was cantering around the flank of the line to try to get to one of the magic users; the bishop was closest, but he found himself blocked by Linus. Linus’s wild swings were even more vicious than they had been in life, and Raven, who was fighting him again, was on the defensive and already bleeding from several wounds. Lucius was supporting him with both magic and healing.

Their numbers were probably working against them, Eliwood thought, since Pent wouldn’t be able to use Forblaze under these circumstances. Or Athos use Aureola.

“Lord Eliwood!” Lowen cried, drawing up beside him, guarding him from Lloyd, the next one on their left. Marcus was close behind, and even as they fought, several arrows came their way from Rebecca and Louise. One of them struck Lloyd in the shoulder, but he broke it off and continued; the others missed.

There was a crash nearby, and Lowen jumped, almost losing an arm to Lloyd’s sword. Eliwood looked around to see Heath’s Hyperion scrabbling on the floor, a massive bloody hole in his wing. It was clearly caused by Uhai, who was coolly fitting another arrow to his bow. But he was interrupted by Kent charging him with his lance, blocking the lance by knocking it aside with his bow just enough that Kent missed. Uhai drew his sword, in time to block against Fiora’s attack as well. But Heath was getting his wyvern under cover back down the stairs, and that was even more important. Priscilla was with him.

Eliwood finally got around the edge of the battle and had a clear shot at that bishop. “Lowen!”

“Sir!”

Eliwood charged first, his lance clamped tight under his arm. The bishop turned from trying to hit Rath, barely in time to dodge Eliwood’s attack, though it tore the sleeve of his robes.

Lowen’s attack was more accurate, striking the bishop in the leg, and though Eliwood doubted that the morphs felt pain, the injury caused the bishop to sag to one side. Rebecca’s next shot might have missed, or been only a body shot, but by luck it turned into a perfect head-shot, and the bishop burst into dust.

There was a final explosion of light magic from the bishop, and Lowen was sent flying.

“Lowen!” Eliwood shouted, galloping to him. Lowen was unconsious, his armour had been shredded, and his upper right torso burned as if with bad sunburn, and Eliwood didn’t know what kind of internal damage there was, and he’d probably taken a concussion inside his helmet, but he was still breathing. “Lowen, hang on!” He hauled his knight up and onto his own horse, galloping back to try to make it around the melee. He was met by Athos, who lifted the knight from the horse with surprising strength and healed him.

“Thank you,” Eliwood panted, and helped him set Lowen down near the stairs, away from the conflict. Heath was nearby with his sword drawn, and he came to stand guard over him.

“I’ll take care of him, my lord,” he said. “I… don’t feel confident fighting without Hyperion.”

“Thanks,” Eliwood said again, and mounted Oren, returning to the field. “One down!”

“Two!” Lyndis called. “We got Uhai!”

That was a relief. Only the Valkyrie magic user to go, and then the morphs would have no more ranged answers to their magic and arrows.

Matthew staggered out near him, blood trickling from under his hairline. “I’m… so tired… milord… Just a scratch… need a breather…” He collapsed, and Serra ran after him and caught him.

“Matthew! Don’t do this to me, you jerk!”

“Hey!” yelled Bartre. “Look out, you two!”

Eliwood was looking around for the danger, when thunder cracked deafeningly, and anima lightning struck Bartre, Serra, and Matthew all three.

“Need a healer!” Eliwood shouted. “Also someone take out that Valkyrie right now!

“Ugh, I’m on it,” Vaida snapped, her Umbriel shooting past him.

Wallace was hot on her heels. “No, I am!”

“Bite me!” Vaida called to him. “Oh wait, you have to catch me first! …Umbriel!”

Thunder burst again, but Vaida dodged it. Down in the melee, Erk was waiting for it, caught it, and dissipated it. Lucius was pulling back, trying to get to Bartre and Serra and Matthew, but Raven was still fighting Linus – though not for much longer, it looked like – and still needed his support.

Wallace was having a hard time getting through to the Valkyrie. “Excuse me! Knight of Caelin, coming through! Lord Darin, would you move your metal carcass!”

There was another burst of thunder, and Umbriel was caught in it, but Vaida leapt from the saddle at exactly the right moment, her lance pointed downwards, and then there was no more thunder. They heard her voice. “Someone get some healing magic on my fart-monster!”

“Does she mean her wyvern!?” Eliwood murmured.

“Yes, I think so,” Lyndis said, appearing beside him. “How are you?”

“Where can I help?”

“You can take my place against Lloyd. He’s a pain in the neck, and I need to catch my breath.”

“On it,” Eliwood said, setting his lance in place again.

“Oswin!” Hector yelled before Eliwood was halfway to Lloyd’s flashing blade, and he looked to see Hector defending Oswin against Darin. Oswin’s armour was all chopped up on the right side, and he was holding his arm, which was bleeding profusely, as he limped away. To Eliwood’s other side, Harken was helping Raven stumble off the field, the red-headed swordsman clearly on the verge of collapse.

They were losing allies left and right, but so far, none of them were dead – although he had worries about Matthew and Bartre. It was also probably not good that they would have to pull back magic users for healing… but…

They were still going to win this.

Eliwood charged at Lloyd, Oren’s hooves clattering on the stone floor. The swordmaster glanced at him expressionlessly and dodged out of the way as if Eliwood were standing still. Eliwood inhaled in pain; a thin red line had appeared across his side. But it wasn’t deep; he wouldn’t trouble the healers yet.

There was a cry on his left, and a snarl on his right, and Karel slipped beneath his horse like water to attack the other swordsman morph, who was standing over Guy. Isadora was attempting to defend the youth, but the swordsman was too quick for her.

And Karel was as quick as he was.

Eliwood ignored the duel as best he could. Lloyd was equally dangerous, if not more so, and Marcus was getting overwhelmed despite Eliwood lending his lance to the fray. They needed someone fast, fast enough to hold him off. If Lyndis had needed a breather against this man… that was not a good sign.

“On me!” there was a cry from above, and Fiora and Florina swooped in. Lloyd blocked Fiora’s lance, dodged Florina’s, and scored a hit on Fiora’s pegasus’ flank. Where was Farina? She was helping Dart retreat, the young pirate covered in blood from Darin’s lance.

“Here!” cried another voice from Eliwood’s right, and Kent was forming up on him. He had drawn his sword.

“Why your sword?” Eliwood called breathlessly.

“More dexterity than a lance,” Kent responded shortly. That was true, Eliwood considered. A lance would easier keep Lloyd at bay, but a sword might have a better chance to hit him.

Lloyd dodged them again, Marcus, Eliwood, and Kent, and as Fiora and Florina swung around to attack again, he struck Fiora’s pegasus in the wing.

Florina’s lance finally wounded him, in the leg, but Fiora crashed heavily to the ground. Her pegasus screamed. So did her sister.

“Fiora!” Kent cried, riding swiftly to her.

She pulled herself to her feet. “I’m all right. I need to get Cary to safety. Florina! Stay back!”

“I’ll cover you,” Kent said, dismounting with his sword still in hand.

“Thank you,” Fiora said. “I can still fight, too.” And she drew her own sword.

“This man is too fast for either of us,” Kent said. “If he attacks us again, you need to run.”

“I’m not leaving either you or Cary!”

“Fiora-!”

“Ah! Here he comes!”

“I’m here!” Eliwood said, trying to maneouvre between Lloyd and the others. But… he wasn’t fast enough to fight an over-powered Lloyd either. The swordmaster seemed to blur in his speed, and the next that Eliwood knew, Lloyd had stabbed clear through both Kent and Fiora at once.

“Kent! Fiora!” Lyndis shouted, and as Lloyd withdrew his blade, she was on him like a wolf.

“I don’t think we’re going to beat this guy in hand-to-hand,” Eliwood said. Of their other fastest fighters, Karel was still fighting the random swordsman, and Jaffar was facing Brendan. “Pent! Athos!” Who else was still fighting that could use magic? “Get all the magic users together! We need to take out Lloyd!”

“Archers too?” Louise asked.

“Can’t hurt,” Eliwood said. “He’s faster than before. Keep your distance!”

“Elfire it is, then!” Pent said.

“Lyndis, get Kent and Fiora away from there! I’ll help you!” Eliwood rode quickly to the fallen pair and hauled Kent onto his horse. Lyndis was still fighting Lloyd, but Marcus and Florina helped with Fiora and her pegasus.

Eliwood heard another snarl of triumph from somewhere on the left of the hall, and saw that Karel had finally bested the enemy swordsman.

There was a shout of “Hold him still!” and as Geitz grappled with Linus, Sain and Wil attacked. Legault appeared seemingly out of nowhere from behind Linus and his blade flashed.

Linus jerked, and Legault was sent flying, blood spurting from his side, but Linus’s morph exploded into dust, his throat cut.

Only three left. Lloyd, Darin, and Brendan.

“On my mark!” Pent cried. “Lyn, you’ll want to move!”

“Can’t!” Lyndis said. “If I do, he’ll attack someone else! I can dodge in time.”

“I’m going to use Forblaze, I don’t think you can!”

“I’ll chance it.”

“Lyn!” cried Florina. “Let me help you!”

“That’ll work,” Pent said. “Everyone set? All right. …Now!”

Eliwood had to cover his eyes. There was a massive explosion, and above it, Florina winging away, Lyndis clinging to her arm.

When the last sparks of fire and thunder and lightning had faded, there was no trace of Lloyd.

Two more.

“Hector?”

“Yeah, I could use some help with this guy.”

“Why aren’t you using Armads?” Eliwood demanded, riding up to his friend.

“I’m saving it for Nergal!”

Lyndis appeared on his other side, the Sol Katti in her hand. “Go ahead and use it, what are you waiting for!?”

“Fine,” Hector growled, and drew it. “Stay back, then! Don’t want you caught in the crossfire!”

“As if you could touch me,” Lyndis sniffed. “We’ll take him together.”

“Fine. Eliwood, keep the others back. There’s too many people here.”

“What am I, traffic control?” Eliwood said, smiling finally.

Hector only grunted as he raced back into battle against Darin. The huge axe glowed white as it slashed down on Darin’s lance, shattering it completely.

From there it was no contest.

And the only morph left was… Brendan Reed, who was currently sporting several icicles from Nino’s efforts.

“Form up!” Hector bellowed, gesturing to the remnants of the group. “Cavalry in front, mages in the back! Archers around the sides! Let’s get ‘im!”

“Don’t be so cocky, Hector!” Lyndis cried, running after him.

“Wait for me-!” Eliwood said, spurring Oren. “You keep leaving me out of the interesting fights!”

“Hurry up, then! You’re on a horse, you should be faster than us anyway!”

“Do you think anyone could keep up with Lyndis when she’s angry!?”

“Damn straight,” Lyndis said, and bared her teeth in a warrior’s smile.

“Please,” Eliwood heard Nino’s voice. “Put my father out of his misery…”

He looked over his shoulder at her and smiled. “Working on it.”

Even Brendan Reed as an overpowered morph couldn’t stand against their united front.

 

Nergal showed no signs of coming to check on them, so Eliwood directed the remnants of the group to take a rest and check on the wounded. He himself rode to where Hector stood, catching his breath on his own. He dismounted. There was something very important that had been put aside before, but it was time now. “How are you?”

“I’m fine. And you?”

“Hector… You’re not still mad at Oswin, are you?”

“I… can’t forgive him for keeping it from me. Even if it was my brother’s orders.”

“But… you do know that it was their way of caring about you, right?”

Hector made an angry gesture with his arm. “Screw that! I deserved to know…”

“While that may be true, don’t hold it against Oswin. He’s been as faithful to you as you’ve been to me, through thick and thin…”

Hector rolled his eyes. “Okay, you’re laying it on a bit thick. Fine, I’ll… talk to him.”

“Thanks.”

“Look at him,” Hector grunted, indicating Nergal, not even paying attention to them. “He surely knows that we won the fight against his minions, and he’s still not taking us seriously.”

“He’ll have to soon,” Eliwood said. “If these work.”

“They worked pretty well on the morphs. I like the new holy magic feature, for sure.” Hector grinned.

“It’s all come down to this,” Eliwood said, still seriously. “I’m going to check on some other people. Be ready to go in a minute.”

“Yes you will,” Hector said, and waved.

Lyndis jogged to catch up to Eliwood. “Eliwood…”

“Yes, Lyndis?”

“How… how long did you know?”

“About what?”

“About Hector… and his brother…”

“A while,” Eliwood answered. “I… noticed Hector was acting oddly a while ago, so I got Oswin to tell me…”

“I think Ceniro guessed, too,” Lyndis said. “I feel like he was trying to support Hector in his own way, the last few days.”

“Mm,” Eliwood said.

“I’m going to go talk to him. I’ll see you in a moment.”

“Mm,” Eliwood said again, and watched her run off and give Hector a hug. Hector jumped, and Eliwood unashamedly listened in to their conversation with the farseer.

“Hey, what’s this now?” Hector demanded, trying to pry her off.

“I just… I’m sorry about your brother, Hector. I’m certain you did not cry.”

“No… I can’t. It’s not time for that.”

“You… will never cry for him, will you?”

“Nah. He wouldn’t have wanted that.”

“Then, when all this is over… I will cry for your part. …Don’t die, okay?”

“Okay,” Hector said, and awkwardly put an arm around her as she hugged him.

Eliwood took a drink and went to find Marcus. “I think it’s time that we sent the rest back, don’t you agree?”

“I do. Thank you for allowing me to accompany you on this last push, Lord Eliwood.”

“It’s not much. We could all still die.”

“We believe in you, Lord Eliwood, and you believe in us. Cold, hard reality is an essential factor, but so is hope and determination – and you have both in spades.”

“Thank you, Marcus. …Let’s let them rest for a few minutes longer. We have that much time, at least.”

But Hector came to find him again. “Eliwood, are we going to get this show on the road? Hey, everyone, gather round!”

“Right,” Eliwood said. “I really think that the rest of you should pull back now.”

“But!” began Sain, who had not been injured, but also had not been chosen for the final group.

“I agree with Eliwood,” Athos said unexpectedly. “Too many people will not help and will only be targets for Nergal’s wrath.”

“Sain,” Lyndis said, “lead these people out of the ruins. Get some distance between you and here. If we win, we’ll be right behind you. If not, you can at least find a defensible position somewhere outside.”

“Lady Lyn,” Sain said, distraught.

“It’s fine, Sain,” she said, gently but firmly. “Go take care of Kent, would you?”

“Yes, Lady Lyn.”

Marcus turned to Eliwood. “Lord Eliwood, I believe we are ready.”

“Follow me,” Eliwood said, and mounted and rode up the stairs.

Nergal turned to them. “So you still come. It’s strange, Eliwood. I would have thought that killing Ninian would have crushed your spirit. Are you perhaps as heartless as you claim that I am?”

Eliwood lowered his head. “I know that I killed her. I will never forget. I also know that I’ve caused much pain for my friends. But… that’s why I fight on! And I won’t lose here!” His head came up and he brought Durandal into striking position, ready to charge.

“Me either!” Hector roared, already charging with Armads at the ready. Eliwood spurred after him.

Lyndis popped up from behind Hector and bounded off his shoulders, getting more height for her own attack, Sol Katti gleaming. “You’ve made your last mistake!”

Nergal spread his arms, laughing. “Death feeds me. Death pleases me. I am the essence I consume. You fools will become corpses here, because I wish it to be.” A wave of darkness rose from him and engulfed them.

It was like nothing Eliwood had ever felt before. It was as if his very self was dissolving in the darkness, and it caused him agony like he had never imagined. Neither hot, nor cold, no up or down, only a disorienting fall into more blackness and immense pain.

 

When Eliwood managed to lift his head again, he stared dazed at the emerald room he was in. Nergal was still standing there, in the centre, and everyone… his friends… they were all scattered around the edges, as if they had been blown there by some catastrophic explosion.

Only Athos was still standing, his staff glowing blue-white as he looked Nergal in the face. A white-gold beam burst through the ceiling, piercing a thin beam through onto Nergal’s head. Athos raised his hand, and a spark travelled down the beam, and then Eliwood had to cover his face from the explosion that followed.

Eliwood struggled to his feet, though his entire body ached. How he was still alive, he did not know, though he was dimly glad that he had sent away most of the group before. Oren was still unconscious, if not dead. Durandal lay near to hand. Eliwood gave a wild warcry and charged at Nergal on foot.

Somewhere behind him, he heard a grunt and knew that Hector was conscious. He couldn’t think about that now. All that mattered was striking Nergal.

He slashed with the heavy sword, and missed as Nergal turned to face him, scowling, the dark druid’s injured eye rolling wildly. Eliwood spun around the long way, bringing the sword down with all the strength he could muster.

Durandal struck Nergal’s shoulder, and while it didn’t exactly cleave him in two as it might have a normal person, it did leave its mark and a spray of black blood. Nergal was finally looking unamused and that was gratifying, Eliwood thought, as he gritted his teeth and brought the sword back for another strike.

The only warning he had was a shift in the wind and Lyndis whipped past him, darting with her nodachi past Nergal. Eliwood saw the strike leave a glowing mark on the skirt of Nergal’s robes, which quickly darkened past black with more blood.

Nergal glared and began to cast his spell again. Eliwood’s eyes widened. If they couldn’t stop him here and now, they were well and truly dead.

There was a hoarsely yelled challenge from the other side, and Hector appeared, Armads raised high. Eliwood stabbed. Lyndis slashed.

All three weapons connected, and Nergal staggered. The three lords drew back a pace, panting, their weapons ready to strike again.

There was no need. Nergal coughed, and blood came out. “How…!? How could you harm me…? After all I’ve done… I’ve come too far to lose now…!”

“Shoulda given up when Greybeard told you to,” Hector wheezed.

“Why…” Nergal gasped, mournfully.

“What?” Eliwood asked, taken aback.

“Why did I want this power… in the first place? What… what was I doing? I… I don’t… remember…”

Eliwood heard a sniffle and turned to see Nils. Lyndis hurried to his side. “Nils? What is it?”

“Why… am I crying?” Nils whispered.

“It doesn’t matter!” Nergal howled. “I will not die alone! With your last moments… tremble and despair!” He raised his right hand and crushed a glimmering pale-green stone. A burst of light flashed from it, and Nergal fell forward, dead.

“Is he…” Eliwood said.

“He is dead,” Athos said. Eliwood sheathed his sword.

“Are you all right?” Lyndis asked Nils.

“I don’t know…” Nils said. “Why… am I…”

Hector walked over to Nils and ruffled his hair. “You’ve just had a long day. No wonder you’re emotional. We won, though.”

“We…” Nils said.

“Ninian would be proud,” Eliwood said. “Ceniro and Ninian both.”

The ground shook. Everyone staggered and fell to their hands and knees.

“What’s happening!?” Lyndis cried. “Did he do something?”

“Look there!” Athos said, pointing at the Dragon’s Gate. It was changing colours, its surface flickering like angry water. It was beginning to glow orange predominantly.

Eliwood climbed to his feet, staggering as the shaking didn’t abate. The rest of the group was beginning to recover, and followed suit. “Come on!”

“Eliwood!” Hector yelled. “It’s – it’s dragons! Don’t go up there!”

“All the more reason!” Eliwood yelled back. “We’re the only ones who can stop them if they’re hostile!”

There was a colossal roar, and a flaming orange-red head broke the surface of the Gate, followed swiftly by the rest of the dragon.

And two more followed it.

Eliwood came to a halt, panting and staring in trepidation at the trio of dragons. “I… wasn’t expecting three of them…”

“This was his plan to get post-mortem revenge on us,” Hector growled from beside him.

“Can we fight them?” Lyndis said. “We have the weapons, but is that enough!?”

“Wait,” Eliwood said. “What if we could talk to them? Nils! Can we speak to them?”

“Lord Eliwood, look out!” Nils shrieked, and the foremost dragon lowered its head and sent a billow of flame at them.

Lyndis screamed, and the three of them grabbed each other, trying to shield each other futilely from the lethal fire.

When they failed to meet their crispy doom, Eliwood cracked open an eye and peered over Hector’s shoulder. A shimmering blue barrier met his eyes, and he turned to see Athos holding the barrier with his staff.

“I cannot hold this for long…” the Archsage said. “Pent! Take up the barrier. I must cast Fimbulvetr. It might weaken them. We cannot let them get out! If they do, Elibe will be ash within a month!”

“Yes sir!” Pent said, and raised his own Barrier staff. It wavered slightly; the power of even the Mage General of Etruria was not as great as Archsage Athos.

And even the power of Archsage Athos only caused a little steam off the super-heated hide of the dragons.

“They’re not friendly, so we have to fight them,” Lyndis said. “But how are we even going to get close!?”

Athos tried Aureola and Forblaze, but the dragons didn’t even falter. “They’ve grown so strong… while I am so weak. Can we defeat them…?”

“I’m actually kind of scared,” Hector admitted. “My legs are trembling, and not just because of the ground shaking.”

“Me too,” Lyndis said. “Never thought I’d face three dragons in my life.” She turned to him. “Hector… I never really said this before, but it’s been fun fighting with you.”

He blinked at her. “It’s been fun for me too.”

“Don’t speak like that!” Eliwood said. “This isn’t over yet!” He realized they were still clinging to each other and let go, his hand going to Durandal. The other two let go of each other and stared at him.

“Eliwood?” Hector said.

“We’re going to fight. And we’re going to win this one, too!”

Lyndis smiled. “When you talk like that, I almost believe you. But those dragons are getting awfully close.”

Eliwood drew Durandal. “Then let’s do this!”

“Wait,” said an ethereal voice, a vaguely familiar voice, and a cloaked figure teleported into the space a little in front of him.

Eliwood jumped – his mind immediately assumed it was Nergal, though Nergal was dead. “Who…?”

“Bramimond!” cried Athos. “You are none too soon!”

“Forgive me,” Bramimond murmured. “Preparations… took time.”

“Then… it is possible?”

“It is possible,” Bramimond said. “If you would all lend me your aid…”

“How do we do that?” Hector said.

“Think happy thoughts,” Pent said, smiling.

“And were you privy to any of this?” Hector asked the count suspiciously.

Pent shrugged. “No, but I think I have an idea of what he’s doing. Go on, do it.”

Eliwood closed his eyes. The happiest thought he could think of was… of being home, in Pherae, with his mother… and with Ninian, alive, in his arms, under the trees in the garden.

There was a flash of pale-green light, and he opened his eyes, startled.

The first thing he saw was sea-foam green, and his eyes widened in disbelief. Ninian’s body floated before him, her eyes closed and her arms hanging at her side, but her dress was not stained with her blood. In fact, she looked as if she were only sleeping.

“What… is…!?” Lyndis began.

“I don’t believe it…” Eliwood murmured.

“Ow, my eyes,” Hector said. “Wait, what!?”

“Let the dragon girl’s soul be restored,” said Bramimond, and the same pale-green light that had emanated from the crystal Nergal crushed began to coalesce around Ninian.

She floated to the floor… and stood there.

Her large crimson eyes opened. “Ah… where…”

“Ninian!” yelled Nils, and he ran to her.

“Nils!” she gasped, and hugged her brother. “You’re all right! I’m so glad… And the others?”

“Right here,” Nils said. “Lord Eliwood sent the rest away to be safe, don’t worry.”

She looked at him, and their eyes met. He was still gaping like a fish, he knew. But he couldn’t help it. Ninian… alive…

She smiled at him. “Lord Eliwood… I’m so happy you’re all right.”

“I…” That was as far as he could get, and then he dropped Durandal, ran forward, and embraced her tightly.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I never meant to…”

“I know,” she whispered back. “It’s all right. I forgave you from the moment it happened.”

He held her all the tighter. “I won’t let you leave my side again. I promise.”

She looked up at him and smiled, and he felt like he could fight all three dragons single-handedly. “Lord Eliwood…”

“Lady Dragon,” Bramimond broke in gently. “We are in danger from your brethren. If you could use your power to turn them back…”

“But… I cannot use my power in this world,” she said regretfully.

“Do you not feel it?” Bramimond pressed. “Your power should be returning. It has been restored from your broken dragonstone.”

“Ah…” Ninian paused, and gave a deep, relieved sigh. “Yes. I can feel it. All right. I will try.” She gently put Eliwood away, and stepped forward, all alone, outside the barrier that Pent and Athos were keeping up.

“You cannot come here,” she said softly to the three fire dragons. “This world is not for us anymore…”

She vanished under three streams of fire.

“Ninian!” Eliwood screamed.

Nils took his arm. “She’s fine. A little fire won’t harm her now.”

Indeed, she was still standing, her clothes not even browned by the experience. “I am sorry… I must do this…” She raised her arms, and a freezing wind began to blow through the chamber. It concentrated on the dragons, ice creeping up their legs, stifling their fire, choking them.

They collapsed, and two of them began to dissolve into thin air.

“N-no more…” Ninian gasped, and fell to her knees.

Eliwood started forward, but Bramimond was there first to catch her as she fell sideways into his arms. “I will take care of her,” said the dark sage. “She is fine, only a little tired. You take care of the last dragon now, Athos.”

“Yes!” Athos said. “It has been weakened. Let us attack!”

The dragon raised itself to its feet as Bramimond and Ninian teleported away, and it glared down at them with eyes that glowed red with slitted pupils.

Eliwood smiled, grabbed Durandal, and got into his fighting stance. “Lyndis, you’re the fastest of the three of us. You get its attention, and Hector and I will hack away at it until it dies. With Roland and Durban’s help, it shouldn’t take too long!”

“Got it!” the other two chorused, and Lyndis sprang into action. Even her sword seemed to have an effect on it, carving white lines in its fiery hide.

“Don’t forget about us!” Pent said, and Forblaze exploded against the dragon’s left flank, on the opposite side to where Lyndis was currently.

“Everyone fight, but fight carefully!” Eliwood said, ducking the dragon’s massive claws.

“Eh, just don’t hit us!” Hector said, bringing Armads down on a claw and severing it from the dragon’s foot. The dragon roared and swatted at him, sending Hector flying heavily into the far wall.

“Hector!” cried Lyndis.

“I’m all right!” Hector’s voice came back. “’s what heavy armour is for!”

“If you weren’t so heavy, you could probably dodge better!”

Hector grunted as he struggled to his feet. “Woman, have you seen how tall I am? I’m a target no matter how fast I move! May as well armour up! You, now, you’re tiny-”

“Augh!” Lyndis shouted in exasperation, ducking under the dragon’s other claw.

Athos stepped forward, and Aureola burned through the ceiling again, striking the dragon in the wing. It flinched and took a step away from the spell. A series of projectiles from the group, and Pent’s Forblaze, struck it from the other side, and it reared up and hissed at them. Great stones from the ceiling, loosened by Aureola, fell to the floor, coming dangerously close to hitting Wallace and Harken, but also providing possible cover from the dragonfire.

Eliwood looked up at the dragon’s head, towering above him. He wasn’t Lyndis, able to bound over horses from a standing position, but he could probably still get at the dragon’s throat…

The dragon lowered its head to him and Athos, quick as a snake, and inhaled in preparation to breathing fire.

“Eliwood, get out of there!” Lyndis yelled, appearing on the dragon’s neck and running along it. Flames leapt up in the wake of her footsteps, and when she jumped off again, her dress was on fire. But she had distracted the dragon from burning Eliwood, and now it was shooting fire in her direction. She dodged it and put out her dress with a quick roll to the side.

Athos cast Aureola again, snapping off the dragon’s other wing. The dragon snarled deafeningly and stomped on the Archsage.

“Greybeard!” Hector cried, running back to the action, but the sage had put up a barrier just in time, holding off the dragon’s foot. But he was clearly weakening quickly.

The group was doing its best to be distracting, running or galloping around, but the dragon twisted its head and blew fire at all of them. Only quick work by both Pent and Canas saved them from being torched, that and the stones giving them slight cover against the fire.

Hector turned to Eliwood. “Eliwood! Here, I’ll give you a boost!” He held out Armads horizontally.

“You’re crazy!” Eliwood said, and grinned. He charged towards Hector, leaping on to the blade of the axe. Hector heaved, and Eliwood jumped from the edge, getting about twice as high as he would normally. Durandal blazed with fierce light as he brought it down between the dragon’s eyes. Once, twice, thrice, and the heat was erupting around him – it was burning his boots, it would burn him from the inside out – but he was winning, he was doing this for Athos, for Elibe, for Ninian, and nothing was going to stop him now.

There was a roar, possibly from the dragon, and his ears felt like they would burst. His circlet was searing his brow like a brand. He couldn’t tell which was was up again, everything was fire…

 

Everything was cool, soft welcoming coolness, and he could hear Hector and Lyndis calling his name. He could even hear Nils calling his name. He smiled and opened his eyes.

Athos was collapsed beside him, his barrier still intact, but the old Archsage was hardly breathing. The dragon was nowhere to be seen, but there was a lot of stone rubble everywhere, and he could see sky above.

First he should let them know he was all right. “I’m here! Athos is here! Come quickly, I think we need a healer!”

“I’m on my way,” Pent called from somewhere across the room, and coughed.

Isadora was first to them. “My lord!”

“I seem to be fine, Isadora. How is everyone else?”

She looked back.

“We seem to be in one piece, somehow,” Wallace said, clanking up, followed by Hector and Lyndis in a hurry.

“Eliwood!” Hector cried. “How are you alive!? I thought you’d been lost in that explosion?”

“Explosion?” Eliwood asked stupidly.

“Oh! Pent!” Lyndis ran to help him, though he was already leaning on Louise, limping.

He waved her off. “I’m fine, just a little bruised. Lord Athos!”

Hector knelt beside the sage, gently lifting him into a more comfortable position.

The old sage opened his eyes. “Ah… so you have won. You are… truly worthy successors to Roland.”

“Thank you, sir,” Eliwood said. “Hold still, we need to heal you.”

Athos shook his head weakly. “It will be of no use. I am an old man, and I expended the last of my energy to protect us from that blast.”

“Lord Athos!” Pent exclaimed. “I can-”

“No, Pent. I am content to pass here. I have seen this trial through to its end. Do not grieve for me. Soon I will be with long-absent friends. I have no regrets. Heal the others…”

Pent did so.

There was the sound of a teleport from behind them, and Bramimond appeared, with Ninian again. “Athos.”

“Bramimond, my old friend. It seems I will be leaving this world before you.”

“I will not be around for many more years either,” Bramimond said serenely. “Our task is done. We have guarded the world as long as was necessary. It is not up to us anymore, but to these ones.”

“They have proven themselves equal to the challenge, certainly,” Athos agreed. “Though… my young friends… my heart foretells that you shall face equally great challenges in the future… Neither Bramimond nor I will be here to help a land in need…”

“What do you mean?” Lyndis asked.

“An evil star shall rise in Bern… and all of Elibe will be awash in blood. But once again the children of Roland’s fire shall lead hope to the land…” He gave a gentle sigh, and his head fell back on Hector’s arm.

“Lord Athos…” Eliwood said.

“I think Greybeard has gone,” Hector said.

“But look,” Lyndis said. “He’s smiling.”

Bramimond quietly teleported away. Ninian turned away from them and took a few steps towards the Dragon’s Gate, which was now gently rippling with a silver light. “So once again darkness will sweep over the land…”

Eliwood looked up at her. “Ninian…” He stood and walked over to her, and she turned to him and smiled, then bent her head, hiding her face behind her hair.

“Lord Eliwood… I’m sorry that I grieved you.”

“It’s nothing,” he said, and it truly wasn’t. His heart felt light to see her again. “Ninian… I’m so happy you’re back. I can hardly believe it; I feel like I’m in a dream. Espcially after we lost…” He suddenly sobered. Ninian didn’t know yet.

“You lost…?” she asked gently, looking afraid.

Eliwood bowed his head. “Ceniro died in the battle before the Dragon’s Gate. An archer shot him, and he was gone before any of our healers could get there.”

“I’m so sorry!” she gasped, and tears came into her eyes. “He was always so kind to us. He never hesitated to let us help, but he kept us safe – and he kept me near you…” It was exactly what Nils had said, and he nodded.

“Yes… I’m grateful for that as well. He achieved marvels, and our last battle was difficult without him. It was only thanks to his training that we succeeded at all.”

“I am glad you overcame it all,” she said. “And that I could help you again.”

“Ninian…” he said, returning to his original intention, “after I lost you… I knew beyond all hope that I wanted you by my side forever. I need you, Ninian. Please… come home with me to Pherae.” He reached for her hand, but she didn’t take it, and he let his own hand fall to his side, staring at her in anxious confusion.

“I… I wish to apologize,” she said, keeping her head down. “I’m to blame for all this.”

“Ninian! Ninian, that’s not true.”

“If it wasn’t for us… If it wasn’t for me, this whole thing would never have happened. You see… Long ago, before the Scouring, I think, we lived here. I’m not sure. We were children, truly children, then. And we were driven out. But… since then, not a day went by that I did not think back to the place I had called home… And so, when Nergal called us… I couldn’t resist.”

“We didn’t mean to stay long,” Nils said, coming to stand hand-in-hand with her. “Only long enough to look around, to see home one last time. But… Nergal captured us, and… well, everything happened from there.”

“It was my weakness that led to this,” Ninian said, and Eliwood saw a tear run down her smooth white cheek. “My weakness that led to all this death and destruction. And these children here… Those fire dragons… They were just like me. They just wanted to see…”

“Ninian… Nils…” Eliwood organized his thoughts. “First of all, it’s not your fault at all. It’s Nergal’s fault, all of it. The Scouring, though, we humans have to take the blame for that. We may have attacked you in ignorance, but that’s no excuse to shirk our responsibility for what happened.”

“Do you truly think so?” Nils asked doubtfully.

“I do,” Eliwood said, smiling now. “And my father would say the same thing. And I know what else he would say: let’s work together for the future. If the entire continent could be like that hidden city of Arcadia that Lord Athos spoke of, a place where humans and dragons could live in harmony together again… wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“That would be wonderful indeed,” Ninian said, and clapped her hands. “But that won’t happen for a long time here, probably not in our lifetimes…”

“So, we can’t stay here,” Nils said. “But there are humans in the world we’re returning to, too. Meeting everyone… it’s definitely changed my opinion of humans, completely. We’ll try our best to live in peace with the humans in our new world, for sure!”

“Right then!” Hector said. “Good luck with that!”

Eliwood’s face fell. “But… if we could find that hidden city, you could…”

“The gate is still open,” Nils said gently. “If it stays that way, other dragons will certainly come through soon. It can only be properly closed, by us who opened it, on the other side.”

“It’s true,” Ninian said. “We must return to our world.”

“But… is that the only way?” Eliwood cried, his heart sinking in his chest. “Are you not saying I’ll never see you two again?”

“Lord Eliwood,” Ninian said, her eyes shining with emotion, “Lord Eliwood, I am truly blessed to have met you. Please, don’t forget me, for I’ll never forget you.”

“I… Ninian! It… Is there no other way?”

She couldn’t meet his eyes, and took Nils by the hand. “Let us return to our world, Nils…”

But unexpectedly, Nils held firm. “Ninian… The air of this world has changed much since we left it the first time. No matter how long we stay here, our strength will never return. In fact, if we stay many more years, we won’t live long.”

“Nils?” Ninian stopped, staring at her brother.

“But even knowing that… I know you truly want to stay,” he said. “I understand. Stay here. Stay with Lord Eliwood.”

Nils?” Ninian gasped, her eyes widening.

Nils stepped forward and offered Ninian’s hand to Eliwood. “Lord Eliwood… Please look after my sister.”

Eliwood stared at Nils, no less surprised than Ninian. “I will. I will make her happy, I swear it.” He smiled a little lopsidedly. “After all, I have no wish for an angry ice dragon brother-in-law to come destroy my castle.”

Ninian giggled.

“But I wish for nothing more than to make her happy… to make you happy. I will take care of her, Nils, you have my word.”

“Nils…” Ninian said, concerned again. “Are you sure? This… I would never see Lord Eliwood again, but this way… I’ll never see you again. But the gate must be closed…”

“I’m fine,” Nils said, smiling bravely. “I’m going alone. I don’t have your curiosity, and I have work to do in the other world, and… I… also want you to be happy, and since you’re in love…”

“Nils!” Ninian blushed. But she was smiling. She rushed forward and hugged him tightly, and he hugged her back. There might have been tears on both sides. After letting them have a moment to themselves, Lyndis stepped forward and joined the hug, followed quickly by Hector and then Eliwood.

After a while, Ninian and Nils extricated themselves. “I think we’d like a minute,” Ninian said, wiping her eyes.

Eliwood offered her a handkerchief. “Take your time. We’ll be over here.” They left the siblings by the Gate and withdrew a little.

“What’s happening?” Wallace had to know. “The kids are going through the Gate?”

“Nils is going home,” Lyndis explained. “Ninian is staying with Eliwood. They’re saying goodbye now.”

“That’s a little sad,” Wallace said. “But everyone must part ways sooner or later. I’m happy for Lord Eliwood, though. She is a lovely girl!”

Hector slapped Eliwood on the back. “Good for you, buddy!”

Eliwood began to blush. “Stop it, Hector.”

 

“Okay,” Nils said. “I’m off.”

“Take care!” Hector said, waving broadly.

“I’ll miss you!” Lyn said, apparently restraining herself from hugging the boy again.

“We’ll never forget you, I promise,” Eliwood said, with an arm around Ninian.

Ninian waved shakily. “I… Goodbye, Nils, I l-love you. You’re the best brother a sister could ask for…”

“Don’t cry, Ninian,” Nils said, standing at the edge of the Gate and looking back. “Even if we’re in separate worlds, and we never see each other again, our bond will never, ever be cut.”

“Well said,” Hector said.

“More importantly… Be as happy as you can.”

He waved one last time and stepped through the gate. They could see him dimly through the silver wavering surface, and he slowly faded from view – and after a moment, the silver glow faded, leaving the Gate dark and empty.

“Nils,” Ninian said, and sniffled, rubbing her eyes.

“Thank you, Nils,” Eliwood said softly.

“Come on,” Lyn said, already heading back to the group. “We have to let the others know that everything’s all right!”

“Right behind you!” Hector called.

“Unbelievable,” Eliwood said, smiling. “Where do they get all that energy, again?”

Ninian giggled.

Oren came up to him, and Eliwood took the reins, but didn’t mount. He wanted to use his own two legs, to feel the ache in them that meant he was still alive.

“My lord,” Marcus said. “What shall we do with Lord Athos’s body?”

“I’ll take care of him,” Lord Pent said, looking up from an earnest discussion with his wife. “I’m not sure yet if we should take him back to Nabata or to Missur, but we should place him among friends.”

“I shall take him, if I may,” Marcus said.

“Please do,” Pent said. “Let me help you.”

 

They came out into brilliant sunlight; Valor’s omnipresent fog and clouds had parted for once.

“How hopeful,” Lyn said. “It’s a beautiful day. I wish Ceniro could have seen this. Could have seen us.”

“It’ll just make it hot, trekking back to the ship,” Hector said.

Lyn glared at him, and then saw that he was joking and rolled her eyes.

“Okay, so, I have a bone to pick with you, lady. Since when did you decide I made a good trampoline!?”

“What? Oh, you mean when I attacked Nergal? I needed more height, and you’re tall! I’m short, and while I’m strong, I don’t have a lot of body weight to throw behind it.”

“You could have warned me!”

“Ugh, are we doing this again?”

Eliwood ignored his bickering friends and scooped Ninian into his arms, heedless of his aches and bruises. “You’ll truly come home with me to Pherae?”

“Yes!” Ninian said.

He smiled into her eyes, and she put her arms around his neck. He bent his head and kissed her deeply.

 

Chapter 10: Victory or Death          Epilogue

November 8, 2014

Rekka no Ken: The Tactician and the Dragons: Victory or Death

« ... »

Chapter 9: Sands of Time         Chapter 11: Light

 

~*SPOILERS*~ So, just to get you up to speed here… I drew this in May 2004. It’s now 2014 and I’m putting a version of it into print. How unbelievable is that!?!? XD This is actually really, REALLY satisfying. Although maybe that’s just the badass music I’m listening to (see below).

Also… Chekov makes an appearance. The literary device, not the Star Trek character. ~*END SPOILERS*~

This chapter owes a lot to Aldnoah’s No Differences and other bits – AZPV, A-0pictures, MKAlieZ, AZ-Kat, and R0B0T. Also I should point out that I do listen a lot to the FE7 (and bits of 8 and 9) OST(s) to get the right tone, but when it comes to getting pumped for drama and/or fighting, I need other resources to fully unlock my abilities. : P

These chapters are getting longer again. The last chapter will probably be long. I don’t know how long the epilogue will be, but I hope not too long. ONE MORE CHAPTER AND EPILOGUE. I’m so close to victory I can taste it. …Although maybe that’s the butterscotch chips I’ve been eating. But I’m ON. I want to talk more about my excitement but it must be getting dull by now and you probably just want to read the dang story, no? GO READ IT it’s not terrible!

Anyone looking at my NNWM wordcount today and wondering why it’s so high, it’s because I included a bunch of in-character roleplaying that I did with a friend on Skype the other day. Hey, it’s fiction writing, ja? : P

 

Chapter 10: Victory or Death

 

It was as Hector predicted – he looked unrested the next morning, though he tried to conceal it with a cheerful, or at least confident face.

Too confident. Ceniro thought back to how Hector had seemed a few days ago, and again yesterday when he asked after his brother, and wondered if it was still bothering him. He didn’t think he should ask Matthew of it, as the roguish spy would take things into his own hands – too far, Ceniro worried.

Eliwood and Lyn didn’t seem to notice, though Eliwood of course still looked worse, with red eyes and a pale face. Lyn was eating breakfast with Ceniro, and Eliwood ate with Hector – not a lot, but food was going in, and that was what was important. Ceniro watched their leader, watched his steady hands as he took in porridge, and wondered how much inner strength he had to be able to keep going even now after everything.

Nils, on the other hand, still was not eating or responding, locking himself in his room. Even Florina couldn’t get in to be with him.

It was a beautiful day, an unexpectedly beautiful late summer day, and Ceniro thought it was a pity they had to spend it marching quickly towards Badon. He would have preferred to walk in a leisurely fashion, taking the time to look at everything… But Nergal wasn’t waiting around, so neither could they.

Hector, unexpectedly, was the one with a suggestion that appealed most to him. “Hey, Ceniro, Lyn, c’mere, I have an idea.”

“What is it?” Lyn said, hopping her chair over to their table. Ceniro followed more slowly.

“We’re going to need lots of supplies for a campaign on Valor. I sent word to Badon yesterday asking if Captain Fargus would take us again, and I’m waiting on word back before we set out. I figure we could use the time to…”

“Go shopping?” Lyn asked with a cheeky smile. “Hector, you shouldn’t have!”

“As long as you don’t blow the country’s GDP on frilly dresses and jewelry, it’ll be fine,” he groused. “Took me long enough to settle on a reasonable sum with Oswin as it was.”

“Hector, since when have I been a girl for frilly dresses?” Lyn said, raising a delicate eyebrow.

“You’d look good in them,” Hector mumbled, looking somewhere off to the side, away from her.

She giggled. “I’ll take that into consideration when looking for armour.”

“Plenty of women do,” Eliwood said.

“What, like Serra?” Hector snorted.

“I was thinking more like Louise,” Eliwood said.

“She does dress very pretty,” Lyn said. “Far too pink for me, but it suits her. But I’m going to stay with my Sacaean dress. So you don’t have to worry about your… what did you call it? Your GPD?”

“GDP,” Hector said. “It’s a money thing.”

“So you were paying attention in class,” Eliwood said mildly.

“What else was I going to do?”

“What you normally do?”

“I was bored enough to pay attention some days, shut up.”

Ceniro smiled. “So, new weapons for everyone?”

“New high-quality weapons, from the city’s best smiths,” Hector said, glad to get the conversation back on track. “Not only that, but healing and other staves, vulneraries, regular bandages, and enough food to feed us for a month. Which, with the two wyverns and all the horses, is going to be a lot.”

“Better tell Fargus to bring an extra boat,” Lyn teased.

“I did, actually,” Hector said, in the same vein.

“Why, I’m more and more surprised! Hector planned ahead?” She smiled incredulously at Eliwood, who couldn’t help but smile back.

Hector rolled his eyes, but he too saw the smile on Eliwood’s face and withheld his retort.

“I’ll ask Marcus and Oswin to help us pick the best places, and get the stronger soldiers together to carry things,” Eliwood said.

“And discourage pickpockets,” Ceniro added. “Though I guess if your funds are as deep as you suggest they are, you’d notice large bags of gold leaving your person.”

“I’m not bringing physical gold,” Hector said. “I’m bringing a lot of IOUs, and leaving a note with my brother’s treasurer.” He smirked, and Lyn laughed, but Ceniro couldn’t help but think there was a hesitation in the smirk.

“I’ve heard that in Etruria, they call those ‘cheques,’” Eliwood said. “Apparently they’re becoming very popular.”

“But kind of silly if you just need new boots or something,” Hector said. Ceniro glanced at his own. He probably should get new ones again soon. But not yet. He’d mention it to one of the lords after they won.

Eliwood smiled. “But Etrurian boots are very expensive.”

“All right, what if you just wanted a snack?”

“That’s a better comparison…”

Ceniro felt in his own pockets and paused. “Hang on a minute…”

“What is it?” Eliwood asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said, bringing out a brown, rounded disc. “Matthew gave it to me ages ago, I think. I forgot about it. I should probably use it.”

“What does it do, though?” Hector said.

Ceniro thought back, and his grey eyes got very big. “I think it explodes.”

Hector shoved his chair back from the table. “And you’ve been carrying it on your person!? What kind of-!?”

Ceniro looked more closely at it. “Oh, there’s instructions on the bottom. That’s convenient.”

“I would agree,” Eliwood said. He hadn’t jumped as much as Hector, but he still looked alarmed, and Ceniro felt guilty.

“It says… to use this, turn the centre dial once counterclockwise. When it clicks, it is ready and will go off when stepped on.”

“Nasty,” Lyn said. “Please don’t keep that in your pocket anymore.”

“I’m not going to,” Ceniro said. “I honestly forgot about it. It’s not that heavy or anything, and…”

“No one cares about how heavy it is, we only care that our friend has been walking around with his life literally in his pocket,” Hector said, holding out his hand. “Give it here. I’ll find a place for it. It sounds vastly useful and a lot of fun, but you’re not keeping it.”

Ceniro gave it up with a sheepish smile. “I understand. But let’s not keep it in Merlinus’s cart, either. That sounds like an equally bad idea.”

“Matthew gave it to you, eh? Maybe I’ll give it back to him. As punishment.”

“You’re so cruel,” Lyn said.

“If you’re done eating and scaring me half to death, we could get moving,” Hector said, and stood, holding firmly to the bomb. “I’ll get Oswin and Marcus, and give this to Matthew. Ceniro, you pick the people to carry things, and don’t say Vaida’s wyvern. Or Farina’s pegasus. Or Serra. Anyone else, you can take. Eliwood, Lyn, I’ll meet you at the front gates when you’re ready.”

“See you there,” Eliwood said calmly.

 

They set out about ten minutes later, the six of them and five of the strongest in their army – and Merlinus. They were heading down the hill into the city towards the northeast, where the smiths were to be found.

Marcus admired the place. “Ostia’s castle town is as impressive as ever. Shops and items of all types imaginable.”

“For generations, our ancestors dedicated themselves to a sort of frugal militarism. Nobles and commoners alike shunned extravagance,” Hector said. “’Corrupt neither the body nor the mind,’ they cried! Since the time of Roland, this has been the dominant ideology of Ostia. At least, it used to be.”

“I heard that when Lord Uther first participated in the Lycian Council as Marquess Ostia, he gave a scathing indictment of the peer system,” Marcus said. “Now I understand, his philosophy had its roots in the history of Ostia itself.”

Hector chuckled. “I was only a kid then. But that’s what happened. Yet this thinking… it threatens the lifestyles of many of our aristocrats. So some groups view my brother with enmity.” He frowned, thinking. “I must grow wiser so that I can sit at my brother’s side and aid him.” Ceniro and Lyn raised eyebrows at each other, and Eliwood’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “Of course, my fighting skills are not yet what they should be…”

The end of that sentence trailed off far too quietly, and the other three looked at each other. Ceniro realized, they knew. They knew something was wrong with Hector, or at least his brother. He didn’t know what, but he knew it would undoubtedly have something to do with Lord Uther. Was he ill? Had he even died? But if that were the case, even Hector would have said something.

Hector himself interrupted his thoughts. “Anyway, it’s not time to worry about that. Come on! There’s our first destination.”

His friends, though, hung back. “Curious,” Lyn said to Eliwood.

“What is?” he asked.

“Hector. He acts like such a moron sometimes, but he takes his duties seriously.”

“Hector has always been a man of firm character. I’ve always envied him for his ability to conceal any doubts he feels about himself or his actions…”

Lyn nodded. “I know. I’m a little envious too.”

“How so, exactly?” Eliwood asked.

“He doesn’t second-guess what he must do. No hesitation. I mean, I wouldn’t hesitate about anything concerning my grandfather’s health. In fact, I’d be happy to do anything I could. I thought I was all alone in the world, and now that I’ve found my family, I don’t want to lose him.”

“I know what you mean,” Eliwood said. “I can’t bear to think of losing my mother. If I survive all of this, I want to be at my mother’s side… to do anything she asks.”

“We’ll fight to make sure you get there,” Lyn said, smiling at Ceniro, who nodded. “Yet… despite the fact that family is so dear to me… Yet in my heart, the plains still call me… The neverending oceans of grass… The memory of that wind-blown scent alone is enough to leave me weak… I’m torn…”

“Lyn…” Ceniro said.

Lyn shook herself. “But you know, Eliwood, like you said, you’re not so weak yourself. Even with all the horrible things that have happened to you, more than anyone else in our group except perhaps Nino, you’re still here. You didn’t run away. Through all the battles and injuries… you’ve held your head high and marched on. Your… your strength, I admire. We all admire it.”

“You’re not only strong, but kind,” Ceniro said. “And you’re not afraid to show it. Isn’t there a saying… ‘Evil runs when a good man goes to war’? That’s you, Eliwood. Nergal won’t stand a chance against you.”

“Thank you, my friends,” Eliwood said, noticably embarrassed. “But I could never have gotten here without the rest of you.”

“Well, that’s a given,” Hector said, having come back to look for them. “What’s holding you up now? It’s not time for introspection either. Why are you all flushed? Hey, Eliwood, I found this really sweet sword, I think I want it even though I’m not giving up my axe…”

“Now who’s wasting their canton’s taxpayer’s money?” Lyn teased, and Hector snorted.

 

Shopping for weapons, medical supplies, and food took most of the morning, and they split up a few times to cover more ground. When Ceniro saw Hector again, he was looking more sombre even than before, though it was only moments later that Lyn snuck up on him and tossed his cloak over his head, making him yell at her in amused exasperation.

“So… I’m sorry,” she said, hands demurely behind her back, as he struggled to right himself.

“For ambushing me with my own clothing? I should think so!”

“No… for… When we first met, I criticized your fighting style, remember? …I wanted to apologize…”

“What, that?” Hector asked, honestly confused. “That was ages ago. I’d forgotten about it. Why bring it up now?”

“I used to think you were selfish, oblivious to others’ needs. Even now, after all this time, I think you’re often crude and insensitive.”

Hector frowned. “Hey now… Is there a point to this?”

Lyn lowered her head. “…I used to be like that, too. I relied too much on my own strength and stuck to myself… All I did was cause problems to the people around me. …I think you’re like that, too… So, sometimes, I feel I’m looking at the old me. Sometimes… I treat you horribly.”

Hector chuckled. “Yeah, that’s true. Sometimes you really lay into me.”

“…But aboard the pirate ship that time… and just now when we set out shopping… what you said made me realize I was wrong. So… I’m sorry.”

“Look,” said Hector, uncomfortably. “You apologized once before. I’ll admit that I’ve got a bad attitude a lot of the time. Just… forget about it, all right? It’s not a big deal.”

“Forget about it?” Lyn cried, suddenly glaring at him – though not angry with him, Ceniro though, but with herself. “I can’t just forget about it! It’s not good enough somehow… I… Hit me, it’ll make me feel better!”

“What!?” Hector cried.

“Lyn…” Ceniro said. “I think… just calm down for a minute…” Clearly she wasn’t as mature as she thought she was, if she still thought that way.

“Yeah! Just do it! Come on, I won’t move.”

Hector ran a hand through his blue hair and sighed. “You… Hahhh…”

Lyn tilted her head. “What is it? Are you afraid? It’s not a trap, I promise.”

“Self-flagellation is not…” began Ceniro.

“Shush,” she shushed him. “Hector.”

Hector sighed again. “It’s not… Give me a break, here, you think I can hit a woman?”

“We’ve been sparring for ages! Just don’t think of me as a woman!”

“I can’t hit a woman that I…” Hector trailed off, with a sudden guilty glance at Ceniro, who flushed and ducked his head.

Lyn seemed not to have noticed. “That you what?”

“Never mind!” Hector turned and strode off, his long legs making strides the two of them had to jog to keep up with. “Let’s go find Eliwood!”

“Wait!” Lyn cried. “What were you going to say…?”

“It’s fine,” Ceniro said, almost equally flustered. “He’s right, Eliwood’s been gone quite a while…”

“Sorry, were you looking for me?” Eliwood’s voice came from behind them, and they turned.

“Ah, there you are!” Lyn said. “Hector! We found him!”

“Need me for something?”

“Nah, just making sure you were all right,” Hector said, and Lyn sighed.

“Way to make me worry for nothing!” she said, and Hector shrugged.

“Ah well. Let’s keep moving, all right?”

“Did something happen?” Eliwood murmured in a low voice to Ceniro.

“I’ll tell you later,” Ceniro murmured back, still trying to process it himself.

 

The only other thing of note that happened was that Bartre returned late, looking beat up, with a young-looking Sacaean woman who was also rather scuffed. It seemed they had gotten in a duel, a yet-unresolved duel, spurred by a past unresolved duel, and it also seemed that she was Karel’s sister Karla. Ceniro called for Guy to show her the way to her brother, and she stared at him in surprise. Apparently she had been on a long journey to search for her brother and hadn’t expected to find him so suddenly or easily.

They also returned to find Fargus’s answer: he was in Badon again, and would gladly take them back to the Dread Isle.

Hector said he forgot something at the castle, but told the rest of them to go on ahead. Ceniro tried not to look worried. It was probably some talisman or something. He rejoined them less than thirty minutes later, so it couldn’t have been anything terrible.

Even with their footsoldiers riding carts, it took them the rest of the day and most of the next to read Port Badon. They finished the day by loading their supplies onto the ship and prepared to depart at dawn. Though Ceniro posted a heavy watch during the night, no morphs attacked and nothing was amiss by the time they weighed anchor and set sail the next morning.

“I hope that kind of luck lasts,” Lyn said, standing hand-in-hand with Ceniro at the ship’s rail.

“Not too long, I hope,” Hector said. “We’re hoping to thin down his army before we fight him. Just… not on the continent, where there are civilians and such.”

“Exactly,” Lyn said. “But say, if we landed on a day with no fog, or if they were suddenly all afflicted by an illness that affects only morphs…”

“Now you’re mocking me,” Hector said.

“You’re used to it,” Ceniro said, and Hector snorted.

They reached the Dread Isle on time, though it was foggy as usual. But Matthew and Legault remembered the way, and carried torches to lead the rest of the group.

As they disembarked with their massive piles of supplies, Hector, Eliwood, Lyn, and Ceniro stuck around to talk to Fargus. “We can never thank you enough,” Eliwood said earnestly.

“No need to worry about that,” Fargus said jovially. “Are ye sure you don’t need our help from here? Fargus’s pirate crew makes women smile and villains revile! We could be helpful.” Indeed, Lyn smiled in amusement.

“Thank you for your concern, but we’re going alone,” Ceniro said.

“We don’t have any idea what will happen. We’d like you to deliver a message, if you would,” Hector said.

“Even if we successfully defeat Nergal, there’s no saying if we’ll survive the battle,” Lyn explained.

“If we don’t return…” Eliwood said. “I apologize for the inconvenience, but…”

“I’ll worry about that when the time comes,” said Fargus. “Have no fear!”

“Thank you,” said Eliwood. “Also… about Nils…”

“Yes, I’ll take good care of the lad. You going to say goodbye to him afore ye set out?”

“We’ll do that now,” Lyn said, walking over to where Nils sat alone and silent by the sea. “Nils…? We’re going now…”

He made no motion. Behind them, Ceniro could hear Fargus scolding Dart and telling him gruffly and awkwardly to make sure he came back.

The others followed her. “We’re going to shatter Nergal’s ambitions and bring him down!” said Hector. “You just hang out here and take it easy until we get back, okay?”

“Nils…” said Eliwood, kneeling beside him. “I… don’t think you’ll ever be able to forgive me for Ninian, and… I understand. But even though our power is no match for Nergal, we can’t give up. I swear to you, that as long as my heart beats, I will try to prevent anything like that from happening again to anyone.”

Nils made no answer except to pull up his scarf a bit more against the light wind.

“So…” Eliwood went on, “when… when things get… better for you, when you’ve moved past the pain a bit, please… keep going. I think that’s what Ninian would want, too.” When Nils held his silence, he stood and moved back towards Fargus. “…All right, we’re going now…”

“Hey,” Fargus said. “Don’t mess this up, pups!”

“Leave it to us!” Hector said, grinning, and saluted him casually.

The three lords and the tactician followed the rest of their group into the forbidding forest.

 

Ceniro found himself walking beside Pent, Louise, and Fiora again.

“This place simply emanates hostility,” Pent said. “It’s fascinating.”

“It’s rather creepy, is it not, Lord Pent?” Louise said, her hand ever on her husband’s arm.

“It is, but why? That is what I am curious about… Is it only from Nergal’s influence, or is it an innate feature of the island itself?” Pent turned to Fiora. “I can only apologize again for what happened here…”

“You have no need to apologize, my lord,” Fiora said. “We were careless and overestimated our abilities…”

“That’s hardly true,” Ceniro said. “You are a fine commander, Fiora, and a cautious, thoughtful person. And Pent certainly didn’t know what this place was like. Neither of you are to blame.”

“I’m not sure I can accept that,” Pent said ruefully.

“You really should, my lord,” Fiora said. “I have spent many sleepless nights over my Wing. I don’t need you doing the same. Ceniro doesn’t need you doing the same.”

“I suppose you have a point,” Pent said. “Though it only makes me feel more… ah… guilty, in a way.”

“Lord Pent,” Louise said, hugging his arm.

“I’m all right, Louise. Don’t mind my gloomy talk.”

“Besides, we are much stronger now,” Fiora said. “Not only in numbers, and the diverse range of our skills, but since I joined this group… I have been tested in a way that I never have before, and I am far stronger personally for it.”

“That is true for all of us,” Louise said. “Although I once swore to protect Lord Pent with my bow, I never had cause to do so in such seriousness before. And… I am rather glad of it.”

“Why is that?” Pent asked, looking confused at his wife.

“I can prove my worth,” Louise said. “Perhaps not to you, for you have always valued and loved me, but to myself. Perhaps that is selfish, but…”

“A sense of self-worth is not selfish,” Pent assured her. “And I am glad that you are glad, eh, Louise?”

Louise smiled. “What do you suppose we shall find ahead of us?”

“Why don’t we ask Ceniro?”

“There are plenty of mysterious ruins on this island,” Ceniro said. “Assuming we defeat Nergal, and assuming we survive, I’m sure you might want to visit again someday to have a look at them. Just… watch out for other people doing the same thing, all right?”

“Want to come with me?” Pent invited, half-joking.

“I’m not a huge fan of this place,” Ceniro answered in the same manner. “But if you paid me lots of money…”

“Done!” Pent said, and laughed.

“I was kidding,” Ceniro said, smiling. “What would I want with lots of money?”

“Ssssh!” Guy hissed, popping up beside them out of the forest. “Do you want the bad guys to hear us and ambush us?”

“I’m sorry,” Ceniro said. “We’ll keep it down.”

To all of their surprise, they travelled to within sight of the Dragon’s Gate unchallenged. The white ruins rose out of the forest ahead of them.

“There they are,” Lyn said. “So far, so good.”

“Looks like that luck you were hoping for held,” Hector said. “But it’s odd…”

“He’s probably saving his forces to meet us head-on in a defensible position rather than spread them across the island,” Ceniro said.

“Humph. That makes sense.” Hector looked up. “It’s not so cloudy as it was, is that a good thing?”

“I don’t know,” Ceniro said. “I don’t know if Nergal really controls the weather. But if it raises our spirits, I’ll take it for the time being.”

“Sounds good,” Eliwood said. “Do you think we should wait for Lord Athos here, or press on to the Gate itself? It’s only another hour’s march, looks like.”

The sky suddenly darkened, and there was a yell from behind them. “Lord Eliwood! Move!!”

Eliwood kicked his horse and it jumped ahead, half a moment before a lightning bolt fell from the sky and made a crater where he had been standing. They all looked around for the attacker, but saw no one. Ceniro checked the farseer – there was nothing on it, and that spooked him.

Hector clutched his chest. “Geez, don’t scare me like that…”

Eliwood and Lyn were looking back. “Nils!?”

“Nils!” Lyn cried. “You came!”

“I did!” Nils chirped, his youthful face full of determination as he ran up to them. The determination was subdued by his having to bend over and catch his breath. It looked like he had been running after them the whole way. But he straightened up again, his eyes clear and serious. “I’m not running away anymore. I have to take Ninian’s place. No, I have to do Ninian’s part and mine! I’ll fight with you, and we’ll change the course of fate!”

“Well spoken!” Hector said, and slapped him gently on the back. “Now you sound like a man!”

Lyn hugged him. “I’m so glad to see you!”

“I’m sorry for worrying you,” Nils said. “I’m all right. But we have more important things to deal with first.” He turned to the valley before them. “Stop skulking and come out! I know you’re there!”

A morph stepped from behind a tree. This one was even more beautiful than the rest, with long, shining wavy raven hair, and serene – if expressionless – golden eyes.

They all started with shock written on their faces, and Ceniro checked his farseer in alarm. It had only just registered that the morph was present.

“Who is that?” Lyn asked.

“Limstella,” Nils said. “The one who is always at Nergal’s side.”

“You’re a morph, right?” Hector said. “You sure look like one.”

Limstella’s eyes didn’t even flicker. “I’ve come for your quintessence. My servants will harvest it from you.”

Ceniro looked down at the farseer and jumped. Suddenly, the valley was crawling with red-marked figures. They were outnumbered three-to-one.

The others could see some of what he saw with their own eyes, but it didn’t matter to them. “We’ll fight our way through, no matter the numbers!” Hector said.

“We certainly can’t retreat!” Lyn agreed.

“He hasn’t called any dragons yet,” Nils said. “We might still be in time to stop him!”

Limstella turned and walked a few paces, then teleported away. Ceniro saw she reappeared at the entrance to the Dragon’s Gate, about the same place they had encountered Darin last time.

“I guess her ambush failed,” Ceniro said.

“I’m not really sure what Limstella is,” Nils said to him. “I’m not sure she… it has a gender.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hector said. “She’s in our way. We can take her, even with that powerful magic.”

“That was very powerful magic,” Ceniro mumbled to himself.

“By rights, no living creature should be able to use magic like that,” Pent said, coming up behind him. “I suspect she will have more tricks up her sleeve. Be careful.”

“It’s you and Canas who will have to be careful,” Ceniro warned him. “You’ll be the ones taking her on, so start planning now.” He turned to the field, stepping forward from the group. “Time for the greatest challenge of my career…”

“You can do it,” Lyn said, smiling at him.

“Oh!” Nils cried. “Before I forget… Captain Fargus gave me this. It’s the excuse I had to come.” He held out his hand, and in it was an Earth Seal.

“Fantastic,” Ceniro said. “I know where to use this. We’ll have to thank him on our way back. All right, let’s get started. Eliwood!”

“On your order!” Eliwood answered, straightening in the saddle.

He divided the army into three groups. “There are three effective passages to the Dragon’s Gate, and we should probably take all three in one sweep so as to not leave any morphs at our back when we assault Nergal himself. So, each of you will lead one. I’ll coordinate so that we all end up at the Gate at the same time, but you’ll have to trust me on it.”

“We trust you,” Lyn assured him, smiling. “Who am I leading?”

Ceniro considered his map. “There a lot of ballistae scattered through the valleys; those weren’t there last time, were they? Lyn, you’re leading the Caelin soldiers for sure, including all three of the Pegasus sisters. Nino, Jaffar, and Canas will round out your group. You’ll head north. There’s archers, swordsmen, and wyverns up there.”

“Got it,” she said, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek before taking a few steps north to wait.

He smiled involuntarily. “Hector, you’ll take Oswin, Matthew, Serra, and also Pent, Louise, Erk, Karel and Guy, Raven, Lucius, Vaida, Dart, Geitz, and Merlinus will go with you. You’ll head east. There’s heavy infantry, axemen, and more wyverns on that side.”

“Aww, why do I gotta take Merlinus?” Hector grumbled.

“Do you think he’s a liability?” Ceniro asked calmly.

Hector hung his head. “Nah, he’s fine. I was just hoping to, you know, cut loose without having to worry about the luggage as well. I’m just being a brat. I’m fine.”

“Good to hear,” Ceniro said cheerfully. “Eliwood.”

“Here.”

“You’ll be leading the knights of House Pherae, as well as Rebecca, Lowen, and me, and also Priscilla, Hawkeye, Legault, Heath, Karla, and Bartre. We’re going up the middle valley, directly northeast to the Dragon’s Gate. Ahead of us are light cavalry, archers, and a lot of magic.”

“Where did Nergal get wyverns?” Vaida demanded. “Has he stolen them from Bern?”

“I have no idea,” Ceniro answered. “But I’m sure it’s been part of his long-term planning. Perhaps he stole them from mercenaries?”

“It’s an insult to the pride of Bern, is what it is,” Vaida snorted.

“You’re telling me!” Farina cried. “What about those pegasus riders over those hills!? No noble beast of Ilia should have to bear a morph! How did he enslave them so?”

“Questions you will have to ask him in person,” Eliwood said firmly. “Let’s move!”

“Come on, everyone!” Lyn cried to her group. “Do what you do best, and we’ll arrive in one piece!”

“No pressure or anything,” said Hector. “See you at the end!”

 

Despite the worry Ceniro had about a super-powered sage waiting for them – to say nothing of Nergal himself – the first part of the battle was quite smooth. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t see the other two groups, but even the ballistae didn’t worry him all that much. They kept to the trees as much as they could, until he could send someone to take out the ballistae at an angle the morphs couldn’t target.

The Pheraean cavalry, now including Harken, met the morph cavalry head-on, and though he heard cries of injury, the morphs disappeared. He sent Priscilla to heal them with Karla and Bartre as escort. Was he being too clinical? He felt he lacked sufficient concern for his friends and allies.

Or maybe he had no room for that kind of thinking. Any slip-up now could be fatal to someone. He made it look easy, but… against opponents of this caliber, it truly wasn’t. Even if his friends were injured, he’d get them all through alive – so if Sain taking a possible lance in the leg meant that Kent would avoid getting flanked and shot in the back, he would take it. His brows lowered in determination. He had to concentrate. He owed them no less. Though of course, fewer injuries were better.

He should probably stop introspecting and send Vaida to pull some of the axemen facing Hector’s group into a trap with Guy, Karel, Raven, and Louise at the end of it.

Heath was finally in a position to take down the main ballista aiming down the central valley, and Ceniro gave him the order. Now, they could move ahead much quicker. He gave the order, and the knights galloped across the open space of the valley to clash with more mounted morphs. There was a splintering of lances on shields and a ring of swords on swords. Then Hawkeye barrelled into them from the flank, his giant axe dealing catastrophic damage. Ceniro sent Legault to cut him an escape route before the Nabatan was surrounded and severely wounded. On the other side of the valley, Priscilla called down thunder on a lone lost morph, whose crispy charge towards her was halted by Rebecca’s arrow.

And that was only Eliwood’s group.

He would have liked to be with Lyn again, like old times, to see her fly with her sword like a green dart at her enemies, and to see the rush of the pegasus wings as they swooped on their prey like great white eagles. But he wanted a central position, and this was the route that made sense for Eliwood’s group, not Lyn’s.

It was fine. He’d see her in action again as they came around the hills.

There was a lull, and Ceniro took the opportunity to pull his head out of the farseer and breathe for a minute. Eliwood was circling around to him, having just finished off a morph light-magic user. Ceniro nodded encouragingly at him and got a strong smile in return.

Suddenly, he felt like someone or something punched him in the chest. Curious, he looked down, and saw about a foot and a half of arrow protruding from his chest, just under the breastplate Hector had once given him.

He blinked at it. There was no pain, only a pressure, and… he couldn’t breathe, and all he saw was clouded sky, and Eliwood’s shocked face hovering over him, and he was so close, he was so close to the end, and he couldn’t breathe, HE COULDN’T BREATHE-

 

“Priscilla!” Eliwood’s frantic scream echoed through the valley. His tactician lay unmoving, eyes staring sightlessly up at the sky. He couldn’t lose him now, not one of his closest friends. Ceniro had said this battle would be the greatest challenge he had faced, and it seemed like his orders were more direct than ever, his tactics tighter. Could they even win without him? And the next battle, which was sure to be even greater?

Even more than that, could he himself continue as he lost another person dear to him?

It seemed an eternity he contemplated that dreadful thought, before Priscilla came, hastened on her way by Heath and Nils.

She looked at the body and tears welled up in her eyes. “I… I can’t… I can’t help him, Lord Eliwood. He’s… It’s…”

“I know,” Eliwood said quietly. “I knew it when I saw him fall. I… What do I do now?”

Priscilla couldn’t answer him; she was crying. Rebecca and Lowen were rushing over; Isadora, Harken, too.

Eliwood gradually became aware that he could hear people, people he shouldn’t have been able to hear. His gaze slowly turned towards the farseer, fallen into the grass beside Ceniro.

“Ceniro?” “Ceniro, you there?” “Everything okay over there?” “Sir Ceniro, we need your orders.”

Eliwood took a deep breath and picked it up. “Everyone…” The entire group fell silent hearing his voice. “Ceniro is dead.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“No!” Lyndis cried, her voice cracking. “He- he can’t be!”

“It’s true,” Eliwood said numbly. “An archer…” The archer was probably still around. Eliwood jumped to his feet and drew his sword again, in time see an archer step from behind a tree and target Priscilla. With a cry of anger, he charged the archer on foot.

The archer’s arrows whizzed by his shoulder, and one of them struck him in the arm. But he kept going. It was all he could do in this moment. The morph showed no fear at his approach, no reaction when Eliwood reached him and stabbed him through the gut, only turning to dust as they all did.

He turned back to Priscilla, his arm hanging limp. “Priscilla. We still need you.”

She looked up, sniffling, and attempted to dry her tears as she picked up her staff to heal him. “Yes… Yes. We will keep fighting, won’t we?”

“We can’t do anything else!” Eliwood’s head came up, and he looked towards the northeast with fire in his eyes. He grabbed the farseer again. He had to keep the army together before they all became disorganized and demoralized and possibly killed. “Everyone! We can’t give up now. Ceniro’s trained us well, and we’ve learned much from him. We have to keep going, to defeat Limstella, and then Nergal!” He pointed at Rebecca, Isadora, Lowen, and Harken, and they saluted and hurried off as Eliwood swung himself back into his saddle.

“Right on!” Hector said. “He got us this far, and we’ll take him the rest of the way with us! Now go rip apart every morph you see!”

“I… I still don’t believe it…” Lyndis said. “How can… He was… I am going to tear the Dragon’s Gate stone from stone! I-it won’t bring him back. But how-! How!” Everything else she said was only screaming, and the farseer automatically made her voice quieter so he could hear the others clearly still.

“Lord Eliwood,” Priscilla spoke up, still struggling with her tears. “I’ll… I’ll take him with us, if I may.”

“You may,” Eliwood said. “As long as you can keep up your healing at the same time. I can always have Lowen take him.”

“Yes, sir. I can do it.”

“I might not be even in Ceniro’s sphere… but I’ll do my best to both fight and lead,” Eliwood said, grabbing his lance. “Hector, Lyndis, let’s split the command. I don’t think I can… you know. Manage everything.”

“Got it,” Hector said. “I’ve got things over here. Just… are we about ready to turn north yet?”

Eliwood glanced at the mysterious farseer. “Uh… yes? I think so. Why not have Vaida spot for you?”

“You think that dame will listen to anything I say?”

“She’ll have to now,” Eliwood said. “I’m officially putting you in charge.”

“Ugh,” said Vaida. “Now we’re not only being led by a child, but a child with no tactical experience.”

“We have lots of experience!” Hector objected. “We just used to leave the decisions up to Ceniro. Now get up there and get us oriented towards the Dragon’s Gate!”

“I’m here,” Lyndis said, her voice hoarse and grating. “I don’t think I’m fit to command.”

“You are, Lady Lyndis,” Kent said earnestly. “We’re here to assist you.”

“We have… a bit of a situation?” Fiora’s voice came through. “There’s a man here, a bishop. He is offering to join us because… we’re being too noisy and disturbing him with our fighting?”

Lyndis cleared her throat. “We can use everyone. He doesn’t look like a morph, does he?”

“I think he is sincere,” Fiora answered. “He looks nothing like a morph.”

“Then yes, he can join. Now… just try and keep up with me!” Lyndis’s figure launched into action, sprinting across the landscape. Morphs fell before her sword like grain before a scythe, and none of them could touch her. “Kent, Sain, Wallace, Dorcas, I saw archers on the right. Florina! You said there were some magic users to the north, right? Take the new guy, Nino, Canas, and Jaffar and elimate them. I’ll take care of these wyverns. Wil, Rath, follow me.”

“You’re doing great, Lyndis,” Eliwood said. “I see a druid up ahead. We should attack him with someone fast and agile, right? Karla, Legault, can you stop the druid from attacking Marcus and the rest of the cavalry as we head to deal with this group of axemen?”

He spurred Oren and the great white horse leapt forward, ever closer to the Dragon’s Gate.

He was nervous. Not for his group, so much, but he had the farseer. The other didn’t, and they were working relatively blind. He thought back to what Ceniro had sometimes said about the magical tool being a crutch, and wondered if there was a way he could help while still paying enough attention to his own fighting.

“Hector, we may have a problem,” Pent said, his voice scratchy and distorted. “Our magic just stopped working. I believe it is the magic seal again.”

“Ohhhhh shit,” Hector said. Eliwood could barely hear him. “Well, you guys …… north. All you magic users, …… swordmasters, and you two pirates, head north and try ……… from his influence. The …… you, follow me! We’re …… destroy this thing … and for …”

“… not a pirate,” Geitz mumbled.

“Good luck, Hector,” Eliwood said, leaning down to stab a morph but only succeeding in meeting its axe. Hector didn’t answer. He probably couldn’t hear him.

Once he had killed it, he looked at the farseer, worried that it might be broken again like the last time they had encountered the magic seal, but it was still clearly showing the landscape and the dozens of tiny figures scattered across it – though, now he noticed that Hector’s group was not showing up, nor were any of the enemy towards the southeast. As he watched, a small group of figures began to appear, led by Lord Pent, heading north towards him.

“We should send a few of ours south to help him,” Eliwood said to no one in particular. “Hawkeye, Isadora, Harken, and Heath, go south and find Hector. Help him destroy that magic seal! I won’t be able to help you or even speak to you while you’re inside its sphere of influence.” He wondered what coincidence meant that he had mentioned everyone in the group whose name began with an H in the same sentence.

“Understood,” Isadora said crisply, and turned to lead the reinforcements south.

“Lyndis, we have to take care of the rest of the morphs by the time he finishes.”

“Way ahead of you,” she answered grimly. Yes, it seemed that she personally was closer to the Dragon’s Gate than anyone in his group.

“Lady Lyn, be careful!” Nils said. “Limstella has bolting; it’s how she targeted Lord Eliwood before.”

“I’d like to see her hit me,” Lyndis said. “However… Florina, you and your sisters watch out. You may be resistant to magic, but Pent said that Limstella’s magic is greater than a normal person’s.”

“Yes, Lyn,” Florina said. “Look out for the cavalry approaching from the north.”

“Nino, Canas, help me out here.”

“Hector’s been gone a long time,” Eliwood muttered to himself.

“Not to worry,” Pent said, dodging archers and retaliating with Elfire. “I think they were in a good position when I left. Atch!” He stopped behind a tree, an arrow in his leg. Serra healed him, as Karel appeared out of nowhere and cut through the archers from the side, as Geitz drew their fire with his own arrows. Erk and Lucius kept their heads down, sending magical flak at the enemy when they could.

They were all playing it a bit more cautiously now.

They suddenly heard Hector give a triumphant cry, and Eliwood grabbed urgently for the farseer. All his group was still there, suddenly appearing in a cluster in a ruin to the south. The number of morphs left on the field was very few, and all ahead of them, around the main ruins.

“Well done, Hector,” Eliwood said.

“You didn’t doubt me, did you?” Hector asked.

“Not at all. Come on north. We’re about done up here.”

 

Limstella was waiting for them. Dressed in elegant black and white, she stood motionless in the entrance to the Dragon’s Gate.

“You have come far,” she said as Eliwood rode up, Lyndis and Hector beside him. “But it does not matter. I will take your life and your essence, all for the sake of my master. My master… and the one who already gave his life for him.” She raised her hands, and an immense wind began to swirl around all of them. “Excalibur!”

At first it was only gusty, and the lighter members of the army clung to heavier ones – Priscilla to Heath, Rebecca to Lowen, Nino to Jaffar. “Lyn, get behind me,” Hector said, and Lyndis did so, shielding her face with her arm. The wind began to sting, picking up more and more in speed. Already it was unnaturally strong and sharp, and show no signs of slacking – nor did Limstella’s arms drop. Leaves and small stones were whipping at them, and soon the very stones were groaning.

“We didn’t come all this way just to get blown away by some wind!” Lyndis cried, planting her sword in the ground and clinging to it. “What did Ceniro say about her?”

“We need all the magic users!” Pent said, inching his way over to Eliwood. “Canas, Erk, Nino! Priscilla, Lucius, Serra, and you, sir, Renault! We’ll fight her together!”

“Don’t forget us!” Fiora cried, the pegasi buffeted terribly by the wind, yet still soaring more easily than the wyverns. There was no way Heath’s Hyperion was taking off here, and Vaida had been forced out and away from the rest of the group. “You give us an opening, and we’ll take her down!”

“I’m not sure we can, but understood!” Pent shouted over the wind. “Help me!” He began casting something, and the others seemed to have some sort of plan, as they began joining in.

Eliwood hoped they’d be done in time. In the meantime, he clambered off Oren, who was bracing his legs and neighing unhappily, and began forcing his way forward on foot. Hector and Lyndis were right behind him, but soon Hector was in front, since his heavier armour and sturdier frame gave him better support.

Hector reached out to either side and took their hands, and together, step by step, they pressed on through the storm.

The magic users were building some kind of magical shield for most of the group. It was a mismatched barrier of light, dark, and ice. Eliwood worried about the ice, but if Pent was building it, it would hold without splintering as long as he had magic in him. At least, he guessed so – he knew almost nothing about magic.

Lyndis gave a cry and almost let go, blood running down her leg – something had hit her. Hector gripped their hands tighter. The very wind was beginning to cut, and Eliwood and Hector’s cloaks were beginning to shred.

Hector gave a roar and hauled Eliwood and Lyndis to the edge of the storm, where they took cover behind a pillar hastily. Lyndis felt her waist for a vulnerary on her belt.

The storm heightened to a shriek, pummeling the outside of the barrier. Eliwood watched in fear – anyone not inside the barrier would be killed in moments.

When someone tapped him on the shoulder, he jumped and almost cried out.

Matthew was there. “My lords…” He held out the bomb Ceniro had held until they left Ostia. “Now might be a good time to use this.”

“Great thinking, Matthew!” Hector said. “Lyn, you’re probably the best shot of all of us. Think you can get it under her feet somehow?”

“Leave it to me,” Lyndis said, her blue eyes hard and full of resolution. She took it, turned the dial on the bottom until it clicked, then peered out from behind the pillar at Limstella.

Limstella was beginning to add other elements into her storm, lightning, ice, and fire. “That’s not possible,” Hector said. “Is it?”

Lyndis braced herself, then sprinted from behind cover.

Limstella’s head whipped around towards her, but Lyndis was already moving too fast.

Limstella’s hand began to move.

Lyndis dropped the bomb by Limstella’s foot and pressed it.

Both Lyndis and Limstella went flying, a fiery blast erupting from the small disc.

Both women twisted gracefully and landed in a ready crouch, facing each other. Their clothes were torn and charred. Lyndis’s hand was burned, but it was already on her sword. Flame flickered around Limstella’s hands. But her storm had ceased entirely, and Eliwood couldn’t see any casualties.

“Here!” Fiora cried from the sky, and everyone looked up. The three pegasus knights darted in from three different directions, three shining lances cleaving the air towards Limstella.

Fiora – Florina – Farina – the three knights hit one after another in quick succession, each deeply wounding their target.

Limstella staggered, the magic disappearing from her hands. But she lifted her head and looked at them. “I am not human. This body and this heart are constructs. Yes… as is this sorrow.”

She wavered and fell sideways, but her body was dust before it reached the ground.

 

 

Chapter 9: Sands of Time         Chapter 11: Light

November 7, 2014

Rekka no Ken: The Tactician and the Dragons: Sands of Time

« ... »

Chapter 8: The Berserker and Valourous Roland           Chapter 10: Victory or Death

 

This chapter should be a bit shorter. Whoops. Anyway, Renee decided to make an appearance, even though I was saving her for the AU sequel. And I would like to draw a picture of her and Ceniro sometimes, looking tactically badass if such a thing is possible. Again for this chapter I really have to thank You Will Know Our Names, because I was meandering around the battlefield for a long time until I had to take a break to drive somewhere and I put that song on repeat for like 10 times and by the time I got home again I KNEW HOW TO WRITE THE BATTLE it was great. So it doesn’t totally suck. A lot of the things in it, I came up with the first time, just they weren’t connected in any sort of way.

 

Chapter 9: Sands of Time

 

The army marched mechanically back to Castle Ostia over the next day. Though Lyn and Hector and, to some extent, Ceniro, tried to keep up a good face for everyone’s sake, the news of Ninian’s death had passed quickly through the army. Many of them were downcast, some even despairing, though they tried to stay strong for each other like the good people they were.

They had buried Ninian just inside the cave, laying her down on the remains of Eliwood’s cloak and covering her with stones.

Eliwood moved as if in a dream, barely responding to anyone except Hector and Marcus. He didn’t eat all day. Nils was even worse off, curled in a corner of Merlinus’s cart, staring blankly at nothing. Though Ceniro heard some people wondering if he could turn into a dragon as well, Florina, who had also become close to Ninian, rode escort for the cart, and no one bothered him.

The great walls of the fortress city of Ostia appeared before them in the late afternoon. Ceniro was glad to see them; they were familiar to him, though he hadn’t seen them since his late teens.

Hector remembered as they were approaching the main gate. The group had to make their way through increasingly heavy traffic, but most people were aware enough to make way for the lords and ladies and their assorted knightly and mercenary retinue. “Hey, you’re not completely clueless about this place, eh?”

“Yes,” Ceniro said. “I know my way around well enough, at least the main roads. I lived in residence at the university for the first year, and then at Lord Garlant’s estate.”

“In town or out of town?”

“Both, depending on the season,” Ceniro said. “I wonder if I’ll see anyone I know.”

“Probably,” Hector said. “We do tend to hire graduates of the Academy, you know.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Ceniro said. “Though… I’d prefer not to see most of them, you know…”

Hector looked back at him and frowned. “I don’t know. Why not?”

“Eh… a lot of them didn’t like me.”

“Why not? Because you’re a shimpy little guy who doesn’t look like he should be anywhere near combat?” Hector smiled a little to let him know he was only teasing.

Lyn punched his arm. “Hey, there are plenty of people like that in this army. I weigh a lot less than he does.”

“Yeah, but you have speed,” Hector said. “And your sword’s very strong. Give Ceniro a sword, and he couldn’t slice a steak if you gave him a fork too.”

Ceniro coughed. “Actually, it was because I was a wierd little rude peasant boy… and because I was better than most of them could ever hope to be, even if they weren’t coasting on their titles and wealth.”

Hector laughed out loud. “I think you might be my favourite.”

Ceniro looked confused. “Favourite what?”

“Favourite weird little rude peasant boy. You speak truth. You remember Erik, from Laus? You aptly described him and most of the rest of my class. I never saw you, though. Why not?”

“I’m at least a year younger than you…”

“But I heard you were ahead of your class?”

“And how much did you really meet with Lord Garlant, anyway?”

Hector crossed his arms. “That’s true, I always thought he was pretty boring.”

“I knew of you, but I never really saw you, either… not that I was interested at that point…”

“Just thought I was another dumb-ass lordling, huh?” Hector nodded ruefully. “I kind of was, too. It’s good that we met under other circumstances.”

“What do you mean, ‘was’?” Lyn asked, and Hector scowled. “And besides, Ostia is a really big place. I’ve never seen a city so large…”

“You should see Aquleia,” Ceniro said enthusiastically. “It’s as large, if not larger, and very beautiful.”

“And Ostia isn’t,” Hector conceded. “That’s not its fault, though. With all the petty squabbling Lycian lords do, it needs to be this way.”

“It’s very grand, certainly,” Lyn said. “I remember you said that Bern Castle was more unassailable, but… I wouldn’t want to attack this place, either, even if Ceniro were guiding me.”

“Thanks,” Hector said.

“One moment,” Ceniro said, and called the pegasus and wyvern riders. “You don’t have to pass through the city with us. Go on ahead over top to the keep and let them know we’re coming.”

Fiora saluted. “At once, sir.”

They passed under the main gate, making the slow ascent to the main keep.

“The first thing we should do is talk to my brother again,” Hector said. “Partly to let him know the outcome of our trip, although… I don’t like him worrying about things – me – that he can’t control anyway…”

“And the other is so that he doesn’t scold you like last time, right?” Lyn teased.

“…Maybe…”

By the time they arrived there, the Ostians had thrown out the welcome wagon. “Lord Hector!” cried the soldiers at the gate, and their call was taken up by others. The pegasi and wyverns were already being taken care of, though Heath hovered near his Hyperion – and Vaida certainly wasn’t going anywhere without Umbriel.

One captain came to Hector and saluted. “Lord Hector! We’re pleased to see you home alive and well!”

“Where’s my brother?” Hector demanded.

“Ah… he’s left for a conference in Etruria. He’s scheduled to return in two week’s time,” the captain said. Ceniro wondered if the hesitation meant he’d forgotten such important information, or if perhaps Hector was right to worry about his brother.

“…Etruria? That’s too bad,” Hector said after a pause, and Ceniro wondered if Hector was thinking the same things as he was. “Anyway, go and prepare rooms for our companions. They need rest.”

“Right away, my lord.”

“Ceniro here will let you know about special arrangements.”

“Oh, right, yes, I will,” Ceniro said. Special arrangements were definitely needed for Eliwood and Nils. He’d get Nils settled himself… and make sure no one disturbed either of them. Soldiers and servants were passing by, apparently making things ready inside for their group. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

“There is no inconvenience, sir,” said the captain. “Castle Ostia has few visitors right now. Only tell me what your people need.”

“Right, right.” He did, but at the end felt he needed to apologize again. “I’m sorry, I don’t know Castle Ostia very well…”

“That’s because you’re a brat from Santaruz,” said a girl behind him, and Ceniro turned only to get slapped in the face.

Ceniro wobbled, completely taken off guard by the sudden attack. When he regained his balance, he looked up to see a young woman with long grey hair, shaking her hand as if she had stung it from hitting him so hard. “Good, now that’s out of my system…” She smiled at him with pale green eyes as if nothing was wrong. “Hello, Ceniro. What are you doing here, and with Lord Hector of all people?”

“…Renee?” Ceniro mumbled, holding his cheek.

Lyn stepped defensively in front of him. “Who are you, and why in Father Sky’s name did you hit him!?”

It was Renee’s turn to look surprised. “Ceniro, who is this?”

“Ah, that’s… Lady Lyn of Caelin,” Ceniro said sheepishly, and saw everything click together for the young woman.

She pointed dramatically at him. “You! You did that! That thing!”

“Yes…?” Ceniro asked warily.

“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Lyn demanded, her posture no longer as hostile as it had been, but still alert and defensive.

“Sorry,” Ceniro said. “Lyn, this is… an old classmate, Renee, one of the few who didn’t hate me. Renee, this is… um…”

Lyn folded her arms. “Are you a former girlfriend of his or something?”

Renee twirled some hair around her finger, her own stance becoming guarded. “Well, no. It wasn’t like that. But you still didn’t have to stand me up for graduation, you jerk!”

“Renee, that was… like… three years ago!”

“Two years ago! Don’t you understand what that’s like? I was so humiliated…”

Suddenly, Ceniro began to laugh wheezily. It was so ridiculous. “Renee… There’s bigger things in the world right now.”

“Still…” she pouted.

“Your friend is… somewhat…” Lyn began.

“She’s really nice,” Ceniro hastened to assure her, before the two women started off any more on the wrong foot. “And she hasn’t been running around half the world for the last few months, chasing shadows and things…”

Renee’s eyes brightened. “So you have stories!”

“Er… yes. More interesting ones than the ones I used to tell you, anyway.”

“And you are of course the famous Lady Lyndis we all heard about last year,” Renee said to Lyn. “I’m so pleased to meet you! Of all the places in the world, I didn’t think to hear Ceniro’s name connected with something so dramatic. He’s usually so quiet, you know?”

“I do know,” Lyn said, not quite softening all the way, though trying to.

Renee’s eyes twinkled knowingly. “Well, I might not have been your girlfriend during your workaholic days, but I think the position’s been filled, hmm?”

Ceniro coughed. “Yes. Yes, it has.”

She squealed and threw her arms around him. “I’m so happy for you! And with a beautiful noblewoman, too! Aren’t you afraid of her sword?”

“No…? It’s part of her, like you and your spear.”

“Pssh, I wouldn’t use my spear in real battle. But she looks like she’d rather fight than dress up.”

“That’s very true,” Lyn and Ceniro said at the same time.

“Anyway, I should let you go. Come see me after dinner! I’ll be in the officer’s wing. Tell me all your stories!” She turned with a wave and ran off to the walls.

“She seems… nice,” Lyn said cautiously.

“She is nice,” Ceniro said. “She helped me get through university. I won’t tell her the whole story, I think. But I can tell her some parts.”

Lyn finally smiled at him. “I trust your discretion.” Then she looked around. “Hey! What are you all looking at?” People had stopped to stare, and now began to move along again.

Ceniro began to blush, and then an elbow leaned on his shoulder. “Well, well, well, Ceniro the shy tactician’s gettin’ it on with the ladiiiieeeees,” Sain drawled, and Ceniro coughed a laugh. Lyn rolled her eyes.

“She’s just an old friend,” Ceniro tried to say.

“Old friends don’t slap you when they see you again.” Sain thought about that for a moment. “Actually, I guess they do, never mind.”

“What, has Kent slapped you?”

“Well… he’s punched me, certainly.”

“You deserved it,” Kent said, approaching with Fiora, Wil, and Florina in his wake. “I specifically told you that you could spend time with whatever lady-friend you were chasing that week after training was done.”

“But General Wallace already beat me up for slacking that day…”

Kent ignored him. “Lady Lyndis, the mounts have been settled. If Ceniro could point us in the way of our temporary quarters so we may also be settled…”

“Yes, you and your lady-friend?” Sain asked, winking at Fiora, who looked embarrassed. Ceniro glanced down and suddenly saw that Kent and Fiora were surreptitiously holding hands. He turned away to hide his wide smile.

“R-right,” he said. “The Caelin soldiers are on the third level on the right side. Since Florina is currently with Caelin, I asked her sisters be in the same area as well…”

“Th-thank you very much,” Florina said. “Who is going to be near Nils? He’s still with Merlinus right now…”

“I am,” Ceniro said. “I’m glad you were looking after him this last little while. But you need some time to rest, yourself, too.”

“You know who would be good at looking after him?” Lyn said. “Hawkeye. He seemed close to both of them, more than you would expect. I think he has a daughter, someone told me? I know it’s a bit late, but put him next to Nils. You need to rest most of all of us.”

“I’ll do that,” Ceniro promised. “But come on, Lyn, I don’t even fight…”

“We should probably change that,” she said, leading him into the castle towards where the nobles were being housed.

“No thanks,” he said.

Matthew met them in the hall. His usual cheerful smile was only a little forced. “Ah, Ceniro, Lady Lyn, just the people I was hoping to see! Lord Hector asks that you come by his chambers after you have eaten so you can do all your special secret planning to stop the end of the world and such.”

“Thanks, Matthew,” Lyn said, patting his shoulder. “Have a good evening.”

“My lady is too kind,” Matthew replied, inclining his head and letting them pass.

 

When they joined Hector in his room, Athos was with him.

“Good, you’re here,” Hector said. “Graybeard, you know something, don’t you? Tell me! What are we supposed to do now?”

“A moment, lad… Yes, I suppose you’ve a right to know…” Athos paused to collect his thoughts, folding his hands inside his voluminous sleeves. “I first met Nergal some 500 years ago, wandering the Nabata wasteland. Like me, his only drive was the search for truth in this world. We were equals in power and knowledge, and we became fast friends. We believed we could solve the mysteries of the world. We truly believed…” The Archsage’s voice faded into regretful obscurity.

“What happened?” Lyn asked, sitting crosslegged on the floor near Athos’s feet.

“A disagreement,” Athos said, rousing himself. “A disagreement, made at the height of our quest. One day, as I charted the mysteries of Nabata, I came across the most amazing village… It was unbelievable, but in that place, humans and dragons lived together in cooperation.”

“Dragons and humans? Are you telling me they could live together in peace?” Hector asked, amazed.

“At first, I doubted what my own eyes showed me. But yes, the village truly did exist.”

“That’s wonderful!” Lyn said.

“The dragons that I beheld there… They were both similar to and different from the dragons I had fought hundreds of years before…”

They all turned as they heard the door shut.

Eliwood stood at the door, his face still pale, his eyes shadowed and weary. But his blue eyes were beginning to revive from the colourless stare they had had all day. He looked around at all of them and their apprehension.

After a moment, Hector indicated an empty chair next to him, and Eliwood came to join him. “Go on, please.”

“…As you wish,” said Athos after a brief pause. “They had refused to fight humans in the war, and instead, they retreated to this wasteland. They desired nothing but to remain hidden from the outside. Nergal and I crafted a barrier and created an oasis for them. Upon their invitation, we lived there with them. Our life there… It was calm and satisfying. At some point, the village became known as Arcadia, a place of perfect peace for travelers gone astray.”

“So, not the place where we met you, right?” Lyn asked.

“No, that was another place… The dragons’ libraries were a dream come true to us. We studied their language and history with unbridled passion. A century, then two… Time passed in an eye’s blink. And yet, slowly, our thoughts turned down different paths.”

“In what way?” she asked.

“I wanted to share the dragons’ wisdom with others. My hope was for our earthly paradise to spread outward.”

“And Nergal?” Hector asked grimly.

“Ah, Nergal… He took the dragons’ knowledge… He learned the art of stealing the essence from living creatures and turning it into power. It was terrible. When we discovered what he was doing, the elders and I tried to persuade him to stop. But the power bewitched him, and he was deaf to our pleas. He started with small creatures and grew ever more confident. Then, he began draining the quintessence of humans. The villagers and I joined forces and… defeated him. Or so we thought, but…”

“A psychopath,” Eliwood muttered with heat.

“After he was banished from Arcadia, Nergal fled to Bern. He increased his power slowly to avoid our eye. Using quintessence, he made his puppets, the morphs. They’re bewitching in form, with intellects beyond human. I’m sure you’ve laid eyes on them yourselves. Jet black hair, pale complexion, and blood-red lips… Their most striking features are their glittering gold eyes…”

Lyn’s eyes widened, but before she could say anything, someone knocked politely but urgently on the door. Athos paused, and Hector turned to the door. “What?”

The door opened, and a soldier’s helmet appeared. “Lord Hector! W-we’re under attack! An unknown group has breached the castle walls!”

“What!?” Hector jumped to his feet. “When? How? How did they get in without being noticed?”

“Just now! They… they just appeared out of nowhere! The guards on the walls have been annihilated!”

“Blast it,” Hector growled. “Castle Ostia is famed far and wide as being impregnable… If it’s been breached so easily, can we save it!?”

“It’s Nergal,” Athos said. “He must have opened some kind of portal inside the castle.”

“Yeah, I kind of figured that out, old man. Ceniro! We need you! We need a plan! Get our forces moving, we have experience fighting morphs!”

“On it,” Ceniro said, already working with the farseer.

“Blast… That arrogant… No matter what, I’ll not let the castle fall while my brother’s away!!” Hector grabbed the Wolf Beil and stormed from the room.

“Hang on, I’m going with you!” Lyn said, running after him. Eliwood followed silently.

“Eliwood…”

“My horse is here,” Eliwood said quietly. “I will fight too.”

“Eliwood?”

“I need to fight, Ceniro. I need… catharsis.”

“I understand. I’ll have Marcus intercept you.”

“Ceniro, I’m going to the throne room,” Hector said. “It must be secured first. Can you see the area?”

“Yes,” Ceniro said. “I’ll gather our forces to you. The enemy appears to have left the outer walls and are now heading there as well through the main south entrance.”

“Understood,” Hector said.

“Eliwood!” Lyn cried.

“…What?”

“Don’t overexert yourself.”

Eliwood was quiet for a moment. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m not that weak.”

“Tell all the soldiers!” Hector said, apparently to an Ostian captain, not Ceniro. “Take your posts, and don’t move. All we can do is hold on until reinforcements arrive. Hold your positions! My friends’ forces are backing us up, so take heart!”

Ceniro checked to make sure Hawkeye was with Nils, then turned to Athos. “What will you do, sir?”

“I will not be taking part,” Athos said. “I fear to bring more destruction than the puppets attacking do.”

Ceniro blinked. “Even with a basic Fire spell?”

“Even so. Go, your friends need you. If you need me, this castle cannot be saved.”

Ceniro nodded. “I understand. Um. I’ll see you later. Sir.” He turn and ran off in the direction that Hector had gone, feeling somewhat stupid.

He knew he was getting close when he began hearing barbed insults from an alto voice and a bass voice. “Well maybe if your thrice-unwashed lizard wasn’t blocking the corridor, I could hasten to protect my Lady Lyndis!” Definitely General Wallace.

“And maybe the little teapot needs to take a back-seat to obviously superior strength and skill!” Vaida retorted, though as far as Ceniro could tell, both were making good time to the throne room.

“Excuse me,” Ceniro said. “Tactician here.”

“Well, you certainly don’t get to go first!” Vaida snapped. “You’re squishy! Although maybe I should definitely let you go first then…”

“You will not let Sir Ceniro go into danger!” Wallace barked. “Sir Ceniro, stay close to me, and I will take you to Lady Lyndis.”

“Right,” Ceniro said. He suddenly realized that he hadn’t really spoken to Wallace since he had become reinvolved with Lyn, and wondered if Wallace would do or say anything about it.

“Though if you ever break her heart, I will not hesitate to throw you to the wolves myself!” Wallace finished. Well, there it was. “But I trust you, lad. Come! Let us carve a path through… well, there are no enemies at the moment, only this useless hunk of dragon meat.”

“Come on, Umbriel, eat his eyes,” Vaida mockingly encouraged her wyvern.

They came out into the more open part of Ostia’s Great Hall, and Vaida had space to take off. “Finally,” both she and Wallace grumbled at the same time.

In fact, the entire army was assembling in good order, all heading towards the high dais where Marquess Ostia’s throne was set. Hector was standing in front of it, Lyn was jogging in place beside him to warm up, and a crowd of both Ostian soldiers and their own forces was gathered around them. The ranks parted enough to let Ceniro through.

When he got to the top, where he could oversee the entire Great Hall, there was a clatter of horses from the right and the horse-mounted knights appeared, with Eliwood at their head.

Eliwood seemed to have cast off at least some of his dispair in the time it had taken him to prepare for combat. He was wearing a little more armour than usual, and in his hand was a lance. He was not carrying Durandal, but neither was Hector carrying Armads. Ceniro thought back to what Erk had said about collateral damage and wondered if that was the reason.

They could sort it out later. For now, Eliwood joined Hector and Lyn, his head high and his blue eyes steady.

“Good timing,” Hector said to him, and nodded at the door. Black shadows were scurrying in. The Ostian soldiers shifted uneasily. “Hey! Stay where you are. Trust our tactician.”

“Beg your pardon, sir, but which one is our tactician?”

Hector blinked, confused. “Um… this one?” He pointed at Ceniro.

“Aww, but what about me?” Renee appeared from behind a soldier. “I’m the tactician of this garrison!”

“Well… just… figure it out between yourselves. But Ceniro’s in charge, got it?”

“…Yes, Lord Hector.”

Was he qualified to be in charge?

He shook himself. Of course he was. Just because he had uncertain associations with this place… and because tragedy had befallen them yesterday… None of that meant he had lost any of his skill.

So why did he feel so unsure?

Say something, he said to himself. Act, and results will follow. Something Lord Garlant used to say a lot. “Renee. Let’s get a shield wall up to defend our mages and archers from those archers. Fiora, keep the flyers back! Pent, Erk, Nino, we can use some Elfire out in front while the formation falls into place! Geitz, Dart, Guy, give them cover! Hecter, Oswin, Wallace, join the ranks!” The heavily armoured men would help bolster the regular Ostian infantry, which were being ordered into place by Renee. She knew her forces, undoubtedly, but he knew his forces and he would be giving a poor thanks to Hector by letting even one of his soldiers fall – even if he wasn’t commanding them directly.

He consulted the farseer. “Eliwood, there appears to be a concentration of shaman over on our left. You’ll lead a charge against them with the mounted knights. Isadora! Take Lucius with you! Lowen, take Serra! Protect them, but give them the space they need to blast the shaman!” He turned to Renee. “That should take care of the next five minutes. Any ideas?”

Renee paused to stare at him. “I can see why Lord Hector likes you. What is that thing? Tell me later. Er, I was thinking of sending out some troops to protect the treasures of the hall, in that alcove there.”

“Right,” Ceniro said. He gave quick orders, and soon things were arrayed to his liking, in a formation that danced the line between offense and defense. He knew Renee would rather concentrate on defense, but one of his goals was to eliminate the morphs as quickly as ever he could. With that in mind, he sent the pegasi and wyverns to the right to flank the enemy, despite the danger from the many archers. He trusted their skill.

He trusted his own skill.

Slowly, they began to push the morphs back. Though Bartre and Serra quickly found that the enemy archers’ arrows were not only long, strong, and sharp, but also poisoned, there were beginning to be fewer of them – at least not so close to the throne.

At least they were easy to identify. Between their black robes and pale skin, they stood out among the brightly-armoured Ostians, knights, and mercenaries, and that was without their nearly-glowing golden eyes and streaming, raven hair. And their last, very interesting feature of turning to dust when they were killed.

Ceniro himself moved up with the front lines. It was risky, certainly, but he was behind the lords, and he and Renee had decided to split their duties that way – he was in the thick of things, and she oversaw from the top, though he had essentially the same view through the farseer.

Elfire was doing less damage than he had hoped, although he was seeing now that the morphs had many shamans with them as well as archers. A few other soldiers, but he would have to try extra hard to keep the slow, heavy Ostian knights out of the fight, despite all the good they were doing with their shields.

He would need to send the pegasus sisters to clear out some of the magic, and even the wyverns, who he trusted would be fast enough to get past the dark magic and win over their natural weakness to magic.

“Wil!” Florina shrieked, and Ceniro turned to see the optimistic archer fall backwards, an arrow in his side. Florina’s pegasus clattered to the stone floor beside him, out of formation.

“Pent, Louise!, defend them! Matthew, Legault, guard Pent and Louise! Canas, help Wil.”

“Wil!” Florina cried, holding him. “Hold on, we’ll save you! You have to hold on… I didn’t… tell you…”

“Don’t cry, Miss Florina,” said Canas said, appearing over her shoulder. “He will live. Let me just…”

“Florina!” Farina cried. “Get back here! There’s a druid we need to Triangle on!”

“It’s all right,” Ceniro said. “Jaffar is on it. Florina, help Canas get Wil to the back. That was too close.”

“Why didn’t you move?” Florina asked the archer, who was opening his eyes.

He smiled weakly. “Rebecca was behind me… Lowen would skewer me if anything happened to her…”

“True, but it didn’t have to result in a casualty,” Ceniro told him, and the archer gave him a ‘what-are-you-gonna-do’ shrug.

The morphs were taking advantage of the confusion in the centre of the line to remount an offensive, and things were getting thick. In a moment Ceniro himself would have to pull back or give up on giving orders to defend himself, neither options ones that he liked. But… Matthew was now in danger, far too far forward, and Hector was too far away to cover him. “Raven! Harken-!”

Both swordsmen acknowledged him without disengaging from their current opponants, but Ceniro had to duck as he found himself suddenly exposed to archers. He had to get things back on track, but for that he needed a space to get Raven, Harken, and Guy into the gap that he was currently smack in the middle of…

“Ostian knights! Forward!” cried Renee’s voice, and the welcome orange of the heavy infantry swept in front of him from the left. “Don’t forget about us, Cen!”

“Thanks,” he called breathlessly, climbing back up to her. “Eliwood, bring your group back – it’s time to push to the leader. Hector, Lyn, Rath, you’ll be in that group too.”

“Ostian knights, give them cover! We are the shield and they are the spear!” Renee said, lifting her own spear aloft.

“Does that help?” Ceniro asked.

“Sure does,” Renee said. “You haven’t changed at all, have you!? Of course you would formulate a plan that near-collapses with the loss of a single archer!”

“He’s not a single archer, his name is Wil, and he’s highly competent,” Ceniro said.

“And his girlfriend breaking formation for him? She could have been shot down, and she very nearly was! You have too many girls in your army.”

He actually hadn’t thought about that hardly at all, but he had a ready comeback for that. “You’re a girl, aren’t you?” Although, now that he counted, the men outnumbered the women at least two to one in his army.

“I’m a woman, there’s a difference. I’m not saying you should pull people like that wyvern lady out of combat, she’d take your head off. It’s the others I’m worried about, especially those little green-haired girls.”

“They’re fine, I have them protected, they can take care of themselves-”

“Even when they get upset? They’re not old enough to know how to deal with this kind of situation! Emotions are important to keep down in the thick of combat!”

“To people who fight with their heart, which is most people, emotion is very important especially in the heat of combat! They insisted, and I won’t turn them down. Besides, look at the casualty rate on both sides!”

“That’s true,” Renee grudgingly admitted. “We haven’t lost anyone at all yet, and they’re missing half their force. I can see why we lost our sentries… but I can also see why we’re winning now.”

“Then let’s save the rest of this academic discussion for later,” Ceniro said. “Here comes my spearhead.”

“Ceniro, you do know there’s a swordmaster with a katana up there, right?”

“I know. Eliwood?”

Eliwood came up to him, looking much more like himself, though still grim. “Your orders?”

“When I give the signal, you are going to charge the enemy leader. Halfway there, though, there’s a swordmaster approaching. He’s yours and Lyn’s. I recommend charging with the lance to distract him and then letting Lyn strike from your shadow.”

“I like that idea,” Lyn said. “Can I ride with you partway, Eliwood?”

He extended a hand to her and she sprang up behind him.

“You do know how to ride,” she said approvingly.

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Thank you.”

“We’ll be right back,” she said to Ceniro with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Rath, you’re to take out the enemy leader as soon as you can – he has a heavy bow and it could do a lot of damage even as the mounted knights charge.” Rath nodded silently. “If you don’t kill him immediately, it’s up to Hector to finished the job.”

“Got it!” Hector said, spinning his axe. “Who am I riding with?”

“Marcus. Marcus, Kent, you and the rest of the knights are to keep the sniper occupied until Rath or Hector brings him down. Fiora, Vaida, get the shaman around the edges but keep an eye on the sniper.”

“Just leave it to us,” Vaida snarled.

“Renee, are your knights ready to open a gap?” Ceniro said.

“Ready on your mark,” she answered.

“NOW!” he yelled, and the cavalry charged. Ostia Hall shook with their hooves until Ceniro feared it would collapse around them. But the old hall was better built than that.

Eliwood was first; the swordsman dodged his lance but Lyn sprang from the back of Eliwood’s horse, doing a flip over the morph’s head and locking swords with him on the way down. The Mani Katti shone with a light he hadn’t seen in some time. The other knights gave the two swordfighters a wide berth, their swords cutting wide arcs through the air.

“Lady Lyndis is really something,” Renee murmured.

“She really is,” Ceniro said.

Lyn’s sword stabbed through his shoulder, and he fell to the floor, unnaturally silent but writhing.

A dark magic spell attempted to catch Lyn, but she was far too quick for that and was gone before the spell was even half-formed. The fallen morph was not so lucky – caught within the dark sphere’s influence, it was ripped in half and turned to dust. Ceniro winced. Whatever else the morphs were made of, they still had some kind of flesh and blood. And still it didn’t scream.

Disturbing.

There was one morph who spoke. Well… Ceniro wondered if he was truly speaking, or just making sounds the way a parrot would. At least he was capable of making sounds. Even the morph shaman cast spells without speaking – a trait that made them especially dangerous.

As they drew closer to the lead morph, they could hear his words echoing monotonously through the hall. “This is a message from Lord Nergal. ‘I await you on the Dread Isle.’ This is a message from Lord Nergal. ‘I await you on the Dread Isle.’ This is a message…” He dodged Rath’s arrows as if he could see them before Rath even fired.

“Shut up!” Hector roared, jumping off Marcus’s horse and charging at the morph. “We already knew that!”

Ceniro quietly ordered the rest of the army to move up in the wake of the cavalry charge.

Hector was beginning to look slightly pin-cushiony, but he was still moving, still attacking, probably ignoring whatever wounds he had taken in favour of adrenaline-pumped fury. The morph was methodically targeting each of the knights in turn, and Hector soon wasn’t the only one with an arrow lodged somewhere it probably shouldn’t be. Ceniro had Isadora withdraw, putting Harken in her place, and substituted Geitz for Lowen.

Hector closed to within striking distance finally.

The morph spun around to target him at point-blank range.

Rath’s horse jumped clear over Hector; time seemed to slow as he reached the apex of his arc, and Rath’s bow twanged.

The morph fell to the ground, an arrow in his skull, and his repeated message petered into silence as he fell into dust.

 

 

It took the army a while to collect themselves, and the healers were busy for a long time. Eliwood, Hector, and Lyn extricated themselves fairly early, with the assurance that Oswin and Marcus would deal with the rest of it. They came to rescue Ceniro from an increasingly heated discussion with Renee on how things could or should have gone differently. “Sorry, Lady Renee, we need him for our plans for tomorrow.”

“If you don’t come back to Ostia to catch up within the next month, I am going to be very angry and probably hit you again,” Renee threatened him.

“Got it,” Ceniro said. “Stay away for another ten years.”

She growled and he laughed, and she smiled, and he followed his friends.

Along the way, they passed Harken and Isadora, close in talk, and he paused to eavesdrop. It wasn’t his business, really – although it partly was, to know how his people were doing emotionally as well as physically.

His people. Were they really ‘his’ people? They were Eliwood’s people, or Hector’s, or Lyn’s, or just their own, joined for love or gold. Or love of gold. Or both.

But they trusted him with their lives, and so far, he had mostly delivered.

“I’m fine,” Isadora said. “It was a small wound, and Lady Priscilla healed it immediately.”

“Still, I was worried… I am glad Ceniro put me in your place. I only wish I could have taken your place from the beginning.”

“Harken, you have always known I have skill in combat… Don’t seek to dissuade me now, though our foes are far greater than anything we ever imagined.”

“No… it’s just…” Harken lowered his head and closed his eyes. “I… love you, Isadora. It’s… not easy for me, in so many ways, and I know it’s not easy for you. And I don’t think it’s going to get easier, not any time soon. But I wanted you to know that…”

“That you were worried,” she finished, and he nodded. “Thank you, Harken, my love.” She put her arms around him, he put his arms around her, and she pulled him close and kissed him.

“I don’t deserve this,” he whispered.

“Don’t say that,” Isadora whispered back, and by now Ceniro was tip-toeing away, because he had definitely stayed too long and heard too much. But he was glad their relationship was… intact, though it still had a long way to go.

 

“So, Greybeard, those were his morphs,” Hector said to Athos as they returned. “You knew that already, of course, probably.”

“They were all eerily similar,” Lyn murmured. “But you know who they remind me of? That man on Valor, Ephidel… Black Fang’s Sonia, too… Are you saying that he made them all?”

“It is so,” Athos said. “I have not met the ones you speak of, but I would guess with certainty that it is so.”

“But they were more intelligent, Ephidel and Sonia,” Eliwood said. “These ones didn’t even speak, except for that one leading them.”

“Yet they moved with purpose and skill,” Lyn said. “The only reason we could match them was because we’d fought them before, at Sonia’s lair.”

“It is an abomination,” Athos said. “A crime against all that is natural. When Nergal began using morphs to carry out his plans, his power had grown beyond our ability to contain him. After humans, his next target became the essence of dragons.”

“That’s why he went to the Dragon’s Gate?” Eliwood asked.

Athos nodded slowly. “I was certain back then that his next target had to be Arcadia. I concealed our paradise behind a curtain of sandstorms. I then hid in the underground ruins and waited for him. I did not hope to defeat him. Just to exchange blows… and then draw him into the desert, which would be his end.”

“But he never showed up,” Eliwood said, nodding.

“Correct. I’ve no idea how he managed it but… He called those siblings through the Dragon’s Gate. And now… he plans to call a horde of dragons to this land.”

“We have to protect Nils at all cost,” Hector murmured. “What should we do next, then? How can we seek to defeat him now?”

“Our last hope is still the power of the Legendary Weapons,” Athos said. “But it would take too long for us to gather all of them. I will go to the Shrine of Seals and tell Bramimond everything. We must have his power, too.”

Eliwood stood from his seat, his eyes burning passionately. “Then we will go to the Dragon’s Gate ahead of you.”

Athos turned to face him, startled. “What?”

“Great idea!” Hector said. “Even if we can’t take him down right away, we can at least wipe out his morph-troops. Soften him up for when you get there.”

“You know that such a thing could be suicide, no matter your strength or your tactics?” Athos said.

“If we don’t answer Nergal’s invitation soon… He’ll continue to send out troops after us,” Lyn said. “If that’s going to happen, we might as well take the fight to him! I won’t have Elibe ravaged by any more of his acts!”

Athos looked around at the three of them, the same light in all their eyes. “You… you truly are Roland’s children. I had not thought I would ever be surprised again, and yet…”

“Lord Athos,” said Eliwood.

“It takes the strongest of bonds to alter the course of fate. Go… Go, my youthful friends. Set your sights on the Dragon’s Gate and keep moving.”

“We will,” Lyn promised. “You’re with us, right, Ceniro?”

Ceniro stood to join the rest of them. “I’m not leaving your side. I’m seeing this through to the end.”

“Good,” Hector said. “We’ll need you. Only going to be more of those guys.”

“Eliwood, Hector, where are the Legendary Weapons?” Athos asked.

“Ah… in my room,” Eliwood said. “I… couldn’t… bring myself to use it.”

“Me either,” Hector said, striding to where the great axe leaned against the wall. “Even after what I told Durban… I didn’t know if I wanted to use a weapon that controlled itself in my own castle.”

“I’m sorry,” Eliwood said.

“There is no need to apologize,” Athos said. “May I take them for a while?”

“Yes,” Eliwood said.

“It’s fine, but…” Hector began.

“Eliwood, Hector, I understand how you both feel. But without these weapons, we won’t be able to stop Nergal. …You know that, don’t you?”

“…Yes,” said Eliwood. “When next I wield it… I won’t hesitate.”

“Besides, we should wait for Lyn to catch up!” Hector teased.

Lyn rolled her eyes. “I’m still miles ahead of you even without a legendary blade, Hector. In fact, my sword is already somewhat legendary.”

“You wield the Mani Katti, do you not?” Athos asked. “It is not one of the Legendary Eight, but it is indeed a marvelous sword, and only reinforces my plan.” Lyn looked confused, but Athos rose before she could ask questions. “I will be on my way, then. You all… get your rest.”

“Right,” Ceniro said.

“As if we could do that now,” Hector said. “Ugh, I’m never going to sleep tonight…”

“Try,” Lyn said tartly.

Eliwood smiled. Then he turned to Ceniro. “Do you mind if I check on Nils?”

“He should be okay,” Ceniro said. “He’s next door; I had Hawkeye with him during the battle.”

“Thank you,” Eliwood said. “Rest well, everyone.”

 

Lyn followed him as he left for the room assigned to him. “Ceniro, wait.”

He turned. “What is it? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” she said, and Ceniro took a better took at her anyway. She seemed tense, as if she had something important to say but was too shy or proud to say it. “I was wondering…”

“Mmhmm?”

“Just for tonight… can I stay with you?”

Well, that he hadn’t been expecting. “Lyn, it’s…”

“I know! But… just to be with you. We haven’t been able to properly be together for… weeks, really. And… we’re both reserved, undemonstrative people when it comes to this sort of thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hold you often.”

“Or I you,” he said, smiling. “But with you beside me I worry that I won’t get any sleep, even if nothing happens.”

“Nothing will happen,” she assured him, standing nose-to-nose with him. Her proximity was making his heart pound like they were in the middle of a battle. “Just this is our best chance of having a moment before things go all crazy.”

“You’re not seducing me with ‘tomorrow we may die’, are you?” he teased.

“Absolutely not. You’ll make sure none of us die. And I’m not seducing you!”

“Noted,” he said, and his hands were on her slender waist, and she was leaning against him, her hands on his shoulders. “Lyn…”

“Shhh,” she said, and kissed him.

 

 

Chapter 8: The Berserker and Valourous Roland           Chapter 10: Victory or Death

Rekka no Ken: The Tactician and the Dragons: The Berserker and Valourous Roland

« ... »

Chapter 7: Cog of Destiny           Chapter 9: Sands of Time

 

This chapter is incredibly long. I blame NaNoWriMo. I would like to thank the Aldnoah.Zero OST for helping with the Karel vs. Lloyd duel which took way too many days to resolve, Dark Pit for helping with Eliwood’s passage of the maze, and You Will Know Our Names for helping with Eliwood’s battle with Georg. I have nearly two other chapters ready as well; in fact, if you’re reading this the same day I publish it, you’ve probably already clicked back to here from those new chapters. : P

Did I mention this chapter is INCREDIBLY LONG?

 

Chapter 8: The Berserker and Valourous Roland

 

A heavy clang echoed across the valley as Lloyd and Karel’s katanas met. It looked like they had used the same type of attack at the same time. The blades locked for a moment, then they sprang away from each other, whirling, Karel’s robe and Lloyd’s longcoat swirling behind them.

Ceniro found himself holding his breath. This was a dazzling show of skill; it was too tragic that it would inevitably end in Lloyd’s death. Lloyd himself seemed to know that, from what he had said to Nino.

There wasn’t any way for him to stop it now. Karel would fight until one or the other of them died, and he suspected Lloyd would do the same. And if Karel fell and not Lloyd, then one by one the members of Eliwood’s group would step forward until Lloyd did fall. But watching him… Ceniro wondered if there was anyone else who could even come close to matching him.

The valley was silent except for the two flashing swords and the light footsteps of their swordsmen.

They charged at each other again, Karel’s long dark hair streaming behind him like a comet’s tail, but this time both fighters gave a grunt of pain. Nino gasped.

They both paused and turned to each other. Lloyd was clutching his shoulder, where his leather coat had been sliced through – but Karel had a hand pressed to his chest, which was trickling blood from a long slice.

Both men looked down at their wounds, catching their breath, then looked up at each other and smiled. It was the smile of those who had forgotten everything except the rush of battle. Ceniro shivered. He had seen that smile a few times in his life, and it never boded well for anyone involved.

When they charged again, they were even faster than before. Circling each other, sparks flying from their swords, they were entirely lost to the outside world. They seemed to be evenly matched; it was whoever made the first mistake who would lose. Even their newly-acquired scratches didn’t seem to affect them at all.

“What is he?” Lyn murmured. “He’s definitely not Sacaean… but he moves exactly like one.”

They lunged at each other again. This wasn’t an easy fight for either of them; Lloyd was certainly making Karel work for it. Sweat was dripping down the White Wolf’s face, and he was panting heavily, but Karel wasn’t looking altogether as composed as he had been, and his dark hair was beginning to fall into his face.

It seemed like ages they stood and watched, the katanas humming through the air, neither gaining any strikes on the other. Ceniro wondered what was going through their minds, if they were truly entirely lost in the skill and rhythm of the fight, or if they were thinking about other things. If Lloyd was thinking about his brother, still – or Nino. If Karel really had an unstoppable bloodlust that cared for nothing besides winning.

No, he decided again, it was too late for all of that.

There was another blur of movement, and this one did not end in a clang. Nino gasped.

Karel’s Wo Dao dripped with blood, and Lloyd was clutching his stomach. The Black Fang leader fell to one knee, propped up on his sword.

“Lloyd!” Nino cried, agonized.

Lloyd raised his head and smiled at her, a warm, brotherly smile. Then he turned to Karel. “…Well…? …Finish me.”

There was a blur like a striking snake, and Karel did so.

Nino sobbed.

Eliwood leaned on his rapier heavily. “I wish… things had been otherwise…”

“I still don’t understand,” Lyn said. “Why did he think we killed his brother?”

“Nergal’s agents must have gotten to Linus first,” Hector said grimly. “We did destroy most of that guy’s guard first. Even though he himself was a great fighter… he could have been taken by surprise. He seemed less cautious than this guy here.”

Lyn nodded. “That makes sense.” She looked up at the shrine that cast welcome shade over them. “We can’t worry about that much now. What’s done is done. What now?”

“I guess we go inside?” Eliwood said, glancing at Ceniro for confirmation.

“That would be a good idea, but I don’t see a door…” Ceniro said slowly, looking from the farseer to the building and back again.

“I will take you inside,” said a new voice, and they turned to see Athos standing there.

Lyn blinked. “When did you get here?”

“Just now,” Athos said. “I warped in after I saw you had successfully arrived.”

“Why didn’t you just warp us all in?” Hector grumbled, half under his breath – Ceniro wondered if it was his attempt to not be rude to a very powerful man over a thousand years old.

Athos spread his hands. “What would that have accomplished? You may have the knowledge of Nergal’s plots, but do you have the willpower, the inner strength, to actually stop him? It is not lightly that I would ask my colleague to release the ancient weapons to you. Now we must go to meet him – underground.”

“Who are we meeting, sir?” Eliwood asked.

“His name is Bramimond. You will know him as one of the Eight Legends. Only he and I remain of their number…”

“And these weapons…” Ceniro began.

“They are the ones we, the Eight, used to defeat the dragons. They are sealed each in their own lands across the continent, and only Bramimond is able to remove the seals. First, however, I have a gift for you.” He reached out and presented Eliwood with a Heaven’s Seal.

Eliwood received it. “Thank you very much, sir!” He turned to Ceniro. “It’s a third one! You said something about waiting for a third one.”

“Oh, right,” Ceniro said, digging in his pockets. He found the other two and gave them to Lyn and Hector. “I’m not sure how you use those, but… use them now.”

“A very good idea,” Athos said. “All you must do is take it in your hands and focus on it.”

Lyn squeaked: her Heaven’s Seal was glowing with bright white light. It spread, and she vanished from view behind it. Eliwood and Hector followed suit.

When Ceniro could see his friends again, they looked similar, but… stronger, somehow. Physically they were unchanged, but their eyes sparkled with an inner determination, they stood straighter, and they almost seemed to glow.

“Wow,” Eliwood said.

“You look different, Hector,” Lyn said.

“You don’t,” Hector teased. “Seriously, Ceniro, how do we look?”

“Like you could all take on Karel with one hand,” Ceniro said, smiling.

Hector grinned and flexed. “Heh. I feel like a beast.”

“You kind of are,” Lyn sniffed. “But I feel like I could cross Sacae running non-stop.”

“I feel… I feel great,” Eliwood said, and chuckled, looking down at his hands.

“All right!” Hector gave him a high-five. “Nothing can stop us now!”

Athos beckoned. “This power is your birthright, unlocked through the seals. You will need it to claim the Legendary Weapons. Come. You have proven yourselves worthy.” He beckoned to Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector, but Eliwood took Ceniro’s arm.

“Our tactician should come, too.”

“It’s all right,” Ceniro said. “I’d just get in the way. I’ll make sure the army is patching itself up…?”

Eliwood shook his head. “Marcus can do that. I’m not leaving you out of this now. Come with us.”

“Young Ceniro may come as well,” Athos said, and raised his hand.

After a flash of light, they were left in complete darkness. After a moment, Ceniro saw a white-haired, white-bearded face – Athos. The archsage’s staff gently illuminated their immediate vicinity. Ceniro could see the other three, faintly.

“So creepy,” Hector muttered.

There was a rustling. The young people froze, hands inching towards weapons.

Eliwood stiffened and turned suddenly, and was face-to-face with an almost invisible person of indeterminate gender, cloaked in a black robe with a hood. “…You must be Bramimond.”

“That is a name connected to me,” the figure said non-committally. “What do you want of me?”

Lyn stepped forward, both shy and forthright. “We… seek a favour of you. We need weapons to defeat Nergal…”

“I cannot grant that favour,” Bramimond said, his voice ethereal in the darkness. “Humanity would suffer greatly if I were to release the seals.”

“Humanity is going to suffer greatly anyway!” Hector cried, stepping in front of Lyn. “He’s going to destroy the whole world if we don’t stop him! Give us this power!” At Eliwood’s look, he added: “…Please.”

“The whole world?” Bramimond said sharply, his voice suddenly deeper. “Why should I care about that? It can burn for all the good the weapons will do it!”

“I don’t understand,” Eliwood said, calm and reasonable. “Lord Athos said that these weapons were our only hope to defeat Nergal, to stop him from releasing dragons back into our world. Surely you would not want your victory a thousand years ago to be wasted…”

“You are correct that you do not understand,” Bramimond said, abruptly serene. “You do not know what I know about these weapons.”

“Your voice…” Ceniro said. “It keeps changing…”

“But you mentioned Athos.”

“I am here, old friend,” Athos said, finally stepping forward to join the others. “And I am glad you remember me. Yes, Bramimond has no true self. He… it… has as many personalities as there are people facing him.”

“I cannot fathom why you would bring these people here,” Bramimond said, and turned away into the blackness. “Have you forgotten? These weapons are not meant for mortal hands. That is why I sealed them away.”

“May I ask a question?” Ceniro piped up.

“Ask,” Athos answered for Bramimond.

“Why were modern humans able to find the Staff of Saint Elimine?”

Bramimond paused and half glanced at him. “…It is not a weapon.”

“I see. Thank you.”

“Please,” Eliwood said. “We can’t do this on our own. Even if these weapons kill us… we have to save the rest of the people in the world.”

Bramimond did not reply.

“Bramimond, remember… We, too, are human,” Athos said. “These people, they will not be seduced by power. They came here without my aid, using their own abilities. You observed them, did you not?”

“I did,” Bramimond said. “It is true, they seem more pure, more idealistic than most humans. Stronger, too. But humans are frail, in body and mind. What guarantee do I have that they will not succumb to that frailty, Athos??”

Eliwood bowed his head and answered before Athos could. “There is no guarantee. You will have to believe in us… as we believe in ourselves.”

Bramimond turned back to him and studied him for a long time. Eliwood met the unseen gaze, unmoving.

“Once there was a man much like you,” the shadow said eventually. “His gaze never wavered, but always looked towards his goal.” He paused, and some kind of ripple seemed to radiate outwards from him, unseen, unheard, but Ceniro could feel it brush past him and it ruffled their hair and cloaks.

“I am tired now,” Bramimond said. “Leave me to rest. Take your pick of the weapons. Farewell.” He vanished back into the darkness, and Athos immediately warped them back to the sunset-drenched field below the shrine. Ninian, Nils, and several of the knights were waiting for them, and smiled to see them back. Nino and Jaffar were not there.

Lyn fell to her knees, burying her fingers in the grass. “Oh, the sweet wind…”

“Man, it’s good to be outside after that,” Hector said, throwing his head back and sniffing the wind himself.

“He’s very mysterious,” Eliwood said to Athos. “I wish we could know him better. But what convinced him to release the seals? Surely it wasn’t me or my words…”

Athos paused. “I do not know for certain. But I believe… he looked out again, and saw Nergal’s true aura – an impenetrable, unnatural darkness, a warping of Elder Magic. But now we must hurry. Nergal will have sensed the breaking of the seals, and he will contest us for the weapons-”

“You’re already too late,” said a grim voice from the side of the shrine, and they turned to see Nergal glaring down at them.

“You-!” Eliwood cried, his sword appearing in his hand. Only Athos’s warning gesture prevented him from leaping at the dark-robed figure.

Hector slowly unhooked his axe from his side, and Lyn rose, her own sword in her hand. The knights followed suit and stood ready to act, looking to Ceniro for orders. Ceniro stood powerless, since without the legendary weapons, attack was suicide. But if Nergal decided to just wipe them out here and now…

They had escaped him before, without legendary weapons, and they could escape him again. But last time, Lord Elbert had died for them. Who would make the sacrifice this time?

“My power is restored,” Nergal said quietly. “The unsealing of the Legendary Weapons means nothing to either of us. Ninian! Nils! Come to me and open the Dragon’s Gate.”

“No!” Ninian cried, clinging to her brother.

“Never!” Nils shouted, holding his sister protectively.

“Would you like me to demonstrate my power here and now?” Nergal growled, lifting his hand.

“You mustn’t go!” Eliwood shouted, moving in front of both of them. “Run, both of you! We’ll hold him off…” Unspoken was the knowledge that Nergal could teleport as well as Athos could, and Ninian and Nils would not run far before they were caught again – and the rest of the army utterly destroyed.

“Wait!” Ninian cried, stepping forward and laying a hand on Eliwood’s arm. But she spoke to Nergal. “I-if… If I go with you, will you let my brother go?”

“Ninian! Don’t!” Nils begged, taking her hand. She didn’t turn her eyes away from Nergal.

Ceniro pressed the back of his hand against his mouth. She was making the sacrifice play for all of them – but wasn’t she also giving Nergal exactly what he needed? If they lived now, would they even live long enough to acquire a weapon, any weapon, and make it back to Nergal to save her before the dragons came?

Nergal nodded. “One of you should be enough. Come here.”

“Ninian,” Nils said, on the verge of tears. “No! Why?”

She turned to him and embraced him. “Look after Lord Eliwood for me.” There was a flash of light between them, so bright Ceniro had to look away.

The next thing he saw was Ninian backing away from them all, towards Nergal. Her eyes were fixed on Eliwood, who was staring back helplessly, his sword loose in his hand.

Then Eliwood dropped his sword, lunged forward, and kissed Ninian full on the mouth. He murmured something to her, something that sounded like “Don’t go…” and she shook her head.

“I detest long goodbyes,” Nergal said, and stepped forward, seizing Ninian’s arm.

Eliwood’s face instantly collapsed into rage. “Hold still!” He swept up his rapier back into his hand again and brought it up to attack. “Demon!”

“No, get down!” Athos shouted, although his words were largely futile – Hector was running forward, Lyn was running forward, the knights were running forward… Nils was running forward…

The ground shook and something like an explosion knocked them all backwards…

 

 

Ceniro slowly came to. He was lying on a small bed by a white-washed wooden wall. He wiggled his toes, enjoying the feeling of not having boots on.

Louise and Erk’s anxious faces appeared above him, and the memories of the shrine slammed into him like a runaway cart. “Where’s-”

“Lord Eliwood is alive, but still unconscious,” Erk said, balancing a staff on his shoulder. “The others who were hit by the blast are in various states of recovery. It was fortunate that Lord Athos was there to shield you all.”

Ceniro sat up and put a hand to his head. “Yes, yes it was. Ninian’s really gone?”

Their faces grew longer. “Yes,” Louise said. “We searched for her, for a short time, even though Lord Athos said it was futile. But I fear she is on her own for now. Eliwood will be upset when he wakes.”

“Yeah,” Ceniro said, rubbing his head. “Yeah.” He looked at both of them. “How much time do we have, does anyone know?”

“Before Nergal completes… whatever he’s doing?” Erk asked. “No one knows. But I think Lord Athos has a plan of some kind.”

“We need it,” came Lyn’s voice, and Ceniro looked up to see her. She had a bruise on her cheek, covered in dirt and blood, and she looked tired and unhappy, despite her Heaven’s Seal-granted power boost. “Neither Hector nor I know what to do, and I’m sure Eliwood doesn’t know either. We don’t know where these weapons are, or what they are, or what they can do.” She looked at Louise. “I’m sure Lord Pent knows something, but he’s still talking with Athos in Eliwood’s room.”

“So for now, you should rest,” Louise said gently. “When the mages start talking about arcane unintelligible things, sometimes that’s the best thing you can do. Come sit with us, you’ve had a long day.”

Lyn smiled wanly. “We all have. And we need to start marching back out again, soon, too. And first we need to bury the bodies of the Black Fang so that King Desmond finds no trace of us.”

“I think Miss Nino was already working on that with some people,” Erk said. “What exactly are you speaking of with these weapons?”

Lyn sat down on the edge of Ceniro’s bed and ran a hand through her tangled ponytail. “The weapons wielded by the Eight Legends… we’re going to find them to use against Nergal.”

“Do we have time to do that?” Erk asked.

“That’s what we want to know,” Ceniro mumbled anxiously. “But I’m worried about what Bramimond said. Just how dangerous are these weapons? I thought they were… well, you know, powerful enough to kill dragons, but they’re still just weapons, right?”

“That’s a good question,” Erk said. “Let me think… The Legendary spells undoubtedly cause collateral damage of some kind. Forblaze, Aureola… legendary magic power is not easily controlled.”

“I can see that you, Lady Lyn, and Eliwood and Hector are being set up to take a weapon each,” Louise said. “Lord Athos trusts you, so you must be strong enough to control it.”

Lyn smiled. “That’s encouraging. Oh, but Louise, it’s just Lyn, remember?”

Louise blushed. “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

Ceniro pushed the blanket off and turned to sit on the edge of the bed next to Lyn. “Well, I’m feeling better from the bump Nergal gave us… Where exactly are we?”

“We’re actually in a village not far from the Shrine,” Erk said.

Ceniro reached for his pack and pulled out the farseer. “Yes, I see. I didn’t know anyone still lived so close.”

“I don’t think they know what it is,” Louise said in a low voice. “After what I’ve heard of Bern’s policy in the area, I doubt they’d be let to live if they knew. I hope they will be safe after we leave. But… with you and Eliwood in such bad shape, we had no choice…”

“Shall we check on Eliwood?” Ceniro asked Lyn.

“Yes, that’s a good idea.” She stood and gestured for him to follow her.

“I’ll see you later,” Ceniro said to Erk and Louise, and they nodded to him.

Eliwood’s face was deathly pale against the white of his pillow. But even as Ceniro entered the room, he stirred, his blue eyes flickering open. They came to rest on Hector, sitting beside him. “W-where…”

“Some village,” Hector said. He, too, looked beat up. “You’ve been knocked out for a bit by Nergal’s parting gift. You and most of us standing close by.” He looked up at Lyn and Ceniro. “Good to see you two up. Is Nils up yet?”

“I don’t know,” Lyn said. “I’ll check quickly.”

Eliwood was trying to sit up. Hector helped him. “His power… it’s so much more than before,” he croaked.

“Yeah, if Athos hadn’t put up a barrier when he did, we’d have been goners for sure,” Hector answered.

Athos and Pent had been speaking quietly at the foot of his bed, and now Athos turned to him. “If Nergal truly wished to kill you, not even my power could have saved you.”

Hector snorted bitterly. “What, was he feeling generous today or something?”

“Ninian…” Eliwood murmured.

Lyn entered again. “He’s still sleeping. Lucius and Priscilla are with him.”

“That’s good,” Eliwood said.

Athos came around the bed closer to Eliwood. “If you truly wish to save the girl, you must find at least one of the Legendary Weapons. Even as you are, you can’t defeat him with strength of heart alone.”

“I understand,” Eliwood said after a moment. “Where do we find them?”

“Westward,” Athos said. “However, I understand that first you must get away from this shrine.”

“We can do that heading west,” Ceniro said. “As long as we’re more than a day’s travel away by tomorrow’s end. I think I know a good destination from here.”

“You can lead us, then,” Hector said. “Hey, you need a power-up of some kind if you’re going to lead us.”

“No, I don’t,” Ceniro said. “I don’t need to lead, I just need to tell you where to go.”

“Besides, he has his enormous brain,” Lyn said, wrapping an arm around his neck.

Eliwood smiled slowly.

“You, in fact, will be coming with me,” Athos said to Hector.

“What? Why?” Hector barked in surprise. “Am I in trouble?”

“Yes,” Lyn said.

“Shush, woman,” Hector told her.

“You are not in trouble,” Athos said calmly. “But I will send the rest of your group in search of a sword, for either Eliwood or Lyndis, and take you in search of something suitable for you – the axe Armads, once wielded by the berserker Durban. It rests in the Western Isles. Have no fear, you will be reunited with your friends before anything… interesting happens, if all goes well.”

“And if not, the two of you will be enough to take care of things, right?” Hector said to Eliwood and Lyn.

“We’ll do our best,” Eliwood said. “Is there not time to gather a third weapon? I could use a lance, probably, and Lyndis is good with a bow, once we figure out which one of us will use the sword.”

“After Hector gains Armads, I will return him to you and then attempt to gather some more useful items,” Athos said. “I do not think there is time to gain a third Legendary Weapon, but I think I can find a second sword.”

Lyn smiled. “That sounds fine. You can have the Legendary sword, Eliwood. As long as I can lift it, I’ll stab Nergal’s black heart with my .”

Eliwood sat up straighter. “It’s settled, then. We shall set out once Nils is well enough to travel, and head west following Ceniro’s directions.”

 

The weather was wet again the next day, but they plodded on with all the speed they could make. Hector seemed bothered by something, but when Ceniro asked, he shrugged it off. When Ceniro asked Matthew about it, he received the not-quite-unexpected answer a couple hours later that “Lord Hector is concerned about his brother”. Eliwood and Lyn seemed to not have noticed, so Ceniro kept it to himself. If Hector really was worried about his brother, he was probably hiding it from them for a reason, and Ceniro would do the same. Even now he was starting to feel guilty that he knew.

After breakfast the day after, Hector came to him. “So we’re heading out in a few minutes.”

“So soon?” Ceniro asked in surprise. “I thought you’d come back to Lycia with us.”

“Well, apparently not, I guess. Hey, take care of the others for me, okay? Especially Eliwood. He tends to take things on himself and not tell anyone about them.”

Ceniro nodded slowly. “Yes, I will do that.”

“Right, then. I’ll see you in a couple days, it seems.”

“Hector… wait!” Ceniro jogged after the taller man until he turned around again. “I… take this.” He reached out and gave Hector the farseer.

Hector’s eyes went wide. “What? You’re really letting me borrow that?”

“Yeah. I can manage without it. And if you’re going alone, I… I figure you can use every edge you can get.”

“Seriously. Thanks. I’ll make it up to you sometime.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Ceniro said awkwardly. “Just come back in one piece. Have you said goodbye to the others yet?”

Hector slipped the farseer safely into his belt bag. “Just about to. Thanks. This will be an enormous help. …Though it might take me a bit to figure out.”

“I’m sure you can handle it,” Ceniro said, smiling. “I doubt its influence will reach from the Western Isles to here, so you won’t be distracted by us through it. You’ll be fine.”

Hector mock-saluted him and headed off in Lyn’s direction.

He and Athos left quietly a few minutes later. The main group continued marching towards Ostia, as Athos had told them to head to a particular region near the edge of Ostia, up against the mountains on the Lycian-Etrurian border. It would take them several days to get there.

Nils was quiet, and Lyn fretted quietly over him from next to Ceniro. “I don’t know whether to make sure he’s up here at the front with us, or if he’d be better off staying with the other children his own age, or if he is tired of me trying to look after him…”

“I think he appreciates it,” Ceniro said. “We can all keep our spirits up together. He probably feels the worst of all of us right now – he’s closest to Ninian, and there’s not much he can do to help her, not even as much as Eliwood.”

“Mm,” was her answer. “I know a little how that feels. But we’ll save her. We have to reassure ourselves and him of that.”

“Exactly,” Eliwood said, from behind them, and Ceniro jumped. “Oh, my apologies. I thought you knew I was there.”

“It’s all right,” Ceniro said. “You’re doing all right, right?”

Eliwood looked at the sky. “Well… I suppose as well as can be expected. I feel like we’re going too slow, but there’s only so fast I can make my own body move, let alone everyone else. I should ride more.”

“You are good at riding, Eliwood?” Lyn asked.

“I’m actually very good,” Eliwood said. “Perhaps once we pass into Lycia I shall request my horse from Pherae. I’d rather not ride a borrowed horse into battle.”

“Oh, you can fight from horseback too?” Ceniro asked. “How did I not know that?”

“It hasn’t come up,” Eliwood said. “But you knew Marcus is my teacher.”

“But you fight using the fencing style, with a rapier,” Lyn said. “How does that translate into mounted combat?”

“I see your point,” Eliwood conceded. “Not at all, actually.”

“I’m not bad on a horse myself,” Lyn said. “But I prefer to fight with a sword on foot. I’ll ride like the wind when not in battle, but for defeating bandits I prefer to use my own agility.”

“Understandable,” Eliwood said. “I believe you, too. They say Sacaeans are the best horsemen in Elibe, descended from Hanon the horse archeress, although… the young man named Guy doesn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it…”

“Well, not everyone’s the same,” Lyn chided gently. “Not all Lycians live in stone houses, right?”

“Hey,” Ceniro said mildly.

“Hello,” Lyn said, smiling cheekily at him.

“I understand your point,” Eliwood said. “And I know we’re going as quick as we can without being too tired for emergencies. I’m just…”

“I know,” she said, and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll save her. And stop Nergal. We have to believe.”

“I believe,” Eliwood said fervently.

“Greetings!” came from behind them, and they turned to see Kent and Sain, with Nils riding with Kent. The hail had come from Sain, who was waving enthusiastically.

“Hello, boys,” Lyn said. “What news do you bring?”

“No news,” Kent said. “Only Nils.”

“Thank you, Sir Kent,” Nils said, and jumped down to walk with Eliwood.

“Are you feeling better now?” Ceniro asked.

“Mm,” Nils nodded. “Much better. I was having trouble finding you, though, so I asked your knights. Was that okay?”

Lyn glanced at Ceniro and they both relaxed a little. “It’s more than okay,” Lyn said.

“In fact, we were going to go look for you about now,” Ceniro said.

“Where are we going, exactly?” Nils asked. “Can you show me? I want to know.”

Lyn and Eliwood looked at Ceniro.

“Unfortunately, I lent my farseer to Hector for the time being,” Ceniro said, and the two lords seemed unsurprised. Kent and Sain, however, looked startled. “But if I remember right, heading northwest will bring us through the mountain foothills straight into Kathelet, probably by evening if we’re not delayed. From there it’ll be a few days to Ostia.”

“Too bad you’ll never make it!” said a raucous voice, and a bandit swung down from a tree in front of them.

Lyn, Eliwood, Kent, and Sain instantly drew their swords, looking warily around as more bandits began to appear through the undergrowth around them. Only Ceniro stood still, looking completely calm. “Stay with me, Nils,” he said in a low voice, and the boy nodded and shifted closer to him, although still poised for flight.

“Looks like we caught a nice noble outing,” one of the bandits said, drawing closer. “Two rich kids and their babysitters and servants.”

Kent looked offended. “Is that all you think we are?”

Sain laughed. “With how strong Lady Lyndis is now, we could probably just let her take care of it by herself.” The two knights glanced at each other in amused agreement.

Lyn growled. “You brigands be warned, I hate your kind.”

“The kitten thinks she has teeth, huh? Don’t worry, we won’t kill you…”

“I don’t think anyone here is really all that worried,” Eliwood said. “There are indeed many of you, but I think we might be more than a match for you…”

“You kids think you’re better than us, with your pretty little unmarred faces? Obviously you have no experience!”

“Or mayyyybe,” Sain said, leaning forward and tapping his headband, “we have some awesome healers with our group, and they keep us pretty. It’s you guys who have no skill, letting people stab you in the face like that!”

“It’s unwise to judge a person’s experience by their appearance,” Kent said sternly. “We’ve been on a long journey, getting stronger in mind and body every day. Prepare yourselves!”

“No more talk!” the lead bandit shouted. “It’s you who should prepare yourselves!”

Ceniro took a step forward. “Excuse me…”

“Nothing you say can save you now!”

Ceniro took a deep breath… and whistled.

Fiora and her pegasus dropped neatly through a gap in the trees, the stern look on her face identical to Kent’s. “You called, sir?” She was followed closely by her sisters.

“More women…” said one of the bandits, and Ceniro could almost see imaginary gold coins floating in the man’s eyes. Then Heath and Vaida followed them with a massive thud and a growling of wyverns, and the man snapped back to reality with a frightened jump.

“Enough!” Lyn snapped, her sword making an angry flick. “Look around you. You are surrounded. I will grant you mercy should you choose to flee now.”

With some crashing and some cursing and some squeaking, the rest of the army slowly filtered into view, all more or less ready for battle, though also more or less adorned with bits of forest undergrowth.

Sain didn’t lower his sword, but his smile turned rueful. “Does that mean I’m not going to get to show off today?”

“You don’t need to show off, your wife is in Pherae,” Kent said.

Sain’s smile grew. “While you, on the other hand…”

Kent and Fiora’s eyes met, and they both blushed and looked away quickly.

The bandit leader looked worried. “Uh. Please forgive us! We didn’t know…”

“Didn’t know what?” Lyn growled. “That we were a large, heavily armed group? I should take you out anyway for the sake of future travelers…”

“Don’t, Lyndis,” Eliwood said. “It would be a massacre.”

“Eliwood, bandits don’t care about things like that.”

The bandit leader fell to his knees. “No, please, don’t kill us! We’ll do something else. We’re sorry!”

Lyn turned away and sheathed her sword with a sharp click. “Hah. I’ll believe it when I see it. Be off, then.”

They all turned and ran south, towards the mountains.

“Well, that was exciting,” Fiora said. “May I be of any other service?”

“No, I think we’re good,” Eliwood said. “Thank you for your quick arrival.”

Fiora bowed from the waist. “It was our pleasure.” Ceniro waved to the rest of the army, which began to disperse again into their traveling formation.

Farina snorted. “It’s what you’re paying me for! I’d hate to let you down after that!”

Kent smiled. “In any case, Lady Fiora…” he trailed off.

“In any case,” Sain put in loudly, looking pointedly in a completely different direction, “it’s a good thing no one got hurt, and maybe someone should just check and make sure that everyone really isn’t hurt? Should I do that? Maybe I should do that. Come on, Lady Farina, Florina, let’s go make sure everyone is without scratches from these nasty trees.”

Fiora began to blush again, as Farina snickered, Florina giggled, and both of them turned their pegasi to follow the gaily chattering Sain.

Lyn smiled at Nils. “What wonderful friends we have, huh?”

Eliwood looked at Ceniro as Kent and Fiora moved out in front of them, horse and pegasus keeping pace with each other. “Wait, is that a thing?”

Ceniro chuckled. “I think most of their friends have been trying to get them together since Fiora joined our army – and I’ll freely admit I’m one of those people.”

“They do seem very similar, at least,” Nils said. “Is that a good thing?” He seemed doubtful.

“They’re perfect,” Lyn sighed, clasping her hands. “I’m so happy for them. On this difficult journey, there are so many of us here who have found people to care for…”

“Mm,” Eliwood agreed. “But I’m glad there’s so many of us that we can pass these places unthreatened by normal attacks.”

“We’re not invulnerable, but any normal attack would be clear suicide,” Ceniro agreed. “Eliwood, once we get into Kathelet, let’s get transport for our people on foot. It will help a lot, probably two or three days worth.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Eliwood said. “The first place we come to, we’ll buy a couple carts and horses.”

Ceniro blinked, then reminded himself that Eliwood was rich.

“And I’ll send home for my horse, and have it meet us at Ostia. It’ll take some time for him to make the journey, but like I said, I’d rather ride my own horse than someone else’s.”

“What colour is your horse?” Nils asked.

Eliwood smiled. “He’s white. His name is Oren. The first thing I’ll do is take you for a ride, okay? I mean, you can and maybe have ridden with everyone here. But… you and me, we’ll go for a ride.”

“I would like that,” Nils said.

 

They camped on the western side of the river that marked the boundary between Kathelet and the wilderness, and darkness fell around them as they made plans for the next day.

“Hey,” said a voice, and Hector stepped into the firelight.

Eliwood and Lyn jumped up, and Ceniro followed suit, for Hector looked terrible. His armour and clothes were covered in blood and strange, orange dirt, and he had clearly taken many wounds – probably healed by Athos, Ceniro guessed, as none of them were currently bleeding. He swayed on his feet, clearly past the edge of exhaustion. But his eyes glittered, he was smiling – smirking, even – and in his hand he carried an axe with a curved edge which was twice as large as his usual Wolf Beil that hung from his belt.

“Hector!” Lyn cried. “You… What happened to you?”

“I won,” Hector said, collapsing on a seat with a clatter of armour and a sigh. The giant axe he laid down gently beside him. Ceniro looked around for any of the other Ostians, and saw Matthew flickering away. “It was a challenge, a test of my strength and will. This baby was guarded by the spirits of soldiers who fought in the Scouring. And at the end of it, Durban himself wanted to know who the hell I was and what I was going to do with his axe. I think I convinced him I was good enough to wield it.” A shadow of something else, something apprehensive, flickered across his face, less guarded than usual in his weariness.

“What?” Eliwood asked. “What is it, Hector?”

Hector waved it away. “Nothing we didn’t already know.” He laughed at some joke that only he understood, and the other three smiled, reassured.

Oswin, Serra, and Matthew were hurrying up. “Young master! You have returned!”

“My lord,” Oswin said, kneeling. “May I congratulate you on your safe return.”

“You look terrible!” Serra cried. “You need to rest right now!”

“In a minute, I’m still catching up,” Hector said, waving her off. “But thanks, guys. Good to know I was missed.”

“Some missed you more than others,” Matthew said, with a sly glance at Serra.

Serra actually blushed, and snorted. “I don’t know why I bother.”

“Well,” Matthew said, considering, “perhaps she didn’t miss you quite as much as she was occupied an awful lot with pestering a certain young bookish friend of ours…”

“That really narrows it down,” Lyn said, joking along with him, but Serra’s blush was increasing.

“Matthew, I swear, if you don’t stop talking about it I will actually attempt to break your ear-drums.”

“Been there, done that, I’m out,” Matthew said, grinning and holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll give you my daily report tomorrow, young master. You rest now.” He vanished back into the darkness outside the firelight.

Oswin had stood calmly through the preceding altercation, and now came forward. “There has been no news, Lord Hector – although, as you probably know, we are now within the borders of Kathelet. We shall reach our destination in four or five days, if we obtain some form of transport for the rest of our footsoldiers and the weather is good.”

“And we don’t get attacked, although I guess within Lycia that’s not gonna happen,” Hector said. “Hey, is there anything to eat? Now that I’ve had a chance to sit down, I’m famished.”

“I’ll get you something,” Eliwood said, and was back in a moment. Hector began stuffing his face with even more enthusiasm than usual.

Lyn rolled her eyes. “We actually were attacked this afternoon. They ran away when they saw how many we were.”

Hector snorted a laugh. “That doesn’t surprise me. Did they truly run away from our numbers, or from your righteous fury?”

“As I understand it, both,” Oswin said, and Lyn sighed in exasperation. “I mean no disrespect, Lady Lyndis.”

“I know, it’s not because of that,” she said, and smiled disarmingly at the knight.

“That’s great, Oswin,” Hector said, finishing his food already. He yawned and stretched, his armour clinking and leather creaking. “I’m done for the day. Is there somewhere I can sleep; a log or a plank or something?”

“Your tent is set up, my lord,” Oswin said, gesturing.

Hector stood and nodded to the others. “I’ll see you tomorrow, you three.” He turned away, then paused. “Oh, yeah, Ceniro,” he called. “Don’t let me forget this.” He tossed the farseer at the tactician, who managed to catch it with a minimum of fuss for once. “It was pretty great.”

“I’m glad it was of help,” Ceniro said. “Sleep well.”

Hector waved and left.

 

Four days later, they stood at the entrance to a cave in the north of Ostia. Or at least the army was camped at the entrance to a cave in the north of Ostia.

Eliwood, Hector, Lyn, Marcus, Athos, and Ceniro had ventured deep into the cave, led by Athos. At first it had been cold, but now with every turn of the passage it grew hotter and hotter.

At length, they stepped through an opening into a wide cavern. The heat was stifling. Hector and Marcus lowered the torches they held; there was no need for them anymore. Ahead, there were the remains of strange ruined walls, massive, man-made but ancient and partly crumbled. From the edges of the cavern and from below the floor of the main chamber, pools of lava lit and heated the room.

“I never knew there was a place like this in Lycia,” Eliwood said, staring. A bead of sweat rolled down and dripped off his nose; he ignored it.

“It even hurts to breathe, it’s so hot,” Lyn gasped, fanning herself to no avail.

Hector yelped. “Look there! Is that a jet of flames?”

“We’ll have to watch our step,” Eliwood said. “Or rather… I will have to watch my step, won’t I?” He turned to Athos expectantly.

Athos nodded. “Long ago, when Lycia was a single country, an altar was built here in secret. What lies here requires protection from evil hearts.”

“And evil hearts generally aren’t brave or desperate enough to head into the heart of a volcano, is that it?” Lyn asked.

“The weapons we wielded contained great strength. Power fearsome enough to cut down dragons…”

“Hopefully we don’t have to actually face dragons,” Eliwood said. “If dragons come, we’ll be too late, whether we have weapons or not.”

“Today, the might in those remaining weapons is not what it once was,” Athos said. “Yet they have been safeguarded to keep them from evil hands. This place… No one’s stepped foot in here since Roland’s death. Roland’s presence still fills the air. All that reside here now are former soldiers who guard the sword. This is your trial, Eliwood. A few of you may enter, but only you can approach the altar. Go and prove that you have the strength to wield Durandal!”

Hector grimaced. “This is even less inviting than my trial. Good luck, Eliwood. You’ll need it.”

Eliwood smiled. “Thanks. I’ll take it.”

Ceniro cleared his throat nervously. “Am… am I allowed to help him with the farseer?”

Athos nodded. “Certainly. But we shall wait here.”

“We’re rooting for you, Eliwood!” Lyn said, and gave him a little punch on the arm. He laughed and took it.

“Go kick some butt,” Hector said. “Don’t mind us, we’ll just be glued to Ceniro’s shoulders for the next few hours.”

Marcus stepped forward to lay his hand on Eliwood’s shoulder. “I believe you are ready for this. You are brave and strong, quick and true-hearted. Your sword never misses its mark. Your father would be proud of what you are about to accomplish.”

Eliwood smiled and bowed his head. “Thank you, Marcus. That means much to me.” He stepped towards the clear entrance to the maze, for such the farseer was showing Ceniro. “Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”

“We’ll be here,” Hector said.

“Oh for goodness’ sake, we can talk to him through Ceniro’s farseer. Don’t act like he’s leaving on a distant journey,” Lyn said.

“Like me?” Hector teased.

“Ugh, whatever.” Lyn draped herself against Ceniro, already watching the farseer avidly. “Spirits of Roland’s soldiers, huh? I wonder if they’ll attack us, too.”

“We should be beyond their guarded grounds,” Athos said placidly, sitting down to wait.

The next few hours were more exciting than they had any right to be for people not actively engaged in combat. Ceniro had put the farseer on the ground, and the four of them clustered around it intently, watching as Eliwood’s miniature figure made its way slowly through the maze.

The spirits of the dead soldiers were difficult opponents, but fortunately they didn’t attack Eliwood more than two at a time, giving Ceniro space to offer the occasional word of advice on when to counter-attack, when to hold his ground, and when to retreat to a better position. Not only the soldiers threatened the young lord, but in some places the lava would come spurting through the floor. More than once Eliwood had to sprint for safety, or cover, or jump back to save his boots.

“Geez,” Hector said. “There were poisonous fumes in my trial, but lava is something else entirely. Durandal must be even better than Armads.”

“There is no ‘better’,” Athos said serenely. “Armads has an affinity for thunder, and Durandal has an affinity for fire, if that influences your understanding of the trials.”

“Not really,” Hector said. “But I’m glad to know it.”

Mostly all they could hear was Eliwood’s breathing, and the occasional shout as he attacked or ran. The guardians he fought were all completely silent.

At last, Eliwood reached the end of the maze. The farseer was not good at showing detail at its small scale, but Ceniro guessed that there was a dais, and an altar. There was certainly a very large spirit with a very large axe there.

This spirit spoke to Eliwood. “I am Georg, one of Sir Roland’s warriors… You trespass here… I shall cut you down…”

Eliwood made no answer; had no time to make an answer, all he could do was duck and roll as Georg’s axe sailed through the space where he had just been standing. The little group watching was completely silent, though Ceniro noted that there were four pairs of clenched fists on knees around the farseer.

Eliwood moved like Ceniro had never seen him move before. The Heaven’s Seal must have been helping him more than the tactician could have guessed. He had noticed it in the fight to get to the altar, but now against this man, Eliwood’s new strength and speed was incredible to behold – even by proxy.

Eliwood was making full use of the space given to him, but he didn’t seem to be making much headway against the giant he fought.

“Ceniro,” he gasped. “My rapier… it’s not strong enough. Not… not long enough…”

“What do you mean?” Ceniro asked, deliberately keeping his voice as calm as he could.

“Can’t get close enough… to his weak spots. Too big… too much reach. The axe…” He broke off as he ducked from behind cover just as the giant axe crashed through the stone he had been standing behind.

“You’re doing fine,” Ceniro said, and glanced at Marcus. The older man was sweating bullets. Ceniro gave him a reassuring smile, and the general nodded.

“Lord Eliwood,” Marcus said, “I don’t know if I can help you formulate a plan from here… but you will either have to get behind him, disarm him, or be faster than he is.”

Eliwood didn’t speak for a few moments. Then he gave a short laugh. “Tall orders all three.”

“I believe in you, Lord Eliwood,” Marcus said earnestly. “Remember we believe in you. We all believe in you.”

“…Ninian,” Eliwood might have said softly.

Whatever the case, there was no question that Eliwood’s next attack rivaled even Lyn’s for speed and precision. The rapier stabbed into Georg’s gloved hand, and the massive axe crashed to the ground. But Eliwood was already turning, spinning, lining up his rapier for a nigh-impossible stab to Georg’s chest. Georg’s blow with his left fist went over Eliwood’s head, and the rapier pierced his body.

The spirit instantly evaporated into dust and vapour, blowing away in the hot wind of the cave.

“Who are you?” it said. “You and Sir Roland are as one…”

Hector fell flat on his back. “I’m done. I didn’t even fight today and I’m done.”

Lyn laughed and poked him. “You say that, but given a few Black Fang or morphs, you’ll be chomping at the bit again.”

“Well done, Eliwood,” Ceniro said earnestly. Marcus couldn’t even speak for emotion.

Athos rose finally and disappeared, teleporting to Eliwood’s side.

Eliwood was bent over panting, his hands on his knees, his rapier fallen abandoned to the cave floor.

“Well done,” Athos said gently, and the young lord straightened.

“Thank you, sir. Did… Did I…?”

“You did,” Athos said. “And now… for a reunion of sorts. Stand there. I must greet my old friend, the little knight, Sir Roland.” Eliwood remained in place as Athos approached the altar. “Roland… Roland, awaken.”

There was a brief flash of white light, which Ceniro could see over the walls from the other side of the cavern. Eliwood had raised his arm to shield his eyes, but now he lowered it and stared.

Standing in front of the altar was a rather short ghostly man with a messy mop of blue hair and blue eyes. “Athos, my wise old friend.”

“Roland, it is good to see you.”

“Much time has passed, hasn’t it,” Roland said, looking past Athos and Eliwood to the crumbling stone walls. “For me, fighting the dragons was only a few decades ago. Remember that time? It was dark and full of fear, but we had good friends, too.”

“It was, it was,” Athos said. “But you are right. It has been nearly a thousand years since the dragons left this world. And yet… the world is threatened by one who craves the might of dragons once again.”

Roland’s eyes sharpened and his back straightened. He looked ready to act. “How can such a one…?”

“It is a long story. I myself will tell it to you when I come to join you. But Roland. Look upon this boy.” He gestured to Eliwood, who stepped forward and bowed low. “He is of your descendants, and he seeks your aid to stop the evil one. Please, lend him your aid.”

Roland frowned in concern. “I… no longer have flesh and blood within this world… I cannot see what help I… Ah, but I know! Of course, it’s what you came to ask in the first place.” His eyes twinkled as he smiled. He turned to the altar. “Take this. Its power has weakened somewhat over the ages, but with my power added to it, it shall be as keen as ever it was.”

“If you give your soul’s strength to it, you shall pass forever from the reach of this world,” Athos cautioned him.

Roland nodded, his eyes lit by a fire that had sometimes appeared in Eliwood’s eyes. “And yet my heart will be glad. If I might help my children, there is nothing else I need do.” He stepped forward to look Athos in the face, though indeed he was much shorter than the old Archsage. “Besides… the dead should be beyond the reach of this world anyway. This arrangement was only temporary at best, a just-in-case, though it has been a thousand years. I have given my all to this world, and now I am fortunate enough to give a little more, that’s all. Hardly anyone else receives such a chance.”

“You haven’t changed in the slightest, Roland,” Athos said.

Roland’s eyes twinkled again. “…I only ask that you see this through, my friend…”

“I will,” Athos promised him solemnly.

Roland turned his eyes to Eliwood. “You are a fine man. I am glad there are still people like you in the world. I shall be honoured to give my last gift to you.”

“And I am honoured to accept and wield it,” Eliwood answered.

“Ugh,” Hector said from where he lay on the cave floor. “They are like each other.”

“And was Durban like you?” Lyn asked, a bit nettled at Hector’s derision.

“Oh yeah. He was like ‘I need to fight stuff, I’m bored’, and I was like ‘hey you, I need your strength’ and he was like ‘deal’…”

“Shut up,” Lyn hissed.

Roland disappeared with another flash of light, and Ceniro clearly heard Eliwood’s intake of breath. “This sword…”

“That is Durandal, the Blazing Sword,” Athos said. “Take it; it is yours.”

Eliwood reverently stretched out his hand and took up the sword. It was long and broad, with a blade four feet long, and the base of the blade was as broad as a handspan.

“The Blazing Sword,” Eliwood said. He lifted it. Though it took him both hands, he seemed to have no trouble manoeuvring it deftly through the air.

It came with a sheath, almost a harness, that let him carry it at the waist. Eliwood took the sheath, still carrying the sword in his hands, and Athos teleported them both back to his friends.

When he stepped into direct line of sight from the maze entrance, Ceniro and Lyn started. Like Hector a few days before, he looked awful. Perhaps not as badly wounded as Hector, but it was one thing to hear him get injured on the farseer and another to see the results in person. But Athos had already healed his cuts and burns.

He walked steadily towards them, smiling, the sword under one arm and his tattered cloak balled up under the other. He was drenched in sweat; his hair stuck limply to his forehead and even his outer tunic was soaked.

Hector, of course, didn’t react. “Good work, Eli. So that’s the legendary blade, huh?”

Eliwood’s smile grew broader, prouder. “It is. I… don’t know what else to say.”

Marcus bowed. “It is the greatest of honours to stand in your presence and that of the Blazing Sword, Lord Eliwood. Your father would be beside himself with joy, as I am sure your mother will be as well.”

Lyn peered at the hilt. “It’s very strange… Of course I’ve never seen it before, but it feels… familiar, somehow.”

Eliwood blinked. “Now that you say it… it does, doesn’t it?” He grinned. “Perhaps it’s our ancestor inside.”

“Perhaps,” Lyn said.

“Ugh, you’re both weirdos,” Hector said. “But mostly you.” He nodded to Lyn, who rolled her eyes at him.

“Come,” Eliwood said. “We must head to Badon with all speed. Ninian is waiting, and I’m sure Nergal hasn’t been idle as we march, either.”

“And let’s get out of these heat,” Lyn agreed. “It’s nice after the cold winds of the mountains, but only for a few minutes.”

“Speak for yourself,” Hector said. “We haven’t even been doing anything.”

“That’s what I said to you!” she said.

Ceniro laughed. “You’re both right, and I’m glad to be with you.”

“Oh, no, he’s going to start being sappy,” Hector groaned. “Let’s go before he says anything worse.”

The others chuckled as they followed him from the cave.

 

The mountain wind was biting as they exited the cave mouth. Twilight was falling. Lyn immediately shivered, and Eliwood offered her his cloak. She accepted it gratefully. Hector snarked, but she ignored it.

“All right,” Eliwood said. “Marcus, get the army ready to travel. Tents, campfires, everything ready to go within ten minutes.”

“As you say, my lord,” Marcus said, saluting. “Ah! Lord Eliwood-”

Eliwood glanced down to where Marcus was pointing, and saw Durandal was glowing. “Lord Athos… what does this mean?”

“Something is coming,” Athos said. “Be ready for anything!”

Eliwood opened his mouth to respond, and his hand tensed around the sword, but anything he had been going to say was drowned out by a chilling screech that filled the entire valley. Ceniro dropped to his knees, his hands over his ears. Hector was staring transfixed at the sky.

“Dragon-!”

“It can’t be!” Lyn cried. “Not already!”

A long, lithe, pale green serpentine form was approaching rapidly.

“We’re too late!?” Ceniro said. “This can’t…”

The dragon caught sight of them, up on the mountainside, and turned towards them with another shriek. In the valley below, most of the members of their army were screaming and running to and fro. Ceniro knew he should say something to them, but he didn’t know what to say… To go? To stay? To hide? To fight?

Eliwood’s face was white, but he grasped Durandal and drew it, the blade blazing with white light. “Stay back, everyone!”

Hector reached for him as he leapt forward, but he was too slow – Eliwood was faster than ever before, and the bright sword seemed to pull him onward, insanely fast. The blade left a track of light through the air as it slashed. The dragon shrieked again and fell from the air, crashing into the mountainside just below them. Lyn flinched and grabbed Hector, which was hindered somewhat by the fact that Ceniro was grabbing her for the same reason.

Eliwood landed in a crouch not far away, the light in the sword dimming. He stood and turned to face them, his face still white in shock, but he was beginning to breath normally again.

“Eliwood,” Hector said uncertainly. “Are you all right?”

Eliwood wiped his brow with a sleeve. “I think so… My body… My body moved on its own, as if the sword was guiding me. I don’t think I could have…” He looked very shaky as he climbed back up to them. “Lord Athos, if Nergal has released the dragons, we will need a new plan, won’t we? What should we do?” He started and looked more closely. “Lord Athos? What’s wrong?”

Athos was silent for a long moment, staring at the great body of the dragon. “Well…”

“Let me be the one to answer that,” said the most unwelcome voice the little group knew of, and Nergal appeared on the other side of the dragon.

Eliwood’s face contorted in rage. “Blackheart! You!”

“Ninian proved useless,” Nergal said casually. “I’ve come for a replacement.” He waved his hand, and Nils appeared beside him, eyes blank and half-lidded.

“Nils!” Eliwood cried.

“Don’t waste your breath,” Nergal chided him. “He won’t be awake for some time. Nils will do for me what Ninian would not.”

“What have you done with Ninian!?” Eliwood shouted.

Nergal slowly smiled and chuckled. “It’s not what I’ve done. It’s what you’ve done, Eliwood.”

Ceniro felt a sudden lump of ice form in his gut, and to see the faces of the others, the same had happened to them. “…What?” Eliwood breathed.

“Eliwood, did you never once question it? Why the siblings were needed to open the Dragon’s Gate? Why did it have to be Ninian and Nils?” The group on the hill was silent. “The answer is simple. The Dragon’s Gate cannot be opened by humans. Why would humans be able to open a gate that was designed… for dragons?”

“…What?” Eliwood repeated numbly. The rage had gone from his face, replaced only by horrified fear.

“It’s pitiful, really. Poor Ninian’s plight. Coaxed by my honeyed words, she and her brother passed through the gate… Though unable to return home, they refused to aid me and wandered lost and alone, until… she was slain by the hand of the one she loved.”

“What… what are you saying?” Eliwood’s voice was very faint.

“Can you not guess? Or is it that you are afraid to know?” Nergal’s expression was dark, contemptuous. “Very well. Let me tell you, Eliwood. The ice dragon there… The beast slaughtered by your hand…” His words fell hard and merciless. “That is Ninian. The girl you loved. The girl you swore to protect. She returned to her true form and lost all human memory. Yet you, above all else, remained in her heart, and she came here… Look upon the creature you have slain. That is Ninian.”

Eliwood made only a choking noise.

Nergal gestured to the dragon, which had begun to flicker. “Go on, look. She’s using the last of her strength to take human form for one last time. I believe there may still be time enough to say farewell. You know, of course, that you cannot save her.”

When Eliwood’s head came up again, there was something dark and ugly there. Tears and hate glittered in his eyes, and his words ground painfully from his throat. “Nergal! You…”

Nergal shrugged. “It’s not me, Eliwood. It’s you. You killed her.”

“I-” Eliwood shook, then let out a horrible scream, tears streaming freely down his face. Only Hector’s now-in-time grab stopped him from launching suicidally at Nergal.

“Eliwood! Get a hold of yourself!” his friend said. “You’ll only get yourself killed!”

The dragon shuddered again and melted, and there was only Ninian, looking small and fragile in its place. Blood was seeping through her clothes in a diagonal line from left shoulder to right hip. Eliwood’s slash had been accurate and lethal. Only the Holy Maiden Staff would be able to help her, and it was far away in Etruria.

All the more shocking when she opened her eyes, eyes that unsettlingly mirrored the colour of her blood, and tried to speak. “L… Lord Eli…wood…”

Hector let go of Eliwood and he rushed to her side. “Ninian!”

He gathered her in his arms and she gasped a little from the movement. “…Ninian? …Ninian!”

To their shock, she was smiling a little. “Eliwood…”

“Ninian! Please… please don’t die!” The tears were beginning to pour down again. “I… What have I done!?”

Her eyes flickered open again and looked up at him. “You… saved them, Lord Eliwood… from me… I’m glad…”

“What?”

“I’m glad… that… you are unharmed…” Her eyes closed again.

“Ninian, I… I…”

“It’s all right… Eliwood… It’s… truly… all right. Please… protect…” Her breath fluttered out and stopped.

“…Ninian…” Eliwood sobbed. “Ninian? You can’t… Answer me… …There’s so much I haven’t told you… You… can’t… Why……?”

He let his face fall upwards and screamed her name.

For a long minute, everyone and everything was silent except for the sound of Eliwood’s body-wracking sobs. Everyone was quiet down in the valley. Even the wind seemed stilled.

“Farewell, Eliwood,” Nergal said at last. “You will spend your last days trembling in the shadow of dragons.”

He made as if to go, but Athos stepped forward. “I will not permit that!” The Archsage spread his arms, an ancient, shining tome in his hands, and a vast tornado of fire enveloped Nergal. Nils went flying, still blank-faced. Marcus hurried forward to catch the boy.

From the roaring depths of the fire, which churned up even the stones around him, they heard Nergal laugh low. “The purest fire… Forblaze, the Flame Breath. Very impressive, Archsage Athos. However… However, fire is no longer my foe! Look! Not even a legendary blade can cause me harm! At long last, I am impervious!” He laughed again, louder, triumphantly.

Athos let his arms fall to his sides, suddenly looking old and frail.

“Miserable, aren’t you, Athos? Yet out of respect for the great man you used to be, I’ll leave. After all, 500 years ago, we followed the same path, did we not, old friend?” Nergal wrapped his black cloak tighter around him and vanished. The valley fell silent again.

Hector was the first to break the silence. “What… what do we do now? It seems not even the Legendary Weapons will be of any use against him…”

In Marcus’s arms, Nils stirred and groaned.

“Nils!?” Lyn turned and helped him stand, leaning on her. “You’re awake! Are you okay?”

“Uhhh…?” Nils managed. “Ninian… where’s Ninian? I heard…”

Lyn choked; Ceniro choked, Hector straightened, and Nils caught sight of Eliwood’s bowed head and Ninian’s blood-soaked body.

Eliwood turned his grimy, tear-streaked face to Nils, sniffling. “Nils… I’m… so sorry…”

Nils fell to his knees despite Lyn’s arms and screamed.

 

Chapter 7: Cog of Destiny           Chapter 9: Sands of Time

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