Joshua was Prince of Jehanna.
Well. I hadn’t seen that one coming. It was almost a bigger shock than Eirika rejecting me. Actually, Joshua was having far worse a day than I was, because he was no sooner revealed to us as Prince than he became King as well, for his mother Ismaire died in his arms.
I formally gave him the letter from my father, and then someone set the hall on fire.
The first we knew of it was a soldier came rushing up to all us royals. “Sire! Sire! Fires have broken out all through the hall!”
“What!?” cried the new King. This was too much for him. His mentor betraying him, his mother dying – he needed someone to help him out.
“Someone soaked the wall hangings in oil and set fire to them! It’s a deathtrap!”
“We must get out!” I called, turning towards Tana and her winged horse.
“Mother… no… I will return…” Joshua cried. Seth was already pulling him onto his horse. Where was Eirika? Oh, with L’Arachel. She was all right.
“Is everyone safe?” Eirika asked the moment the last of our soldiers came running out of the heavily-smoking palace.
“It’s hard to tell at first, Princess, but all of us got out safely and unburnt,” said the young cavalier, Franz, saluting. I dismounted and took a look around at the desert. There was nothing moving for miles…
“What a cowardly act, setting fire to the hall,” L’Arachel sniffed.
“That was a strange thing. Why would they force us into the desert?” asked Tana, from behind me.
I stiffened and turned back to them, my face grim. “Ready the troops,” I commanded. “The enemy is coming. An ambush. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“Yes, I’ve been notified that two of Grado’s generals are heading this way,” Seth said. Where had he had news…? Oh, there. Thank goodness we had some capable soldiers with us.
But the numbers were concerning. “What? Two generals? Bah…” I growled. “What could be happening in their capital? What about Ephraim?” How could they leave it so undefended? If Glen was dead as Cormag reported, then there were five Generals left in Grado. I supposed that even if two were here to stop us, three was plenty for Ephraim to handle when assaulting the capital. If I had five generals to command, I would think the same. Of course, they would have to be the three that worked well together.
“And we cannot dig in for a siege with the Hall burning,” Seth muttered. “Princesses, you should leave now for safety.”
“What?” exclaimed L’Arachel and Tana. Eirika simply looked at him, completing their three identical faces of indignation.
“Seth,” she said, “there is nowhere for us to go, not to mention the fact that we none of us will leave our friends in danger…” Seth pulled her slightly aside to speak earnestly to her. I silently wished him luck at talking Eirika out of staying. I doubted she would leave her lover. A woman who chases her brother halfway across the continent doesn’t leave her people easily.
I sighed at Tana. “Tana, against two generals we’re hopelessly outnumbered. And if we’re unlucky, we’ll get the generals who will tear us to pieces like animals. The ones who won’t take your surrender.”
She looked frightened for a second, but then recovered herself again. “I’m not afraid! I’m not going to run and just leave you all to die! If we work together, we have a much better chance of surviving.”
“We can’t count on the Knights of Rausten saving us again. They have their own borders to protect.”
“I know, I know! Innes! I’m not going anywhere! I’ll defend you to the end.”
I smirked at her. “No. Not to the end. You will fight as long as I feel it is suitable. Someone needs to carry the news of my glorious last stand to Father, after all.”
She glared at me, then slapped my shoulder. “Ha! I’ll make that unnecessary. Don’t worry, Brother. I’ll take down anyone smart enough to hide from your arrows.”
I nodded. “Fine, then. Do you need water?”
“I’m fine. So is Dancla.” Her pegasus twitched its nose at me.
I looked around at the oasis to the west, and in a second my bow was in my hand.
“What? What is it?” Tana tugged my sleeve.
“Enemies approach. Be wary.”
She pointed southeast. “More enemies approach over there. Oh! Wyverns!”
I looked around in time to see the distinctive lavender wyvern of Valter the Moonstone settle down into a village to the southeast. “Dammit. Tana, do not tangle with him. He will rip you into pieces. Literally. I’ve heard of his work before.”
She gulped. “Understood.”
And then we waited. The sun was nearing its highest point and it was far too hot to fight. We retreated under the shade of the trees of the oasis. The archer, Neimi, was fainting repeatedly, so Eirika told her to withdraw to the supply cart.
Seth was distracted, so as soon as I got the nod from him, I – with Gerik’s help – directed the small army west towards the closer group of Grado soldiers. This one was led by Caellach Tiger Eye. Joshua seemed to have history with him, from when they were both no-name mercenaries, but accused Caellach of murdering Ismaire, and then drew his blade on him. Fortunately it ended with Joshua victorious – and Natasha very relieved.
Eirika began heading south, and I hurriedly directed the troops to follow her. It was a good strategy anyway – the ground was firmer there, giving better support to our cavalry. If we came there, we could charge directly east into Valter’s forces.
She collided with someone coming up the other side of a sand dune, and went down with a scream – wait, who was that?
Ephraim sat up on the sand, hugging Eirika tightly.
Ah. So he wasn’t dead. That was good to know. That also meant the southern campaign had gone very well, if he was here already. I wondered how much was left of the army. He didn’t seem to have brought many with him.
As we came up to him, there were several reunions. The small child who followed Ephraim everywhere, the one with the dragon wings, was seen by Saleh, and the two ran to each other.
Well. Wasn’t that saccharine.
Wait, wasn’t she the Great Dragon everyone in Caer Pelyn kept talking about?
I finally got a chance to get up to Ephraim, and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned with an annoyed look on his face, that faded only slightly when he saw who it was. “Well met, Ephraim.”
“Innes. I’m glad you’re still alive too.”
I smirked. “You didn’t think they’d get rid of me so easily, did you?”
He shrugged amiably. “Anything can happen in this war. But I guess not to you.”
“Look at you, commanding this big army. I assume you’ve taken Grado Keep, too. You’re all grown up now, boy.”
Ephraim rolled his eyes at me. “Any other day, I’d pound you flat, Innes, but not now. Valter’s still loose and the rest of their army needs my attention.”
Speaking of armies, where was his? “Where are the Frelians?” Surely they weren’t all dead? I’d be very put out if he’d destroyed all of them in his wild chase for victory. But he’d had better results than that in the past. Just part of his irritatingly good charisma – few died under his command.
“South,” he answered calmly. “There was a company of mages on our tail, so I sent Syrene to deal with them. She’ll be back shortly.”
“I see.” Well, that was good then. “I would really like to offer my services…”
He waved in greeting to his two former knights, Kyle and Forde. “You mean, command part of the army? Well, you’re pretty good, Innes… maybe even as good as me.” I narrowed my eyes at the boy’s snark. “You get along well with Seth? You two can keep commanding Eirika’s bunch until we can integrate commands, later tonight.”
Well, no, I got along professionally with Seth. That was entirely different. “That is acceptable,” I said out loud, because Ephraim really was only asking professionally. But he was called away before I could say more, and that was good, because I didn’t know what else I could say.
We defeated the rest of the army with superior tactics, although we had inferior numbers. Valter appeared to have withdrawn, and I relaxed a little. The coward always ran when things got a little too dirty for him.
How wrong I was.
I was assisting the healers with the wounded when I heard screams coming from the ruined village. I looked up sharply in time to see Valter on his wyvern, rising swiftly from the jumble of buildings, hunted by Cormag, who looked quite agitated.
I considered that. If Cormag had said Glen was dead, and he was chasing Valter as if all the hounds in hell were after him, I could put two and three together.
It was at that moment that I heard footsteps behind me, and tore my eyes away from the spectacle above to see a pair of green eyes in a pale face framed with green hair.
“Syrene. One moment. I want to see how this ends.”
“As do I, my lord. But I heard you were here and came to make sure you were well.”
“Syrene, while I breathe, I am well.”
Overhead, Cormag stabbed Valter through the chest, and the lavender wyvern crashed into the village. “That went as well as could be expected.”
“I agree, Your Highness.”
I turned to her and gave her a rare smile. “It’s good to see you in one piece, Syrene. I often wondered how things were going in the south.”
She returned the smile. “It went excellently, thank you. No fortification or army was able to stand before us. For long.”
“Ephraim didn’t drive you crazy with his insane tactics?”
“Ah, no… my lord… He is not insane. Not more insane than you, at any rate.”
My mouth fell open slightly, and Syrene laughed before schooling her face back to seriousness. Then I allowed that she had made a good answer and let out a chuckle of my own. “Very well. I will allow that audacity helps in achieving victory. Now let us find a place to sit down so that you can give me your report.”
She nodded, and followed me to an awning that had just been set up. Observant soldiers set up a pair of chairs and a low table, and Neimi brought us cold drinks, which was very thoughtful of her. I wondered briefly how the Jehannians made cold drinks. It was sweet, but there wasn’t any ice in it. Probably some anima spell.
Syrene at first wanted to stand to give her report, but I made her sit. “You’ve been fighting as much as we have in this heat, and it’s important to rest. Sit.”
She saluted, first, and then took the chair I gestured at. Then she launched into a clear, concise report of what had been happening since we had parted ways at Castle Frelia. It was very interesting to me, particularly to hear how Ephraim had dealt with the monsters in his path. It was disturbing to know that they had fought alongside Grado soldiers.
I was also pleased that he hadn’t taken many casualties.
In fact, the whole tale was almost unbelievable in the sterling success of the whole endeavour. Either Grado had lost steam just at the point when we decided to act, or Ephraim had taken them off guard, or he had been luckier than any one human deserved to be in a lifetime. Or he really was that good.
I was almost jealous. My mission had almost failed more times than I cared to remember, I had lost a subordinate – the mercenary Brin – and in the end it was slightly pointless, considering Grado had managed to waste Jehanna just before I got there.
But in the end, I conceded to myself that it didn’t matter. Why did it not matter anymore? I thought about it, and was startled by the conclusion I came to.
If Eirika didn’t want me, there was nothing to be gained by comparing myself to Ephraim.
Syrene clearly thought I was digesting her report and sat back, sipping her drink. Well, there was some digesting to be done on that, as well. With Glen murdered, and Caellach and Valter dead this day, and General Deussel defecting to Ephraim’s side, and Selena slain in Grado, that left only one general left. Riev, the sickly bishop. But with no Vigarde to order him, would Riev obey Prince Lyon, or disappear?
I told Syrene a brief summary of our adventures through Carcino and the mountains, even though I didn’t have to. I figured she was interested.
“Anything else you would like to report?” I asked her when I was done.
“Nothing that won’t be in tonight’s meeting with everyone, my lord,” she said quietly. “There are certain things that only Prince Ephraim can tell.”
“Is it about the Sacred Stones?”
“All right, then. I’ll let you get back to your unit, Syrene. Make sure they’re comfortable. You have come a long way in a short time.”
She smiled, stood, and saluted me again. “Thank you, Prince Innes. I will do just that. And give my regards to Princess Tana.” She turned in a swirl of green hair and black silk and was gone.
The meeting, between the royals and generals and Saleh and Myrrh, was the most confusing thing I had ever been to. Ephraim’s tale of Prince Lyon’s madness was almost beyond belief. But even that was nothing next to the realization that our troubles were not over with the defeat of Grado. Prince Lyon still had the powerful Dark Stone – what, really? – and Ephraim was convinced that he would not give up until he had destroyed the remaining Sacred Stones. So the mission to save them was still on. And not just save them, but find a way to use them against the Dark Stone, if Lyon feared them so much.
But we were down three out of five – Grado, Frelia, and Jehanna – and Renais’ was locked away, only able to be found through the power of the twins’ bracelets, supposedly. And Rausten, though it was beyond Narube River and Darkling Wood, was far away.
I went to bed determined to at least get a good night’s sleep for once.
We rode back to Renais, leaving another portion of the Frelian Army to assist in the reconstruction of Jehanna. Ephraim had already left half of it in Grado. The highway was much more inviting to the twins than the barriers of Rausten to the north.
With every mile we took, the land looked more and more ravaged. Monsters had taken up residence everywhere, and had been having their way for a long time. What few didn’t manage to slink away at the sight of us were summarily dispatched.
Eirika and Ephraim were having a hard time of it. Seth and the other Renaitian knights, too. I saw their faces grow darker the closer we got to the capital.
Syrene, too, was horrified. “How can a country take over another country and despoil it like this? These people will have nothing to eat come winter.”
“I know,” I said, and she started, not having thought I could hear her. “I know Grado was working with monsters, but this is beyond irresponsible. This is evil.”
“I can’t imagine anyone still living here,” she said.
“Yet they are,” I answered. “In time of war, all the civilians can do is keep their heads down and pretend everything is normal to the best of their ability. I hope it doesn’t take long to recover when they are liberated.”
“Yes,” Syrene murmured, still dwelling on the shocking state of the country.
“Frelia will help,” I said. “Frelia still stands, and whatever we can go without we can share. They will make it through this winter, at least.”
Syrene looked down at me. “You are wise, Prince Innes.”
I snorted. “I’m concerned, Syrene. Who wouldn’t be concerned at a sight like this? Who would not want to help? You may call me wise if you wish; I won’t stop you, but I think it is irrelevant to this.”
“Yeah!” Tana butted in. “Innes isn’t wise! He’s just smart. And nicer than he lets on. Aren’t you, Brother?”
I didn’t favour her with an answer, only a shrug. “I thought you would be up with Eirika.”
Tana made a sad face. “I think she just wants to be alone with Ephraim right now. I’m having a hard time processing all this myself.”
I nodded. “Us, too.”
When we came to the capital itself, the twins sank further into depression. I watched them from a distance, hardly paying attention to the dilapidated state of the once-beautiful city.
I did not know Syrene was watching me. “Prince Innes, what is the matter?”
I gestured at the broken windows, the fallen-in roofs, the sagging portcullis in the castle gate. “Isn’t everything the matter?”
She drew closer to me and dismounted. “Please, my lord. I know you better than that.”
“Eirika shouldn’t have to see this,” I muttered. “She’ll fight as bravely as any soldier on the battlefield, run off impulsively to help any friend in danger… but she shouldn’t have to see the rape of her homeland.”
Syrene nodded. “I know. But she – they are strong. They would not want to wait for us to deal with it.”
I agreed. “And that is frustrating.”
She looked at me, but did not ask questions. I had said too much already.
I just wanted to walk over to Eirika and embrace her. I couldn’t.
We stormed the castle, with the remnant of the Frelians being guided by the knight Forde. He seemed unusually grim, but when care-free natures finally snapped it was always good to be fighting with them and not against them.
General Seth fought against the so-called Regent of Renais, a former knight named Orson, who had betrayed Renais for the love of his dead wife, Monica. Sounded familiar, except Syrene informed me later that Monica had been long dead – resurrected, possibly by the same means as Emperor Vigarde. Even I couldn’t keep an expressionless face after news like that.
But Ephraim and Eirika managed to find the Sacred Stone, and armed themselves with the Sacred Twin Weapons of their country, and managed to fit the entire army somewhat comfortably inside the neglected castle, which I thought was quite excellent of them. They also lent me a horse. It had been a good day. Renais was officially free, although unofficially still crawling with monsters and bandits and in need of a thorough scrubbing and pruning.
I sent a messenger to Frelia to inform my father, and the same day received a message from him – the messengers must have crossed paths. The pegasus knight brought us not only news – Father was doing well, though monsters had taken over the Tower of Valni, and refused to be evicted – but also the Sacred Twins of Frelia, the bow Nidhogg, and the lance Vidofnir. I kept the bow, but did not use it. It was not to be used except as a last resort.
Now that we had the Sacred Stone, there were only two courses of action for our enemies. Either they would assault us repeatedly with all they had until we perished and they could destroy our Stone, or they would head north to Rausten. L’Arachel was still with us, and she agreed to lead us to her homeland. I expected her to be excited at having the entire army at her direction, and yet she took on the task with genuine grace.
We went through northern Jehanna, which was more scrubby than regular Jehanna, giving our horses better footing. It turned out that L’Arachel really had a terrible sense of direction, for I caught her looking around in confusion and saying “Yes, this looks rather familiar, does it not?” and always asking her knight Dozla for advice.
On the day we were to cross the Narube River into Rausten, I rose early and consulted with Seth. “We don’t know what lies ahead of us past this point,” the general said in his quiet way. “I have been considering that we send out scouts.”
“Why not scouts on foot, followed up by the Frelian pegasus knights?” I asked. “They can relay news to us, and support the scouts if they run into considerable opposition.”
He nodded. “Thank you for your support, Prince Innes.”
It was difficult to be angry at Seth for winning Eirika’s heart when he was so sincere all the time. And he did have a good head for tactics, I’d grant him that.
I called Syrene over. “Syrene, I have a task for you.”
“My lord,” she said, saluting.
“General Seth will be sending out scouts. While they will be our first line, I want you and your pegasus knights to be our second line. Carry reports from the scouts and support them in danger.”
She bowed her head in acknowledgement. “We will support them to the best of our abilities.”
Ten minutes later, there was a whirring of white wings as all the pegasus knights except Tana rose into the air and soared to the north.
I marched next to Joshua and Gerik, leading my horse to be on their level, while Eirika and Ephraim rode ahead of us with the white horses they had brought from Renais. I talked quietly with both swordsmen beside me, wondering idly if this was how it felt to have friends of my own station – not that Joshua was used to being a prince. He bet me ridiculous sums over my trick shooting abilities, which I promised to show him the next time we made camp.
Ephraim and Eirika were looking over the broad Narube River, talking anxiously to each other about what might lie ahead.
“I sent the Frelian army ahead to clear a path for us,” I told them, stepping up to them, reassuring them.
But then Tana screamed from her vantage point in the sky. “Innes! They’ve been routed! I can only see Syrene’s regiment left! They’ve got civilians with them. Enemy forces are approaching!”
I bit back a curse. Of course Lyon would assault us here, by the river, with no cover. “Calm down, little sister!” I ordered her. “We’ll have to join with Syrene as soon as possible…”
I had not even moved before purple magic swirls appeared in front of Ephraim and Eirika, and Lyon appeared. After a long confused argument, Lyon confirmed what had been running as rumour in the ranks – that he was the Demon King, escaped from the Sacred Stone of Grado, possessing the body of Eirika’s old friend.
Of course. Now everything made sense.
Poor Eirika. She looked like bursting into tears, and her brother held her protectively as the Demon King teleported away.
And of course Ephraim started ordering us into battle to find him and “free Lyon”. I doubted it was possible, but we needed to join up with Syrene post-haste anyway, so I directed my soldiers to the north, where Syrene’s wing was being harried by wyvern riders and bandits. I left my horse behind, as I was more comfortable wielding my bow on my own two feet.
Syrene herself whizzed above my head, followed closely by three wyverns. She was faster, more agile than they were, but turning to face one of them would have meant all three fell upon her. I snapped my bow up, adjusted for the wind, and fired, hitting one rapidly receding wyvern in the eye. “Bring them back here, Syrene!” I bellowed into the air. She heard me and turned back towards me, but the wyverns saw me and withdrew, so all I could shoot them with was my gaze, not my arrows.
My general touched her pegasus down heavily, and it cantered to a halt near me. Syrene was clutching her lance with a white-knuckle grip, and a peasant woman clung on behind her. Tana came rushing up, too. The area was getting crowded, so I turned to Gerik.
“Gerik, there are bandits over there who need a lesson. Take your band there and deal with them, would you?”
“With pleasure, Highness!” Gerik said with a chuckle, and went running off, followed closely by Marisa, Tethys, and Ewan.
I turned to Syrene. “Report.”
Her pegasus’ head was down, breathing heavily. “We were all right until we saw Grado soldiers harassing civilians,” she said, gesturing at the woman. “I immediately ordered their rescue.” Her face was set. “I take full responsibility for the disaster this has become.”
“Never mind that. What happened? Was it the wyverns?”
“No, my lord,” and her face grew longer. “It was Prince Lyon. He… he has some kind of spell… it’s too powerful for any of us. He appeared suddenly, taking us by surprise. I lost two knights in his first attack, and…”
“I understand,” I said. “Tana, get the cavalry to take the civilians to the rear, and then join Syrene. Syrene, your sister still fights, yes?” Tana helped the woman down and brought her over to Amelia, who conveniently trotted up on her horse at that moment.
“Yes, she does,” Syrene said. “I would not be here speaking to you if she was not.”
I nodded. “All right. Caught your breath?” She nodded, taking a better grip on her lance. “Then let’s go. I’ll cover you.”
The enemy was disorganized by Ephraim and Eirika’s main attack, and we fell on their flank. They no longer had the upper hand. We were winning. But where was Ly- the Demon King? Surely he wouldn’t hide himself, his own super-weapon, if what Syrene reported was true.
He was waiting for us at a castle. Ephraim and Eirika confronted him first, of course, and forced him to withdraw. Eirika actually drew her sword on her friend, and I inwardly applauded her for her strength of mind.
But the enemy was fleeing, and most of the peasants had been saved from murder. Syrene’s troops had not fared so well, and while three-quarters of them were still alive, about half of those had been dismounted, their pegasus killed beneath them. We Frelians worked tirelessly for a few hours, making sure the honoured mounts were respected in death.
We did not hear a whisper of remnant Grado troops for many days.
However, the monsters were another matter.
We were thick in the Darkling Woods, the aptly-named homeland of Myrrh, our resident creepy-innocent dragon-girl. Eirika was talking with L’Arachel while I talked with Ephraim and Seth, Syrene and Deussel. Strategy was the topic of the day – what would the situation be like in Rausten? We had not heard from the Raustenian Knights since they came to save our butts in Hamill Canyon. Assuming various hypothetical situations, we tried to come up with effective strategies.
When Eirika came forward to speak with Ephraim, the rest of us dropped back and became more quiet, allowing us to finally notice just how ominous the volcanic landscape appeared.
It was none too soon, either, as three scouts hurried up to us. “Sire, the enemy has retreated into this valley.”
“It’s a trap!” hissed Ephraim. “Everybody, watch out for those eggs!”
Oh. Those eggs. The ones a meter tall, cream streaked with purple and red, and beginning to hatch as they heard our approach.
I wasn’t interested in finding out what they spawned. I turned to Syrene. “Have you ever wanted to try a little aerial-based archery?”
“I’m sorry? My lord?”
I blinked at her and dismounted. “Let me put it this way. How adverse would your pegasus be to taking me as a passenger?”
She sized me up from head to foot. “You don’t look too heavy. And she likes you. Shall we attempt it?”
I seized her hand and swung up behind her. “Syrene, did you just say I don’t look fat?”
I heard a smothered sound from her, one that might have been a laugh or a choke.
“I was teasing,” I told her. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
White wings beat around me, and the pegasus thundered a short way forward before leaping into the air. Nearby were Tana and Syrene’s sister Vanessa, and our wyvern rider, Cormag.
Monsters were closing in fast. There were those floating eye-ball thingies, and snakish Gorgons, and gargoyles. And eggs. Plenty of things to shoot at.
Syrene dove to attack a Gorgon, automatically, and I hastily wrapped an arm around her waist to steady myself. “Blast it.”
“Sorry!” Syrene had time to get out before her lance pierced the skull of the Gorgon. It screeched and collapsed in a twitching pile of scales. “I apologize, my lord.” Her pegasus flapped frantically to re-attain its earlier altitude. I could feel the muscles of Syrene’s stomach through her reinforced tunic.
“Not your fault, Syrene. You fight. I’ll make requests if I feel it necessary.” Steadier in the air, I drew an arrow, pulled it to my ear, and instantly let it loose on an unsuspecting eyeball terrorizing L’Arachel.
It went mostly like that, Syrene swooping on enemies, and I shooting them in between. It didn’t take long before we were in an unspoken rapport, understanding the tiny signals from each other that told of our intentions.
Her flying became increasingly choppy, the air filling with flak from dark magic spells. None of them were familiar.
“Syrene!” I called into the wind. “Are any of these spells like the one Lyon uses?”
“No!” she called over her shoulder. “I have not seen that spell yet today!”
“Well, thank goodness for small mercies, I suppose,” I muttered into her shoulder as I shot another pair of eyeballs with one arrow. That would be one to mark in my list of accomplishments.
Syrene abruptly banked to avoid a large ball of black sparkles to our right, and sailed directly into an abyss that opened before us before we could react.
“Oh, blast,” was the last thing I said before it swallowed us.
I bit my lip to keep from screaming, but I could not hold back when the explosion of pain hit me. Fire and ice coursed through my body, and I could feel my heartbeat loudly in my ears; otherwise, it was eerily silent in the blackness. My eyes closed, and I could still see everything in negative, and in slow motion – Syrene’s shoulder, her pegasus’s wing, her hair fluttering in the wind, all in strange shades of black and white and red.
The spell eased and passed, and all three of us, Syrene, pegasus, and I, sagged as we collected ourselves. “I’m going to have to put down,” Syrene gasped. The wings on either side of us trembled. Come to think of it, Syrene was shaking heavily. Come to think of that, my arms were wrapped quite tightly around her, and we had death-grips on our weapons.
“All right,” I said, my voice hoarse and my mouth filled with the taste of blood. Had I bitten through my lip? I had indeed. “Where’re our healers?”
She turned back towards my allies, and set down shakily near Father Moulder, who saw our trouble and, after blasting away a gargoyle with light magic, raised his staff and cured our trouble.
“Thank you,” she called, as we swept back into the sky, back into the fray.
We flew in formation with Vanessa and Tana for a while, until Vanessa’s pegasus received a wound from another gargoyle and Tana escorted her, limping in the air, back to the healers. Below, we could see flashes of fire, both from the lava and from our many mages in combat. My arms began to ache from the unfamiliarity of shooting things from pegasus-back, although I was pretty certain that I was I was scoring far more kills than I would have been able to in the lava-maze on the ground. Syrene flew superbly through the jostling that the dark magic gave us.
At least, until we were taken by surprise again, and chased by a flock of gargoyles. I had shot one, two… and was just lining up on a third when we flew into another void.
I was completely disoriented, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, hearing nothing.
“Syrene!” I called, and cut off, choking. There was no air in the void.
I was still flailing as we came out of the void – upside down. There was a sickening second as the real world asserted its gravitational hold on us, and then an even more sickening second as we both slid from the saddle.
I flung my arms around her waist, as she clung to the reins – which made it impossible for her pegasus to right itself. Our weapons tumbled away through the air. Hopefully they’d make the day a lot worse for some monsters.
We were going to die. Just like the thousands of other people who had died already this year.
And yet, for some reason, the only thing I could think of was how Syrene’s waist curved in and out in my arms, and how warm she was, and how well she fit against me, even in armour.
She let go, shouting to her pegasus.
Yes, we were going to die.
“Innes,” she wailed, and I held her tighter as her hands found mine and clenched convulsively. Had she meant to say that? The ground was rushing up awfully fast.
A golden blur came out of nowhere, and knocked us sideways. We tumbled along a landscape of scales, ridges, and spines, and fell again. A large bronze claw snatched at us and missed. There was Syrene’s pegasus, faithfully attempting to catch up to us, but she wouldn’t make it.
We slammed into the ground. All the air came out of me in an instant, and I creaked before swearing at length.
Syrene lay on top of me, her back to my front, breathing hard.
I stopped swearing and let go of her. “My apologies. That… hurt a bit.” Myrrh, transformed into a large, golden-brown dragon, soared past, landed on a cliff top nearby, and turned back into a little girl.
“Are you alive?” she called.
“Y-y-yes, thank you,” Syrene called back.
“Good,” said Myrrh, before touching her dragonstone again and flying off. Syrene’s pegasus landed instead, coming over to nuzzle her rider.
Syrene recollected herself and rolled off me. Pain flared through my legs and I bit back a groan.
“My lord!?” Syrene said, kneeling beside me. She seemed to be completely unhurt, except for a few scratches where Myrrh’s scales had brushed against her.
“Oh, gods,” I groaned. “My legs. Are… are they…”
“Broken,” Syrene said. “Yes. Both of them. But you saved my life, and Myrrh saved both of us.”
“Well, that makes everything better,” I said, and then regretted it. “Enemies?”
Syrene scanned the area. “N- yes! Wait here, my lord.” She drew her sword and charged off at a Gorgon slithering around the corner.
I cursed again. Without my bow, I was useless. And I was helpless, while Syrene fought off this heavily-armoured, highly-deadly opponent.
White light shone around the Gorgon, evaporating its head, and Syrene’s sword arm fell back to her side. “Lady L’Arachel! Thank goodness you’re here. Prince Innes is badly hurt.”
“Saint Latona!” L’Arachel cried upon riding through the rocks and seeing me. “I was amazed you survived that fall at all. You must be blessed by our dear Saint himself. Hold still.” She raised her staff, and my legs began to feel better, bathed in blue light. “I am so glad that I was in the area, ready to come to your rescue.” Dozla came stomping after her, and Rennac came creeping after him. “Boys, would you please help Prince Innes up-“
Syrene had already offered me a hand, and I was climbing to my feet with her help. “Thank you for your assistance, L’Arachel,” I said to her. “Your help has been invaluable. No need to trouble your men. Has anyone seen my bow?”
Rennac stepped forward a pace and pointed. “It fell over there, a ways. The lance, too.”
“Thank you,” Syrene said. “How near are we to victory?”
“We’d better ask Ephraim that,” L’Arachel said, turning and riding away. “Come, Rennac, Dozla. Keep up!”
“Coming, coming,” Rennac grumbled, bounding after the retreating horsewoman.
Syrene mounted and extended a hand to me. “We won’t go high. We’ll just go to pick up your bow, and then if necessary, we shall join back in the fight.”
I accepted the hand. “Did you mean to call my name?” I asked her, and then regretted it, as the atmosphere became degrees of awkward.
“Well… yes, my lord. I was afraid for you, and in my fear, I forgot myself. I apologize.”
I smiled, although she could not see it. “Stop apologizing for everything, Syrene.”
She was very quiet as we gathered our weapons and then flew to the green-blue spots in the black landscape that showed where Ephraim and Eirika were.
Eirika was looking heart-broken again.
“What happened now?” I muttered.
Tana heard me. “Lyon found Eirika alone, and tricked her.” She scowled ferociously.
“Tricked her how?” I asked.
Tana hesitated before answering. “She gave him the Sacred Stone to heal himself, but then the Demon King took him back over and destroyed it.”
“…Ah.” She was so naive. But was that not why I had loved her? She fought, she believed, she treated all with the same grace and courtesy. I wished I – or Ephraim, or Seth – had been near to protect her from the evil people who preyed upon innocence like that.
Ephraim took his sister in his arms as she sobbed on her knees.
We reached Rausten Court late in the evening. There was a feast, and though there was some joy at being in civilization again, after many weeks of hardship, there were many long faces at the unspoken knowledge that there was only one Sacred Stone left.
Only one last light against the darkness; only one last defense against the evil that was surely gathering itself for an assault on this place.
L’Arachel, seeing Eirika’s plight most of all, suggested to her uncle that we retire early. Everyone agreed, although I nodded to my countrymen, asking them to a council in my chamber.
“What are we holding council about, Big Brother?” Tana asked excitedly, bouncing up and down on the edge of her chair by the fireplace. I frowned at her and made a calming gesture.
“Contingency plans,” I said to her.
“Contingency in case of what?” she persisted.
“In case the worst comes to the worst. Sit!”
She finally stopped bouncing and paid attention.
The fire cast flickering shadows on the walls; it was still cold at night in Rausten.
“So,” I began, “where are we now in terms of assets?”
“We have all the Sacred Twins but Rausten’s, and I feel sure that Pontifex Mansel with lend them to us, or at least to Princess L’Arachel,” Sir Gilliam reported.
“We have a Sacred Stone that still lies safe,” continued Father Moulder.
“We have enough ordinary weapons for the troops to last through about ten battles,” Syrene finished.
“It won’t come to that,” I said, settling into my armchair and stretching out my long legs in front of me, then folding my right ankle over my left knee. “We’re closing in now.”
Tana spread her arms dramatically. “The end is near!” she declaimed. I frowned at her, but then I had to smile.
“True. Now, what about that contingency plan? What is the worst-case scenario? Clearly, it is if we go to face the Demon King, and are defeated, along with the last Sacred Stone and all the ancient over-powered weapons. We,” I paused for emphasis, “are Frelia’s finest. We are some of the best warriors the land of Magvel has to offer. On the other hand, the Demon King, through Prince Lyon, is very dangerous. If we, the best, still cannot win with a well thought out plan and the Sacred Twins and all, then we are clearly doomed.”
“And the Stone,” put in Vanessa quietly. “Milord.”
“And that,” I agreed.
“Can I try out Vidofnir?” Tana asked eagerly. “It’s such a beautiful lance!”
I glanced at Syrene. “It’s a big responsibility, Tana. You will be in the very front lines, attacking the biggest and most dangerous enemies. Do you feel ready for such a responsibility?”
She nodded firmly, determination shining in her face. “I’ve improved ten times over since I began on this journey.”
“She has,” Syrene said quietly. “If you choose to give the lance to Princess Tana, it will not be wasted.”
“What about you?” I asked Syrene. “You have seniority.”
“Princess Tana asked first,” Syrene said, smiling broadly. I raised my eyebrows briefly and stroked my chin. It was getting time to shave again.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m claiming Nidhogg, of course. Now, we don’t know what we can expect to happen over the next few days. Either the Demon King will come to us, here, or we will go seek him out. Probably at an ominous, rotting lair.”
“In the case of the first happening, Rausten Castle is well supplied, and can withstand a siege for nearly two months,” Syrene said.
“In the case of the second…” I tapped my fingers together. “We will probably have at least a portion of Rausten’s army to assist us. Eirika’s mercenaries, Ephraim’s knights, us Frelians, and the others that have been recruited into this army…”
“I propose we set Frelian and mercenary scouts,” Sir Gilliam said. “I trust them better, having worked with them so long.”
“But the Raustenians presumably know the area hereabouts,” Father Moulder said.
“Not if we need to venture into a… an ominous, rotting lair,” Gilliam countered. “Who would go within ten miles of that? We must have gone the short, difficult way through Darkling Woods, following the dragon-girl. No Rausten soldier in his right mind would dare go there.”
“Point,” I said. “…I should have brought Gerik in to assist us.”
“The mercenary captain?” Father Moulder asked without affront.
I nodded. “He is wise. Rough around the edges, but what do you expect from a man nicknamed the Desert Tiger? But he’s probably asleep already. Anyway, we’ll ask the people they lend us. If they know the place we go to, they will be our scouts and lookouts. Otherwise, we’ll put the mercenaries on it. Everyone should stay in groups of three. Two is not enough with monsters like that.”
The knights nodded, agreeing.
“And when we reach the Demon King?” Tana asked, her eyes large.
“Well…” I considered, and the corner of my mouth turned up sardonically. “I wonder if any weapons but the Sacred Twins will even harm him. I presume high-quality enchanted weapons might help, or very high-powered Light magic…”
“Father Moulder’s got high-powered Light magic now!” Tana cried, pointing at the stolid priest.
He bowed his head. “I have begun to learn the spell Divine. It is complex, yet well worth the effort to rid the world of the evil we’ve encountered.”
I nodded. “Very good. But the rest of the army should stay back, to deal with the inevitable other monsters. I presume L’Arachel will carry her country’s Sacred Stone into battle, and if the tales are true, it should hinder him or harm him somehow. Perhaps even imprison him.”
“Do you think we’ll save Prince Lyon?” asked Vanessa, tilting her pigtailed head to one side.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. I doubt it, though. I think the Demon King said he ate Lyon’s soul. I don’t know what that means, but that sounds bad.”
“I would say so, yes,” Syrene agreed drily.
“So Tana and L’Arachel and Ephraim and Eirika and Joshua… anyone I am forgetting? …and I, we shall face the Demon King. Together with whoever is wielding the Black Axe, the Ice Tome, and the Dark Tome. The rest of you… you can probably go home again at that point.”
“Go home, my lord?” Vanessa asked uncertainly.
“There is no point in keeping you around to be killed by a superior power – do you remember the spells Lyon cast at you by Narube River? We must take that risk, but if you can’t even harm him…”
“We can distract him,” Gilliam said pointedly. “We will sacrifice our lives to buy you the time you need to kill him.”
“Understood, but don’t throw your lives away,” I said sternly. “That is the last thing I want.” I looked at them each in turn. “When I order you to leave, you leave. If we fail, there will be no where safe in all the lands, but you will be safe at least for a while longer.”
I was interrupted by an urgent knock at the door. “Come in.”
It was Franz, the young cavalier of Renais. “Prince Innes! And… um… We’re under attack!”
“Understood,” I said, even as we all jumped to our feet. “We shall be down shortly.”
The battle was short and bloody. Revenants, and a bishop who looked like a revenant, were throwing themselves at the castle walls. It was highly disturbing. The darkness of the night made things even more difficult.
We might have had supplies for a siege, but that reckoned without the tireless hatred of the monsters. They clawed constantly at the gate, at the walls, and no amount of damage we did to them seemed to deter them. Only when Tana set her sights on the bishop himself, and wounded him, did they begin to withdraw.
They left, and were gone, for now.
The defending soldiers met in the throne room, where the Pontifex of Rausten had gone when the attack came. L’Arachel spoke for us. “Uncle, I’d like permission to check on the Sacred Stone. Also, we will have to take it with us to defeat the Demon King.” She had only just told him now? Disorganized.
“Yes, yes, my dear… certainly. Don’t forget your rest.” Pontifex Mansel waved us away, clearly preparing for his own rest. He was obviously too tired to really understand what L’Arachel had meant. Well, they could discuss it in the morning.
“Yes, Uncle!” She led us through half the castle, including a very nice looking garden, disarmed some enchantments, and unlocked a door.
The Sacred Stone glowed in the unlit room, matching the stars through the skylights. L’Arachel picked up the stone and held it up to her face. “Ah, the last Sacred Stone. Its holy light matches my complexion well, don’t you think?” I snorted ungracefully, though I was amused at what she said. “Well, now that we know it’s safe, we can go to bed.”
I went to bed – after a shave. But I did not go to sleep. I remained awake, tossing, my mind restlessly considering the past and the future. I got up, pulling on a warm robe, and went out to the balcony at the end of the hall, a balcony looking out over the garden. It glistened with dew in the moonlight. But I was not alone.
She turned a little at my voice, and smiled a little. “Prince Innes. What brings you here?”
“Couldn’t sleep. Brain wouldn’t shut down. What about you?”
She turned back to the garden. “The same, I suppose.” She shivered a little.
She was still wearing her short-sleeved tunic-dress-uniform, which also had a short-ish skirt. Long boots wouldn’t help with that. “Syrene, you didn’t even…” I pulled off the robe and tried to offer it to her.
“It’s all right, my lord. It’s not that I’m cold… Pegasus knights are used to the cold, after all… I’m… I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Oh?” I was cold, so I put the robe back on.
“I… I’m worried about my sister – about Vanessa. You are right; she has improved greatly. But still… I worry. As an older sister, it is my duty… I suppose I give my imagination too much rein when I think about what could go wrong…”
I stepped closer to her. “I apologize. I was too morbid in describing the end of the world. I worry about Tana, too. She’s annoying, but the world needs people like her.”
I heard a muffled sound from her, which sounded halfway between an amused snort and a sob.
She wasn’t… crying, was she? I hadn’t upset her that much, had I?
“Syrene… Syrene, you are crying! I apolo- I’m sorry. I don’t…” I don’t know what to say, I wanted to say. There was nothing to say. “It’s been a long day, hasn’t it? The Demon King does not let up on us. But…” I tried to think of something. “I swear to you, Syrene, we will bring them home. We’ll fight so that Vanessa and Tana can come home to Frelia again, free from fear.”
She was still weeping, quietly. I had never seen this side of her before, and it made me anxious. “What a pathetic general I am…” I heard her say. “I’m not fit to command…”
“Syrene. It’s been a long day, and you are overwrought with worries. It’s all right.” She made a sudden movement, as if to turn and leave, at the same time I put a hand on her shoulder.
She froze. So did I.
After a moment, hesitantly, I rubbed her shoulder, trying to be of comfort. She still did not move. Tears still ran down her face, but she was at least distracted.
I couldn’t stand to see my friend grieving in this way. My other hand drifted towards her face, turning it toward me, wiping away her tears.
And then I really couldn’t stand it anymore and slid my arms around her, pulling her against me. Her hands came up, uncertain of my intentions, and rested on my shoulders. Her cheek rested on my left shoulder, tears absorbing into my robe.
“I swear to you, it will be all right,” I murmured into her hair. “We will make it all right.” I stroked her back, and realized that she really wasn’t cold, as she had said.
After a moment, she raised her head, and stared at me. “Prince Innes…”
I met her eyes, and suddenly felt an overpowering urge to… kiss her. That would make it better, wouldn’t it? I wanted to kiss her, to devour her mouth, to crush her against me, to caress her curves until she melted against me and smiled again.
I didn’t. I waited, time and our breath frozen as we stared at each other… and then I let her go.
“Go to bed, Syrene. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
She gave a little nod, tried to salute, thought better of it, and walked uncertainly back into the palace. I heard her door close a few moments later.
I looked down at the garden beside me, and shook my head. That had been… rather disconcerting. How would I ever sleep now?
I went back to bed, and when I did sleep, apple-green hair danced through my dreams.
Early the next day, we loaded up and marched west. Pontifex Mansel lent us the Sacred Twins of Rausten, and in a heartbeat L’Arachel had claimed the healing staff. He also lent us the Sacred Stone, and this time it went with Ephraim, not Eirika.
Within a day – we marched hard – we had arrived at the edge of Darkling Woods. Myrrh was our leader. This was her home, after all, and presumably she could tell where the Demon King was. She said that he was probably at the temple where he had first been destroyed.
I had the idea that Syrene was avoiding me. It bothered me. I hadn’t even said anything to her as I had to Eirika. And besides, Syrene was my friend.
I finally cornered her on the edge of camp, reviewing the evening patrols. “Syrene.”
She glanced at me, her gaze wary. “Prince Innes.”
Silence stretched between us, heavy and awkward.
The soldiers who had been talking to her saluted and marched away hurriedly, leaving us alone with the distant light of campfires the only indication that we were close to other human beings. It was dark and misty under the trees.
“I apologize for yesterday,” I said finally. “I did not intend to alarm you in any way.”
She shook her head. “It’s nothing, my lord. In fact, I should be the one to apologize. I acted far beyond myself. I will control myself better in future.”
I couldn’t pull myself upright – my posture was always perfect – but I could raise my head and look down my nose at her. “Syrene, stop speaking such nonsense.”
“No. Listen to me. You are a knight, yes. You are a General of Frelia, yes. But you are my knight, my general, my friend, and you have every right to voice your concerns to me. If… if you dislike… If you disapprove of my actions, you have every right to say so.” I gave her a sardonic little smile. “On certain things in battle I may simply not listen to you, as you know.”
She thought she was a pathetic general? She was a strong general and a strong woman. It was I who was a pathetic prince. A prince was supposed to be perfect, wasn’t he? The perfect warrior, the perfect gentleman, always knowing what to say and how to say it, willing to fight to the last breath, showing no weakness even to his family.
I looked into her eyes, and saw how luminous they were even in the twilight. “I’ve laid too much on you. My gesture last night… I only meant to comfort you. But I should not have done that. I hope you can forgive me.” I turned and began to walk away.
“P-Prince Innes!” She hurried after me. “I-I didn’t mean to… give you the impression…” She stopped talking, confused, but she had my attention. I turned around again.
“There’s a very good chance everyone’s going to die tomorrow, or the day after, or whenever we get there,” I said softly, my baritone voice getting deeper. “But I will not demand anything of you besides your duty. And I will not ask anything of you except… your continued friendship.” I offered a slight lopsided smile. “I couldn’t possibly ask for more.”
She took a step closer. “You really mean that?”
I braced myself. “Syrene… I know I’m in love with you. But that’s unfair to you.” She would either reject me outright, at which point my world would collapse in on itself, or she would be awkward and uncomfortable around me for the rest of my life, and that would be worse.
She took another step closer. “Is it? …Innes?”
My heart stopped.
When it started again, I closed the distance between us, pulling her into my arms. She was not in armour. This time, she relaxed against me, her chin on my shoulder, and her arms around my waist as my arms were around hers. Her body fit against me so well I would have sworn she was made for me. I let my nose touch her neck under the curtain of green hair and breathed in. “Syrene…”
She shivered and I held her tighter. We drew apart until we could see each other’s face, and our noses touched.
I held there, for a long moment, until I couldn’t bear it anymore, and kissed her.
I kissed her and kissed her, hungrily. I realized it had been a very long time since I had kissed anyone. There had been that girl in school… and that one knight-in-training five years ago… but now Syrene was in my arms, and she was my closest friend and knight and protected and protector and lover and a million other things, and I was never going to let her go.
I backed her up until she stopped against a tree, still kissing her. Her hands moved through my hair, and I stifled my moan in her mouth. She responded the same way.
If I died that moment, I would have died happy.
But I did not die that moment, so my – our happiness could go on for a while longer. But I told her my original thought. She laughed gently.
“Well, we could all die within a few days… But I hope that you and I survive this, and return to Frelia together.” Her smile turned mischievous. “Have I ever cooked for you?”
“No…?” What a good time to be learning new things about her, I thought sarcastically.
She flushed a little. “Well, I’m no chef, but I know much about our traditional food. So when we return to Frelia, I shall prepare something for you.”
“I’ll prepare something for you, too,” I said with a grin. It wasn’t hard in my mind to figure out what that could be. Something ring-shaped and glittering. “For now, we should rest. If we’re not properly rested, our chances of returning home diminish.”
She nodded. “Good night… Innes.” She reached up and kissed me again, and for a long moment I couldn’t let go of her.
I disengaged and let her go, watching her walk away, her long green hair swaying against her back. I’d touched that hair.
It seemed strange, and yet so simple, to be in love with Syrene. Eirika, while she was admirable, the sweetest, most determined creature to walk Magvel, I did not know. I knew her as Tana’s playmate, and the woman who rescued her brother and me, but I did not know her.
But the reason I had loved her, I realized now, was that she shared many of Syrene’s virtues. Syrene was also compassionate, and valiant, and had a hidden sense of humour, and was beautiful.
But Syrene I had known for a long time. She was not only my knight, and then my general – she was my companion. I knew her. She knew me.
And with that cheerful thought, I went to bed. I’m not sure Joshua, my tent-mate, knew what to make of my demeanour. But I couldn’t have cared less what he thought of me either way.
Next morning brought more marching. The ground grew steadily swampier as we followed Myrrh deeper into Darkling Woods. It was irritating, even though I was, at the time, on horseback. I just knew that the skeletons and zombies would attack any minute, and I would get off and fight on foot. Unless Syrene wanted to take me up again. Surely the swamp would be much less dangerous to fall into than a volcano. Not to mention the eyeballs, the things that had cast the dark magic spells at us last time, were seemingly few in evidence.
Still, we might distract each other, and distractions led to mistakes, which lead in battle very quickly to death. So when she came to offer, I declined. She understood.
It wasn’t that I was adverse to living a soldier’s life, muddy and uncomfortable. Still, swamp was terrible to fight through.
Even as I caught site of something stone, something that looked as if it had been built by hands – even if the hands were not human – monsters descended upon us from all sides. They had been waiting for us here. Chilling screeches blasted from the temple mouth, where a zombie dragon crouched, rotting and foul.
I flung myself down off my horse and drew my bow, my boots squelching in the soft ground. Skeletons were rushing at our lines, and the soldiers looked tense and frightened.
I couldn’t blame them, as I nocked arrow after arrow, drawing each to my jaw before releasing swift death on our slime-covered enemies. I called orders, repositioning soldiers where they would do the most damage. I noted with interest that Eirika’s mercenaries, who had been facing off against the monsters the longest, stared down their opponents coolly as they fought. Even Tana showed no fear, and in fact seemed to be treating the battle as a game of target practice. As she swooped overhead, I could hear her muttering her kill-count under her breath. I wondered if she was keeping score against someone else, Eirika or Vanessa or Marisa, perhaps.
“Close up that gap, Philip!” I shouted at the melee. “Lancemen, deal with those swordskeletons!” I noted with concern that their numbers were beginning to include archers. I turned my aim to them. “Mages, concentrate fire on the archers! Pegasus, watch yourselves!”
My side of the battle was not going too badly, and I turned to briefly survey the rest of the field. Ephraim’s side was holding firm, advancing steadily towards the temple and the dracozombie. Myrrh, beside him, was a force and a half to be reckoned with. General Deussel was having trouble, surrounded by slavering hellhounds, only his heavy armour and giant axe protecting him and his horse, and I sent a couple arrows in their direction. His flank was crumbling, and I heard Syrene order her unit over to assist.
But it was too late. Even as she whizzed by overhead, three-headed nightmares were scampering among our units, dragging soldiers to the ground, leaping on horsemen, and generally causing chaos. Our light-magic users tried to contain the damage as well as heal those they could save.
On the forest side of the line, the skeletons were piling up, piles of old bones trampled by their still-animated brethren. There was a big one, raising a huge lance to strike, green flames in its eyes.
“Cover my back!” I snapped at some nearby lancemen, and slogged forward to shoot down the behemoth.
I heard screams behind me even as I sent an arrow through its skull, and even as it quivered and dismembered itself to the ground, I felt a heavy, writhing weight strike my back.
I landed heavily in the muck and heard animalistic panting in my ear, and needle-sharp teeth raked the side of my head. Before the huge jaws had time to close on my skull, the weight was torn from my back, and with a howl and a crunch and a squelch, it was over.
I scrambled up to see Tana winging away, her lance bloody. “You owe me, Brother!” she called cheerfully, although there was a tremble in her voice.
“So I do,” I called back. Then Father Moulder was hurrying up to heal my face.
Our line was collapsing in on itself, but the hellhounds were growing scarce. I shot two through the eyes, considering that it might be a better idea to deal with them first, and let the soldiers deal with the more average skeletons.
Once the last of them were killed off, we pulled the line in tighter and I turned my attention to the zombie dragon. Its breath was poison, and only Myrrh could really get close to it to fight it. I did not think letting a dragon-child fight a much-larger dragon was a good idea, so I angled to try to see if I could help out.
My arrows skipped off the massive bones, and I frowned. Perhaps it was time for the heavy weapons.
I handed my silver bow to a nearby soldier, and in return someone rushed up to me and presented me with Nidhogg.
My first arrow cut through a solid rib and the dragon flinched. Now that was more like it. Another arrow took off one of the dragons headspikes, and it shook its head, distracted and no longer paying enough attention to Myrrh.
“Prince Innes!” came a shout from behind me. Syrene. I whirled, in time to see her shoot past a row of skeletons, taking out three that had neatly lined up for her – which had been about to attack me. Where were my soldiers? Distracted, themselves.
She was about to pull up into the air when suddenly her pegasus jolted, collapsed, and nose-dived into the muck. There was a pile of legs and wings, tumbling violently over and over, and then they lay still, a white smudge of feathers in the green reeds.
I took off running, enemies be forsaken. Skeletons were closing in, and I dropped to one knee beside the body of the pegasus and shot at them.
One arrow took out five enemies, and they disintegrated into clouds of ash. This was a very nice bow.
But that wouldn’t help Syrene…
While the skeletons marched inexorably forward, I heaved the pegasus’ upper wing off her rider. Syrene’s face was white as paper, and her left leg was pinned under the horse’s bulk. There was an arrow in its throat, and its eyes were sightless.
“Syrene!” I called urgently, straining to lift the horse. Then Vanessa was beside me, helping me, and she pulled her sister out from beneath the dead pegasus.
“Ah!” she cried, as skeletons rushed at her, rusted lances pointed at her and her precious burden. I picked up Syrene’s lance and swung at them. Not wildly, no, but not with Ephraim’s control and precision, either.
Ephraim himself galloped by, his lance shattering some, his horse scattering others. His expression was unreadable as he glanced at me.
“My lord!” Vanessa cried over the sound of cracking bones. “Will you take the general, please? If I can get to my pegasus I’ll cover you!”
“Please do,” I shouted back, stumbling up to her and reaching out for Syrene. At the moment that I picked her up, she cried out and shifted.
“General!” I cried. Formality would help her maintain control. “Are you injured badly?”
“Arm… leg,” she gasped. “Broken…” Vanessa, now back astride her pegasus, swung a Light Brand sword at them, making them flinch from the glowing blade even if they didn’t die.
“I’ll get you to Father Moulder,” I said. “Hang on for just a while longer.”
She nodded and her head fell back. “Glindara?”
“Dead. I’m sorry.”
Ahead of me, there was a roar, and Myrrh breathed a stream of golden flames into the zombie dragon. It lurched sideways and fell, and an awful stench swept over us in a wave. I coughed and choked, and forced myself to keep moving, almost stumbling over the dead body of the zombie-like bishop. My bow and Syrene’s lance bounced on my back, but I tried not to jostle her as I shouted for a healer.
The young monk Artur was first to us, followed closely by Father Moulder. I set my knight down gently as the healers set her bones right and sealed them together again properly.
“She’s going to be all right, right?” I said.
Father Moulder nodded. “She will survive this day. But she should not fight anymore.” He sighed. “There are many like that, and they will need guards while the princes and princesses advance into the temple, who will be thus shortened…”
“We’ll manage,” I said a little drily.
“We must save our wounded,” Eirika spoke up from by my shoulder. I started. I had not even noticed her.
“Eirika,” I greeted her.
“Innes. You saved General Syrene?”
I shrugged. “I did my best to.”
She smiled at me. “I am glad. She is a kind person.”
I nodded. “Tana looks up to her quite as a sister. And Vanessa of course, looks up to her as an actual sister.” I could feel myself getting warm. It was true, that Tana looked up to Syrene like a sister. How would she react if I told her she was going to really be her sister?
I shook my head at myself. There was still another battle to fight, and survive, and win.
Syrene opened her eyes. “Prince Innes…”
“Just rest,” I said. “You’ve done your duty. You saved my life.”
She smiled a little and closed her eyes again. “Be safe, my lord.”
I don’t remember much from inside the Temple. It was dark. It was damp. It smelled terrible. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t need to remember much.
There was one thing I remembered. When Ephraim and Eirika finally defeated Lyon, he regained his true self. Just before he died in Eirika’s arms, she kissed him.
For a moment I felt something. If I had died, would she have kissed me?
But the moment passed. I had kissed Syrene. Eirika could bid farewell to her friend however she chose. Seth was there for her afterwards.
Then the Temple started to shake. Ephraim shouted something about the Demon King and took off running to the back of the Temple, to another chamber we had not entered, followed hurriedly by his soldiers – and Eirika, once she laid down her burden.
Waiting for us was a hideous demonic monstrosity, all horns and teeth and bulging muscles and tiny, malevolent eyes.
I don’t remember what it said. I only remembered unslinging Nidhogg from my back, grinning in wicked anticipation. This was the creature responsible for all the pain and suffering and darkness that everyone on Magvel had witnessed since Emperor Vigarde had died. This was the creature responsible for the destruction of the Sacred Stones, the murders of Fado and Ismaire, and for Syrene lying wounded outside.
A little payback was going to be sweet.
Ephraim and Eirika siphoned off… something from the Demon King into the Sacred Stone, and then I think L’Arachel took control of it. Meanwhile, the users of the Sacred Twins readied themselves and charged into battle. It was a good thing Syrene had given Tana leave to use Vidofnir, I realized – although Syrene couldn’t have predicted she would be injured. Tana fought magnificently with it.
As for me, every arrow I loosed blasted gaping white-edged holes in the monster’s wings.
My vision went white, and pain unlike any I’d ever known, even in the blackness of the eyeball-spells, blossomed in my chest and radiated out through my whole body, tormenting every nerve.
I believed I had a soul, now. I could feel it. It hurt.
Abruptly, the torture eased, and I fell forward on my knees, hearing my blood rush in my ears, hearing the noise of weapons clashing, hearing Myrrh roaring somewhere off to my right.
“I’ll win… even if… I have to… crawl,” I grunted, shaking my head to clear my eyes and pulling myself up to standing on a block of fallen stone.
There he was, the Demon King, reeling back from Myrrh’s fire. I picked up Nidhogg again, nocked an arrow, focussed almost drunkenly on the Demon King’s right eye, and fired.
Sieglinde and Siegmund, the Sacred Twin weapons wielded by Ephraim and Eirika, stabbed home as my arrow struck. There was a flash of white light, and then Myrrh, our golden dragon, burned what was left into ashes.
There was a sudden silence. I could hear my ears still ringing.
I felt like falling over, but instead I pulled myself back up to my full height, just as everyone started talking and laughing and hugging. The corners of my mouth turned up as I watched them – Seth kissing Eirika in front of everyone, the knight Forde sneaking up to Vanessa and taking her hand, and Natasha with her arms around Joshua.
I left them and strode swiftly back outside, followed by a few others. At their head, I made my way straight to the camp that was setting up. I noticed a few overlooked monsters had collapsed and died, and wondered if they had all died when the Demon King did, or if these ones had only been too close to the wild blasts of magic and we would need to hunt the rest down in the coming months.
There were coming months to look forward to. Now that was a realization.
I went straight to Syrene’s stretcher, where she lay comfortably. Seeing her face light up with joy and relief almost made me grin like a boy. But I kept my face straight.
“Prince Innes! I’m so glad…”
“Marry me,” I interrupted, standing tall and proud at her side.
She blinked at me, startled, before giving me that blinding smile again. “All right.”
Then I couldn’t keep the grin back. “I love you.”
She laughed, embarrassed, into her hand. “I-I love you too.”
“We won, Syrene. We can rebuild Magvel without that proverbial sword hanging over our heads.” I knelt beside her stretcher. “And you will be beside me every step of the way.”
“I will help you to the best of my abilities… Innes,” she said, sitting up and reaching out tenderly to touch my face. I bent my head and kissed her.