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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And chapter 15!


    Chapter 15: Hope Arises


    The next morning had arrived as if without warning. Before anyone knew it, they had fallen fast asleep the previous evening, the cold dread of Ike’s condition had sent running up and down everyone’s spines eventually turning into weariness. Rothgar had not quite finished his investigation and suggested Azura and the group get the sleep they so well deserved, and badly needed, after the day’s events. However, once dawn had broken in the Eraghoan skies, it wasn’t long before the sounds of moving footsteps could be heard within the halls. Azura was hurrying down the stairs to join her comrades in hopes that Rothgar would soon have the answers to the cause of Ike’s sudden affliction. Only then could they figure out what could be done to help him recover. To Azura’s relief, most of her companions were already awaiting her. The only exceptions were Kiel, Sara, and Elincia.

    “Ah, there you are, Azura,” Bryan greeted with a smile. “If you’re wondering, Kiel and Sara are helping his majesty conclude his investigation.”

    “Oh, good,” Azura replied, her tone turning softly grave. “I wonder if Elincia is awake yet.”

    “Maybe, but even if she were, I doubt she’d join us,” Bryan pointed out, unable to keep a note of worry from his voice. “She’s been hooked to Ike’s bedside like a fish on a rod.”

    “Ha, no surprise there,” Azura conceded, remembering Elincia’s promise from the previous evening. “This is Ike we’re worried about after all.”

    “Indeed,” Bryan agreed. “Still, this all so horribly sucks…”

    “It does!” Lily fumed in agreement. “After Ranulf filled us in on the details this morning, I thought I was going to faint from shock. Ike of all people, bedridden with illness?!”

    “Yeah, it is quite shocking,” Ranulf agreed. “I’m worried about how Ike is coping though. After all, he hardly knows what it’s like to have a mild flu or cold, let alone get bedridden from fatigue.”

    “Oh dear, that’s right…” Azura recalled, realizing that Ike couldn’t possibly know what could be in store for him if it was the first time he’d been ill in years. “And Lily, that reminds me, how are you and Raela taking your father’s death?”

    “Ah, well, we’re trying,” Lily replied with a sniffle. “I may cry every now and then about losing both Mother and Father, but I’ll be fine as long as I have Raela.”

    “And you should keep thinking that way,” Raela encouraged. “To be honest though, we’ve also been trying to set aside our grief. We can’t let it overcome us when other people we know are in greater need, such as you, Azura, and now Ike.”

    “Yeah, that makes sense,” Azura agreed with a smile. “Thank you.”

    “…So, how much longer are we going to be waiting here?” Skye inquired a few seconds later, breaking the silence that had settled over the somber group.

    “Be patient, Skye. Rothgar and the others are doing what they can,” Bryan ordered sharply.

    “Meh…” Skye muttered, neither impressed nor reassured.

    “Skye, seriously, knock off the attitude,” Leona demanded. “Don’t you care at all about what’s happening right now?”

    “And what’s it to you if I don’t?” Skye retorted.

    “What?! How dare you!” Leona snapped.

    Marc slid his hand over his face in embarrassment.

    “Oh Ashunera…” he groaned, sensing the impending violence and contemplating running for his life.

    “Alright, both of you need to cool it,” Bryan stepped in. “Skye, if something’s bothering you, feel free to discuss it later.”

    “Fine…” Skye complied with a sigh.

    With that, the room fell silent once more, only to the somber companions contemplating what could have caused Ike’s illness. Since the times that Ike had been even mildly ill could be counted on one hand, with fingers to spare, they suspected, it did not appear to be a common illness like a cold or the flu. It had to be more than that, Azura decided, and wondered if possibly anything Ike had eaten at dinner contributed to his now failing health. Perhaps he had an unknown allergy to one of those dishes, even though allergic reactions are rarely so serious? Then again, Ike had eaten a fair amount of anything he touched on the table, especially the meat, which would likely raise the chances of an allergic reaction being acute. Azura’s thoughts were interrupted by the opening of the main hall’s doors and everyone’s attention was turned to Rothgar approaching them from the other side. However, the expression on his face was not pleasant.

    “Your majesty, did you find anything?” Azura desperately inquired.

    “…I’m afraid I have some terrible news,” Rothgar replied, wishing he did not have to say those words.

    “W-What do you mean?” Azura stammered, her fear continuing to grow.

    “I was hoping my theory had been dead wrong, but it alas, it turned out to be more correct than I feared,” Rothgar explained in a disappointed tone. “You see, we wolves have the best sense of smell of anyone on this continent, even the other beast laguz. I had some of my soldiers test everything Ike had alone eaten at dinner for a certain odor that only beast laguz can detect. We found nothing... Until we came to the spiced ribs.”

    “So the ribs made him sick?” Bryan deduced. “But why? They didn’t look undercooked or anything.”

    “It’s not that they were badly prepared,” Rothgar countered, his expression turning all the more grave. “Someone managed to poison them.”

    “WHAT?!” Azura exploded in shock.

    “Poison?!” Ranulf gasped.

    “Oh no…” Bryan uttered. “It can’t be...”

    The rest of the group only remained frozen where they stood.

    “I’m afraid so,” Rothgar confirmed grimly. “It wasn’t just any poison either. It was Venoxic.”

    “What?! No way!” Bryan protested. “That stuff was banned years ago!”

    “Indeed, it was, which is why this confuses me beyond all reasoning,” Rothgar admitted. “We questioned the chefs and everyone else who was in the kitchen at the time the food was being prepared, but none of them could give us any clues.”

    “Wait, what is this Venoxic you’re talking about?” Azura inquired, the worry in her tone hinting at a sorely tested will straining to avert total panic and despair.

    “Ah, pardon me, I’d forgotten most of you probably have no knowledge of what it is,” Rothgar apologized. “Do you know of the war that occurred twenty two years ago?”

    “Yeah. I’ve heard a little bit about it from the woman who raised me,” Azura replied.

    “Well, Venoxic is a tasteless and nearly odorless poison that was first made not long before the war began,” Rothgar explained. “And by Melorans, no less. It was meant to be a more extreme form of the poison you find in venin weapons, which the name is derived.”

    “My father told me this story a long time ago,” Bryan interjected. “They were Meloran scholars who were undoubtedly nothing like the stooges we see chasing after Azura. No, these guys were kind enough to share their creation with everyone.”

    “And that they did,” Rothgar confirmed. “In a short time, every nation had some amount of the poison, including us and Talgria. It was during the war that its true nature was discovered. Once hundreds of people began dying from consuming it or the poison seeping into their veins from the weapons, everyone realized that it was far more deadly than it appeared when it was first tested on common animals.”

    Rothgar continued his tale by saying that at least a thousand people had fallen victim to the poison on estimate and a vast majority of them perished. The poison was known to act differently depending on where it entered the body and how much was taken in. If it were consumed, it would attack the stomach and other parts of the digestive system before spreading elsewhere. If injected into the bloodstream, which was the more dangerous method, it would affect practically the entire body within hours. Either way, the poison was so deadly, even small amounts could prove fatal. The only survivors were beast laguz due to their ability to detect it via their sense of smell, which allowed them to catch the poison and treat it early before it could do any serious damage.

    “Their methods of treatment were not cures, however, so nothing could be done about any other victims,” Rothgar finished. “In Ike’s case, the poison seems to have spread faster than usual and almost every symptom it’s known to cause is present. Exactly why this is, I am not quite sure.”

    “Severe fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, stomach problems, visual impairment… It can cause all of that?” Azura inquired, shocked and worried beyond description.

    “Indeed,” Rothgar confirmed. “Some victims also felt nauseated. Goddess forbid if Ike were to puke now…”

    “Oh please… Don’t bring that up…” Ranulf begged, making a face.

    “…Er, yeah. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that,” Rothgar admitted out of slight embarrassment.

    “Hold on,” Bryan interjected worriedly. “There’s just one thing my father didn’t tell me. Is the poison contagious in any way? I mean, could the fumes from Ike’s vomit or something spread it?”

    “No, thankfully,” Rothgar denied. “Small comfort though that is.”

    “Still…this is beyond terrible,” Azura wept. “Poor Ike…”

    “Yeah. Elincia is not going to like this. At all,” Ranulf added with despair.

    Before they could return upstairs to tell Elincia as well as Ike himself the results of Rothgar’s investigation, however, the doors burst open once more to reveal Kiel and Sara. They, too, had desolate expressions strewn upon their faces.

    “Your majesty! The situation only worsens! Ike’s plate isn’t the only one with the scent!” Kiel reported.

    “What?!” Rothgar gasped. “You don’t mean the serving plate was also…?”

    “It appears so,” Sara confirmed, closing her eyes in sadness. “Every one of those leftover bones, all the sauce on both plates, and the remaining rib meat were tainted.”

    “…And Ike plowed through just about all of those,” Ranulf recalled, a frightened tone in his voice.

    “You can’t be serious,” Bryan protested, his shock growing. “That would mean he took in enough of that poison to kill twelve men!”

    “Exactly. It also explains why it has already taken such a toll on Ike’s health. This is, without a doubt, the worst case of Venoxic poisoning that has ever occurred,” Rothgar analyzed, despair in his voice.

    “And the high death rate during the war was exactly why use of the poison was banned in all nations after the war ended, including Melora,” Bryan added. “Every drop of it was to be disposed of in any way possible. However, it seems someone broke those terms.”

    “Oh, someone broke them alright,” Kiel agreed. “Check out what we also found on the kitchen floor.” With that, the red wolf produced a tiny empty bottle no bigger than his own hand.

    “I take the poison’s scent is on that too?” Rothgar guessed.

    “Yup,” Kiel confirmed. “However, the odd thing is that only the ribs Ike ate were poisoned. All of the other plates were clean.”

    “That is rather unusual…” Rothgar agreed. “If whoever did this spread the Venoxic over the rest of the meal, they could’ve poisoned half the castle. Either they underestimated its potency or they had a specific victim in mind. Whatever the case, we can’t just stand around here pondering about the story behind all this. We must inform Ike and Elincia at once and plan a course of action.”

    “…Agreed,” Azura replied with a sniffle, unable to hold back her concern.

    With no hesitation, the group immediately turned into the corridors leading upstairs to Ike’s room, although he would more than likely be fast asleep due to his weakened state. Despite this, both he and Elincia needed to know Rothgar’s newfound information if Ike is to ever recover. Upon quietly opening the door of the room, Azura poked her head around the other side. Ranulf, Bryan, and Rothgar followed her inside moments later to see Elincia out like a candle sitting on the same stool from before, her head resting upon Ike’s torso. Ike himself also slept as anticipated, but he did not appear to have moved much since the previous night. He still lay upon his back under the warm blanket with his arms at his sides. The cloth on his forehead had undoubtedly dried out as well.

    “Wow, Elincia really meant it when she said she wasn’t leaving Ike,” Ranulf commented with a bit of surprise upon seeing Elincia’s sleeping form.

    “Believe me, she loves him more than it may seem, Ranulf,” Azura assured with a smile. “She’s been through a lot lately, and it only pains me to think of her reaction when she hears what happened.”

    “Yeah… I almost feel like a jerk, to be honest,” Ranulf admitted.

    Before anyone else could speak, Elincia awoke from her slumber and allowed her eyes to flutter open. She slowly rose from Ike’s torso and yawned sleepily. Ike himself stirred seconds later.

    “Oh, I’m sorry, did we wake you two with our talking?” Azura wondered.

    “Oh…no, I heard some of what you said, actually,” Elincia replied, stretching her arms out and worriedly turning to Ike. “Ike, how are you feeling?”

    “Worse…” he rasped, his voice faint. “Even weaker…terrible headache… And I see two of everyone…sometimes.”

    “Oh dear…” Elincia responded and brought her hand to his forehead again after removing the cloth. “Your fever still plagues you too. Oh you poor thing…”

    With that, her tears returned to her eyes.

    “I’m afraid it won’t be breaking anytime soon,” Rothgar stepped in, reluctant to tell his dire tale.

    “Oh, your majesty!” Elincia replied, instantly turning her attention to the wolf king and the barest trace of hope in her voice. “You found the cause of this?”

    “Not only that, but we know how it happened as well,” Rothgar confirmed. “I’m afraid it’s a case of Venoxic poisoning, and the worst to date.”

    He then repeated the same story he had given to the rest of the group earlier. Although feeling ashamed to have let such a thing happen, Rothgar explained the nature and history of the poison once more in order for Ike and Elincia to completely understand the situation. Elincia could only feel more tears course down tracks that hadn’t had a chance to dry as Rothgar gave his explanation, as well as Kiel and Sara’s findings. Ike, although burdened by the effects of the poison, did his best to listen as well.

    “W-What?!” Elincia gasped in the middle of the story, feeling as if her heart had just shattered in her chest. “You mean someone poisoned the ribs Ike ate?!”

    “Uggh…” Ike groaned, a grimace forming across his face. “That’s just terrific…”

    “I…I can’t believe this…” Elincia sobbed, burying her face into Ike’s torso again when Rothgar completed his explanation. “Why would anyone want to kill Ike? How can he possibly survive this?”

    “The Red Claw…” Azura replied. “I’ll bet you anything it was those savages! They probably found out who Ike really is!”

    “…Wait a minute,” Bryan interjected, coming to a realization. “I think I just figured out exactly what happened.”

    “You did?” Elincia responded, suddenly sitting up from her weeping. “Bryan, I beseech you, tell us!”

    “Of course,” Bryan agreed and turned to Azura. “Azura, didn’t one of those chefs back there in the kitchen personally give you a rib?”

    “Yeah,” Azura replied. “He said he liked something about me or whatever. …Wait, you’re not telling me—”

    “I most certainly am,” Bryan confirmed. “That rib came from the same plate Ike nearly picked clean, which means your piece of meat was poisoned as well.”

    “And that means the poison was really meant for you!” Ranulf finished, anticipating what Bryan intended to imply. “Ike just ended up intercepting it!”

    “I see. This is all coming together now,” Rothgar analyzed. “One of the Red Claw members must have somehow snuck into the kitchen with the bottle of poison while disguised as a wolf laguz and slipped the Venoxic in the meat while it was cooking.”

    “And I gave my meat to Ike…” Azura recalled. “Oh I feel so guilty…” She sniffled and began to weep herself.

    “Azura…” Ike finally spoke up again. “Nonsense… You didn’t know…”

    “I know I didn’t, but…” Azura replied. “I…I just can’t stand it! Those Red Claw fiends are monsters! I swear they will pay for this!”

    “I can’t bear it either!” Elincia added. “If Ike dies, I vow blood will be spilled as far as Tellius!”

    “Speaking of which, imagine how they would feel if Ike died,” Ranulf pointed out. “It would not be pretty.”

    “Don’t forget Talgria and other parts of Altarais are just barely learning about him,” Bryan added. “Losing Ike now would deal a heavy blow to not only Tellius but many natives here as well.”

    “Oh…” Elincia wept once more. “…Hey, wait. Do any herons live in Altarais?”

    “I feel the pain all of you must be suffering,” Rothgar agreed. “And yes, we do have a tribe of herons on this continent. However, I’m afraid they live much too far from here to come and heal Ike with their galdrar in time. And even then it’s not known if that would work. Fortunately, there may still be a way to save Ike.”

    “Your majesty, are you sure?!” Elincia gasped in shock and desperate hope. “Please tell!”

    “Well, due to the massive number of deaths we had during the war, Cilae, Eraghoa’s northern neighbor, had begun creating an antidote,” Rothgar explained. “Although they didn’t complete it before the war ended, they continued their research for many years and they were slowly making progress. However, I am unsure if they ever finished.”

    “Cilae? That’s no surprise. They are known for their scholars’ studies in herbal medicine,” Azura replied. “And even if we don’t know if they’ve finished the antidote, it’s our only chance.”

    “Agreed,” Bryan seconded. “But how will we know where to find the ones who were making it?”

    “I believe their laboratory is near the eastern tip of Cilae’s coastline,” Rothgar replied. “It’s established there because most of the plants they use are in the swampy land that makes up part of Cilae’s eastern half. However, that swamp is hard to travel through and going around it on foot would only take even longer. I suggest you go by boat through the waters that separate the Perais islands and Cilae itself.”

    “…If we had a boat,” Azura pointed out with another sob.

    “Ah, but Kiel and Sara do,” Rothgar countered.

    “Oh! They still have that ship they told us about?” Azura inquired in surprise.

    “They sure do. It’s located somewhere south of here,” Rothgar confirmed. “Allow us to inform the rest of your companions of our plan.”

    “Right,” Azura agreed.

    “I’ll remain here and continue caring for Ike,” Elincia volunteered, having trouble restraining herself from crying anymore. “I just can’t bear to leave him, so good luck to you all.”

    “Ah, thank you, Elincia,” Azura replied with a smile. “We understand completely.”

    With that, everyone began departing the room to leave Ike to rest and Elincia to watch over her now extremely sick lover. Before Azura could make it all the way through the door, however, Ike’s voice spoke up once more. Just in case, he knew, he wanted to say one last thing to her.

    “Wait… Azura…” his weak voice called out to her. “My sword… Take it.”

    “Oh Ike… I don’t know if I could do that,” Azura replied, knowing Ike hadn’t had a very long chance to use Ettardios and that, despite this, the sword was very valuable to him.

    “I insist…” Ike choked out. “If I die…it’s yours…”

    “Ike…” Azura sniffled. “Thank you, but it might be too heavy for me.”

    “Don’t worry…” Ike encouraged her. “The Red Claw may have…uggh…weakened me…but that sword is still powerful…and I believe in you. Someday…it will be able to fight…proudly in your hands…”

    “Oh…” Azura replied, sniffling again and feeling tears of joy come to her eyes. “Ike, it would be an honor. I will do my best to ensure that your blade sheds the blood of our enemies in your name.”

    “Thank you…” Ike responded, his voice fading once more. “I don’t know if I’ll see you again so…I want to say this. Azura…fight with pride…and grow stronger. I know…you will…win…”

    Now more worried than ever about her sick comrade, Azura walked over to Ettardios, which had been leaning against the wall next to Ike’s bed, and took it from its resting place. She had to use both hands due to the sword’s weight, but felt confident that she might be able to actually use it in battle soon after all if she could just gain the strength. She turned to Ike one last time before departing and sniffled, Elincia following her example.

    “Oh Ike…” she sobbed, even though Ike’s fading strength may have rendered him unable to speak further. “I will win! I’ll battle my hardest for both you and Elincia!”

    “Azura, I can’t thank you enough,” Elincia replied, tears still trailing down her cheeks. “That would mean so much to us. I fear Ike is too weak talk anymore, but I know he can hear you.”

    To confirm Elincia’s statement, Ike slowly nodded and a small, if pained, smile dawned on his face.

    “Yes, and that’s why I’m doing it,” Azura confirmed, returning the smile. “Farewell, my friends! No, not farewell, until we meet again!”

    With that, she instantly rushed out of the room, Ettardios’s grip still clutched in her hands.

    Elincia returned her attention to Ike, who still needed a newly dampened cloth on his forehead. She immediately took the dry piece of fabric and dipped it in the fountain once more in hopes that cold water would at least break Ike’s fever, if only slightly. Knowing all too well that a high body temperature could prove fatal, Elincia had to do as much as she could to keep it to a safe level. After placing the cloth back upon Ike’s forehead and seating herself on the stool once more, she couldn’t prevent a fresh wave of tears from flowing down her cheeks.

    “Ike, do you think you can eat anything?” she wondered, hoping the poison hadn’t rendered Ike unable to swallow or his stomach uselessly inflamed.

    “I…can try…” he weakly replied seconds later, having gained enough strength to answer. “My stomach…isn’t always…painful…”

    “Alright, that’s good. You should also try drinking liquids, mainly water and orange juice,” Elincia advised. “…And I need to pull myself together here. I’ll be right back.”

    With that, she walked out of the room to fetch the food, water and juice, as well as attempt to hold her tears back once more.

    ***


    Azura and company had meanwhile rejoined Kiel and Sara and made their way outside of the castle to find their ship, if it truly was still there. After all, it apparently had been quite some time since it was last used or even seen, which meant that anything could have happened to it by the present time. However, it was the group’s only chance if they were to obtain the antidotal medicine needed to save Ike. Without a moment to spare, everyone was huddled outside in the morning air, ready to hear what Kiel and Sara had to say on the matter of Rothgar’s suggested plan. Hopefully, the boat would get the group to Cilae and back quick enough to return them to Ike before his time ran out.

    “Kiel, are you sure you and Sara want to come with us?” Azura wondered after Rothgar agreed to let the wolf siblings accompany the group on the journey. “His majesty might need your strength to fight off any Meloran invasions.”

    “Don’t worry, he knows what he’s doing,” Kiel assured the concerned mercenary. “This wolf tribe borders on being just as strong as the last one we belonged to. General Derien, the commander of our army, and the other captains will be on the battlefield, not to mention King Rothgar himself. They’ll be more than a match for any beorc.”

    “Well alright then. I just hope everything works out for the best,” Azura replied.

    “Indeed,” Sara agreed. “Especially since, considering the ship we’ll be using, the trip to Cilae will probably take roughly a month.”

    “Oh…” Azura reacted, her tone filled with even more concern. “That’s two whole months for the entire journey there and back. How I hope to the goddess that Ike can last that long…”

    “Then we’d better get a move on,” Bryan insisted. “His condition is only going to worsen with each passing hour.”

    “Poor guy…” Azura grieved once more. “Ugh, I just can’t go at this pace!”

    With that, she broke into a sudden run in the direction Kiel and Sara had been leading the group.

    “Whoa! Hey!” Bryan protested as he raced after her. “Azura, hold it! You know I can’t move as fast as you in this armor!”

    “Well, what about me?” Morris replied, lagging behind him. “I’m even slower!”

    “Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Bryan realized, knowing that he occasionally did forget Morris was the slowest member of the team due to his heavy armor. “Don’t worry, if she gets too far ahead, I’m not going to leave you by yourself, Morris.”

    On that note, the group became silent as they followed Azura’s sudden increase in speed, hoping she wouldn’t somehow become separated from them again. Thankfully, they were near the Eraghoan coastline where losing a companion was rather difficult due to the open sandy beaches and grassy areas that lacked heavy foliage. Morris was especially relieved when Azura finally slowed down several minutes later, the reason being that a ship had finally appeared in the horizon. It was a simple wooden boat that Ranulf thought could be no bigger than Nasir’s somewhat petite ship in Crimea’s Port Toha, the vessel which Ike, Elincia, and their companions traveled upon to Begnion during the Mad King’s War. He noticed it shared some similarities in appearance as well, such as white masts and an elongated shape. Of course, this was to be expected, as both were actual Begnion ships.

    “There it is,” Kiel pointed out as the remainder of the group approached Azura once more. “We removed the Begnion flag that was on it so no one would get confused if they see it.”

    “Makes sense,” Ranulf agreed. “Just one question though. Why leave the ship all the way out here?”

    “Heh, I thought you of all people would know the answer to that, Ranulf,” Kiel chuckled. “Beast laguz don’t normally have ships, remember? If foreigners coming to the castle were to see it, it’d cause even more confusion.”

    “Oh yeah…” Ranulf remembered, feeling rather foolish since he had been the one to tell Ike a similar piece of information in Gallia before the aforementioned trip to Begnion.

    “Not to mention if they found the Begnion flag hidden inside, they’d go tattle to Apostle Sanaki that we stole a ship or something,” Sara added. “And this section of coastline is without a doubt the least sailed by on Altarais’s eastern waters.”

    “So it’s less likely to be seen here than anywhere else. Now I get what you’re saying,” Azura replied, having been listening to the conversation. “…Huh?”

    As Azura had spoken, a rustling in the undergrowth and palm trees interrupted the conversation. Their attention turned towards the green area beyond the sandy beach they stood upon, they watched as several axe-bearing men emerged from behind their cover and blocked the way forward, followed by swordsmen and bowmen. One of them in particular had stepped in front of the entire group. There was no doubt that he was yet another Red Claw commander. However, one thing about him made him greatly stand out from the previous leaders that had been faced and defeated. This one carried a shining silver sword, its white blade reflecting the bright sunlight.

    “Aw man, not again…” Bryan groaned.

    “Finally! We caught up to ‘em!” the boss exclaimed with joy and followed with a cackle. “You won’t get away this time!”

    “Errrg, do you lame brains have to show up NOW?!” Azura blurted out of rage.

    “Eh? What’s she doin’ here? Why ain’t she sick?!” the boss replied out of confused shock.

    “I knew it!” Azura retorted with anger. “I’m here and well because your poison apparently went to the wrong recipient!”

    “Argh!” the boss responded out of anger and slapped his forehead, turning to one of his comrades in the process. “You dumb head! You tol’ me she got the meat!”

    “Sh-Sh-She did, Boss!” the Red Claw member insisted. “I saw it with me own two eyes!”

    “Then what happened?!” the boss demanded as he grabbed the bandit by the collar.

    “I swear, I don’t know!” the Red Claw member pleaded. “B-But look! It seems the green-haired lass and the guy with the huge sword ain’t here! One of them musta got the poison somehow! I-In fact, now that I think about it, I saw the guy eatin’ the meat like there was no tomorrow! He’s gotta be the one who’s sick and the green haired lass must be carin’ for ‘im!”

    “Hmm…” the boss replied and released his underling. “Hehe… Excellent.”

    “Huh?” the member wondered in confusion, scratching his head.

    “What are you smirking about?!” Azura demanded. “Ike did consume your poison by accident and now he lays ill and dying—”

    “Blast! Azura, shush!” Bryan cut her off as he and Ranulf both grabbed on to her and cupped her mouth with their hands.

    “Do you want them to know more about Ike and attempt to stop us from saving his life?!” Ranulf added.

    “Save yer breath!” the boss retorted. “I already know about this Ike of yours. Famous hero of Tellius. Defeated a goddess, wielded an almighty sacred blade and stabbed a king to death, and survived every battle he got ‘imself into. Greatest swordsman in all the known world, they say!”

    “Oh no…” Azura stammered out of shock once Bryan and Ranulf had released her. They too had worried looks strewn upon their faces. Stories about Ike must have traveled so much by now that they easily reached the ears of the Red Claw.

    “Hahahaha!” the boss cackled with a smirk on his face once again. “But lo! It seems even the great and powerful Ike had one fatal weakness! And without him, yer nothin’! That pendant’s as good as ours!”

    “Ha! In your damn dreams!” Azura shot back as the boss feigned the act of cupping the coveted pendant. “You may have cost us two companions for now, but that will not stop us from ending each and every one of your filthy lives!”

    “Whoa…” Ranulf muttered to himself. “She’s really on fire. Azura seemed a bit ticked off whenever someone used the word ‘damn’ before.”

    “Yeah…” Bryan agreed and then returned his attention to the enraged Azura. “Pssst! Azura, don’t forget Ike still has your pendant. As long as it’s in the castle, it’s guaranteed to be safe from their dirty hands.”

    “Ah, right,” Azura remembered after receiving the Halberdier’s quiet message.

    “Azura, just leave these guys be. We need to get to the ship,” Kiel reminded her.

    “And if the boss attacks anyone, let me handle him. I have the biggest advantage,” Bryan added.

    “Errg…” Azura grunted again in anger. “You creeps get to keep your heads today! Now get out of our way!”

    With that, the group instantly charged forward to break through the Red Claw’s ranks and reach the ship safely. However, no one could get through without a fight and with each enemy’s defeat, it seemed one more appeared to take its place. Getting even one person to the boat’s gangplank was tougher than expected, but Azura was only pleased to get a chance to wet Ettardios with her enemies’ blood after all, despite that she was fairly slower than normal due to the blade’s weight. As she stormed her foes and drove the blade through the gut of one Red Claw member after another, a path was gradually cleared for her companions to rush towards the boat.

    “Hey guys, this way!” Marc directed, having moved ahead due to being on horseback. With Leona following behind him, he led the remainder of the group around the distracted Red Claw members as Azura and Bryan stayed behind to hold the enemy off. After they safely boarded the boat, they watched as the pair slowly made their way towards the plank as well. When it was finally in reach, Azura quickly raced on board, assuming Bryan would soon follow. However, once she turned around to check on him, she noticed that was not the case.

    “Ah! Bryan!” she called. Bryan had gotten chivvied into a corner as the remainder of the bandits completely surrounded him, blocking his entry into the ship.

    “Blast! He’ll never get out of that by himself!” Skye exclaimed in shock as he held onto the boat’s rail on the deck.

    “Ugh, can’t we fire our attacks from up here?!” Lily suggested, her heart pounding with concern.

    “Are you crazy?! You’d set the whole ship afire!” Sara countermanded before snarling at the bandits below. “Besides, they’re all bunched up down there, so I don’t think we can get a clear shot!”

    “Errrrg, MAN!” Skye bellowed out of anger and slammed his fist into the ship’s wooden wall. “There’s no way I’m going to let my best buddy get creamed down there!”

    With that, he instantly bolted back across the boat to the gangplank, readying an arrow on his bow as he ran.

    “You know what? I’ve had just about enough of your stupid games!” Bryan seethed at his attackers as he pulled his lance away from the flesh of a dead enemy. Within the next second, a flash of light developed around his body, almost blinding his companions as well as the Red Claw members. Bryan glowed all over for several seconds as his armor slowly grew in size and his round shield took on a larger, more angular shape. Skye’s charge came to a skidding halt once the light reached him, causing his feet to give out from under him and land him in the sand front first.

    “Gaaah!” he cried as he plunged to the earth below from the gangplank.

    “…Can it be?” Azura wondered, her eyes widened with shock as the light faded and Bryan’s new form revealed itself. “Is that…a promotion?”

    “It is!” Marc confirmed, though he could barely credit what his eyes told him. “Bryan is now a Sentinel!”

    “Whoa!” Skye gasped, scrambling to his feet. “Bryan, that’s amazing!”

    “Isn’t it?” Bryan replied, twirling his lance and stabbing its base into the ground. His oppressors were now beginning to cower in fear, as a promotion also increased the strength of the one engaging in the magical transformation. However, the leader of the bandits wasn’t going to give up so easily, and clashed his weapon with Bryan’s. It wasn’t long before the foolhardy enemy leader saw a lance blade through his flesh as well.

    “I see the rest of them remember that promoting means I grow even stronger,” Bryan observed with a smile as he watched the remainder of his foes flee.

    “But-But how did you know?!” Skye gasped, still dumbfounded.

    “I could feel it, of course,” Bryan replied. “I knew I was going to be ready soon, and I thought these scoundrels would be perfect to finish the job.”

    “Well, great work, my friend!” Skye complimented. “Or should I say, Bryan the Emerald Sentinel!”

    “Heh,” Bryan responded with a smile. “Well, let’s get going. We’re not going to reach Cilae standing here.”

    “Oh yeah, we’d better hurry!” Skye agreed, and instantly bolted back to the gangplank. The two wasted no time getting on board the ship. Bryan’s newfound strength enabled him to help Kiel and Marc easily reel in the anchor from the water while Lily, asking everyone to cross their fingers she didn’t tears the masts down in the act, used a wind tome to fill the sails and propel the ship into motion. Having already gained the experience of piloting a ship, Kiel and Sara served as co-captains and steered the boat into the beginning of their group’s long voyage with Kiel manning the helm and Sara plotting their course using a chart and a peculiar device she called a sextant. Meanwhile, the remainder of the group went through the cargo hold to throw anything that wasn’t needed overboard and to look for spare sails, oars, additional wind tomes or anything else that could hasten their journey. Ike’s life hung in the balance and, with time having been against them even before running afoul of the Red Claw yet again, every second would count.

  2. #17
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Here's chapter 16. :D


    Chapter 16: Seaborne Battle


    “Sigh… Find anything on your end yet, Natalie?” Leyon called to the deputy commander as he and his knights scavenged the abandoned bandit stronghold. After eliminating the inhabitants the previous evening, albeit moments too late to save the village, Leyon and Natalie, as well as Eliot, began the thorough search for any clues as to the bandits’ plans or whether or not there was any truth to Azura’s supposed death. Leyon very much doubted that King Rothgar would lie or be mistaken about something so important, but some clue about the disparity might yet be found. And, maybe it would clear up how Ike had somehow fallen gravely ill. Several other knights were keeping watch outside in case other bandits sought revenge for their fallen brethren.

    “No, still nothing,” Natalie responded with disappointment. “I’m not surprised though, because this is a Red Claw hideout we’re snooping in after all. It’s likely that they were smart enough to destroy, remove, or hide anything that provides even the smallest hint of their plans.”

    “True, but we’ve been here for hours and I feel useless just digging around in junk,” Leyon complained as he continued by moving from some shelves to a few crates sitting in a corner of the room, which had been a supply cache. “And I definitely don’t want us to go back to the king empty-handed. Eliot, how about you?”

    “Nah, nothing in here but old weapons and stuff,” Eliot hollered back from the next room and switched his attention to something else that caught his eye after leaving another crate. “Wait a sec, General, I may have just hit gold!”

    “Gold?! You’re not serious!” Leyon gasped, suddenly wondering if the bandits really weren’t as smart as their reputations would suggest. Leaving plain gold just lying in the open would be a foolhardy move for just about anyone, especially considering how badly it would be needed to fund the Red Claw’s relentless aggression and their unceasing expansion in manpower and equipment.

    “Oh, no, not actual gold,” Eliot replied in a slightly embarrassed tone. “Heh, that was bad wording. Take a look at this.”

    With that, Eliot plucked a scroll tube tucked into the crack of the stone wall to his left, opening it to reveal a rolled piece of parchment within, and showed it to his comrades. This peaked Leyon’s interest, as the scroll tube meant this document was important enough to preserve and protect and the fact that the scroll was intact meant it was too important to destroy. It had to be very important.

    “Whoa, let me see that,” Leyon ordered, taking the parchment from Eliot’s hand. “I feel pathetic for not noticing this earlier. It’s definitely suspicious.”

    “I agree,” Natalie seconded. “We’d better see what’s on it.”

    “Right,” Leyon agreed and unrolled the parchment. However, the words written on it were far from just bad news.

    Alright boss, we got the poison! The Meloran messenger delivered it without fail. That girl’s as good as dead once she gets even half this bottle. I can promise ya we won’t mess this up! This is Venoxic we’re feedin’ her after all! The messenger also said that once the girl’s confirmed dead, we move onto phase two. We gotta be ready!

    “Curses! I knew those rotten dirtbags had something underhanded up their sleeves!” Leyon blurted in anger as he squeezed the parchment in his hand. “Come on! The Meloran dogs will not get away with this!”

    The trio made no hesitation to depart the stronghold, remount their horses, and race off back towards the castle. They were about halfway there when Eliot spoke up again.

    “Phase two,” he repeated. “Of what?” That was a good question and nobody had the answer. Though all suspected it would not be to their liking.

    ***


    Several hours had passed when yet another raven messenger sent by King Rothgar reached Wencelis in his throne room, only to bring even more disturbing reports than last time. The discovery of what caused Ike to fall ill as well as the sighting of more Red Claw members pursuing Azura and company while they departed in search of medicine that could save the slowly dying hero reached the stressed king’s ears. With the direction events were taking now, it seemed certain that the situation would only continue to worsen. Knowing it was all he could do, Wencelis ordered the messenger to seek permission from Rothgar to inform the Cilaean medicinal scholars of Azura and company’s intentions and needs so that if there was a cure for Venoxic poison, it would be ready when they arrived for it. Once the raven departed, Wencelis could only sag back into his throne in frustration and deep concern.

    “What troubling news…” he groaned. “Louise, I honestly can’t believe some Venoxic still existed all these years.”

    “Neither can I,” Louise agreed. “And Sir Ike of all people became the victim of it. We may have just lost the best ally available to us.”

    “I really hate to admit it, but that is all too likely, especially considering how much of that poison entered his body,” Wencelis pointed out.
    Before Louise could reply, the throne room doors burst open to reveal Leyon, Natalie, and Eliot. Leyon was leading the trio, still armed with the parchment tightly clutched in his hand. He bolted across the room and came to a skidding halt in front of his king.

    “Your majesty! Melora is indeed responsible for this madness!” Leyon exclaimed.

    “What?! Are you sure?” Wencelis demanded, unable to hide his shock.

    “You bet your crown I am!” Leyon replied, anger blazing in his heart which blinded him from his disrespectful wording. “According to this parchment Eliot found, they gave the Red Claw a bottle of Venoxic to kill that girl with! We originally thought the Red Claw sacked that village because capturing Elliot had bolstered their morale. Turns out, we were only partially right, as the Red Claw’s morale was bolstered because they thought the Venoxic had reached the intended victim.”

    The enraged general handed over the message with no hesitation. Wencelis, ignoring Leyon’s first sentence since he knew the noble general well and he had bigger problems deal with, looked it over to confirm Leyon’s words.

    “So it’s true. They really are trying to reignite the war from twenty two years ago,” he inferred with concern. “Which means the Red Claw is only their pawn and was commissioned to do the dirty work for them.”

    “Reigniting the war? You think that’s what they mean by phase two?” Eliot inquired.

    “Not just that,” Wencelis confirmed grimly. “Melora’s full intentions are clear to me now. They’re trying to finish what they started twenty two years ago.”

    “Only Sir Ike somehow intercepted the poison,” Louise finished, her own concern only growing. “Still, we know what all this means…”

    “Indeed,” Wencelis agreed. “However, we can’t assume that the Red Claw doesn’t know who Ike is by now. If they realized what a threat he could have been to their plans, they would be more than thrilled to see him dead.”

    “Wait, did King Rothgar send his messenger to fill you in on the details?” Leyon wondered, taking a good guess at what his own king’s answer would be.

    “He did indeed. Our next move will be to send more troops to Cilae to reinforce their strength, protect their borders, and buy as much time and safety as possible for Azura’s group,” Wencelis proposed. “We have no choice! This will again be all out war!

    Wencelis’s tone was grim, and the reality of the situation was grimmer still. Melora enjoyed vast resources and its queen commanded great reserves of well trained and hardened warriors led by capable and cunning tacticians. This, coupled with the ongoing threat of the Red Claw weakening Talgria from within and the success they’d had in doing so thus far, meant the prospects of thwarting Melora’s villainy had become bleak, but perhaps not impossible.

    ***


    Nearly a fortnight had passed as more Talgrian troops ventured to Cilae to aid their imperiled ally while Azura’s group sailed ever closer to their own destination on the opposite side of the country. King Rothgar, Elincia, and the continuously bedridden and steadily worsening Ike could only wait and watch. This verged on torturous, for Ike seemed to slip closer to death by the hour. Rothgar had explained that the one trait of Venoxic that may prove an ironic saving grace was that its progress was much slower than that of the normal poison found in venin weapons. Venin weapons merely drained strength to cause total exhaustion within hours and rarely took a life. Venoxic, on the other hand, caused a slow and sometimes very painful death that spanned up to three or four months of living hell depending on how much poison the victim consumed. Ike had taken in more poison than any other known victim, and Rothgar predicted that depending on how healthy he was before getting sick, his time to live since first consuming the poison would be roughly half the usual time span.

    “Which comes down to a month and a half to two months, right?” Elincia analyzed as she grimly calculated just how narrow a knife upon which her lover’s life balanced.

    “Correct,” Rothgar confirmed grimly. “And if memory serves, a round trip using Kiel and Sara’s ship would take roughly two months to complete. And that’s only if they never stop.”

    “Oh!” Elincia gasped in fear. “Then that means Ike has only six weeks at most to live and they must suffer no delays if they’re to make it back in time!”

    “Indeed,” Rothgar agreed. “However, I fear their voyage will not go unopposed.”

    “Oh, yes… The Red Claw and Meloran soldiers are still on the move,” Elincia remembered. “When they realize that Azura is still alive, and what she and the others are trying to do, they’ll surely interfere. Why does everything seem to be making the situation that much more difficult for us…?!”

    “Believe me, the Red Claw and probably Melora as well would stop at nothing to prevent the others from succeeding in rescuing Ike when they realize the advantage his death could bring them,” Rothgar pointed out. “This will be the most challenging battle they’ve fought yet and in more ways than one.”

    “Oh how I wish that weren’t true…” Elincia sobbed.

    The bedroom fell silent for a few minutes as both Elincia and Rothgar remained in their places and gazed down at their sickly ally once again. Ike’s facial expression appeared exhausted and sweat continued to trickle down the side of his head as he weakly gritted his teeth against the pain. His skin was still a rather deep pink from the fever and his cheeks a more rosy red color that at any other time might have hinted at joy. Elincia sniffled and allowed her tears to flow down her cheeks once more as she went to dampen Ike’s head cloth yet again. By now, the chances of Ike surviving his affliction were indeed slim, but giving up hope was not an option, nor had it ever been. Elincia wiped her face and tried hard to convince herself that Azura and the others would return in time with the medicine.

    However, that train of thought soon led to another, more frightful idea. Even if Azura and the others did arrive while Ike was still alive, they didn’t know if the medicine would save him since it had not been tested. For all they knew, Ike could even grow too weak to consume anything at all, let alone life-saving medicine. Knowing the man she loved though, Elincia knew Ike would do his best to fight and live. He was a strong man who had virtually never been truly ill before and who defied death as a matter of routine. His body could be powerful enough to fight even this off long enough to give him the strength to recover. Only time would tell whether or not death would have the last laugh this time and Elincia prayed that Ike would add this to his credit as another brush with death that had left him unscathed as she returned to his bedside. Rothgar stood and watched near the end of the bed as the cloth was set upon Ike’s burning forehead once more. Elincia lightly placed the back of her right hand to Ike’s cheek after she sat down on the stool again.

    “Hey…” Elincia spoke up, breaking the silence. “Though Ike is still burning up pretty badly, he doesn’t feel quite as hot as he was yesterday. I was hoping I could at least slow this poison down...”

    “And it seems your treatments are working,” Rothgar observed in surprise. “Tell me, Elincia, do you know much about medicine and healing?”

    “Well, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I did serve as a flying healer on my Pegasus at home,” Elincia replied, somewhat sheepishly. “I learned a lot about healing when I was in training.”

    “Ah, then I shouldn’t be surprised you’re doing a good job,” Rothgar complimented. Ike, overhearing the conversation, finally made his attempt to speak seconds later.

    “Elincia…” he rasped in a weak voice. “Listen…to me…”

    “Ike! No! You must save your strength!” Elincia begged.

    “Please… You must listen…” Ike protested, his voice firm despite his weakening health. “I-I need…I need you to hear this…”

    “But Ike…” Elincia objected with a sob.

    “I beg you…” Ike insisted. “If I don’t make it…there’s something…I need you to do for me…” As he spoke the last sentence, Ike grimaced once more due to his stomach beginning to convulse again.

    “Don’t talk like that! You’re going to live!” Elincia assured desperately. “Azura and the others will be back before it’s too late!”

    “Still… Just in case…” Ike began. “If I am to die here…go back home…find them… Find the Greil Mercenaries… Tell them to revive the company and let it live on…for me…”

    “Oh, Ike… I don’t know if I could,” Elincia sobbed. “I just can’t stand the thought of losing you!”

    With that, her tears continued their journey down her cheeks. Ike, with what little strength he still had, slowly brought a shaky hand to Elincia’s cheek and wiped away her tears. Elincia gasped, as Ike must have had more strength than she anticipated at the moment.

    “Elincia…don’t cry,” Ike encouraged. “Stay strong…and please do this… It…it’s my dying…wish…”

    Elincia sniffled and hugged Ike’s arm as if her grip could keep life in his body, grimacing herself at the same time.

    “Alright,” she finally gave in. “Ike, I’ll always love you…”

    “And I you…” Ike replied as he continued to hold Elincia’s cheek. “Even in death.”

    Rothgar then silently prayed himself in hopes that such a sweet love would never be broken by this tragic whim of fate and that Ike would live. It would be too painful for many people to see Ike and Elincia forever parted by death; for it was clear that they endured much for one another and truly did belong together. Several breathless moments later, Ike’s strength finally left him. Succumbing to exhaustion, his arm trembled and fell limply to the bed. Elincia, verging on panic, checked for a pulse and found one. This provided little relief however, for it was rather thin and erratic; Ike’s time was growing short. Rothgar was about to speak up once more when a sudden golden glow erupted from nowhere om Ike’s possessions.

    “Hm? What’s this?” he wondered in confusion.

    Upon investigating the supplies and armor lying near the balcony door, Rothgar produced none other than a glowing golden pendant. Elincia took note of it and gasped in shock.

    “The pendant! It’s glowing! H-How is it doing that, and why?” she inquired curiously, her eyes wide with surprise.

    “I haven’t the slightest idea,” Rothgar admitted. “Though I suspect it has something to do with why our enemies seek it so adamantly.”

    “I can’t argue with that,” Elincia agreed as she witnessed the slightly flame-like glow pulse larger and then contract with each passing second. “It’s even more mysterious now…”

    “Indeed. If anything good came out of Ike falling seriously ill, it’s the pendant being safe and sound right here in the castle. Perhaps it may yet reveal its secrets.”

    ***


    While Rothgar and Elincia continued to ponder about the pendant’s mysterious glow, the ship which carried Azura and company continued its journey to Cilae. With half of the voyage now behind them with no incidents or delays, everyone had been resting easy for the time being. Well, as close to ‘resting easy’ one can get while sailing across a turbulent sea with a friend’s life in a precarious balance. Lily, after casting so many wind spells into the ship’s sails each day, had probably become the most exhausted out of everyone and was advised to rest awhile below decks for the evening, as usual. Still, her tireless efforts had paid off, as had the idea of putting up the spare sails so they could catch as much wind as possible, for the voyage had been far swifter. Bryan served as a lookout above decks and alternated with Kiel and Sara as helmsman while Ranulf stood atop the crow’s nest due to his keen sense of smell and heightened eyesight at night. Kiel and Sara were busy fishing up food for future meals while Marc and Leona were rowing with the ship’s long oars to try and maintain speed despite Lily’s exhaustion. Bryan had been less than thrilled by the ever-quarreling knights paired up on such an important task but Morris and Skye reassured him by offering to join in and keep the peace.

    Azura went below decks to give Raela a hand in keeping an eye on Marc and Leona’s horses. Bryan and the two knights knew stabling them above deck would be dangerous, as rough water or a high wave could hurl the horses overboard and the small band would have no means to rescue them. Luckily, a gated hatch and ramp allowed the horses to be stabled just below and a means to move them up top if needed. If the horses or anyone on the ship were to become seasick, Raela’s help would be needed right away. What’s more, the horses had to be fed and watered every now and then as well, and neither Marc nor Leona could possibly handle both that task and being lookouts at the same time.

    Azura found herself craving a deep breath of fresh night time air as she dumped more hay into the horses’ food trough below decks. Once she brushed her hands off, however, she spotted Skye, newly relieved from his shift rowing, heading up to the top deck. The expression on his face was little different than it had been back in the castle during the quarrel with Leona and Azura rather doubted it had anything to do with sore arms from rowing.

    “Is Skye still moping around?” Raela inquired after noticing Azura’s gesture.

    “It appears so,” Azura replied, wishing the opposite. “I’m going to go talk to him. He’s been like this ever since the morning Rothgar told us about the poison.”

    “Yeah,” Raela agreed. “I just hope he didn’t mean what he said back there about not caring that Ike is so sick.”

    Azura shook her head.

    “I don’t think so. Still, I’m going to find out.”

    “Alright. I’m going to check on Lily and then see if I can be of use rowing. A little more speed can’t hurt. Perhaps you could meet me down there when you’re done with him.”

    Azura nodded and the healer sought her sister. With that, Azura calmly headed up top and spotted Skye at the boat’s rail and smiled, hoping what she had in mind would cheer the seemingly depressed archer up. He ignored the light breeze that tossed his small ponytail and simply stared at the churning waves. Azura frowned, wondering if this was more of his usual abrasiveness or if something really was bothering him. She also wondered if Bryan and the others had noticed Skye’s change of heart over the past two weeks. Either way, Azura knew something was bothering him and was curious about what it was. She let a smile touch her features, something reassuring in case Skye was troubled, and made her presence known.
    “Hey, Skye,” she greeted with a warm smile. “Peaceful sunset, isn’t it?”

    “Huh? Oh, yeah,” Skye replied distractedly, but then heaved a melancholy sigh. “Hey, um… Listen. I need to apologize for my behavior back at the castle. I…I wasn’t thinking clearly and I let my anger get the better of me.”

    “So you have been upset,” Azura confirmed. “Would you mind talking to me about it? I mean, of course we’ve all been upset about Ike, but…”

    “Nah, it’s alright. The rest of you are only worried and maybe even confused,” Skye contrasted. “I’ve been plain angry and annoyed, and not just because of what the Red Claw did to Ike.”

    “I see. But hey, you did seem to cheer up when Bryan kicked butt before we left,” Azura pointed out.

    “Yeah, that sure did make me happier,” Skye admitted. “Seeing Bryan grow stronger with each battle he fights is usually one of the only things that can cheer me up no matter how down I get. But this time…my anger just keeps coming back.”

    “Hm…” Azura pondered.

    “I know Bryan said I could discuss it with him, but I don’t want to trouble him,” Skye continued. “Er, I mean, not that I’m trying to trouble you instead…uh… Blast.”

    “Haha, I don’t mind talking,” Azura assured with a smile. “Plus, Bryan has actually been pretty busy lately.”

    “True. And thanks,” Skye replied. “Anyway, you see, I’m angry at myself as well. I treated my brother horribly back in Narcoss and then I noticed he’d begun looking up to Ike. Now with Ike as sick as he is, I don’t know what I’m going to do if he dies and Kye loses the only real role model he ever had.”

    “He never looked up to Bryan or Ryin or even you?” Azura wondered, raising an eyebrow. She was about to mention Skye’s parents as well, but figured Kye may not have enough memories of them since he could have been very young when they died.

    “Bryan’s not around him enough. As for Ryin, well…” Skye trailed off. “Let’s just say Kye is starry eyed, and a bit dense, about combat and would rather look up to a real warrior than a blacksmith. I really wish I could be that warrior, but why would Kye want a jerk for an older brother? I then thought hey, Ike is a big brother too, isn’t he? Perhaps he could give me advice. And now the Red Claw poisoned him and I had no one else to turn to!”

    With that, Skye couldn’t prevent tears from coming to his eyes. He smashed his fist against the rail as the salted water flowed down his cheeks.

    “Skye…” Azura replied with great concern.

    “Don’t get me wrong…” Skye continued with a grimace. “I am worried about how everyone else would cope if Ike died… But he’s our friend and I have no clue how to stop myself from being such a big jerk-faced bully towards my own younger brother! Every time I try to bridge the gap with him, he either does something or I say something that sets us both off and then I’m right back where I started!”

    “Skye, listen to me. I may not know how you feel since I’m an only child, but I completely understand your predicament,” Azura replied in a comforting voice. “But as long as we all stick together and keep fighting, we’ll succeed. You can count on that. And if you ever feel alone, just remember that you have all of us to talk to. As Bryan said, you’re free to discuss anything that bothers you.” Azura finished by letting her warm smile return. Skye wiped away his tears and sniffled before responding.

    “…Azura, thanks,” he replied, his frown turning into his own smile. “That means so much to me. You know, this also reminds me of when I told Bryan the same thing many years ago. He never forgot the first time I said I’d always be there for him.”

    “Really? How long have you two known each other?”

    “We’ve been best friends since we were kids, actually,” Skye replied. “We grew up in Narcoss together. And back then, Bryan was a lot different than he is now. I mean, his dad and a few others could see he had potential, but he was shy and passive. As a kid, he was pretty much a nobody who got picked on all the time by the other kids. They targeted him because they thought he was weak and easily scared.”

    Skye’s story continued as he explained how he witnessed many times the other local kids would tease and make fun of poor Bryan in the streets. Bryan himself would always refuse to fight back because he detested violence and felt retaliating would be little different from sinking to their level. Of course, everyone else thought he was cowardly and weak and were far from shy about telling him and his seeming passivity meant he was often alone. And then, he would often burst into tears while sitting alone or right after he had been given more trouble by the other boys than he could keep bottled up inside. As a result, they had started calling him “Cryin’ Bryan” and targeted him even more. Bryan’s reluctance to meet aggression with aggression also stemmed from a sense of pessimism he felt in his childhood. He didn’t get out as much as everyone else, but only because he had no one to help him. Not even his father could do much due to his business, although he attempted to talk some sense into the kids and their parents and impress upon his son that defending oneself is far different than bullying others.

    However, the parents wanted nothing to do with “that strange boy” and ignored the actions of their children while the entreaties from Bryan’s father made little impression on his son. They thought Bryan was so different from everyone else that it was abnormal or frightening. He showed more maturity and a better sense of etiquette than the other children and would rather bury his nose in a book about famous lancers than go play outside. Of course, no one could blame him when bullies were always hounding him, but even so, it was indeed odd that he never seemed to be truly interested in any common activities favored by kids his age. He always looked slightly younger than he really was as well, but still, the other children never relented.

    “Wow. That’s harsh,” Azura commented. “Poor Bryan. I guess that explains why he seemed angry with that girl we ran into in Narcoss. I think Misty was her name.”

    “Oh, he ran into her? I would’ve slapped that tart around something awful, but Bryan wouldn’t consider it, even now. But yeah, we knew her as well. I’d had just about enough of the garbage the other kids, including Misty and the other girls, were giving Bryan when one day a couple of the boys actually started beating him up,” Skye continued. “Although I only knew him through his reputation at the time—”

    “Uh oh! Hey guys, don’t look now, but we’ve got company!” Ranulf suddenly shouted from atop the crow’s nest, cutting Skye off. He pointed straight ahead of the ship and sure enough, another ship had come into view. Closer inspection revealed a dark red flag being flown on top of the mainmast as well. Within the next few seconds, two more ships also appeared and all three were seemingly headed straight for Azura and company’s own vessel. Bryan’s already concerned expression only grew more worried when he revealed who the flags at least belonged to.

    “Oh boy. Everyone, battle stations! Those are Melora’s flags!” Bryan advised.

    “Not just that, but look what we happened to catch in our net!” Kiel replied as he and Sara brought over another flag, this time colored white and light blue and with a different design than the crossed swords and rhombus shapes sewed onto the Meloran flags. Instead, the water-drenched flag bore an emblem similar to that of a church’s stain-glass window, a fitting design for a nation like Cilae devoted to theology and science.

    “Would you look at that? I knew those ships looked strangely familiar,” Marc commented. “Melora stole them from Cilae!”

    “…That’s not a good sign,” Azura pointed out in a concerned tone. “We’ve got to get away as fast as we can! Someone go get Lily to put more wind in the sails!”

    “Too late, Azura. They’ve got us surrounded on all sides!” Leona reported.

    “Damn it!” Bryan blurted in frustration. “We’re cornered!”

    “Well then let’s not stand around here like sitting ducks! Prepare for battle!” Azura commanded.

    While Raela fetched Lily, everyone else spread out upon the top deck to meet the enemy. All three ships did indeed block their way forward, with one at the fore of the ship to bar its progress and the other two flanking their prey on either side. One of the crewmembers of the Meloran ships approached the bow of the one directly facing Azura and company to observe his target. He was garbed in dark reddish brown armor lined in gold and carried a steel sword. The armor was large and bulky, showing that the soldier, probably the captain of the enemy contingent, was the same class as Morris.

    “Well, well!” he greeted with false joviality. “Things couldn’t go any better! Fate has practically handed us our prey! And that would be you and your pendant, red-headed sea rat!”

    The man pointed a desiring finger at Azura.

    “I wouldn’t count on it, you Meloran scum!”Azura retaliated, clenching her hand into a fist.

    “Yeah. To tell you the truth, we don’t have the pendant,” Bryan added with a punchy smile.

    “What?! What nonsense is that?” the Meloran captain retorted. “ …Of course. We should have seen this coming. But no matter, we can still take the girl! We just blew a surprise attack against Cilae when we realized it was you and we’re not leaving empty handed!”

    Upon his last sentence, the two ships to the port and starboard of Azura and company lowered gangplanks connecting all three boats. A second connected the boat on the left with the one off the bow. However, one of the soldiers on the front ship stood out from the other troops. A Pegasus knight hovered away from the boat and directly over the water off the enemy lead ship’s starboard side. This caught Bryan’s attention as Melora was not known for using Pegasus knights, or having Pegasi for that matter. Which, of course, left open the question of who the Pegasus knight was, but it was a question that would have to wait.

    “Everyone, block the gangplanks!” Bryan shouted. “Skye, you go to the fore and stall the troops on that ship with arrows. Marc can do the same with hand axes while Lily backs the both of you up. Azura, what say you to a little teamwork over here while Leona, Ranulf, and the others cover the portside?”

    “I say you got it!” Azura smiled and followed Bryan to the right gangplank.

    And with that, both sides charged into battle. As anyone in Azura’s group expected, the Meloran soldiers proved to be more formidable than the Red Claw bandits, as these were armored foes with weapons of all kinds instead of mostly axes and swords and who, the defenders expected, were well practiced in shipboard combat. However, for the time being, Bryan’s strategy proved effective. With him and Azura stalling the ship off the starboard side and a larger group stalling the connected ships of the bow and portside, the match was quite even. Azura smiled as she drove her blade into an axe wielder, glad she didn’t worry about who would come up with future strategies after Ike took sick. Bryan was a platoon captain, after all, which meant he would need to know something of tactics.

    However, the group had forgotten about one major point that could change the course of the entire battle and that was the Pegasus knight. With the ability of flight, she was more than capable of carrying one foot soldier at a time over the water and freely dropping him on the ship behind Azura and company’s defenses. Much to their relief and puzzlement, however, the Pegasus knight didn’t carry anyone with her. In fact, she seemed to be ignoring the Meloran troops and focusing her attention on Bryan instead. Within the next minute, the Pegasus knight landed her mount right beside him. Her pink hair, which was tied back into a long ponytail except the long fringe in front, and magenta armor shone in the moonlight.

    “Bryan! Oh, Bryan! I knew it!” she exclaimed, her voice filled with joy.

    “Huh? What in the—Faline?!” Bryan gasped in shock. “Is that really you?!”

    “Yes, yes! I’m so glad you remember me!” Faline cried with happiness.

    “Of course I do. How could I forget that day a year ago?” Bryan replied rhetorically. “But anyway, Faline, this is no time for small talk, as you can see. Do you think you could lend us a hand?”

    “Oh, you bet I will! In fact, I pretended to side with Melora just to find you guys,” Faline explained. “When I heard that a red-headed girl they were looking for had sided with a powerful green-armored lancer with olive hair, I thought that had to be you and wanted to help!”

    “Wow. I see,” Bryan commented, raising both eyebrows in surprise. “In that case, let’s finish off these urchins together!”

    “Right!” Faline happily agreed, readying a steel lance.

    “Bryan, you know her?” Azura inquired with curiosity.

    “Yeah, I’ll explain later,” Bryan promised.

    On that note, the battle resumed and Faline joined Bryan and Azura in their assault. With Faline’s added strength and her ability to outflank and attack the enemy from the air, the enemy’s numbers dwindled faster than before and Raela was on hand with a healing staff to take care of any injuries. Since Bryan possessed the strongest defense amongst in the trio thanks to his armor, he remained ahead of Azura and Faline where he would receive, and throw back, the brunt of the assault. Azura dealt with any enemies that sought to overwhelm Bryan as well as the enemy archers in case they targeted the vulnerable Faline, due to the Pegasus knight’s main weakness being arrows since they were airborne. If an arrow hit either the steed or the rider, the Pegasus could possibly crash while in flight due to a disabling injury, probably taking the rider with it, or the Faline would be knocked out of her saddle to fall to her death. Azura occasionally glanced at her other team mates to make sure they were fairing as well as her side. It pleased her to see Skye, Marc, and Lily holding the enemy in their bottleneck where they could be picked off one by one in quick succession. Leona was also able to pull hit and run maneuvers due to being on horseback, keeping the enemy guessing about how to break the defense while their losses mounted all the while.

    “Azura, their numbers dwindle,” Bryan spoke up again, capturing Azura’s attention again. “You and Faline finish them off and leave old big mouth to me. Trust me. I can wipe him out easily.”

    “Are you sure? I know your lance gives you an edge, but he looks stronger than Morris,” Azura pointed out.

    “That may be so, but without Ike, I’m your best bet right now,” Bryan reminded her. “Sentinels are the only soldiers who can rival the might of heavy knights. And trust me, you’ll be glad I decided to promote when I did.”

    Azura hesitated to agree, but gave in seconds later and allowed Bryan to pursue the enemy commander while she and Faline brought down the remaining soldiers.

    “I’ve underestimated you and your buddies, girl…” the commander conceded as Bryan approached them. “But I assure you, you have never faced strength like mine!”

    “We’ll just see about that,” Bryan countered with a punchy smile.

    “Huh? Hey, hold on a second,” the commander interrupted as he readied his sword, puzzlement crossing his features. “Now that I think about it, something about you is familiar. Might we have crossed blades before?”

    “Hm? If that were true, you wouldn’t be standing here,” Bryan replied harshly. “I’ve never fought against Meloran soldiers before.”

    “How inconvenient…” the commander disappointedly muttered and then lowered his voice to where his next words were unheard. “Still, could he be who I think he is? No… That’s impossible. How would he end up with lowly sellswords in Talgria? Or is there some other explanation…?”

    “Well, what’s the matter? Afraid to face me?” Bryan provoked, twirling his lance once.

    “Hey, you watch your mouth, you bastard!” the commander retorted. “I fear no enemy! Prepare to die!”

    “Ha. Hey Azura, get a load of this!” Bryan insisted, a confident smile forming on his face.

    Azura rushed over and watched as he instantly charged towards the enemy and allowed the tip of his lance to emit a sudden spark of light before attempting to strike. Like arrows soaring at the speed of sound, Bryan dealt several consecutive stabs with his lance right through the gut of his target, and ended his performance with a short leap and a final strike. The enemy commander fell to his knee upon receiving the devastating attack.

    “Errg…I…you are strong…” he complimented. “I…commend you, noble…” Before the puzzled Bryan could interrogate him, he fell to the deck dead.

    “Huh? Noble?” Bryan wondered, raising a confused eyebrow. “What a weird guy. Sure, I’m a captain in the Talgrian army, but I’m no noble.”

    “Yeah, strange… But wow, Bryan!” Azura exclaimed with an excited smile. “That was amazing! What’d you do to that guy?”

    “Ah, that was a move known as Impale,” Bryan explained. “It’s a mastery skill only Sentinels can learn and I was busy practicing it on the ship.”

    “Oh, I see. With your strength, we should be just as tough to beat as we were before Ike got sick!” Azura guessed. “And once we save him, the Melorans will be running for the hills!”

    “You’ve got that right,” Bryan replied with a wink.

    “Yeah, isn’t Bryan amazing?” Faline added, almost as if she were infatuated. “He bravely rescued me from pirates a year ago and I’m still ever grateful for it!”

    “Eh, hehe,” Bryan responded, his cheeks turning pink. “Hey Faline, why don’t you stick around for awhile? We could really use your help in scouting for anymore trouble, plus your Pegasus is probably wearied to the bone by now.”

    “Yeah, good point. You’ve got yourself a new ally, Azura!” Faline agreed with a smile.

    “Hey, how’d you know who I am?” Azura wondered in confusion.

    “Oh, your name’s been going around a lot lately and it eventually reached the Cilaean Pegasus knights, which I’m a member of,” Faline explained. “They’ve also mentioned this guy named Ike. What was it they said happened to him…? Oh yeah, he’s dying from poison and you’re looking to get medicine from Cilae to save him!”

    “Yeah, that’s right…” Azura confirmed, although rather worriedly. If the enemy knew of everything going on, it would only make it easier for them to further interfere. Azura and company would have to be very careful with each move they make, even if they did gain a new team member and new information. After everyone began clearing the deck of corpses and knocking the gangplanks into the water, Azura approached Skye, who was relieving the dead Meloran archers of their arrows, hoping he would be willing to finish what he had been saying earlier before the attack had interrupted their conversation. Kiel leaped over to the unmanned ship off the bow in wolf form and to pilot it out of the way. Although the battle didn’t consume as much time as she feared, Azura still feared it had cost them more time than they could afford if they were to return with the medicine before Ike’s heart would beat no more.

  3. #18
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Chapter 17 away.


    Chapter 17: Protecting the Cure


    “Hey, Azura! Look at us!” a male voice called out to the curious mercenary before she could reach Skye. Azura reluctantly set aside her desire to resume the conversation they were having before the battle against the Meloran soldiers and turned around to see Marc and Leona, both with broad smiles on their faces. However, their appearances were quite different than before. Along with the white fur and additional horse blankets on their steeds, both knights donned expanded armor with finer pauldrons and bracers, longer cloaks and tunics, and more regal helms which lent an overall more professional appearance even down to the horses.

    “Wow, you guys are paladins now!” Azura exclaimed with surprise. “I guess some of us were so focused on the enemy that we didn’t notice.”

    “Yeah, we figured as much,” Marc replied with a smile. “Looks like even though they joined the Royal Knights before we did, we just might catch up to Eliot and Deputy Commander Natalie after all, Leona.”

    “It’s certainly possible,” Leona agreed. “We definitely won’t be as good as General Leyon any time soon though. That is, if we ever get that far at all.”

    “Yeah, he might even be a Gold Knight by now knowing him,” Marc seconded. “I tell you Azura, the guy’s amazing with that axe he uses. What was its name again now…?”

    “Olegxing, you pea brain,” Leona teasingly reminded him. “I swear, Marc, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to remind you of simple things like this. Sometimes I’m surprised you even remember how to fight or ride.”

    “Well gee, sorry!” Marc retorted hotly, but in a tone suggesting he was used to this treatment. “You know I have a bad memory, Leona. Don’t you remember what I told you about the head injury that put me into a coma when I was kid?”

    “Yeah yeah, your parents risked everything to save you after that horse and cart accident and were thankful that the only permanent effect was a slight case of short term memory loss,” Leona recalled as she rolled her eyes. “Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t try to remember. After all, sometimes the only way to keep the enemy from finding information is to store it nowhere but inside our heads.”

    “I know, and I’ve been trying,” Marc defended himself. “And lately, I think I’ve been getting better, actually.”

    “Oh? Let’s have you prove it then,” Leona challenged. “What’s the name of Azura’s foster mother?”

    “That’s easy. It’s…uh…er… Damn it!” Marc railed and smacked his forehead.

    “You’re getting better, eh?” Leona replied with a snarky tone.

    “Hee hee, you guys may not like to admit it, but you definitely are close,” Azura commented with a punchy smile after listening to the conversation.

    “Come on Azura, not that again,” Marc complained. “And quit pressuring me, Leona! …Hang on, I remember now! Lorelle! Ha, see I told you!”

    “Very good,” Leona complimented. “Now let’s see you remember like this a little more often. Please, you know neither of us wants you to forget.”

    “Indeed. And I will work on that,” Marc promised. “By the way, what was Bryan puzzled about earlier again?”

    It was Leona’s turn to bring a hand to her face.

    “You’re hopeless,” she concluded. “He’s been wondering why the enemy commander from earlier called him a noble.”

    “Ah, right,” Marc replied and then turned to Azura. “Sorry if we were taking up too much of your time, Azura. We’ll leave you to your business. You were going to talk to Skye again, weren’t you?”

    “Yep! See, you can remember many things if you just try, no matter how bad your memory may be,” Azura pointed out encouragingly. “And don’t worry, I’m in no rush.”

    “Heh, thanks. Catch you later,” Marc replied with a smile as he and Leona went to stable their horses for what would hopefully be the remainder of the voyage to Cilae. Still, knowing their enemies, the possibility of seeing another battle on the sea was too great to ignore. Azura could only remain hopeful that they’d reach their destination safely as she continued to where she had previously seen Skye. However, he was nowhere to be found on the top deck. Guessing Marc and Leona’s conversation had distracted her a bit too long after all, Azura merely assumed Skye either turned in for the night or went to do his shift of rowing. She decided to finish their talk in the morning as she headed below decks to get some shut eye.

    ***


    However, Azura and company were unaware that they had not defeated every enemy that was present during the previous battle. Just as they had set sail and resumed their journey, a ramp had opened on the drifting boat that had been off the portside of Azura and company’s ship and a pair of Dracoknights emerged, taking to the air atop their wyverns. One of the wyverns had blood red scales while the other possessed a dark brown color like rugged earth. The pair had originally been assigned to the chameleon flotilla to act as spies and advanced scouts for the raiding force that would seize the Cilaean port but, when they realized who the flotilla had violated orders to attack, they remained hidden and eavesdrop on Azura’s group for any information. Having overheard nearly every word that was spoken during the chaos, both Dracoknights had immediately rushed to their superiors whom were battling against Cilae and possibly Talgria as well on the mainland. They were to rendezvous with reinforcements at a Cilaean fort which had been previously captured by Meloran forces and quickly approached their destination several days later. Upon dismounting their wyverns, the warriors rushed inside to greet their superior, a tall man garbed in dark olive armor lined with gold. Sheathed at his side was a fairly large sword with a gold hilt. The Dracoknights quickly approached him.

    “General Shigo, Sir,” the rider of the brown wyvern greeted. “We bring you news about Captain Berne.”

    “Ah, greetings to you, Commander Lartz,” Shigo replied. “I was beginning to grow bored. What of him?”

    “Well, as per our orders, we served as spies and advanced scouts for one of the seaborne incursions into Cilae,” Lartz began, suddenly hoping Shigo’s reputation for cruelty was exaggerated. “H-However, the ships Berne commandeered unexpectedly ran into another vessel carrying the girl. He was defeated in battle by her and her companions.”

    “How unfortunate,” Shigo responded with a careless chuckle.

    “You…just shrug this off, Sir?” Lartz wondered with an arched eyebrow.

    “I do indeed,” Shigo confirmed. “But your worries are misplaced. Berne’s job was merely to stall the girl and buy us time. I think he served his purpose, did he not?”

    “But…but then that would mean…” Lartz trailed off.

    “Yes, I knew the girl would be coming that way!” Shigo admitted. “She’s attempting to find medicine to rescue the man those Red Claw fools accidentally poisoned instead of the girl herself! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised they fouled up such a delicate mission but it may yet be turned to our favor. If the girl and her companions were to fail, the advantage we would gain from the death of Sir Ike, brave hero of Tellius, may decide the war.”

    “Oh, yes. Yes, indeed,” Lartz agreed, although there was a hint of reluctance in his voice which Shigo failed to detect. “By the way, Sir. My comrade and I witnessed something peculiar during the final moments of the battle. Berne challenged a lancer in green armor whom he seemed to recognize, though he did not say from where specifically.”

    “Oh? Tell me, Lartz, did you by any chance happen to get a glimpse of this lancer’s other features?” Shigo inquired, great curiosity developing within his mind.

    “All I was able to make out from below decks was olive green hair, green eyes, and he appeared to be perhaps twenty, maybe a bit older,” Lartz described. Shigo didn’t reply immediately. Instead, his face was replaced by one of slight shock and then a calm, yet punchy smile.

    “You don’t say…” Shigo finally responded. “So all those years ago, Caline somehow managed to save her son after all. Very interesting.”

    “H-Hold on, Sir! You’re not saying that lancer is—”

    “Oh, I certainly am,” Shigo confirmed. “I know you’ve heard the story, Lartz, so don’t deny the evidence. As for Caline’s son, I highly doubt he knows of his true identity. However, I feel his father will present him with the painful truth fairly soon. Oh fairly soon, indeed…”

    “I see…” Lartz replied, suddenly wondering if one of Shigo’s reputed ‘reprimands’ would’ve been more palatable. “So, what’s our next plan?”

    “We are to launch an attack on the medicinal laboratory near the swamp and stop the girl in her tracks there,” Shigo announced. “We will seize them and the medicine, ensuring Ike’s death, all in one swift stroke. And you shall be in charge of it, Lartz.”

    “M-M-Me?!” Lartz gasped in shock. “But-But—”

    “You are in no position to refuse,” Shigo cut him off. “Tell me, to whom did your superior officer transfer command of your unit?”

    “Y-You…” Lartz reluctantly answered. “Very well, Sir.”

    “Thank you. And to ensure that you don’t screw up, one of my platoons will fight alongside yours,” Shigo added. “Oh, and spare Caline’s son. I have special plans for him.”

    “As you wish. He possesses great skill with the lance, so that shall not be a problem, I think,” Lartz deduced.

    “Excellent. Now off you go.”

    The reluctance in his mind only growing, Lartz obeyed and made his exit of the fort followed by his comrade. The pair made their way to their wyverns not far outside of the fort’s borders and were about to take to the air when Lartz suddenly dropped his reins. Lartz sighed with nervousness as he eyed his path ahead. His comrade took note of the gesture.

    “Commander Lartz, Sir, are you sure we should be doing this?” he wondered.

    “Yes… We must,” Lartz replied, closing his eyes in shame. “We have our orders. Now let us proceed.”

    “A-At once, Sir.” However, as the pair launched into the sky and resumed their journey, Lartz’s mind was still filled with doubt and misery. He began to mumble under his breath moments later as the breeze lightly tossed his dark blue hair.

    “Oh, how I wish I knew a peaceful way out of this…”

    ***


    By the time Azura and company had reached the northeastern tip of Cilae’s coast, nearly a full month had gone by just as Kiel and Sara had predicted at the start of their journey. Bryan and Faline told the tale of how they met a year ago and Faline was ambushed by pirates on the Kiang River while acting as a courier to Castle Talgira. They tried to steal both her belongings and her Pegasus and attempted to capture her as well until Bryan and a few of his soldiers discovered the incident while on patrol. While his allies distracted the pirate crew, Bryan had ultimately brought down the leader himself and rescued Faline from his grasp. They aided her in returning home after the pirates were defeated.

    Skye, who was too reluctant to continue the conversation for the longest time, had finally been willing to finish explaining to Azura not long before arriving the day he and Bryan met near Narcoss’s market as children. Upon witnessing a few other boys hold Bryan and take turns punching him for their own entertainment, Skye rushed up to the boy punching Bryan and rammed him headfirst into a wall and flattened the nose of another boy with a flying rock. He was about to grab one of the stand’s braziers and hurl the embers into another boy’s face when the flying rock he’d thrown earlier was returned to him right in the center of the forehead. At the young Bryan’s request, and after he lectured Skye about the possible effects of his injury, the pair agreed to keep the incident a secret from their parents to prevent being highly lectured once more. The two were best friends from that day forward. However, despite Bryan’s rapidly improving mood and self-esteem, he had not been left untouched by the actions of the other kids.

    “I’m sure you can see the effects of this mistreatment,” Skye guessed. “Bryan has become a bit ill-mannered like you saw at your mother’s house, and his temperament can seem erratic like when Ryin told us our old route to Aracion was blocked, and even though he is still reluctant to get into any unnecessary fist fights, he can easily throw nasty threats. He’s pretty good with insults too.”

    “I see. I guess what happened back then still gets to him, causes him to lash out or doubt himself,” Azura concluded. “He sort of threatened that girl, Misty, back in Narcoss.”

    “Yeah, and I still would have slapped her around. Yet, I’ve always remained by Bryan’s side because he’s my friend,” Skye admitted. “I just hope he doesn’t eventually go overboard.”

    “And I won’t,” a familiar voice suddenly spoke up from behind the pair. Both Azura and Skye whirled around to see Bryan himself standing before them.

    “B-Bryan!” Skye stammered.

    “Skye, relax. It’s alright,” Bryan replied, his tone gentle. “I heard almost every word you two were saying anyway. I have to agree with you on my actions the past several years…”

    “You serious?”

    “I am,” Bryan confirmed. “I let those memories turn me into an idiot.”

    “You’ve realized it?” Skye inquired.

    “Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot lately,” Bryan admitted. “You’re not the only one besides my father who supported me from the very beginning.”

    “Bryyyaaan!” another familiar voice echoed throughout the deck before anyone else could get in another word. Faline was racing up to Bryan with a bright smile on her face and tossed her arms around his neck from behind, throwing most of her weight on his back.

    “Oof!” Bryan responded. “Faline, is this really necessary right now? I appreciate it and all, but…”

    “Actually, I think it’s just what you need,” Faline replied cheerily. “I heard you all talking just now. Let’s lighten up and think positive!”

    “You know what? She’s got a point there,” Azura agreed, trying to choke down laughter. “We’re about to pull into port and go get us some life-saving medicine, so we should keep our cool.”

    “Yeah, Azura’s got the right of it!” Faline seconded. “By the way, Skye, Bryan was referring to me when he said you weren’t the only one besides his dad who supported him from the very beginning. Bryan inspired me to grow stronger just like him after he taught those pirates a lesson. Ever since, I’ve been training hard just for him and I vowed never to turn my back on him!”

    “She’s right, Skye,” Bryan confirmed. “We were catching up on things the other day and Faline really helped lift my spirits after everything I’ve been through lately. She also made me realize I was going down the wrong path with by letting those memories get to me. From now on, I’m straightening out.”

    “I’m glad to hear that, Bryan,” Skye commented with a warm smile. “I’m only sorry I didn’t say anything to you on the matter…”

    “Nonsense,” Bryan countered. “Skye, you’ve always stood by me despite my changed ways. That alone is a thing to cherish.”

    “Th-Thank you…”

    “Oh, and Bryan, I also need to thank you,” Faline added as she turned to Bryan with a warm smile. “If it weren’t for you, after all, I wouldn’t have found the courage to come as far as I have the past year. I’d like to go let my Pegasus exercise her wings a little, so consider this my little thanks.”

    As she’d finished her last sentence, Faline’s tone had turned a bit flirtatious. She instantly planted a kiss on Bryan’s cheek and raced off with a ‘see you later’ afterwards. Bryan’s only reaction was a wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked expression on his face as he brought a hand to the cheek on which Faline left the smooch. Azura and Skye were unable to prevent wide grins from lighting their features.

    “Well, well,” Skye began in a playful tone. “Looks like someone really likes our Emerald Sentinel around here!”

    “Yeah, maybe we’ve just met our next Ike and Elincia!” Azura teased with a giggle.

    “Knock it off…” Bryan retorted as he gritted his teeth.

    “Hey, let’s go, guys!” Ranulf called from across the deck. “We don’t have all the time in the world, you know!”

    “Oh, right. We’re on our way!” Azura replied.

    “Say Bryan,” Marc spoke up, a chuckle in his words. “Or should I just call you lover boy?” Laughter from Azura and Skye, as well as a glare from Bryan, answered the question.

    “Seriously though,” Marc continued, wiping the grin off his face, “I just remembered—”

    “Marc has remembered something? The impossible has happened!” Leona called out tauntingly.

    “Very funny,” Marc retorted with a glare. “Anyway, those Melorans said they aborted a plan to attack a Cilaean port when they recognized us, right?”

    Bryan nodded and Marc continued.

    “I think they’re using the Cilaean ships to disguise themselves, sneak troops into ports, and seize them before the Cilaeans can react. Maybe that’s the real invasion and the attacks on the Cilaean border are just diversions.”

    “Sounds possible,” Bryan agreed. “I’m not sure what to do about it though. Cilae needs to be warned, but we’ll have our work cut out for us getting the medicine back to Ike in time. We could see if anyone is willing to stay in Cilae, deliver a warning to the nearest city and then meet the rest of us at Aracion but that would leave us a man short if Melora attacks us again.”

    “What about Faline?” Marc suggested. “She knows Cilae better than any of us and she could hook up with us again the fastest.”

    “Are you kidding?” Azura spoke up, half-teasing and half-serious. “She’d waterlog the boat with her tears at the idea of leaving Bryan so soon.”

    “We’ll have to see what things are like at the lab,” Bryan spoke up after throwing a glare at Azura. “Maybe they have a Pegasus courier or a raven messenger who could deliver the warning.”

    Everyone agreed with the idea and immediately disembarked the ship as quickly as their feet would allow them and finally set foot on Cilaean soil for the first time. As the group all gathered on the docks and left their ship behind, Azura immediately turned her attention to Kiel and Sara, whom were in wolf form looking for scents on the ground. She was about to inquire how they would find the laboratory they were looking for when they were approached by a beige-haired man wearing white and melon-colored robes. In his hand was a healing staff much like Raela’s, only its orb was a different color, indicating that it was a more potent Mend staff rather than a normal Heal staff. He instantly eyed Azura first.

    “Ah, hello there, or should that be ‘ahoy?” he greeted, a friendly chuckle parting his lips. “Lady Azura, I presume?”

    “Uh, yeah. Is my name really spreading so quickly?” Azura wondered.

    “Well, I can’t be entirely sure,” the man admitted. “But listen. I’m Norman, a priest who works for the medicinal laboratory not far from here by the swamp. King Rothgar sent a messenger here to inform us of your journey. My colleagues and I know of Sir Ike and your situation, so do not worry.”

    “Oh, he did? I’m so grateful,” Azura thanked. “Can you help us?”

    “I can indeed,” Norman replied. “They sent me to guide you to the lab, as we recently finished preparing the first samples of the Venoxic antidote.”

    “Oh! That’s such a relief!” Azura cried with excitement. “Thank you!”

    “The pleasure is mine,” Norman smiled. “Now we must hurry if you’re to return before Sir Ike’s time runs out. As King Rothgar probably told you, Venoxic is a poison that’s not to be taken lightly.”

    “Yes, he did,” Azura confirmed. “Let’s go!”

    The group made no hesitation to follow Norman as he led them through the small port town they had arrived in, little more than a few docks to receive supplies, and towards the border of a dank swamp. Many tall, moss-covered trees towered overhead and such swamp flora as milkweed, sedge, thistle, jewelweed and swamp lilies (naturally prompting some cajoling towards the group’s Lily) abounded throughout the fertile, slimy landscape. The sheer abundance and variety of plants, only a handful of which the group recognized, made it obvious as to why the lab would be built out there. Rothgar had been correct about all the possibilities that could turn up from experimenting with the many different kinds of plant life living there.

    “It’s wet, it’s slimy, it’s goopy and there’s sure to be bugs everywhere,” Ranulf griped. “Ike, next time you more-or-less eat yourself to death, you’re on your own.”

    “The swamp can be dangerous,” Norman warned. “So, stick close to me, stay on the path and, please, be careful where you walk. I’ve seen far too many incidents where someone accidentally trips on a root or something, falls flat on their face in muddy water, and ends up turning everyone standing near him into mud monsters.”

    Whatever laughter was to be had from that jibe was interrupted when yet another priest had come running towards the desperate warriors. The expression on his face was of nothing but terror.

    “Oh, Father Norman! Thank goodness you found the visitors!” he cried with relief. “We really need you now!”

    “Yes, yes, I know that,” Norman replied. “Now calm yourself and give me a hand with our supplies.”

    “Th-That’s not what I mean!” the priest protested. “It’s the lab! We’re under attack!”

    “What?!” Norman gasped. “No! I feared this would happen sooner or later with all the fighting going on! How bad is it?”

    “Oh, it’s awful! I was gathering ragwort when I heard frightened screams coming from the lab. I was able to get a good look at it from the flora observation post nearby and I couldn’t believe my eyes! I managed to escape unseen, but Meloran soldiers are everywhere!” the priest reported. “They’re surrounding the perimeter and have already made their way inside the main building!”

    “Curses…” Norman growled and turned to Azura. “How did they get this far behind our lines without anyone knowing about it?!”

    “Melora has been capturing Cilaean ships,” Bryan cut in. “We think they’re going to use them to seize Cilae’s ports as part of their invasion. We’d been hoping to send a warning to your capitol while we were here.”

    “I appreciate you looking out for our interests, but we have more immediate problems to deal with,” Norman pointed out. “I was really hoping to avoid this situation, but Lady Azura, do you think you and your friends could lend us a hand here? This swamp is hardly a strategic target, so those Meloran snobs must be trying to prevent you from saving Sir Ike.”

    “Oh, you can count on it!” Azura agreed, clenching a brave fist until her gloves squealed in protest. “We’d be honored if you could aid us with your staff as well.”

    “Yeah, with a group this size, Raela could use some help treating the wounded,” Bryan pointed out.

    “W-Well…alright,” Norman hesitantly agreed as the entire group increased their pace and raced to the scene of the battle. However, as everyone traveled even more quickly than before, Norman’s nervousness worsened until it seemed to verge on panic. Azura soon felt maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have him help the group after all, though it would greatly benefit her side if his healing abilities were employed. However, she quickly forgot her pondering when that thought reminded her of another question, which she brought up to Bryan seconds later.

    “By the way, Bryan,” Azura began. “Where’ve your soldiers been all this time? I haven’t seen them since Narcoss.”

    “Redeployed,” Bryan replied. “I was originally going to have them act as reinforcements during our journey through Eraghoa, but when Ike fell ill and I learned of Melora’s invasion of Cilae, I ordered my lieutenant to take command and move the platoon to Cilae to help our allies. After all, this country will need all the help it can get if it’s going to hold its own against a force like Melora. And besides that, a whole platoon wouldn’t have fit on that little ship anyway.”

    “Yeah, that’s for sure,” Azura agreed. “I’ve got the feeling we’ll be missing them soon, though.”

    “Indeed. I’m sorry I didn’t inform you earlier,” Bryan apologized. “It’s…a habit I used to have as a leader and it seems I still do it on occasion. Sometimes I’d forget to report to my superiors…”

    “It’s alright. I figured there was a logical explanation,” Azura smiled.

    Bryan merely returned the smile as the group finally approached the medicinal laboratory. As the priest had warned, enemy soldiers were indeed scattered about the area. Some mounted knights guarded the front door of the main building while a pair of heavy knights had placed themselves in front of the main gate of the complex. Norman’s facial expression paled with dread and he finally gave up on hiding his reaction to the entire situation.

    “Lady Azura…I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I haven’t been involved in a battle in who knows how long. I’m so nervous and scared…”

    “Hmm… I understand,” Azura replied with a smile. “But don’t worry! The rest of us are here to cover your back! Everything will be fine as long as we all work together, so you focus on keeping us in shape and we’ll focus on the enemy. I know you can do this, Father Norman! Just remain calm and brave!”

    “…Yeah, you’re right, Azura,” Norman agreed with a confident smile. “We can all do this! And please, you can just call me Norman.”

    “Oh, alright then, if you insist.”

    “Heh, you’re pretty good at encouraging others, aren’t you, Azura?” Skye stepped in. “First me, now him.”

    “Hehe, thanks,” Azura replied with a smile.

    On that note, they charged into battle. Bryan insisted that he take point due to his defenses probably being the best suited for the situation, as well as dealing with the heavy knights guarding the gate. Marc offered to back him up in the battling due to axes having a significantly better effect against the heavy knights than other weapons besides certain magic tomes. However, covering for the heavy knights were a few archers posted behind the fenced walls of the lab grounds, which meant they could fire arrows at the group from cover. Skye and Lily, anticipating this, shifted their focus on them and allowed the remainder of the group to charge forward through the gate uninterrupted. However, that turned out to be the least of their worries when the piercing cry of a wyvern echoed near the entrance of the main building. Sure enough, stationed there were several Dracoknights, all armed with axes and taking to the air.

    “Daaaah!” Kiel suddenly exclaimed in fear, frozen in his tracks while his comrades continued to move forward into combat. “W-Wyverns! WYVERNS!”

    “Oh great…” Sara groaned with embarrassment as she raised a hand to her face and Kiel transformed into a wolf, only to curl up on the ground and begin to whimper like a frightened puppy. His tail vibrated between his legs as his canine cries seemed to grow more frightened with each outcry.

    “What’s eating him?” Lily wondered, having just come in to rejoin her allies, followed by Skye.

    “He’s like this every time he hears or sees a wyvern or dragon laguz,” Sara explained. “Kiel! Knock it off! This is no time to be chicken!”

    “Sara, y-you don’t understand,” Kiel stammered. “I-I just can’t deal with this anymore! Keep me away from those things! K-Keep them away!”

    “Ugh! For Ashunera’s sake, get over this silly fear of yours!” Sara demanded. “You’re acting like a big baby!”

    “I c-can’t help it,” Kiel protested and continued to emit his canine cries.

    “Geez, talk about dragon phobia,” Morris commented, raising one eyebrow. “He’s worse than Azura when she sees a spider.”

    “Shut up,” Azura retorted, having overheard the conversation as she’d downed an axe knight. “But anyway, this is a problem… Ah, how about this idea? Kiel, you guard the gate so no reinforcements can reach us. We’ll handle the rest of this.”

    “Th-Thank you,” Kiel agreed. “I just hope none of them are riding you-know-whats…”

    “I’ll help him just in case,” Lily offered after taking out a weak wind mage with her fire magic, which gave her the advantage over wind. “I happen to have a thunder tome, and from what I’ve heard, thunder magic is good against wyverns.”

    “Yes, please do,” Sara insisted. “Otherwise, we’ll be risking the appearance of a bellowing red wolf all over the lab.”

    Azura and the others were tempted to laugh at this, but knew the enemy had to come first. After the agreement was settled and Lily departed to join Kiel, the battle wore on as Azura and company pushed closer to the main doors of the lab with Bryan still in the front as a defense. His lance continuously became dowsed in blood as he downed swordsman after swordsman, outsmarted other lancers, and even took out a few axe wielders as well. Eventually, once most of the enemy’s forces had been vanquished, Bryan wiped some sweat from his forehead and brought his hands to his hips after glancing at the results of his battling.

    “Gosh, how can these guys be such wimps?” he pondered aloud. “Sure, I’m probably the strongest soldier out of everyone here, but I seriously expected more of a challenge from these pathetic morons than the ones on those ships. I mean, this is Melora for crying out loud.”

    “Yeah, that is rather odd,” Azura agreed after the remainder of enemies had been defeated. “I also noticed that when they challenged the rest of us, they fought harder. And, I still want to know how they beat us here. Perhaps we’ll get some answers from this rabble’s commander. Let’s heal up and move on!”

    Bryan nodded in agreement even though he had taken very minor blows. The others besides Kiel and Lily had finally begun catching up with the pair while being healed by Raela and Norman’s staves along the way. Faline was the first to speak up as the group began to make their way through the ornate double doors which made up the lab’s main entrance.

    “Hey Azura, if you don’t mind me pointing out—”

    “Not so fast, red-headed mercenary!” a voice suddenly snarled in anger, cutting the Pegasus knight off. Before any of the group could enter the building, another heavy knight barged through. However, this one was much like the commander from the stolen Cilae ships. He was a promoted version of Morris’s class, only instead of a sword, he carried a steel axe.

    “Everyone, stay back! I’ve got this!” Bryan ordered, and charged forward with his Brave Lance once more. However, the knight simply retaliated by blocking the blow. Bryan, not willing to give up, pressed the attack.

    “Ah, what have we here? The olive-haired lancer I’ve heard so much about,” he observed with a snicker. “I’ve been told it would be foolish to fight you now, but I see no reason why I should pass up an opportunity to test your strength for myself!”

    With that, he shoved Bryan away as if he were a piece of furniture. Bryan, although he managed to keep his footing while sliding backwards, did not want to give in so easily.

    “You want to see how strong I am, you’ve got it!” Bryan proclaimed. “I may be at a disadvantage, but I’ve gotten out of tougher spots than this before!”

    With that, after a graceful twirl of his lance, Bryan drove the weapon through the knight’s lower left hip, causing him to drop to one knee with what should’ve been a crippling injury. However, he somehow managed to survive it.

    “Hehe… So what they say about you is true,” he analyzed. “You are indeed very strong. But I just took your best hit and came away standing. Are you really going to attempt to defeat me by yourself?”

    “I think not!” another, more familiar voice echoed from nearby after what sounded like a piercing cry of pain bellowed from behind. As if from nowhere, Skye leaped over the stairs which created the path leading to the building’s entrance in a graceful front flip and landed squarely on his feet in a kneeled position.

    “Ha! What can a mere archer do against a soldier like me?” the knight mocked.

    Skye simply bore a punchy smile.

    “Archer?” he questioned. With that, he stood up and allowed his body to glow in a fashion similar to that which Bryan’s armor exhibited on the Eraghoan shore. Upon witnessing this sight, the entire group easily foresaw what was coming, as did their now blanching foe. White shin guards appeared on Skye’s legs while a scarf matching his tunic enveloped his neck. His entire attire, including his single shoulder pad and bracers, changed to an even more professional look much like that of Marc and Leona’s paladin status. Skye’s smile remained on his face as his transformation was complete.

    “Say hello to Skye the Sniper, jackass!” he declared as he instantly twirled an arrow in his hand, brought it to his bow string, and launched it right through the knight’s head. The knight remained silent as he collapsed to the ground in his death.

    “Haha! Now that’s what I call a bullseye!” Bryan cheered, a proud grin on his face. “Wait to go, Skye! I’m glad to see we still make an awesome team!”

    “So am I, old friend!” Skye agreed with a smile and joined Bryan for a high-five gesture.

    “Yeah, I’ve gotta hand it to you, Skye. That was a pretty slick move,” Azura complimented. “Not to mention great timing. But we can’t celebrate just yet, you know. We still need to find the medicine and any survivors, so let’s get moving!”

    No one was hesitant to agree and followed Azura straight through the main doors for the second phase of their battle.

    The group had hoped to barricade themselves inside the lab to hold off the Melorans until they could find the medicine but the interior of the main building, however, wasn’t exactly favorable to Azura and company. With the impossibly broad corridors on either side of the large lobby, wide enough for many enemies to walk through shoulder-to-shoulder and lined with broken windows no less, several entrances and the multiple staircases to the upper level at the end of those passageways, the room was piteously indefensible. There was no way the small group could effectively defend all the entrances, especially since the Melorans could just climb through the empty window frames, and what furniture the invaders hadn’t hacked to pieces was too small, too light and too few to make effective barricades. And, to top it all off, the even greater population of Dracoknights hovering on the second floor could easily float down to the lobby and attack.

    “This place’s architect was an idiot!” Marc railed. “I’ve seen outhouses more defensible than this!”

    “This is a lab, remember?” Norman pointed out. “If we stay, we’ll be surrounded. What do we do?!”

    “The only thing we can do,” Azura replied, drawing her sword. “Is charge!”

    At the very back of the large chamber on the upper floor in front of another door sat a brown wyvern with a rider of a different appearance than the other red wyverns and their masters. Commander Lartz watched his foes charge in to attack as sweat trickled down the sides of his forehead and slightly dampened his hair.

    “Well, the olive-haired lancer survived Manford’s attack,” he murmured with relief, all too aware of how strong he’d need to be to defeat the heavy knight. “The question is, will anyone else?”

    As Lartz had spoken, however, Skye was bringing down the wyverns descending from the second floor with arrow after arrow piercing their hearts, bringing down riders and mounts alike. Morris guarded his back with the advantage his sword brought him while the remainder of the group charged up the stairs in the side corridors while Melorans swarmed through the broken windows just behind. The Melorans must’ve been searching for the medicine, for they’d been through this corridor with a vengeance. Test tubes, light microscopes, scientific texts, specimen containers and more than a few specimens littered the floor in varying states of ruin. Norman’s terrors seemed to lessen in favor of anger at the sight but he decided against running the risk of adding himself to the debris. Just as Morris delivered a severe stab through the gut of another wyvern and followed up with a similar strike to the rider, he twirled his sword in his hand and gestured towards Bryan.

    “Hey Captain! Over here!” he called in an excited tone. Once Bryan glanced at his subordinate, the very same glow that enveloped Skye had now surrounded Morris, causing his armor to grow in size and develop ridges in several places. His brown tunic had lengthened and the steel-framed wooden shield he always carried became metallic and angular.

    “Sword General Morris reporting for duty!” Morris saluted with a smile upon the completion of his own transformation.

    “Now that’s what I’m talking about, troops!” Bryan cheered once more. “It’s time to show these wimps what we’re made of!”

    “Daaugh!” Skye suddenly cried from behind Morris. A hand axe had cut into his left arm; but it’s bite blessedly shallow, and wouldn’t take him out of the fight. The Dracoknights had changed their tactic and attacked from above, making it much more difficult for even Skye’s arrows to land, much less Morris’s blade. Likewise, another hand axe targeted Morris’s leg right afterwards, leaving a bloody gash matted on it.

    “Oh, no you don’t!” Azura responded in anger. “This one’s for Ike!”

    With that, she vaulted into the air and came down, unleashing a powerful two-handed strike with Ettardios that decapitated two wyverns. In less than a heartbeat, Azura was airborne again and the bodies of the two riders collapsed alongside those of their mounts. Despite this victory, the group was in no position to celebrate for they’d taken wounds severe enough to slow them down and the Melorans pursuing them grew ever closer. As if a sign from providence, several priests emerged from doors lining the corridors and healed the group’s injuries via Physic staves, special healing staves that could be used from a distance. Azura confidently smiled as everyone’s energy returned and continued to massacre the remainder of the enemy soldiers until their pursuers were far behind and Lartz was close at hand.

    “Let me take the commander,” Bryan insisted. “He has an axe again, but I don’t care.”

    “N-No! Wait!” Lartz protested. However, he was moments too late. Bryan lunged at the wyvern’s chest. Fortunately for Lartz, he managed to swerve his wyvern to the right far enough avoid a fatal blow. This was little comfort, however, for Bryan swiftly brought his lance’s pommel to smash Lartz’s side as he banked away. The blow was so strong, both men could swear they heard ribs breaking under the impact.

    “Arrrggghhh…!” Lartz howled in agony, barely staying in his saddle. “Please…I surrender. You are very strong. Forgive me…”

    “What?” Bryan replied in confusion, raising an arched eyebrow. “What are you talking about? Did you really want to attack this place?”

    “No… I shall retreat for now, though I doubt I will live longer that way,” Lartz replied. “Although you were indeed strong enough to survive this, I cannot succeed here…”

    With that, he instantly urged his wyvern into flight and soared through the main doors, which had been barely high enough to even fit such a creature. Lartz was out of sight as quickly as he had flown, leaving the group completely silent and puzzled.

    “…Wait a minute,” Bryan spoke up seconds later. “I think I just figured out why these imbeciles let their guard down whenever I attacked. I don’t think they ever wanted to kill me at all.”

    “What? Really?” Azura blurted confusedly. “But you’re their enemy.”

    “Exactly. And avoiding me like that makes even less sense given that I’m stronger than anyone here. Now I’m really confused,” Bryan admitted. “Could this have something to do with what my father has been keeping from me?”

    “Somehow, I fear that’s true,” Azura remorsefully replied. “But we’ll have to solve this riddle later. It’s time to get the medicine and hit the sea again before we’re overrun.”

    “Ah yes, Azura,” Norman spoke up. “We’ve hidden it behind that door the commander was guarding. It’s in a secret compartment back there. Allow me to fetch it.”

    “Alright. Thank you so much, Norman,” Azura replied, her relief growing stronger now that she knew there was a chance Ike’s life would be saved. Within moments, Norman had entered the previously guarded chamber and re-emerged with a bottle of a similar size to the one that contained the Venoxic, this one filled with a red, crystalline liquid like a melted ruby. He immediately handed it over to Azura.

    “Now, if you don’t mind me asking, may I continue traveling with you back to Eraghoa?” Norman inquired. “As you probably know, the antidote has not been tested for obvious reasons and I’d like to see the results of this medicine for my colleagues, if any of them still live that is. It’d be very helpful to us, you know.”

    “That’s a good idea. You’re welcome to come,” Azura replied with a smile. “Now we’d better hurry, as we’ve got another month long journey to complete.”

    Upon her urging, the group instantly made for the main doors once more, hoping that the final voyage on the sea would not be interrupted the way the first had. Azura muttered to herself on the way through the gate.

    “Don’t worry, Ike! We’re on our way back!” she cried. “Just please hang in there…”

  4. #19
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Chapter 18! :D


    Chapter 18: Storm!


    Several more days had passed since the bloody battle at the Cilaean medicinal laboratory when another pair of Dracoknights approached the fort in which General Shigo awaited the results of the aforementioned bloodshed. Upon dismounting their bright red wyverns, the two quickly entered the building and discovered the curious general waiting for them in the conference room, his expression far from pleasant. Both Dracoknights felt sudden reluctance to even speak to him, as Shigo was known for being quite brash and unforgiving when he received negative news. Having no choice but to reveal their information, the first Dracoknight spoke up.

    “G-General Shigo, my comrade and I b-bring you news about the battle at the lab,” he stuttered with nervousness. “I’m afraid our troops were d-defeated. We fought our hardest to no avail, but managed to escape before that girl’s archer could strike us down. I beg your forgiveness…”

    “Bah, you’ve no need,” Shigo grunted, clearly not satisfied. “Normally I’d be most displeased to hear something like this, but this loss is of no consequence. I had a feeling Lartz would be too weak to handle such a task. That’s why I took the liberty of arranging a contingency plan.”

    “Th-Thank you, Sir,” the Dracoknight replied with relief. “H-However, Commander Lartz has disappeared. He fled the lab right after the olive-haired lancer struck him and there’s been no sign of him since. I ordered a squad to serve as a search party.”

    “Psh, your men are wasting their time and energy,” Shigo protested. “Lartz is merely afraid of the consequences he could receive for his actions. He’s too utterly weak and soft to face up to them like a real warrior and a soldier like that can stay gone for all I care.”

    “Um, o-okay, Sir,” the Dracoknight reluctantly agreed, discretely sighing with relief. “What’s our next move then?”

    “My contingency plan of course. In fact, I was going to put it into effect anyway regardless of that battle’s outcome,” Shigo snickered. “Now gather all the troops and follow me.”

    “U-Understood, Sir.”

    “Hehehe…” Shigo quietly snickered to himself outside of the fort as his troops loyally, or fearfully, followed. “They’ll soon learn. The hidden prince of Astryn is no myth!”

    ***


    Castle Eraghoa had grown busy during the absence of Azura and company. Ever since Ike deduced the severe likelihood of a Meloran invasion of their kingdom, the wolf laguz had furthered their training, gathered more supplies, and tightened the defenses along their borders. Rothgar had ordered preparations to be carried out as quickly as possible since they had few clues as to exactly when or where the invasion would be launched, or even how. Would it occur by sea or by land? Or would it even begin by air via Melora’s Dracoknights? Only time would tell and within a span of a few weeks, hundreds of wolf soldiers were patrolling the northern border and coastline and the defenders were provisioned to withstand a long siege. Even Elincia was making certain preparations of her own for exactly that reason. She needed to ensure that Ike would be protected within the castle’s stone walls and convinced Rothgar that the bedroom’s only window should be barricaded with something strong and sturdy in hopes that a wyvern wouldn’t be able to break through. Elincia also took the continuously glowing pendant and hid it beneath Ike’s shoulder guard so the glow would not be seen. The shoulder guard was then buried under the rest of Ike’s belongings.

    “Gah…” Ike choked in frustration. “If only…I wasn’t so sick…”

    “Ike, if you hadn’t gotten sick, we’d be in Aracion doing pretty much the same thing,” Elincia pointed out. “Now please, try to get some rest.”

    “I know, but…” Ike began, but his ongoing headaches and stomach aches were beginning to return. “If I were well…we’d all be able…to help…his majesty…”

    “Oh, you’re saying everyone could have stayed and aided him,” Elincia concluded.

    “Exactly.”

    “Well, maybe. I mean no one knows when Melora will invade except the Melorans themselves, so…”

    “Oh… right…”

    On that note, the couple fell silent. Elincia, despite her desperate attempts to fight off her grief, continued to secretly weep over her dying lover, whose breathing and pulse had weakened even further. While her treatments proved noticeably effective in slowing down the Venoxic poison’s effects, it was clear that Ike had little time left. In fact, according to Rothgar, it was a miracle that he even lived as long as he had. His high fever persisted, his vision had grown even worse, and he was virtually unable to move at all due to his still draining strength. The headaches came and went more frequently and were more painful than ever. Ike had even fallen unconscious a few times, causing an extremely frightened Elincia to constantly think his final moments had come. Even Rothgar was given a scare if he was present. Moments later, a knock at the door broke the silence and in came Rothgar himself to check on the pair.

    “Ah, I’m pleased to see you both are alright,” he commented. “I’ve decided that heavier security should be placed around this area due to Ike’s fainting spells.”

    “Oh, good idea,” Elincia agreed. “If he were to fall unconscious again during a battle, we’d have a real problem on our hands without protection.”

    “Precisely.” Despite Rothgar’s news, there was a hint of exhaustion in his voice, indicating that he had been quite busy. He continued to pant slightly.

    “Your majesty, you sound tired,” Elincia pointed out seconds later, taking note of Rothgar’s panting and the sag in his shoulders. “You really shouldn’t be in this shape when a Meloran invasion could happen at any time.”

    “Yeah, I know. Even preparing for battle can get fatiguing, it seems. I only hope that I won’t be too exhausted before I even enter the battlefield,” Rothgar replied. “…Actually, I suppose I can leave Derien in charge of things for awhile. That’d give me an opportunity to get some rest.”

    “My thoughts exactly. We’ll need your strength,” Elincia pointed out. “And General Derien has done a wonderful job already. I must say, he’s quite a dependable fellow.”

    “He is indeed,” Rothgar agreed. “You can see why he’s my most trusted retainer. I’ll have him check in with you frequently and let him know—”

    “Ike! Oh dear!” Elincia suddenly gasped, cutting the wolf king off. “No, not now!”

    “What? Is he out again?” Rothgar wondered, suddenly approaching the bed. Ike was now motionless in the bed with his eyes closed and his head tilted to the side.

    “Yeah! Ike, please wake up! IKE!” Elincia cried in fear while gently nudging the limp form of her lover as tears began to trail down her cheeks again. However, she received no response, even though bringing a finger to his neck revealed Ike still had a faint pulse.

    “Don’t worry, Derien’s been trained to handle emergencies as well. Be sure to get him if Ike doesn’t wake,” Rothgar insisted.

    “Of course,” Elincia replied, some relief returning. “Ike is still alive, thankfully, but who knows when and if he’ll be…gone for good.”

    “Indeed…” Rothgar replied remorsefully. On that note, he departed the room to seek out Derien. However, the concerned wolf king knew that Ike merely fainting again was the least of his worries. Melora’s invasion had the potential to be much more threatening than a sick beorc falling unconscious in one of the castle’s chambers. That is, if Ike’s next episode wasn’t his last. No matter what the fate of the deathly ill hero was, however, Rothgar worried about the lack of knowledge on Melora’s possible numbers and the types of troops the army could contain and most worrisome, their plan of attack. All he could figure out was that they would assuredly be employing mages due to the beast tribe’s natural weakness to fire. However, if the Talgrian troops were to somehow anticipate the invasion, they would likely whittle down the mage numbers enough to where the wolves would gain the upper hand when it was their turn to charge into battle. Rothgar’s thoughts were interrupted when he suddenly sensed a foreign odor in the corridor he was traveling through. Before he could act, however, something hard made contact with the back of his head, causing him to crumple to the floor and his world to turn black.

    ***


    Meanwhile, the ship carrying Azura and company was already nearly halfway through with their journey back to Eraghoa. They were able to travel faster thanks to some fairly heavy winds picking up from behind the ship, sending gusts into the sails and waves pushing the ship along the water. Lily furthered this with a wind tome, and the ship was very nearly flying through the sea. It also seemed to make several attempts to fly out of it, sometimes hitting small waves and break water so fast the whole vessel leapt briefly skyward. However, the lucky break eventually turned out to be not so lucky after all for some of the group. The winds also churned up the water around the vessel, making it lurch and pitch violently fore and aft, portside and starboard and everywhere in between nonstop. Morris and Raela were hunched over the railing on the deck within several hours of the ship’s speed reaching the maximum and all that escaped their mouths and puffy cheeks were moans of pain and the contents of their stomachs every now and again. Morris was the first to speak when he was finally given the chance.

    “Augggh… How much longer is this going on?” he groaned.

    “Yeah, can’t we slow this thing down for a little while?” Raela added just in time before her cheeks puffed up once more and what might’ve been an asparagus omelet erupted from her lips.

    “Yes, please! I can’t take much more of this!” Morris protested. “I knew I should’ve mentioned I get—urp—seasick…”

    “Sigh… Alright,” Azura agreed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of us ended up this way later on anyway.”

    With that, she headed off to give Lily the message. Skye had been standing nearby and simply watched as Morris kept a hand to his mouth. Not that it stayed there long, Morris soon leaned over the rail and puked his guts out again.

    “Neither of you had to come with us, you know,” he pointed out and then lowered his voice. “And that would’ve spared me a headache, Morris.”

    “Oh come on, you know that would have felt wrong,” Morris countered, his voice hoarse from vomiting. “I’d rather get seasick than ignore another ill person in far greater need.”

    “Same with me,” Raela seconded, discretely muttering something about never leaving dry land again. “I wouldn’t leave Lily alone either. Not that none of you are trustworthy, I just want to be near her after losing our parents.”

    “Yeah, I guess,” Skye agreed. “…Hm?”

    Before anyone else could get in another word, Skye turned his attention to a second conversation going on by the other side of the deck. Bryan and Faline were standing next to the ship’s prow, seemingly admiring the view ahead of them as the still fast vessel sent plumes of water flying in its wake. Skye, his interest in the scene peaking instantly, tip toed closer and remained hidden behind a mast. Well, well, what an interesting first date we have here, Bryan, the archer thought with a punchy smile. Don’t mess it up! That girl loves you! Skye watched and listened as Bryan and Faline were discussing their latest battles and what the Dracoknight commander who led the attack on the lab could have been talking about before fleeing. Almost bored out of his wits minutes later, Skye nearly jumped when the conversation topic dissolved into the beautiful, if chaotic, scenery lying before them. The sun had begun to set in the horizon and its light turned the sky bright orange, pink, and light blue colors, which bounced off the furious waves below, which sent the vessel jolting beneath them.

    “This is such a lovely evening, isn’t it, Bryan?” Faline inquired as she leaned her head towards Bryan’s chest. His cheeks flushed a deep pink on the instant. Bryan’s eyebrows then shot clear up into his hairline, though whether this was from Faline’s statement or her proximity, he could not say.

    “Well, I could do without the turbulence,” Faline admitted with a chuckle. “Still, it is a lovely sunset.”

    “Yeah, I definitely have to agree on that one,” Bryan replied, trying hard not to let Faline notice his slight nervousness. However, she turned to face him anyway and noticed his cheeks only grow redder.

    “Hee hee, you’re blushing,” she pointed out.

    Skye, meanwhile, had been eyeing them more closely than ever before as he noted the slowly vanishing distance between the pair’s faces. Oh come on! Kiss her, you blathering idiot! Skye demanded in his mind, almost slamming his fist against the mast, but managed to stop himself just in time to realize it could give away his position. However, instead of fulfilling Skye’s unspoken wish, Bryan decided he’d like to check on Kiel and bid Faline good night. Rather miffed, Skye folded his arms while leaning against the mast and shot Bryan a glare as the Sentinel passed by.

    “Wow, and I thought Marc and Leona were dense about their feelings,” he commented.

    “What?! You saw and heard everything?!” Bryan exclaimed in shock. “Skye, you skulking…!”

    “Hey, I’m not the one who needed to turn his life around!” Skye retorted, cutting Bryan off. “Faline loves you and you know it! Don’t you see this is a big chance for you?!”

    “What do you mean ‘turn my life around’?! It’s not my fault everyone hated me!” Bryan pointed out, his patience wearing thin.

    “It is that you’d never do a damn thing about it for so many years!”

    “Oh put a sock in it, both of you!” an angry female voice interrupted. Faline overheard the shouting while passing by as well. Bryan slapped his face in embarrassment while Skye sighed with guilt.

    “You two are completely ridiculous, you know that?” Faline continued. “The last time you both argued about something happening in Bryan’s past was a complete headache. Please don’t repeat that incident.”

    “Yeah, you’re right,” Bryan agreed. “I’m very sorry, Faline. Honest.”

    “Good. Now come on, you wanted to check on Kiel, right? He’s still pretty shaky from the battle at the lab, huh?” Faline recalled.

    “Yeah, Sara’s been trying to calm him, but he keeps refusing to talk much at all,” Skye replied. “Azura wants to knock some sense into him as well.”

    “Indeed. I suggest you all stay up here, though. I think too big of a crowd would just make things worse,” Bryan advised. Skye and Faline didn’t hesitate to agree and let Bryan follow Azura. He spotted her heading below decks just as he anticipated and easily convinced her to allow him to help. Having three trustworthy friends with one being his own sister, Kiel would no doubt open himself up much easier than before. Once they joined Sara and the still paranoid Kiel down below decks, they noticed Ranulf there as well, probably keeping the siblings company. Kiel was sitting on the floor with his hands over his face and sweat tricking down the sides of his forehead. He was almost trembling, as if a dragon was looming over him that very second.

    “Oh, Ranulf,” Azura greeted. “You’ve been down here all this time?”

    “Yeah, Sara figured a fellow beast laguz besides herself might help,” Ranulf explained. “Although I’m a cat instead of a wolf. Still, the puppy down here won’t budge.”

    “Will you stop that?!” Sara protested. “It’s no wonder he’s not talking!”

    “No…no…” Kiel disagreed behind his hands. “He’s right. I have been acting like a puppy lately. In fact, I wish Mom could be here right now…”

    “Sigh…” Sara responded, her embarrassment at her brother peaking. “I swear, we’d be the laughing stock of the wolf tribe if they were to see you now. Please, Kiel, can’t you tell us what’s wrong?”

    “Yeah, Kiel. We would never laugh at you, no matter what you say,” Azura seconded.

    “And Ike would want you to be brave and face your fears,” Bryan added. “No matter how ill he is, I bet he’d tell you that he’d do the same for you and any of us.”

    “I know, but…” Kiel protested once more. “It’s not just about my fears. It’s about what caused this. And I feel bad for not finding the heart to speak the truth until now. I feel bad for…for practically lying to my own sister about how our parents died!”

    On that note, shocked gasps escaped everyone’s mouths but Kiel’s.

    “What?!” Sara gasped. “Kiel! You’re not joking, are you? You mean that story about them falling over a cliff wasn’t true?”

    “Sort of. They didn’t just fall over the cliff by accident,” Kiel explained, fighting back tears. “…A wyvern sent them over it.”

    “Are you… Are you serious?”

    “Very. I watched the whole scene. Mom and Dad were both chasing some wild boars to bring back home,” Kiel began. He continued by saying he had joined his parents for a hunting trip while Sara remained behind to prepare what they already had for storage. Kiel was with their parents for most of the hunt. However, the instant they ran into some wild boars, they advised Kiel to stay back and learn how to deal with such a situation when the time came, as he was still in training. And then, the battle between the two wolves and the pair of boars began when the prey was cornered at a cliff. It seemed like Kiel’s parents would come out on top just fine. Suddenly, the sound of heavy wings flapping above echoed throughout the area and the wyvern appeared. It roared in anger, showing its sharp teeth, dripping with saliva. It had no rider, or saddle or reins, which meant it was wild, perhaps trying to escape from being caught by Daein or Begnion to be used for war.

    “I ran into the undergrowth and hid out of fright when I saw the thing attacking all four of them, or so it appeared,” Kiel went on. “However, the ground apparently wasn’t very stable there, and the wyvern’s weight caused the rock to give away, sending all of them down below. I shouted at Mom and Dad, but they didn’t respond.”

    Kiel finished by saying he made his way to the bottom to investigate and found a river flowing there. However, near the bank were two motionless figures, their bloody bodies staining the water a dirty red. Kiel bolted over out of great nervousness and concern, fearing they were who he thought they were.

    “Mom and Dad’s bodies were there at the water,” he confirmed. “Slash wounds all over their flesh and neither the boars nor the wyvern was in sight. Our parents had been ruthlessly attacked and murdered! It wasn’t the fall off the cliff, it was the wyvern! Ever since, I’ve been afraid of them as well as the dragon laguz because they bring back those haunting memories! I’m so sorry, Sara…honest…”

    “Kiel, I…” Sara began, shocked to her foundation. “I don’t believe this…”

    With that, she couldn’t hold back her own tears. Although they were also very shocked, Bryan, Ranulf, and Azura decided it was best to leave the siblings alone for the evening and returned above decks.

    ***

    For the next few hours, Bryan found himself reminded of the incidents that had occurred during their journey after hearing Kiel’s story. He thought of his own father in the process, who could very well have been caught up in the chaos as well. Still, he simply could not figure out what everything meant. The enemy commander’s remark about Bryan’s appearance on the stolen ships, and that Dracoknight responsible for the assault on the lab were both clouding his mind. However, before he could attempt to find any possible solutions, his thoughts were interrupted.
    “Bryan, are you still moping around out here?” a voice suddenly inquired from behind, breaking Bryan out of his trance.

    “Huh? Oh, hey Faline,” Bryan greeted after turning around to see the voice’s owner. “And I guess you could say that. I mean I have a lot to be concerned about, you know.”

    “I understand, but all this worrying isn’t good for you,” Faline pointed out.

    “Yeah, but...I can’t help it,” Bryan protested. “I was worried enough when that Meloran soldier from the three Cilaean flotilla we ran into claimed I looked familiar. Then the soldiers who attacked the laboratory were apparently ordered not to kill me? It still makes no sense, but I’ve begun to think that their superiors may have other plans for me, perhaps even worse than just being killed on the battlefield. And what if those plans also involve my father? I still have no idea what’s happened to him. The last thing I want is for him or anyone I care about to be put in danger because of me.”

    “You do make some good points,” Faline admitted. “But Bryan... Please, quit worrying so much. Because when you do, you...you worry me.”

    “I do?” Bryan wondered. “Uh, I mean...I don’t mean to, I...”

    “I know, I know,” Faline cut him off. “Usually I’m as optimistic and cheerful as ever, even in tough times, so naturally it should be quite hard to get me worried or nervous. But when it comes to you, Bryan, it’s...different.”

    “Oh, i-it’s not that, it’s just...” Bryan replied, looking for words. “I don’t want you to worry about me. I don’t want you to put yourself danger because of all this either. You’re one of the few people who have liked me from the beginning. In fact, you’re the only female friend I’ve ever really had. Faline, losing you would be like...it would be like losing Skye!”

    “Likewise, losing you would be as bad for me as Ike’s death would be for Elincia,” Faline compared, having been told of her situation earlier. “That’s why I’m willing to fight for you. The kiss I gave you before we disembarked at the Cilaean port should have told you that.”

    “...Yeah, about that,” Bryan began, but found it difficult to finish. “Uh…” Almost without realizing, he allowed his cheeks to flush a deep red once again.

    “Yes?”

    “Er, nothing,” Bryan quickly replied, snapping himself out of yet another trance.

    “Hee hee. By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Bryan, would you...teach me more about using lances? I do practice with mine, but I want to learn from a master.”

    “Ehhh, master might be stretching it a little, but teach you? I’d be more than happy to,” Bryan agreed with a warm smile.

    “Oh, Bryan... Thank you!”

    For several seconds, the two remained silent. Faline was unable to take her eyes off of Bryan as she remained in a gaze. Hee hee! Bryan always was such a kind, brave, and handsome man, she thought. If I didn’t know he was a soldier in the Talgrian army, I’d have guessed he was a prince, just like in fairytales.

    “So, when would you like to begin?” Bryan inquired, breaking the silence mere seconds later.

    “Oh, um... To be honest, I’m not—”

    Before Faline could finish her sentence, the ship suddenly pitched sharply in Bryan’s direction.

    “Whoa!” Bryan exclaimed in shock, barely managing to keep his footing. “What the—?!”

    However, Faline, unlike Bryan, lost her balance and began to stumble forward. Bryan caught her just in time as he backed himself up against the railing behind him to keep his own footing.

    “Faline, are you alright?” he inquired to be sure. “That was pretty unexpected.”

    “Yeah, I’m fine. But what was that?” Faline wondered as the pair stood up again.

    “I don’t know. Maybe a strong wave crashed into the ship or something,”

    “Hey! Is everything alright over there?” another female voice cried. Azura was racing towards the pair followed by Skye and Ranulf. Her concerned frown quickly turned into a grin when she noticed how close Bryan and Faline were standing to one another. Skye followed the example seconds later.

    “Well now, would you look at that? Quite the romantic setting, isn’t it?” Azura asked, partially teasing.

    “Yep, I’ll say!” Skye agreed with a chuckle.

    “Indeed. You know, Bryan, I once said that exact same thing to Ike and Elincia,” Ranulf recalled with a smile.

    “Oh joy,” Bryan retorted with sarcasm in his tone, shooting a glare at Ranulf. “Now if you guys don’t mind—”

    “Bryan and I are busy,” Faline finished for him.

    “Huh? Busy with what?” Bryan wondered. “Dyaa—!”

    Instead of giving him a straight answer, Faline simply sighed with her hands on her hips and in the next split second, yanked Bryan towards her by his scarf and met his lips with her own. Bryan’s first reaction was complete shock as his eyes burst wide open. However, within the next few moments, his eyes closed and he had navigated his hands around Faline’s slender waist, returning her gesture and pulling her close. Faline instantly curled her arms around his neck in a fairly tight grip while Bryan’s tongue lanced past her lips to probe the inside of her mouth. It had only been mere seconds when the wind had picked up again and began tossing the partial pink curls of Faline’s long ponytail beside her, as well as Bryan’s short olive green locks. Finally, Skye thought, that rare smile forming on his face.

    “As I’d said before, our next Ike and Elincia,” Azura commented with a slight giggle.

    “Yeah. Though I have to admit, while I never for a second had doubts that Bryan would ever fall in love, I didn’t expect the girl to love him first,” Skye added. “Should be a very valuable experience for him.”

    “Why’s that?” Ranulf wondered.

    “It’s complicated,” Skye assured, his tone carrying an undercurrent of ‘shut up.’

    “Yeah, best not to talk about it now anyway,” Azura added. “In fact, we ought to leave our second pair of lovebirds alone for right now. Bryan probably needs it.”

    Both Ranulf and Skye agreed and the trio departed the scene. Bryan and Faline remained in their embrace for the next few seconds before pulling back to gaze upon one another. Left with a big smile on his face, Bryan was nearly lost in the aforementioned gaze at his new love as the pair remained in each other’s arms.

    “You did that to keep me from potentially embarrassing myself, didn’t you?” he guessed.

    “Partially, yes,” Faline replied, stroking Bryan’s hair. “Probably made it worse though. Maybe I love you, too.”

    “Yeah, I heard from Skye,” Bryan chuckled playfully. Before either of them could get in another word, however, the wind picked up once more and smashed more waves into the ship, rocking it fore and aft far more violently than before. This time, both Bryan and Faline were unable to keep their footing and fell to the deck. Bryan managed to catch Faline on top of him and soon spotted Ranulf hanging from the rope ladder leading to the crow’s nest, struggling to keep his grip as the wind sought to dash him into the deck.

    “Blast! We’re in trouble!” Ranulf cried and shakily pointed in the wind’s direction. Not far off in the horizon, dark clouds billowed in the sky ahead and the faint sounds of thunder echoed throughout the area. Bolts of lightning flashed through the clouds at blinding speed every few minutes or so. It wasn’t long before the wind blew even harder and drops of rain began to fall. The sails of the ship were tossed and turned like salad in a bowl as the group struggled to keep it on course. Azura had experienced this once before the first time she went to Tellius and knew it wasn’t pleasant. What’s more, the ship she was using this time was far less sturdy than the one from the landing in Crimea.

    “Great, now we’re caught in a storm,” Skye grumbled, clinging to the mast he was leaning on before.

    “I think we know that, stupid!” Morris retorted, holding onto the bottom of a railing while bunched up on the floor of the deck.

    “Not just any storm, you guys!” Azura blurted loudly in fear before a glaring Skye could get in another word. “This is a tropical storm!”

    “Ah!” Lily cried, her voice sounding even more frightened. “Raela, what are we going to do? We’ve never experienced anything like this before!”

    “We’ll think of something, Lily,” Raela ensured, holding onto her sister. “Don’t worry, I promise we’ll all be fine.”

    Another bolt of lightning flashed in the sky before the extremely worried mage could respond. Suddenly, the wind blew yet another large wave into the portside of the ship, sending it rocking to the starboard once more. Bryan and Faline were desperately holding onto one another while Ranulf still flew about hanging from the ladder. Azura found herself plunging to the deck floor, unable to prevent the bottle of medicine from falling out of her satchel. She gasped in terror and reached for it, but the ship rocked once more in the churning waves, sending it rolling in Ranulf’s direction. Thankfully, he took note of it, but was reluctant to let go.

    “Grahh…” he grunted in anger and fear. “No, I’ve gotta do this! Ike is my buddy and he’ll die if he doesn’t get that medicine!”

    With that, he let go of the ladder and forced himself to fall straight towards the medicine. He managed to snatch it for Azura just in time before the wind pushed him into the mast right above Skye’s head. Skye quickly ducked out of the way while Marc, who clung to the other side of the mast, grimaced, sensing the blow had to have hurt intensely.

    “AUGH!” Ranulf cried as the side of his body made contact with the hard wooden mast.

    “Ranulf!” Azura gasped, scrambling to her feet as quickly as possible. “Are you alright?!”

    “Yeah, but we’ve got to protect the medicine!” he ushered, rising to his feet after hitting the floor while holding his side and the bottle at the same time. “Errrg…”

    Ranulf staggered to one side as he attempted to return the bottle.

    “Ranulf, you’re in no condition to be trying anything funny,” Azura protested. “You give that to me and go to Raela or Norman right now.”

    “Then I’ll take over for Ranulf and try to spot land,” Marc offered. “The best thing we need to do is find the shore as soon as possible! We should also reef the sails and reinforce the masts with planks and nails so the wind doesn’t tear them off.”

    “And speaking of Norman, I think I saw him and Leona go below decks,” Skye informed. “Probably to protect the horses and Faline’s Pegasus.”

    “Ah! I forgot about—AAAH!” Azura exclaimed when the sound of a large crash echoed throughout the area. A gust of wind was shot in Skye and Azura’s direction as well, causing the hair tie holding Skye’s ponytail to be ripped free. While his shoulder-length blue hair now flew about in the wind, what sounded like a horse’s neigh followed and before anyone could speak, the ship had collided with the biggest wave yet, causing it to rock towards Bryan and Faline. Marc, who had begun climbing the ladder, was suddenly blown off and sent flying straight into their path. Bryan’s eyes widened in horror upon hearing Marc’s bellow.

    “FALINE, GET AWAY!” he shouted and pushed Faline to the side. The act ultimately caused Marc to collide with the Sentinel back first, sending them both crashing through the railing behind them and into the raging sea below. Their screams were loud enough to reach the ears of nearly everyone on the ship.

    “BRYAN!” Faline screamed, tears instantly building up in her eyes. Azura gasped in fright and began to make her way over to the scene, but before she could get in a word, Leona stopped her.

    “Azura! The ramp below decks got busted open and Marc’s horse fell into the water!” she reported fearfully. “Norman and the others are—NO! MARC!” After hearing the faint screaming of her partner, Leona joined Faline at the deck, who practically screamed the whole story to her.

    “F-Faline!” Bryan called, fighting the waves alongside Marc. “Listen! Don’t worry…about me! Just get to safety…with the others! Please! You’ve made me realize—gaah!—that I love you!”

    Faline couldn’t help but stare in fear.

    “Oh, Bryan…” she sniffled. “I love you too…”

    “Marc…” Leona added, frozen where she now stood.

    “Leona!” Marc cried. “I—”

    However, before either Marc or Bryan could speak anymore, they were dragged away by the relentless waves. Both Leona and Faline gasped once more in fear as the violent sea carried both men out of sight.

    “Bryan... No... NO! This can’t be happening! It can’t!” she shouted, the tears flowing down her cheeks. “How can he be taken away from me again after we’ve been apart for so long?! I won’t accept this!”

    With that, she ran off towards the stairs leading below decks.

    “Faline!” Leona called, but the frightened Pegasus knight ignored her. Azura fortunately managed to grab her attention instead.

    “Faline, wait! It’s too dangerous!” she protested.

    “But we have to rescue them!” she cried. “Let me fly out there!”

    “No! You’ll never survive in those winds!” Azura insisted. “We’ll find a way to get Bryan and Marc back. I promise!”

    Faline decided she had no choice but to listen. Bryan and Marc, meanwhile, were still battling for their own survival amidts the roaring waves.

    “Blast!” Marc exclaimed in anger. “…Huh? Bryan, quick! Grab onto my horse!”

    Bryan, though he was curious as to how Marc’s horse fell overboard as well, made no hesitation to listen. Both men were grasped onto the horse’s back as it swam, able to brave the waves better than either of its passengers. However, the waves had proved to be too much for them, and in no time at all, their world had gone completely dark.

    Back on the ship, the others began securing the sails to prevent them from being torn to shreds by the violent winds and then began hammering planks into the masts to hold them in place against the gusts. The work was fast and frantic, and the fear for Bryan and Marc hadn’t helped much either. But, all knew that if the storm destroyed the sails and stranded them, then Ike, and probably Bryan and Marc as well, were as good as dead. And, stranded at sea, their own deaths would follow in short order.

    ***


    Day had broken out by the time the tropical storm at sea had subsided, probably traveling towards the mainland. Washed along the shoreline of a sandy beach lay the unconscious forms of Bryan and Marc, both sprawled out on the horse, which was also out cold. Their clothes were still wet while their armor, caked with sand and seaweed, had already dried from the sun’s heat. The horse was the first to stir and allowed its eyes to flutter open. It nudged Marc with its nose until finally the knight slowly awoke and took note of his surroundings when his vision became clear. The horse slowly stood up along with its master, the still unconscious Bryan plopping back into the sand.

    “Bryan?!” Marc called. “Damn it, this is all my fault! Faline and Azura are going to kill me if he doesn’t wake up!”

    With that, he sat Bryan up and began driving the palm of his hand into his back, thinking perhaps there was some water lodged in his throat. Within the next few seconds, Bryan let out a few coughs and gags while spitting out water, finally regaining consciousness.

    “…Thanks a lot,” he responded and then looked around rather nervously. “…My lance! Oh, thank the goddess it didn’t fall off my back! Father would be so cross with me if I lost it!” Bryan then unsheathed his Brave Lance and hugged it tightly.

    “Oh give me a break,” Marc retorted, rolling his eyes.

    “Hey! You know how valuable this weapon is to me!” Bryan reminded him. “Anyway, where are we?”

    “Not sure, but I think we might have washed up on one of the Perais islands,” Marc guessed. “I’m more worried about the others than us, though. I sure hope they were as fortunate.”

    “Blast! If they were, Faline is probably going nuts right now!” Bryan anticipated, knowing her reaction upon seeing her lover thrown overboard the ship.

    “Yeah, Leona too,” Marc added. “And yes, I still think she likes me. But that’s not important right now.”

    “Agreed. If this is one of the Perais islands, though, where are the raven laguz?” Bryan wondered. Before Marc could reply, however, the sound of flapping wings echoed in the trees nearby and out jumped a man with dark blue hair and blue-violet feathered wings protruding from his back.

    “Hey, you! Trespassers! What are you doing here?!” he demanded.

    “Does that answer your question?” Marc commented, eyeing Bryan and folding his arms.

    “Pretty much,” Bryan confirmed and turned his attention to the raven. “Listen, we were on a ship and—”

    “Aha! You were at sea! And you’re armed too!” the raven interrupted. “You must be from those rogue ships who’ve been taking our brethren captive! All men, attack!”

    “No wait, we’re not—!”

    With that, the raven transformed into his bird form and at least a dozen more transformed ravens surrounded the two men from in the trees. Marc quickly hopped upon his horse and readied his hand axe. Laguz had no ranged attacks, so it would give him the upper hand. Unless, of course, the ravens swarmed him from all sides.

    “Great going, Bryan,” he fumed with a glare.

    “Hey, don’t blame me!” Bryan retorted. “They’re the ones who won’t listen. Now come on, if we have to fight, then let’s fight. No use letting them peck us to death.”

    On that note, the ravens instantly charged forth and collided with Marc and Bryan’s weapons. Bryan’s lance gave him a bit of an edge due to the range it had in direct combat, but that didn’t stop other birds from attempting to strike him from behind. Marc attempted to prevent this by tossing his hand axe into any ravens trying to overwhelm the Sentinel, but more birds began showing up in the places of their fallen comrades. With Bryan and Marc by themselves, they would soon be vastly outnumbered, and possibly even defeated.

    “You fool! Why won’t you believe us when we tell you we’re not your enemy?!” Marc protested after launching his hand axe into two more ravens, essentially killing two birds with one stone.

    “Your lies won’t trick me!” the raven commander retorted in anger and charged in Bryan’s direction. “Make peace with your goddess for I shall deliver you to her...in pieces.”

    “Bryan! Heads up!” Marc warned.

    “Gaah!” Bryan gasped as the blue-violet bird collided with him and sent him sprawling to the sand. Bryan struggled to fight back and ended up piercing the raven’s thigh with his lance’s blade.

    “Aarrgh!” the raven bellowed in pain and then glowered at his prey. “You’ll pay for that!” On that note, he raised his talons and beak in an attempt to deliver a mortal blow. However, another raven’s screech interrupted him.

    “Captain Janz! Stand down at once!” an older woman’s voice ordered from above. Out of the trees came a dark blue raven who transformed into a woman garbed in a long skirt with a long snip in the side, and a sleeveless purple top. Her hair bore a dark violet color. Accompanying her was another raven girl, clearly younger, with short dark brown hair and similarly colored wings. Brown shorts, gladiator-like sandals, and a red sleeveless top were her garb. The blue-violet raven instantly returned to human form and halted his attack in shock.

    “Y-Your majesty! Lauren!” he gasped. “W-What are you doing here?!”

    “Janz! Don’t be a moron!” Lauren protested. “You know we heard the commotion you’ve caused and look what it cost you!”

    “Alright you two, that’s enough,” the raven queen interrupted and landed herself next to Janz and Bryan. “What happened here? Were you accusing these two men of being enemies?”

    “Y-Yes, but they said they came from a ship and the people who took our messengers captive did as well,” Janz admitted.

    “That doesn’t mean they’re responsible or even in league with whomever did it,” the raven queen lectured. “I know you want to protect our people, but you’ve gone too far this time.”

    “I…I apologize, your majesty,” Janz relented, embarrassed. “I should have let them explain further…”

    “Yes, you should have,” Lauren agreed, her tone harsh. “And you need to stop being so cavalier with your duties!”

    “Never mind that,” the raven queen replied and turned to Marc and Bryan. “Now, I am Lilah, Queen of Perais. Tell me, how did you two end up here?”

    The two men made no hesitation to begin their tale and explain the events that led to their sea bound journey as well as the ones that occurred during the severe storm. They finished with how they had been tossed overboard by accident and awoke on the island.

    “We never meant to harm anyone!” Bryan pleaded. “Honest!”

    “Yeah, if anything, we’re on your side,” Marc added.

    “I see. We did have some pretty rough weather ourselves recently, so I’m inclined to believe you,” Lilah decided. “As such, I shall aid you in returning to your companions on the mainland. The ravens here often obtain jobs as messengers for the nearby nations, so it shouldn’t be hard.”

    “Wow, thanks,” Bryan replied with relief. “We need to get back as quickly as possible though. We don’t know the fate of any of our friends right now, or if the ship is still serviceable after the storm and we’re extremely worried.”

    “Yes, I understand,” Lilah assured with a smile. “Follow me.”

    Before departing, Janz passed close to Bryan. His eyes had narrowed into daggers and his expression was one of unambiguous hatred. Apparently, despite Lilah’s orders, Janz had neither forgotten nor forgiven his humiliation. Janz softly intoned ‘Don’t think I’ll forget this’ and then stalked off. Well, that’s just great, Bryan mused, sensing Janz’s anger might complicate matters again.

  5. #20
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Okay, chapter 19 is a two-parter, so I'm going to post the first part now and the second part later today. :]


    Chapter 19: A Second Plot

    Part 1


    “General Leyon! Sir!” a masculine voice called to the exhausted Leyon from outside a large tent. The Talgrian Royal Knights had pitched camp instead of returning to the town they had previously been guarding after an exhausting battle near the Melora-Cilae border the day before. It had been one thing after another since Leyon and his knights had arrived in Cilae. An Allied Command had been very hastily cobbled together at Jerusa, the capital of Cilae, to coordinate the mutual defense of Cilae and Talgria. Strategists, logistics clerks, and spy masters were working to keep the front line defense coordinated, supplied, and informed via falconer scouts sent to spy behind enemy lines and relay their findings via messenger falcons. Since Melora would doubtless be watching for Raven Laguz, they might pay less attention to normal birds. Leyon had been offered a seat at Allied Command because of his peerless leadership, but he'd made it quite clear that he wasn't running the war from a desk.

    Louise had volunteered in his place; last Leyon heard, she and the Cileans were trying to convince Wencelis to bring Astryn and the laguz nations into the Alliance but Wencelis insisted that Talgria and Cilae's armies would be enough and involving the laguz nations would be unnecessary. As for Astryn helping out, well, Leyon wasn't holding his breath on that prospect.

    Leyon wearily rose from his sleeping bag, donned only in his brown undershirt, sepia tunic, and tan pants. Before he could even come near the opened flaps, however, a masculine shriek echoed outside and the whole pavilion suddenly came crashing over Leyon, causing the young general to be shoved back into the dirt, promptly buried when the table of maps and documents spilled on top of him and nearly lost a few teeth when the table crashed a little too close to his face. The poles that supported the tent itself plunged down on top of Leyon as his expression scrunched in open rage.

    “Uh oh…” the same voice from before slowly replied.

    “ELIOT!!” Leyon exploded, struggling to disentangle himself from the mess. “You clumsy fool!”

    “G-G-General, I apologize!” Eliot pleaded. “I was running to get you when I accidentally stepped in a hole in the ground and tripped. I crashed into the tent by mistake!”

    “Eliot, I swear, if we weren’t in the middle of a war and you weren’t so good with lances, you’d be stripped of your knighthood by now!” Leyon retorted as the two men stood up and brushed themselves off. “Get your act together before you end up costing us an entire battle!”

    “I-I will! I d-d-d-don’t want to hold us back at all!” Eliot assured, raising his hands. “N-Now Deputy Commander Natalie ordered me to find you. A Cilaean messenger has come with orders from Allied Command. We’re to take back a Cilaean fort that the Melorans captured.”

    “Fine. Let me speak with them,” Leyon replied.

    Eliot made no hesitation to lead his commander to the edge of the camp where Natalie awaited them. Strangely enough, the messenger she was speaking with wasn’t one of the raven laguz, who normally worked as messengers for both Cilae and nearby Eraghoa. Instead, it was one of the Cilaean soldiers and judging by the light armor, helmet, and iron lance, it was a basic foot lancer, the first form of Bryan’s class line. This had been troubling since, with all the falconer scouts in the field, the ravens' absence meant communication could very well break down. Given the ever-enterprising ravens' pride on their punctuality, Leyon was wondering if something was wrong in Perais. Whatever the case, he knew now was not the time to ponder about it. He cleared his throat as he approached Natalie and the Cilaean soldier.

    “Ah, General Leyon! It’s so good to see Cilae’s strongest ally again,” the soldier greeted with a smile. “Believe me, we could use the help.”

    “The help is freely given. And actually, I may not be the strongest anymore,” Leyon corrected. “If Sir Ike survives his poisoning and returns to his full strength, he’ll send the enemy running home screaming.”

    “Really? We heard about what happened at the medicinal lab and Eraghoa, but I refused to believe anyone could outdo you!” the soldier admitted, his eyes widening slightly.

    “Yup. Now on to business. One of my men says you’ve brought orders for us to take back a fort that was captured by Melora?” Leyon inquired.

    “Ah, yes, I do. Straight from Allied Command,” the soldier confirmed. “It’s Fort Tehya located near the mountains that separate us from Astryn. You see, if Melora controls that fort long enough, they’re likely to eventually go to Astryn, which is a much easier route to your capital than going through Eraghoa, then the Forest of Hope, and after that, the Talgrian mountain range. Not to mention it’d likely draw those crazy Astrynians into this war as well and we don’t want them involved, especially since they’re on the verge of losing their royal bloodline.”

    “Ah, indeed. It’d be bad news for Astryn if they were to join the chaos, even though I really don’t give a rat’s rear end about those snobs,” Leyon quipped. “We were lucky enough to get as many soldiers as we did through there to reach you without them objecting. Heck, they threatened to attack us if we got too far off the agreed route. They’d only cause more trouble for us if they stuck their noses in, so you can count on my knights.”

    “Oh, thank you so much, General!” the soldier replied. “We’d try to take back the fort ourselves, but as you probably know, we not only need to protect our own capital, but a lot of men were sent to secure our ports on the east coast. We discovered Melorans were sneaking around and stealing our ships.”

    “What?!” Leyon gasped, nearly dropping Olegxing.

    “Yeah, that’s how they reached the lab so quickly. By taking our technologically advanced ships from up north, they launched surprise attacks on the ports in the east, probably to circumvent the border to conquer Cilae more quickly and make an invasion of Talgria and perhaps Eraghoa by land and sea a lot easier.”

    Leyon could not prevent himself from clenching a fist before responding.

    “…Curses! All we can do is hope his majesty and the soldiers remaining in Talgria anticipate that and I doubt that’s going to happen!” he exclaimed with a grimace. “We also need to find a way to warn Allied Command; they set shop in Jerusa and Lady Louise is there. If Melora finds out about that, they'll attack Jersua, take Cilae, decapitate the Allied Leadership, capture Lady Louise, and leave us cut off and surrounded here all in one stroke. Damn it! Where the hell are those ravens?! We have to warn them!”

    “N-Now hold on, there’s good news too,” the soldier interjected. “We did find a few of our ships abandoned at sea and full of dead Meloran soldiers. The men we sent there think it was work of that girl and her companions we’ve heard about.”

    “Azura! So Melora was either already attempting to invade or they were after Azura and her companions themselves,” Leyon deduced. “And knowing the mission her group was embarking on, I fear it was the latter. They must've found out Ike took the poison instead of Azura and are trying to make good on that opportunity.”

    “Oh… Well, Allied Command’s orders stand; you must take back our fort as soon as possible!” the soldier warned. “Or else we’ll be risking even more trouble!”

    “We’ll have it back by the end of the day then,” Leyon promised and turned his attention to the camp. “Royal Knights! Suit up and regroup on the road! I’ll have further orders for you then. Natalie and Eliot, you two make sure no one’s left behind.”

    “Understood, Sir,” Natalie saluted.

    “I’m on it!” Eliot added.

    The Talgrian Royal Knights wasted no time preparing for their new mission. Within the next several minutes, well over a few dozen knights were grouped on the road out of the camp, all girded for battle. Leona had been correct when saying Leyon had a shortage of axe knights, as their numbers were noticeably smaller than that of the lance, sword, and bow knights and paladins, though there were still a lot of them. While strapping his armor on, Leyon sighed as his gaze lingered at his faithful axe, Olegxing. Although the young paladin had long come to terms with the death of his older brother, until Wencelis had mistakenly reminded him of it back in Aracion, the valuable axe had come straight from Russell himself a few years before and not long before his accidental death. It had been a birthday gift and the last birthday Russell celebrated before departing to the afterlife. Once he buckled on his last piece of armor, Leyon picked Olegxing up from where it had been lying, and shed a tear after examining its myriad shades of blue and silver colors, as well as the pale yellow jewel situated between the two blades.

    “Oh, Russell…” he muttered and then bravely gripped the axe. “I may have lost you forever, big brother, but I will never stop fighting in your honor. I’ll always be the general you wanted me to be…”

    With that, Leyon passed through the open flaps of his pavilion, which had been re-pitched, and mounted his horse. Upon rejoining his men, Leyon spotted Natalie and Eliot trotting their horses to the front of the large group of knights. He approached them immediately.

    “Natalie, is everyone accounted for?”

    “Yes, Sir. Eliot and I just finished getting the last few men out here,” Natalie confirmed with a nod.

    “I even double-checked the entire camp to be sure,” Eliot added.

    “Excellent. We don’t know exactly what we’re up against, so I want as many of us on this mission as possible,” Leyon replied. “Let’s move out!”

    No one hesitated to follow Leyon down the road towards their new destination. The sounds of many galloping hooves echoed throughout the area as the army of knights directed their horses. It wasn’t long before it occurred to Leyon that he wasn’t sure exactly which way Fort Tehya was from his location. However, he did know that it wasn’t very far. All he and his men could do now was head south and hope they spotted the fort in the distance somewhere. Ugh, how could I have been stupid enough to not ask the guy for damn directions?! Leyon fumed at himself. Then again, perhaps he could have thought to inquire whether or not I needed any. Oh well, at least I’ve been to this place once before. I’ll probably recognize it when I see it.

    Only two hours had passed since the knights had departed their camp when Leyon finally spotted what seemed to be a large building in the distance. It was difficult to tell from far away, but it appeared to be built of both stone and wood. Four high towers rose from different parts of the building while a wall surrounded the perimeter. A somewhat higher and larger tower rose from the center. Leyon smiled as he motioned his men to follow him in the direction of the building. As they drew closer and closer, everyone could make out a few smaller buildings situated within the perimeter walls. Dozens of Meloran soldiers were spotted patrolling every side of the fort, the majority being at the front. Leyon slowed his horse to a trot before breaking the long silence.

    “Here it is. I’m sure of it. I remember Tehya’s towers all too well from my first visit.”

    “Oh dear… I certainly hope we won’t have to go in any of them,” Natalie replied with a slight shudder.

    “Ah right. I forgot you’re not very fond of heights, Natalie,” Leyon recalled. “Don’t worry. If we do have to climb any of the towers, Eliot and I will be right there with you alongside some of the other knights. I know you can get through this. It may even help you to overcome your fear.”

    “Yes, perhaps,” Natalie said with a smile. “Looks we're in luck though, the Melorans haven't had time to rebuild the gates. We can just charge on in and run them to the ground.”

    “Good idea. Now, we’ll divide into four groups. Each will cover one side of the fort so we have it surrounded,” Leyon began. “Two groups will enter from the back gate while the other two will go through the front. CHARGE!”

    On that note, the knights galloped away once more and were soon divided into two large groups charging through both gates. The sounds of blades clashing and arrows flinging instantly echoed throughout the entire area. Leyon and Natalie had stayed with the group that charged through the front gate while Eliot went around the back and to the east side. It wasn’t long, however, before Leyon noticed that his enemy had the advantage of ballistae and ledges. Ledges offered more accuracy, which meant more injuries if the would-be targets down below weren’t careful. Ballistae were huge, powerful bows with a wide range. One was located on each side of the fort and all were manned, which meant trouble if the archers using them weren’t eliminated quickly.

    Even with them, however, Leyon found his opponents to be no challenge. After twirling Olegxing in his hand several times and tossing it left and right into enemies, Leyon found himself with the urge to halt his horse. That familiar glow had now enveloped him, changing his armor to more majestic shapes and adding a cape to his back. The horse’s body was now completely covered with plate armor barding of leather and steel along with a richly decorated blanket while a helmet with a spiked nose horn was added to its head. Leyon smiled and then shouted with joy as his newfound strength enabled him to wipe out his opponents even faster than before. He was just about to rush up the main ramp to the walls when he spotted a small group of soldiers appear at the front gate out of the corner of his eye. The one who appeared to be leading them was a heavily armored lancer in red armor and dusty brown hair. Following was a lightly armored swordsman, a female basic foot-lancer, and an axe fighter. Whether these were enemies or allies, Leyon could not tell, but eyed them suspiciously until they decided to make it clear where they stood. The heavy lancer was the first to speak.

    “Finally! Let’s hope we’re not too late to turn the tides of this battle if General Leyon’s men are struggling.”

    “Commander Kevin, fear not. I can see him right up there. It looks like his men are doing well,” the swordsman replied.

    “Ah, yes. You’re quite right, Zane. However, we mustn’t judge so easily. We don’t know what awaits us inside the fort’s keep,” Kevin pointed out and then turned his attention to Leyon. “Hey there! General Leyon!”

    “Huh? Who might you be?” Leyon inquired after turning around at the top of the stairs.

    “We’re a small group of mercenaries hired by Cilae to bolster their strength,” Kevin explained. “I’m their leader, Kevin. We were ordered to aid you.”

    Kevin then introduced Zane, as well as the other lancer as Magali and the axe figher Jett.

    “I see. Do as you please then,” Leyon decided. “We’ll talk more once this battle is finished.”

    “Very well.”

    On that note, the battle commenced once more. By this time, the soldiers on both sides had mostly gathered around the main and back entrances of the keep, the main building of the fort. Thanks to their new allies, the Royal Knights now had the clear advantage. The archers on the ballistae had successfully been wiped out while the ledges could now be easily occupied by a Royal Knight. However, just as Leyon was about to seize the front door, reinforcements barged through. Several more appeared on either side of the main ramp, boxing Leyon and Natalie in along with a few more knights. Eliot was just now making his way there. Luckily, a familiar dark brown wolf followed by several gray wolves came running down the eastern edge of the fort and pushed their way through.

    “General Leyon?” the dark brown wolf blurted confusedly as he reverted to his human form. “What are you doing here?”

    He was now a black-haired shirtless man with dark brown wolf ears and a bushy tail of the same color. His pants were a lighter brown while black sandals covered his feet. Across his chest was a sort of thin, gray strap. Several strange markings lined his arms.

    “General Derien! What do you mean ‘what am I doing here?’ What are you doing here?” Leyon inquired, a bit confused, yet relieved.

    “I received a message from you requesting help over here not too long ago,” Derien explained. “Looks like I’m a bit late to the party, though. But, the message said you were at Allied Command. It never mentioned you'd be here.”

    “Huh? I never sent you any message,” Leyon protested, raising one eyebrow. “And, I'm not the sort to run a war effort from a desk. You know that. I’ve no clue what you’re talking about.”

    “…You’re joking, right?” Derien hoped, his eyes widening.

    “Afraid not, my friend.”

    “Crap!” Derien slapped his face upon speaking. “I’ve been messed with! His majesty’s going to have my fangs for this!”

    “Well never mind that for now. Just help us finish up. We'll need to let Allied Command know we need more secure communications, and to get those ravens over here so we actually have communications, but that'll have to wait. We’re kind of in a tight spot anyway.”

    Derien wasn’t hesitant to agree.

    Thanks to Derien’s help as well as that of the Cilaean mercenaries, the enemy’s numbers dwindled faster than ever before. However, just as the battle approached its end, a massive army led by an imperious-looking knight on horseback appeared near the area and came to a halt. The knight, whose garb and horse bore a fair resemblance to Leyon’s, eyed the battle for a few seconds before the sniper guarding the main entrance called out to him.

    “General Shigo! Thank goodness! These Talgrian knights showed up out of nowhere and tore us apart!”

    Shigo merely snickered.

    “Bah! If it’s the fort that they want, then let them have it,” he sneered dismissively. “We’ve no further use for this place. All troops fall back and follow me!”

    The sniper was surprised for a minute, but obeyed his superior’s orders anyhow. Leyon simply sat there on his horse, his mouth halfway open and his eyes slightly widened as the remaining enemy troops fled the scene and joined Shigo.

    “Now why would they…?” he wondered. “Oh no.”

    “What? What’s wrong?” Natalie inquired desperately.

    “I bet anything that army is headed straight for Astryn,” Leyon replied. “And there’s nothing we can do about it! DAMN!”

    “Oh dear…”

    “We have a lot to tell Allied Command when we’re done here. We’ll return to Aracion after we scout the fort and report this, and everything else to his majesty. He’ll decide our next course of action.”

    Natalie nervously nodded as the group huddled inside the building.

    For awhile, the place appeared to be empty. Not another soul was seen or heard. Eliot had finally caught up with his comrades, relieved that for once he was doing well the throughout the entire battle. However, as he began scanning his surroundings, he soon spotted a faint silhouette situated at the top of a nearby staircase readying an arrow on a bowstring. The figure aimed right for Leyon. Eliot gasped and galloped his horse towards his superior’s and placed himself directly into the arrow’s path.

    “AUGGGH!” Eliot bellowed as he allowed the arrow to sink into the flesh of his side. He was knocked out of the saddle of his horse instantly.

    “Eliot!” Natalie cried and rushed to his side.

    “What the—?!” Leyon exclaimed, finally spotting the shadowy figure bolting from sight. “Damn it!”

    “Eliot, are you alright?!” Natalie wondered desperately as she began digging through her belongings for a vulnerary.

    “I don’t know… I’m sorry…” Eliot stammered, clutching his side. Blood poured onto the stone floor within the next several seconds. At least now I should be back on the General’s good side, Eliot thought to himself.

    “Are you kidding me, Eliot? You just saved my life!” Leyon denied, kneeling to his injured comrade’s level. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”

    “Ugh, it’s going to take a lot of vulnerary to heal this,” Natalie analyzed.

    “Do everything you can,” Leyon replied, giving Eliot's shoulder a comradely squeeze that brought a pained smile to the latter's face. “Get him inside the keep, he should be safe in there. And, send one of the knights over here on your way over.”

    Much though Leyon wanted to find that sniper and tear him to pieces with his bare hands, he knew he had bigger problems to worry about now that the battle was over. While he waited though, his mind began to wander. Now he was beginning to regret all of the bad things he ever said about Eliot, either behind his back or right to his face. He was known to be reckless and short-tempered, but clearly he had improved upon that while battling on the fort grounds. Why Leyon had not noticed, he wasn’t sure, but he could almost swear he was about to shed a tear as he fumed at the entire situation, which edged closer and closer to disaster.

    “Sir!” a knight called out as he rode toward Leyon and saluted.

    “Take this down,” Leyon instructed, removing a sheet of parchment and a charcoal pen from his saddle bag and shoving it into the Knight's face. “Melora is capturing Cileaen ships to launch sneak attacks against and capture Cilae's ports. They may be trying to outflank and surround us or circumvent the border to attack Talgria and Eraghoa. Tell Allied Command that they must order all Cileaen ships to return to port within the week and any that fail to do so should be presumed hostile and sunk on sight. Advise Allied Command that since the Melorans may be ashore already, that staying in Jerusa is too dangerous and they should relocate to Aracion. I also have reason to believe Melora is sending fake messages to misdirect our forces; tell the spy masters at Allied Command that we need to start encrypting our messages. Tell them we need ciphers to encode our messages, so Melora can't read them and we can tell the real messages apart from the fake ones, and that we need cipher keys to decode the messages too. Any message written in plain tongue is to be presumed fake and disregarded. And find out why those blasted ravens aren't here yet!”

    The knight scribbled down everything as quickly as he could keep up with his commander’s words. Before he started off however, Leyon interrupted him.

    “One more thing. Recommend that the knight Eliot be awarded the Legion of Service medal.”

    ***


    While Leyon’s efforts at the front had gone from frustrating to confusing to utterly perilous, it had been going from bad to worse to downright terrible elsewhere. Elincia had been working tirelessly to keep Ike alive while Derien and many of his troops had been summoned to battle by the newly formed Allied Command. Then, mere hours later, Elincia heard shouts about some sort of attack and the Red Claw had burst into her room and carted the two lovers off in chains.

    The pair now languished on a filthy cot deep inside a prison cell. Elincia had Ike’s head rested in her lap as she tried vainly to comfort the suffering, dying hero. The Red Claw, having lost so many of its members to Ike’s blade, was not content to simply let Ike die in slow agony from the poison. They had brutalized him.

    Several times, Ike had been dragged from his cell and the Red Claw bandits had mercilessly beaten him about the fingers, hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, chest, stomach, hips, legs, knees, neck, face and anywhere else they fancied with clubs, hammers and all other manner of blunt weapons. Elincia could see Ike had many broken bones, some of which were actually piercing his skin and jutting out a centimeter or two while blood trickled from the slits.

    The Red Claw mentioned that the next time they faced the Talgrians and Cilaeans, Melora intended to throw Ike’s broken body, emphasis on the word ‘broken,’ in front of the Allied troops and let the sight crush their spirits.

    A cackling Red Claw member laughed at their misfortune, no doubt hoping he’d get a turn to inflict further agony on Ike, as tears raced down Elincia’s cheeks. The man’s clothes were tattered while his axe was hoisted over his shoulder. He laughed once more before continuing to speak.

    “Hahaha! Look at everybody’s favorite hero now!” he bullied. “Sick, dyin’, busted up, an’ captured! An’ all ‘cause he ate a few poisoned ribs!”

    Ike shot a faint angry grimace in response.

    “Mark my words, you’ll regret this!” Elincia exclaimed angrily, yet unable to hold back her tears. “We’ll get out of here somehow! And Ike will live! Once he recovers, he’ll have your heads off your shoulders!”

    “Sorry, lassie, but once someone takes a dose of Venoxic, they’re as good as dead,” the Red Claw member replied. “And that lil P.S ya gave fer yer friends, ‘tell his mother he loves her,’ priceless! Whoda guessed Ike was a mama’s boy? Hahahahaha!”

    That ‘P.S’ had been a desperate slight-of-hand on Elincia’s part when she'd been forced to write a false message for Azura and the others saying that Ike was already dead; Ike's mother had been dead for over a decade, but Melora seemed unaware of that. If her message reached someone who already knew that Ike's mother was dead, like Ranulf, they might realize what was really happening and try to save them. But, that was a very big ‘if.’ And, if it didn't happen, they were as good as dead.

    Unable to control her anger any longer, Elincia slipped out from under Ike and ran to the bars. Before the bandit could react, one of her hands shot out between the bars and she had gouged four red lines into the bandit’s face with her nails. Before she could do anything else, the bandit grabbed her forearm and yanked her hard, smashing her forehead into the bars. He leaned in to glare at her with open malevolence.

    “Ya just made a big mistake lassie,” he hissed. “I was gonna go easy on ya, but who dies quick ’n painless in this day ’n age?”

    “You perhaps?” a new, masculine voice inquired somewhere behind the bandit.

    Before the bandit, or Elincia, could react, whoever had spoken had clapped one hand over the bandit's mouth. Elincia heard a sickening crack as the bandit's head suddenly twisted violently and he fell to the ground, dead. Elincia’s benefactor, whoever he was, wore a hooded cloak that concealed his features. He riffled through the bandit's pockets, snatched up a key and opened the cell door.

    “Is Sir Ike still alive?” he inquired.

    “Y-Yes,” Elincia blurted, startled. “But, he’s been badly hurt. I’m not sure we can move him.”

    “That cot should be fairly light,” the stranger continued. “Help me set Ike down, then we can tilt the cot on its side to get it out of the cell and use it to carry him.”

    “Alright, but who are you and what do you want with us?” Elincia wondered, her eyes wide with shock. The man removed his hood before answering, revealing dark blue hair and brown eyes.

    “Why, to rescue you, of course. Let’s get this man upstairs where he can rest comfortably. This is an abandoned Cilaean fort that the Red Claw took over, so we must be cautious,” the man explained. “And my name is Lartz.”

  6. #21
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Alrighty, I think I'll get the second part up now before I forget. xP


    Chapter 19: A Second Plot

    Part 2


    Completely unaware of the events in Cilae, Azura and company had finally made their way back to Castle Eraghoa after only barely managing to make it to shore on a rickety, storm-beaten ship. Faline, Skye and Leona had been furious when Azura decided they couldn’t afford the time to search for the still missing Bryan and Marc; not if they were going to save Ike. A few tense moments and more than a few unpleasant words later, Faline, Skye and Leona had conceded the point. And, though nobody wanted to admit it, they doubted their missing friends were still alive. The group knew that the ship would soon have nothing left to give and since the storm, its hull was creaking ominously as if it would soon shatter, which it did. Not long after the group reached Eraghoa’s coast, they were forced to abandon the ship as the vessel literally fell to pieces. When they reached the castle, however, they found it eerily quiet and Rothgar was nowhere to be found. They had even split up into groups to cover more ground, but the wolf king still made no appearance. Azura and Ranulf were about to give up and seek out their companions when a man with black wings protruding from his back approached them. He was no doubt a raven messenger.

    “Lady Azura, correct?” he inquired, his tone rushed and nervous.

    “Yes?” Azura replied.

    “I-I’m afraid I have bad news. I was sent here from Talgria and found that Sir Ike has died,” the raven reported. “I am very sorry.”

    “W-What?!” Azura protested. “No! NO! That cannot be!”

    “He passed away yesterday afternoon,” the raven went on, his jaw twitching and his quiet breathing going short and hard. “Lady Elincia has agreed to send the body back to Tellius for a proper burial, and she said she’s going to return to Tellius to rebuild the Greil Mercenaries.”

    A shocked silence hovered over the group; Ranulf, who’d known Ike longer than the others, was especially struck that his friend was dead when such a happy future lay so close within reach. Some more words were exchanged but Ranulf, holding back tears, didn’t hear them.

    “Again, I am sorry.” The raven then bolted off.

    Azura simply dropped to her knees, tears dropping to the floor, a very upset grimace on her face.

    “No… How could we have failed?” she sobbed. “How could everything we did to save him be for nothing?!”

    No one answered, no one could answer. Ike was dead and, with him, their best hope of victory with Melora was lost. Unable to hold back any longer, Ranulf buried his face in his hands and began to sob. Idle chatter drifted to his ears about the group proceeding to Talgria for further orders but then he heard something strange that silenced his crying and shook him back to attention.

    “I should be the one to break the news to Ike’s mother,” Azura spoke up. “I was leading the mission, so it’s my fault we failed.”

    “Wait, what?” Ranulf blurted confusedly.

    “Before the raven left, he said Elincia wanted us to find Ike’s mother in the Merchant District of Melior in Crimea to...to tell her that her son loves her,” Azura explained, her tone heavy with sorrow.

    “What?! Ike’s mother doesn’t live in Melior!” Ranulf spoke up. “She died when Ike was a kid!”

    “Does Elincia know that?”

    “Yeah, Ike told her back during the Mad King’s War,” Ranulf answered. “Elincia wouldn’t make a mistake like that; and that means—”

    “Ike isn’t dead, but he is in trouble,” Azura interrupted. “She must’ve added in that part so we’d realize something was up! Come on, we’ve got to find King Rothgar!”

    “Azura, Ranulf! Thank goodness!” a voice interrupted seconds later. It was Raela, followed by Lily. Fearful, yet desperate expressions were strewn upon their faces.

    “Did you find him?” Azura quickly inquired.

    “We sure did!” Lily replied. “King Rothgar somehow got locked up in one of his own castle dungeon cells!”

    “Are you serious?!” Azura exclaimed.

    “It’s true. We have to get him out,” Raela insisted. “He doesn’t look well at all. There’s a noticeable lump on his head and a bloody gash on his side.”

    “Maybe he knows what happened here,” Ranulf decided. “Let’s go!”

    It took little time for the group to rush down a stone staircase and reach Rothgar’s prison cell in the castle’s basement where the dungeon was located. The wolf king appeared exactly as Raela described him. He was slumped on the floor against the wall in chains while blood poured onto the stone floor from his gash. Rothgar slowly sat up, relief washing over his face once his eyes spotted Azura and company.

    “Oh! You’ve returned! I’m so sorry all of you had to see this!” he pleaded. “I have blundered terribly and proven myself unfit to rule…”

    “No you haven’t, your majesty,” Azura protested. “We’re going to get you out of here and find some help.”

    “Yes, I have…” Rothgar insisted. “I haven’t been king for very long, you see, and I’m still not used to my duties. Already I’ve made several horrible mistakes. A laguz king shouldn’t be so easy to defeat!”

    “Maybe so, but everyone makes mistakes,” Azura pointed out as she sliced the lock off of the dungeon cell’s door. “Over time, you’ll improve and see what a great ruler you really are.”

    “Th-Thank you, Azura.”

    Rothgar then explained what had happened to him. All he could recall was being hit in the head from behind and then waking up inside one of his own dungeon cells, shackled to the wall and with a severe headache. Ranulf added the encounter with the strange raven messenger upstairs. Rothgar fully agreed that Ike still had to be alive and Elincia’s message was a call for help as he hoisted himself up and endured the pain of his injury as he did so. Before anyone could begin brainstorming for solutions, however, Kiel and Sara appeared racing down the corridor, looking just as worried as Raela and Lily had been.

    “Oh, you found him! Your majesty, I’m so relieved you’re alright!” Sara cried with a smile. “…Ah! You’re hurt badly!”

    “Indeed. But there’s no time to explain,” Rothgar replied. “We have to get upstairs. …Kiel, what’s that in your hand?”

    “I was just about to bring that up. You won’t believe what we discovered in Ike’s room,” Kiel said and held up a parchment letter that appeared to have been written by Elincia. It told much the same story that the raven did, including that request to find Ike’s mother that gave away the message’s true meaning.

    “Ike and Elincia’s belongings are gone and the room has been tossed,” Kiel went on. “There’s no sign of either of them in the castle.”

    “It seems your surmise was correct,” Rothgar declared. “They were probably abducted and their possessions removed to make the message seem true.”

    “Ugh! I bet you anything the Red Claw is behind this one!” Azura decided. “It’s just like them to pull such a terrible stunt!”

    “But where did they take Ike and Elincia?” Ranulf inquired. “And how are we supposed to find them?”

    “Hmm… They haven’t been gone very long so, unless they’re still on the move, they must’ve stopped somewhere close by. My best guess is Fort Hector, which isn’t far across the Cilaen border north of the castle,” Rothgar replied. “It’s old, run-down, and hasn’t been used in years. I’d say it’s the perfect place for the enemy to keep prisoners.”

    “Then that’s where we’ll go!” Azura decided. “Come on, let’s find the others and get out of here!”

    “Much though I’d like to slice the Red Claw to ribbons, I’d only slow you down in this condition. I hope you find our friends soon,” Rothgar added. “And speaking of friends, I wonder what Derien’s been doing all this time. I’ll have to look into this as well. Good luck!”

    Azura nodded and led her companions back to the first floor. Ranulf offered to seek out the rest of their companions and meet the others outside later. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the entire group had begun the journey to Fort Hector. Everyone had been filled in on the details they’d missed along the way with gasps and grunts escaping many mouths in reaction. Leona, Faline, and Skye in particular were upset, as this further delayed searching for the still missing Marc and Bryan. That is, if the two had even survived. Still, even if they had, who knows how long it would take them to find their companions now. No one was sure what to be more concerned about.

    A mere few hours had passed when the group crossed the border again and spotted a building in the distance not long after. It wasn’t very large, but closer inspection revealed it was built mostly of stone, although a few areas seemed to bear wood as well. As Rothgar had described, it did indeed look old and decrepit, as a lot of the stone was chipped, or even crumpling from long neglect, while many weeds surrounded the perimeter and climbed vines embracing the walls. Before anyone could begin exploring it, however, a fairly large group of Red Claw bandits approached the fort from the west and soon took note of Azura’s group snooping around the fort grounds. Several of them carried axes as usual, but lancers, cavalry, and a few mages and archers were among them as well. The Red Claw was still growing ever stronger, more intelligent, and deadly.

    “Blarg! How did they discover we were here?!” one of the axe wielders exclaimed.

    “Who cares?! Just attack them before they mess things up!” another replied. With that, the bandits spread out in front of the fort to block their opponent’s path.

    “Oh wow, we even get a welcoming committee! How nice of you all to drop by!” Ranulf joked with a smile.

    “Shut your trap!” the first Red Claw member shot back and turned to Azura. “You’ve been a thorn in our sides long enough, girl! This ends here!”

    “Ha, you wish,” Azura commented with a glare and gripped Ettardios once more. On that note, the battle commenced. By now, Azura had fully gotten the hang of swinging a sword as heavy as Ettardios with both hands. She was glad of it, as it was the perfect way to teach the Red Claw a lesson on Ike’s behalf, whether he died or not. While Azura, Morris, and Leona confronted their enemies head on, Skye and Lily rushed for the ledges near the main entrance of the fort to bombard their foes with spells and arrows. Kiel, Sara, and Ranulf carefully avoided the mages and let the others face them while they leapt at the cavalry, spooking the horses and sending their riders out of the saddles, and right into their waiting claws. Faline swooped around to the rear of the enemy and ran them through before they even saw her coming. Enemy reinforcements arrived twice during the battle, but due to the strength Skye, Morris, and Leona had gathered after promotion, the enemy’s numbers dwindled quickly.

    Azura, followed by Skye and Ranulf, had approached the main entrance by the time the enemy appeared to be nearly wiped out. Kiel had downed the final enemy minutes later with the remainder of the group rushing up the stairs immediately after. However, just as Raela and Norman had begun tending to injuries, a pair of hidden foes suddenly came bolting from the eastern end of the building, right into Faline and Leona’s paths. Before anyone could make a move, however, a hand axe suddenly soared into the nearest bandit’s neck. Leona and Faline worked together to quickly down the second.

    “Need a hand?” a familiar voice spoke up just after the attack. Standing at the bottom of the stairs was Bryan, leaning against the wall with his feet crossed and arms folded. Marc was next to him and caught the hand axe as it returned to him. Faline gasped instantly.

    “Bryan! Oh, Bryan!” she cried, tears trailing from her eyes as she dismounted, raced towards the man she loved, and threw herself into him, her arms gripped around his neck. “You’re alive!”

    “Marc!” Leona gasped and raced towards Marc. “You both survived!”

    “Yep, and we’re all in one piece,” Bryan added, returning Faline’s hug tightly.

    “I-I thought I’d lost you forever...” Faline sobbed, burying her face in front of Bryan’s chest.

    “I thought both of you were goners,” Leona admitted, throwing her arms around Marc’s neck, tears trailing down her face as well.

    “Leona, I’m sorry,” Marc replied, shakily returning Leona’s hug. “I know we had everyone really worried, but we were more worried about all of you. I was worried about you most of all. Like I said, I’m sorry!”

    “Sorry for what? Marc, if this is about our relationship, I think we’ve been teased quite enough, thanks,” Leona retorted, letting Marc go.

    “No, it has nothing to do with that,” Marc denied. “Well, maybe it does in a way. I’m sorry for a lot of things. Sorry for what happened on the ship, sorry for messing things up in the past during our missions, and sorry for having such a bad memory that I can’t even remember my own parents!”

    “What? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Leona protested, bringing her hands to her hips. “But look, we’ll discuss this later. I’m just glad you and Bryan are alright.”

    “Yeah, how did you two make it back?” Azura wondered, just as surprised as she was glad to see both men safe and sound. “The ship managed to get us to shore right before it collapsed.”

    “It’s a long story,” Bryan explained. “You see, we were—wait, the ship is history now?”

    “Unfortunately,” Azura confirmed. “But go ahead with your story.”

    “Oh, right. We were miraculously washed up on one of the Perais islands,” Bryan began. Then both he and Marc explained every detail of what had happened on the island and their return to their companions. Queen Lilah had sent one of her messengers to Cilae in hopes they would send a ship to rescue Bryan and Marc. Since Talgria and Cilae were allies, Cilae was glad to be of assistance and transported them back to the mainland. After they reached Castle Eraghoa once more, they found Rothgar bedridden and badly wounded.

    “He looked awful,” Marc described. “Still, he managed to give us the story about Ike and Elincia being kidnapped and General Derien mysteriously disappearing.”

    “Yeah. And then he said although he didn’t know for sure where they’d been taken, he could tell us where you went. Did you find any of our missing allies?”

    “Not yet. King Rothgar said this place was his best guess, though,” Azura replied. “I just hope he was correct or else we might lose more than just Ike’s life!”

    “Then there’s no time to waste,” Bryan added. “Come on!” The group instantly continued scouting the old fort for any signs of their missing allies once they were inside the building. Bryan had suggested they split up in order to cover the whole fort faster and save time. However, before anyone could go any further, another familiar voice interrupted them.

    “Hey, are you the lady Azura?” the masculine voice inquired. Standing at the base of a staircase was the same Dracoknight Bryan had attacked at the Cilaean laboratory. Azura was surprised, but answered the man’s question anyway.

    “I am, but—”

    “YOU!” Bryan exploded, rushing towards the man and grabbing him by the shoulders. Azura thought she heard something heavy thumb to the floor behind him followed by a gasp, but was so struck by Bryan’s actions that she could not be certain.

    “Augh!” the man bellowed as he was slammed against the wall next to him.

    “What do you think you’re doing here?!” Bryan demanded. “And after what you tried to do at the lab?!”

    “Uggh… Listen to me! I mean no harm!” the man pleaded.

    “Do you expect us to believe that, you heartless dirtbag?!” Bryan roared, drawing back one fist and ramming it into Lartz’s side. Lartz let out a scream of agony that turned into a choking gargle as his ribs, damaged in the battle at the lab, re-broke and blood began to froth at his mouth.

    “Yeah, what do you want with us?!” Azura added.

    Choking on his own blood, Lartz could only gargle and point. Bryan followed his captive’s finger to see Ike sprawled on the floor with Elincia frantically compressing his chest to keep his heart beating.

    “Oh my Goddess...” Bryan blurted, horrified. “Raela! Norman! OVER HERE!”

    The two healers raced up a moment later, Raela tending to Lartz while Norman used his Mend Staff to stabilize Ike. Bryan, still stunned about what had happened, and what would’ve happened had Ike been a little closer to the stairway, stood in shocked silence.

    “What happened?” he asked no one in particular.

    “Lartz rescued us!” Elincia cried out, the glare she fixed on Bryan verging on homicidal. It was easy to tell she had been crying. Her face was red, her hair was slightly unruly, and she sniffled practically every ten seconds. Tears were still forming in her eyes as well. Her once queenly armor and surcoat had also become rather dented, tattered, and dirty, most likely from her capture. Elincia’s breathing had become a bit heavy as she regarded Bryan with brooding anger.

    “He’s one of the enemy! Why would he help you?!” Bryan shot back, his own expression darkening as well.

    “I don’t know, but he did,” Elincia retorted. “Red Claw members suddenly barged in on us at the castle in Eraghoa and attacked. Poor Ike was completely unconscious at the time and I was forced to write a fake letter claiming that Ike was dead and that I’d gone back to Tellius.”

    Elincia went on to say that during the attack, neither Rothgar nor Derien were anywhere to be found and the other wolf laguz had been distracted by a Red Claw attack. They had not noticed Elincia and Ike being escorted away. She described the entire experience of being locked up in the old fort until a cloaked Lartz had come to the rescue.

    “We’re alive by the skin of our teeth...again,” Azura quipped. “No time for hugs though. We’d better see to Ike and Lartz.”

    Ike remained where he had fallen; the cot which had been used to carry him lying a foot away on its side. It had been a near miss when Bryan had unwittingly wrenched Lartz away from carrying his end; a few inches was all that separated Ike from toppling down the stairway and breaking his neck, which would have killed him just as surely as the poison. His skin had begun to grow pale with the exception of his rosy cheeks, indicating that his fever was still intact. He barely moved, if at all. Every now and then, Ike would slightly twitch his fingers or grimace. His eyes had been closed, but they soon fluttered open.

    “Oh, Ike!” Azura cried, easily noticing how much worse his condition had become since she last saw him.

    “Azura…” Ike replied quietly, almost in a whisper. “You’re…back…”

    “Yes! Just hang in there, Ike! We have the medicine that will hopefully save you!” Azura assured and produced the tiny bottle containing what everyone hoped was truly the antidote. Beforehand, Norman had told her since Ike had taken in a lot of poison, he should drink the whole bottle quickly.

    “Guys, help me sit him up!” Azura begged. Bryan, Marc, and Morris made no hesitation to hoist Ike up by his back enough to where he wouldn’t spill any of the liquid in the bottle. Elincia approached as she watched her lover drink it and prayed it would cure him.

    “We shouldn’t move him,” Elincia warned. “The Red Claw had their way with him, many of his bones are broken.”

    “That’s not the half of it, you’d think those villains had a herd of cattle run over him,” Norman assessed. “I feel breaks in the fingers, the hands, the wrists, the arms, the legs and several ribs. His shoulders are dislocated and his rotator cuffs, along with several other muscles, have been torn. He has terrible bruises along the neck and face as well. I can heal those injuries, but that could take hours and he won’t be able to fight for at least a few days.”

    “Well, all we can do now is wait,” Azura replied after Ike finished the entire bottle. “Norman here gave us the medicine and said it may take up to a couple days to completely destroy the poison.”

    “Alright, as long as Ike feels better soon,” Elincia hoped, watching the boys carefully lay Ike back onto the floor. “What about Lartz? Is he okay?”

    The group turned to where Raela was tending the wounded Dracoknight. Raela’s heal staff had been enough to heal Lartz’s ribs and internal injuries and now she was applying pressure below his sternum to expel the blood that had flooded his lungs and throat. And, expelled it was, erupting out of his mouth like spurts of red dye.

    “That is just nasty,” Ranulf commented, promptly clamping his mouth shut.

    “I doubt anyone’s hungry right now,” Elincia obliquely agreed. “But Lartz mentioned that our captors were storing food here. That’ll help if we have to stay a while.”

    “Yeah. It’s in the kitchen, where you’d expect it to be,” Lartz added, his voice weak and raspy from coughing. “Typical of the Red Claw to use a place like this as a secret hideout. In fact, I think they used it just for holding Ike and Elincia and roughing them up when they could.”

    “Don’t think for a minute that I trust you,” Bryan warned with a glare, but this time Lartz matched his stare.

    “The feeling is mutual, you Goddess-damned lunatic!” the Dracoknight hoarsely retorted. “You almost killed the man you came to rescue!”

    Bryan saw red, and he wanted Lartz dead. He drew back his lance for a killing stroke when he felt someone seize his arm.

    “Damn it, Bryan, stop being a freaking dolt already and give him a chance!” Skye cut in. “You said you’d drop this behavior!”

    “This is different, Skye! For all we know, everything this man is saying could be a big fat lie!” Bryan pointed out. “What better way to get a spy on our good side than to help us save Ike?”

    “I think he’s telling the truth!” Faline cried, jumping between Bryan and Lartz. “Let him speak. Please.”

    “But Faline, I—”

    “No. This isn’t like you, Bryan,” Faline insisted. “You nearly killed him and almost killed Ike. Would the man I love really act so villainously towards someone trying to help? For all you know, he might have the information you’re looking for.” Bryan looked into Faline’s worried eyes and grimaced.

    “I’m sorry. You’re right,” Bryan admitted and turned away from Lartz and Faline. “I don’t know what I was thinking. And now I’ve made a bad impression on you, Faline. I meant it when I told you I loved you, but now I regret it. You deserve better than me.”

    “Bryan, no. Don’t think such things,” Faline protested as she stood in front of Bryan once more and cupped his cheek in her hand. “You’re the only man I’ve ever loved and will ever love. One mistake isn’t going to drive me away from you.”

    “Really? Are you sure?”

    “Yes, and I can prove it.”

    With that, Faline once again met her lips with Bryan’s. Bryan gladly returned the gesture as his hands navigated around her waistline. Faline slid her hand away from Bryan’s cheek and wrapped her arms around his neck again. As Marc watched the pair, he began to feel bits of sweat trickle down the sides of his head. He glanced at Leona, who was standing near the door, thankful she hadn’t noticed. Elincia was the first to speak up and break the short silence.

    “Aw, they look cute together, don’t they?”

    “They certainly do,” Azura agreed with a smile and told Elincia about the events on the ship involving the pair as well as how they met.

    “That’s so sweet,” Elincia complimented and then sighed. “Still, they’re definitely lucky right now. I’ve lost count of how many times I’d come close to losing Ike since he fell ill, and he still has a long way to go before he’s well again.”

    “Yeah, but I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Azura assured. Just after she had spoken, Bryan and Faline slowly pulled away from one another. Bryan held Faline’s hand and turned his attention to Lartz.

    “Alright, Lartz. Tell us what you know,” Bryan insisted and then leveled an accusing finger. “But I’m warning you, if anything you say turns out to be a lie, you’ll regret ever meeting me.”

    “I already do,” Lartz muttered under his breath, suddenly wondering if throwing in his lot with these people had been wise after all, then he continued. “I give you my word that I will be truthful. Anyway, the information I have should be very helpful, to you in particular.”

    Bryan raised one eyebrow before replying.

    “Go on.”

    “Very well. First, I have to explain the incident at the lab. You see, I was forced to attack it,” Lartz admitted. “My superior is, or was, a man named Shigo. He’s one of Melora’s most powerful generals. In fact, his power is so overwhelming that I’m not sure even Ike could defeat him at his full strength. Those who displease Shigo rarely live long enough to regret it.”

    “And that’s why you had no choice but to try to stop us,” Azura guessed. “He’d have done something awful to you if you disobeyed him.”

    “Almost. You see, when I attacked, I wasn’t actually trying to defeat you,” Lartz corrected. “I had made my decision to defect by then, and was acting upon it as best I could without being discovered. Did you notice how I remained stationed in front of that door on the second floor? I had a hunch the Venoxic antidote was being kept in there. I was really trying to protect it for you in case Shigo had secretly ordered his goons to grab it before you did. I always had a feeling he suspected I might turn against him.”

    “Is that what you were trying to tell me when you shouted for me to wait?” Bryan inquired.

    “Correct. However, there’s a more important matter I need to discuss with you about General Shigo,” Lartz continued. “He wants to keep you alive, Bryan. He issued standing orders that you were not to be killed, only subdued. For awhile, I was unsure why, but the information I found while I was ‘missing’ gave me the answer. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but… He killed your mother.”

    “WHAT?!” Bryan exploded, fighting the urge to grab Lartz and knock him around again. “No! I demand to know more!”

    “And I do know more.”

    Lartz went on, somewhat frantically, to explain that his research led him to discover that Shigo was not only directly responsible for murdering Bryan’s mother during the war Rothgar had spoken of, but that he had also seen her fleeing with her baby boy. Lartz saw a Meloran soldier comment on Bryan’s appearance during the battle on the stolen Cilaean ships, and much to his regret, he reported it to Shigo. Bryan’s description told the general that he had to be the baby that he failed to get a hold of all those years before and wanted Bryan alive until he could face him himself.

    “And now he’s headed to Astryn with a powerful army,” Lartz finished. “The reason may be painfully obvious.”

    Bryan didn’t immediately reply, but his eyes widened and a gasp escaped his mouth within seconds.

    “No… Father!! He’s after my father, isn’t he?!”

    “I believe so,” Lartz replied. “I’m not sure of this, but I also think he intends to use him to get to you. I still don’t know why; Shigo is an abrasive man, to put it mildly, but he doesn’t pursue vendettas unless he stands to gain something by winning. I just don’t know what that ‘something’ might be. I wish I could tell you the rest of what I know, but that’s for your father to reveal to you. Besides, he can probably discern Shigo’s motives better than I.”

    “For once, I agree,” Bryan commented. “If what you say is true, Astryn is our next stop! I must avenge my mother!”

  7. #22
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Mkay, sorry, this weekend's been busy. Here's chapter 20. :]


    Chapter 20: Unlikely Enemies


    “Owww!”

    “Argh! Eliot!” Natalie snapped in frustration as Eliot’s knee knocked the vulnerary she was attempting to apply to his wound out of her hand and on to the floor, where it spilled a little. “Now look what you’ve done! If you want this injury to heal properly, you need to stop squirming so much!”

    “I would if you’d be a little gentler on it!” Eliot retorted with a grimace. “The way you’re treating it, you might as well let me bleed to death!”

    The wound caused by the arrow from the enemy sniper whom had attempted to assassinate Leyon was one of the deepest injuries Natalie had ever seen. Granted, she’d been in many battles and seen quite a few wounds, but this arrow had managed to slip in through a gap in Eliot’s armor and dig deep into his flesh. It had been difficult enough to dislodge the arrow, all the while listening to him bellow in deep pain. Now she had to treat it and hope the bold knight wouldn’t lose too much blood, which frankly didn’t sound so bad to the thoroughly irritated deputy commander.

    “Why you—!”

    “That’s enough, both of you,” Leyon’s voice interrupted as the general entered the room. Eliot had been moved to a room on the upper level of Fort Tehya while Kevin’s mercenary band and the other knights stood guard below to await the allied relief forces who would secure the Fort so the Knights could depart for their next mission. Eliot was currently leaning against the back board of a bed with pillows to support him, though he insisted that he keep his armor on in case of a surprise attack from the enemy. The blood from his injury had begun to stain the sheets, but the suffering knight knew he had other things to worry about.

    “Arguing isn’t going to heal that injury,” Leyon continued. “Natalie, I’m not saying you’re in the wrong or anything, but keep in mind that Eliot has been in a lot of pain lately. If I were him, I don’t think I’d be able to take much more either.”

    “I know. I’m trying my best not to hurt him,” Natalie replied with a sigh which betrayed her irritation. “Besides, it isn’t my fault vulneraries are so difficult to find in this place.”

    What few vulneraries the knights had left after the battle hadn’t been nearly enough to completely heal a wound as serious as Eliot’s, so Leyon and Natalie agreed to save them for future need. Luckily, after a thorough search through the building, Natalie found plenty of extra vulneraries stored away in the basement. And a good thing too; the vulnerary which had been knocked to the floor hadn’t been the first.

    “That’s true, but Eliot’s wound isn’t going to heal properly if this keeps up,” Leyon lectured. “Natalie, you be a little more delicate. Eliot, leave off that whining before I have someone knock you out cold so you can’t feel the pain. On the other hand, if you two continued to bicker, you’d look as good together as Marc and Leona do.”

    With that, the general couldn’t prevent a punchy smile from crossing his features.

    “What?!” Eliot blurted, forgetting about his injury and attempting to sit up. “Augggh! Damn!”

    “Seriously? Me with him? You must be joking,” Natalie protested with a glare. “And Eliot, do you want me to help you or not? You need to hold still.”

    “I know, I know, sorry…”

    Leyon couldn’t help but laugh again as he exited the room. Still, things would’ve been much easier had there been healers available to his group within the fort. He began to regret his decision of leaving most of them with the Cilaean and Talgrian force along the border, as well as at Castle Talgria. There were two Valkyries within the group Leyon brought with him, as he couldn’t afford to bring along Priests and Clerics who wouldn’t be able to keep up with his mounted force, but by this time, their staves had were nearly depleted of energy and needed to be conserved in the event of real emergencies. The fort had spare supplies stored away, but vulneraries were the only healing items left. The Melorans had probably removed or burned everything else of value. Still, Leyon supposed he should be glad enough that they were able to treat Eliot’s wounds regardless. Besides that, his crack from before had produced many new thoughts in his mind.

    The life of a soldier, even one of the prestigious Talgrian Royal Knights, could be harsh; and this was especially true in wartime, when one would be away from their family for months at a time and might not live to return. People had their varied ways of dealing with these stresses; Eliot would sometimes make sketches of landscapes he visited which he’d later paint quite well for a knight. Natalie would play simple games like charades with her comrades and Leyon, well, got into other peoples’ love lives. It was fun to choose who’d make good couples and playfully tease them about it, Leyon always thought. He even intentionally tried to play cupid. When Marc and Leona first met and conversed, where Leyon had noticed definite sparks between the pair, he’d arranged for them to work together often in hopes they would fall in love. While it seemed probable, Leyon could not be sure, as it had been quite some time since he last saw them. Now he had turned his attention to Natalie and Eliot. Their quarrels were more like fights than Marc and Leona’s flirtatious quarreling, but Leyon was never serious with his teasing. After all, he’d be terrible if he really meant things like “It’d be hilarious to see you two get married; you’d kill each other in two weeks flat!” and other similar jokes. Still, at least Marc and Eliot had possible contenders for women. Leyon realized, with a hint of melancholy, that he did not.

    “Ah, but if I found a girl, I might end up getting a taste of my own medicine…” he muttered to himself at the idea as he traversed the stairs to the first floor. “Then again…”

    Leyon began to remind himself that he really was alone aside from his friends. His parents, along with many others, had perished in the last war many years ago, which Wencelis feared Melora sought to reignite. He and his brother were left to be raised by their grandmother, who died of illness several years later when Leyon and Russell had reached their teen years. Russell, who had only been three years older than Leyon, had disappeared during an accident only a few years prior to this new war and had been declared dead some weeks after. Leyon’s beloved older brother had not been seen since. He truly did yearn for someone to be close to again, Leyon had to admit to himself, but knew the only thing he could do was let life play out and see what happened. Besides, there was a war going on, after all.

    “Ah, what the heck. If I happen to fall in love with any girl I meet, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” Leyon decided as he reached the chamber Kevin and his men were stationed in. Kevin himself was the first to take note of the young general’s arrival.

    “Ah! General Leyon. My kindest greetings to you. How may I be of service?”

    “I just came down to talk, is all. I still don’t know much about your little group,” Leyon pointed out. “After all, I’ve been really busy lately, what with Eliot’s injury and all.”

    “Ah, pardon me, of course. As I told you during the battle, the Cilaean Army hired us to bolster its forces and then sent us to assist you,” Kevin explained. “Normally, we’re assigned to take out forces who’ve landed at the ports, so we’re not exactly used to fighting in forts. Unfortunately, we were the only ones left in reserve due to many more experienced men having been sent to the east coast to deal with the trouble there.”

    “Yeah, things aren’t exactly going so well for Cilae either,” Zane added. “Many of our forts have been captured, there are still a lot of ships missing, and many of the Cilaean soldiers have already perished. Although, I heard rumors about a guy they call the Emerald Sentinel. They say he rescued a few villages as well as the medicinal lab at the north edge of the swamp and that he sniffed out Melora’s plans to steal our ships and use them to capture our ports. Melora is probably leery about him by now, so hopefully things will soon turn in our favor.”

    “Emerald Sentinel?” Leyon repeated, arching an eyebrow.

    “Oooh! Yeah, that’s right!” Magali blurted with excitement. “I hear he’s brilliant with his lance! They say he smashed through Meloran soldiers left and right and took back some of our stolen ships! Oh how I’d love to meet him and get him to teach me a few things!”

    “Here we go again… Another one of Maggie’s swooning episodes…” Jett grunted, folding his arms and glaring at the wall.

    “Shut up! I haven’t even met the guy yet, so how can I swoon over him?! And don’t call me Maggie, you jerk! You know I hate that name!”

    “Because when you do meet him, you will swoon.”

    “Hey now, this is no time to be getting into silly arguments,” Kevin intervened. “Zane and Magali are right, though. The Emerald Sentinel is supposed to be a pretty powerful lancer from what’s been going around in local towns lately, perhaps even one of the strongest ever seen in awhile. They call him so because of his green armor and blazing green eyes. His hair is even a strange shade of green, I believe…”

    “…That sounds like Bryan,” Leyon realized, his eyes growing wide. “I don’t believe it. He’s made a name for himself already…”

    “You know him?!” Magali cried, her mouth hanging open.

    “Yeah, he commands the Talgrian Army’s third platoon. He sent his men to aid the rest of the Talgrian troops here. I do remember him being a rather exceptional lancer, even when he was a new recruit, but he still didn’t have much as far as reputation goes. I’m really impressed.”

    “He did have help though, remember?” Jett reminded them. “Some other Talgrian soldiers, including the red-headed girl the Red Claw dogs are after, were battling alongside him.”

    “Ah yes, that’s also true,” Kevin confirmed. “And we do know about the Red Claw. The Cilaean troops explained everything we needed to know.”

    “We also heard about what happened back in Talgria,” Magali added, her tone turning somber.

    Leyon’s gaze darkened at the reminder. The Red Claw had, as Wencelis had noted, become a formidable band; and now, they were a true terror. Word had newly arrived that the Red Claw had launched more attacks against Galden, Narcoss and even Fort Absolon. Between the Red Claw’s newfound strength and much of Talgria’s forces being deployed against Melora, it had been a massacre. The latest word was that Nacross and Fort Absolon had been burned to the ground, that half of Galden had been leveled and that the death toll was estimated at seven hundred and rising.

    “If Melora really does have a hand in that,” Kevin spoke up. “Then they have a lot to answer for. And, we’re going to make sure they do.”

    “That’s good to know,” Leyon replied with a smile. “I’m glad to have your group with us.”

    “And, we’re glad to be here,” Kevin affirmed. “I was wondering, you’re probably going to go after those Melorans. Could we come with you and—”

    “…Oh man. Commander, you’d better come look at this!” Zane called from the other side of the room after stepping away, cutting Kevin off. The group quickly and curiously huddled near Zane, who was backing away with his eyes wide with shock, and wondered if yet more bad news was upon them.

    “What now?” Leyon wondered.

    Everyone was speechless for a moment when they saw what was sticking out of the closed window before them. Three ebony black feathers, all nearly a foot long and caked with blood, were wedged between the window and the sill. Magali shivered before breaking the tense silence, tightly clutching her lance.

    “W-Where do you suppose these came from?”

    “No idea. I can’t believe nobody noticed them before,” Zane remorsefully replied.

    “Oh no… “ Leyon uttered, his eyes widening once more. “Raven feathers… If Melora had possession of this fort before we recaptured it, then… Damn it! This can only mean one thing! They’re kidnapping the Raven messengers!”

    ***


    While Leyon and the others contemplated over their astonishing discovery, Azura and company had remained at Fort Hector. Ike was still recovering and those who’d ventured to retrieve the medicine had wearied themselves to the bone, so they’d elected to stay for at least a day. At Azura’s urging, the group had tried to clean the abandoned fort as best they could; Ike was still in a delicate state and the notion of resting in such filthy conditions was rather unappealing. After a few hours of dusting, sweeping, scrubbing and scattered conversation, most of the exhausted companions had just keeled over and slept where they fell. By nightfall, most of the Venoxic poisoning symptoms and even the pain from Ike’s injuries had subsided, though he was still too weak and fragile leave the newly cleaned bed that he had been placed in. Norman warned that using a staff to heal broken bones was much like patchwork and the magic could only take so much stress before giving out and causing the bone to re-break. Ike’s bones would have to repair themselves naturally if he was to return to his full strength. Normally, this process would take from a few weeks to a few months at most, but there were ways to speed it up. A diet comprised of foods rich in minerals such as calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin D was prescribed to Ike and both Raela and Norman suggested the foods he should eat, which they claimed would help the bones’ natural healing properties.

    Ike was reluctant to accept it due to it being mainly milk, fruits, and vegetables instead of his beloved meat, but he knew it was food nonetheless and it would satisfy him regardless. For the time being, his limbs were in slings to keep the bones immobile and aligned so that they would knit properly. With all the splints, Ike couldn’t move anything below his neck and his entire body felt useless, but that hadn’t been the worst of it in his opinion. Azura, Bryan, Ranulf, and Faline had just entered the room to check on the hero when they saw Ike having spoonfuls of applesauce fed to him by Elincia, each suddenly found themselves bursting into gales of laughter.

    “Terrific… Elincia, this is so embarrassing!” Ike blurted irritably as he glared at the laughter-struck quartet. “I could deal with it at the castle because no one was around, but this is ridiculous!”

    “HAHAHA! Elincia has to spoon-feed Ike like a baby!” Ranulf exclaimed as he collapsed to the floor in uncontrollable laughter.

    Elincia seethed as she ladled another spoonful of applesauce into Ike’s mouth.

    “I can’t believe all of you! You really ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Ike can’t use his arms or hands, so what other choice does he have?!”

    “Ah, yes, yes. You’re absolutely right, Elincia,” Faline agreed as she forced herself to stop giggling. “We really shouldn’t be laughing at poor Ike at all.”

    “Yeah, I apologize,” Bryan added, a bit sheepishly. “Ranulf, get up.”

    “I am! Geez…” Ranulf replied as he scrambled to his feet and brushed himself off. “I’m sorry too. That was rude of me, but I really couldn’t help it.”

    “Same with me. You both do look silly, but it’s definitely not right for us to laugh,” Azura admitted with a smile.

    After a few more warning glares from Ike and Elincia, the group seated themselves around the room and began filling them in on the details of their journey to retrieve the Venoxic antidote. They described their their chance discovery that Melora was using captured Cilaean ships to capture Cilae’s ports and move inland, the meeting with Faline out at sea. and Norman at the Cilaean port. The battles had been intense, but the group pulled through. Azura also returned Ettardios to Ike and insisted that she go back to using her Regal Sword from now on. Bryan also told Ike about his new suspicions regarding his past as well as what Lartz had revealed about his slain mother. It seemed that Bryan’s origins were related to Melora’s motives, though he had no idea how, and he was still puzzled as to why this General Shigo was so intent on not having Bryan killed. It was also revealed that Bryan’s name had spread across Cilae and Talgria quickly, not only because of his battles against Melora, but apparently due to his deeds as well. After the group left the lab, the Melorans had abandoned it. This had allowed the few remaining priests to partially salvage the facility and provide medical aid to nearby villages that had suffered Red Claw attacks.

    “The battle at the lab must have been the perfect diversion for their terrible deeds,” Azura finished. “I feel bad that we couldn’t help those people directly, but Bryan does deserve most of the credit for all of this.”

    “I guess. I did defeat much of the enemy’s army at the lab and took out the commander of the enemy battalion on the stolen ships, after all,” Bryan recalled, chuckling in equal parts surprise and embarrassment. “Gosh, the name ‘Emerald Sentinel’ must be all over the nation by now.”

    “That’s because my Bryan is so amazing!” Faline chimed lovingly and leaned in to wrap her arms around Bryan’s neck and plant a loving kiss on his cheek. Ike couldn’t prevent a punchy smile from forming on his face afterwards.

    “Heh. So, Bryan, how does it feel to be in my shoes?”

    “Oh, well… HEY!”

    Now it was Ike and Elincia’s turn to laugh. Ranulf once again exploded with laughter until he hit the floor. It was true that Bryan was beginning to know how Ike felt, having gone from obscure to a household name seemingly overnight and getting a girlfriend along the way. Though, admittedly, popularity didn’t chafe Bryan the way it did the absurdly modest Ike. Frankly, Bryan rather liked being well thought of for a change. Before anyone could get in another word, however, Skye had come into the room carrying a carton of milk. Ike had begun to feel like a real baby now that he had to be spoon-fed and given milk, but he had to do it if his bones were to heal quickly enough. And judging by all the smirks on the faces of those around him, the sooner the better.

    “Wow, did someone tell a really hilarious joke or something?” Skye inquired once he saw the still-laughing Ranulf on the floor. “I could hear pussy cat down there from all the way outside.”

    “Nah, Ranulf just has a weird sense of humor,” Bryan replied. “We were just filling in Ike and Elincia the details about our journey.”

    “Cool. Don’t forget the part where you and Marc were thrown overboard the ship in that storm and ended up on Raven tribe’s islands,” Skye reminded as he put the carton of milk on the small table beside Elincia.

    “Ah, right…” Bryan mused, then his brow furrowing in realization. “Hold on a minute. Now that I think about it again, you jinxed me, Skye!”

    “What?!”

    “You said not long before it happened ‘I hope he doesn’t go overboard.’ You were referring to me!”

    By now, Ranulf was laughing harder than ever before and was slamming his fist on the floor.

    “OH MAN! STOP IT ALREADY! MY SPLEEN’S KILLING ME! HAHAHA!”

    “Wow, who knew so much could make him laugh…” Azura muttered, raising one eyebrow.

    After the laughter and the heckling had finally died down, the group decided to plan their next course of action. Bryan, by this time, revealed what Lartz had told him about Shigo hunting his father in Astryn and, though Bryan still did not trust Lartz, he decided to go to Astryn. They couldn’t afford the time Ike would need to fully recover and weren’t about to leave him alone after their near miss not long ago. Luckily, a search of the fort had revealed a number of wagons likely used by the Red Claw to ferry their loot. One of the wagons was in perfect shape and even had a pair of Clydesdale horses, which would allow Marc and Leona to use their horses for battle rather than hitch them to the wagon. The wagon would be used to transport Ike to Astryn and it would be guarded along the way in the event of enemy attacks, which would most certainly occur and repelling them would be difficult to accomplish since the wagon would deprive them of a quick retreat if things went badly. A fairly large town, roughly the size of Galden, was also located on their chosen route and would be an ideal place to restock their depleted supplies. It was also going to be the location where the group would rendezvous with Bryan’s men, as he ordered them to be there. With more soldiers at their disposal, they certainly stood a much better chance against Shigo and his army. If he were attacking a large nation like Astryn, surely the army he was bringing was very large. Astryn might be on the brink of losing its royal bloodline since their ailing queen had no heir, but that did not affect the status of its military. Where Cilae had Pegasus Knights and Melora Dracoknights, Astryn had both as well as every other kind of cavalry and infantry unit. Their strong alliance with the dragon laguz of Orenias was also well-known. If the dragons joined the war, they would more than likely give Melora a reason to worry.

    “So, this means we need to hope Astryn recruits the dragons for help,” Bryan analyzed. “If all of us, the Oreniasians, Astrynians, Cilaeans, and Talgrians, worked together, Melora wouldn’t stand a chance!”

    “I’m afraid that’s much easier said than done,” a familiar masculine voice interrupted. Everyone turned to the door to see Lartz enter, having returned from patrolling the fort’s perimeter on his wyvern.

    “I couldn’t help but overhear this as I came upstairs to check on Ike, so I apologize for the intrusion,” he continued. “Turning everyone against Melora would help level the field, but it wouldn’t make this war an easy one.”

    “What do you mean?” Azura spoke up. “Bringing in other countries to help us fight Melora is sure to turn the odds in our favor.”

    “Don’t go counting your wyverns before they hatch,” Lartz warned. “Right now, Talgria and Cilae are the only countries fighting Melora and Melora’s army has them outnumbered by a five-to-one margin. Getting Astryn and Orenias to help is a good idea, but it would only cut Melora’s advantage down to three or maybe two-to-one. And even this wouldn’t be easy considering their rather unfriendly relations with Talgria and Cilae. Besides, not only is Shigo a master of tactics as well as combat, but Queen Isis knows her fair share as well. They know full well what trouble the dragons’ strength could cause them, and how to prepare for it.”

    “So you’re saying they know to bring a lot of thunder mages just in case,” Azura guessed.

    “Exactly. Besides that, Shigo has been known to slay powerful dragons himself.”

    Gasps escaped the others’ mouths upon hearing those words.

    “He does sound like he could be stronger than Ike…” Elincia worriedly uttered.

    “Hey, I’ve beaten dragons too, you know!” Ike pointed out, recalling the dragons Ashnard set against him as well as the battle against King Deghinsea’s men during the war against Ashera.

    “Those were just small-time,” Ranulf protested. “Lartz probably means high ranked dragons.”

    “Unfortunately, yes,” Lartz confirmed.

    “Oh… That’s bad,” Ike realized. “I didn’t really get a chance to fight one of those, though.”

    “You know what? I wouldn’t care if Shigo killed a hundred dragons in one battle with his bare hands!” Bryan interjected thunderously. “I’m still going to be the one who defeats him!”

    “And I believe in you!” Faline added lovingly. “I know you’ll win, Bryan! You might not be strong enough now, but by the time that battle begins, you will be!”

    “Indeed. And speaking of getting stronger, we should probably go get in some lancing practice later on, Faline,” Bryan suggested. “You did want me to train you, after all.”

    “Ah, yes!”

    “Getting back to business though,” Lartz cut in, to Bryan’s displeasure. “There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to bring Astryn to our side. But, since we’re going there anyway, we should check out our prospects.”

    “Go on,” Azura urged.

    “If Queen Marion does die, then the various dukes and duchesses are going to be making claims for the throne,” Lartz continued. “Maybe one of them would be amenable to helping us? In any case, finding out and seeing if Orenias will join us is worth a try.”

    “I agree,” Bryan replied, muttering under his breath something like ‘I so did not just say that.’ “If we do find my father, and our luck is still good, he may have some insights for us about the situation in Astyrn. For now though, we should get some rest and set out at first light.”

    Some time later, after most of the group had turned in for the night, Bryan quietly stepped out of his room and slowly closed the door behind him. He had been waiting with his door ajar for a certain opportunity and it had finally come. Lartz’s footsteps echoed through the hall as Bryan watched him walk down the stairs. As the Sentinel crept up to the railing and peered through the gaps in the supports, Lartz suddenly halted in his tracks. The Dracoknight glanced around him, his form tense and his expression almost fearful. What’s this? Bryan thought to himself. Looks like he doesn’t want anyone to see what he’s doing. For some reason, he looks rather nervous, though. After Lartz found no one nearby, he continued towards his destination, which turned out to be the kitchen. From atop the stairs, Bryan was unable to see what he was doing. If he tried to descend the staircase, Lartz would surely find him when he came out and that was assuming he didn’t hear Bryan coming down. Bryan merely waited until Lartz came into view once more.

    Mere moments later, Lartz exited the kitchen with a banana in his hand. Looks like all he wanted was a snack, Bryan thought with a sigh. Gah, what am I thinking? He can’t be a spy. He’d be too stupid. Lartz had plenty of opportunities to kill Ike and even Elincia before we even got here. Both of them are still alive and Ike has made a nice recovery so far. Lartz saved us all, not just those two. No double agent would let a threat like Ike live. And, only a man with a good heart would do what Lartz has done…

    After realizing his mistake, Bryan quickly retreated down a different hall before Lartz could spot him. Faline would probably be upset enough with him if she knew he had been spying on Lartz. Lartz himself could be downright angry, especially after the injuries Bryan had handed to him. Bryan sighed once more, recalling also how close they’d come to losing Ike because he didn’t hear Lartz out when they met again. He was shaken back to reality, however, when another pair of footsteps echoed behind him.

    “Bryan?” a feminine voice spoke up.

    “Daaah! What the—?!” Bryan cried, suddenly whirling around to see Faline standing there.

    “Eek! Bryan! What the heck are you doing?!”

    “Me?! You scared the daylights out of me first!”

    “Yeah, well, I’m not spying on one of my own comrades,” Faline countered.

    Bryan sighed once more, closing his eyes in shame.

    “Alright, alright, I’ll admit it. I still didn’t want to trust Lartz even after he told me about my father. I’ve been a complete jerk lately. It should have been obvious that no real enemy would want to help us save Ike of all things.”

    “True, but I know everything that’s happened is causing you a lot of pain and frustration,” Faline assured. “That’s why I’m here. Bryan, I love you and I don’t want to see you like this. You need to calm down and cheer up.”

    “I love you too,” Bryan replied, a smile dawning his face for the first time in hours. “And I want to feel better, but… I don’t know how.”
    “Hee hee! I do! We’ll go on a date in the sky!” Faline announced cheerfully.

    “…Say what?”

    “Bryan, I’m saying we’ll take a little romantic trip on my Pegasus.”

    “At this hour? Are you sure? And what if the Red Claw or Meloran soldiers find us? And how do you know your Pegasus will be able to carry both of us? I’m rather heavy in this armor and I don’t want to go without it in case we get attacked.”

    “Oh, you ask too many questions! Don’t worry, we’ll be fine! It is a good idea that we leave our armor on and take a weapon or two with us, though. We can get in that lancing practice too!”

    “Heh, alright then. I suppose there’s no harm in going out for a bit. We can’t go far, though. We’d get lost in the dark.”

    Faline couldn’t disagree with this and nodded approvingly. She then pulled Bryan out of the room by his hand and led him outside to where she had left her Pegasus. It was grazing near Lartz’s wyvern in the fenced-in field behind the fort. After the couple mounted, Faline gripped the reins and within minutes, they were soaring through the sky. Bryan had pointed out that they didn’t tell anyone they left, but Faline protested that everyone was asleep and wouldn’t notice they were gone.

    “Besides,” she added coyly, “if we woke them up in the middle of the night to tell them we were going off together, would they ever let us hear the end of it?”

    Bryan had begun to feel better than he had previously been despite Faline’s jibe, but so far, it hadn’t been enough to take all of his troubles off of his mind. His father was missing and in danger, the strongest Meloran general apparently had a vendetta against him, and the Red Claw was still as deadly as ever. There was also the scene where Bryan nearly killed both Lartz and Ike at the same time. He couldn’t afford such terrible mistakes and he still doubted his leadership skills.

    “Faline…” Bryan began as the two continued to gracefully maneuver through the sky. “I’m still unsure if I deserve a girl like you…”

    “What? Bryan, you’re not still beating yourself up for what happened with Ike and Lartz, are you?” Faline inquired.

    “Sort of. I don’t want to make any more mistakes or foolish decisions. I’m afraid of doing it again and putting you in danger as a result. I’m still not a good leader either, in my opinion. What good am I to you if my foolishness—”

    “Don’t talk about yourself like that! You’re a wonderful leader, Bryan and you’ve saved many lives already,” Faline pointed out. “It isn’t your fault you’re making mistakes either. Everything that’s going on is causing you a lot of stress. When I’m stressed out, I can’t think clearly either and I make stupid decisions as a result.”

    “I guess… But still, I’ve been known to make mistakes even when I’m not stressed out. That’s why everyone thought I was the worst leader ever back home. I don’t know why General William even gave me that position…”

    “That’s just ridiculous! Don’t listen to any of those jerks,” Faline angrily protested. “Bryan, I love you because you’re you. Your skills as a leader don’t matter to me. Deep down inside you, I see the most wonderful man I ever met.”

    “But… I’m still not even sure how to be a good man for you.”

    “Bryan, I think you do know. You just don’t realize it.”

    “Huh?”

    “Hey, let’s land down in that forest clearing. We’ll talk more there. It’s not a place where we’ll easily be seen either.”

    Bryan nodded as Faline allowed her Pegasus to descend slowly until its hooves touched the grassy ground of the small forest clearing. The moon was shining brilliantly overhead with the stars alongside it. Faline and Bryan dismounted the Pegasus and allowed it to rest its wings. Bryan turned to the girl he loved, his face still bearing an expression of deep conflict.

    “Faline, I love you more than anything, but my mind keeps telling me you deserve better.”

    “I don’t care. Listen, there’s something I have to tell you,” Faline replied, her gaze straying to the ground. Her eyes suddenly seemed filled with guilt and sorrow.

    “Bryan… I know about your childhood. I know you’ve been bullied… How you suffered… And how lonely you were,” Faline admitted. “I also know you grew up without a mother.”

    “W-What?! But how?!”

    “A long time ago, when I was a little girl, my mom took my two little sisters and I to Talgria for a vacation,” Faline began. “We stayed in a town called Narcoss. The place you grew up in.”

    Faline’s story continued as she told about one day in particular during that trip. A friend was babysitting her sisters while she and her mother were out shopping. Just down the street they were taking, Faline spotted a group of boys in the middle of the road. Most of them had their attention focused on the olive-haired boy standing in the middle. They had begun taunting him and pushing him around until they tossed him and a book he’d been carrying into a mud puddle nearby. The olive-haired boy only sat there after they left and burst into tears as he stared at his soiled book.

    “I wanted to go help that boy, but my mother gave me a big fat no. She said the boy must be trouble if he was hated that much,” Faline continued. “That boy was you, wasn’t it?”

    “…Yes, it was,” Bryan admitted. “I remember that day too. It was the same day I met Skye, though you were probably gone by the time he showed up.”

    “I thought so. Later on, when my mom and I went to get my sisters, I overheard her talking with her friend. The topic of the conversation eventually strayed to you and my mom’s friend said ‘I feel kind of sorry for the little boy, though. He doesn’t have a mother according to some other friends of mine.’ When I first saw you during that pirate attack a year ago, I couldn’t help but think, ‘hey, is he the boy from Narcoss?’ I saw how kind, caring, and courageous you really were. You couldn’t be a troublemaker at all.”

    “Thanks, Faline. That really cheers me up,” Bryan replied with a loving smile.

    “I’m glad. Though, to be honest, I never had any luck with men at all until I met you,” Faline went on. “Men I’ve met in Cilae only liked me for my appearance. They would say I have a cute face and what not. They’d also act like big showoffs and brag about things I didn’t care about. And if they were soldiers, they only fought to earn money or look cool. But you weren’t like that. You fight for honor and respect and I’ve never seen you judge anyone by their looks, or act like stuck up showoff. Bryan, you’re so much better than the jerks I put up with in Cilae, that there’s no man I could love more than you.”

    With that, Bryan’s smile grew and he pulled Faline close. She responded by slipping her arms around his neck.

    “Words can’t describe how happy that makes me feel,” Bryan replied happily, his smile broadening from ear to ear. “Faline, I love you because you changed me for the better. You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and you showed me love, something I knew nothing about. Unlike pretty much everyone else save for my dad and Skye that time ago, you only saw my good side, you didn’t think I was a loser or a crybaby.”

    “Because you weren’t those things and you never will be. You’re my Emerald Sentinel,” Faline added, a loving grin forming on her features. “By the way, while I was a little girl, I used to dream of a handsome knight in shining armor coming to sweep me off my feet someday.”

    Bryan’s grin only grew larger upon hearing that statement.

    “Well, I may not be a knight, but I do have the looks and shining armor! Right?”

    Already knowing Faline’s answer, Bryan scooped her up and swooped in for a kiss. They embraced it for a long, wonderful moment, alone and truly in love.

    ***


    The next morning came all too quickly. Somehow, the weary travelers managed to rise at sunup and were busy packing their belongings and readying themselves to depart. Since it would take several days to reach Astryn’s border, the group also scoured the fort for any food the Red Claw might’ve had and loaded it into the wagon. Ike had to be hauled inside the same way he had been supported when he sprained his ankle in Narcoss, but was made comfortable all the same. He had pillows to rest his head on, and if he got cold, he of course had his cape. Bryan noticed Lartz wearing the same nervous expression he had the previous evening and still found it suspicious as the group all gathered outside. He and Faline managed to return from their date in time to get a good night’s sleep as well. The Clydesdales had been a lucky find, since hitching Marc and Leona’s horses to the wagon would pose a risk if they came under attack.

    “Looks like we’re all set,” Azura analyzed some time later. Marc grimaced as he as he and Leona mounted their horses. He knew he could no longer keep himself from revealing the secret he had been hiding.

    “Hey, guys... Wait,” Marc spoke up before the group could begin their journey, a hint of frustration in his voice.

    “Is something wrong, Marc?” Leona inquired.

    “I-I have a confession to make. On the ship Bryan and I took back to the mainland from Perais...I found something.”

    “That’s your confession?” Bryan inquired, arching an eyebrow and folding his arms.

    “N-No! When I went to my cabin the first night, as the trip lasted about a week, I found a piece of parchment sticking out from under one of the bed’s pillows. It turned out to be some kind of message. I read it, but...”

    “But what, Marc? Come on, there’s no need to be so nervous. It isn’t like you’ve killed anyone,” Azura lectured.

    “I’m sorry, I can’t help it! I read that message and it mentioned Bryan. I rushed out to show him, but I tripped on the deck and the wind blew it out of my hand. It was lost in the sea, and I forgot what it said! Oh, I’m so ashamed of this!”

    With that, Marc sagged in his saddle and brought his hands to the front of his head.

    “What?! Marc, you idiot!” Bryan blurted angrily. “Why’d you have to be so clumsy and not tell anyone sooner?!”

    “I don’t know...” Marc replied frustratingly, slowly shaking his head.

    “Knock it off, Bryan. That’s not helping the situation!” Skye interjected.

    “Well look who’s talking Mister Threatening-Kye-will-solve-our-problem!” Bryan shot back. By now, Skye was at his wit’s end and made a fist.

    “DAMN YOU! Leave my brother out of this!”

    “Alright, I’ve heard enough!” Raela intervened, stepping between the two quarreling friends. “I found a Sleep staff hidden in this fort, so if you two don’t put a cork in it right now, you’ll both be damned!”

    “Uh…” Skye muttered with a gulp. “Wow. I apologize. I’m truly sorry.”

    “Er…” Bryan mused. “Yeah, same with me. Anyway, Marc has to remember what that message said. It could’ve told me where my father is!”

    “And you think I don’t know that?!” Marc shot back. “Though... I do recall something else from it now that you bring that up.”

    “Then tell us before you forget again, Marc!” Leona replied, her tone sounding more concerned than her usual barbs.

    “There...there was another name mentioned,” Marc began. “I can’t remember it exactly. It was something like Om...Oh...Own...”

    “Owen?!” Bryan blurted, stepping forward towards Marc in shock.

    “Yes...yes! That was it!”

    “I knew it! That’s my father!”

    “Then perhaps that ship was one of the ones Melora stole before Cilae got it back,” Azura guessed.

    “Either that or there was an enemy spy on board trying to keep Shigo informed about me,” Bryan agreed. “Or, maybe Shigo wanted me to find it? Damn it, Marc, you’ve got to remember the rest of that message or so help me I’ll die of frustration!”

    “I’m trying, you dimwit! It’s not easy when your memory has more holes than a colander!” Marc protested with a grimace.

    “Alright, you both need to calm down,” Leona cut in and leaned over in her saddle to clasp Marc’s shoulder. “Marc, please, just try as hard as you can.”

    “Yes, I know you can do it, Marc!” Azura encouraged. Marc didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he shook his head again.

    “Aaaugh! Daaamn! My head won’t stop throbbing!” he complained seconds later. “Why can’t I remember a simple stinkin’ message?!”

    “Oh... Marc, as helpful as it would be for you to remember, we won’t force you if it’s giving you a headache,” Azura assured.

    “Ah...yes, please. I can’t do this anymore right now,” Marc gave in, finally standing up. “I just need to clear my head for awhile. My skull feels ready to split in half...”

    “I’ll help you out, Marc,” Leona offered as Marc brought a hand to the side of his head. “Let’s get you inside the wagon. You can help keep an eye on Ike in there.”

    “Thanks...” Marc grimaced once more before Leona helped him dismount and climb into the wagon.

    The group continued their long journey across the Cilaean plains and hills and towards the southwestern border. The expansive grasslands allowed travel to be quick, though the distance was still great, but the plains were exposed. Knowing this would work against them if they were attacked, everyone stayed alert and set a guard whenever they stopped to rest. Ike had improved steadily though, since he was right next to the group’s food stock, they decided to keep the splints on his arms for the time being. Faline wanted to mention her training session with Bryan during their date, but Bryan brought a hand up and insisted that they surprise them with her improved skills in the next battle. Besides, he rather doubted Faline could tell the others she and Bryan spent a night alone together without people getting suspicious. Bryan still asked Marc from time to time if he remembered anything else about the letter but all Marc came up with was something about ‘the inheritance,’ which Bryan could not make sense of. Though they had to avoid nearby villages so as to not attract attention, the group still decided to make a stop for supplies in the fairly large town of Keanu late that afternoon. It was a lively settlement much like Narcoss and Galden in population and business. The only difference was that instead of only townsfolk, many Cilaean soldiers patrolled the roads and alley ways as well. It was no surprise due to the war, of course, but something still didn’t seem natural. Unlike the allied patrols seen on the way to town, these Cilaean soldiers were not worried at all. Their eyes were filled with anger instead. And, when they caught sight of the group, their anger became open hostility.

    “Hey! There he is! That has to be the Emerald Sentinel!” one of them, a cavalier, suddenly shouted and leveled an accusatory finger at Bryan. “He looks exactly as his men described him! Get him!”

    “Wait, WHAT?!” Bryan exclaimed as two Cilaean heavy knights dashed from behind the Sentinel and plucked him by his arms. “What the hell is going on here?!”

    “Hey! What’s the meaning of this?!” Faline demanded, floating her Pegasus before the cavalry knight. “Bryan didn’t do anything to harm you!”

    “Yeah, what’s the big idea?!” Azura stepped in.

    “Oh, he didn’t? Ha!” the cavalier mocked. “Tell that to his entire platoon! They ransacked three villages nearby here and stole well over half their war supplies!”

    “What?! That’s ridiculous!” Bryan protested. “My men would never commit such horrid crimes! This is preposterous!”

    “You dare to feign ignorance?!” the cavalier roared. “They called you by your title, ‘the Emerald Sentinel.’ Who else could it be but you, traitor?”

    “NO! Impossible! Have you all gone completely insane?!” Bryan shot back. “Those soldiers were not mine! They tricked you!”

    His anger had quickly reached its boiling point and he couldn’t prevent himself from fighting to break free. But his captors held him fast.

    “You really have some gall to keep up this little charade,” the cavalier hissed angrily. “Besides, I’ll bet that pillaging back in Talgria was your handiwork too. They say Narcoss, Galden and Fort Absolon have all been burned to the ground and that over seven hundred people have been killed.”

    Silence fell over the companions like a thunderhead; Azura’s face went deathly pale when she realized her foster mother might be among the dead and Skye was suddenly terrified for Kye’s safety.

    “I haven’t been in Talgria for months!” Bryan protested. “I was—”

    “Letting your cohorts have their fun?” the cavalier cut him off. “I’ve heard enough, traitor. If we can’t have your confession, we’ll have your head!”

    The cavalier gestured to his men and one of them circled behind Bryan to hold his wrist behind his back while the other drew a lance to strike the death blow. Bryan swung violently and managed to free his hands. His jabbed his elbow into his captor’s gut, sending him tumbling back, and then sidestepped the other’s lance to land a sharp kick in his stomach. Both men groaned loudly in pain and collapsed to the ground. Bryan quickly armed himself with his lance and shield and shouted for everyone else to do the same. However, Faline and Azura both had other ideas.

    “Bryan! No! What are you thinking?!” Azura protested. “They’re Cilaean soldiers! Our allies!”

    “And my brethren no less!” Faline added.

    “Face it, guys. Idiots are everywhere,” Bryan insisted, his voice taking on a feral tone. “Even the Talgrian Army has soldiers I’d love to tear to pieces. People who are as dimwitted as these imbeciles are no allies of mine!”

    The girls had to admit he had a point, and that there was no time to argue anyway, so they abided by Bryan’s wishes. Everyone soon girded themselves, prepared for the most unexpected fight of their lives. The town square was nearby and the group realized it would be the perfect place to entrench against the forthcoming assault. No matter where they were, however, the group, including Bryan, was still reluctant to kill Cilaean soldiers. After all, allies fighting with one another would likely only help the real enemy. And, of course, the cavalier’s words about the massacre back in Talgria weighed heavily on their hearts.

  8. #23
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Here's chapter 21. :]


    Chapter 21: The Prince of Astryn


    Azura’s party had reached the plaza, fanning out to cover the avenues leading towards them, and anticipating that the Cilaean soldiers would attack at any moment. However, the cavalier who first made the accusation against Bryan had other plans first. He apparently was the commander of the soldiers patrolling the town and suddenly signaled for his troops to halt their advance.

    “You’re already in a very deep hole, traitor,” he warned. “Don’t dig yourself any deeper, and don’t drag the others along with you. Surrender and the rest can go free.”

    “What do you take me for, a moron?!” Bryan exclaimed, his anger verging on fury. “Why should I believe you? You’ll probably just chase them down once you have me in irons.”

    “Well, can’t say I didn’t try to be diplomatic,” the cavalier replied with a hint of sarcasm. He then gestured towards a Bishop at his side. In the Bishop’s hands was a Warp staff.

    Before Bryan could react, the Warp staff flared and Bryan was suddenly whisked from the plaza into the enemy ranks. Then, just as quickly, three heavy knights lunged and bore him to the ground. As strong as he was, Bryan was completely blindsided and the trio easily overpowered him. Faline gasped in fright as they tackled her lover to the ground despite his efforts to stop them. Before he could even raise his lance, Bryan found himself lying on the dirt road with his arms being bound by ropes.

    “Listen, buddy,” one of Bryan’s captors spoke up. “You’ll stop struggling right now if you value your pitiful life.”

    “Where do you want ‘im, Commander Flozell?” a second inquired.

    “Ah, I think the guillotine we set up in the square will do nicely,” Flozell decided. “This way, he’ll know what’s coming to him should he make another wrong move. Oh, and gag him too, his voice sickens me.”

    “Should we take his head off now?”

    “Not yet. I don’t know how those others play into this, but I want to find out. Take them down, or at least keep them from escaping.”

    “Understood.”

    Bryan merely growled as he was hauled off to the execution device near the middle of the town square, one meant to punish the most base of men and the most nefarious of outlaws. After a convicted criminal was secured in the stocks at its base, an executioner would release the blade that hung poised above. That same blade would careen down towards the prisoner and hew the head from the shoulders. Faline continued to shudder in fear as the three knights forced a ball of cloth into Bryan’s mouth and then tied a coil of rope over it so that he couldn’t spit it out. The rope around his hands was then removed, too briefly for Bryan to escape, while his captors forced the Sentinel to his knees and clapped his wrists in the stocks. Flozell then approached him atop his horse and sniggered as Bryan’s gaze strayed to the ground.

    “Seeing how pathetic you look right now is a paltry compensation for the carnage you’ve wrought, but I’ll take what I can get,” Flozell hissed furiously, taking note of Bryan’s saddened eyes. “Taking your head off before the magistrate gets here might cost me my commission, but I’ll risk it if you try anything.”

    Damn… Bryan fumed to himself, the cloth in his mouth threatening to stray into his throat. This can’t be happening to me. How can anyone believe I’d have my men do such things? Whoever it was had to be either Melorans or Red Claw bandits in disguise, or both. Or…are these Cilaean soldiers the culprits? Melora has masqueraded as Cilaeans before; for all we know, these guys could’ve fabricated the whole story or even ransacked those towns themselves. Whatever the case, we’re in deep.

    Faline could only watch as Flozell fumed at Bryan as if he wanted to have the Sentinel’s head off then and there, her anger at him and her fear for Bryan continuing to grow. She gripped the reins of her Pegasus and instantly charged forth in a bold attempt to rescue her lover no matter what anyone else did. Azura, realizing her intent and that Faline stood no chance alone, gasped and stepped forward, motioning the rest of the group to follow. If Faline let her rage get the better of her, it could cost her life. Though, of course, following her would cost the group a defensible position.

    “Dang it…” Azura fumed. “Guys, we need to think of something before their archers turn Faline into a pincushion!”

    “Marc and I can keep watch for them,” Skye offered. “That is, if he’s up to it after his episode earlier.”

    “Of course,” Marc agreed. “Archers never hurt me much anyway unless they have anything beyond the strength of a steel bow.”

    With that, the entire group leaped into action and, seeing the supposed traitor’s accomplices mobilizing, the Cilaeans armed themselves to meet the attack. Since Talgria and Cilae were allies, they knew one another’s armies and tactics well. Talgria knew of Cilae’s specialty in Pegasus knights and light infantry while the Cilaeans were all too familiar with Talgria’s advantage in Paladins and heavy knights. However, Marc, Leona, and Morris were the only ones in Azura’s group to be in either of their nation’s best classes, while the Cilaean soldiers they fought had many light infantry in the field. However, if whoever had framed Bryan had rankled Cilae this much, it would likely only be a matter of time before they brought in Pegasus knights as reinforcements. Though Faline was one of their own, Azura had no way of knowing if that would count for much if Faline seemed to be aiding their prey. Since each of the two small armies knew the strengths and weaknesses of the other, and since the Cilaeans had their foes outnumbered and surrounded, fighting seemed nearly pointless. The only possible outcomes anyone in their right mind could foresee was that the Cilaeans would eventually overrun Azura and her companions, but losing many of their number in doing so, or a stalemate that may prove just as costly. Azura and company knew that the former was far more likely and could only hope that someone would come and convince the Cilaean soldiers to stand down or that an opportunity to save Bryan and retreat would present itself.

    Azura’s group, working to save Bryan and Faline, advanced as fast as they dared, moving several meters forward and then fanning out to repel any attacks. Still reluctant to use lethal force against their erstwhile allies, the group used the flats of their swords, the shafts of their lances, and the hafts of their axes to stun oncoming foes. Their strategy seemed to be working and they advanced slowly but surely to their imperiled allies, but Azura soon saw that the soldiers they’d subdued were either limping or being carried towards the guillotine where they were being healed by the Priests and Bishops. And that left the group no better off than when they started.

    However, this stalemate was soon interrupted by the sound of flapping wings echoing nearby and it wasn’t coming from Faline’s Pegasus. Within the next few moments, another Pegasus came into view in the town square. Its rider was a woman garbed in sea green armor. A long, dirty blonde braid fluttered behind her as she circled above the battle, likely seeking a target. Faline gasped instantly when she took note of the knight’s appearance and quickly flew to meet her.

    “Marina! Oh Marina, thank the goddess you’re here!” Faline cried, nearly weeping in relief.

    “Faline? What are you—? Where have you been?!” Marina demanded. “Commander Eilonwy is furious about your absence; she’ll have you mucking stables until this time next year if you don’t have a darned good explanation!”

    Faline seemed to pale at the threat and began to explain herself very, very quickly.

    “I know, and I’m very sorry. I wanted to join Lady Azura. Her group has been fighting Melora and they needed all the help they can get. And they still do!”

    Marina seemed unimpressed.

    They’re fighting Melora? What do you think we’ve been doing, playing aerial polo?! And, just what’s going on here anyway? I was ordered to reinforce the Cilaeans here because they were being attacked by traitors. A unit of Pegasus knights will be here shortly. I rode ahead to bring word to Commander Flozell.”

    “Marina, no! Don’t side with them! There’s been a horrifying mistake! We’ve been falsely accused of ransacking those villages, but we’re not traitors!” Faline pleaded, tears forming in her eyes. She quickly told her comrade the story behind the incident and that Flozell’s claims were utterly false.

    “Please! You have to help us save Bryan!” Faline continued. “They’ve got him in that guillotine over there!”

    “Wait, you mean him? Isn’t he that guy you always went on about because he rescued you from pirates or something?”

    “Yes, exactly! Marina, please! I’m begging you! You’ve got to believe me! Bryan is innocent! I’ve been with him long enough to know!”

    “How can you be so sure?”

    “Because I love him!” Faline blurted, tears falling down her face. “I love Bryan with my heart and soul. And I’d never love a man who’d commit such awful crimes. You know me, Marina…”

    “You loving him won’t mean much in court,” Marina informed Faline gravely. “As for knowing you, not as well as I thought apparently, since I once believed you’d never leave your unit on a whim without so much as a by-your-leave.”

    Faline could literally feel the color drain out of her face but, before she could say more, Norman cut in.

    “Milady Marina!” he called out. “Captain Bryan was at the medicinal lab near the swamp at the time of the alleged crime. My associates and I met him there, and we will testify to his whereabouts if need be!”

    “So the accused has an alibi?” Marina asked, her tone changing. “Well, that might change things. I will help you, at least until a verdict is handed down. But, if you’re lying to me Faline, then a stint mucking stables will be the least of your worries.”

    “Oh, thank you, Marina! Thank you!”

    With that, Marina took her place beside Azura and company and the battle continued. Flozell merely grumbled at this setback and ordered his men to charge. Azura and company’s spirits had been bolstered by Marina’s joining them and they fought all the harder. Once more, they began a determined, but forcibly slowed march towards Bryan, batting aside anyone that crossed their path with sword flats, lance shafts and axe hafts. The enemy Priests and Bishops continued to heal the enemy but Faline clubbed both soundly with the shaft of her lance and they fell to the street, out cold. Now that Flozell could no longer put his wounded back into the fray, the group advanced towards him and Bryan more rapidly. Marina and Faline flew ahead as the group had finally approached the overwhelmed commander minutes later.

    “Marina! You dare betray us and side with traitors?!” Flozell exclaimed hotly.

    “The accused has an alibi,” Marina pointed out. “And even if he didn’t, executing an accused prisoner before a verdict has been handed down is a punishable offense.”

    “Well, if that’s the way it’s gotta be, then that’s the way it’s gotta be,” Flozell replied, reaching to release the guillotine’s blade.

    “NO!! LEAVE HIM ALONE!!” Faline exploded, both in anger and fright.

    “Faline, wait! It’s a trick!” Marina protested, spotting two archers positioned on either side of Faline out of the corner of her eye. Faline, however, was ready for this attack. Marina watched, open mouthed, as Faline pulled her feet free of the stirrups and then swung herself into a near handstand atop the saddle. The two arrows whizzed past her and, before the stupefied archers could react, buried themselves in the guts of either bowman. Flozell, also stunned, brought up his blade to fend her off. Faline then swung back into the stirrups and took to the air once more as the familiar glow enveloped her body and steed. Her armor slowly expanded in size and a matching cape flamed from her back. Ankle guards and spurs were added to her feet while an ornate horse trapping appeared on the Pegasus’s back and enshrouded its front side while a horse helm with a long horn appeared on its head. The fur on the backs of its ankles grew as well.

    “YOU MESS WITH THE MAN I LOVE, YOU MESS WITH ME!” Faline blurted, enraged. She then angrily ripped her ponytail free, shoved the hair clip into her satchel, and readied her lance once more. Three foot lancers charged forth in an attempt to protect their commander, but Faline was not merciful. Azura, the others, and even Bryan watched in amazement as the newly promoted Falcon Knight gracefully twirled her lance and delivered blow after blow against the soldiers, her long hair flowing behind her in pink cascades. She drove her newly gained spurs into the two soldiers on either side of her Pegasus and thrust her lance over her head and downward in order to impale the one behind her directly in the head. The two remaining soldiers sprung to their feet once more, only to find Faline had dismounted, her eyes full of flame. She twirled her lance once more and drove its blade into the flesh of the soldier in front of her. The pommel was smashed against the second one’s stomach. Faline leaped into the air and delivered a flying kick into his head and then ended him with a stab to the gut.

    Dang, Bryan thought to himself, almost forgetting about the enormous blade hanging over him. She’s on fire. Hehe, that’s my Faline. So dangerous, yet so beautiful… Skye shook his head while the others simply stared in amazement as Faline mounted her Pegasus once more and again swooped towards Flozell. Flozell, by now, was in a state of shock and was soon yanked away from Bryan by the collar of his tunic. Faline made no hesitation to shove the blade of her lance into his throat and violently toss his body to the ground. She then dismounted the Pegasus once more, breathing slowly and heavily.

    “Had enough yet?!” Faline shot at the remaining soldiers who, deciding they were outmatched, dropped their weapons and surrendered. Faline then gradually calmed down, dizzy and lightheaded from the heat of the moment, as she produced her hair clip and secured her hair once more in her customary ponytail. She instantly rushed to Bryan’s aid and removed the gag from his mouth.

    “Bryan! Are you alright?”

    “…Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Bryan replied through a cough. “You—”

    “Captain Bryan!” an unfamiliar voice interrupted from a nearby road. Everyone’s attention was turned to the numerous soldiers that had newly arrived, though these soldiers were Talgrian rather than Cilaean. Above them was yet another Pegasus with garb similar to that of Faline’s.

    “That’s my platoon! And Lady Louise!” Bryan gasped.

    “Oh, Bryan! We’re so relieved you’re safe!” Louise chimed, landing her Pegasus in front of the guillotine in which Bryan was still held. “These idiots didn’t hurt you, did they?”

    “No, but they would have and more if my companions hadn’t been here, especially Faline,” Bryan confirmed as one of his men pried open the stocks.

    “You sure you’re unharmed, Sir?” the soldier inquired as the stocks gave away.

    “Positive. I’m pleased to see you and everyone else are safe.”

    “We’re so sorry we’re late,” Louise continued. “We received word about the attacks on the villages by a group that claimed to be your platoon.”

    “Allied Command knew we could not have done it since we were aiding the evacuation of Allied Command from Jerusa at the time,” the soldier who freed Bryan added. “But, since the raven messengers never showed up, there was no way to get the word out about the deception. Lady Louise came as well with a message from Queen Belinda to back up our alibi.”

    “Speaking of alibis,” Norman stepped in, “allow me to reiterate that Bryan was at the medicinal lab near the swamp when the crime was committed. My associates from the lab and I will gladly testify if need be.”

    “I thank you, Father,” Louise replied, removing a sheet of parchment. “These orders come straight from Queen Belinda herself; her signature and her signet are on them and should be enough to validate our claims.”

    The late Flozell’s second-in-command snatched the parchment and examined it.

    “Well, signatures can be forged,” he began, noting the less-than-friendly looks that greeted his words, “but signets can’t. Signet rings are enchanted to prevent being duplicated or used by anyone other than the rightful ruler. So, this is authentic.”

    “That’s correct. As for the rest of you,” Louise continued, eyeing the remaining Cilaean troops, “Allied Command has ordered you to release these people. See to your wounded and might I suggest that you exercise better judgment in the future? This altercation has cost us time and lives when we can least afford to lose either.”

    The Cilaeans, looking quite chagrined at the reprimand, dispersed to tend to their injured.

    “Oh, one more thing, Captain,” the soldier who freed Bryan went on. “We also ran into a pair of laguz on our way here. They told us they were looking for you and a man named Marc. Lady Louise instead persuaded them to travel ahead to General Leyon and his troops, who are currently encamped in Fort Tehya. Allied Command received reports stating that General Shigo has taken the field and is headed for Astryn. Lady Louise wishes for us to rendezvous with General Leyon to reinforce him against Shigo.”

    “Ah, excellent plan. We’ll head there immediately before crossing the border into Astryn,” Bryan decided and then turned to Faline. “And Faline… Thanks a lot. You saved my life.”

    “Bryan, you know I had to,” Faline replied, a loving smile forming on her face. “I love you way too much. Plus, you once saved me, so I was returning the favor.”

    “That you were. By the way, I was very impressed with you. I guess I’m a good teacher. Don’t you think you were a bit overdramatic though?”

    “Heh, in my case, not at all. See, if I have my hair in a ponytail, I have a strange habit of ripping it free whenever I get really angry. Hehe…”

    “Ah, that makes sense…sort of. Oh, and Lady Louise, I’m afraid a Cilaean commander was slain during the battle. Faline did what she had to do to rescue me.”

    “I see,” Louise replied, her tone grim. “We may very well feel that loss on the front lines but, if he was prepared to execute you without a verdict, then he probably would not have ended up much better off had he lived. Well, there’s nothing to be done at the moment and we have a long journey ahead of us if we’re to pass through Astryn and then homeward.”

    “Hm? We were planning to return to Aracion after investigating a...certain matter in Astryn. But, does his majesty command us to return at once?” Bryan inquired.

    “No, but he wishes for me to. You’ve heard about the trouble in Talgria, haven’t you? They need a lot of help right now. And besides that, Allied Command decided to move its operations to Aracion because of the threat of seaborne attacks by Melora.”

    “I’ll go too,” Marina added. “Faline was right when she told me you need all the help you can get. I just need to let the other Pegasus knights in town know about the change in plans and we can be on our way.”

    “Ah, I see. Then let’s get moving,” Bryan agreed.

    With that, the Sentinel ordered his men to restock their supplies if necessary and regroup on the outskirts of town within the next hour. They were to serve as reinforcements in the event of battle afterwards while he, Azura and company continued to act as the vanguard of the fighting force. Azura’s group, meanwhile, resupplied elsewhere in town as well. Skye quickly approached Bryan as they walked into a shopping district, his surprise and amazement at Faline’s vicious act still evident.

    “Hey Bryan, where did Faline learn those maneuvers back there? Did you teach her?”

    “Yeah, she wanted me to, remember?” Bryan recalled with a smile.

    “Well, yeah, but…I didn’t think you’d know that much about Pegasus knights. No offense.”

    “Don’t worry, you’re right. I don’t know a lot about them. That’s why it’s good that I have this handy,” Bryan assured, producing an old, tattered red book.

    “Huh?! How do you still have that?!” Skye exclaimed, nearly falling over. “I thought those delinquents totally ruined it a long time ago!”

    “Hehe, that was the book on the basics that I lost. I only pretended it was the one about famous lancers and advanced lancing techniques; those punks thought they came away with more than they really did and left me alone for a bit while they were still laughing it up. This book I always kept at home to protect it.”

    Skye couldn’t help but smile and chuckle slightly before responding.

    “Heh. Bryan, that’s exactly why I like you. You’re a conniving character and a right sneak; my kind of guy all over. Of course, you were always fun to hang with too. I definitely made the right decision in getting to know you back then.”

    “Aw, shucks. I only did what I needed to. Besides, you’re the one who had the awesome idea of shooting the other kids with that slingshot of yours.”

    “Ohhh, yeah, that was such a blast! They never knew who did it either because we always stayed hidden! And when I shot them with those miniature stink bombs, that was priceless! Haha, shooting stuff is so much fun. That’s why I became an archer.”

    “I figured as much. It works out nicely, though! While I’m attacking up close to defend you, you’re behind me firing away at the enemies in the distance that would otherwise overwhelm me.”

    “Right on!”

    The hour seemed to pass in the blink of an eye as everyone finished restocking the wagon, along with making sure the supplies fit in so they didn’t squish Ike and, more importantly, so that Ike didn’t eat the whole stockpile. Ike himself also reported that he felt he could remove his splints soon. Elincia, however, decided to wait until they arrived at Fort Tehya just to be sure and, besides which, his near death experience from the poisoned ribs did not stop him from salivating at the site of the dried beef the wagon was now crammed with. Elincia also chose to ride in the wagon with him to make sure Ike remained undisturbed and that nothing fell out. Neither Bryan nor Marc were particularly excited about meeting up with Janz and Lauren again, whom they surmised to be the two laguz looking for them, but knew the more allies, the better. However, just as they were on their way to rejoin Louise and Bryan’s men, their thoughts were interrupted near the outskirts of town. Two Cilaean soldiers, a foot lancer and a Swordmaster, quickly approached Faline, large grins and clear recognition on their faces. Faline simply groaned.

    “Ah, if it isn’t the lovely Faline!” the Swordmaster blurted uncontrollably and bowed before her in a fashion that, from a gentleman, might’ve impressed a lady. “Oh how we’ve missed you so!”

    “Indeed. Things just haven’t been the same since you left the Pegasus knights behind!” the foot lancer added. “Commander Eilonwy seems to want you shoeing Pegasi until you’re fairly gray, but I’m sure we can intercede on your behalf.”

    Faline merely folded her arms.

    “Oh please. Can’t you two take a hint?!” she grunted. “I don’t need your help explaining myself to the Commander and I certainly don’t like either of you! Also, Bryan is the man I love. You’ll never hold a candle to him!”

    “That’s right,” Bryan stepped forward and ahead of Faline, his eyes gleaming with a brooding intensity. “Now how about you both back off before I decide to get nasty?”

    “What, this guy?” the Swordsman inquired, eyeing Bryan. “He’s the so-called Emerald Sentinel isn’t he? Ha, I heard he only beat so many soldiers ‘cause they went easy on him! Haha! How pathetic.”

    “Yeah, if the enemy felt so bad for this guy, then he’s a milksop, Faline,” the foot lancer agreed. They burst into laughter seconds later. Faline angrily stepped forward, but Bryan raised his hand to stop her, knowing that Lartz’s account disproved the taunt and Bryan refused to be baited. Not that these two would walk away unscathed, however.

    “So you think I’m a wimp, huh? Care to test that theory?!” he retorted and launched his fist into the Swordmaster’s face. The man was staggered by the blow and what looked like a wisdom tooth flew from his gaping and newly bloodied jaw. The foot lancer gasped and lunged for Bryan in an attempt to defend his partner. Bryan merely responded by raising his shield, then thrusting the pommel of his lance into the soldier’s stomach. The Swordmaster clambered to his feet moments later with sword in hand, but Bryan easily sidestepped the clumsy charge and scythed his foe’s legs out from under him. The Swordmaster’s face plowed through the dirt and Bryan then swung his lance around until it collided with the swordsman’s head, knocking him out cold. Meanwhile, the foot lancer was scrambling to his feet in hopes of avenging his partner. Bryan decided to end the fight quickly by simply raising his shield. The lancer, going too fast to stop, ran face first into it and fall into unconsciousness on top of his friend.

    “Hehe. Well, that takes care of that,” Bryan commented, slinging his weapon over his back and brushing his hands off. “They should leave you alone now, Faline. Let’s get going.”

    “Oh, Bryan! I love you even more now!” Faline swooned, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing a kiss to his cheek, which turned pink alongside the other one. Skye simply gaped in amazement once more.

    “Bryan, geez. I never thought I’d see the day you’d go beating the crap out of people like that.”

    “Yeah, normally I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing so easily, but I’d do anything for Faline.”

    “Heh, I guess so.”

    Faline couldn’t help but smooch Bryan’s cheek once more as they continued outside of town. As per their orders, Bryan’s platoon awaited them alongside Louise. The entire group immediately began their fairly short journey to Fort Tehya. The distance was not great and, with the dilemma of Bryan being framed momentarily resolved, they traveled unhindered and unopposed. Marc and Leona in particular were looking forward to seeing their commander again after being away from the Royal Knights for so long. Azura and the others were relieved that they’d soon have a large enough force that could hopefully take on the army Shigo was leading through Astryn. They were also very eager to hear the story Bryan’s father, Owen, had to tell. Shigo’s connection to the death of Bryan’s mother and the mysterious necklace found at Owen’s shop had raised quite a few questions which Bryan wanted answered.

    The group was barely within sight of their destination when Kiel sighed reluctantly and approached Bryan.

    “Bryan, I must say, what you did back there was impressive. But next time you run into anyone who attempts to mess with you, think about what you’re getting yourself into before you start busting heads.”

    “Thank you, Kiel. And don’t worry,” Bryan assured him. “They don’t call me the Emerald Sentinel for nothing. It’ll probably be a long time before I run into anyone who’s a match for me.”

    Kiel did not seem satisfied and instead stepped in front of the lancer, blocking his path. Bryan was forced to halt as he arched an eyebrow in puzzlement.

    “Hey, what gives?”

    “Bryan, I’m serious. Listen to me when I say you don’t want to get overconfident!”

    “I’m not being overconfident. I know my own skills and limits.”

    “Do you? I really have a hard time believing that. You may have good armor, skills, and weapons, but they will do you no good if you can’t put them to proper use.”

    “What?! Are you saying I misuse my weapons and abilities?!”

    “Not at all. I’m saying that not thinking a fight through before you get into one and merely assuming your strengths will prevail no matter what is dangerous. And this is a lesson I learned the hard way.”

    “Exactly what do you mean?”

    “He has a point, Bryan,” Ranulf stepped in. “Laguz are known to be rather reckless when it comes to battle. They care little for details and even ignore tactics at times. I actually knew one back in Tellius who didn’t want to strategize at all. And sometimes beorc can be the same way.”

    “What?! Don’t tell me you two don’t think I give a damn about strategies!” Bryan protested. “It was me who planned our defense during that fight on the ship!”

    “True. But in that case, we were in a full-fledged battle,” Kiel pointed out. “We weren’t suddenly confronted by a couple of jerks who got on Faline’s nerves.”

    “Right. But I still don’t know what you were talking about when you said you learned your lesson the hard way.”

    Bryan folded his arms as he awaited an answer.

    “Well then, I’ll tell you,” Kiel replied grimly. “Rather, I’ll show you, actually. I’m sure all of you have noticed by now that my hair always covers my right eye. Ever wonder why?”

    Before anyone could answer Kiel’s question, he slid his hair aside from his face. What was revealed elicited several gasps and jaws dropping, but the red wolf quickly motioned for silence. Kiel practically had no right eye at all. Instead, the eyelid seemed to be permanently sealed shut and was marred with three slash marks with spanned from the top of his cheek to his forehead was in its place. The skin of the eyelid was fairly wrinkled as well, giving the impression that the eye was askew, or even gone altogether. No one spoke for at least a few seconds until Azura broke the silence, her eyes still wide open.

    “Kiel! Your eye... Is it—?”

    “It is indeed. I have been blind in one eye for several years.”

    “And it happened in a situation that wasn’t much different from yours, Bryan,” Sara added, her tone as snippy as ever but with an uncommon trace of sadness.

    “Exactly. I was only trying to protect my sister from a pair of outlaws and I thought I could take both of them out myself,” Kiel explained. “So I attacked them. It was a huge mistake. They were wolf laguz like me and before I knew it, one of them had me by the neck and slashed my eye with the claws of his front paw.”

    Kiel went on to explain that even though only three out of the four claws on the paw that struck him had made contact with this flesh, his eye had literally been torn apart. His attacker might as well have ripped the eyeball right out of its socket. Blood was splattered all over Kiel’s face within seconds as he forced himself back into his human form, and screamed louder than a wyvern’s roar. Sara had burst into tears, though she admitted to such with much reluctance, as Kiel kept his hands clasped over his eye and continued to bellow in pain.

    “It was lucky for us that we had enough vulneraries handy,” Sara continued. “Of course, although it healed his injury by permanently closing his eyelid and turning the claw marks into scars, it was impossible to repair the eyeball.”

    “And my eye has been blind ever since,” Kiel finished, letting his hair fall over his eye once again.

    “I don’t believe it...” Bryan murmured a few seconds later. “But I think I see what you’re saying now, Kiel. If I get overconfident trying to protect those I love and care about, I could end up taking a serious injury too.”

    “Exactly. But what happened to me afterwards was just as bad, if not worse.”

    “Huh?”

    “Because of the way I looked from then on, I was ashamed to show my face to anyone. Sara was the only one I could be around for a long time. I was worried about how my fellow laguz would react if they found out, especially since we’ve only recently been accepted in Eraghoa. I grew my hair so it would cover it up in both of my forms, but leave my left eye to help me see. When I saw Bryan take out those two men, I knew he was tempting fate and that I needed to bring this up later.”

    “Kiel…” Azura uttered, too shocked to form a sentence.

    “I want this to stay between us,” Kiel went on, his tone brooking no argument. “I’m still worried about what the others in Eraghoa will say if they find out about this. And, well, I think it’s no secret this thing is pretty darned ugly. If you can’t bear it, I…I understand.” With that, he turned around, sniffled, and allowed a tear to trickle down his cheek.

    “Kiel… No,” Faline stepped in and walked around to face the saddened wolf laguz. “I’m not afraid. Anyone who is is stupid and ignorant. Besides that, I think those scars look cool! Though, it could do without the wrinkly skin.”

    “R-Really?”

    “Yeah, I think so too!” Lily added and quickly approached the two. “Those scars make you look even tougher than you already do!”

    “Thanks, you guys. This means a lot to me. Still, I don’t want anyone back in Eraghoa finding out about this. The laguz don’t welcome...cripples in the pack.”

    “Well, they’re welcome to their decision, but we’ve already made ours,” Azura affirmed.

    “Yeah, and I’m sorry for not listening to you before. I’ll always bear this in mind,” Bryan assured and then noticed the saddle on Lartz’s wyvern was empty. “Wait a minute, where’s Lartz?”

    “Oh, I-I’m right here…” Lartz’s voice spoke up. He poked his head out from behind the wing of his wyvern, making a less than convincing show of tightening the straps on the saddle.

    “Just what on earth are you doing?” Skye inquired, raising one eyebrow and clearly not buying Lartz’s clumsy deception.

    “Yeah, you’ve been acting weird ever since we met you,” Bryan added.

    Lartz was silent for a long moment, his eyes straying away from the others’ gazes, as if gravely uncertain whether or not to reply. After a long moment, he sighed and spoke.

    “I’m really sorry. I suppose there’s no use keeping this to myself any longer. I’ll tell you as we keep moving,” Lartz decided.

    “Go ahead,” Azura encouraged with a smile. “There’s no need to be nervous.”

    “Okay,” Lartz began as he remounted his wyvern and the group began moving again. “I…I’m a little nervous around wolf laguz. Not exactly scared, just nervous.”

    “But why? I’m shaky enough around you as it is,” Kiel admitted, eyeing Lartz’s mount with obvious discomfort. “I fear wyverns more than anything.”

    “Well, you see, I’m not what I seem to be. I’m…a Branded.”

    With that, everyone fell silent as gasps escaped several mouths. From what they knew, Branded were a very rare race, even in Altarais where the beorc and the laguz had long coexisted peacefully. Azura was the first to speak up.

    “A Branded? If I recall right, aren’t they beorc who have laguz ancestors somewhere in their bloodline?”

    “Correct,” Lartz confirmed. “I’m descended from the wolf laguz. I’d show you my brand, but it’d require me to take my chest plate off and I don’t believe we have the time for that.”

    The dracoknight continued to explain how he always wished he had been born as a pure wolf laguz instead of a Meloran with a wolf’s blood. Ever since he was young, Lartz carried a bitter hatred in his heart for Melora and their actions and beliefs. Many of them were cut from the same cloth as the Red Claw; violent sadists who reveled in the pain and suffering of their enemies. They even used blood pacts, cursed documents that gradually killed the citizens of the nation who signed it if its terms were not followed, as Melora had gradually expanded to its current borders. The Melorans also instigated the war between the beorc and laguz to fight many generations before through the same base trickery and proxy warfare they’d conducted using the Red Claw, despite that both sides eventually forging a peace. And now the nation’s current ruler, Queen Isis, sought to follow in the footsteps of her late husband and take over Altarais as was his wish. Those who were fortunate would die by Meloran blades and those who were not would live condemned to slavery and bondage under the blood pacts.

    “But what do my pendant and I have to do with all of this?” Azura wondered.

    “That, I don’t know. I avoided the conflicts of the last war as best as I could, but I do know the death of Melora’s previous king was what ended it,” Lartz continued. “I was actually happy after that but never thought Isis would start another one. When I see a Meloran now, I can’t help but get the urge to lash out at them. I’d even murder my own family if given the chance. My parents and sister were no better, they’re just as cruel and twisted as nearly everyone else within those borders…”

    Lartz formed an angry fist as he finished his story. Azura and the others, despite the dracoknight’s harsh sentiments, couldn’t help but feel for him. No one could choose who or what they were born as but living with it was often a harsh task. Well, this explains his behavior back at the fort, Bryan thought to himself. He must’ve wanted to make sure neither Kiel nor Sara were around.

    “Well, just remember that not all Melorans are that bad,” Azura pointed out. “You’re living proof, after all.”

    “True…” Lartz agreed.

    “Ah, there’s the fort!” Louise exclaimed moments later. She pointed to a large fortified structure with many towers. The group excitedly followed her to the gate and then to the keep’s entrance. Just as Bryan’s soldiers had reported, several Royal Knights on horseback as well as a few infantry awaited them out front. Marc and Leona quickly rode ahead to greet their comrades.

    “General Leyon! We’re so sorry to have worried you!” Marc spoke up, breaking the silence.

    “Yeah, helping Azura turned out to be more complicated than we thought,” Leona added. “In fact, we’re still at it!”

    “Hey, long time no see! And, think on it no further. I would’ve done the same in your place. I’m just glad to see you both safe and sound,” Leyon replied with a smile. “By the way, a pair of raven laguz from Perais wishes to speak with you, Marc, as well as Bryan. They’re waiting for you two inside.”

    “Ah, right. I’ll go see what they want.” Marc then motioned Bryan to follow him. Seeing Janz again wasn’t particularly appealing to Bryan, but he disappeared inside the fort with Marc regardless. Leyon turned to Azura.

    “Ah, you must be Azura. I’m Leyon, the commander of the Talgrian Royal Knights. Your reputation has traveled far, and some of what I’ve heard is quite extraordinary. Meeting you in person is an honor I’ve been looking forward to for some time now.”

    It might’ve been Azura’s imagination but she could’ve sworn she felt blood rushing to her cheeks. And, though this also might be her eyes playing tricks on her, she thought she saw a hint of smugness in Leyon’s expression.

    “Yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you. We should leave here as soon as possible though. Who knows what Melora or the Red Claw will do next.”

    “Agreed. As soon as Bryan and Marc return, I will brief the troops on our planned route and we’ll be heading on our way. With our forces combined, I have no doubts that we’ll be able to defeat Shigo and return to his majesty in Talgria before things get any worse.”

    “I hope so. Lartz here revealed some important information to us, though. I’ll tell you about it later on, though I think it might best be kept private.”

    Leyon nodded approvingly, now curious about what Lartz knew himself. His thoughts were interrupted minutes later, however, when Bryan and Marc emerged from the fort, followed by Janz and Lauren, the very same laguz they met after being lost at sea and washing up in Perais. Quick introductions between people who hadn’t met were made soon after.

    “Our queen, Lilah, decided Melora’s actions on the mainland were too dangerous to ignore and sent us to join you,” Janz explained to Azura.

    “Plus, we might find out exactly what’s happening to our brethren and where Melora is keeping them,” Lauren added.

    “What?!” Azura gasped, having not known this information.

    “Yeah, my blood was boiling hotter than lava when I found out,” Janz replied.

    The two laguz explained that raven messengers on the mainland had been gradually disappearing for several days. Just as Leyon had deduced from the ravens’ absence from relaying Allied communications and his later discovery of the raven feathers in Fort Tehya, Queen Lilah grew certain that there was foul play involved. When Janz and Lauren had arrived and learned of Leyon’s findings, they agreed that Melora was holding the ravens hostage. Azura figured that this explained why the raven in Castle Eraghoa lied to them about Ike’s well-being and seemed near to panic the whole time. His captors must have forced him to do so, likely on pain of death, especially considering what Lartz revealed about Melora’s fondness for violent and sadistic practices against their enemies.

    Aware that time was precious, Leyon quickly gathered the troops and made sure his briefing was quite succinct.

    “I’m sure you all know about General Shigo’s army crossing the border into Astryn,” he began, hardly needing to wait for an answer. “They may be attempting to attack Astryn, pass through to attack Talgria, or both. Whatever the case, we’re going to stop them. A force of that size will likely stick to the Ystrad river valley, where it’s wide and flat. We’ll likely have to take the same route for at least part of the journey but we’ll be able to take a shortcut through the Caline Fallows.”

    Bryan’s ears perked up at the name. Wasn’t that the name of the woman to whom his father gave the engraved necklace he’d found at the abandoned shop? Before he could ponder further, Leyon continued.

    “The Fallows are almost as flat as the Ystrad valley, but narrower and quite a bit uglier. However, taking them will allow us to make up the time we lost and maybe even pull ahead of them. We’ll have outriders, cavaliers and our fliers, scouting ahead of the column to ensure we’re not caught unawares. Beyond that, usual rules: find the enemy and make them wish they stayed the bloody hell home!”

    Knowing a good exit line when they heard one, the combined force set out immediately. Since Fort Tehya hadn’t been far from the Astrynian border, the group crossed it quickly and without incident. While they did so, Elincia helped Ike remove his splints as promised, though she told him he still couldn’t have half the wagon’s food despite his protestations that he was hungrier than a lion laguz fresh from a fortnight’s fast. The chagrined and ever hungry Ike, however, still found his limbs to be rather stiff due to having not used them for so long and agreed to remain in the wagon until they returned to normal; and even then he managed to sweet talk Elincia into letting him have a huge joint of seasoned beef first.

    Despite this, he hoped he could be of some use in the upcoming battle. Ike was not one to simply sit around while his friends risked their lives, after all. Besides, he was rather looking forward to seeing the looks on the Melorans’ faces when they discovered he was still alive. It was a sound tactic, Melora would never see it coming and, above all, nobody ruined Ike’s meals and got away with it.

    The Allied force crossed the Ystrad river valley with little difficulty. There were signs of numerous camps that had been pitched and then broken, likely Shigo’s force settling in for the night and carrying on the next day. Gradually, the ashes from doused fires and gouges in the earth from tent stakes grew fresher and the troops knew that they were catching up fast. Leyon then diverted the column into the Caline Fallows as planned, sending Lartz, Faline, Marina, Marc, Leona, Ranulf, Kiel and Sara ahead to act as outriders; if any enemy was up ahead or approached the column from the flank, they were to return with warning at once. As the column crossed the Fallows, again undisturbed by the enemy, Bryan again pondered what connection might exist between these Fallows and the woman who shared their name whom his father had evidently known. The Fallows were grim and barren, the land sickened with blight and too many clashes between unknown adversaries while abandoned farms and ruined fields dotted the landscape, and they offered no insight to Bryan. Still, if there was a connection between these Fallows and this mysterious Caline, he suspected that connection wasn’t a pleasant one.

    Only a short time had passed when the large group left the fallows and spotted another fort in the distance. The outriders quickly scouted it from a safe distance and revealed that it was heavily guarded by Meloran forces. At every wall and every corner stood soldiers and cavaliers, some garbed in similar armor to that of the Royal Knights and Bryan before he had become a Sentinel, which meant that they would not be easy foes to confront. Heavy knights guarded the main gates and doors while archers and mages flanked the tops of the main ramps, ready to fire at any attackers. Other units, such as healers and axe fighters, were scattered elsewhere.

    “Blast! We don’t have the time to be fighting all these guys right now!” Bryan complained. “I just want to defeat Shigo, rescue my father, get him to tell me what I want to know, and get to Aracion.”

    “You know, you’re right. If we could just get Shigo to—” Azura began. However, a deep chuckling voice cut her off.

    “Hehehe. Look who finally decided to show up.”

    Everyone’s attention was turned in the direction of the main gate. Racing towards them from the threshold was a black horse garbed in similar armor and trappings to Leyon’s. Its rider was the very same man Leyon spotted near Fort Tehya. Lartz quickly approached Bryan and leaned over in the saddle to get his attention.

    “Bryan, that’s him!”

    “Lartz?” Shigo noticed. “I had a feeling you’d defected. Well, what a disappointment you turned out to be.”

    “Let’s see if you’re still laughing when I chop you into kindling!” Lartz retorted.

    Bryan was about to remind Lartz, none-too-gently, that no one was going to kill Shigo besides Bryan himself but Shigo cut him off.

    “Pity. I thought you the perfect specimen; ruthless, aggressive and merciless. The way you torched that Meloran village, and practically depopulated it, was incredible. My parents were among your victims, though not that I minded, they were weak, so I decided to make something of you. I was hesitant since you killed my twin sister, she was the only one I ever trusted, but I thought the gamble was worth it. Sadly, you disproved me.”

    “I don’t give a damn! Melora is hopelessly tainted by evil! Every act I did to punish it was well deserved!”

    ”That was always the problem with you, no discipline. Don’t you remember the first thing I taught you? ‘Don’t fight a battle if you don’t gain anything by winning.’ You think I’m pathetic? You’re the one who was torching villages because you couldn’t accept your roots. I should’ve given Selia her due vengeance long ago, but I can still kill you now.”

    “Not if I can help it!” Bryan intervened. “I know you have my father and I want him back! You wanted me alive, so here I am! We’ll settle this here and now, man-to-man!”

    “Tempting. But, I’d rather let my men have some fun first. We’ll see if you’re a worthy opponent for me in the process. And your father? I presume you mean this man right here.”

    With that, Shigo snapped his fingers and within the next minute, a bound man in a gray cloak with dark grayish blue hair was brought to the parapet of the fort. By straining his eyes, Bryan could make out enough of the man’s face to recognize him.

    “DAD!” Bryan hollered, his angry expression suddenly turning into a look of peril. “Murdering my mother when I was a baby didn’t satisfy you, Shigo?! Let him go if you want to die easy!”

    Hearing this even from such a distance, Owen’s head suddenly shot up, eyes widened with disbelief that his son knew his mother’s fate.

    “So you found that much out, did you?” Shigo chuckled. “Ha, like it will help you any.”

    “We don’t have time to play games with you, Shigo!” Azura stepped in. “You wanted to fight Bryan? Let’s get it over with!”

    “Ah, you’re that girl her majesty is so interested in, aren’t you?” Shigo guessed. “Maybe a second hostage will change your mind.”

    The general snapped his fingers once more. This time, Lorelle was brought up to the parapet, also bound.

    “NO! MOTHER!” Azura gasped in fear.

    “The Red Claw picked her up in Talgria for me after they turned Galden into a bonfire. Hehe, I thought she might be of use.”

    “That does it! Bryan, let’s give them a world of pain!” Azura demanded.

    “It would be my pleasure!” Bryan agreed, arming himself with his lance and shield. Shigo snickered.

    “See you later, oh noble one!”

    With that, the general galloped away, leaving his men and the fort behind. There’s that title again, Bryan thought. Wait… Could this mean Shigo knows something I don’t and that I actually am of noble birth? Father has a lot of explaining to do once we get him out of there.

    With that, the group charged towards the main gate, which remained open. As much as he wanted to give chase and overtake Shigo, Bryan knew the safety of his father and Lorelle had to come first. Plus, he knew tearing these soldiers apart would help prepare him for when the battle with Shigo finally came. The stronger Bryan became, the better his chances against such a terror. However, there were more important concerns on his mind at the moment than even that. Both he and Azura feared as they began cleaving through the Melorans that Owen and Lorelle would be injured, or worse. It was all too possible for a stray arrow or carelessly thrown spell to mistakenly hit them instead of the intended target.

    The others reaching the same conclusion, they proceeded with caution. Leyon advised Azura to be careful and allow him to take the hostages to safety since he could do so the most quickly and with the least danger. But, the determined mercenary insisted that she knew what she was doing. Azura did agree, however, that it was best for someone on a mount to transport Owen and Lorelle away from the fray and allowed the general to do so. While the rest of the group held back the forces on the fort grounds, the Royal Knights charged up the main ramp followed by Bryan. Leyon was leery about how they’d handle the heavy knights, even with him using Olegxing, but luckily, the first one to fall dropped a hammer. After snickering with delight, Leyon literally smashed through the remainder with his new weapon fairly easily. Hammers were excellent for penetrating such thick armor, as they could pound through it almost as easily as a blade could cut flesh.

    Meanwhile, Kevin’s mercenaries, Azura’s group, and Louise split into two units and headed in opposite directions in order to circle the fort grounds while defending one another’s backs at the same time. Bryan’s men remained stationed near the wagon, both to provide reinforcements as needed and to cut off possible escape routes for the Melorans. Ike simply sat within the wagon itself and groaned. Man… Looks like there’s no place for me in this once again, he thought to himself. Gah, I hate being useless! However, Ike soon discovered he had more to worry about than just his companions. Minutes later, Leyon finally had both Lorelle and Owen clinging to his mount and headed for the main gate. However, several enemy reinforcements gave chase. Many of their comrades within the fort grounds had by then perished, allowing Bryan and the other Royal Knights to easily rush to Leyon’s aid. Bryan’s men also joined the fray in an attempt to protect the wagon and the Clydesdales. Leyon’s pursuers were swiftly caught between Bryan’s men and their own pursuers, and were cut to pieces.

    Once the Melorans were vanquished, Lorelle and Owen practically toppled from Leyon’s horse, though neither seemed seriously injured. Azura and Bryan quickly rushed to their sides after watching Lorelle weakly stagger in Owen’s direction, who then caught her in his arms.

    “Mother!” Azura cried, coming to a skidding halt before her weakened foster mother. “What’s wrong?!”

    “Oh… Azura! Just…a little tired and hungry,” Lorelle gasped out in delight despite her pain. “I suppose I should count myself lucky I’m still breathing. Those brutes have ice running through their veins.”

    “She should go into the wagon with Ike,” Bryan advised as he and the remainder of the large group exited the fort grounds. The last of the enemy soldiers had finally been vanquished. Lorelle willingly entered the wagon, though Ike and Azura very nearly had to carry her in, and Lorelle was more than relieved to have a real place to rest.

    “Dad, are you alright?” Bryan inquired seconds later.

    “Yes, though as Lorelle said, we were lucky to come away with our lives,” Owen replied. “But what are you doing here? How did you know where to find me? How did you find out Shigo—”

    “I came to rescue you from these barbarians, of course,” Bryan rather coldly replied. “As for how I found Shigo and learned what he did, an ally of mine told me some of the story but not enough! How could you leave me behind to constantly worry about you while this madman who apparently has something against our family was hunting you to finish the job?!”

    “Bryan, I…”

    “And then while the stress keeps piling up, I find out my mother was murdered when I was only an infant!” Bryan cut him off. “I also found this hidden in the shop!”

    With that, the Sentinel produced the jeweled necklace he and Ike had discovered in Narcoss. Owen’s eyes widened once more as a faint gasp escaped his lips.

    “You found your mother’s necklace too…”

    “I did! Why did she have to die? How could any of this have happened?!”

    “Bryan, I am very sorry,” Owen replied remorsefully. “I honestly regret everything I’ve put you through and wish I could take it all back. But I loved your mother with all my heart and I would have never wished harm upon her. All either of us wanted was for you to grow up happy and healthy. When she died, I vowed to raise you in her honor.”

    “Well, isn’t that something!” Bryan retorted, fighting back tears. “Because my childhood was hell and you know it! And you couldn’t do a damn thing about it!”

    “I taught you that you were within your rights to defend yourself, it was your choice not to listen,” Owen replied with a hint on incredulity, but which quickly faded. “I only wish I could’ve done more.”

    “I would hope so. I will admit, I should have listened to you when you told me I needed to step up and defend myself, but that didn’t change the fact that no one gave a damn about me except for you and later, Skye. He was the only person who ever truly made me happy back then.”

    “And I was happy to see it. It overjoyed me to know that my son finally found a friend. Before that, I feared you would never know real friendship and love.”

    “So did I. But now, I know them better than I could have ever imagined. Not only do I have many friends, but I’m famous as well. Heck, I even have a girlfriend and she loves me because I’m me!”

    “And that makes me proud of you, Bryan. Your mother would be just as proud.”

    “I figured as much. But I need to know the truth. Why did you hide so much from me? Why couldn’t you tell me about my mother?”

    “Bryan, as much as I regret it, I had to. I had no choice if I was to protect you. You were too young to know or even understand the truth. But now you must know if Shigo is to be stopped.”

    “Then tell me. I’m all ears.”

    “Good. Are you aware of the rumors about the lost Prince of Astryn?”

    “Yeah, I’ve heard little bits here and there. Sounds pretty far-fetched, if you ask me. Queen Marion never had any children, after all.”

    “That’s true, she didn’t. However, many believe Marion had a younger sister who did and Shigo has been seeking the child for years. Your mother wasn’t the first person he killed in his hunt and I doubt she was the last either.”

    “You mean he believes in this prince? But what does that have to do with me or my mother?”

    Owen was silent for a very long moment, as if he had so much he wanted to say that he could not guess where to begin. Finally, he heaved a long sigh and spoke five words which would alter Bryan’s life, and mission, irrevocably.

    “That prince, Bryan, is you.”

    “W-What?!” Bryan exclaimed, stumbling backwards and dropping his lance. “But…how is that possible?!”

    “Your mother…was Princess Caline herself. And you are the son she left behind at the time of her death. You are the true heir to Astryn’s throne.”

  9. #24
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Now for chapter 22.


    Chapter 22: The Arrival


    Bryan’s brave lance and shield made a ringing clatter as they fell to the ground from his suddenly nerveless fingers, his lower jaw inching to follow. Shock and disbelief hit him like a fist, smashing air from his lungs, and his chest heaved with ragged gasps while his brow streamed. Questions whirled through his head as he tried to make sense of his father’s words, to believe that he was of royal birth. After what felt like hours, he finally spoke.

    “I…I just don’t understand. How could Mother… How could you even…?”

    “Bryan…I’m truly sorry. I also had to hide my own identity in order to protect us,” Owen admitted somberly. “Many years ago, I was a Grand Duke of Astryn. Your mother and I courted each other for years, and we were madly in love. In truth, she had better suitors to choose from, but she made me the happiest of men when she chose me. Astryn supported our union gladly, and the necklace you found was my wedding gift to her. Then, you were born two years later… Our pride and joy… I still retain my title to this day, as I had never renounced it, nor had it stripped from me by the queen. I merely…disappeared with my beloved son.”

    “But…But why? The queen…my mother…everyone must have been worried.”

    “I know, more so than you think, but I had no other choice. Your mother was actually supposed to be with us as well, but...”

    “Shigo got to her first…”

    “Precisely.”

    Bryan couldn’t prevent tears from forming in his eyes once more. The rest of the group whom had been listening to Owen’s story also felt pangs of sympathy and sadness. Azura sensed that even though no more clues to her own mysterious origins had been revealed since discovering the mountain ruins and hearing Lorelle’s story, Bryan’s case was far worse, despite him still having a father. Ike, who could easily hear the conversation from the wagon nearby, also felt the young prince’s pain. Ike recalled, with stark and painful clarity, how he’d learned of his mother’s death from Volke, an assassin. Greil had touched the accursed Lehran’s Medallion, its chaotic energies causing him to go berserk, and he had slain his wife Elena in his rage. Like an old wound, which he reflected it was, it ached at the scene before Ike as if threatening to reopen.

    “Dad…” Bryan uttered, unable to prevent a tear from trickling down his cheek. “You had to hide us from him…didn’t you?”

    ”Yes. Shigo’s invasion was a thing of nightmares. I had suspected he sought to annex Astryn for himself because he seemed to have sole command of the invasion and, when he overran a city or village, he raised his personal banner over it rather than Melora’s flag. Whatever the reason, those settlements that resisted him were quickly crushed. It became obvious that Astryn’s army was outmatched and it was only by luck that we managed to transport Queen Marion to Orenias before they could reach her. The dragons had been Astryn’s friends and allies for centuries and Shigo would not risk opening a second front against them. In time, Queen Marion had grown too weak to be an obstacle to Shigo, but he was aware of you and your mother. He knew also that, so long as a true heir remained, they would be a threat to him. Perhaps, a lethal threat.”

    “W-What did you, Mother, and the other nobles do…?”

    Owen offered a grim shrug and replied.

    “There was little we could do. Astryn’s army had been all but annihilated. What few defenders remained rallied at Medann; if they could not stop Shigo from taking Astryn, then they would make him pay dearly for it. It did, indeed, cost Shigo dearly, but the city fell nonetheless, along with all of its defenders. Your mother, myself and another Grand Duke tried to flee before Shigo finished us off as well. But, Shigo began bombarding the city with catapults launching payloads of stone and flaming pitch, and we were separated. The Grand Duke sought refuge in Cilae, but I did not learn this for some time. Whatever the case, your mother and I chose to take you to Talgria. Your mother rode off with you in her arms, hoping to meet me at the Talgrian border, but Shigo found her first. He struck her in the stomach with his sword and she must’ve been unhorsed by the blow. I was at the Talgrian border, where we’d decided to meet in case we got separated. I waited for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, but I knew something was wrong. I turned back and tried to find the two of you. Eventually, I found her collapsed in a barren field with you cradled in her right arm. I could see she was badly hurt and I dug out an elixir to try and heal her, but it was too late. She’d lost too much blood and breathed her last breaths in the fallows that bear her name.”

    “I…I can’t believe this…” Bryan sobbed moments after Owen finished speaking. “Mother… But, why didn’t Shigo kill me too? He surely knew I was there.”

    “I have no idea. In truth, I hadn’t even thought of the question until now. By the time I found your mother, she could barely speak. She murmured the name ‘Shigo,’ which told me enough about who had brutalized her so. Before...the end, she whispered ‘live for me, Bryan… My baby boy…’”

    At this, Bryan fell silent once more. Shock and grief choked away his voice, and all the young prince could do was bury his face in his father’s torso while tears rolled down his cheeks. Owen, memories of his own grief silencing him as well, simply returned the embrace, all too aware of the pain his son was going through. By now, both Faline and Azura had felt tears forming in their own eyes, and even the tough-as-nails Skye looked somber. Owen finally spoke up again several moments later.

    “While you were growing up, it always pained me to think of how you had your mother’s beautiful eyes and hair. You looked so much like her and still do… This story pains me still, even after all these years, and it still is not fully told…”

    “I-It’s not?” Bryan replied, suddenly pulling away from his father. “But you crossed the border and opened that shop next, right?”

    “I did, but there’s more to it than that,” Owen explained. “The first thing I did after crossing the border with you was seek out an old friend of mine in Aracion. To me, he was Willie. But you know him as General William, commander of the Talgrian Army.”

    “G-General William?!” Bryan nearly gasped. “But—”

    “I know. How did I know him when we were from different countries, both of which distrusted one another? You see, William is a fairly distant relative of the Astrynian noble house that I was born into. His family and mine were on good terms and he sometimes came to visit when we were children. That’s how I met him. Generally, the Talgrians and Astrynians have much enmity for one another, but on occasion, there’s a few who become friends or even fall in love and marry.”

    “I see…”

    “Due our friendship, William was the reason your mother and I wanted to flee to Talgria. We knew he would help us find a safe place to live. Once I found him, I told him everything I have just now revealed to you, and he suggested that I open a shop so I could earn funds to support and raise you. I chose to do this in Narcoss because I heard about Ryin and his forging skills as well as the many merchants that go through there to reach Aracion. In time, Ryin became a trusted client and we both made reasonable shares of gold from my selling his weapons.”

    “But what about all that rare and valuable merchandise you had, like the lance you left me?”

    “Remember the other Grand Duke who survived the fall of Medann? With a hawk messenger’s help, I learned he’d returned to Medann after the war ended to aid with Astryn’s reconstruction. Shigo had conquered and humiliated Astryn, but with the losses his army suffered and the death of Melora’s king, he could not maintain control of the country. So, he abandoned his conquest. The Grand Duke told me he desperately needed money for the reconstruction. I then told him of my shop and he agreed to send me whatever the queen was willing to part with for me to sell, provided that I sent them the larger share of what was earned from the sale. I also agreed that he could have my family’s fortune and lands for the reconstruction. I was the sole inheritor left and I rather doubted I’d return to Astryn to make use of either the gold or the estates, so I decided to put them to use where they were needed.”

    “That makes sense… It explains why General William made me a platoon captain despite all of the criticism I’ve received. You knew that, sooner or later, I would have to find out the truth and try to claim the throne, and you wanted me to be ready…”

    “Exactly.”

    “But why couldn’t his majesty King Wencelis know of all this? He’s a wise and good ruler and surely could’ve been trusted. And what about Ryin? Sure, he and I had a rough start, but he still became our friend.”

    “I know, but I just couldn’t risk letting anyone else know this information. William was the only person I trusted within the Talgrian borders at the time and if Shigo caught wind of us, we would have been in grave danger.”

    “Oh…”

    “And that’s the full story. I promise you.”

    With that, silence fell over the group once more. Azura, Ike, Faline, and Skye’s hearts ached for Bryan, who had been shocked to his foundation by this revelation. Lartz remained in his saddle, already dreading the inevitable confrontation that would ensue when Bryan realized his father hadn’t been alone in concealing the Sentinel’s origins. Bryan soldiers had, at Leyon’s insistence, dispersed but the realization that their captain was of royal blood had stirred many hushed conversations. Bryan himself, however, was awhirl with confusion and astonishment. His discovery of Caline’s necklace, his mother’s necklace, and all the other oddities he’d stumbled upon had caused him to suspect that his father was more than just a shopkeeper and that he might not be a commoner after all. But being the last remaining heir of Astryn’s throne, or any throne for that matter, and that his mother was viciously slain by a power-hungry madman, left his mind reeling.

    The Sentinel also now knew what the message which Marc found meant by there being an inheritance. However, it wasn’t a normal bequeath, like gold, a house, or family heirlooms. It was a throne and crown and an entire kingdom which accompanied them. All these years, Bryan had royal blood flowing through his veins, and neither him, nor anyone else around him, had known it aside from his father and General William. The shock finally overwhelming him, he dropped to his knees afterward, his wildly trembling hands on the ground and his eyes staring sightlessly at the earth below. Tears soon began to dampen the soil as a grimace formed on Bryan’s face.

    “I just… I just can’t believe all of this…” he finally uttered.

    “Bryan…” Faline replied somberly, though her words were lost in Bryan’s grief stricken tirade.

    “I don’t know how I can possibly do anything to save Astryn’s government… I barely know how lead my own men effectively, let alone rule a country… I just don’t know what to do…!”

    With that, Bryan was silent once more and remained on his knees, the trembling in his hands now spreading to his whole body. Several moments later, Skye’s saddened expression turned into a grimace. Growling as he harshly wiped away tears, whose existence his would later emphatically deny, he quickly approached his despondent friend. Without hesitation, Skye angrily plucked Bryan off the ground by his pauldron, which resulted in gasps out of both Faline and Azura. Owen stepped backward, startled by the sniper’s act.

    “Oh for crying out loud, will you get a grip?!” Skye demanded, his eyes filled with anger and his grip on Bryan’s pauldron remaining strong. “Who cares if you’re just perfecting your damned leadership skills! You’ve earned the reputation to do this, Bryan! Tons of people respect you now! You’re the Emerald Sentinel, damn it!”

    “Errgh…”

    “So cut the pathetic drama! I know you’re better than this! Where’s the man who defeated a dozen other soldiers in a row during his first training session in Aracion?! What happened to the tough-ass Bryan I grew up with?!”

    “Skye, stop it!” Faline intervened, quickly approaching the pair. “You’re being a jerk!”

    “Yeah, Skye! Bryan doesn’t need this!” Azura angrily stepped in.

    “No, no…” Bryan quickly protested, seeming as though to shake himself out of a trance. “He’s right… I’m twenty two years old. I shouldn’t be acting this way… Skye, you can let me go now. Don’t want you breaking your bow fingers on my armor.”

    “Good. I’m glad you’re listening,” Skye replied and released his friend.

    Bryan returned to his feet immediately afterwards and picked his equipment up, slinging it to his back once more.

    “Lartz…” he intoned severely, turning to the Dracoknight. “You knew about this, didn’t you?”

    “Only some of it,” Lartz admitted somberly. “I did know of your heritage, the attack on Medann, and how Princess Caline died, but no more than that. I’m sorry I had to keep it from you…”

    “No, you did the right thing. I’d have felt even worse if I found out from a stranger. But now I know. I’m the prince of Astryn, and I have to accept that.”

    “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” Skye replied, a smile forming on his face.

    “I’m glad to hear it too,” Azura added. “And this could change everything. As the prince, Bryan, you have the power to command Astryn’s soldiers and request help from Orenias yourself on Queen Marion’s behalf. We can bring them into the Alliance to fight Melora.”

    “That’s true, but I don’t wish to do so yet,” Bryan replied, noting Azura’s perplexity at his words. “I think we should continue to Aracion and hold off on letting Astryn know of my existence for the time being. We still need to bring you to King Wencelis, after all. He should know about this as well and he’ll likely be able to help us put this discovery to good use. Plus, I…I need to let this sink in.”

    “I understand. It is good that you have some time to get used to your identity before taking on such important duties,” Azura agreed. “We also have to know if there are any survivors of the Red Claw’s recent attacks.”

    “Kye!” Skye suddenly blurted, his eyes widening with fear. “Damn it! We have to leave for Aracion now!”

    Owen’s story had so astonished him that he had briefly forgotten about his younger brother and the possibility that he was among the dead in Talgria.

    “Oh!” Azura muttered. “Then let’s waste no more time here!”

    With that, Azura and Leyon gathered the entire group and resumed their journey to Talgria’s capital city. Skye’s expression verged on feral as his hand clenched into a fist. He could not resist the urge to shout his heart out to no one in particular.

    “I swear, if they killed my little brother, THEY WON’T LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO REGRET IT!”

    ***


    Meanwhile, deep within Melora’s borders sat its capital city of Ebonar. At first glance, it appeared to be much like Aracion, bustling with many active citizens, merchants, and all sorts of different people. However, just as Lartz had described to Azura and the others, the Meloran peoples’ penchant for violent practices was in full display in Ebonar’s streets and alleyways. Some people were using human-shaped dummies, and human prisoners in some cases, as targets for knife throwing or archery while swordsman and other warriors would have spars and duels with one another or would practice the fine art of efficient killing upon those who’d earned their Queen’s displeasure. It could easily be assumed that whoever committed or attempted to commit a crime in this city faced severe, if not fatal, punishment. Within Ebonar’s heart stood the Melora Keep, its imposing black walls and towers which rose in cruel curves making it seem a thing of nightmares. This had long been the domain of Melora’s king and queen, and the final destination of whatever enemy had the great misfortune of falling into their clutches.

    Within a room that seemed painted with blood, upon a throne that looked as though carved from volcanic rock, sat a majestic-looking woman. She was shrouded from head to toe in long silver and golden brown robes, which concealed a chest plate of ebony-lined red. This armor was so strong, that even enchanted weapons could not pierce it, as the several assassins who’d sought her life over the years had discovered much too late. Her long, black hair curled in a mass of ringlets, the creamy brown fringe cascading down to the sides of her face while an elegant braid dangled near to her waist. A crown, crafted as imperiously as her near invisible armor, encircled her head, bobbing slightly as she nodded approval for the men before her to speak. One of the men standing before her was garbed in large, spiked armor and a cloak which was slightly tattered from near misses on the field of battle. He carried an enormous double-bladed axe that was nearly as tall as himself. The other wore black and silver armor similar to that of Lartz, only it was larger, more angular, and bore a more decorative design. He sported a mane of dark brown hair while a poleax stood at his side.

    “You two have brought me the stone, I presume?” the woman inquired.

    “It’s on its way here now, Mother,” the black-armored man confirmed. “I came to let you know ahead of time. There’s other news as well, though. We regret to inform you that General Shigo has violated your orders. His forces did not march on Jerusa as you commanded, but have instead begun making advances in Astryn. Those of our forces who had marched on Jerusa were nearly overwhelmed by the Talgrian Royal Knights. They had sought to pin down the Royal Knights until Shigo arrived, but were forced to retreat when they realized he would not be coming.”

    “What?! That traitor!” Isis growled angrily. “I should’ve known he’d continue pursuing what my husband promised him all those years ago! Curse you, Shigo!”

    Seemingly in an instant, however, her anger turned into mere irritation with a hint of amusement.

    “Shigo will be punished for his insubordination, but his actions change nothing. Talgria and its allies are losing the war. Our capture of the Raven messengers has left the greater portion of their forces cut off from one another and in disarray. The Ravens’ absence has left their supply lines paralyzed while ours have never functioned better. Our forces are without number while theirs are dwindling by the day. Our victory is inevitable.”

    “What are we to do about Shigo?” the black-armored man wondered.

    “He is to be hunted down, captured, and executed in the most brutal way you can think of! I will not allow that mongrel to ruin anymore plans and take what should’ve been mine! Do I make myself clear, Royce?”

    “You do, Mother.”

    “Good. I’m pleased to know that you’ve found the stone, however. Now, your report, Commander Bernard?”

    “Er, well, the poison failed to reach the girl, I’m afraid,” the spiked-armored man replied, a glare from his queen making him wonder if he’d share Shigo’s punishment. “B-But it did go to a man named Ike, and from what my men have told me, he’d have been a major threat to our plans had it not happened. This Ike has inflicted great defeats upon our Red Claw proxies, but he hasn’t appeared since being poisoned, so I think it’s safe to assume he’s dead.”

    “Hmm, I see,” Isis replied, her anger vanishing upon hearing this news. “I’d give you and your Red Claw snobs an earful, and likely a hanging as well, for failing that mission, but the death of this Ike should more than make up for it. Thus, you are pardoned.”

    “Th-Thank you.”

    “Anything else before I give you both your next orders?” Isis continued.

    “Well, there is one more thing…” Royce replied. “Lartz has defected as well. No surprise there, though.”

    “Ha, indeed. His abilities could have been very useful to us, but instead he chose to be soft and act like a fool. If he can’t learn to accept that he was born as one of us, then let him do whatever he pleases. That is, as long as he does not interfere with our plans. If he does, I trust you know what to do.”

    “Of course, Mother. And that is all.”

    “Very well. Royce, I’m giving you command of every Meloran soldier and dracoknight who has not sided with Shigo. You are to order the dracoknights in Cilae to rendezvous with Bernard’s men at the encampment they have built near Talgria’s capital of Aracion. Once there, you know what to do. In the meantime, I must see if I can’t convince that deranged sister of yours to cooperate with us in this matter.”

    “Understood. Erys always was like Lartz’s female counterpart. She, too, will pay for her treachery if she still refuses her duties.”

    “Indeed. Bernard, you are to send the rest of your men to Jerusa. I recently learned from one of our captive ravens that much of the Talgrian army has moved from there, so it ought to be an easy target. If both Jerusa and Aracion are captured simultaneously, whatever remnants of the enemy yet persist will have no choice but to surrender.”

    “It would be my pleasure, your majesty!” Bernard obeyed, brushing his hands together.

    “Good. You both are dismissed.”

    ***


    Unaware of the plot unfolding in Melora, Azura’s group marched towards Aracion, many words exchanged between nearly every member along the way. Bryan explained to Owen how Lartz was a Meloran soldier, but who’d aided Azura and company and even revealed a few secrets about Shigo and Melora’s intentions to his newfound comrades. Owen, though surprised to find a Meloran with any semblance of honor, thanked Lartz for keeping his secrets and helping his son. Faline was also given a proper introduction and revealed to Owen as being the very same Pegasus knight Bryan rescued a year before. Owen himself had suspected as much; Bryan had given a remarkably detailed description of her after the incident, which she fit perfectly. Bryan also explained how he’d earned the nickname Emerald Sentinel, but decided against mentioning the incident in Keanu, as he felt both him and his father dredged up enough bad memories for one day.

    The group soon agreed to pitch camp and turn in for the evening, as the skies had grown as dark as ebony. However, the next day, they were packed and suited up at the brink of dawn and quickly resumed their journey. Along the way, Azura realized that ever since she and the others had gone to Cilae to retrieve Ike’s medicine, she had forgotten he still carried her pendant. After inquiring about it, she was relieved to hear Elincia explain that she had hidden it deep within Ike’s belongings to prevent the Red Claw from discovering it. Once Azura laid eyes on it again for the first time in months, however, she was astonished to find it enveloped in a bright, slightly flashing glow. It wasn’t light reflecting off of the surface either, the glow was coming from within the pendant. Elincia then described that it had been like that for some time, since she and Ike had been in Eraghoa’s castle.

    “This… This is unbelievable,” Azura muttered as she gazed upon her glowing pendant inside the wagon. “I really hope his majesty can explain what this is all about…”

    “I’m sure he will,” Elincia assured. “I think I can see why Melora wants this pendant so badly now, though. It must have some mysterious powers.”

    “Yeah… It’s definitely no ordinary piece of jewelry,” Ike agreed. “I haven’t seen anything like this since Lehran’s Medallion and believe me, that thing was special. And dangerous.”

    Neither Azura, nor Elincia could disagree here. Azura had heard of Lehran’s Medallion and the accursed powers it once possessed from Ike before. She remembered how it would cause anyone who touched it to go berserk with the exception of Ike’s sister and mother. This train of thought, however, caused fear to curdle at her breastbone. What if her pendant possessed deadly magic as well? If it did, what would Melora become capable of should they get their hands on it? Azura decided not to risk finding out, as the implications were too frightening to contemplate. Instead, she attempted to turn her thoughts to a more uplifting course. Perhaps whatever power the pendant held would prove useful to her and her companions, maybe even ensure their victory over Melora. Azura felt better believing this was possible.

    “Hmm…” she uttered in contemplation.

    “Azura!” a familiar voice called to her from outside moments later, snapping the mercenary out of her trance. Marc soon poked his head into the wagon from atop his horse.

    “We’re in view of Aracion! We’re about to cross the river—”

    “Damn it!” Leyon’s voice rang out, cutting Marc off. “We’ve got a major problem out here!”

    Azura worriedly jumped out of the wagon while Marc turned his horse around, both strongly suspecting what manner of danger Leyon had spotted. Much to their dismay, though not to their surprise, the group’s path across the nearby bridge was barricaded by what was undoubtedly a large Red Claw encampment. Dozens of tents and pavilions lined the bank of the river nearby the bridge, while others formed corridors on either side of the bridge. What’s more, this force was both diverse and well armed. Everyone could easily spot mages, archers, swordsmen, cavalry, thieves and rogues, and an assortment of other units besides those who simply walked about with axes slung on their backs. Melora was still providing them with men, obviously, and this time, the group Azura and company faced was larger than ever.

    “Azura, listen to me,” Leyon spoke up, approaching her atop his horse. “We must destroy this camp as soon as possible. I have little doubt that it’s a beachhead for an invasion of Aracion!”

    “I can see that, thanks,” Azura replied, showing a bit of irritation in her voice. “Now let’s go and give these creeps the punishment they deserve!”

    The young mercenary then charged towards the front of the group. Leyon quickly followed.

    “Hey! Wait a minute, don’t you think I should—”

    “I don’t need any help. I’m perfectly capable of holding my own in a fight and I’m not about to let these imbeciles get the better of us!”

    Leyon simply bore a small smile as the group charged into battle. I like her attitude… he thought, following them. So tough and courageous. The general knew that now was not the time to daydream, however. He raised Olegxing and began charging into the Red Claw camp.

    Since the Red Claw, no doubt believing their camp would go undetected until it was too late, had not expected to come under attack and the first charge by Azura’s company took them by complete surprise. Between the strength of Azura and her battle hardened company and the strength of their newfound allies, the Red Claw bandits were easy pickings early on. The Talgrian knights and Bryan’s men were ordered to secure the area’s perimeter and attack the enemy’s flanks so that the enemy would be pressed from all sides with no chance of escape. Though the element of surprise had leveled the odds, it wasn’t long before the Red Claw regained its composure and fought back. They were also quick to realize who their opponents were. Two of the higher-ranked members stepped forward into the bloodshed and spotted Azura impaling an archer directly through the center of his gut.

    “Well, well! The girl is still alive!” one of them exclaimed purposely so everyone could hear. Azura and her companions, their own opponents slain in the initial blitz, heard the exclamation and turned their attention to the two elite bandits.

    “I am, and I’m afraid neither of you will be much longer as long as that remains true!” Azura shot back angrily. Leyon couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows upon witnessing her reaction. He’d never seen a woman stand up to men in such a fashion so easily before. He reflected though that her hot-blooded tendency to charge into danger at the first chance was something he could do without.

    “H-Hey! The pendant’s around her neck again! And it’s glowin’ too!” the other bandit pointed out, his tone clearly expressing interest and more than fear.

    “Huh?! Whoa! Whatever Melora wants with this thing, it’s gotta be big! Go tell the boss!”

    “Har, ye bet I will!”

    However, the bandit who had begun to flee did not get far.

    “Oh no you don’t! The only way you louts are leaving is in a funeral urn!” Skye’s angry voice rang out as he flung arrow after arrow into the bandits. Azura smiled upon Skye’s ferocity though, when she remembered the reason for it, the corners of her mouth turned downward. Her time with Kye was brief, but she too hoped the young Rouge was still alive. The battle was hotly contested but, between the size and strength of the Allied force and their good fortune to catch the enemy unawares, victory seemed near. Anywhere one looked, there was a Red Claw bandit hard pressed by one of Azura’s allies or one lying on the ground dead, either cut to pieces or riddled with arrows. However, the bandits would not go down easily. Many members of Azura’s troop were wounded, even though they managed to survive their individual duels. Norman and Raela certainly had their work cut out for them, as they were dashing about healing injuries in every corner of the camp while carefully avoiding the conflict itself. In fact, injuries piled up so quickly, the pair almost wasn’t fast enough. They were thankful that their allies were well supplied with vulneraries.

    After half an hour of wearing down the Red Claw’s defenses and the tide of the battle turned solidly in their favor, Azura and company finally reached what must’ve been the pavilion belonging to the Red Claw commander. Ike peered through the drapes of the wagon and saw that many of his companions were either exhausted or injured while there were still several more Red Claw bandits left. He grunted angrily and decided he could no longer tolerate remaining hidden. Ike quickly began strapping on his armor as Azura confronted the enemy commander.

    “Argh, you and yer companions turned out to be tougher than I suspected, girl, but don’t think we’re givin’ up!” the boss blurted, readying an axe while swinging himself atop a horse.

    “Bah! Ugly as you are, you don’t scare me!” Azura retorted. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re dead!”

    “Azura, wait!” Leyon protested. “Don’t—!”

    Azura paid no attention. She charged forward, drawing back her blade for an upward thrust to pierce her foe’s side, only to be stopped dead in her tracks by the sound of heavy footsteps racing behind her. She gasped in shock when she spotted Ike, suited up and armed with Ettardios, cleaving his way through four of the remaining bandits, seemingly in one blow. He then swung his blade into the boss’s horse twice, the animal sagging to its haunches in death, and back flipped while his blade struck the heart of the commander himself. Ike angrily eyed the few living bandits, whose expressions verged on panic. Noting the clear recognition on their faces, Ike thumped his chest theatrically and hefted Ettardios with equal flourish.

    “That’s right, Red Claw! Ike, the hero of Tellius, is alive and back!” he shouted as the bandits fled the scene.

    The Talgrian Royal Knights, one of them cheerfully muttering the phrase ‘turkey shoot,’ charged after and the remaining Red Claw were run to the ground, trampled to death by the Knights’ warhorses.

    “Ike!” Elincia shouted in rage as she bolted over to her lover. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?! You’re not fully recovered yet!”

    “Elincia, I’m sorry, but I just got sick of sitting around doing nothing while the rest of you did all the work,” Ike admitted, his cheeks reddening as he noted some people snickering and Ranulf mouthing ‘hen-pecked husband material.’. “I know I’m not fully recovered, but look, I made short work of those guys.”

    “That’s only because you took them by surprise. Now come on, wait a bit longer for me before getting into another battle. Please?”

    Ike sighed before replying, admitting to himself that he couldn’t resist such a plea from the woman he loved. He did, however, mouth to Ranulf that ‘the next time I see you, I’ll bring a dog.’

    “Alright, fine… Let’s just hurry to the castle.”

    After complimenting Ike on his bravery, Azura and the others were eager to complete their journey to Castle Talgria. Elincia and Ranulf were particularly surprised Ike referred to himself as the hero of Tellius, since he despised having so much fame and recognition. Ike’s theatrics were also odd, given his straightforward nature. They figured however, that one didn’t need to be famous to be a hero and ignored the matter. Besides, his display had certainly made an impression on the enemy. Leyon and Azura agreed to ransack Red Claw camp, removing anything they could use, and then leaving it in ruins as a warning to the enemy, though Azura was still irritated with the general’s behavior towards her. How dare he treat me like I’m weak… Azura thought to herself as the group reached Aracion’s outskirts. Just as they did, Leyon reined up and addressed the company.

    “Ashunera has smiled on us this day. And, you have all done me proud beyond words. Had that beachhead gone undiscovered, Melora may very well have taken Aracion and defeated us completely. There will be medals, there will be promotions, once the King learns of your deeds.”

    “Will there be ale?” one of the Knights spoke up, causing several people to roll their eyes. “You can keep the medals, I want a keg of house aged malt wine. A whole keg, mind you!”

    Ike opened his mouth, no doubt to demand a feast rather than medals, but Elincia silenced him with a withering glare.

    “Oh, shut up!” Leyon chastised, though his tone was good natured.

    Azura felt her umbrage towards Leyon lessen a little, but when he rode over to her and gave her a short lecture on the virtues of looking before leaping, it took all her willpower not to slap him.

    Since much of the Talgrian Army had relocated back to their capital city, many soldiers were patrolling Aracion’s various streets and roads. The townsfolk generally did not look very concerned either, which was no surprise since the city was so heavily guarded. Thus, they went about their business unaware of how close they’d come to being invaded. Despite Leyon’s earlier words, Azura and the others simply couldn’t imagine anyone breaking through defenses like these so easily, even Melora, especially since a good portion of the Red Claw had just been eliminated. They couldn’t disregard Lartz’s words from before about the strength of Melora’s military, however, and remained cautious as they proceeded through the gates of Castle Talgria. The group, especially those who had been with Azura since Narcoss, was finally relieved to have reached the destination they’d sought for so long.

    While the Royal Knights and Bryan’s men had been ordered to join the patrols in the city, the others remained in the castle’s main hall. Leyon and Louise both went to greet Wencelis and inform him of their return as well as Azura’s arrival. Louise remained upstairs afterwards, while Leyon reappeared in the main hall minutes later. Azura’s heart was beginning to race as he approached her, hoping that she was finally going to know the story behind her origins as well as the enigmatic pendant.

    “His majesty is relieved you’re here, Azura,” Leyon reported. “He will see you immediately.”

    “Alright, then I’ll waste no time,” Azura replied.

    “One more thing though,” Leyon continued. “The King also wishes for me and Bryan to be present during this meeting. He’d also like to see Ike there if he’s well enough.”

    “I can certainly do that,” Bryan willingly complied.

    “Same here. I’m up and moving, aren’t I?” Ike added with a smile.

    Leyon nodded and led the trio upstairs to Wencelis’s conference chamber. It was a large and richly decorated, fit for meetings between royalty and government officials. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling while a drapery of blue velvet covered a table of gleaming redwood chased with gold. Chairs with fine cushions provided seating while the marble floor shone in the light. Seated at the table were Wencelis himself, Louise, and a heavily armored man with auburn hair and a small mustache. His armor somewhat resembled Morris’s, only it was more decorative, slightly larger, and included a cape.

    “General William…” Bryan spoke up, recognizing his superior officer. “Are you the one who wanted me here?”

    “Yes, but we will talk later, Bryan,” William confirmed. “His majesty has words for all of us.”

    “Understood.”

    “Indeed,” Wencelis spoke up. “Azura, I’m most pleased to—oh dear… The pendant is glowing. That’s not a good sign at all…”

    “W-Why not?” Azura inquired, her eyes widening slightly.

    “I shall explain later. I must start from the beginning if you are to understand the pendant’s origins as well as your own,” Wencelis replied, though his tone was grave. “As I was saying, I am most pleased to see you here safe and sound.”

    “So, can you tell me what I wish to know?”

    “Yes, that is exactly why I’ve called you here. It is very important that you know. Now, all of you know of the great flood, do you not?”

    “I know I do,” Ike replied, remembering the stories he’d heard of the flood accidentally caused by the goddess Yune centuries before.

    “Ah, you must be Sir Ike,” Wencelis guessed. “I’m glad to meet you as well, and I am overjoyed to learn of your recovery.”

    “Likewise, your majesty. And thank you.”

    Wencelis nodded before continuing.

    “Anyway, as you’ve been told, the flood supposedly submerged all continents save for Tellius beneath the ocean,” Wencelis continued. “Obviously, however, that is not true. Altarais still exists. The reason why it survived, however, is directly related to your origins, Azura.”

    Azura, very curious as to how and why this was so, listened carefully to Wencelis’s words. He explained that Altarais had in fact nearly suffered the same fate as the other continents besides Tellius. Though it was on the outskirts of the main blast of waves, water gradually began covering much of the land. People had begun to climb the mountains in hopes of finding refuge. However, the water levels only continued to rise and doom seemed nigh. Then, the most wonderous of miracles occurred. Three powerful Saints, one from Talgria, one from Cilae, and one from Astryn, came together on the highest mountain in Talgria and combined their magic to fight the waves. The effort was immense and lasted many long hours, but the strength of their light magic proved to be powerful enough to cause the waves to recede and the water on the land to gradually evaporate.

    “And thus, our land was saved,” Wencelis finished. “However, the burden of such an immense working of magic was so great, that the Saints were forced to sacrifice themselves in order for our land to remain protected. Once the water had finally receded, all that remained where the Saints once stood was a shining, golden stone that contained their spirits and their combined power. The families of these three Saints then built a village hidden deep within the Talgrian mountain range in memory of them. In the heart of the village was the temple where the stone was housed and protected by the descendants of the Saints for many years. It was named the Miracle Stone, as it served as the symbol of the miraculous event that saved Altarais. The flaming glow it sometimes emitted also earned it the nickname ‘Fire Emblem.’”

    “Oh… Then… Those ruins we found…” Azura began, almost too shocked to speak. “That was the village…”

    “So you found it,” Wencelis deduced. “Yes, the village is now in ruins. It was destroyed in the previous Altaraisian war.”

    “But why? How?” Bryan inquired.

    “You see, Melora sought the Miracle Stone twenty two years ago and they still seek it to this very day,” Wencelis continued. “They found the village it rested in and put it to the torch. But the stone was not there. One of the villagers, a woman, had forseen the danger. She took the stone and fled the village before the Melorans arrived. She then used her light magic to split it into two pieces. One piece was transported away using a Warp staff. Where it came to rest is unknown.”

    “And the other half?” Ike wondered.

    “The other…is around Azura’s neck.”

    Azura gasped and held her pendant, the shock making her hand shake like a leaf in a gale as she gazed at it. Bryan, Ike, and the others had also been rendered speechless.

    “And that woman, Azura, was your mother.”

  10. #25
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And now, chapter 23.


    Chapter 23: Elhorhi’s Noble Lady


    “My-My mother?!” Azura gasped, barely able to speak upon hearing Wencelis’s last few words.

    “I think I get it now. She must have had Azura with her,” Ike guessed. “And, if Azura’s her daughter, and she was from the village…”

    “Precisely,” Wencelis confirmed. “Azura, as the daughter of a woman born into that village, you are a descendant of one of the three Saints. A direct descendant, in fact. And, since the village was destroyed along with nearly all of its inhabitants, you are the sole survivor of its tribe.”

    “What?!” Azura gasped, her eyes wide with disbelief.

    “I thought so,” Ike added.

    “I just can’t believe this… Am I really the last remaining descendant of these Saints?” Azura wondered, her mind awhirl with astonishment.

    “You are,” Wencelis confirmed. “The village you were born in, the one I’ve been speaking of, was known as Elhorhi. Your father was the last chieftain of the tribe that lived there and guarded the Miracle Stone. His wife, your mother, aided him in his duties. She was with child during the war and, unless I miss my guess, that child was you.”

    “Oh… That’s right,” Azura realized. “I turn twenty one later this year.”

    “Indeed. You were born at least several months before the attack. The strain of giving birth can leave a woman debilitated for weeks, so I see the hand of providence in the timing of these events. When it became obvious that Elhorhi was lost, all of its inhabitants, including your father, did what they could to ensure that you and your mother would escape with you and the Miracle Stone. And, they had succeeded. You see, your father had also foreseen the danger and warned the rest of the village. By then, all avenues of escape were lost and victory was a vain hope. But, they vowed to use their light magic to make Melora’s conquest a costly one.”

    “Light magic?” Azura wondered.

    “Yes, every Elhorhian is descended from the three Saints and, thus, has a strong affinity for light magic. Even now, you carry it in your own blood as well.”

    “That explains why I’ve never felt as much pain from magical attacks as I have from swords and lances and all.”

    “Exactly. The Elhorhians were exceptional mages and healers. And, even those of different vocations, such as yourself, were also born with strong, natural resistances to the effects of magic. Tragically, they were all wiped out in the battle and their village was razed. That is, with the lone exception of you and your mother.”

    “Until someone shot her with a bow as she approached my foster mother’s door…” Azura finished, grief choking her words to a faint whisper.

    “You know this? Did your foster mother herself tell you this?”

    “Yes. She told me that she found a dead woman at her door. The woman was lying alongside a basket that contained me and a letter that begged my foster mother to protect me and the pendant. The woman had been shot dead by an archer, or maybe more than one archer.”

    “I see. Yes, as I said earlier, during her escape, your mother split the Miracle Stone in two pieces. One of those pieces is, unmistakably, the pendant you wear. And believe me, she had a good reason for dividing and hiding it; reasons which relate directly to why Melora seeks the stone.”

    The group could only remain silent, curious, and more than a little nervous as Wencelis continued his tale. Ever since some time before the last war, Melora desired to take over all of Altarais and destroy anyone that opposed them. For a time, their motivations were unknown for awhile, but it eventually became clear as to how they intended to achieve their massive goal when they finally raided across the Talgrian border and attacked Elhorhi. They were after the Miracle Stone and its legendary power. Thankfully, they were defeated by the combined forces of Cilae, Talgria, and Astryn before they could embark on a search for the infant Azura. Still, from the way the soldiers fought and the nation’s rulers behaved, Melora seemed to be driven by anger, hatred, jealousy, bloodlust and, some suspected, pure and simple madness.

    “The source of this rancor and ire on the part of Melora’s rulers and citizens is unknown and, frankly, few are inclined to investigate,” Wencelis continued. “I do know that Melora is not mentioned often, or favorably, in the history of Altarais. Why this would cause them to become so evil, I don’t know, but whatever the case, they must be stopped.”

    “And they will be. I assure you, your majesty,” Azura replied, her tone one of steel. “But does this mean the stone’s power can be devastating?”

    “Unfortunately, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, yes,” Wencelis grimly confirmed. “Thankfully, however, such is impossible as long as you draw breath.”

    “W-What do you mean?” Azura stammered, afraid her guess was correct.

    ”The Miracle Stone retains the spirits of the three ancient Saints. The spirits, however, must bond with one of their descendants, such as yourself, in order to remain tied to this world. I can only speculate, but I believe this was done as a measure to keep the stone from being misused. However, if the Elhorhians were to be wiped out entirely, then the spirits’ ties to this world would be severed and they would depart for the hereafter, taking their protection with them and leaving the stone’s power accessible to anyone.”

    Azura gasped loudly, her hands and body suddenly trembling.

    “That’s…that’s why Melora wants me dead!”

    “Precisely.”

    “At first, Melora and the Red Claw must’ve wanted to keep their true goal secret so that they could avoid...unwanted complications,” Bryan added in realization, remembering his encounter with the bandits in the Forest of Hope. “If Azura did learn that her pendant was half of the Miracle Stone, it would’ve been easy enough for her to seek protection from Talgria, Cilae, Astryn or any of the laguz nations. When I was on my way to rejoin Azura and the others in Eraghoa, I found a hidden bandit stronghold. I overheard the bandits talking about killing Azura. At the time, that didn’t make much sense because Azura didn’t carry much that was valuable and they never mentioned anyone putting a bounty on her head. There was no obvious reason for them to want her dead. That got my suspicions up and, since they found out I was there, they must’ve gotten desperate enough to infiltrate Castle Eraghoa and poison the slab of ribs.”

    “They probably would’ve gotten me right there if Ike hadn’t taken them instead,” Azura mused aloud, a hint of a snicker in her tone. “I heard red meat could kill you, but that was ridiculous.”

    “Glad to be of service,” Ike muttered dryly, none too pleased about the joke.

    “Sorry,” Azura apologized sheepishly. “I do owe you for that. If I’d fallen ill in your place, I might not have lasted long. Not to mention that, if it had been me imprisoned at Fort Hector, they probably would’ve killed me straight off instead of beating me to a pulp, like they did with you.”

    “We were really lucky that no one else was poisoned,” Ike added. “That Cilaean lab probably wouldn’t have been able to make enough antidote to save more than a few of us.”

    “And I’m relieved none of that happened. Ashunera, it seems, smiles upon us all,” Wencelis replied, heaving a sigh of relief. “However, I can’t be sure for how long, as your half of the stone is glowing, Azura. You see, though the stone is split into two, both halves yet remain connected. The power of the spirits form a bond between the two halves through which the spirits inform one another of their wellbeing. The glow indicates that the missing half is in danger. And, I fear we know what that means.”

    “Melora must have found it! Curses!” Leyon opined, slamming his fist on the table.

    “Oh no…” Azura murmured, her eyes wide with fear once more.

    ”Much though I would like to send you after the other half of the Stone, I fear that would be too dangerous,” Wencelis continued. “Although it is logical to assume that Melora has it, that is only a guess. For all we know, it could be in other hands. We also have no idea where exactly it is being kept and, wherever it is, I suspect it will be very well guarded. We do have one advantage, however; we have the other half of the stone. The two pieces are useless unless one has both of them. For now, I believe we must shift our focus elsewhere.”

    Wencelis then produced a large scroll, nearly as long as the table was wide, and unfurled it. Revealed was a map of Altarais. He began tracing a finger over the border between Cilae and Melora.

    “As you may be aware, most of the Allied troops, including the newly arrived Eraghoan army and a regiment of Raven warriors from Perais, are deployed along this border to repel Melora’s invasion. While I have faith in our troops, I am well aware that Melora has us badly outnumbered and that, with the Raven messengers missing, those troops have been cut off from communications and supplies. Allied Command is working to find a way around the problem, but I am convinced that rescuing the Raven messengers will be imperative.”

    “Do we know where they’re being held?” Bryan spoke up.

    “We know Melora is holding them, but that’s about it,” Leyon replied grimly. “I suspect, however, that Lady Azura and her band will prove vital in rescuing them once they’ve been located.”

    “Music to my ears,” Azura agreed, a predatory grin dawning on her features.

    “While we are working to bring our defenses into something resembling proper order,” Wencelis went on, “we are turning our focus to strengthening our forces as much as possible. Large convoys of food, medicine and weapons are being sent to the front using our most recent information as to where our troops may be found. We are also calling up reserves from both the army and the Royal Knights and distributing conscription notices throughout all the provinces to bring in as many new recruits as possible. We have no way of knowing how much damage Melora has inflicted during the communications breakdown, but I do not doubt for a moment that it is severe.”

    At times, William’s face pinched in anger and he slammed one massive fist into the table, causing everyone in the room to jump.

    “I know my men, Sire!” he bellowed. “The word ‘surrender’ will never enter their heads.”

    “That goes double for me,” Leyon agreed with as much determination as his counterpart, but less melodrama.

    “I appreciate your sentiments, but let us press on and be more careful not to break the table,” Wencelis replied. “Anyway, there is another matter I must discuss with our guest here. Now, Azura, since your father was the chief of Elhorhi, you are the rightful heir to his position.”

    “But, there’s no more village and tribe to be chief of…” Azura pointed out, wondering what the Talgrian king could possibly have in mind.

    “That’s true. Due to this unfortunate circumstance, I would like to create a new Talgrian province in the village’s name and honor.”

    “W-W-What?”

    Wencelis then produced a second map and unrolled it onto the table. It was a detailed map of Talgria demarking such large settlements and landmarks as Aracion, Galden, Narcoss, the Forest of Hope, several forts, and more. The mountain range that split the nation in half was also marked. The Kiang River was a dark line that ran down the western side of the nation. Wencelis then took a quill and inkwell sitting on the table and drew in a dotted line that encompassed Elhorhi’s location, Galden, the southeastern coastline, and likely several villages between them.

    “This shall be Elhorhi Province. Your earldom, Azura,” Wencelis decided.

    “B-But I don’t know anything about ruling over anyone,” Azura protested.

    “Only practice can make a good leader, but I will give you what aid I can. You will first need to recruit soldiers to defend your lands, for the Red Claw is still out there and is quite dangerous. You are well known, and liked, among the survivors of Galden. Those among them who volunteer to serve in the army are at your disposal. I will appoint an aide to assist you. Her name is Bronwyn, and she will advise you on the administrative aspects of your regency.”

    “Bronwyn, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while” Leyon spoke up, surprised. “She was Deputy Commander of the Talgrian Royal Knights during the last war, but was discharged when she lost her leg in a battle. She can seem unhinged at times, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders.”

    ”Now Azura,” Wencelis interjected, rising to his feet and turning to Azura. “before we do anything else, first things first. Come over here.”

    Azura nodded and sighed as she stood up and approached the Talgrian king.

    “Now, kneel before me and hand me your sword,” Wencelis continued.

    Azura dropped to one knee, unsheathing her blade and proffering it to the king. Wencelis then grasped the Regal Sword by the hilt and gently tapped the tip of its blade upon both of her shoulders. He cleared his throat before speaking.

    ”Azura, young mercenary of Talgria, I, King Wencelis, in the name of the Royal House of Talgria, hereby grant you the title of ruler of Elhorhi Earldom with all the powers and responsibilities therein. Rise, Lady Azura.”

    With that, Wencelis removed the blade’s tip from Azura’s shoulder and she stood up. The familiar glow then immediately enveloped her body. Her suit of armor expanded, becoming sturdier and more ornate in appearance, while her shirt became a surcoat reaching down to her knees. A jeweled coronet encircled her brow while her layered shoulder guards grew nearly twice the size they had been before, albeit decreased to two layers on each shoulder, rather than three. Her chest plate expanded to cover her entire chest from her neck to just above her waistline instead of merely her breasts. A small grayish blue cape flamed from her back while a silver ornate hairclip replaced the tarnished golden one that had held her ponytail before. Azura’s gloves had taken a slightly more ornate appearance as well when more seams appeared along the sides. Finally, her old reddish brown boots were replaced with new, slightly more decorative light brown boots.

    “So… This is what it’s like…” Azura commented moments later as she admired her new appearance. “I certainly feel stronger.”

    “Yes, that’s natural, as you’ve probably learned,” Wencelis replied. “My congratulations, Milady Azura.”

    “Milady Azura… That does have a nice ring to it!” Bryan decided with a smile.

    “It’ll...take me a while to get used to that,” Azura admitted, blushing faintly.

    “Speaking of which,” Wencelis spoke up, turning his focus to Bryan. “I understand you have also made a rather startling discovery about yourself.”

    Bryan’s smile was wiped off of his face in an instant and he stared at the king in undisguised astonishment.

    “Your majesty...you know?” he blurted, in a very soft voice.

    “Leyon informed me of the discovery you made after rescuing your father, and the revelation that you are the secret prince of Astryn.”

    Several eyes turned upon Leyon; Azura’s gaze was...unfriendly.

    “I apologize for the intrusion,” Leyon spoke up. “However, I felt this information too important to keep from his majesty.”

    “Can’t say I blame you,” Bryan replied when he found his voice. “I’m not sure how much the general has told you, your majesty, but I believe I should ensure that nothing has been overlooked. General Leyon is correct in saying you need to hear this.”

    Bryan quickly relayed his father’s story while the king listened with clear interest.

    “This is truly remarkable,” Wencelis intoned. “The war against Melora, it seems, is larger than we thought. It’s well known that Queen Marion is ailing, but little else could be gleaned since Astryn has become so paranoid and secretive of late. As such, I fear I cannot advise you on what to expect should you venture there.”

    “True, but my father can. He still has contacts there and I know he’ll help us as best he can.”

    “So, you intend to go to Astryn?”

    “Yes, your majesty. I will go to Astryn and work to bring them in the Alliance to fight Melora. I know Astryn is in a slump after Shigo defeated them and with their queen near death, but I believe that knowing their prince is alive and fighting Melora could revive their fighting spirits and even bring our two countries closer together.”

    Wencelis let out a long breath, as if profoundly relieved, before he spoke again.

    “I very much appreciate your willingness to do as you have said. As this is, on the one hand, a family matter and, on the other, an issue of internal politics of another country, I cannot order you one way or the other. Still, if you succeed in bringing Astryn to our side and if we can reestablish reliable communications with Allied troops on the front, then we may still have a chance of victory.”

    With that, Wencelis rose and inclined his head respectfully to both Bryan and Azura in the manner he would to a respectable peer. Which, in fact, both of them were.

    “By the way, Azura,” he spoke up once more. “I highly recommend that you learn the lance as well. I’ll explain why another time.”

    “Oh? That’s funny, I was actually thinking of the same thing myself since Prince Bryan has gotten me interested!” Azura replied with a giggle and turned to Bryan. “Your highness, since you’re already teaching Faline, I’d be honored if you’d teach me too!”

    “Ah, heh, well… I don’t see any problem with that,” Bryan agreed, his cheeks turning pink. “And Azura, really, you don’t have to call me ‘your highness’ or ‘Prince’ or anything like that. You’re a very good friend. Plus, I’m not used to this prince thing yet.”

    “Well, if you insist. I’m only being polite.”

    “Already trying to pick up courtly manners, I see,” Bryan quipped teasingly. “Since I’m needed in Astryn, by the way, I’d like to offer my platoon to Azura’s army. If there are no objections, I would like to recommend that Skye take my place as captain. He’s proven himself a hundred times and more.”

    “Is that so? Thank you, Bryan. And yes, I believe Skye is fully qualified to serve as captain in your place. However, I believe we should settle the matter with Melora before issuing such a promotion.”

    “I agree,” Leyon put in. “I’d also like to temporarily offer the services of my knights to Lady Azura. I’m sure the others in our party would willingly serve her as well.”

    “I’m at your command too, milady,” Ike added with a smile.

    “Excellent,” Wencelis replied with a smile. “And Ike, I honestly appreciate the aid you’re giving us a great deal, especially when you’re not even of Altaraisian birth.”

    “Thank you, your majesty. Truth be told though, while I am helping because Azura is a good friend, this does, in a way, also concern Tellius,” Ike replied. “If Melora were to succeed in their plot to take over Altarais, they could very well target Tellius later on. And as the hero of my homeland, it’s my duty to prevent that.”

    “Well said, and you have my thanks. Best of luck to us all. Now, while Allied Intelligence works to find out where the Raven messengers are being held, we should work to secure Talgria itself. The recent assaults by the Red Claw have been devastating and we must turn our attention to eliminating any remaining Red Claw bandits and rescuing the survivors. Azura, your army is to start with Fort Absolon...or, rather, what’s left of it. We have reports that there are Narcoss refugees holed up in the Fort’s ruins. As you can imagine, our reports are fragmentary so we do not know how many are there, the state of their health or even whether or not any of them are still alive. Most problematically, we do not know if any of the Red Claw are still in the area. You’ll be provided with wagons of medicine and clothing for the refugees. Once they are well enough to travel, you’re to lead these people to safety in Aracion.”

    “Understood, your majesty,” Azura replied with a bow. “I’d think it best to take a fairly small group and leave the larger armies here to guard Aracion. Is this alright?”

    “Of course. In fact, I was about to suggest the same thing. Pick your men wisely.”

    Azura nodded willingly and with that, the group departed to begin planning for their mission. After everything they’d been through, going into potentially hostile territory with practically no information about what they might find with still more of the Red Claw slinking about was hardly intimidating. Still, it wasn’t a laughing matter either. Bryan was immediately reminded of the attacks that occurred when the group first arrived in Narcoss months before. He had no way of knowing if any of the people he’d saved back then still survived, though he hoped so. Ryin and Kye in particular he hoped to find alive and unharmed. And, although Bryan had no small number of grudges from his unhappy childhood, he didn’t relish the idea of finding those who’d once mistreated him amongst the dead. He’d seen what the Red Claw did to the Galden militia; nobody deserved to die so hard. Before the young prince could vacate the hall, however, William’s familiar voice rang out behind him.

    “Bryan, come back here. We still need to talk.”

    “Ah, right. My apologies, Sir,” Bryan replied with a sigh and joined his superior officer in a nearby corridor.

    “Now,” William began once they came to a halt, glancing up and down the hallway to make sure that no one would overhear them. “Your father told you everything, didn’t he?”

    “He did. I know it’s up to me to save Astryn now,” Bryan confirmed. “Father also mentioned you.”

    “I thought as much. And I’m glad he trusted me with his secrets. However, this is only one of two things I wanted to speak to you about.”

    William folded his arms before continuing, his expression turning grave. Bryan merely gulped.

    “I recently learned from a Cilaean general that two of his men reported being beaten half to death by you. Is their story true?”

    “What?!” Bryan blurted, knowing exactly what William was talking about. “But… Alright… I’m not going to lie. I did attack two Cilaean soldiers up in Keanu, but I had a good reason for it, I swear!”

    “A good reason? I’ll be the judge of that. Now, talk fast.”

    “Those punks wouldn’t leave me or Faline alone. And I love her more than enough to teach anyone who gives her trouble a lesson!”

    “Bryan, you still violated our Code of Conduct by attacking allied soldiers…”

    “Yeah, but they were harassing me and my girlfriend!”

    “I understand. If that’s so, I’ll see to it that their superior officer deals with them. Honestly though, I can’t actually punish you due to your status as Astryn’s prince. You’re lucky.”

    “Eh heh… Well, can I go now?”

    “You may.”

    On that note, Bryan quickly rushed out of the hall in order to catch up with Azura. He soon found her traversing the nearest staircase down to the main hall. After letting her know of his meeting with William, Bryan’s thoughts soon returned to the mission ahead of them, which was rescuing the refugees holed up in the ruins of Fort Absolon. He grimaced at the idea of returning anywhere near there at all, even though he knew it was the right thing to do. Azura soon noticed the frown upon the prince’s face and sighed.

    “Bryan… You’re reluctant to go, aren’t you?” she guessed.

    “Sigh… If I said I wasn’t, I’d be lying,” Bryan confirmed. “I know I did save Narcoss once, but that was only because I thought my father was there at the time. I thought Ryin and Kye would be fine as long as they remained hidden in the armory. Now I’m not so sure. I want to protect them too, but I can’t stand the sight of anyone else from that dump!”

    “I understand. But Bryan, is it so hard to forgive them?”

    “It is. I know that with Red Claw on the loose, helping them is the right thing to do. But, I’ve been telling myself that and I didn’t find myself very convincing. They literally treated me like utter trash!” Bryan blurted angrily and launched an angry fist into the wall.

    “That they had,” a familiar female voice agreed glumly from down the hall. Azura and the others turned their attention to the voice’s owner. The speaker was partly hidden in the shadow of a pillar, but it clearly was the same girl they had encountered in Narcoss months before.

    “Misty!” Bryan blurted.

    Azura peered, and then squinted into the shadow and could make out hints of a slightly tattered pink dress of simple make and a dirty blonde ponytail trailing down the girl’s back but her face was still hidden in the gloom. Despite this, her appearance was definitely not helping Bryan’s mood.

    “What are you doing here?” Bryan angrily demanded.

    “Reflecting, I suppose,” Misty answered, her tone distant and sad. “Recent events have...put things in perspective. I doubt you’ll believe me when I say this, but I’m here to apologize.”

    “You’re right, I don’t believe you.”

    Something about Misty’s behavior still bothered Azura. She approached, hoping to coax Misty out of the shadows, but the girl shied away from her touch as if terrified.

    “Don’t be afraid,” Azura assured. “You can trust me.”

    “I doubt you can trust her though,” Bryan warned Azura, his tone still angered.

    “So you were one of the kids who pushed him around,” Azura realized, suspecting that was the reason Misty was there.

    “Yes,” Misty confirmed. “I and the other girls used to laugh at him while he walked off crying. All we ever did was mock his misery while the boys would throw mud and garbage on him and call him names… The adults only assumed Bryan must have been some sort of troublemaker since they already thought he was a strange kid to begin with and said terrible things about him too, even in when his father was around. It wasn’t until Skye showed up and befriended him that we drew off…a little.”

    By now, Bryan’s eyes were full of tears once again and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl of equal parts anger and anguish.

    “You’ve got a lot of gall waltzing in here and dredging all that up again!” he seethed, wiping his eyes. “All those years and no one never gave a damn about me! They never cared one bit about the boy who would walk home nearly every day covered in mud, garbage, and even a few bruises and scrapes here and there with tears trailing down his face…”

    “I know, I was there,” Misty whispered from the shadows. “I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry, and that I’m not the only one either. A lot of people have had to re-examine their pasts lately.”

    At this point, Bryan lost his temper. He snatched at Misty’s arm, with a grip hard enough to break bones, and yanked her into the light.

    “Stop playing games with me!” he began to scream, but whatever else he was about to say was forgotten.

    Misty was...hideous.

    Her face, what was left of it, was a horrifying mass of scars and badly healed wounds, as if someone had taken a dagger to everything between her chin and forehead with reckless abandon. Her skin had also gone corpse gray and looked as coarse as moldy bread. She struggled vainly to escape the stupefied Bryan’s grip and return to the shadows, but he held her fast and she eventually gave up.

    “What goes around...” she mused despondently. “You were an outcast, and now I’m one too.”

    “What happened?” Azura asked, once she could force the shock out of her voice.

    “I was at the refugee camp at Fort Absolon. People were dying and, from what the doctors here told me, some sort of disease began spreading from the corpses. I managed to find my way here but the disease caused lesions all over my face. They had to be removed and, well, I think you can see how that turned out.”

    Bryan’s expression was unreadable, but Azura could sense he was conflicted by this discovery. Part of him probably reveled that Misty now knew what he had to go through while another part of him believed she’d been punished enough and that it was because of what he’d gone through that wishing such a thing on others was wrong. Misty gave a misshapen smile that seemed almost happy.

    “You’d be surprised what people say about you now,” she told him. “Rumors about you, the Emerald Sentinel, are everywhere these days. They talk about how you defended Narcoss and that lab in Cilae and how you helped save a famous hero named Ike. Twice. It took a while, and, for me, a few more things, but we realized we had you figured wrong.”

    “And it’s taken all of you all these years to figure that out?”

    Misty merely nodded.

    “I know, it shouldn’t have taken so long, but it’s true. Now several girls have been swooning over you. No joke.”

    “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint them, but I’m taken. My girlfriend would go into quite a fit if she heard about them though, so let’s keep this between us, please. And besides that, there’s no way anyone’s taking me from her. I love Faline more than anything in the world.”

    “She’s a lucky girl,” Misty mused, idly tracing a finger over her own ravaged features. “I did come here for another reason though. I know that a simple apology isn’t enough to make up for what I’ve done but, when I heard that you and Azura were here, I decided that I want to help you. You know I’m a traveling apothecary and merchant who deals in a variety of goods! I can sell you guys whatever you need whenever you need it! Besides, I know you’re going to the camps at Fort Absolon. I’ve been there, and I can tell you what you need to know about them. Please?”

    “Bryan, that would really help us out,” Azura pointed out. “We wouldn’t have to stop in every town we come to for supplies. And, if there is some sort of disease going around the Fort, we’ll need all the medicine we can get.”

    “Good point. Alright Misty, you have a chance to prove that you mean what you say. Make good use of it.”

    “I understand. Thank you, Bryan!”

    Misty was about to turn and head down the stairs when Azura saw her hesitate. Knowing why, Azura removed her cape and offered it to the girl, who draped it over her shoulders and head to cover her ruined face. With that, they proceeded downstairs to the main hall, followed by Leyon and Louise. Azura would need to gather everyone and decide who would go to Fort Absolon with her and who would stay behind. William had already decided to remain in Aracion and help guard the city. Azura told Bryan he didn’t have to come along if he didn’t want to, but Bryan believed that would only be arrogant of him, plainly not wanting to admit that seeing Misty’s condition had gotten his conscience up in arms, and volunteered to go anyway. They also agreed that it would be a simple task for the Cilaean mercenary group accompanying Leyon as well. Plus, Azura and company had only just met them and it would benefit both sides if they got to know one another better.

    Minutes later, the small group finally reentered the castle’s main hall. Though they had not yet made their final decision on who would be joining them, Azura and Bryan continued to contemplate as they greeted their allies once more. Leyon approached Azura moments later, a smile on his face. Strange… I wonder how he can be so calm and content when I keep pushing him away, Azura thought to herself. Though the general had been irritating her, and she was still displeased about this ‘intrusion,’ there was something about him that caused her to like him anyhow. She just couldn’t figure out what it was.

    “Milady Azura, if I might ask, may I join you as well?” Leyon inquired. “I did notice that few of our men use axes. You’re going to need someone of my experience.”

    “Hm… That is true. You can come, General,” Azura allowed, mildly astonishing herself in doing so. “I’d also like the Cilaean—”

    “SKYE!” a familiar young voice blurted from down the hall. Standing in front of another door were none other than Kye and Ryin, both looking a little worse for wear but thankfully unharmed. Ryin appeared to be rather calm and quite relieved to see the people he had met in Narcoss, but Kye was a different story. Tears had built up in his eyes and trailed down his cheeks as he bolted over to his older brother and buried himself in his torso. Skye gasped and threw his arms around his little brother, trying hard to hold back his own tears.

    “Kye! You’re alive!” he blurted. “And Ryin too! You both made it here unharmed?”

    “Yeah, we hitched a ride with Misty. It was thanks to her that we didn’t join the dead right away,” Ryin explained, approaching the two brothers. “It’s a wonder we got out of there alive, and that we didn’t catch the same illness that poor girl had. Kye protected us during the trip. The pass from Narcoss to Aracion had thankfully been reopened a day before the town was attacked and so we were able to escape through it. Others, however, weren’t as fortunate. I must say, though, Skye, your brother is quite a gifted young man. If not for his skill with knives and daggers, we might not have made it here alive.”

    “Wow, really?” Bryan inquired. “That’s impressive.”

    “I agree,” Skye added and turned to Kye. “I’m proud of you, buddy.”

    “Th-Thanks…” Kye stammered, almost distractedly. “But Skye, dozens of people were killed back there and many buildings were burned down… Mr. Owen’s shop is gone, Mr. Ryin’s armory is gone, and many homes are gone… And my two friends are dead! I’ve lost everything I had there to those bandits! THEY’RE MONSTERS!”

    “Damn… I’m so sorry,” Skye replied as Kye continued sobbing into his tunic. “They will pay for all this. Mark my words.”

    “They’d better… Skye, please don’t be next…! Please don’t get killed too! I need you and you’re all I have left! Please!!”

    “What? But I…I thought I was nothing to you. Nothing but a bully and a jerk…”

    “That’s not true… Yeah, you were a bit scary sometimes, but I didn’t care. You’re still my big brother and I’ve always looked up to you. Sure, Ike is a hero to me as well, but you’ve taught me what it means to be tough and not let people push you around. And when those bandits attacked, it was what I learned from you that kept me going. In fact, as Mr. Ryin and I made our escape, I shouted to them ‘just you wait until my big brother finds you! He’s the best archer in the world and he’ll turn you all into pincushions!”

    At this, Skye was astonished. His eyes had grown wide more tears streamed down his cheeks. He then grimaced and hugged his brother tighter.

    “Kye… Thank you! Thank you, little bro…! I promise I’m not going anywhere and that I’ll never let you out of my sight again!”

    “Okay…”

    “Those two have finally reconciled…” Bryan uttered, a smile forming on his face.

    “Yeah, and Skye did it all on his own,” Ike replied. “He asked me for some advice at Fort Hector while you all were cleaning the place up and I told him the solution can only come from his heart, not someone else.”

    “And you were right, Ike,” Skye replied, letting go of his brother. “I owe you much thanks.”

    “You’re very welcome.”

    “I’m happy for you as well,” Azura stepped in. “I knew you two would patch things up someday.”

    “Yeah, and your encouragement also helped me,” Skye added. “I thank you too, Milady.”

    Azura merely smiled. Kye raised one eyebrow.

    “Lady? Azura is a lord now? Cool!” he blurted. “You know, I may have lost two good friends, but I think I have many more now thanks to you, Milady! Cause I want to join you on whatever mission you’re going on next! My skills can come in handy, you know! I can pick locks and steal cool stuff from the enemy!”

    “You know, I bet that can help us. Welcome aboard, Kye,” Azura agreed with a smile. “Skye, we’ll need you too. You’re one of the best archers we have.”

    “Heh, thanks. I’ll be glad to come along,” Skye agreed, his tone friendlier than usual.

    “Leyon, I’d like to invite Natalie and Eliot along as well. Marc and Leona can stay behind. I know it’s been quite awhile since they were last here, and they’ve been with us since day one. They could probably use the rest,” Azura continued.

    “True that. I’ll be sure to let them know,” Leyon complied with another smile.

    “Good. Leyon, I’d also like you to see if his majesty will allow Mother and Owen to stay here for awhile, alright? Anyway, that Cilaean mercenary group I meant to bring up earlier will come as well. That ought to do. Oh, we’ll need at least two healers and a mage as well for diversity.”

    “Sounds like me and my sister!” Lily opined excitedly. “We’ll do our best!”

    “Indeed,” Raela added and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “Plus I can keep Skye in check, hehe…”

    “I’ll be more than happy to go along too,” Norman put in with a content smile.

    “Excellent. And Bryan, yes, Faline can come along too,” Azura finished with a giggle. “But that’s all for now.”

    “Er, alright,” Bryan replied, his cheeks going pink.

    “Might I offer to join as well?” Ryin stepped in. “I am a blacksmith after all, and I am never without my tools and materials. I’ll forge and sell you whatever weapons you want. Between Misty and myself, you’ll be well supplied.”

    “Ah, that’s an excellent idea,” Azura agreed. “Thanks so much, Ryin.”

    “My pleasure. Now let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”

    “Right!”

    Just as the group prepared to leave the castle, Azura heard Wencelis call out to her once more.

    “Oh, your majesty!” she greeted. “I was hoping to see you, I have something to ask—”

    “As do I,” Wencelis cut her off, then turned his attention to the others in the room. “Leave us, and close the doors behind you.”

    His tone brooked no argument, and Azura was suddenly worried about what he had to say. Once the room was empty, the king sighed heavily.

    “Milady Azura, I think it’s no secret that the Alliance stands in dire straits,” he intoned gravely. “Rescuing the Raven messengers and bringing Astryn to our side is a gamble any way one looks at it.”

    Azura, now worried, met the King’s gaze squarely.

    “We’ll succeed,” she informed him. “We always have.”

    “In truth, I do not share your appraisal of the situation. Which, I might add, is even worse than I let on. Unless we can reestablish communications with the front and bring Astryn into the war, I am all but certain that we will lose. And, if that does happen, then your orders are thus.”

    As if unconvinced that no eavesdroppers were about, Wencelis lowered his voice to a whisper.

    “The land I have awarded you includes the valley where you found the ruins of your birthplace. The valley, by all accounts, is rich in lumber, water and farmable land. It is also defensible, with only a few ways in and out and all of those being difficult to navigate. If Talgria and her allies are defeated, your orders are to get as many people as you can into that valley and then bar every entrance solidly.”

    Azura gulped nervously; even as a contingency plan, the idea Wencelis had voiced was terrifying. Still, she nodded her understanding.

    “Your administrative aide, Lady Bronwyn, is aware of this,” Wencelis went on. “She’ll be...discreetly funneling people into the valley to build shelters, farms and defenses. Her assistants will oversee the operation in the valley. In the meantime, she’ll travel with you. She cannot fight, having lost her leg, but she can use her wagon to deliver replacement weapons and supplies to you and your friends during battle.”

    “I understand. However, I stand by what I said earlier: we’ll succeed.”

    “And I hope you’re right,” Wencelis replied. “In the meantime, take this signet ring. It is the symbol of your newfound authority and, if you so desire it, your noble house once the war ends...whichever way it ends.”

    The King handed her a golden, bejeweled ring whose face bore a tiny representation of what Azura suspected was the Miracle Stone.

    ”Thank you, Your Majesty,” Azura repeated with a smile as she slid the ring onto her finger.

    With that, Azura left to join the chosen group gathered outside of the castle and on the roads leading out of Aracion. Leyon, meanwhile, had spoken to Wencelis about Owen and Lorelle and the king had agreed it was best for them to remain at the castle, letting some relief wash over Bryan and Azura’s stressed minds. Azura briefed the group on the mission with Leyon interjecting several times, much to her slight irritation, briefed them on the mission ahead and that they would report back to Wencelis as soon as their task was complete. The group then pledged their support and promised to do their best. Magali, once in awhile, winked at Bryan while Faline would shoot her a glare, but both agreed to fight hard as well. Bryan simply sighed at the act and easily foresaw a war between the two girls, but hoped Magali was only teasing.

    Just as the group was about to begin their journey, a wagon sidled to a halt nearby and a toughened looking woman, even older than Lorelle, lowered herself to the ground. The woman had deep brown hair flecked with gray and her face, though weathered, held a friendly expression though there was a hint of sheer iron in her gaze. It was then Azura noticed that the woman walked with a crutch and had only one leg. It had to be Bronwyn.

    “Hello lass,” Bronwyn greeted, moving deftly despite her crutch to greet the new Earl of Elhorhi Province. “Let me take a look at you.”

    Bronwyn then looked Azura up and down with a critical eye and a quirk at the corner of her lip hinting at a sly smile.

    “Your hair is a tomboyish mop, your breasts are much too small, you’re way too scrawny, you’re not wearing nearly enough makeup or jewelry, you dress like a ruffian and I shudder to think how long you go between baths,” Bronwyn assessed curtly.

    Azura’s jaw dropped and her face screwed up in indignation but then, to her astonishment, Bronwyn laughed merrily and hugged her.

    “It’s like I was looking at my own reflection thirty years ago,” Bronwyn mused aloud in happy reminiscence. “Thank you for indulging a nostalgic, old lady.”

    Azura found this all so astonishing that all she could do was laugh along. The two had a hurried conversation about Elhorhi Province and Bronwyn’s plans for building a settlement there in case Wencelis’ secret orders had to be carried out. Azura didn’t know much about building a village but, by the sound of it, Bronwyn had a sound plan for how to do it and had capable people ready to get started. Azura also learned, to her amazement and delight, that Bronwyn had been a regular visitor to the village where Azura had been born before Melora had destroyed it. In fact, Bronwyn claimed she knew the village’s architecture and masonry styles well enough that, when construction of the new village began, she believed she could recreate the lost village. Azura was tempted to ask more, wondering if Bronwyn might’ve known her real parents or what life had been like in the village, but the time to depart was too close and she decided to wait. Despite this, she could sense that she and Bronwyn would be good friends.

    When Leyon saw Bronwyn, Azura could swear the general went pale.

    “It’s been a while,” he greeted, with obvious discomfort.

    “Now what sort of greeting is that? I see your manners haven’t improved,” Bronwyn observed before turning to Azura with a conspiratorial grin. “After I lost my leg, I became an instructor and taught this whippersnapper everything he knows. It was hard work too, I could tell you stories.”

    “Don’t!” Leyon shouted. “That’s an order!”

    “I was a Deputy Commander of the Royal Knights when you were mastering the fine art of pronouncing the word ‘dada,’ so I have seniority,” Bronwyn shot back, grabbing Azura’s shoulder for balance and prodding Leyon with her crutch.

    “Now, what are you waiting for? Lazy youngsters these days! The king gave us an order; get on with it, get on with it, I say!”

    “Ouch! Ow! Hey! Cut that out! Alright, alright, we’re going!”

    Azura couldn’t help it, she burst into uncontrollable laughter. After a few minutes, and some more of Bronwyn’s prodding, the group was underway and heading for the ruins of Fort Absolon. During the journey, Kye glanced at his brother as the group began their journey towards Fort Absolon, and noticed a difference in his appearance since the last time he’d seen him.

    “Hey Skye, I just realized. What happened to your hair?” the young Rogue wondered. “You always used to have it tied back.”

    “Oh yeah, I lost my hair tie in a storm. No big deal. I’ve just been too lazy to get another one. Don’t really care much anyway though.”

    Kye then shot his brother a smile.

    “Yeah, you’re cool either way.”

    As the journey continued, Azura conversed more with Bronwyn and Misty, the merchant girl still wary of Bryan. Misty had managed to find another hooded cloak and had returned Azura’s cape but Azura could still sense Misty was self conscious of her badly scarred face. Azura decided that, once she had the chance, she’d see if Norman or Raela could do something about Misty’s scars. She’d also become fast friends with Bronwyn who, despite her age, seemed as hearty as Ike. Bronwyn felt to Azura like the spry grandmother she’d never had.

    Bryan, meanwhile, gave Azura his old steel lance which he had previously stored in the wagon the group had found at Fort Hector. After she’d gotten used to its weight and balance and he’d shown her how to get the best grip, he began giving her pointers on using it. Firstly, using lances was very different from sword fighting. The lance provided much more range and tended to be heavier. Most importantly, a lance attack required the lancer to thrust his or her weapon forward, rather than swing it, though sometimes, if the lance’s blade was long enough, swinging it while jumping could suffice. The lance’s pommel, at the end opposite the blade, could also be used as a bludgeoning weapon and was helpful because with it, Azura could use a rearward thrust to strike foes behind her. The main downside to using a lance was that the long, narrow shaft made it difficult to protect oneself against enemy assaults unless the lancer had a shield due to what little space it covered. This was the reason foot lancers carried them. Cavalry lancers did not use them because they needed a free hand to grip the reins of their mount. After his lecture, Bryan encouraged Azura to practice striking his shield with her new weapon when the group stopped to eat or rest. He explained that he and Faline had begun the Falcon Knight’s training this way as well, since it was the most basic maneuver any lancer could use. Bryan then showed her the best ways to side step and avoid enemy attacks since she did not have a shield and frankly didn’t want one.

    The pair decided to end Azura’s training session when Leyon announced that the group was nearing Fort Absolon’s ruins. Azura then recalled what Lartz had told her about his being a Branded. She still had questions about his kind that Lorelle had been unable to answer and hoped Lartz would be comfortable revealing them to her later on, if he knew at all. The Branded were reputed to have remarkable abilities and she was wondering what Lartz’s might be and, for that matter, if there were other Branded amongst the enemy. Before she could make her final decision on the matter, however, Leyon signaled a halt.

    “I can see the fort from here,” he announced. “Our worst fears are confirmed, the Red Claw is camped in the fort’s ruins. I can’t tell from here whether the refugees are still there or not.”

    Concerned, Azura carefully moved to get a better view of the ruined Fort with Leyon, Ike, and Bryan following. The Fort was still heavily damaged from the Red Claw assault, its gates being smashed and several of the walls having been breached while soot seemed to cover everything. Around the perimeter of the ruined Fort were various groups of ragged-looking men carrying axes and many other weapons. The largest guarded the now open main gates and doors to the cellar levels where, Azura suspected, the refugees were likely being held. The Red Claw did not look ready for battle though; most of the bandits were clearly exhausted and the rest staggered about as if they were drunk. However, what astonished Azura and her allies the most was what they spotted among them. There were wolves, hawks, and ravens.

    “NO! They’ve convinced laguz to side with them too?!” Leyon blurted angrily. “This has to be trickery!”

    “Ugh…” Azura grunted, both in irritation at the general and that the Red Claw was no longer only beorc.

    “Perhaps, but as I told Lady Azura and Faline awhile back, idiots are everywhere,” Bryan recalled. “I’m willing to bet every nation has its share of bandits. They might have joined forces to create an even deadlier Red Claw.”

    “That may be, but it doesn’t change the fact that Melora has already been caught kidnapping raven laguz,” Leyon argued. “I wouldn’t put it past them at all to force others to do their dirty work.”

    “I think they already have. A raven laguz lied to us in Eraghoa about Ike,” Azura replied. “He said Ike died not long before we arrived and his voice sounded like he was in panic and he flew off as soon as he could. I have no doubts that Melora is forcing prisoners to help them against their will.”

    “Well, whatever the case, we must get rid of these goons. They’re holding people captive in there!” Leyon reminded them. “Azura, I must insist that you allow me to cover for you this time. I don’t like seeing you charging into danger the way you’ve been doing. Besides, now that you are an earl, you have lives besides your own to consider. Lots of them.”

    Azura merely grunted angrily.

    “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t need anyone acting as my shield, Leyon, especially a man who thinks I’m too weak to fend for myself! Now everyone, CHARGE!”

    With that, the group rushed into battle. Leyon, however, sighed somberly as he followed his allies. He never meant to say he thought Azura was weak and he certainly did not want her to dislike him. There were many things he had begun to like about her, some of which he never thought he’d see in a woman. Still, whether Azura detested him or not, Leyon wasn’t giving up on her. He would protect her no matter what.

    Since the fort’s main gates were already down, the bandits had placed ramshackle barricades to block the passage. The group first worked to rid the area of the wolves and beorc bandits that had been standing guard while Leyon hammered his way into the fort gates. Not only were some axes and especially hammers capable of breaking through tough armor, but they could easily destroy doors and wooden barriers as well. A few swift strokes had smashed the barricades into kindling. With the fort’s main entrance unbarred, the group then spread out through the perimeter and assaulted whatever was in their range. Lily’s fire magic by now had become more than capable of eliminating the wolf laguz. Skye handled the birds with ease since they were quite vulnerable to the speed and deadly accuracy of his arrows. Bryan and Kevin’s group managed to fight their way to and secure the entrances to the cellar while Bronwyn’s wagon careened its way through the fort grounds, stopping to load as many of the refugees aboard as she could, thundering out of the ruined Fort to unload them at Azura’s camp and then coming back for more. All the while, Allied troops and Red Claw alike hurled themselves out of her wild path to avoid being trampled.

    “Whose side are you on?!” Raela screamed indignantly after her fourth near-miss at Bronwyn’s hands.

    “Youngsters, always complaining for no good reason!” Bronwyn shot back.

    Azura alternated between her sword and lance when necessary. Leyon approached her as they neared the cellar gates and watched as Azura drove her lance into a Swordmaster. A Halberdier nearby, however, had targeted her at the same time with a spear, only to receive a deadly blow to the neck from Olegxing. Leyon quickly rode up to Azura after.

    “Azura, are you alright?” he inquired.

    “Hmph, I’m absolutely fine!” she retorted, her irritation returning. “Now leave me alone!”

    “But I just—”

    “Just shut up! I’m sick of you doing this during every damned battle! If you don’t back off, Leyon, I’ll make you back off!”

    Azura leveled her sword at the general as she spoke, indicating that she was not joking. Before the alarmed Leyon could respond, however, Natalie, who had been nearby, rode her horse between the two.

    “Hey! How dare you speak to the general that way, you impudent piece of crap!” she blurted, her anger verging on the level of Azura’s. Apparently, Natalie had had enough of Azura’s retorts against Leyon.

    “No, Natalie, that’s not necessary,” Leyon protested. “Azura’s words were a bit harsh, but if she doesn’t want my help, I won’t force it on—DAAAGH!”

    Before he could finish his sentence, a hand axe sliced through an exposed part of Leyon’s right arm, the impact knocking him out of his saddle. His head crashed into a rock on the ground, cutting into his scalp and then knocking him out cold. Natalie’s face then was then enveloped in a raging red.

    “Damn it! NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!” she exclaimed loud enough for the whole fort to hear and then swung the palm of her hand across Azura’s face, knocking her to the dirt as well.

    Azura yelped from the pain as she crashed to the ground stomach first. Her own blood boiling, she sprang to her feet and lunged for Natalie as hard as she could, dropping her sword and attacking barehanded. Although only barely, she jumped high enough to shove the Paladin off of her own horse. It wasn’t long before the two began hitting and kicking one another and rolling around in the dirt. Bryan merely slapped his face in annoyance while Eliot quickly had his horse gallop over, dismounted, and attempted to break the two women up. Several of the bandits had begun snickering as well, even though the rest of Azura’s allies continued to battle them. Eliot, while struggling to stop his comrades from tearing each other apart, called Raela over to help the unconscious Leyon. This battle, which was supposed to be a cakewalk since the Red Claw were dead on their feet from exhaustion and drunkenness, was certainly going to take a lot longer than it really should.

  11. #26
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Time for chapter 24!


    Chapter 24: Rising Morale


    “Alright, THAT IS QUITE ENOUGH!” Eliot blurted deafeningly as he finally managed to grab hold of Azura and Natalie and tear them away from one another. His strength surprised both girls, and more than a few onlookers. Seemingly without effort, he’d pulled both of them off the ground and to their feet so hard and fast that it actually hurt.

    “Look, I know I don’t have any authority over either of you, but really,” Eliot continued, his voice not even strained from the effort of holding the two women up. “Someone had to break you both up and I was the closest. And I’d think you two of all warriors would know how dangerous it can be to get into a fight with your own allies in the middle of a battle. It’s stupid! Not to mention childish.”

    “Wow, am I really getting a lecture from Eliot of all people?” Natalie grumbled quietly in disbelief as Eliot finally released her and Azura.

    “Hey, I heard that! I’m serious here!” Eliot retorted.

    “You know, you’re absolutely right, Eliot,” Azura replied ashamedly, standing up and brushing herself off. “I feel terrible for it now.”

    “As well you should! You think I haven’t noticed the way you’ve been behaving towards General Leyon?” Natalie pointed out. “And, as if that wasn’t enough, you threatened him in the middle of a battle and distracted him long enough for him to be struck by an enemy! It’s pure and simple luck that that hit didn’t kill him.”

    “Oh? And, I suppose it’s fine for you to insult me and try to clobber me in the middle of a battle?!” Azura shot back. “I’m in command of this operation, you know!”

    “How that happened is beyond me, if you like starting fights with your comrades.”

    “What?! Take that back! I’m still new on this job and you know it!”

    “Ha, I’d think even new leaders would know better than that.”

    “Errrgh, DAMN YOU! SHUT UP!”

    Natalie simply snorted as she remounted her horse and rode off. Eliot merely sighed in frustration while Azura looked ready to explode. One more taunt from Natalie, and she knew she’d be knocking her around again. Still, Azura had to admit she’d badly mishandled her first battle as a noble and a full-fledged commander. Granted, the fight had not been a total loss since the enemy had by now been nearly annihilated, but the fight with Natalie had tarnished that success. Azura sighed and was about to go check on the unconscious Leyon when Eliot put a hand on her shoulder.

    “Wait. I think there’s something you ought to know, Milady,” he entreated quietly. “It’s about Natalie. I think I may know why she’s being so cold to you all of a sudden.”

    “Oh? What’s your theory?” Azura wondered, arching an eyebrow.

    Before responding, Eliot quickly glanced around to make sure no one would hear him and then lowered his voice to a near whisper.

    “Well, just between you and me, I think she may be jealous of you. See, awhile back, not long after General Leyon first became our commander, Natalie developed a crush on him,” Eliot explained. “She’d show little signs here and there, like making excuses to spend time with him and dolling herself up a bit so he’d notice her. But he seemed rather oblivious to it no matter what she did, so she eventually stopped. And, call me crazy, but General Leyon appears to be interested in you in one way or another. Now, I’m no expert on figuring this stuff out, but I think Natalie’s old feelings for him might be returning because of that.”

    For a long moment, Azura just stared back at Eliot as if he’d suddenly grown a second head. When she finally spoke, her words came out in a furious jumble.

    “That is crazy!” Azura opined angrily, folding her arms in exasperation. “Me, interested in Leyon? All he’s done since I’ve met him is drive me up a wall, treating me as if I can’t handle myself in a fight. Heck, if it’ll get Natalie off my back, then she can have him for all I care.”

    “If that’s true, then how come your cheeks are turning pink?”

    Eliot grinned fiendishly when he saw the look of shock on Azura’s face.

    “Uh, well… Oh, this is ridiculous! I’m just getting chilly, alright?” Azura insisted, though Eliot looked far from convinced. “Now go gather the troops. Order the mounted units to set up a perimeter in case more of the Red Claw show up, and have the others distribute medicine to the sick. Norman will oversee it and advise on how to deal with the disease Misty told us about. I have to check on Leyon, as it’s my duty to see that the wounded are tended to.”

    “Heh, okay then.”

    Azura merely grumbled while walking away, swearing that she heard Eliot snickering as he departed. Still, her comment about being cold had just been transparently false. Why had she blushed at the notion of Leyon having an interest in her? Surely she can’t like him, not after the way he’d been treating her. He always thinks I’m too weak to fight alongside ‘the boys’ and I always need help! I can’t stand it, Azura thought to herself as she approached Leyon’s limp form and Raela, who was still watching over him; the healer’s expression was drawn with concern, but Azura was too angry to notice. I hate men who think women can’t fend for themselves and are nothing but defenseless damsels in distress when they get in trouble! They’re stupid! I’ve lost count of how many women I’ve seen that can handle themselves on the battlefield. Heck, Leyon was trained by one! She knew everything she’d mulled over was the truth, so why did she not sound convincing to herself? For some reason, when she’d heaped those unkind thoughts on Leyon, they just didn’t ring true in her mind. Was there more to his trying to help her than she thought? Before she could come up with an answer, Azura gazed over Leyon’s limp form. He was certainly handsome, she had to admit, even with his eyes closed and bruised from his fall. A portion of his tunic had been torn away by the blow he’d taken to his arm, revealing a well-developed bicep. Azura had gauged Leyon as being of a build at least comparable to Ike and, by the look of things, Leyon might very well be as muscular as the azure haired hero.

    “Oh, Lady Azura, thank goodness,” Raela spoke up moments later, snapping Azura out of her trance. “I was beginning to worry no one would guard Leyon and I if more bandits showed up.”

    “Huh? Oh, don’t worry, the bandits are mostly taken care of now. I ordered the mounted knights to guard the perimeter. Odds are that’ll be enough to turn back any Red Claw headed our way, and Kevin and his little mercenary group are stronger than they appear, it seems,” Azura replied. “You should’ve seen how Jett practically cut a pair of those scoundrels in half all with one axe swing! I was quite impressed. Of course, Bryan’s strength was valuable too, though. He’s an elite warrior here, after all. Anyway, how’s Leyon?”

    Here, Raela sighed heavily and Azura suddenly felt her pulse race.

    “Well, I’m not sure,” Raela admitted in a worried tone. “I healed his injuries, but he still hasn’t awoken. The blow to his head was pretty nasty; it practically split open his scalp. There’s no fracturing of the skull, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he…”

    “Ended up like Marc?”

    “Pretty much. The skull can take a lot of punishment, but a strong enough blow can affect the mind anyway.”

    For some reason, which she could not make sense of, a feeling of alarm descended upon Azura at this news. She tried to rationalize it away, since after all, Marc’s memory problems weren’t the sort of thing she’d wish on anybody, but again, she wasn’t convinced by her own musings.

    “Oh dear… Somehow, I don’t think either him or Leona will like this…”

    Azura had been about to ask if there was anything that could be done when the sound of an approaching horse reached her ears. To his displeasure, it was Natalie.

    “Guilty conscience or are you just here to admire your handiwork?”

    “Didn’t I order you to patrol the perimeter?” Azura retorted, her temper flaring.

    “When I saw you over here, I was worried you’d try to kick him while he was down,” Natalie replied harshly.

    Azura managed to fight down the urge to knock Natalie off her horse, again, and spoke as calmly as she could manage.

    “Ugh, I don’t want to fight with you, Natalie. Leyon needs our help, and that’s more important than your little grudge against me. Now would you do me a favor and help Raela and I put him on his horse? Once that’s done, we can tie his arms to the saddle horn to keep him from falling off. If you want, you can lead the horse while Raela and I flank him to make sure he stays in the saddle.”

    Natalie did not look like she relished the idea of having Azura anywhere near Leyon, but nonetheless nodded her agreement.

    “Thank you.”

    With that, the three women combined their strength to haul Leyon’s limp form onto his horse. Natalie produced a rope from her saddlebag and used it to tie Leyon’s wrists to his saddle horn and then remounted her own steed, pulling Leyon’s horse along by the reins while Azura and Raela walked on either side of the unconscious general to hold him steady.

    While Norman took charge of handing out warm clothing and medicine to the rescued prisoners, Azura’s other companions and Kevin’s group scoped out the fort for any refugees that hadn’t been found yet or bandits that might have gone into hiding within the ruined fort. Raela and Natalie continued to watch over Leyon while Bryan and the rest of the party worked to load the refugees into the convoy wagons for transport back to Aracion. The mounted Knights, meanwhile, patrolled the area in case of another attack. The fort turned out to be in even worse condition than Fort Hector had initially been when Azura and company had arrived there to rescue Ike and Elincia. The bandits who’d ransacked the fort had decimated the place, smashing furniture, overturning tables and scattering documents, surplus equipment and personal effects everywhere. Everything that hadn’t been shattered, shredded, or burned was covered in dust, dirt, soot, and ominous stains that looked very much like blood. Even more disturbing, the corpses of the soldiers and refugees who’d been killed there were also scattered about like so much litter, bloodied, cleaved and with flies and maggots mingling about them by the thousands, while rats scurried amongst the bodies, nibbling at the dead.

    It was no wonder people had begun getting sick. Misty did say that she suspected that the corpses were the source, which Norman said was likely the case for anything that was killed by Venin weapons, and either the rats or the insects could carry disease to the people hiding there. Norman suggested that cremating the bodies would stop the disease at the source. Bryan didn’t like the idea, since it seemed an undignified way to deal with the remains of brave soldiers, but agreed if he could at least identify the bodies so that their families could be notified. While that was going on, Azura conversed with Kevin and his mercenaries and complimented them on their skills in battle.

    “Well, thank you very much, Milady!” Kevin replied, an astonished by the praise, yet appreciative. “You’re quite the swordfighter yourself, if you ask me. In fact, if I’d met you and seen you in action before you became a noble, I’d have invited you to join my mercenaries.”

    “Oh, wow. I wouldn’t know what to say to that,” Azura admitted, nearly blushing and averting her eyes bashfully. “Though I’d—AAAAH!”

    Azura’s shriek was so loud, that Kevin clapped his hands over his ears and everyone else within twenty feet jumped.

    “KEEP THEM AWAY! KEEP THOSE HORRIBLE THINGS AWAY!” she screamed as she bolted out of the fort. Kevin merely stood there, perplexed and with his ears ringing, until he realized what Azura had screamed at. Out of a pile of rotted wood came a group of spiders.

    “Oh, I see… Hmm…”

    “WAHAHA! That’s hilarious!” a familiar masculine voice echoed nearby. Jett appeared in the doorway moments later, laughing so hard that he was turning blue from lack of breath.

    “Is she really that scared of those little spiders?” he mocked through laughter. “Oh man!”

    “Jett, stop it! She’s our superior, you know! Even leaders aren’t perfect!” Magali’s reprimanding voice cut in. “And you know you could get in a lot of trouble for making fun of our leader!”

    “I’m sorry… Haha! I can’t help it!”

    Magali merely grunted angrily.

    “DANG IT, JETT! IF YOU DON’T STOP ACTING LIKE SUCH AN IMMATURE NINCOMPOOP ALL THE TIME—!”

    “Alright, knock it off, both of you,” Kevin intervened, clearly used to such squabbles. “I understand this is all a little…strange, but keep in mind that we’re still on a mission. Fighting amongst ourselves will get us nowhere. And I believe we even got a demonstration of that earlier. Now, did anyone find anything?”

    “Oh, no, Sir. We didn’t find any other bandits or stray villagers,” Jett replied, pausing briefly and offering a nervous smile. “And I apologize.”

    “Same here. Not a soul to be found,” Magali added. “Zane went after Lady Azura, but he told me to tell you that he didn’t find anyone either.”

    “Alright, let’s go rejoin the others and see when we can leave.”

    Several hours dragged by slowly. Once it was obvious that there were no more Red Claw in the area, most of the mounted Knights were called back into the fort to help. Norman had proven instrumental to helping the people in the fort, able to diagnose their conditions and what medicines would best help. Misty too proved her worth, as she was well stocked on all the medicines Norman required, and this only reaffirmed Azura’s determination to find out if anything could be done to mend Misty’s horribly scarred face. They reported that, thankfully, the army had arrived just in time and that none of the refugees were in terminal condition. There were, however, a number of people who needed aid which the army could not provide. They were loaded onto Bronwyn’s wagon, since her wagon had been built to resupply troops in the middle of a battle and could move the fastest. She’d take the critically ill patients to Aracion and then circle back to rejoin the others, likely half-way through their own return trip. Azura was glad for this, since she did not relish the older woman’s reprimand.

    Azura felt miserable during the return trip to Castle Talgria, more so than at any point in the journey so far. She’d overheard Jett laughing at her, Natalie hated her guts, and Leyon was still out cold even after the group had begun their trip back to Aracion. What’s more, Bryan and Skye, who’d long been her staunch allies, suddenly stopped speaking to her. They were likely annoyed with her behavior during the battle as well, especially Skye. The hot tempered sniper rarely tolerated such behavior from Kye and, judging by the tone he’d used with Bryan after the prince of Astryn had learned of his lineage, he wouldn’t put up with it from a superior officer either. Azura also noticed that Bryan and Skye weren’t even talking to each other much and Skye was glancing nervously at Raela’s Sleep staff, which she seemed to be trying to make as conspicuous as she could. Guessing that the young healer was trying, and none too gently, to get Skye to control his hot temper, Azura finally forced a giggle out of her mouth. About an hour after departure, a familiar voice called out to her.

    “Ah, there you are, tomboy!”

    Azura looked up to see Bronwyn, who’d rejoined the group and had pulled her wagon alongside the Lady of Elhorhi. If Bronwyn’s expression was any indication, she already knew what had happened. This wasn’t surprising; Azura suspected that the older woman was very keen minded. To Azura’s relief, however, Bronwyn didn’t bring it up...at least, not the way Natalie and Eliot had. Instead, she reported that she’d delivered the refugees as ordered and that, when they were well enough, they’d be sent to work in the valley. Azura didn’t particularly like that news, since the idea of shuttling people into the valley of her birth and sealing them in seemed little different than admitting defeat. What happened at Fort Absolon had been embarrassing, but she wasn’t about to give up after coming so far. Besides, if Melora did assemble the Miracle Stone, even the Elhorhi Valley would not be safe. Ike had said as much when he declared that Tellius would be endangered as well if Melora won the war, and Azura believed it.

    At Bronwyn’s gesture, Azura climbed up into her wagon. The former deputy commander of the Royal Knights then unrolled a scroll map showing the Elhorhi Valley, Azura’s valley, though she was far from used to the idea, and began pointing to various locations along the banks of a river that ran the whole length of the valley from a huge mountain basin up above. She suggested that the river be used to drive the mills to make bread for the people who’d be living there. The two then began discussing places for grain, vegetable and dairy farms, orchards and housing. As Wencelis had described, the valley was rich in lumber, quarry stone, water and farmable land as well as plenty of open space. Fully developed, the valley could be home to thousands of people. Azura still didn’t like the idea of cramming them all in there, since it was too akin to admitting that Melora had won, but she had to admit that she was impressed at Bronwyn’s planning and at the effort her assistants and Azura’s future subjects were putting into all this.

    By and large, Azura and Bronwyn were in perfect tandem discussing these plans. When Bronwyn brought up the idea of having hops farms, vineyards and breweries so that there’d be ample beer and wine, the two had their first disagreement.

    “No, no, no and no!”

    “You’re crazy, you’re crazy, you’re crazy and you’re crazy.”

    “It’s you who’s crazy. I’m expected to govern Elhorhi, whichever way this war ends, and how am I supposed to do that when everyone’s stumbling around drunk?!”

    Bronwyn’s aged features became pinched with displeasure.

    “I’m having one of those funny déjà vu flashes here. Don’t pretty much all your chats with Leyon go this way?”

    Azura did not appreciate being reminded of that, but Bronwyn cut her off before she could say anything.

    “A lot of the people going into the valley may never come back out, if Talgria does lose the war. Some of them might want to raise glass to people they had to leave behind or to their luck that they’re still alive. I myself always take a glass of Talgrian red wine with dinner. It was the drink my husband, Goddess rest his soul, and I drank on our first date, our wedding and the last meal we had together before he died. It’s my little way of letting him know he’s not forgotten. You plan on ending that?”

    Azura was stupefied; not only had she never even guessed that Bronwyn had been married but what the older woman had told her never occurred to the reluctant Lady of Elhorhi. And, between being reminded of the incident with Leyon and how she’d unwittingly interfered with Bronwyn’s remembrance of her husband, she felt even worse. She felt Bronwyn’s hand on her shoulder but could not meet her eyes.

    “I already know you’re good at listening to other peoples’ problems. But, if you’re going to be a leader, you have to be the one who listens to their ideas, their views and suggestions as well. You are going to be making the decisions, but others will be saying their bit and you have to be able to hear them out. Besides, any way you look at it, this is too big a job for one person to handle alone. Keep that in mind next time that empty-headed whippersnapper tries to get across that he likes you.”

    Azura had been about to object to the idea when Norman’s voice cut in.

    “Lady Azura, Lady Bronwyn! I think General Leyon’s finally waking up!” Norman’s voice shouted. Azura spotted him nearby, gesturing her to follow him. She immediately complied, commanding the column to halt for a few minutes, jumping off of Bronwyn’s wagon, and racing to join the Priest. Norman and Raela had taken turns watching over Leyon and pulling his horse along while Natalie joined the other knights at the head of the column.

    And, Norman had been correct. Leyon’s slumped form was stirring slightly while his eyelids slowly fluttered open. Azura gasped with relief and immediately spoke.

    “Are you alright?” she inquired, almost desperately.

    Leyon groaned, no doubt from his head wound, and tried to massage away the pain...only to discover that his hands were bound to his saddle horn.

    “Sorry about that,” Azura interjected shyly, untying him. “We didn’t want you falling off your horse.”

    “Thank you,” Leyon answered, but his tone was distant and distracted. “Man, my head hurts.”

    “You did have a nasty spill back there.”

    “Well, that explains that.”

    Leyon still seemed distracted though, and by more than his throbbing head. His eyes kept darting in all directions and his expression was one of deep perplexity and a hint of alarm.

    “We’ve left the ruins of Fort Absolon, and are on the road to Aracion,” Azura supplied, but inwardly she was getting worried.

    “Thank you for that information milady,” Leyon replied, though still sounding as if he was barely paying attention.

    “Hey, no need for honorifics,” Azura answered, trying to sound light and cheerful even though she was growing more and more concerned about his behavior. “It’s perfectly fine for you to call me by name.”

    “That would be a lot easier if I knew your name.”

    “What?! Leyon, it’s me, Azura! You know me!”

    Leyon met her gaze, mostly because Azura had reached up to turn his head to face her, but there was not even a hint of recognition in his eyes. His expression was still one of deep confusion and growing alarm, which Azura was feeling herself.

    “What...what do you remember?” she inquired, half dreading the answer.

    For a long moment, Leyon did not reply. Instead, his gaze roamed over the knights, soldiers and mercenaries around him and then to his armored body, his horse, his axe and his hands. He looked at each and all as if he’d never seen them before.

    “Nothing,” he admitted. “It...It’s all a blank.”

    “Oh my...”

    Norman, who’d been hovering nearby unseen, realized what was happening and approached.

    “Oh my goodness…” he added somberly. “This isn’t good at all. Gen…Sir, don’t you have any recollection of anything that’s happened recently?”

    “No, I have no idea what’s going on at all,” Leyon replied and brought a hand to the side of his head. “Owww… Damn, my head is killing me!”

    “Oh, well… Stay on the horse and don’t move, okay? You should rest,” Norman advised.

    “Alright…”

    Azura and Norman then moved a short distance away, speaking in lowered voices.

    “Norman, is this what I think it is?” Azura wondered fearfully.

    “Yeah. Amnesia. I’m sure of it. That blow to the head must have been worse than we thought,” Norman replied. “But how in Altarais are we going to explain this to the king?!”

    Azura then realized that Wencelis would be very upset to hear such news; he was already watching his kingdom tottering on the brink of destruction and now he’d effectively lost one of his best commanders. And, Natalie would probably hate her even more as well.

    Norman mulled over the situation while Azura watched anxiously, uncertain what, if anything, could be done to help Leyon. Then, Norman spoke again.

    “Well, people who suffer from amnesia eventually snap out of it, but I don’t think we have that kind of time. Something familiar might jog his memory, which would help, but I’m not sure how that can be done.”

    “I see. I guess all we can do is try our best. We need Leyon’s skills. If we’re lucky though, he’ll at least remember how to ride and fight. By the way, Norman, I really appreciate you staying with us even though you don’t have to.”

    “Oh, it’s my pleasure, Milady. I could see your growing army needed more healers available to you.”

    “Indeed, we certainly did. Thank you.”

    At first, Azura and Norman thought it might be best to at least remind Leyon of enough of who he was so that he could act normally and not cause any alarm. But several other people had apparently approached Leyon while the pair was conversing and, seeing Leyon’s odd behavior, had spread the news. As Azura had anticipated, Natalie chewed her out once more when she found out and even threatened to attack her again if she let anything more happen to Leyon. This deeply angered Azura, as Natalie was just as much at fault as she was. If Leyon hadn’t been distracted by their feud, he wouldn’t have been hit and thus, would not have banged his head against a rock and lost his memory. Still, Azura couldn’t help but notice that as Natalie turned her horse around, her head drooped and her expression turned to one of horror. Was she actually ashamed of herself too, or simply that worried about her superior officer? Given Eliot’s earlier account, Azura had to guess it was the latter, much to her disdain. Bronwyn, upon learning the news, glared at Azura in a fashion that made her feel about two inches tall. After that, Bronwyn clocked Azura over the head with her crutch and instructed the Lady of Elhorhi to consider this the first test of her ability to handle a crisis.

    Over the remainder of the trip, Leyon’s headache faded, but he still recalled practically nothing of his life. He did however, seem to remember how to ride and fight, his grip on his axe and how he guided his horse seemed little different than from before his accident, so he could still do battle. But, Leyon did not recall his leadership over the Royal Knights and he had no idea who they were or what to tell them in either battle or even simple conversation. As deputy commander of the Royal Knights, Natalie was next in line for command but Azura suspected that she was much too upset to handle such a promotion so suddenly. Bryan volunteered to temporarily take over Leyon’s duties instead, stating that he needed to learn more about the skills of leadership if he was to be crowned king of Astryn. Natalie and Eliot agreed to help out as much as they could. Meanwhile, Azura mulled over what could be done to help Leyon. Norman had told her that something familiar might jog Leyon’s memory, but he’d been a little vague about that. And, to complicate matters still further, Azura had met Leyon only a few days ago. She had no idea what would help to exhume his lost memories. Bronwyn, Natalie and Eliot all knew Leyon far better than she, but Bronwyn seemed to want Azura to handle this on her own and as for Natalie...well, Azura wasn’t holding her breath on getting her help. So, forced to improvise, she explained to Leyon his situation as best as she could as they approached Aracion once more.

    “Leyon, we need you to cooperate if we’re to get your memory back,” she informed him.

    “I see. And don’t worry, I will do what I need to,” Leyon replied, though he sounded far from certain. “But are you sure it’s possible to restore my memory?”

    “I believe it should be. Let’s start with what you already know, I could see along the way that you still know how to use an axe and ride a horse.”

    “Well, yes. I don’t understand it though, I don’t remember doing either of those things before. But, they felt almost as natural as walking.”

    “That’s a start. You learned how to use them many years ago. You were taught by a woman named Bronwyn.”

    “‘Bronwyn?’” Leyon muttered, and Azura hoped he might be making progress but then sagged in defeat. “Didn’t someone by that name whack you over the head with a crutch?”

    “Well, yes. But are you sure you still don’t remember anything?”

    “No, not a thing. Although… This axe I’m carrying…when I look at it, a strange feeling comes over me. I feel...sadness, and longing, but I have no idea why.”

    “Huh… Well, we’ll figure this out. I promise. Though, our king will be most displeased to hear about this…”

    “Yeah, if I’m really as important as you say I am.”

    “Oh, believe me, you are.”

    Several hours later, the army arrived in Aracion. Most of the army remained in the castle grounds or in the main hall, while Azura, Ike, and Bryan reported to Wencelis. Natalie, Eliot, and a royal physician watched over Leyon. Although Ike had not gone with Azura’s party on the previous mission, he wanted to let Wencelis know that he was ready to return to the battlefield for real and that Elincia had finally given him permission to do so. This had elicited a few chuckles from the others and Bryan had, discreetly, made a point of whispering ‘hen-pecked husband material’ to the blushing hero. The group hoped that knowing this would provide at least some relief to the burdened king, since Ike’s aid was invaluable. Even so, Azura felt uncomfortable. Whatever relief this brought Wencelis would be eclipsed by new worries when the king heard of Leyon’s amnesia. And, the fact that she was partly responsible for it would not go over well. When the trio approached the doors to the throne room, Azura took a deep breath, gulped audibly, and led her comrades inside. Hopefully, she could assure the king that she would do everything in her power to help restore Leyon’s memory.

    “Ah, Azura, you have returned,” Wencelis greeted, his tone betraying his relief but then turning quizzical at her expression. “You…look troubled. Don’t tell me the mission failed….”

    “Oh, no, your majesty, we succeeded,” Azura replied. “All of the prisoners were rescued and brought here. They will be moved to new homes as per...your orders. Many were ill, but the medicine we brought to them has gotten this situation under control. We had no deaths or injuries beyond our capabilities to heal as well. Except…”

    “I had a feeling there was a problem… What’s happened this time?”

    “Leyon…lost his memory.”

    Wencelis froze where he sat and nearly dropped the tome he carried.

    “…What?!”

    “You…You can’t be serious!” Louise gasped. “How did this happen?”

    “I’m so very sorry. I’m partially to blame,” Azura admitted, hanging her head in shame. “Leyon and I got into an argument during the battle. He kept trying to cut in while I was fighting. I felt...insulted and tried to push him away. Natalie got angry and took a swing at me. Leyon tried to break us up, but…while he was distracted, he was attacked from behind. The blow knocked him out of his saddle and he smashed his head into a rock.”

    “Oh dear…” Louise opined. “Is there anything we can do about this?”

    “We asked a royal physician to assess his condition and I’m trying to jog his memory, but I don’t know…”

    Here, Azura’s voice trailed away. After all, what else could she say? Her propensity to act before thinking had taken an already dire situation and made it even worse. Even if Leyon did recover his memory, that might take weeks. And, the Alliance simply didn’t have that kind of time while total defeat loomed closer by the hour. When Azura finally met Wencelis’ gaze again, she could not help but notice the severity of his expression.

    “There are no words for how disappointed I am in you. If I didn’t need every able warrior I could find, I would send you to your earldom under indefinite house-arrest. But, that’s an indulgence that I cannot afford, and that will do nothing to rectify this situation. Leyon is, or, perhaps, I should say was, amongst the finest commanders the Royal Knights have ever had. If he is unable to command, which, I suspect is the case, it could prove devastating, not only to the morale of the Royal Knights but to the entire Alliance.”

    A heavy silence fell over the little group, silent except for hope gasping its last in the hearts of five weary warriors.

    “But Leyon can still battle, though, can’t he?” Louise interjected, thought perhaps only to break the mournful silence.

    “He can,” Azura confirmed, wary of Wencelis. “At least, he still remembers how to ride and fight. But, I haven’t seen him in action since the accident, so I can’t be certain.”

    “If he does recall his training, at least subconsciously, then it is possible he could be quickly retrained and put back in command,” Bryan spoke up, though emphasizing the conditional. “He might recall, instinctively, how to lead but that might not count for much if he has no idea who he’s leading and how best to use their skills. Until we know, one way or the other, I’ve taken temporary command of the Royal Knights,” Bryan added. “I figured it would help me prepare for when I ascend Astryn’s throne. On top of that, Natalie is deeply upset and frustrated by these events. I simply don’t think she’s up to the task of replacing her superior officer.”

    “Hmm. I see,” Wencelis commented, the severity in his expression deepening. “I cannot emphasize enough how displeased I am with this development, but I am willing to allow you a chance to rectify this situation. Also, Bryan, I commend your initiative. I believe you commanding the Royal Knights is our best option until the royal physician can discover a solution to Leyon’s amnesia.”

    “Thank you, your majesty. I shall do my best,” Bryan replied.

    “Very good. Azura, are you absolutely sure Leyon no longer recalls anything from the past?”

    “I’m positive,” Azura assured. “He doesn’t remember a single thing. In fact, he didn’t even know who he was when he woke up. Nor did he recognize me. He did say that his axe makes him feel ‘sadness and longing,’ but that’s it.”

    “I see. I will instruct the physician to use whatever methods he deems necessary to resolve this matter. In the meantime, however, we have another situation to attend to. As you undoubtedly recall, your army destroyed a massive Red Claw encampment before arriving in Aracion. I had hoped that this meant that the capital was safe from invasion, at least, for the time being, but I fear that I was wrong. The Kiang River flows south of here and I fear the Red Claw will attempt to cross it for an invasion of Aracion. Your task is to prevent this by sealing off the river to the enemy.”

    “Very well. How are we to close off the river?”

    “During the last war, floodgates were built to prevent the enemy’s naval forces from gaining the river. One of the floodgates is at the river’s mouth and the other is further upstream near Astryn’s border. They were opened after the war ended. You simply have to close them again. Not only would this make it impossible for naval vessels to enter the river but we are expecting heavy rains and strong winds within the next three days. The rains will flood the river until it overflows its banks and the winds will cause the water to be quite stormy. The Red Claw will find swimming across the river or crossing with rafts to be impossible under such conditions.”

    “Understood. And I assure you we’ll do everything we can to restore Leyon’s memory.”

    “And I trust that you will, Lady Azura. I expect that the consequences of failure are quite clear.”

    Again, Azura felt both the gravity of the situation, and Wencelis’ displeasure weigh on her. But, she remained determined to prevail nonetheless. She gave a quick nod.

    “Your majesty, if I may have a word,” Ike cut in.

    “Yes, Ike?” Wencelis wondered.

    “I just thought I’d let you know that I’m ready to return to the battlefield. I had to…get permission from a certain girlfriend of mine, but my blade is yours, and Lady Azura’s, once again.”

    Azura couldn’t prevent herself from giggling at this confession. Ike merely glared.

    “Heh, I see. I’m pleased to have you on our side. May fortune favor you all. Oh, but one last thing. I received word of what happened in Cilae regarding the razed villages and the attempt to frame Bryan as the culprit. I decided to send your two raven laguz allies there to investigate and they should return sometime tomorrow with their findings. Since evening approaches, all of you should get a good night’s rest and depart at dawn.”

    “Yes, your majesty,” Azura obeyed.

    Just as Wencelis was about to dismiss the group, a sentry came through the doors. At first, the others feared that yet another situation had arisen, but the sentry’s stride and posture indicated he was in no hurry and his expression remained calm. Wencelis prayed that this meant he had good news; he could certainly use some.

    “Your majesty, we have some unknown visitors at the castle gates. I do not know who they are, as they have declined to identify themselves, but they seek an immediate audience with Sir Ike.”

    “Me?” Ike wondered, raising his eyebrow. “Who would be looking for me around here?”

    “I don’t know, but I think you should go meet with them,” Wencelis replied. “They could be potential allies. And the more troops we recruit, the better. You all are dismissed.”

    “Well, he does have a point,” Ike agreed as the trio departed the throne room. “This better not be some dumb fanclub, though.”

    “Hehe, wouldn’t you rather it be that than enemies disguising themselves, though?” Azura replied with a giggle.

    “Well, the jury’s still out on that one.”

    “Hey, I’m going to brief the other troops on our new mission,” Bryan decided. “I’ll also go see the physician and find out if he has anything new to report while I’m at it. As his majesty said, we could have real trouble if we can’t restore Leyon’s memory.”

    “Alright, then we’ll meet up again and discuss strategies later,” Azura decided.

    Bryan nodded and departed for the main hall where most of the troops awaited. Ike headed for the castle gates to greet his guests while Azura decided to check on Lorelle and then retreat to her room and begin deciding upon who should accompany her in the morning. Ike remained curious about who had come to see him. He hardly knew anyone in Altarais besides the army he was with, so who could it be? Surely the Valkyrie from Kolah, Lisa, had no reason to seek him out. If she desired to join the army, she’d be looking for Azura instead. General Derien was still missing. Leyon reported allying with him when Fort Tehya was recaptured, but after that, the Eraghoan general vanished once again. King Rothgar and other foreign rulers would be seeking Wencelis if they were to come to the castle. Reluctantly, Ike could only guess that it was either a bothersome fanclub, or Melorans or Red Claw members disguising themselves as a bothersome fanclub. Dreading both options, and not sure which one was worse, Ike stepped out onto the castle grounds and approached the gates. Soon enough, two cloaked figures came into view just on the other side. One of them was rather short while the other stood about as tall as Ike and nearly as broad in build.

    It was when they turned around to greet him that Ike realized he was standing before two very familiar faces.

    “Ike!” they blurted at the same time.

    “Boyd! Soren! I-I don’t believe it!” Ike exclaimed, his eyes widening. “Where’d you two come from?!”

    “Crimea, where else?” Boyd replied with a smile. “We’re so glad we’ve finally reached you.”

    “Indeed. We had to carry quite a bit with us,” Soren agreed.

    “But how did you guys find me?” Ike wondered.

    “Duh, everyone’s talking about it!” Boyd opined. “How there’s a big war going on, how the Red Claw is causing all kinds of trouble, and how Melora is at war with Cilae and Talgria, and how Ike, the great legendary hero of Tellius, came to Talgria’s aid and traveled here.”

    “As is often the case, it’s left to me to fill in the finer details,” Soren cut in, to Boyd’s chagrin. “A while ago, word reached Melior that you and Elincia had found each other. King Renning and Empress Sanaki had been awaiting such news for some time and wanted at least a couple people to find you. Needless to say, we volunteered. Though, they did entrust us with a few other tasks to complete.”

    “Yeah. In fact, we have to talk to Elincia too. Where is she?” Boyd finished.

    “Oh, she’s in her room upstairs. Follow me,” Ike instructed. “Don’t worry, I can get the gate keepers to let you in.”

    With Ike to vouch for them, the gatekeepers were quick to permit Boyd and Soren to enter the castle grounds and led them inside. As he led them inside, Ike inquired about the well-being of the current Greil Mercenaries and Soren’s life in the Branded village he had been invited to live in. Soren, like Lartz, was a Branded, but descended from the dragon tribe instead of the wolves. Boyd reported that the mercenaries had had a lot of work on their hands a month or so before, but that things had calmed down some since then. Soren told of how living in the Branded village was very enjoyable compared to the life he once knew prior to meeting Greil and Ike so many years ago. People now treated him with kindness and respect instead of ignoring him and leaving him to starve. Ike was glad to hear such news, especially after several recent events. Still, he told his friends of his own experiences, including having been badly poisoned.

    “Dang! You mean you nearly died from being ill?!” Boyd exclaimed, nearly freezing in his footsteps. “And then Red Claw bandits beat you to a pulp?!”

    “Yeah. I owe my life to my new allies. If not for Azura and her party, I would have never survived,” Ike replied. “Elincia might not have either, since she was taken along with me.”

    “I can imagine,” Soren agreed. “This new foe you face appears to be quite powerful. Are you really up to the task of defeating it?”

    “I certainly am. But I’ll explain it in further detail later. Elincia’s room is right up—Whoa!”

    “Ike! What the—?!” Elincia gasped, having nearly run into him as she was turning a corner in the staircase the group was in. “Boyd? And Soren too? Where’d they come from?”

    “Oh, they just arrived!” Ike replied with a smile. “They were looking for us.”

    “Yeah, we came to deliver a few things to you two,” Boyd explained. “Firstly, and most importantly, Ike. Begnion and Crimea agree that this belongs to you. I believe Sanaki’s exact words were ‘since Ike seems so adept at finding trouble, or being found by it, he might as well have what he needs to deal with it.’”

    Boyd then removed a large sack from his back, opened it, and produced a large golden blade that any Tellius native would recognize. Both Ike and Elincia gasped when they laid eyes on it.

    “Whaaaat?!” Ike blurted uncontrollably and nearly stumbled over backwards. “Ragnell?! They’re giving it to me?!”

    “They are. Both nations agree that your prowess with this sword in the Mad King’s War and Goddess War proves that it’s worthy of being yours and yours alone,” Soren replied.

    “Yeah, everyone thinks you’re more heroic when you use that sword,” Boyd added.

    “Hee hee, I think I have to agree,” Elincia added with a giggle.

    “I-I see. I guess I can accept it. I have kind of missed the sword, truth be told,” Ike admitted, taking Ragnell and slinging it to his back for the first time in months. “I fought a lot of battles with it, after all.”

    “And that’s not all. Lots of people miss you, you know. But your absence hasn’t affected your reputation at all,” Boyd continued. “Just about every country has a deep respect for you. And, check this out.”

    Boyd dug into the sack again and produced a fairly thin book. He then tossed it to Ike. The mercenary’s eyes widened when he saw exactly what was on the cover. A painting of him in the uniform he’d worn as a general in the Mad King’s War and hefting Ragnell was in the center, and up near the top in large gold letters, was written Legendary Heroes of Tellius. Right below that, more gold letters spelled out Sir Ike: The Blue Flame. Someone had written a book about Ike, and he was rather flattered. Of course, he would never admit to it.

    “Wow, now they have books on me?” Ike opined moments later. “Geez, next thing I know, they’ll be building statues.”

    “Actually, that project was completed a few weeks ago,” Soren contradicted.

    Ike instantly dropped the book.

    “…Say what?”

    Elincia burst out laughing.

    “Haha, yeah, the statue of you in Melior was meant to be a gift to you. As a thank you for your deeds and bravery,” Boyd explained. “But you left before it could be complete.”

    “I see…”

    As was often the case, Ike was more than a little overwhelmed by his fame. While he had longed to great swordsman and commander, like his father, the celebrity he’d unwittingly garnered was much, much more than what he had in mind. While having statues of himself didn’t appeal to him the same way it did others, he did take pride in knowing that he had made such a difference in the lives of so many people. He felt Elincia kiss him on the cheek and it brought a smile to his face that not even Boyd’s mouthing ‘Ike and Elincia, sitting in a tree’ could wipe off his face.

    “Is there more news?” Elincia wondered. “What of Mist and Titania?”

    Here, Boyd grinned devilishly.

    “Well,” he began in a coy tone, “Titania wants grandchildren and Mist wants nieces and nephews.”

    “Sorry I asked,” Elincia replied, sounding anything but and more a little enticed by the implication. “What about my lord uncle? And, Lucia and Geoffrey and Bastian?”

    “Oh, that’s right! We have is a letter to you from King Renning,” Soren spoke up.

    At this, Elincia froze where she stood.

    “A-A letter?” she stammered. “Oh… Okay.”

    Soren then handed her a rolled up scroll he’d been carrying with him. Elincia, her face going pale, opened it and began reading. Even though she was nervous about what her uncle had to say, deeply worried that her leaving had left him hurt and disappointed, she forced herself to calm down and not to read too quickly. As she did so, however, her mouth parted in a shocked, gaping expression, a frightened gasp escaped her lips and tears brimmed in her eyes.

    “No… No! How…How could he do this me?! How could he do this after all we’d…after all…after all…?!” her shouting quickly degenerated into a furious but incoherent babbling punctuated by sobs and she threw the letter to the ground. Before long, Elincia had raced up the stairs, crying harder than she had when Ike had fallen ill.

    “Elincia! Wait!” Ike called. “What’s wrong?!”

    “Ohhh…” Boyd uttered nervously, and his anxiety grew when Ike wheeled to face him.

    “Boyd, what the hell is going on?!” Ike demanded.

    “Huh? Wait, I don’t know! Soren doesn’t either! We didn’t read anything in that message! I swear! King Renning told us it was for Elincia’s eyes only.”

    “It’s true. Still, it sounds like something devastating must’ve happened,” Soren added.

    “Well, whatever. I’ll be right back,” Ike replied. “Why don’t you two stick around for awhile? We’re leaving the castle tomorrow and we could use your help with something.”

    “Alright then. King Renning gave us permission to stay as long as we pleased,” Soren agreed. “He will, naturally, want us to send confirmation that we’ve arrived and have found you, but that’ll be simple enough.”

    As always, Ike was glad to have the aid of someone as level-headed and dependable as Soren. Ike had been about to pursue Elincia when he realized that the letter which had so upset her was still on the floor. Ike snatched it up and, glancing at it as he walked, began to search for Elincia. What was on the letter, however, was a veritable horror story. After Ike had left Crimea, Renning reported that the country had suffered much hardship. Banditry had increased to unthinkable levels and the Crimean citizenry lost faith in the Royal Knights. The brave face that Geoffrey must’ve put on while arranging for Elincia’s departure had been illusionary. The commander of the Royal Knights, or former Commander, by the sound if it, had grown increasingly aloof, bitter and cynical, apparently resenting people he viewed as either pitying or belittling him, as well as growing more and more distant from Renning, who he seemed to blame for the failed marriage between him and Elincia.

    Ike felt a pang of anguish at the reminder, recalling how he’d felt devastated at the news and might’ve been so for all his life if Elincia hadn’t found him and told him the truth. Geoffrey’s problems, apparently, were even worse. He had begun drinking and at some decidedly seedy and disreputable establishments no less. And, as talk of wishing that Ike would return and take over Geoffrey’s post grew more incessant, he seemed to snap. Geoffrey had apparently destroyed the statue of Ike in Melior, the one Ike had only just now heard about, and the museum which used to be the Greil Mercenaries’ fort. He also stole the painting Ike and Elincia had done in Melior just after the Mad King’s War and which Ike had left behind when he left Tellius, though the painting had been recovered undamaged. Geoffrey had finally been caught and confined to the dungeon following his rampage, though it had taken both Marcia and Kieran, two of the Crimean Royal Knights, to subdue him and the latter had come away all but pulverized. During his rage, he blamed Ike for ruining his life, threatened to kill him if he could, and after that, had tried to kill himself as well.

    “What?!” Ike blurted angrily. “Geoffrey! You son of a—!”

    Ike nearly punched the castle wall, but caught himself before he could. It was then he realized that Geoffrey was right to feel slighted and neglected. Renning’s letter seemed to imply that people had begun relying too much on Ike and he was right. Though it was still no excuse for the knight’s behavior, Ike couldn’t help but place some of the blame on himself. If he hadn’t left, if he had confronted Elincia and Geoffrey and gotten the truth out of them, then maybe Ike and Elincia would have been wed. Or, though he was loathe to even consider blaming her, perhaps if Elincia had confronted her uncle then the failed marriage between her and Geoffrey would not have happened. Then, there would have never been that rampant banditry, Elincia wouldn’t have had to leave and Geoffrey might never have had his breakdown. But, then again, if Ike, Elincia and Ranulf had never left Tellius, then how would that have affected things here on Altarais?

    Reluctantly, and with many more questions than answers, Ike continued reading the letter. It explained how Geoffrey was working to recover from his melancholy, thanks to the efforts of a girl who, Renning suspected, he was falling in love with. The statue of Ike was being rebuilt and others were making efforts to restore the fort as best as they could. Much of it had been destroyed, but people everywhere were contributing to repair or replace what had been lost in the fire. Renning continued by saying that Kieran and Marcia were in love and possibly getting married. The king concluded his letter by stating that, despite the heartbreak that incurred, the citizenry of Crimea respected Elincia’s decision and didn’t blame her for wanting to reunite with Ike. Though they had supported her marriage with Geoffrey, they also thought Ike would have made a wonderful husband to her as well. The citizenry also decided that even though they still regarded Ike as a legendary hero, many other people who fought in the past two wars were heroes as well, including Geoffrey who, despite very few people knowing he was behind the rampage, now worked avidly to redeem himself.

    Ike felt a little better after reading this, but would Elincia calm down? He soon entered her room to find out. At the same time, however, Ike soon recalled that he had been planning to propose to her that night. He certainly couldn’t now with his would-be fiancée so miserable. Ike would just have to wait until the next evening.

    “Elincia?” he spoke up when he found her crying on her bed.

    “Oh, Ike… It’s awful…” she sobbed as she sat up and sniffled. “Did you read it?”

    “I did,” Ike confirmed as he sat down next to her. “And I don’t blame you for being soupset. I was furious. In fact, I almost wanted to beat Geoffrey to a pulp for what he did,” Ike admitted. “I don’t condone what he did, but I can understand why he did it.”

    “That’s true…but he broke the promise he made to me… He broke it!”

    “Huh?”

    “He promised that he’d never try to interfere in our relationship, whether we went back to Tellius or not. But, he threatened to hurt you… How could he?!”

    “I…I don’t know. Maybe I should have never left. I did practically turn my back on everyone who cared about me, even you, and all because I was so absorbed in my own problems. Maybe if I’d spoken with Renning, he would’ve seen the truth and neither of us would’ve had to leave.”

    “Well, there’s plenty of blame to go around. I could have, should have, confronted my uncle and told him that I was still in love with you and I didn’t. Or, I could have reinstated you as a lord. I know you wouldn’t have liked the idea, but at least we could have courted openly instead of hiding it. Or, maybe I could’ve done something to help Geoffrey before I left. I’ve always known about Geoffrey’s...issues… I grew up with him, remember?”

    Ike, sensing Elincia’s mood was turning darker at the memory, wrapped his arms around his love while she buried her face in his broad chest. For a long moment, Ike simply held her, gently stroking her back and running a hand through her thick coils of emerald hair. After a time, she spoke.

    “I think you did the right thing, leaving Tellius. There was nothing left for you there. You were depressed, but you also wanted more adventure. To see unfamiliar lands… And, you hated all the attention you were getting, even over here. I never blamed you for that, and I never will.”

    “Oh… Well, don’t you even think about blaming yourself either. It was simply a chain of bad events, with one leading to the next. Nobody is really at fault. Just like it was no one’s fault that that big misunderstanding about who you loved happened. And look, you didn’t even finish reading the letter. Kieran and Marcia are likely getting married. Crimea respects your decision to give the throne to your uncle. They, and he, are giving us their blessings. And Geoffrey’s working to recover. Plus, he’s in love with the girl who helped him. He’s turning his life back around. And Crimea realized her mistake of relying too much on me.”

    “R-Really?”

    Ike nodded and handed Elincia the letter. As she finished reading it, a small smile formed on her lips. And then she giggled.

    “You know, trying to imagine Kieran being a husband is hilarious,” she chuckled. “But still, Geoffrey broke a promise he made to me. He’s never ever done such a terrible thing before. Never…”

    “I know… And I’m sorry he did.”

    Ike then took Elincia in his arms once more and let her cry on his chest.

    ***


    The next morning arrived all too swiftly. The companions Azura had chosen for the mission to the Kiang River had already gathered up outside of Aracion. Natalie was still distraught over Leyon’s condition and furious with Azura, so she’d been allowed to stay behind to compose herself. Eliot, Marc, and Leona all decided to go. Leyon, even though his memory loss had shown little improvement, was permitted to accompany them as well. Interestingly, this had been requested by the physician who was working with him. The physician himself could not help Leyon, but he noted certain instances which indicated that Leyon’s memory could return naturally.

    The previous evening, Leyon had been wandering the halls, searching for, well, just about anything. He would sometimes linger in certain places or, hearing certain sounds, would mull over them. He later told the physician that, when he heard or saw these things, images would form in his mind’s eye. These, the physician reflected, might be fragmentary flashes of memory, which would indicate that Leyon’s memory might be salvageable. The physician also thought that if Leyon continued fighting and conversing with his allies, it might further jog his memory. Bronwyn, Raela, Lily, and Norman also accompanied the group again along with Bryan, Skye, Kye, and Morris. Kevin’s group agreed to come along again as well. Ike chose to go, though he’d convinced Elincia to stay behind since she was still shaken by the news from Crimea. Both Boyd and Soren agreed to join the group, though it took some persuasion from Ike to convince Soren. Both Faline and Marina, as well as Lartz, decided to come as well. It was decided that flying units would prove useful in scouting the river since they could cross it easily and, if the Red Claw were trying to cross, the airborne knights could attack them on the far bank or even on the water. Finally, Kiel, Sara, and Ranulf were added in case there were more laguz with the Red Claw, although neither of the wolf siblings particularly liked the idea of having to fight their own kind. Azura and Bryan had planned their strategies carefully. Successfully barring the Red Claw and Melora from crossing the Kiang River to attack Aracion would definitely bolster morale and allow Allied Command some much needed breathing room.

    The trip lasted several hours, but eventually, the vast ocean came into view, and so had the mouth of the Kiang River. Just as Wencelis had described, there was an immense floodgate where the river flowed into the ocean and, according to Wencelis, another one lay some distance upstream. Azura still wanted to talk to Lartz, but chose to let it wait until the first gate was successfully closed. Unfortunately, doing so turned out to be a more difficult task than expected.

    “Oh great…” Azura grumbled when the group arrived at the riverbank. “The Red Claw beat us here.”

    It was true. On both sides of the river and guarding the levers that controlled the floodgate were dozens of Red Claw members, who had once again deployed wolf, hawk, and raven laguz as well as beorc. And as usual, the beorc were diverse in their weaponry. Axes, swords, lances, bows, and magic were everywhere the group looked. Some units were on foot while others were mounted on horses, and even wyverns and Pegasi. The Red Claw must’ve been in the midst of crossing the river, for there were also rafts on both sides of the river and several, loaded with troops and weapons on the river itself.

    “Actually, for once, I’m glad this happened,” Ike replied, to which Azura responded with a stupefied look. “Hey, they still think I’m dead, remember? This is perfect! Hehe, I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces.”

    “Hold on, Pegasus knights?!” Marina gasped. “Faline, can you believe this madness? Some of our soldiers must have defected! What craven wretches! Lady Azura, if we may, can we punish these mongrels?”

    “I agree! This simply cannot stand! Commander Eilonwy is already angry at me and that’s quite enough!” Faline added. “These traitors give her and us a bad name, not to mention more problems!”

    “Very true. And yes, we can. Everyone, charge! Take them all out! They might try to destroy the gate mechanisms when they realize what we’re trying to do, so let’s make it fast!” Azura commanded. “Marina, you, Faline, and Lartz get to the levers as fast as you can and guard them! Everyone else, let your blades run red!”

    With that, the group charged forward. As Bryan led the Royal Knights toward the river bank to destroy the enemy rafts, he eyed the enemy Pegasus knights suspiciously. While it was certainly possible that they had come from Cilae, he wasn’t so sure. He knew that Astryn also had Pegasus knights since Owen told him at the castle. The fighting spirit of Astryn’s army was all but gone after Shigo’s brief conquest, so perhaps these were conscripted prisoners? Or, worse, were they Astrynians who had lost faith in the royal family of Astryn and had defected? There was, he decided, only one way to find out.

    Ike excitedly rushed towards his first opponent, a promoted axe fighter who froze in his tracks when he laid eyes on the mercenary.

    “Y-You guys!” he shouted, backing away as if he’d just seen a ghost.

    “Argh! What’s the problem now?!” the boss, a lance paladin, shouted from ahead, turning his attention to where the voice was coming from. When he spotted who his underling was fighting, he nearly dropped his lance in utter astonishment.

    “No… It can’t be… I don’t believe it!” the lance paladin shouted.

    “Well, believe it!” Ike replied with a confident grin as he drove Ragnell through the axe wielder, tore it free and cut down an enemy swordsman all in the blink of an eye.

    “YOU’RE ALIVE?!” the boss exploded. “NO! Damn it! Get reinforcements here on the double! Have the men on the other side of the river make their way across and attack! NOW! And you, girl, you’re going to pay dearly for pulling a fast one on us! You will pay!

  12. #27
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Here's chapter 25. :]


    Chapter 25: A Fatal Clash


    Perhaps Ike had been hoping that, seeing the famed hero of Tellius alive, the enemy would panic. Instead, the Red Claw had been driven into an enraged frenzy. Those that had already crossed the river charged while those still crossing paddled faster to join the attack. Azura, seeing that Ike’s display had backfired, grunted angrily.

    “Great going, Ike! Enemy reinforcements are exactly what we need!” she retorted with a glare.

    “Whoa, hey, calm down. Don’t think I didn’t anticipate this,” Ike reassured his superior officer. “Remember, I’ve returned to battle with an old friend!”

    With that, Ike brandished Ragnell, spinning it in the air and thrusting it into the ground in front of him. Azura, however, still looked angry and unconvinced.

    “My boot heel and your ass have an appointment.”

    “Wait, you’d be surprised at what this blade can do. Watch!”

    With that, Azura folded her arms and watched carefully as Ike turned his attention to three Red Claw members charging towards him. One carried an axe, another wielded a sword, and the other a lance. However, this hardly mattered once Ike launched his attack. In fact, he didn’t even move. All the famous hero did was swing Ragnell three times and during each strike, the golden blade produced a shockwave that traveled so fast that it could barely be seen and which was nearly impossible to avoid. Each attack struck its target squarely in the gut with bone crushing power, knocking them to the ground instantly.

    “Whoa. That’s wicked,” Azura commented. “And I thought you were powerful before you got that sword.”

    “Heh, well, now you know that it’ll come in handy.”

    With that, the battle continued. As per their orders, Lartz and the Pegasus knights targeted the enemies nearest to the levers that controlled the floodgates. Once that was done, they held their ground to protect the levers so that the Red Claw could not tamper with the mechanism and jam the floodgates open. Bryan was concerned for Faline’s safety, especially with all of the axe wielders amongst the enemy, but shook his head when he spotted a sword in her hand instead of a lance. Where she had gotten it, he wasn’t sure, but he had a feeling that either Ryin or Bronwyn were involved. He did know, however that Falcon Knights were eligible to learn to use swords. Bryan just hoped Faline wouldn’t forget her lance training, since there were plenty of swordsmen about.

    Since Azura had taken a larger group with her this time, enough that the Red Claw’s usual advantage of numbers was all but meaningless. What’s more, the frenzy which Ike’s appearance had caused left the Red Claw uncoordinated. They’d charge at Ike and Ike would knock them right back with Ragnell’s shockwaves, sometimes all the way into the river. In fact, none of them could even get near him anymore. Meanwhile, most of Azura’s army had taken position along the riverbank and were firing arrows, spells and other projectiles at the Red Claw trying to cross the river. Still, the Red Claw had put up enough of a fight to cause injuries, keeping Raela and Norman busy. Thankfully, Leyon’s memory loss didn’t seem to affect his fighting skills and he still fought as if he’d never lost his memory at all. Like Bryan, his strength was invaluable. Skye attempted to convince Raela to use the Sleep staff on the enemy commander or one of the stronger Red Claw members, but she was set on using it on him if he misbehaved. Kye burst into laughter upon hearing this, and it took Skye all of his willpower not to retort.

    Minutes later, Azura ordered Lartz and Marina to close the floodgates. Faline was still fighting an axe bandit, but once he was downed and the levers were secured, the remaining enemies fled. At the same time, Ike had launched two more shockwaves into the enemy commander. Before he knew it, the paladin was sent flying off his horse. His corpse slammed right into Boyd’s backside, knocking him to the ground. As he’d fallen, he lost his grip on his axe and it went soaring right at Soren’s head. Soren side-stepped the flying axe, which passed so close to him that it gave him a bad haircut, and ended up lodged in the edge of the floodgate.

    “IKE!” both warriors shouted angrily.

    “Whoa! Sorry about that! I guess I got a little carried away,” Ike admitted, pulling the corpse off Boyd and helping him up.

    “I’ll say you did,” Soren replied. “I almost got sliced in half. And just look what you did to my hair!”

    “Yeah, be more careful next time,” Azura lectured. “And that’s an order. One more stunt like that and you could accidentally lop someone’s head off.”

    “Yeah, I know. I will,” Ike obeyed, scratching the back of his head.

    “Well, thanks to your recklessness, I’ve lost my short axe!” Boyd complained. “I can’t reach it way out there!”

    “Don’t worry, I’ll go get it for you,” Lartz offered. He then flew over to the axe and yanked it out of the wood. The Dracoknight returned it to Boyd afterward.

    “Oh, thanks!” Boyd replied, taking his weapon back. “You’re a really nice guy for a Meloran. I can see why you defected, Lartz.”

    “You heard about that?”

    “Yeah. Even back in Crimea, everybody is talking about what’s going on here. We heard rumors about you before we found Ike. They say the Meloran bounty on your head is as high as the one on Ike’s. Kinda flattering, in a way.”

    “Oh, I see. But Boyd, to be honest, I wouldn’t say I’m as nice as you make me out to be.”

    “Huh? Why not?”

    “It’s…complicated. I’d rather not talk of it.”

    “Oh… Okay then.”

    “Hey Lartz, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you something later after we leave,” Azura spoke up.

    “Oh? Well, alright,” Lartz agreed, though rather reluctantly since he had a suspicion about what she wanted to know. “You’re the commander.”

    “Hey Boyd, by the way, how’s Urvan serving you?” Ike inquired, referring to his father’s double-bladed axe.

    “Oh, it’s a good axe. And I’m taking care of it just like you told me to,” Boyd replied, unsheathing the axe from his back. “See? Still in good condition. But I still don’t think you should’ve left it with me.”

    “Really? Why? I thought it would be a little too heavy for Titania.”

    “Yeah, but… Ike, it’s your dad’s axe. It should rightfully be yours.”

    “True, but I figured it’d be more useful to you than me. After all, you know what happened with the local bandits after I left Tellius.”

    “Yeah, point taken…”

    “And besides, I have enough to carry with me right now. I have two swords and an axe, remember?”

    “Heh, oh yeah, I guess that’s a good enough excuse. That Ettardios blade is really something too. Bet you’d break your sword everyday if it looked that much better afterwards!”

    “Haha, yeah.”

    After the enemy had been routed, Azura had Marina and Faline make sure that the floodgates’ mechanism was locked in the closed position and had the remainder of the group patrol the area in case any hidden bandits revealed themselves. Once the floodgate was effectively sealed shut, she ordered her troops to depart immediately. They had to reach the other gate as soon as possible before the enemy caught wind of their mission. If they were to figure it out prematurely, they could easily destroy the controls for the remaining gate, which would leave it impossible to close. The floodgates themselves were much too sturdy to be damaged by most weapons, but their controls were another story.

    In order for Wencelis’s plan to work, the two floodgates had to be sealed shut. That would bar any enemy naval vessels from the river. And, once the rains came, they would cause the Kiang would flood and become impossible for the Red Claw’s ground forces to cross. Still, the river would not stay flooded forever and Azura could only hope that Wencelis had a plan for when the flooded river receded.

    Along the way, just as she was about to speak with Lartz, Azura noticed Leyon had begun staring at Olegxing from time to time. He seemed intrigued by it, even though he still had no idea where he got it or why he even had it. Curious, Azura decided to talk with him as well after she spoke with Lartz. Hopefully, whatever Lartz had to say would prove helpful, as Azura and company needed all the help they could get right now. She approached the dracoknight eagerly after taking a deep breath.

    “Lartz, about what I wanted to ask you…” Azura began.

    “Yes?” the Dracoknight replied warily.

    “Well, I don’t mean to force you to talk about something you don’t wish to speak of. I want to ask you something about your being a Branded.”

    “Oh, I see. To be honest, I’ve decided I trust you enough to talk about my history. What was it you wanted to ask me?”

    “Well, from what I know, the Branded are often born with extraordinary abilities and powers,” Azura recalled. “For example, when Ike introduced us to Soren and Boyd, I learned Soren is also a Branded. He seems to have natural talent with tactics. I was wondering if you have any such abilities.”

    “Well…” Lartz began. “That…is something I really hoped you wouldn’t ask. But you should know about it, so I’ll tell you. Remember when Shigo spoke of how I destroyed a few Meloran villages out of my hatred for them?”

    “Yes, but I found it hard to believe. I mean, it’s no secret that you hate Melora but something like that seemed so out of character. Besides, it was Shigo who made that claim.”

    “Yeah, well…I think what I did to those villages…is my Branded ability.”

    “W-What?!”

    “Yes. You see, whenever I get very angry and feel a strong hatred for someone, I suddenly…go berserk. My vision turns red and blurs, and then I feel this overwhelming urge to kill people or destroy whatever’s in my path if I don’t care for them. When people try to fight me, I don’t even feel their attacks. And, that’s assuming they even managed to hit me at all. When I attack them, my blows are devastating and I find I move faster than I thought possible. After I razed those villages and murdered Shigo’s sister, Selia, the Melorans despised me and began calling my power…Accurse. As if it were a curse placed upon me. But I don’t mind the name. In fact, I think it’s a fitting term. I feel like this wretched ability truly is a curse… I’m afraid that if I become too consumed by hatred and anger, I’ll lose control and hurt people I do care for.”

    “Lartz… Don’t talk like that. I see that ability as a gift of strength,” Azura countered. “If you can learn to control it better, it may be useful to us. This is why I asked you if you had any strange powers. I wanted to know if they could be helpful if you did have any.”

    “Well, maybe. However, I can’t control how long I remain berserk. So as a warning, if I start going nuts in a battle, keep away from me until I calm down. Please, just in case.”

    “Alright, I will, but I have confidence that you’ll never end up hurting one of us.”

    “…Thank you, milady.”

    At the same time that Azura and Lartz had finished their conversation, Bryan approached Faline’s Pegasus. He was still curious about where she got a sword, as she hadn’t yet gone to see Ryin as far as he knew. Azura, who was also curious, followed him. She hadn’t seen her visit Ryin and Azura had been with Bronwyn since leaving the ruins of Fort Absolon and hadn’t seen Faline approach to grab one of the surplus weapons from the wagon.

    “Hey Faline, you surprised me out there,” Bryan spoke up when he came to a halt. “Where’d you get that sword? It’s an iron one, isn’t it?”

    “Yeah, I’m curious too,” Azura added, after approaching moments later.

    “Oh, Bryan, Lady Azura! Yes, actually, it is an iron sword,” Faline replied with a smile. “Practically a toothpick compared to your Regal Sword or Ike’s blades, but I’m still getting the feel for it. I was brushing up on some sword skills at the castle and I wanted to surprise you, Bryan. I was going to buy a sword from Ryin or see if Bronwyn had one I could borrow, since I knew Falcon Knights were permitted to use them, but one of your soldiers found me first and gave me one. Your men seem so loyal and generous!”

    “You mean he just gave it to you for nothing?” Bryan wondered, arching an eyebrow.

    “Yeah, because he knew I was your girlfriend,” Faline confirmed with a giggle. “Bryan, he told me that no matter what other soldiers thought of you, many of your men would serve you to the very end. They told me you showed a lot of determination when many other commanders in the Talgrian army thought you were a terrible leader and how hard you worked to prove them wrong. That did a lot to motivate them to keep going, even when things seem hopeless. Of course, they also admire your skills and bravery. Even when the odds seemed to be against you, you never gave up. And, I don’t think this country has seen a lancer of your strength in quite awhile. You’re the most amazing warrior I’ve ever seen, I know that!”

    “Wow… Really? Did he, or they, mean all that? I mean… I know I’m more skilled than most soldiers I know, including Cato, whom I know would never admit to it, but I never thought I was that great of a lancer. Or a leader, for that matter.”

    “He was very serious, and I could tell. In fact, he wanted me to let you know of this. He admitted that a few soldiers in your platoon still don’t exactly respect you yet, but a vast majority of them do. They think you’ll make an excellent king.”

    “Well, I don’t know about that, but I really appreciate it. I’ll have to thank them properly before I resign.”

    “I think I agree with them, Bryan,” Azura put in. “You’ll be a fine king. I know it. You just need to have faith in yourself. And besides, I doubt you fought with any of your own men during your very first battle as a leader…”

    “Yeah, I guess you’re right. And…yeah, I didn’t. Truth be told, you and Natalie had Skye and I quite annoyed, Azura, but I forgive you. It was more so Natalie’s fault than yours anyway. She had no right to slap you like that and I could understand why you thought Leyon was underestimating you.”

    “Well, I still feel terrible about it, but thank you.”

    “Just don’t let the troops see you mope about it too much, milady,” Faline advised with a smile. “It’s not going to make things any better, after all. Quite the opposite probably, since it’ll affect the others as well. So think positive! I know I’m always thinking about how much I love Bryan. He’s my handsome prince in shining armor.”

    “Heh, you would be thinking that, wouldn’t you?” Bryan replied, returning the smile.

    “Hee hee, only because it’s true!”

    Azura merely chuckled.

    “Well, I have to admit, that did cheer me up some. I have some other business I’d like to attend to, though, so I’ll leave you two alone for awhile, ‘kay?”

    “Ah, right, Leyon’s memory,” Bryan recalled. “Of course, Azura.”

    ***


    While Azura and the troops were making their way towards the second floodgate, they were unaware that a large force of Meloran dracoknights had approached the river near Aracion, not far from the very course Azura and the others had taken during their first journey to the Talgrian capital. A larger, deadlier looking black wyvern garbed in ridged silver armor was at the head of this army of wyvern riders. Its rider wore an ominous suit of silver armor streaked with black along with a helmet that had two spikes thrusting outward from either side like grisly horns. The helmet covered nearly all of the man’s face, save for a pair of cold, fathomless eyes. He was a Dragonlord, the strongest of all wyvern riders. As his army hovered above the river with Aracion faintly visible in the distance, another dracoknight approached the group from across the river. This rider had been sent out earlier to meet with some allies and had now returned to report his findings to the Dragonlord. However, the rider’s body trembled slightly while he tightly gripped the reins of his mount. As the Dragonlord eyed him, the wyvern rider looked ready to fly away for dear life.

    “P-Prince Royce! We’ve got a b-big problem!” the wyvern rider panicked uncontrollably.

    “What do you mean? Stop blubbering and spit it out,” Royce ordered angrily.

    “The Red Claw camp! I-It’s been razed!”

    “What?! Is this some kind of joke?!”

    “N-No! I’m serious! Come see for yourself, your highness!”

    With that, Royce angrily followed his underling to the location of the Red Claw camp where he was supposed to combine his forces with those that were encamped there under Bernard’s command. Afterwards, they were to launch a full scale invasion of Aracion in a bid to win the war in one decisive blow. When Royce arrived at the remains of the camp, however, what he saw caused his cold eyes to blaze with murder. Everywhere he looked, pieces of tents, broken weapons, and rotting corpses were strewn, as if it were a trash dump for more than just normal rubbish. Royce could only stare at the devastation while his icy gaze hardened into a glare so cold that it burned.

    “DAMN IT! Those blasted fools!” he opined. “If this was the best place Bernard could put this camp, then that dastard’s a greater idiot than my sister!”

    “W-Well, what if the girl is smarter than we thought?” the dracoknight suggested nervously. “I can’t think of anyone else who could’ve done this.”

    “Hmm… That, I’ll admit, is also a possibility, but it won’t change the fact that Bernard is a pitiful excuse for a warrior in my eyes. The girl even purposely left the mess here for us to find! It’s like those idiots were practically asking to be destroyed!”

    “So then, w-what are we going to do now?” the dracoknight inquired.

    “Ah, that, my friend, is simple. To be honest, I was almost hoping for an opportunity like this. When we first crossed the border, didn’t you notice a small group of Talgrian soldiers guarding the floodgate in the northern part of the Kiang River? A courier approached them later, and then left, no doubt delivering some sort of message.”

    Royce looked about his retinue but saw only puzzled expressions greeting his analysis. With an irritated groan, he tried again.

    “Those floodgates are vital to Talgria’s defense against naval assault, so why are they so poorly defended instead of being closed? I might’ve chalked it up to the Alliance having a manpower shortage, but what did that courier have to say? Something is happening, and I intend to find out what. There may be an opportunity therein for us to exploit.”

    “Oh, yes, excellent plan, your highness! Shall we depart now?”

    “Yes, but we will not attack immediately. Before we spring our trap, we shall make certain that our prey is worth ensnaring. I want to time this perfectly. Oh, and tell Tarmon that he’ll be in charge of this. Mark my words, that girl will regret interfering with our plans. Melora will have the power she deserves!”

    ***


    As Azura’s party continued their journey returning northward, the day slowly drew to a close and dusk painted the Talgrian sky in shades of gold and orange. Azura noticed that Leyon was still staring at his axe, his brow furrowed in perplexity and deep concentration. Azura still wondered about this behavior, but decided it was best to let him concentrate. Perhaps looking at it long enough could make him remember how he’d obtained it? That might help him make some progress in regaining his memory, but it soon occurred to Azura that she didn’t know either. If she could find out, it might help the situation. Bronwyn clearly wanted the earl to figure things out on her own, but it couldn’t hurt to ask for more information from Leyon’s long-time comrades, would it? Asking Bronwyn was pointless, as the older woman did not strike Azura as the sort to change her mind easily, and Natalie was probably still angry with Azura. Plus, she was at the castle. Luckily, Azura had a third option. Who better to ask than Eliot? He’d clearly been fine with telling Azura about Natalie’s old school-girl crush on Leyon, and he seemed more amenable to helping her. She eagerly approached his horse, her heart racing a little faster with each step.

    “Hey, Eliot, have you noticed Leyon’s been staring at Olegxing all day?” Azura inquired.

    “You know, I did notice that. I’m beginning to think that it may be a key to restoring his memory,” Eliot replied. “That axe was a valuable treasure to him.”

    “It was? Please, tell me more. I was going to ask you how he got it anyway.”

    “Good. You see, General Leyon’s brother gave that axe to him for his birthday a few years ago. It’s one of a kind, and he had it made especially for him.”

    “Leyon has a brother?”

    “Well…he did. Russell died not long after that celebration.”

    “Oh my… That’s terrible. I’m so sorry to hear it. What happened to him?”

    “It’s…a really sad tale. Not one we soldiers really enjoy talking about. But I’ll tell you. …Have you heard the rumors that Talgria once had a third general?”

    “Yeah, some people have said that two generals once commanded the main Talgrian army, but one of them disappeared. After that, General William became the sole commander of the army. But what’s that got to do with anything?”

    “See, the truth is… It’s not a rumor. Far from it, in fact. That third general we used to have….was Russell.”

    “W-What?! Is this true? Wouldn’t a lot of people know about him then?”

    “Oh, they do, but Russell was so loved and respected by the army and citizenry that his death dealt a major blow to the nation. People stopped speaking of him or the incident and his post remained vacant, since his majesty knew he’d never find another man of Russell’s caliber. Eventually, his existence as a general became just another rumor.”

    “Oh… How…did he die?”

    “Well, that’s the odd thing. You see, his body was never found.”

    “So, there’s no actual proof that he’s dead?”

    “Yeah, I guess you could say that. But he’s been missing for three years now and there’s no way he could’ve survived…that awful disaster in Cilae.”

    “What disaster?”

    Eliot then told of a mission that Leyon and Russell embarked on together. They were helping some Cilaean soldiers investigate an old fort in the northern Cilaean mountains which was believed to be a large bandit stronghold. These mountains were part of a range spanning portions of Cilae and Melora. They were steep, treacherous and, above all, volcanic. The two brothers and their units had been dispatched after the royal astrologer had predicted that the volcanoes would not erupt for several months. But, during the mission, this prediction was proven dead wrong. The volcano Russell and Leyon’s men were on suddenly erupted violently, sending smoke, ash, and lava everywhere. The men were quickly separated by the smoke and choking fumes, but thankfully, they managed to escape with their lives. However, many were injured, including Leyon, and many more had been poisoned by the fumes. Unfortunately, the only one who did not return was Russell. After the eruption had subsided and the smoke cleared a day later, several search parties scoured the entire mountain, but could find no trace of him. Since his body had not been found, Leyon persisted for days, but eventually, was forced to admit defeat. Russell was officially declared dead and buried in effigy upon Leyon’s return to Aracion, along with the royal astrologer who had apparently been bribed by the bandits to give a false prediction and had been executed upon being found out.

    “Oh… That’s so horrible…” Azura replied, her sorrow for Leyon growing rapidly. She now began to feel even worse for treating him so badly.

    “I very much agree,” Eliot continued, closing his eyes in sadness. “We assumed that Russell’s body had been either buried under the ash or dissolved by the lava. It was a heavy blow to General Leyon. For months, he could barely function. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t command us, and he’d spend hours in tears. Everyone was really upset, but he was in the worst condition I’d ever seen him in. It took him nearly a year to recover, even though so many people supported him.”

    “He must have cared a lot for his brother then…”

    “Oh, he definitely did. Lady Bronwyn may have been Leyon’s official instructor, but Russell practically taught him everything he knows. How to fight, how to lead, everything. He’d wanted to train his little brother to be a great general, and Leyon wanted so much to follow in his footsteps.”

    “I see. I can’t say I like the idea of making Leyon relive all that, but you’re right that it may be the only way to get his memory back. I’ll speak with him once this mission is complete. Still…I have to admit that that’s really sad.”

    “Indeed… Well, I wish you luck, and if there’s anything else you’d like to know, you can always ask me.”

    “I will then. Thanks, Eliot.”

    The march continued well into the night. Azura had kept busy finding out what she could about Russell, certain that this would prove the key to getting Leyon’s memory back. On an impulse, she asked Bronwyn and, surprisingly, the older woman was a little more informative this time around. Perhaps Bronwyn had deduced Azura’s plan and had decided the young earl’s progress was enough to merit aid. Or, maybe Bronwyn considered this a separate matter. Either way, Bronwyn had a lot to say. Apparently, she had known Russell as well. Russell had been one of her students, though he hardly needed instruction since he was already a knight at heart. He did have a mischievous streak about him though, he’d been infamous for pilfering pastries and stashing lizards in the female knights’ barracks to give them a nasty surprise when they opened their equipment trunks.

    Bronwyn might’ve beaten that prankishness out of him, literally, but another thing Russell had been known for was always being able to outrun her. Azura did hear an interesting tidbit; Leyon and Russell had used their own pet lizards in those pranks. The lizards had been named Cyrus and Glenn, after a pair of characters from one of their favorite stories. Azura enjoyed these anecdotes, and even found herself laughing when Bronwyn mentioned how, when a fly had nestled on Natalie’s cheek, Russell had removed it…using his lizard. Needless to say, Natalie had not been thrilled. Leyon had been in those stories as well, always trying to match up his brother…even in pranks. Despite the hilarity, Azura had begun feeling even worse about the way she’d treated Leyon. She still resented Leyon’s treatment of her, but learning about Russell helped to put his actions in context. After losing Russell, Leyon was doubtlessly worried about losing someone else who was dear to him.

    Wait a minute, did I just tacitly agree with Eliot about Leyon liking me?

    Azura shook off the question, but found herself wondering if hinting at Russell and Leyon’s pet lizards and past shenanigans might help Leyon’s memory. She almost dismissed the idea out of hand as absurd but, then again, she didn’t have much in the way of alternatives. Sometime after that, perhaps around midnight, faint lights from the outskirts of Aracion could be seen in the distance. Azura and company could hardly wait to finish their mission and return to the castle for a good night’s sleep. Azura’s thoughts were interrupted, however, when Magali approached her and spoke up.

    “Hey, milady…” she greeted, though rather gloomily.

    “Oh, hello, Magali. Is something wrong?” Azura replied.

    “Oh, no, I just noticed you were feeling kind of down and I figured I needed tell you something. Did Zane tell you to forgive Jett for his behavior yesterday?”

    “Actually, yeah. He simply said Jett’s just like that sometimes. Why?”

    “Well, you should probably know why he’s such a bully every now and then,” Magali insisted. “Trust me, I’ve known him since we were kids. We lived near each other in the same town. It isn’t entirely his fault he’s like this either.”

    “Really?”

    “Yeah. Jett never really knew his parents, you see. They both died when he was quite young, though I don’t know how. So he was raised by his older brother. The guy was a jerk though. Sure, he took good care of Jett and gave him plenty of food, taught him to fight, stuff like that, but he was also really immature. He was always teasing and making fun of people and just plain being a dork. Well, this rubbed off on Jett and the rest is history.”

    “I see.”

    “Still, I could see Jett never meant any harm. He didn’t know any better ‘cause he was just a kid. So I didn’t hate him. Our families had always been friends and my parents were the only people who ever had any respect for Jett’s brother since he never acted like a jerk towards them. In fact, they even agreed to set Jett and I up together one day since we were close in age! Can you imagine that? The very idea of me being with a doofus like him sounded utterly ridiculous. It never actually happened though. Eventually, Jett’s brother riled up the wrong people and he was killed several years ago in a brawl. He ticked off the wrong drunk and got his head bashed in with a pry bar. And as you might guess, Jett was pretty torn up about that. I felt bad for him and kept him company afterward while my parents helped him out until he could take care of himself. I eventually got a job under Commander Kevin and persuaded the commander to give Jett a job too. Though as you can see, sometimes I get really fed up with his behavior. But somehow, I can’t hate him or turn my back on him.”

    “Ah, I understand. I’ll be sure to—”

    “Hey, Lady Azura! There’s a Talgrian soldier here who wants to speak with you! He says it’s urgent!” Marina’s voice echoed nearby, cutting Azura off.

    “Oh, then send him over here!” Azura commanded. Within moments, a Talgrian foot-lancer approached the earl.

    “Lady Azura! Thank the goddess I managed to find you! Is Captain Bryan with you too?” he inquired.

    “Yeah, right here,” Bryan spoke up from nearby. “What’s going on?”

    “Oh, good! We’re in grave peril! Captain Cato and the rest of our platoon are being attacked by a wave of Meloran dracoknights!”

    “What?!” both Azura and Bryan shouted at the same time.

    “Hold on, wasn’t Cato’s platoon supposed to be guarding the northern floodgate until we arrived?!” Bryan quickly inquired.

    “Yeah, he and the others are there now. They’re trying to fight off the dracoknights, but there are too many! We need your help or else we’re all doomed!”

    “Damn it! They must be trying to stop us from closing that gate! How did they figure out our mission?!” Bryan railed.

    “I-I don’t know! But you all must come quickly! Please, we have little time!” the soldier begged.

    “Don’t worry, we’re on our way,” Azura assured. “Bryan, tell everyone to pick up the pace! We’ve got to get to that floodgate now!

    Bryan made no hesitation to obey and soon the entire group was practically racing towards the floodgate and Cato’s embattled platoon. They only hoped they could get there in time to rescue them. Along the way, Azura mulled over what those dracoknights might be doing here. Could a naval assault against Talgria already be underway? Bryan seemed to think so and it would explain why Melora sought to seize the floodgates, but Azura didn’t much relish the idea of battling the Red Claw with Meloran naval vessels bombarding them with cannon fire. Maybe these dracoknights, however, were here for another purpose. The floodgate wasn’t far from the now destroyed Red Claw encampment that Azura had discovered near the river. Perhaps these dracoknights might have originally meant to rendezvous with the Red Claw who’d been lurking on Aracion’s doorstep. If so, then Leyon was correct. It had been a beachhead for an invasion of Aracion, and it was a good thing their group destroyed it. Soon enough, however, the floodgate came into view, and just as the soldier reported, dracoknights were everywhere and had Cato’s men completely surrounded. On top of that, several enemy infantry units were stationed there as well. Several corpses already littered the ground as well. Unfortunately, the majority of them were Talgrian.

    “CATO! CATO! Where are you?!” Bryan called out. “Please tell me you’re alive!”

    “Bryan?! BRYAN! Thank Ashunera! You’ve got to help us!” Cato’s voice replied from the darkness.

    “Duh, why do you think I’m here, you idiot?! Shall we, Azura?”

    “Indeed, we shall! Everyone, charge!” Azura ordered.

    The group made no hesitation to join the fray. Dracoknights, however, could be powerful foes. Azura, however, recalled that they were vulnerable to thunder magic and arrows and ordered Skye, Soren, and Lily to use these as much as possible. Wyrmslayers, swords designed to fight dragon laguz and wyvern riders, were also obviously very effective, but Ryin was still in the process of making some and there were none in Bronwyn’s wagon. Hopefully, they’d be done soon…or else Melora’s dracoknights could prove to be too powerful.

    “Raela! Norman!” Azura called out. “Make for Cato’s platoon! Bryan, Ike, Boyd, escort them!”

    Unseen by Azura’s group was another group of dracoknights that had concealed themselves amongst the cliffs and had not yet attacked. Among them was a dragonmaster, a promoted dracoknight, garbed in dark magenta armor. Another dracoknight soon approached him.

    “Commander Tarmon! The girl’s troops are here and attacking! Shall we bring on the full assault?” he inquired.

    “Ah, so Prince Royce was right when he anticipated that we’d snare some worthy game,” Tarmon opined. “Excellent. Tear them limb from limb!”

    With that, the formerly hidden wyvern riders flew into action.

    ***


    While this bloody battle progressed, General Shigo’s troops had remained encamped in another Astrynian fort. The troops had expected that Shigo would soon commence his second conquest of Astryn, however, he had not yet ordered the assault. For the past few nights, he stared transfixed at the stars, and was still doing so on one of the fort’s ramparts. He had been thinking about his encounter with Bryan and his previous attempt to take over Astryn, as well as how Lartz murdered Selia, his beloved sister. He also thought of how he was still the very reason Bryan was alive today. He could have killed him just as easily as he’d murdered Caline…but he let him live. More curious still, he chose to let Bryan live. Even though strange feelings had begun washing over him since meeting Bryan near the Astrynian border, Shigo could not prevent a small smile from crossing his features. Shortly after, one of his underlings, a man in dark purple armor and short blue-violet hair, approached him.

    “General Shigo? Sir, I’m just wondering, how come we haven’t attacked yet?” the man wondered. “And how come you haven’t been yourself lately?”

    “Ah, Commander Dougal. Very good questions, my friend,” Shigo replied. “I can see you’ve noticed that I’ve been thinking a lot lately.”

    “Y-Yes, Sir. About Prince Bryan, I’m guessing?”

    “In a sense, yes. You’ve gained my trust, Dougal, so I will tell you something you may find interesting.”

    “Oh, thank you, Sir.”

    “I had a reason for letting Bryan live. Even though I was a young man who craved nothing but power and high authority back then, I could not bring myself to kill a child, much less an infant. Children are innocent and full of potential, you know, and very valuable. Kill them, and you only lose the opportunity to bring out that potential. But even so…Bryan Casimir Novat. For years I loathed the name. That child was my only foil when I killed his mother, after all. You’d think that the idea of the very man who owns that name teaching me a valuable lesson was ridiculous. But…it happened.”

    “I see. That makes total sense. But…don’t you still crave power?”

    “No. My encounter with Bryan made me realize something, Dougal. Melora has been doing everything wrong. She won’t find her place in this world the way she is now, relying solely on weapons and war. I grew up with my sister in the Meloran countryside, and Selia once told me it would be amazing to have a high rank in the military and fight alongside the nobles…to be so well-respected…and to make a great impact on other lives, even if we had to kill people for it. I now know that I badly misinterpreted her words. She wanted to fight honorably, not for power. Don’t get me wrong, I still wish to rule Astryn, as his majesty King Darthen wished and I’m still glad he saw me a fit enough warrior to be a general. I may not agree with Melora’s customs anymore, and I may be getting up in years now, but my loyalty remains with him and I will at least attempt to carry out his will. Isis…bah. I will never bow to such a whiny pathetic harlot.”

    “So, you’re going to make your fight against Prince Bryan a more honorable one?”

    “Precisely. I want it to be a challenging fight. A hard fought battle and a well earned victory. As such, we will not strike until Bryan can motivate Astryn’s troops to fight. We’ll also let him tell Astryn of his existence. I will then attempt crush him at the height of his glory...and the height of his power. And if I win, I can tell Selia I fulfilled her wishes after I die.”

    “That’s…amazing, Sir. Just so you know, I will still serve you until I die. My loyalty also remains with you and the late king and it will forever.”

    “Glad to hear it, Dougal. Glad to hear it.”

    ***


    Meanwhile, back at the northern Kiang River floodgate, the battle between Azura’s army and Royce’s dracoknights continued. By now, many soldiers were wounded and Raela and Norman were constantly dashing about healing both the injuries to Cato’s platoon and wounds sustained during the battle while trying to avoid getting hurt themselves at the same time. Skye had received a serious blow to his bow arm while Lartz’s wyvern took a hit to the leg. Lartz himself ended up with an arrow in the inside of his shoulder not long afterwards that nearly tore through his rotator cuff. It was a miracle it didn’t cause lockjaw. Even Ike eventually took a blow to his sword arm and had to switch to Ettardios after one of Ragnell’s shockwaves missed its target and cut through a tree instead. Ike found it too difficult to accurately hit a wyvern this way and the risk of mistakenly striking one of his own allies was too high. Boyd, Soren, Kevin’s group, and many of Cato’s soldiers were wounded as well. Cato himself had received what might have been a fatal blow, if Norman had not already been nearby. He used his Mend staff before the Halberdier could bleed to death. The platoon captain would have to thank him properly later. He settled instead for skewering the axe fighter that nearly killed him.

    When the dracoknights’ numbers finally dwindled and both Azura and Cato’s parties were beginning to grow exhausted, Azura herself had approached Tarmon. He was a more elite warrior than his underlings were, but so was the lady of Elhorhi. What’s more, Azura’s sword naturally gave her the upper hand against Tarmon’s axe. She only hoped that he wouldn’t switch to a lance mid-battle, or else he might overpower her.

    “Hehe, your little group isn’t half-bad, girl,” Tarmon complimented. “I can see why Queen Isis is so intent upon killing you. But don’t think we’ll go down easily! My superiors would love to have your head!”

    “Well then, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint them. I can’t give up my head right now, nor can I ever!”

    “Then we’ll just have to settle this the old fashioned way, won’t we?”

    “Indeed, we will. And you will not prevail!”

    With that, the two clashed blades. As Azura had feared, Tarmon did switch to a lance in the middle of the fight, making it that much more difficult for her to earn another victory. What’s worse, her exhaustion became more severe as she attempted to deal blow after blow. Once, either out of desperation or lunacy, or both, Azura managed to leap onto the dark blue wyvern’s back. The wyvern went wild at this and launched into the air, wheeling in ever higher arcs while Tarmon struggled vainly to control his mount and fight Azura at the same time. Eventually, Azura’s legs buckled under her and she fell to her knees and began panting. Blood trickled from her head, arms, and legs and a couple bruises were forming on her face. With what little strength remained to her, she grasped one of the wyvern’s spines and held on for dear life. Lartz, meanwhile, was no better off. He could feel a terrible and familiar sensation. He blood seemed enflamed with hellfire while, in the darkest recesses of his soul, a chilling, wordless voice echoed in haunting tones. His Accurse ability was on the verge of triggering itself, as he was surrounded by corpses of enemy and ally alike as well as live dracoknights.

    “They’re evil…they’re all evil…and cruel…and heartless…” Lartz hissed. “I can’t stand their horrible faces! Must…kill! Gaaah…can’t…resist…the urge…AAAAAH!”

    Without warning, his irises became a beady red while a vicious ruby glow enveloped both him and his wyvern. As if from out of nowhere, the dracoknight soared through the area, delivering blow after blow to the remaining enemy dracoknights. Within seconds, heads were lopped off, wings were sliced to ribbons, and corpses fell to the ground like hail stones. Soon enough, the enthralled Lartz beheld a wyvern ridden by a dragonmaster which was wheeling in blind arcs. Lartz pursued and, in the twinkling of an eye, his axe struck Tarmon’s chest and his dead body fell into the river while his wyvern flailed all the more viciously. While Lartz was on his killing spree, however, his mind whirled. No…I can’t…I can’t do this! Stop! STOP IT, DAMN IT!!

    Then, all of a sudden, a different sound reached his ears. It was a call for help. With astonishing suddenness, his eyes returned to normal and darted in the direction of the sound. He beheld Azura, clinging to the rider less wyvern and her grip slipping inch by inch. He maneuvered his wyvern close to Azura and, to his surprise, she eagerly accepted his help. When he touched down, Lartz became all too aware that every one of his allies were staring at him, wide eyed and silent. Lartz could only remain upon his wyvern, thinking. His rampage had stopped, but had it stopped because he’d willed it to stop or because he’d heard Azura’s cry for help? The two happened practically in the same instant, so he could not be certain.

    “Lartz…” Azura panted moments later.

    “L-Lady Azura! I’m so sorry, I—”

    “No, don’t apologize. Your powers saved us. I told you that you would—”

    “Well, well…” an unfamiliar masculine voice interrupted. “How unfortunate.”

    A black wyvern garbed in black and silver armor and carrying a rider wearing armor of the same color had suddenly appeared on the battlefield. All onlookers recoiled at the cold, fathomless eyes of this new arrival, but Lartz recognized him. It was Royce himself.

    “Oh no…” Lartz uttered nervously. “Royce! You monster!”

    “Hmph. I should’ve known you would cause trouble for me, Lartz, you cursed traitor!” Royce continued angrily.

    “Hey! Watch who you’re calling names around here, buster!” Lily angrily retorted. “Lartz practically chewed these dracoknights up and spat them out! He’ll do the same to you if you don’t back off!”

    “Lily, shut up…” Lartz begged quietly, gritting his teeth.

    “Cute. But I highly doubt that’s going to happen, little girl. In fact, allow me to kindly repay this pitiful excuse for a man,” Royce continued.

    Almost without warning, Royce directed his wyvern at a speed even greater than Lartz’s powers could’ve granted him and drove his silver poleaxe into the dracoknight’s gut. He followed up with a blow to the wyvern’s shoulder and neck, sending it sprawling to the turf. Lartz’s rapid blood loss soon caused him to pass out on top of the creature as well. Their limp forms then collapsed to the ground.

    “No… No!” Azura shouted angrily and stepped forward despite her own wounds. “You’ll pay for this, you heartless scum!”

    “Ha. For the record, those blows were not fatal even though I’m now being forced to retreat. Think of this as a warning to you, girl. If he interferes again, I won’t check my hand a second time.”

    With that, Royce departed, leaving Azura’s army and Cato’s platoon tired, wounded, and fearful while Lartz now clung to life.

  13. #28
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    It's been awhile, so here's chapter 26. :D


    Chapter 26: The Red Claw Persists


    Exhausted from the battle and her harrowing flight aboard Tarmon’s out-of-control wyvern, Azura fell to her knees panting. Blood trickled out of her many cuts and scrapes, most of which had been glancing blows from the spines of Tarmon’s wyvern. She realized, with her stomach seeming to knot, that a clean blow from those spines might’ve taken one of her limbs off. On the heels of that realization was the certainty that, if it hadn’t been for Lartz catching her, she likely would’ve plummeted to her death. However, she held little concern for these things. Lartz was the one who desperately needed attention at the moment. Although Royce’s assault had not been a death blow, it had pierced Lartz’s armor and cloven deep into his stomach. The wyvern rider would surely bleed to death if his wounds were not treated.

    “Norman! We have to help Lartz right now!” she commanded. “Can you heal his wounds?”

    “Of course, milady, but both he and his wyvern will be out of commission for awhile,” Norman assessed. “I’m not even examining them yet and I can already tell they’re losing a lot of blood. They’ll need rest to recover from this.”

    “And just how the heck are we supposed to carry a wyvern back to the castle?!” Cato cut in, having already been healed of his own wounds earlier. “We certainly can’t set up camp here; my unit has been delayed too long already and his majesty and General William are sure to be worried by now!”

    “We’ll think of something while we’re getting that floodgate closed,” Bryan decided. “Cato, you should let what’s left of your men heal up. We’ll take care of things from here.”

    “For once, I’m going to have to agree. But you better not—Hold on… Your shield and armor! Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?!”

    “Oh, you mean my new look?” Bryan coyly guessed, to which Cato could only gape in response. “Ah, yes, you’d be surprised at how much has changed, wouldn’t you? After all, I’ve been wearing this for a couple months now. And I assume you’ve heard about the title I’ve come to be known by as well?”

    Cato continued to gape for several moments, his surprise turning into incredulity, and then he threw up his hands in utter exasperation.

    “Geez! First the Brave Lance and now this?! Some people have all the luck.”

    “Yeah, I’m the Emerald Sentinel and you’re still the Professional Complainer.”

    “…Argh! Damn it, Bryan! Emerald Sentinel or not, one of these days, I’ll finally catch up to you! You’ll see!” Cato retorted, leveling a finger at him.

    “I can’t wait,” Bryan replied, though Cato wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or not.

    “Come on, you guys. Quit fooling around,” Azura intervened. “I presume you’re Sir Cato?”

    “I am,” Cato replied. “But, don’t bother with that ‘Sir’ stuff. Save it for Pony Boy over there.”

    He made that comment gesturing with his thumb towards Eliot, who noticed. And, wasn’t happy about it.

    “‘Pony Boy?’” he repeated, as if in disbelief. “That has got to be stupidest insult I’ve ever heard.”

    “Nope. The stupidest insult I ever heard was getting my ass kicked by a one-legged old lady,” Cato replied as a smirk crossed his features. “Too bad that happened to you instead of me.”

    “Hey, hey!” Azura spoke up. “I said quit fooling around.”

    “Sorry about that,” Cato apologized. “You must be Lady Azura, the new earl I heard about. Anyway, I apologize. Mister Green Sentinel hereshould mind his manners and Pony Boy over there needs to, literally, get off his high horse.”

    “What?!” Bryan retorted. “You’re the one that’s pointing fingers!”

    “Keep it up, I can have my horse sit on you,” Eliot warned.

    “Nobody’s got a sense of humor anymore,” Cato complained. “Besides, I was just getting back at you for showing up late, amongst other things. Ha!”

    “For the last time, that’s enough!” Azura stepped in. “Cato, go join Raela and see to your wounded. Bryan, have the Royal Knights set up a perimeter and secure the surrounding area while we think of a way to transport Lartz’s wyvern.”

    “Alright, fine…” Cato grumbled and walked off, still grumbling about no one having a sense of humor.

    “Sounds like a plan to me,” Bryan replied and headed in a different direction.

    Azura, meanwhile, decided to check on her other comrades, Leyon in particular. Her comment to Ike earlier about her boot heel had not only been a lecture for him, but also a line Bronwyn used against Leyon in the past. Azura had naturally been skeptical at the idea of Bronwyn kicking Leyon’s butt since the older woman had only one leg, but then Bronwyn gave Azura a demonstration.

    A very convincing demonstration.

    But, Raela did say that the bruise on the young earl’s behind would be gone in about a week.

    Despite the embarrassment, Azura had hoped that the allusion might jog Leyon’s memory as a result, if only a little. However, before she could approach the would-be general, who was still staring intently at Olegxing as usual, Kiel came rushing up to her.

    “Azura! I’ve got bad news!” he exclaimed as he came to a halt. “The controls for the floodgate have been destroyed!”

    “What?! You can’t be serious!” Azura gasped, her eyes widening.

    “I wish I wasn’t. But unfortunately, those dracoknights got the better of us this time. It looks like one of them must’ve wrecked the mechanism during the battle, probably when Royce had us all distracted.”

    “Ugh, curse those Melorans! Is there any way we can close the gates manually?”

    “Afraid not,” Morris cut in, having approached them moments later. “One of the hinges got busted too and there’s really no point in closing a door or gate with a broken hinge. If the weight of the door didn’t tear it off of the other hinge, then the force of the water would probably bust door down. There’s no way we’re closing this gate, even if we had a dozen wyverns to push it.”

    “Are you sure?” Azura inquired, though she already suspected the answer.

    “Positive. I made a thorough examination of both the gate and the controls.”

    “It turns out Morris was born into a family of carpenters and architects,” Kiel added. “So we asked him if it was possible to fix this.”

    “That’s right. My dad trained me in carpentry, and it became my side job after I joined the army,” Morris explained. “As much as I’d hate to admit it, though, I’m afraid the gate is totaled for now. I’d have to rebuild the controls completely. The bigger problem is repairing the floodgate itself; that could take days.”

    “Damn it all…!” Azura opined angrily, her glove squeaking when she made a fist. “I guess we have no choice but to—”

    The young earl was interrupted by an unfamiliar masculine voice.

    “Ahoy there! Are you Lady Azura?”

    The group turned to see a dark brown wolf laguz approaching, changing to its human form midstride. The new arrival, was a black-haired man with attire like Kiel’s, only he wore sandals in place of boots and bore a strap across his chest. He was followed by several gray wolves. Before Azura could answer his question, Kiel himself rushed towards him, followed by Sara.

    “General Derien! Are we glad to see you!” he gasped. “His majesty has been worried!”

    “Yeah, what happened?” Sara inquired. “His majesty said you were nowhere to be found when the Red Claw attacked the castle and captured Ike and Elincia!”

    “Yeah, I know…” Derien replied, sighing. “I owe everyone a huge apology. I was called away by a raven messenger to help take back a Cilaean fort. It turned out that the message was phony, but I didn’t have any idea why when I first met up with General Leyon at Fort Tehya. When I heard about what happened at the castle, that’s when it dawned on me that the messenger was only trying to lure me away so the enemy could attack while the castle was unguarded.”

    “Damn those Red Claw bastards!” Kiel opined, wishing he had something to punch. “They are forcing laguz to do their bidding! I bet the raven who lied to you was the same one that tricked us into thinking Ike was dead!”

    “Blast. They really screwed with us then. His majesty was upset with me too, but he claimed that he was also partially to blame.”

    “So you returned to him to explain the situation?” Azura inquired.

    “Yeah, he knows I’m safe now,” Derien confirmed. “In fact, King Rothgar himself will be going to Castle Talgria tomorrow. He’ll explain when he arrives.”

    “Works for me,” Kiel agreed.

    “Also, Kiel, where were you during all of the chaos?” Azura inquired, her tone softening as she suspected the answer. “I noticed you ran off again. I really think you should do something about that fear of yours.”

    “I was…hiding,” Kiel admitted, noting Derien’s less-than-pleased expression.

    “I can’t say I blame you,” Azura answered reassuringly. “After that ride I had on Tarmon’s wyvern, I’ll think twice before letting Faline take me up for a spin.”

    Kiel smirked at the confession, but hardly seemed to be in better sprits.

    “I’m so sorry, I know I need to stop being so afraid of dragons,” he admitted. “Would it be okay if I talked to Lartz once he’s better? That might be a good way to start.”

    “That sounds like an idea. Just so long as you’re at least trying to conquer that fear.”

    “Hope you’re right,” Derien remarked, fixing Kiel briefly with a look of severity. “Looks like you guys have had quite a fight.”

    “Yeah, we were able to beat the Melorans, but Prince Royce dropped by to give us a parting gift,” Azura explained.

    “Wait, what?! That son of a dastard was here?!”

    “Yeah, he showed up near the end of the battle and attacked our wyvern rider, Lartz. He should be okay, but he’s lost a lot of blood and so has his mount.”

    “Damn. I wonder why Royce would be out here, it must’ve been for something Melora considers important. Maybe King Rothgar or King Wencelis would know more? In any case, Royce entering this fight is very bad news.”

    “I figured as much. He is the prince of Melora after all.”

    “That’s not what I mean. You know about General Shigo, right? The guy they say is the most powerful man on the continent?”

    “I…didn’t know that second part,” Azura admitted fearfully.

    “Well, Royce is said to make even him tremble sometimes. In fact, I also heard that Shigo was nearly defeated by him once. We’ve been hearing rumors that Shigo is at odds with Royce and the Meloran queen these days, though we don’t know any specifics or even if it’s true. But they also say that any one of them could possibly beat even the dragon king of Orenias.”

    “Oh… Oh my goodness…” Azura trembled. “Somehow though…we have to beat them.”

    “Indeed. By the way might I be of assistance? I was headed to the castle myself, so I can get Lartz over there quickly if you’d like.”

    “Oh, that would be most appreciated,” Azura replied. “Lartz lost a lot of blood and he needs rest. We’ll take care of his wyvern. I’m still trying to figure out how, but we’ll manage.”

    “Alrighty then. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

    “Thank you so much! Oh, and one more thing. Could you possibly leave some of your soldiers here to guard this area? His majesty King Wencelis wants to do anything possible to prevent enemy naval attacks but the floodgate’s been wrecked, so we can’t close it. Could you hold this area until we find a more permanent solution?”

    “Ah, I can do that. A little reciprocity for Melora’s earlier tricks would be grand,” Derien agreed with a smile.

    “Oh, thanks again!”

    With that, Norman quickly finished healing Lartz as much as he could and worked with Azura to secure the wyvern rider onto Derien’s back. The wolf laguz general then ordered most of the group of wolves accompanying him to remain in the area while he transformed and sped off in the direction of the castle with the remainder of his troops, being careful not to drop his passenger. Azura, meanwhile, continued contemplating a way to transport Lartz’s wyvern to the castle as well. When she glanced in Marina and Faline’s direction, she snapped her fingers.

    “You guys, I have an idea!” Azura spoke up, waving the two Pegasus riders over. “Marina, Faline, do you think you two could tie the wyvern to your Pegasi and fly it to the castle?”

    “Ah, that should work,” Marina replied with a smile. “One Pegasus alone couldn’t do the job, but two of them together might be strong enough.”

    “Yeah, and I bet Lady Bronwyn has lots of rope in her wagon,” Faline added. “Let’s try it!”

    Azura nodded excitedly and then checked in with Bronwyn. As Faline had surmised, the elderly instructor had been storing rope in her wagon and, as Azura had come to suspect, Bronwyn proved to be a lifesaver. Apparently, the elderly woman had brought along an improvised ferry system, an assembly of sturdy logs, tall wooden stakes, rope and pulleys used to move supplies across rivers, which meant that the wyvern could be carried on a platform suspended from the two Pegasi. This was quite a relief, as tying the wyvern itself to the Pegasi might prove dangerous. While the remainder of the group prepared to depart, Morris, Bryan and Kiel worked to lash the logs together to make a platform the wyvern could be carried on and to position and secure the stakes so that there would be a place to secure the ropes. Meanwhile, Azura, Marina, and Faline guided the wounded wyvern onto the platform and carefully tied the creature down to prevent it from thrashing or sliding off in midair. After that, the platform was secured with more ropes to the two Pegasi. Once Azura confirmed that the platform was stable and the ropes were secure, but not too tight, she gave the two Pegasus knights permission to take flight.

    “Alright, Flower, you’ll be earning those carrots tonight,” Faline spoke to her steed and patted her neck. “But you can do it, girl! It’s only a short trip!”

    “Yeah, we have to work together here. Let’s fly!” Marina added.

    With that, the two directed their Pegasi into the air. Thankfully, Lartz’s wyvern was somewhat smaller than some of the wyverns the Meloran dracoknights had ridden, so both Pegasi were successful in their attempts to carry the creature as well as their riders and the wyvern was able to fit, albeit snuggly, onto the platform. Azura and the rest of the army followed afterward, leaving Derien’s men to guard the gate. Along the way, Azura finally tended to her own wounds as best she could. The cuts from the runaway wyvern’s spines stung quite a bit but, she was forced to concede, she was lucky to come away without missing a limb or getting smashed into pulp when she was flung off. Just about everyone was weary to the bone, and it took every ounce of Azura’s concentration to simply keep marching, though they did their best to keep watch for anything untoward. Royce had gotten the drop on them once; they wouldn’t let him do it a second time.

    Later that evening, the weary army had finally returned to Aracion. While most of the troops, ready to keel over from exhaustion, headed straight to their beds, Ike returned to Elincia’s room, hoping that her mood might have improved while he was away. He soon found her room and shouldered through the door to see her standing upon the balcony, staring at the darkened landscape and night sky before her. However, there was a distant look in her eyes which suggested that her thoughts were on anything but the sunset. Curiously, she didn’t seem to have noticed his entrance, nor had she changed out of her battle gear. Perhaps she thought she’d be chilly standing outside in her night gown, but whatever the case, Ike was somewhat glad of it. He had recently come up with what he thought was the perfect idea for a marriage proposal, thanks to a chat with Louise. She had been awaiting the return of Azura’s army in place of her brother since he desperately needed his rest. The recent events and tragedies afflicting both Talgria and Cilae had begun taxing on Wencelis’s health, despite that he was only thirty six and not old at all. He’d insisted that he’d be fine, but decided he needed to sleep regardless.

    Lousie hadn’t said so aloud, but she wore an expression Ike had seen before on Mist’s face after his brush with death following the battle against Arius, the self-proclaimed wolf king in Tellius. Whatever Wencelis was suffering from, it was worse, perhaps far worse, than Louise was willing to admit. Knowing that he could do little more than hope for the best, Ike shifted his attention back to Elincia and approached the woman he loved with a smile.

    “Hey, Elincia,” he spoke up as he opened the balcony door.

    Elincia gasped and whirled to face him, her surprise melting into relief.

    “Ike! Oh, Ike, you’d been gone so long that I was beginning to worry!” she cried, throwing her arms around her lover’s neck. Ike did not hesitate to return the hug and held her tightly. They exchanged a romantic kiss afterward.

    “I know, and I’m sorry. We hit a few snags on the way back, but we’re all okay,” Ike explained when he pulled away. “But I was worried about you. Are you alright after what we heard from Crimea? I mean, it was quite a shock to both of us.”

    “Oh, I’m alright. Well, maybe not quite, but I’ve been trying. I’ve just been thinking a lot lately,” Elincia replied after she let go of Ike. “About…well…what happened to Geoffrey. The letter did seem to imply that he was getting better, but I can’t help but wonder. Geoffrey has claimed that he only loved me as though I was his little sister, but there was one thing he said to me that I’ll never forget. It was during the Crimean rebellion. He said ‘I am yours entirely.’”

    “Oh?”

    “Yeah. I just… I find it so hard to believe that the very same man who spoke those words to me is also the same man who caused so much havoc in Crimea. All my life, and nearly all of his, all Geoffrey ever wanted was to be a good knight and an honorable warrior. He worked hard at it too, almost as hard as you did to honor your father’s legacy. He was just about the last person I’d expect to get himself thrown in the dungeon.”

    “I can understand that. But are you sure Geoffrey never loved you the way I do?”

    “Well…not exactly. I believe he might’ve been during the Mad King’s War. But when I never returned his feelings and he saw that I’d fallen for you instead, I felt that he’d grown out of it. Or, maybe he didn’t but he just pretended that he had. Either way, I’d imagine that Geoffrey was upset at first to see this, but I still believe he eventually accepted it. He wanted me to be happy, after all.”

    “Yeah, that sounds like him. He usually came across as a bit too uptight to me, but I always thought he seemed to be an understanding guy.”

    “That too. And now Geoffrey seems to have found the woman he’s truly meant to be with. It warms my heart to know that.”

    “Agreed. To be honest though, when I thought Geoffrey loved you, I didn’t…exactly the best impression about him. At first, I thought that he only cared about you because you were the princess and the most important figure in Crimea at the time. I overheard him say to Callil once that you were Crimea’s treasure and that you’re perfect. It sounded as if he was saying, no matter what pretty girl was in your position, he’d love her just the same. And, you remember, back when we were hunting for Ettard and you told me about Lucia’s plan in case you accidently got pregnant? Well, the idea of passing our baby off as Geoffrey’s seemed even worse. When you told me he’d agreed to it, I almost felt as if he was maneuvering to steal you from me.”

    Elincia’s gaze drooped and her features contorted in pain as if she’d just been slapped. Ike was about to apologize for his rudeness, but his lover held her hand up to silence him.

    “Don’t worry, Ike… I used to have the same thoughts, that Geoffrey only saw me as a ward, and I nearly brushed him away for it once,” she admitted. “And, I didn’t much like the idea of him posing as our child’s father either. Personally, I was hoping he would refuse and, when he didn’t…I was hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I still care about him and I still regret that what I’d done had harmed him so. But every time I worried for his safety, it felt like I was scared for an older brother who was trying to protect me. It felt awkward to think of him as a potential husband, and even more so when he and I were ‘married.’ But with you, Ike, I couldn’t help but love you like I’d never loved a man before. It felt so different. You remember how, when you admitted that the idea of us raising a family was ‘appealing,’ and how you said I was the only person you’d even consider spending your life with? I felt the same, and I have ever since.”

    Ike couldn’t prevent himself from shooting Elincia a warm smile.

    “Well, I’m very glad to hear that. Hey, why not go to the castle garden for a little while? It might make you feel even better.”

    “Oh, that sounds like a great idea!”

    “Then let’s go!”

    With that, the couple lost no time making their way downstairs and towards the doors to the garden. Ike smiled as he had laced his fingers with Elincia’s, as this was all part of his plan to propose to her. It was growing quite late, but Ike knew he did not want to miss yet another opportunity to pop the question. He’d already been thwarted twice, once by the Venoxic and again by the news from Crimea, but he would not be stopped a third time. Within the next few minutes, the pair had stepped through a large wooden door and out into the beautiful inner garden of Castle Talgria. Everywhere they looked, flowered hedges and bushes rose from the soil, and decorative stone paths snaked through the foliage. Along the edges of the paths were beautiful flowers of many kinds, such as tulips, daisies, marigolds, bluebells, pansies, petunias, primroses, and more whose myriad hues seemed as if to form an earthbound rainbow. Small, well-tended trees had also been planted while several arches, dimly lit candle lamps, and marble benches dotted on the pathways. At the center of the garden stood a magnificent tiered fountain carved with bas reliefs of exotic and beautiful sea life such as dolphins, seahorses and sea turtles while lily pads and flowers floated in the water. Fireflies flittered about, seemingly by the dozen, with their subtle glow adding to the garden’s seemingly enchanted atmosphere. Though most of the flowers had closed their petals at this late hour, it hadn’t taken away from the beauty of the garden.

    “Oh, this is… This is so beautiful! It’s very different from Castle Crimea’s garden as well,” Elincia observed.

    “Heh, I’m glad you like it,” Ike replied with a smile. “Are you cold at all?”

    “Oh no, not at all. In fact, it feels rather nice out tonight,” Elincia replied with a smile.

    “Ah, I’m glad. I really wanted to show you something. Oh, hey, there it is,” Ike commented, pointing at a beautiful arch nearby. The arch had been decorated with vines that coursed their way over every inch of the stonework and had sprouted numerous red roses and blue hydrangeas, all of which emitted a beautiful aroma. Elincia’s mouth dropped open when she laid eyes on it.

    “Oh, Ike! That arch is so gorgeous! How’d you find out about it?”

    “Lady Louise told me of it. She said it’s the most romantic spot in the garden.”

    “Ah, I quite agree with her!”

    “But…stand right here for a minute,” Ike insisted when the two were underneath the arch.

    “Okay.”

    Ike then knelt to one knee, quite a few butterflies fluttering about in his stomach. Still, he knew he had to do this now while he had the chance.

    “Elincia…” he began.

    “Yes?”

    “I know I won’t be very good at this, and I know I’ve kept you waiting too long because I got sick and because of everything else that’s happened…but I love you more than anything in the world. And I want to do this. I’m very touched that you traveled so far to find and be with me, and I was honestly rather surprised that you did considering your love for Crimea. I can’t even guess how hard it was to leave behind everyone and everything you cared about, and I still have no idea what I did to deserve that kind of devotion and loyalty.”

    “Ike…”

    “When I heard about your marriage to Geoffrey, it was as if my life had turned to ashes. I just kept thinking about how all those dreams we had, of being able to love openly and to raise a family, were all gone. I left behind the only home and family I’d ever known and just wandered, wondering what I could’ve done differently and forming regrets. But then, when you found me, all I could think about was how lucky I am to have gotten another chance. And, I’m not going to waste it.”

    Here, Ike paused and then produced a small jewelry box made of green velvet. To his relief, it had survived his various misadventures. He opened it up to reveal the engagement ring Bryan had acquired for him. A small gasp escaped Elincia’s lips.

    “My love for you has no limit,” Ike admitted. “And I…I want to spend my life with you to fulfill all of our old dreams and whatever new ones we might want to make real together. Elincia…will you marry me?”

    A loving, excited smile formed on Elincia’s face as she gazed upon Ike and the ring.

    “Ike, you’re being ridiculous, you know that?”

    Ike merely arched one eyebrow in response.

    “Oh for goodness sake, of course I want to marry you!”

    Elincia then threw herself into Ike’s arms and pressed her lips against his. Ike was caught off guard at first, but returned the embrace regardless. When they slowly let go several moments later, Ike took the ring from its case and took Elincia’s left hand. He then gently slipped the ring upon her ring finger. Elincia’s smile grew bigger as she admired the gemstones sparkling in the candlelight of the lamps and the orbiting glow of a halo of fireflies. Ike couldn’t help but grin ecstatically himself. He was now officially engaged. He was finally going to marry the woman he’d loved for over three years. It had been a long wait, and that wait had been painful for them, but for both of the lovers, it was well worth it.

    “Ike…” Elincia spoke up moments later when they stood up. “It doesn’t matter how long we waited. I’m just so happy that this has happened. That we’re finally able to be married! And it wasn’t your fault you were so ill. It wasn’t your fault we had to wait so long and that we got caught up in this war either. We both went through a lot of hardships to continue our love. And I know you’ll be the best husband in the world…”

    Elincia slipped her arms around Ike’s neck as she spoke her words.

    “…Thanks, Elincia,” Ike replied, a loving smile dawning his features. “You don’t know how much that means to me. I know you’ll be the best wife in the world too.”

    “Hee hee… I’ll try to be just for you, my love…”

    “As will I…”

    On that note, their lips met once more, and this time, they did not part for a long, long time.

    ***


    The next morning, however, was far less harmonious. Azura and Bryan had been roused just after sunrise by frantic knocking at their doors and shouts that there had been an ‘urgent development,’ and that they were to report to the audience chamber immediately. Though groggy and incensed at being awoken so early, they had quickly gotten dressed and made their way to the audience chamber. The pair had considered heading down to the main hall quietly so the others were not disturbed, but then realized that the guards’ frantic knocking had probably woken everybody up already. It didn’t take long for the two warriors to find reach the audience chamber, but to their puzzlement, there was no one there. In fact, the only thing out of the ordinary in the lavishly decorated chamber was that one of the tall windows had been hastily thrown open. Then, to the pair’s astonishment, two black forms streaked through the open window. Once Azura and Bryan had snapped awake, Janz and Lauren were revealed. However, the expressions on their faces were not pleasant. This immediately worried both Azura and Bryan, for it could only mean that the two did not have good news. Had there been more to the plot behind the framing of Bryan than they originally thought?

    “Ah, Lady Azura. And Bryan,” Janz greeted, though his tone turned rather sour when he mentioned the green-clad Sentinel.

    “Aw come on, don’t tell me you’re still annoyed at what happened on the island!” Bryan grumbled. “You’re the one who started it!”

    “Guys, let’s not argue,” Azura cut in with a sigh. “Janz, Lauren, just tell us what you found out. We have to know.”

    “Of course, milady,” Lauren replied, glaring at Janz. “As we were instructed, we investigated Keanu and the villages that had been attacked by the platoon that falsely claimed to be Bryan’s. Thankfully, the townsfolk were quite cooperative.”

    “Yeah. It didn’t take us long to locate Flozell’s quarters and do a search of the place,” Janz added. “However, what we discovered shocked us.”

    “What?” Bryan wondered.

    “Well, the townsfolk said they weren’t all that surprised at Flozell’s behavior,” Janz explained. “They claimed he had always been a good leader who wanted the best for Cilae. He won several victories and was well-respected.”

    “But what we found in his quarters revealed something very different…and very troubling,” Lauren continued. “It turns out that Flozell had secretly been a member of the Red Claw.”

    “What?! But…how does that even make sense?!” Azura gasped.

    “Easy. Flozell was hiding his true alliegance,” Janz replied. “When we searched his office, we found a number of documents written in what looked like some sort of code. And, we also found that one of the drawers in his desk had a false bottom. When we opened that up, we found a hidden compartment with a few more papers and some of them were stamped with the Red Claw’s insignia. We took the papers to an Allied Command cryptographer and, sure enough, they were coded orders from the Red Claw. This suggests that Flozell had been working as a double agent for awhile. The soldiers you guys fought really were Cilaean troops, but Flozell had duped them into thinking Bryan was the enemy.”

    “Those coded orders not only prove that Bryan was framed, but also that Flozell knew it all along,” Lauren revealed. “When the cryptographer deciphered the coded orders, they revealed that Flozell was commissioned by the Red Claw to disguise a group of their members as Bryan’s platoon and send them to attack a few random villages. That way, he could frame Bryan and have an excuse to kill him while keeping his image as a ‘respected and devoted leader’ intact.”

    “Errgh, THAT BASTARD!” Bryan exclaimed, his rage building quickly. “He deliberately tried to kill me!”

    “Who tried to kill you?!” a familiar voice spoke up. The group turned around to see Owen had entered the audience chamber, doubtlessly having overheard Bryan’s shouting.

    “…D-Dad! I, uh…” Bryan gasped, and then brought a hand to his face. “Dang it…”

    “Bryan,” Owen coaxed sternly, folding his arms and tapping a foot on the floor.

    “Alright, alright, I’ll explain…” Bryan gave in. He then told his father of the incident that had occurred in Keanu and how Faline had saved him.

    “I see… It angers me that you went through that horrible experience,” Owen commented once his son was finished. “But Faline is quite a lovely young woman. It warms my heart to know that my son has a girl who loves him so much. I’ll have to thank her for what she’s done for you.”

    “Heh, yeah…” Bryan replied, his cheeks turning pink with embarrassment.

    “Well, sorry to interrupt, but there is more,” Janz spoke up. “King Wencelis has a new mission for all of us, milady.”

    “Oh?” Azura wondered.

    “Yeah, on our way back here, we discovered that the Red Claw built another large encampment near the northern border at the foot of the mountains,” Lauren replied. “We informed King Wencelis of it just before we came in here. We do not know if there are enough Meloran and Red Claw troops there to invade Aracion, or how many other camps there might be, but he wants your army to raze the camp before the forces there can mount an assault against the capital.”

    “What?! But how did they return so quickly after…?” Azura began, but couldn’t finish. “This is bad. We’ll leave right after we gather our troops. You both may join us if you want. Bryan, I want the same group we had before with the addition of Cato and Elincia if the two of them are ready. We’ll also leave Lartz behind to rest. Let’s go get everyone!”

    “You got it. I’m just as worried about this as you are, so I’ll make it snappy. Father, I apologize, but we’re going to be leaving again soon.”

    “Don’t worry, you’re doing what you have to do,” Owen replied with a smile.

    Bryan nodded and with that, he and Azura went to gather their comrades. Janz and Lauren quickly alerted some of the troops as well and prepared to depart. Faline, Marina, and Kevin’s group in particular were shocked to hear of Flozell’s true colors, but it came as no surprise to the hot-tempered Skye. As usual, he expected as much from his enemies. As Azura descended the stairs to reach to the main gate sometime later, she was stopped by a familiar voice ringing out behind her. She turned around at the bottom of the staircase to see Leyon descending towards her.

    “Hey, Azura…” he spoke up. “Can we talk for a bit?”

    “Sure, what’s on your mind? Did you remember anything yet?” Azura inquired, hoping that his memory might have improved.

    “Well, I’m not sure what to make of this exactly…” Leyon admitted. “But this dream I had during my sleep… It seemed so familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where or when I’d experienced those events before. In the dream, I was with those two knights… Natalie and Eliot, I think? They were, well, quarreling a bit. And for no apparent reason, I just rolled my eyes. It was pure and simple instinct, as if I’d seen it a hundred times before, but I don’t understand how that could be. And there was another man who we’d never seen before, yet he seemed the most familiar of all. He seemed to know me very well too, I could tell by the way he looked at me. But still, I have no idea who he was.”

    Azura’s eyes widened slightly upon hearing Leyon’s words, for she had a very good idea who that apparition might be. His brother…

    “Really? Well, we’ll keep working on this,” Azura assured him. “Just keep fighting as well as you have been and perhaps in time you’ll remember.”

    “Yeah, I hope so.”

    “Oh, hey there, General Leyon,” Derien spoke up from a nearby doorway. “I have to apologize for disappearing suddenly after we took back Fort Tehya. I needed to return to King Rothgar and explain myself to him right away.”

    “…Huh? Who are you? What are you talking about?” Leyon inquired, arching an eyebrow.

    “What? What do you mean, ‘who am I?’ What’s the matter with you?”

    “Um, Derien… This might come as a shock to you, but an injury caused Leyon to lose his memory,” Azura explained.

    “Yeah, I can’t remember much of anything right now,” Leyon admitted. “I’m sorry.”

    “Oh wow, I see…” Derien commented, unable to hide a cringe. “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.”

    “…Actually, it just might be helpful for you to come with us on our next mission,” Azura suggested. “I think working with people he knew might help to jog Leyon’s memory. And we could use your help in any case, so it would be very appreciated if you joined us.”

    “Ah, then I’m glad to be of service.”

    “Great! Leyon, I’m going to go find out how Lartz is doing. Be sure to talk to me whenever you need to or if you remember anything.”

    “Of course,” Leyon agreed.

    Azura then continued to the royal clinic where Lartz had been resting since his return to Aracion. When Azura arrived at his room, she found him sleeping peacefully and chose not to disturb him. Instead, she headed for the main hall to meet with her comrades. She definitely had to tell Eliot about Leyon’s dream later as well. She didn’t know if Leyon had seen Russell in his dreams, but she strongly suspected it and that could be a good sign. Perhaps Eliot could provide some insight into what events occurred in the dream and bring them that much closer to restoring the general’s memory. And, ludicrous though the idea seemed, they might even reenact one of the pranks which Bronwyn had told her that Leyon and Russell had played with their pet lizards. Azura also suspected that talking to Leyon about where he had gotten Olegxing was likely a critical step, only she was loathe to make him relive the depression he went through after Russell had disappeared and was given up for dead. Still, she decided to use it as a last resort in case nothing else jogged his memory.

    When she arrived in the main hall, Azura was pleased to see most of her chosen group already waiting and ready to depart. The only ones who hadn’t appeared yet were Faline, Janz, and Lauren, whom Azura assumed would show up soon, and Cato, who had said earlier that he would rejoin the group outside because he wanted to do some early morning training before departing. Azura then briefed her comrades on their latest mission and awaited the arrival of their absent troops. After glancing in Skye’s direction, she noticed him gulping again at the sight of Raela’s ever-present Sleep staff. She then arched an eyebrow, wondering why in the world anyone would fear such a thing. Bryan must have noticed her gesture as well, as he approached her soon after and brought the matter up.

    “Hey Azura, if you’re wondering, I can tell you why Skye’s so afraid of Sleep staves.”

    “Oh?” Azura wondered.

    “Yeah, he’s just as afraid of them as you are of spiders and Kiel is of dragons,” Bryan began. “See, the only time he was ever hit by one of those staves, he had a horrible nightmare in his sleep. Now, I don’t think Sleep staves really cause nightmares since the staff causes a trance rather than real sleep, but I still can’t blame him. Though, seeing him squirm around Raela is admittedly hilarious.”

    Bryan then chuckled.

    “Heh, I see,” Azura replied. “Raela has obviously figured out this fear of his too, I notice.”

    “Haha, yeah. In fact, not long before you came down here, she taunted him with the staff again and—”

    “BRYAN!” Skye’s voice thundered from nearby.

    “Ah, hi there, Skye,” Bryan greeted, though rather nervously.

    “Bryan, were you telling Azura about my thing with Sleep staves?!” Skye demanded. “I told you to keep that between us!”

    “Well, sorry, but I figured Azura should know about it,” Bryan replied, his own annoyance growing. “I want you to avoid Sleep staves as much as you do.”

    “Yeah, well, it’s embarrassing! I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you with this! You’ve always been bad at keeping secrets!”

    “Oh yeah?! Just be glad I haven’t told anyone about how your name’s just an alias!”

    With that, the entire room fell silent and Skye’s face turned beet red with anger. Bryan’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped when he realized what he’d said and he slapped his face in aggravation.

    “DAMN IT, BRYAN!” Skye retorted angrily. “…Fine. I suppose that secret would have eventually gotten out anyway.”

    “Skye… What was Bryan talking about?” Azura inquired, puzzled over this revelation. Although Skye had opened up to her at times about his relationship with Kye, the sniper did seem to play his hand quite close to his vest. How many secrets was Skye hiding?

    “Well, I’d tell you, but Kye would throw a hissy fit if I did,” Skye replied. “It’s complicated…and unpleasant.”

    “Skye, no…” a familiar young voice stepped in before Azura could respond.

    “Kye! I…” Skye uttered, but couldn’t finish. His brother had approached moments later.

    “Skye, you can tell them the truth. I won’t get mad anymore,” Kye assured his older brother. “I decided that it’s time to let go of the past. Nothing will change it, after all, and I agree with what you said earlier, we would have eventually been found out anyway.”

    “Kye… Well, alright, little bro, if that’s how you feel,” Skye replied and turned to Azura. “The truth is, Skye isn’t my real name. It’s just a nickname I’ve been passing off as my birth name. My actual name is Skyler.”

    “And mine is Kyle,” Kye added. “We both passed off our nicknames as our true names.”

    “Precisely.”

    “But why?” Azura wondered.

    Skye then explained that not long after he had joined the Talgrian army, his parents, who worked as spies, were sent on an important mission outside the country. Since Skye was away, they had little choice but to take the young Kye with them. Since the brothers’ parents had gone on so many missions, they had quite a few contacts abroad who could offer them lodging and back up their cover stories. Having no one else to take care of Kye, the two spies had hoped one of their contacts might be willing. Unfortunately, during the journey, their parents met a terrible fate, and worse still, Kye had disappeared. Skye received a message that they were killed by assassins near the Cilaean mountains and that Kye was missing. After several days of searching, Skye had found his brother. The young thief was bruised, battered, and unconscious in the woods not far from their parents’ encampment. Skye was furious at this, and Kye was just as angry when he awoke from his coma and heard the story. They later became resentful towards their parents, angry over how they had given their jobs more attention than their own children and for nearly getting Kye killed by taking him along on such a dangerous journey. That’s when they decided to only go by their nicknames, as their real names reminded them too much of how their parents would address them.

    “And that’s the story,” Skye finished. “We still don’t know how my brother ended up in the middle of the woods, but we hated that our parents’ negligence nearly got him killed.”

    “Exactly. I will never forgive them, but I know I must look more towards the future,” Kye added. “It’s not as if the past was ever appealing.”

    “I see…” Azura replied, her tone soft and soothing. “I’m sorry your parents didn’t raise you the way they should have. I can see why you did what you did. But you don’t mind if I keep calling you both Skye and Kye, do you? I’ve gotten pretty used to those names.”

    “Not at all,” Skye replied with a small smile. “I rather like the nickname anyway.”

    “Yeah, me too!” Kye agreed.

    “I’m sorry for blurting that out though,” Bryan cut in. “You’re right, I’ve never been the best at keeping secrets…”

    “Don’t worry about it, Bryan. I’ve put up with it since I met you. It’s not a big deal,” Skye assured.

    “Really?”

    Skye then put an arm around his friend’s shoulders and yanked him towards him.

    “Hey, would I lie to my best bud?”

    Bryan shot him a smile.

    “Heh, I guess not. By the way, we’ll still be best friends even after I become king of Astryn, right?”

    “Well, duh, of course we will! You having royal blood won’t change a thing! I was quite surprised to find that the kid I grew up with was actually a prince all this time, but it doesn’t matter as long as I’m still his number one buddy! Of course, I won’t ever try to get between you and Faline, though.”

    Skye let Bryan go as he spoke his words.

    “Thanks, Skye. That means a lot,” Bryan replied with a smile. “Here’s to a lasting friendship!”

    With that, the two pumped fists.

    “Yeah!” Skye blurted happily.

    “…Hey, speaking of Faline, where is she?” Bryan wondered. Before anyone could reply, a familiar voice rang out from somewhere nearby in undisguised agony.

    “What the—!” Bryan blurted, alarmed and bolting in the direction of the sound. He crashed through a nearby doorway and about three paces beyond the threshold, nearly bowled over a near-hysterical Faline.

    “Bryan! Oh, Bryan!” Faline sobbed aloud as Bryan skidded to a halt, tears streaming down her cheeks. She fell against his chest and continued to weep.

    “Faline, what’s the matter?” Bryan worriedly inquired. “If there’s another man bothering you, just point him out to me. I’ll beat him to a pulp with his own legs.”

    “N-No, it’s not that…” Faline gasped out between sobs, her tears beginning to wet Bryan’s chest plate. “Janz and Lauren pulled me aside in the hall as I was coming down here and said they needed to talk to me privately. One of the villages the Red Claw razed in Cilae…was my hometown. And they’ve killed my mother! They took her away from me! My mother’s dead!”

    Faline then wailed into Bryan’s chest.

    “Oh… Faline… I am so sorry…” Bryan replied, giving her a comforting hug.

    “My relationship with her wasn’t the best it could’ve been…” Faline admitted with a sniffle. “But she was still my mother and the only person who ever cared for me and my sisters while we were growing up… And now she’s g-gone!”

    Faline’s words were choked away as her weeping grew louder.

    “What about your father? Is there any news about him?”

    “No… But there hasn’t been for a long time. He abandoned us when we were very young. At first he cared for my mother, but he was a very impatient and demanding man and eventually began to think she was worthless and weak. He was also disappointed that she never gave him a son. He was never satisfied at anything she did either, including raising me and my sisters. He thought we were worthless and weak as well and, when he realized Mother would never bear him any sons, he left her to raise us all on her own.”

    “What? That’s just... I can’t believe him. That’s just plain wrong.”

    “I couldn’t agree more. After my father left, we remained poor for a long time. Mother had a few friends that supported her as best as they could, but they were busy people and they had their own problems to deal with. They did give us gifts out of pity, though, and occasionally let my sisters and I do work for them so we could earn some money. But because our family was in such bad shape and Mother had to work so hard to get money, I became a Pegasus knight as soon as I could to help feed and clothe my family. My sisters have been doing the same, and they should be okay since they’ve been in Jerusa training all this time, but… With this war going on, who knows how long that will last…”

    Faline’s dire words struck a chord with Bryan. Meloran and Red Claw forces had been running rampant in Cilae for months now, not only robbing and killing innocent people but cutting off and surrounding the bulk of the Allied armies at the Cilae-Melora border. If things didn’t turn around, and soon, both Cilae and the entrapped allied troops would be lost and, after that, the rest of Allied Command would surely crumble.

    There was little time left to avert this, but that time would have to be enough.

    “…I’m so sorry to hear this. But don’t worry. I would never abandon you, Faline. You mean the world to me and you’ve always helped me and the rest of us when we were down. It’s time I did the same for you.”

    “Oh, Bryan… Th-Thank you…”

    “You’re very welcome,” Bryan replied lovingly.

    Glancing back the way he came, the Sentinel saw that Azura had followed him but had the sense to close the door and give the pair their privacy.

    “Azura, “ Bryan spoke. “If I may suggest, Faline should probably stay behind this time. She’s in no shape to fight at the moment.”

    “Yes, I absolutely agree,” Azura seconded. “I, too, am terribly sorry about all of this, Faline. Would you be alright remaining here while the rest of us head out?”

    “Huh? Oh, of course,” Faline stammered, turning to face Azura. “As much as I’d love to tear the Red Claw to pieces right now, I just can’t find the strength…”

    “I understand,” Bryan added, wiping a tear from Faline’s cheek. “Not many could after hearing news like this. But I promise that I’ll return as soon as possible. The first thing I’ll do when I get back is find you.”

    “Okay… Thank you so much, Bryan,” Faline replied, a hint of a smile finally dawning her face. “I love you…”

    “And I love you. We must depart soon, alright?”

    “Of course… Oh wait, Janz and Lauren also said that they have business to attend to here, but that they’ll meet up with you guys later.”

    “Oh, alright then, we’ll depart immediately,” Azura decided.

    “Indeed. Faline, that means I’ll be leaving now, alright?”

    “Yes. I’ll be okay…”

    With that, the couple allowed their lips to meet in a passionate farewell kiss.

    “Be careful out there, my handsome prince,” Faline whispered once they parted.

    “Always,” Bryan replied with a grin as he and Faline clasped hands.

    With that, the group headed out while Faline headed back upstairs. Azura didn’t like losing another flying unit, especially since Faline was promoted while Marina wasn’t and that Lartz would likely be out of action for awhile, but she knew it would be wrong of her to try persuading the saddened Falcon Knight to join the group. And even if Faline had agreed to it, she couldn’t possibly have her head on straight after such a blow. Instead, Azura focused on collecting Cato and getting her army out to the Red Claw encampment near the border. Her earlier question also rang through her mind again. How had the vicious bandit army constructed a new camp so quickly after the first one near the river had been destroyed? Was Melora really able to reinforce them that much and so quickly? Perhaps the camp had been there for some time now and had gone undiscovered until now? Or had something else happened, something that Azura’s army was not yet aware of? She had hoped to find the answers once they arrived.

    Thankfully, since Aracion was not far from the mountainous portion of the Talgria-Eraghoa border, the group spotted the mountains within a few hours. And just as Janz and Lauren reported, there was another large Red Claw encampment waiting for them at the foot of the nearest mountain. However, this one was even bigger than the last and included units of every kind, even thieves, healers, mages, and to Marina’s dismay, Pegasus knights were once again amongst the enemy as well. Some of them were even promoted to Falcon Knights. What’s more, there were also large boulders, catapults, and ballistae waiting for Azura’s army at the tops of the nearby mountain cliffs and trails, each stocked with a prodigious cache of ammunition. It was clear that Melora and the Red Claw were making a second attempt of what they had planned at the river, renewing their efforts to invade Aracion. Azura and her troops did have one thing in their favor though. Beorc and laguz could only climb so far up these mountains, as they were impassable where the Eraghoan and Talgrian borders met those of Astryn. If the group could make it up to the enemy camp, then the Red Claw would be effectively trapped.

    “This…will be a tough fight,” Azura surmised. “Alright, I have a plan. The more heavily armored units and the healers will stay down here and draw the enemy’s attention! The rest of us will slip past and knock out the guys on the cliffs!”

    “That sounds good to me,” Bryan agreed. “Marina should stay down here too though. Those ballistae would cut her to pieces.”

    “Yeah, I had the same thought. Anyhow, after we take out the enemies manning the siege weapons, we can use them ourselves,” Ike added with a wry grin. “‘Do unto others.’”

    “But seeing all those Pegasus knights sickens me! I can’t believe how many are siding with our enemy!” Marina blurted angrily.

    “I agree, but I don’t think they’re Cilaean,” Bryan replied. “Call me crazy, but I have a feeling at least most of them are coming from Astryn. I’ll explain why later.”

    “Alright, then let’s get this party started!” Azura commanded. “And Kiel, there aren’t many dracoknights here, so please go fight this time.”

    “I-I’ll try…” Kiel stammered, transforming nervously.

    “Good. Now everyone, CHARGE!”

  14. #29
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Chapter 27! This is an important chapter in the story, so it's quite long. xP


    Chapter 27: Allied Command’s Stand


    As Azura had commanded, the troops divided into two separate forces and began their attack. Ike, Bryan, Morris, the Royal Knights, Marina, Kevin, and the wolf siblings remained at the base of the mountain to divert the Red Claw’s attention while Azura and the rest of the group headed for the siege weapons on the cliffs. Once these emplacements were captured, the Red Claw would be in for a nasty surprise. Azura was concerned, however, about how the mounted and armored warriors would fare once the siege weapons targeted them. The mounted knights might be able to outmaneuver the enemy munitions, but the armored foot knights would not be so fortunate. Still, they had no choice since horses could not climb the rocky ledges on the mountainside and it was too dangerous for Marina to come in range of the ballistae.

    Since the healers had been left with the diversionary force, they might be able to weather the assault. However, that also meant that Azura’s group would be at a serious disadvantage if the emplacements were heavily guarded. Inevitably, Bryan’s force was spotted and a group of the Red Claw rushed out to attack. By the look of things, the Red Claw members had been caught off guard. At least a third of their force was still trickling out of their tents while nearly as many were scrambling to grab their weapons and strap on their armor. However, Azura suspected these enemies would prove to be deadlier adversaries than their cohorts had been at the Kiang River. Though the encampment itself had been taken unawares, the enemy manning the siege weapons hadn’t been caught napping. The line of Red Claw charging towards Bryan suddenly jerked to a halt…as a salvo of catapult stones and ballista bolts were unleashed. Bryan’s group managed to dodge the projectiles as they crashed into the earth with a thunderous report, but it had thrown their formation into disarray. And, the oncoming Red Claw were more than eager to capitalize on this advantage.

    It was all too apparent that the Red Claw were learning from their past mistakes, and were growing deadlier all the while. Ike had been sent sprawling by a near-miss from a catapult stone and had barely regained his feet when a Swordmaster, a Warrior, a Sage and an armored swordsman set upon him. Curiously, none of the Red Claw members seemed to recognize Ike. When he dispatched the armored swordsman with a flawless Aether, however, he saw many of his foes blanch. The Swordmaster and Warrior had become so terrified that Ike could’ve sworn they were trying not to cling to each other.

    “I-It’s true! He is alive!” the Warrior stammered, nearly dropping his axe.

    “Oh man! The supreme commander is so busted!” the Swordmaster replied, backing away slowly and then breaking into a run.

    “What a coincidence!” Ike taunted. “So are you!”

    With that, the hero twirled Ragnell and launched shockwaves into both bandits, sending them flying into a nearby rock. After doing the same to the equally terrified sage, Ike’s grin suddenly vanished as he found himself surrounded by at least a dozen enemies. He gritted his teeth as he eyed his many opponents. These new arrivals still seemed nervous about engaging the infamous Ike, but they were also probably hoping to overwhelm the pressured hero. Thankfully, Elincia soon spotted her love’s predicament and quickly climbed back down to the base of the mountain. A few of the knights soon followed, but Elincia arrived first and drove Amiti into a few lancers before they had any chance to retaliate.

    “Elincia!” Ike blurted in alarm as he saw his fiancée cut through the enemies. “You should be—!”

    “Ike! No, you ‘d never be able to beat all of those guys at once!” Elincia protested as the knights came in to aid them.

    Ike was about to protest further when another barrage of catapult stones was seen hurtling through the air towards them. Ike and Elincia drew back while the knights scattered, the boulders crashing to earth in a succession of deafening impacts. After that, Ike’s objections were further stalled by a Halberdier, likely the commander of the enemy contingent, who charged the hero. The Halberdier’s killer lance made him dangerous, as he could deal critical blows quite easily with it, but either of Ike’s swords would give him a clear advantage in power. The Halberdier, unfortunately, also seemed to be aware of this and tried to keep Ike off balance with shield bashes and using the shaft of his lance to trip Ike up. Elincia, meanwhile, had swung around to attack the enemy’s flank but the Halberdier managed to barely bend away from her lunge.

    “Errrg. Ya know what, lassie?” the commander intoned warningly. “You’re startin’ to get on my nerves!”

    “HEY! You lay one finger on her and you’re dead!” Ike threatened. “I eat punks like you for breakfast!”

    “Sorry to spoil your appetite,” the commander taunted before launching the pommel of his lance in Ike’s face. If he hadn’t craned his head out of way, Ike would have come away toothless.

    The hero figuring that Ragnell’s shockwaves wouldn’t do much against his foe’s armor, locked blades with the Halberdier. Ike was just about ready to kick himself for not switching to his axe by now, but this enemy was much too quick to give Ike a chance. Ike continued to assail the enemy from the front while Elincia darted from one flank to the other, trying to strike the enemy where he would not be able to fend them off. While this clash continued, the ballistae and catapults still in the hands of the Red Claw continued to fire upon Bryan’s force. The mounted knights were simply too fast to strike, so the enemy was concentrating their firepower on the infantry. While Ike was busy with his opponent, a Red Claw archer manning a ballista spied the blue haired hero and aimed his emplacement at the distracted swordsman. Elincia soon spotted the danger and quickly rushed for her endangered fiancé.

    “NO!” she cried as she maneuvered to his side and shoved him as hard as she could. The bolt flew past them both, slicing through the air…and Elincia’s back.

    “ELINCIA!” Ike exclaimed in shock as Elincia screamed in pain, and his shock became horror as she seemed to go limp in his grasp.

    “Allow me to expedite your reunion,” the commander offered wickedly, hefting his lance.

    Ike, in an overpowering rage, drove his foot into his foe’s gut after, sending him flying into the cliff wall nearby, and took the wounded Elincia in his arms. Blood was pouring out of her lower back, but it looked as if the bolt had only scored a glancing hit. A direct impact, and…Ike didn’t even want to finish the thought.

    “Elincia! What did you do that for?!” Ike demanded.

    “Ike, that bolt would’ve probably killed you… Elincia replied, her voice weak and her breath shallow and shuddering. “And you’ve saved me more times than I can count in the past. It was time I did the same for you…”

    “But…”

    “Ike!” a familiar male voice yelled. Ike turned to see Boyd rushing over, followed by Azura. “Holy crap…”

    “Elincia!” Azura gasped. “This looks bad. Ike, bring her to Bronwyn’s wagon, quick! I’ll send Raela over there with you! The rest of us will finish this!”

    “They’ll pay for this!” Boyd declared.

    “Alright, thanks, you guys!” Ike replied and quickly carried Elincia to the wagon. “You’re going to be fine, Elincia.”

    “Thank you, Ike…”

    Meanwhile, Skye commandeered an enemy ballista. Turning it upon a neighboring cliff, he let the massive bolt fly. His aim, naturally, was true and the remainder of the enemies on the cliffs were eliminated, leaving the rest of the siege weapons ripe for the picking. Once the emplacements were captured, they were turned against the Red Claw and the camp was bombarded with a vengeance. Raela, meanwhile, had joined Ike in Bronwyn’s wagon and examined Elincia’s wound. Though it bled freely, Ike was relieved when Raela reported that the bolt’s glancing impact had not hit a major organ or artery. The injury was quite painful, but Elincia remained brave due to her fiancé’s reassuring presence. Ike heaved a sigh of relief as Raela focused her Heal staff on the wound, mending it as if it had never existed.

    “You’re lucky that wasn’t a direct hit, lass,” Bronwyn commented. “You’d be amazed at the sort of damage those can do.”

    As Bronwyn spoke these words, her gaze shifted meaningfully to the stump which was all that remained of her lost leg. Elincia, taking the hint, grasped Ike as if she would never let him go.

    “Raela! Raela!” Lily’s voice soon called from outside of the wagon.

    “Hm?” Raela replied. “What is it, Lily?”

    “The others have been advancing into the camp. Look what Kye found in one of the tents!”

    Raela, Ike, and Elincia gasped when they saw Lily holding a Florete, a pink-bladed sword which could discharge magical shockwave much like Ragnell’s.

    “My Florete! I knew some of these imbeciles looked familiar! They’re the same bandits that destroyed our home!” Raela realized. “Lily, it’s time for some major payback!”

    “Right on, Sis! Let’s get them! We’re so much stronger now!”

    Lily then tossed the Florete to her sister. Raela easily caught it in her right hand and twirled it.

    “Let’s go!” she ordered. Lily was not reluctant to follow her sister back into the battle.

    Meanwhile, Ike remained inside Bronwyn’s wagon with Elincia as her near-miss had left her too shaken up to return to the field for the time being. Bronwyn had not minded, since she said she’d have done the same. Besides, the lovers suspected that Bronwyn’s comment, about how lucky Elincia was to have avoided taking a direct hit, came from experience. Leyon had mentioned that Bronwyn had been relieved of her post as Deputy Commander of the Royal Knights after losing her leg in battle. Deciding not to leave Elincia to chance, Ike chose to guard the wagon while the rest of the army battled what was left of the Red Claw contingent. Now that Azura’s force had control of the siege weapons, the momentum of the battle was now firmly in their favor. Several Red Claw tents, and Red Claw members, had been crushed or impaled in the bombardment and those who survived were assailed by the remainder of Bryan’s force. The combat jerked to a halt, however, a few minutes later as bright flashes of orange and yellow light burst into view.

    “Whoa, was that Lily?” Ike wondered, though he already knew the answer.

    “Sure was!” Bronwyn confirmed. “That wee lass is better with an Elfire tome than I gave her credit for!”

    “You can say that again,” Elincia agreed. “She could probably give Soren a run for his money now.”

    “Perhaps,” Ike replied. “Especially since fire magic has the advantage over wind. Don’t tell him I said that, though. He’s…touchy.”

    Ike, Elincia, and Bronwyn watched and waited as the battle drew to a close. Suddenly, a few feminine shrieks echoed from somewhere nearby and a faint light flared to life on the horizon. As the light faded away several moments later, more flashes of orange and yellow illuminated the sky. They were more fire spells from Lily, no doubt, and both Ike and Elincia had a strong hunch about what had just occurred. Bronwyn soon shouted once more from the seat of her wagon, her eyes going wide with amazement.

    “Well I’ll be darned! You kids are not going to believe this!”

    “Hey Ike, Elincia! Come out here!” Azura added excitedly before the pair could respond.

    “Huh?!” Ike replied, rushing outside. Elincia soon followed him, though she was still rather shaken from her earlier experience.

    Standing in the middle of the tattered Red Claw encampment, surrounded by at least a dozen enemy corpses, were none other than both Lily and Raela, but their appearances had changed. Lily’s cloak, which had once reached within a hairsbreadth of her, now cascaded down to her ankles while intricate runes now wove across the fabric’s surface. Her cloak also expanded to completely cover her shoulders. Her short skirt lengthened to enshroud her legs in a silky, gossamer material with a slit down the side while her boots became sandals with platform soles, though with fairly low heels. Raela too had changed, for she was now mounted upon a light brown horse garbed in a blue armored chest plate, elegant saddle, and silver studded reins. Her blue dress had been replaced with a stylish tunic while her long cape-like scarf had also become more ornate. Lily was standing nearly back to back with the horse, the faces of both sisters contorted in expressions of deep intensity and barely restrained anger.

    “Dang, did they do this?” Ike inquired.

    “Yep, they really taught these thugs a thing or two,” Boyd replied.

    “I’ll say! Where’d the horse come from though?” Elincia wondered.

    “Call it a prize of war,” Azura replied. “One of the catapult stones hit the enemy stables during the battle. It had lodged itself in the entrance of one of the stalls, but Raela rescued the horse by cleaving the rock in half with her Florete’s shockwave. It took an instant liking to her right after. Once Raela hopped on its back, bam, she became a Valkyrie. Lily followed suit soon after and is now a Fire Sage.”

    “Oh wow,” Ike replied. “I assume the battle’s over now? I don’t see any Red Claw members anymore. Well, none that are still breathing, anyway.”

    “Yeah, those girls were on fire. But I don’t blame them. They’ve wanted to avenge the deaths of their parents for a long time, and they’ve finally done it.”

    “I know how that feels…”

    Not far away, in the midst of scavenging the carnage for enemy documents, intact arrows and other supplies, Skye heard snatches of this conversation. And, what he heard caused him to go pale.

    “Oh man… Now I’m really busted if I get on her bad side again,” he muttered under his breath, shuddering.

    Raela merely giggled at Skye’s mild terror while Bryan tried hard not to burst into laughter. Skye glared at him moments later. Before he could retaliate, however, Kye had come bursting onto the scene, excitement in his eyes.

    “Lady Azura! Come check this out! I found something interesting while nosing around in one of those tents!” he hollered. “I think it might’ve belonged to one of the knights!”

    “Oh? What makes you suspect that?” Azura wondered.

    “Just take a look!”

    Kye then produced what appeared to be a gold medal. It looked as if the metal was formed into the shape on an unblinking eye, eternally staring with an intense gaze, bisected by a pair of crossed arrows. The medal, by the look of it, had seen better days and had changed hands many, for it was very dirty and layered with tarnish.

    “Hmm…” Azura contemplated. “You know, Leyon did say something about medals after we razed that Red Claw camp by the river, though I kinda doubt this is what he—”

    “Hey, wait a sec! Let me see that!” Eliot interrupted, jumping off of his horse and very nearly trampling Kye in his haste to examine the medal. Despite a hint of displeasure at the near miss, Kye quickly handed Eliot the medal, very curious as to what he would make of it.

    “Oh my goddess… I don’t believe it,” Eliot uttered, his eyes widening as he gazed upon the tarnished medal. “This medal is Russell’s! It’s the Order of the Golden Arrow that he was awarded years ago!”

    “What?!” Azura gasped, her own eyes widening.

    “Who’s Russell?” Ike wondered, arching one eyebrow.

    “Russell…?” Leyon uttered from nearby, suddenly seeming to freeze in place with perplexity and shock plain on his features. “That name… Why does it sound so familiar to me?”

    “He was General Leyon’s brother, but he’s been missing for three years and is presumed dead,” Eliot explained, keeping his voice low. “I apologize, Ike, but it’s too long of a story to get into now.”

    “So, this might help us restore Leyon’s memory?” Ike inquired, his tone skeptical.

    “I think so!” Eliot affirmed.

    “But, how can you be sure the medal is Russell’s?” Azura wondered. “The inscription on the back could’ve told us who it was awarded to, but it’s too tarnished to read. Besides, this can’t be the only Order of the Golden Arrow out there.”

    “It is the only Order of the Golden Arrow…well, sort of,” Elliot countered. “It’s really tough to get one of these, you can only earn it by achieving fifty single-shot kills with a bow or crossbow.”

    “Maybe one of those is in my future then,” Skye commented with a sly grin.

    “Shut up,” Elliot shot back. “Anyhow, the last one besides Russell’s was awarded over a hundred years ago. But the knight who won it was killed in the battle where he made his fiftieth kill, so the medal was awarded posthumously. After that, his family donated it to the Royal Museum in Aracion. This can’t be that medal though, it’s still in its display case…and they practically soak it in tarnish remover.”

    “How do you know all of this?” Ike wondered, mildly perplexed.

    “During my training to be a Royal Knight, I studied a lot about their history,” Elliot replied. “I wanted to earn the Order of the Golden Arrow myself but, well, archery didn’t pan out, so I decided to study the lance instead, which would’ve been my second choice.”

    “‘Didn’t pan out?’” Skye repeated, looking ready to burst into laughter. “You shot yourself in the foot three times in a row!”

    “I said shut up!”

    “People on the archery range still use you as the punch line to many a joke.”

    “I wonder how much archery you’ll do once I take one of your hands off?”

    “Nice try. Anyhow, there was this good one. It goes like—OUCH!”

    Raela’s staff, having recently been used to brain the jibing sniper, was leveled out to jab him in the ribs.

    “Behave yourself...Blue Skye!” Raela ordered.

    “Hey! Only I’m allowed to call him that!” Kye whined.

    “Enough, you lot!” Azura bellowed. “Okay, this could be Russell’s medal. Maybe it can help us.”

    “My thought exactly. Gen…er…Leyon, take a look at this!”

    “Very well,” Leyon agreed and approached. Eliot then showed him the medal.

    “Do you remember this?” he inquired. “Do you recognize it at all?”

    “…N-No… But it looks so familiar,” Leyon admitted, his brow furrowed in deep concentration.

    “But you’ve got to remember! Years ago, this medal was awarded to Russell,” Eliot explained. “You testified to King Wencelis that Russell had achieved his fiftieth clean kill and then he gave you the honor of awarding it.”

    “I see… But I still can’t…”

    “Come on! I know you can do it! Take it and look at it closely!”

    Eliot then gave the medal to Leyon, who eyed it curiously for several moments.

    “And your axe! The one you’ve been staring at!” the knight desperately continued. “Russell gave it to you before he disappeared! It was a present for your birthday!”

    “It wasn’t wrapped, because how the heck do you wrap paper around something that sharp anyway?” Leyon asked no one in particular, almost as a reflex, but then snapping back to awareness. “Wait a minute, how the hell did I know that?!”

    “We’re getting somewhere! You must remember that axe and who Russell is! You’ve got to!”

    Leyon soon brought a hand to his head and grimaced.

    “I remember…I remember…” Leyon grumbled through his frustration. “Argh! Why won’t it come to me?!”

    Having a thought, Azura snatched the medal from Eliot’s hand and placed it in Leyon’s grasp. The frustrated general ran his hands over the tarnished gold, somewhat confusedly, but then let out a yelp as he came to the chain.

    “Ouch! Not again!”

    “‘Again?’” Azura inquired. “How so?”

    Leyon studied the cut on his finger, made by a jagged link in the medal’s chain, as if pondering that very question. Then, a moment later, his eyes bulged.

    “That happened when I was giving him the medal! I was holding it by the chain and cut myself on that jagged link…but, there’s more. I know there is, but it’s so blurry!”

    “C’mon, Leyon! You’ve got to keep trying!” Azura coaxed.

    “Blast… My head hurts again! My mind feels like it wants to remember all of this, but can’t…” Leyon replied desperately.

    “Don’t give up!” Eliot insisted. “You’ve never given up! That’s why you’re such an amazing warrior!”

    Upon hearing these words, Leyon felt a bizarre sensation come over him. It was like a faint smoldering under his breastbone, and yet one which grew hotter with each passing moment. That same fire seemed as though to surge into his veins, like a power that any mage would kill to possess. But, this flame was not magical. Yet, it was real. And, it was powerful. And above all, it was familiar. Even more familiar to Leyon than his own hands which, not so long ago, felt like they belonged to a stranger and which could do things he did not recall learning. Those words which Eliot had spoke thundered through his head once more. Only, it wasn’t Eliot that was shouting them. It was a boy’s voice, which Leyon somehow recognized as his own, though how he knew this eluded him. And, a flash of images now accompanied the sounds. He beheld a child who, by some unfathomable means, he recognized as himself. His younger self was speaking to a teenage boy equipped with a longbow and garbed in the lightweight leather and chainmail of an archer. The teenage boy with the longbow looked very much like a younger version of the strange man whom Leyon had seen in his dream…and then more images flooded into his consciousness, until they all seemed to blend together in an overwhelming cacophony of thoughts and hopes and joys and cares and tears which had been forgotten.

    Until now.

    The troubled general suddenly dropped to his knees, as if the barrage of liberated memories had physically struck him.

    “I…know those words…” he uttered, grimacing again. “Russell… I…I said that to him!”

    “Yes! It’s happening!” Eliot replied, a smile crossing his features. “Keep going!”

    “Yes… I remember that day! I remember my brother!” Leyon shouted, sounding quiet and stunned. “And the medal! I awarded it to him, because I always knew he’d someday be a hero to others besides me. And I was so proud of him because he was a hero to all of Talgria! I even gave him his famous nickname, Round-Shot Russell!”

    “That’s right! You came up with it when he took down twelve bandits with only one arrow each!”

    “Actually, it was thirteen. We always used to make jokes about that. But, it’s all finally coming back to me! Somehow, remembering one thing helped me to remember everything else…!”

    “Oh, Leyon, I’m so relieved,” Azura gushed, unthinkingly kneeling and flinging her arms about Leyon. “It’s great to have you back!”

    “Yes… I’m glad as well, but…” Leyon trailed off, more than a little startled by Azura’s actions.

    “Er…um…ah…”Azura stammered, rather shocked herself. “Sorry about that, I got a little carried away.”

    Azura could hear what sounded like Eliot trying vainly to smother his laughter, and she replied with a glare promising violence. Leyon, however, did not seem to notice. Instead, a haunted look overwhelmed his features.

    “Russell… Those thugs from the volcano must’ve been responsible… Not the eruption…not even that traitorous astrologer who lied to us about the volcano being dormant. But why?! Why did it have to happen?! Why did it have to be you…?”

    “Leyon…” Azura replied, kneeling to Leyon’s level once more. “I know this must be hard for you, having to relive this again. And I’m so sorry it had to come to this. But we need you to help Talgria win this war. And, I know that’s what your brother would’ve wanted. He’d want you to stay strong and carry on his legacy.”

    “…Yes, you’re right,” Leyon agreed, his words coming out strong and sure as he rose to his feet. “I still miss him so much, but that’s what both he and I wanted. And there’s still a chance he could be alive. So I’ll keep the medal for now. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to return it…if I can find a gallon or so of that stuff they use to remove tarnish.”

    “Sounds good to me,” Azura replied with a comforting smile. “We’d better get back to the castle now though. His majesty will definitely want to hear the good news. And with our luck, he’s already got another mission lined up for us. Just don’t forget that no matter where Russell is, he’s not really dead so long as he is remembered.”

    As Azura stood up, Leyon was unable to take his eyes off of her. In the stretching second before he himself rose, he found himself wondering if he’d always thought she was so…attractive. When he finally looked away moments later, he could feel his cheeks turn a deep red. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice. That is, except for Eliot. He smiled when he caught his superior officer blushing out of the corner of his eye.

    “Speechless, General?” Eliot coyly wondered.

    “Watch it, I can still withdraw my recommendation that you be awarded the Legion of Service!” Leyon quickly replied, though there was a hint of nervousness in his tone.

    “You recommended me for the Legion of Service?! Ah, that’s just great. Thanks so much!”

    For the second time in as many minutes, Leyon found himself being rather vigorously hugged during a moment of overwhelming joy. Overwhelming joy for Eliot, that is; Leyon found himself getting rather irritated.

    “You won’t get it if I’m suffocated. Stop hugging me!”

    “Yes, Sir,” Eliot replied sheepishly, relinquishing his superior officer.

    “Thank you. And to answer your earlier question, I was just a little surprised. By the way, where’s Natalie? Shouldn’t she be here? I would’ve thought she’d have taken command after I was…debilitated.”

    “Yeah, I thought that too,” Eliot replied. “Anyway, the deputy commander’s been at the castle. She was…pretty upset about you losing your memory. We didn’t think she’d have her head on straight, so Captain Bryan took command of the knights instead, as well as his own platoon. I’m sure he’ll be glad he doesn’t have to juggle that anymore.”

    “I suppose I should’ve expected that. But…Eliot… I will confess to many doubts I once had about you and your fitness to serve as a Royal Knight. Back when you were first placed under my command, all I saw was a mutton-headed dolt with the heart of a lion and the brains of cuttlefish egg.”

    “Hey!”

    “Still, since the war started, you’ve done well proving yourself. You’ve saved my life, helped to get my memory back and aided Azura in commanding the army. Never have I been happier to be wrong.”

    “That means a lot, General, it really does. But you’re right about me being…unimpressive. I never thought I did as well as I could have either. Yet, you constantly telling me improve or else get my knighthood stripped really pushed me to make myself a better knight. And, well, it was no secret that you didn’t think highly of me. But I vowed to remain loyal to you because, well, you inspired me. Just like Russell inspired you.”

    “I…had no idea. I’m humbled to serve with you.”

    “Heh… Thanks, General Leyon,” Eliot replied with a smile and held up his hand.

    “No. Thank you!” Leyon countered, taking Eliot’s hand in a bent-elbow hand clasp. Azura merely smiled and was glad that two were able to grow closer.

    With that, the army began the march back to Aracion. Along the way, Bryan explained to Azura his theory regarding the Astrynian Pegasus knights and why they might have joined the Red Claw. He suspected that, with Astryn’s terrible defeat in the last war and the impending death of Queen Marion, many of the country’s one-time defenders had lost faith in Astryn itself and sided with the enemy. He was loathe to admit this, but it made sense and explained why the Red Claw never seemed to lack for numbers. Hopefully, once Bryan revealed himself as the heir to Astryn’s throne, these desertions would end and the Red Claw would be that much weaker. During the journey, however, Azura remembered something that had been overshadowed by Leyon’s recovery. Janz and Lauren never showed up. Hoping that nothing bad had happened to them, she and her group continued towards their destination. They had not gotten far, however, when two dark figures appeared in the sky. When they descended towards Azura, they were revealed to be Janz and Lauren themselves. Bryan slapped his face in aggravation when he saw the two raven laguz gazing at the razed camp ahead of them.

    “Dang, I guess we’re a little too late to the party,” Janz realized.

    “Yeah, where have you been?!” Bryan demanded. “You two said you’d help us!”

    “Well, excuuuuse me, Mister Prince! It wasn’t our fault we were delayed!”

    Lauren sighed in frustration, muttering something unflattering about men in general.

    “Oh yeah?!” Bryan shot back, and was about to let an insult fly when Janz’s words registered. “Wait a minute, how’d you know about my bloodline?!”

    “Your girlfriend told me between her incessant sobbing, of course.”

    By now, Bryan’s blood was boiling. He angrily snatched Janz out of the air and dragged him to earth.

    “HEY! Talk about Faline like that again and I’ll have you stuffed and roasted!”

    “Alright, knock it off! Now!” Azura ordered, breaking the two men up. “Janz, Lauren, what happened?”

    “Ahem, well, after we told Faline the bad news about her mother, we had some breakfast and then went out to the main gate,” Janz explained. “Her majesty had sent us word from Perais not too long ago that she was going to visit the castle today and meet with King Wencelis. There is some sort of conference between the monarchs of Allied Command coming up. She requested that we meet her on the outskirts of Aracion. However, she failed to arrive as scheduled. Well, a Perais Raven is never late…unless something bad happens. So, we set out to search for her majesty. Fortunately, we found her soon enough and she reported that she and her escort of guards had run into a force of Melorans. Luckily, this group was no match for her majesty and she and the others arrived safely.”

    “That’s right,” Lauren added. “We also heard that Queen Belinda of Cilae and King Rothgar of Eraghoa will also be arriving at the castle soon. Because of the breach in communications that happened earlier, the one that allowed the Red Claw to trick General Derien into leaving Castle Eraghoa unguarded, the details are being kept secret. I can only assume that the monarchs plan to discuss the war effort…and how to change the fact that we’re losing.”

    “Losing?!” Boyd repeated, his temper showing. “We just wiped out a huge Red Claw camp in time for lunch!”

    “True,” Lauren conceded. “but the Raven messengers are all still missing, which means we have no way to communicate with the Allied armies in the field. Most of our troops are stationed at the Cilae-Melora border but, with the communications breakdown, we have no idea how they’re holding up…or even if they’re still alive. A number of the stolen Cilaean ships are still unaccounted for, and Melora can use them to circumvent our border defenses to strike our cities, as the Red Claw here were planning to do. And, to top it all off, Melora’s forces have ours outnumbered by four-to-one.”

    “Oooookay, that does sound bad,” Boyd conceded.

    “It’s not ‘bad,’ it’s hopeless” Soren corrected, shooting Ike a wry grin. “No wonder we found you here.”

    “I’m not sure if I should take that as a compliment or an insult,” Ike admitted. “Still, if we can free the Raven messengers quickly enough to restore communications, and if we do that soon enough to help the troops on the frontlines, and if we can bring Astryn and Orenias into the war, then we’d at least even the odds.”

    “That’s a lot of ‘ifs,’” Soren pointed out. “Still, it wouldn’t be the first ridiculously impossible thing you’ve pulled off.”

    “That might be what this meeting is about,” Lauren suggested. “We should find out.”

    “I agree,” Azura replied. “Let’s get back to the castle quickly. We have much to tell King Wencelis ourselves.”

    With that, the group continued their journey. Although Azura was pleased that Leyon now had his memory back, she still wasn’t satisfied. After all, it had partially been her fault that Leyon lost his memory in the first place. That mistake had likely done serious harm to the war effort at the worst possible time. And, she knew that another serious mistake like that would cost her army dearly. However, the young earl also knew that there were more important matters to deal with than dwelling on past failures. She did owe Leyon an apology, at the very least, but she hardly lacked for more important things to do. Then again, would Leyon begin to think ill of her if she put off apologizing to him? Wait, what am I thinking? I never liked him, Azura realized. I only wanted to help Leyon because he’s essential to winning this war. Hugging him was just my excitement and relief getting the better of me…but…is that selfish? Azura then hung her head in shame.

    “Maybe I’m the one who’s the jerk…” Azura uttered.

    “Hm?” an all too familiar voice piped up.

    Azura jerked in the direction of the sound and, to her consternation, there was Leyon who had been riding alongside her the whole time.

    “Oh, nothing…” Azura replied jumpily, quickly looking away.

    “Hey, it’s alright. I imagine you’re upset about what happened back at Fort Absolon,” Leyon guessed with a smile which Azura found strangely pleasant. “But don’t worry about it. I’m always breaking up squabbles between Eliot and Natalie, and getting between two armed quarrelers has it hazards. Besides, we have more important things to think about right now. If it bothers you that much though, we can always talk later.”

    “Oh… Okay.”

    While Azura had done her best to cheer herself up, Ike and Elincia decided to hold off on telling their friends about their engagement until later on. Aside from the knowledge that their friends would make a great and humorous spectacle of the news, they didn’t want to distract anyone too much from the war, especially since Melora and the Red Claw still held the advantage. Allied Command was slowly but surely losing the war and, if they didn’t come up with a plan soon, then total defeat was inevitable. All they could hope for right now was Bryan successfully bringing Astryn and Orenias into the war on the Allied side to boost their strength and morale and rescue the raven messengers to restore communications.

    When the gates of Castle Talgria finally came into view once more in the roads of Aracion, the weary warriors quickly entered in hopes of getting a good rest. The engagement had been a great victory, but having to carve through enemies and evade large bolts and rocks falling from the sky at the same time would surely exhaust anyone. While many of their comrades retreated to their rooms or the infirmaries, Azura and Leyon reported to Wencelis while Bryan sought out Faline as he had promised her earlier. Azura and Leyon, meanwhile, reported to Wencelis. When the pair arrived in their king’s throne room, they were greeted by not only Wencelis himself, but also Rothgar, Lilah, Louise, and another woman with aqua green hair. She was garbed in flowing blue robes and sturdy brown boots. Around her waist was a sash decorated with a gold clip. A sheathed sword hung at her side. However, her face bore an expression of quiet dispair.

    “Oh, Azura, you and your allies have returned,” Wencelis spoke up. “Allow me to introduce the two of you to Belinda, the queen of Cilae. She and Rothgar arrived a short time ago.”

    “Ah, it’s an honor to meet you, your majesty,” Azura replied. “We heard about your arrival. And I’m pleased to see that you’re okay as well, King Rothgar.”

    “And I am honored to meet you, Lady Azura,” Belinda replied. “King Wencelis told me of your developing leadership skills over Elhorhi.”

    “I heard as well,” Lilah put in kindly.

    “Same here,” Rothgar added with a smile. “Derien told me everything. I’m glad things are working out for you so far.”

    “Likewise,” Azura replied, returning the gesture. “By the way, I bring good news. Leyon has his memory back.”

    “Yeah,” Leyon added with a smile. “Eliot managed to snap me out of it.”

    “Oh, that’s wonderful!” Louise opined happily.

    “Thank goodness,” Wencelis replied with a sigh of relief. “And the Red Claw encampment?”

    “We suffered a number of serious casualties, but the camp is razed,” Azura reported. “We made sure every enemy there was defeated.”

    “Good. That is welcome news, especially after what I heard about the northern floodgate. It’s bad enough that it was wrecked and Melora now has still another hole in our defenses to exploit, but now that Royce has taken an active role in this war…”

    “Sadly, our troubles do not end there… If anything, they only get worse,” Belinda added somberly. “Cilae…has fallen.”

    “…What?!” Azura and Leyon shouted at the same time.

    “…No,” Wencelis uttered, his eyes wide with disbelief. “That…that’s not possible!”

    “That’s what I said when I saw the Red Claw smash down the gates of our capital,” Belina replied. “Sadly, we were both wrong. Several days ago, a massive Red Claw army invaded Jerusa. The city is now under their control. It was difficult to tell in all the chaos, but it appeared that the invasion came from the southeast.”

    “Did Allied Intelligence have any news of the enemy build-up?” Leyon inquired, clearly needing no time at all to reacquaint himself with his role as a general.

    “No,” Belinda replied somberly. “I had expected that any invasion of Jerusa would come from a northerly direction, from the ports that Melora might attack and occupy from the sea, or from the west if the border should be breached. We did not even consider that either Melora or the Red Claw would march their army all the way to the south and attack us from the rear…until it was too late.”

    “There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Louise agreed. “A task force of elements from the Fourth Talgrian Army platoon, the Seventh Talgrian Knighthood, the second Cilaean army and the third Cilaean Pegasus Knighthood was supposed to be protecting Jerusa and its outlying villages, but I had ordered them to redeploy to the north and west to where we expected the Melorans to strike from.”

    “What’s more,” Belinda went out, “Jerusa is, or rather, was, a city dedicated to peaceful teachings of mind and soul alike. We had no fortified walls to repel intruders and our city defenses were undermanned. The city was taken in a matter of hours. The invasion was commanded by the most powerful axe wielder I’d ever seen. He called himself Bernard, the supreme commander of the Red Claw. Eilonwy, the leader of our Pegasus knights, and I managed to escape the capital in time along with some of our troops, but a large portion of the remaining defenders were wiped out. Jerusa was captured within mere hours.”

    “This is madness… Disastrous!” Wencelis uttered angrily.

    “I agree,” Rothgar added. “With Jerusa in enemy hands, the Allied armies at the border are effectively surrounded. If we do not break the siege against them, we will surely lose them. This latest setback also makes it easier for the enemy to target any of the other eastern Altarais nations. We have to take Jerusa back quickly.”

    “We’ll decide a course of action soon,” Wencelis decided and then turned to his three subjects. “Azura, where’s Bryan? I’d like to speak with him as well.”

    “Oh, he’s with Faline,” Azura explained. “She received news this morning that her mother was killed in a Red Claw attack and I imagine he’s trying to comfort her.”

    “I see. I’m so sorry to hear that. I wish I could offer him some time but, given the circumstances, I’m afraid that is not possible. I will send for him on the instant…no, strike that, I will seek him out personally. In the mean time, you and Leyon should go get some rest. I suspect we will be needing you two again soon enough.”

    “As you wish, your majesty,” Leyon replied. Azura merely nodded nervously. Now that Cilae had been conquered, and the remaining nations of Allied Command were within Melora’s grasp, she was more afraid than she’d ever been in her life. Could the other nations successfully avenge Cilae and drive back Melora? Or would they suffer the same fate? Only time could tell.

    “Excellent,” Wencelis commented, turning to the other monarchs. “Why don’t the rest of you head to the conference chamber? I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

    The other monarchs weren’t hesitant to agree. The group then departed the throne room, with Leyon and Azura heading off in one direction while everyone else went in another. Wencelis, however, parted company with the other royals and entered the guest chambers. Bryan, he knew, would be here somewhere and Wencelis’s need to have the prince of Astryn attend this meeting was urgent. The outcome of the war could very well depend upon it. Soon enough, just as Wencelis had turned the corner, he spied the young prince emerge from a room near the end of the hall.

    “Ah, Bryan, there you are,” the Talgrian king greeted. “I’ve been looking for you. I heard about Faline’s loss from Azura. Is she alright?”

    “Oh, your majesty. Well, I wanted to talk to her, but it turns out she’s taking a nap,” Bryan reported. “I fear she cried herself to sleep. I’m really worried about her.”

    “Hm, I see… If you will pardon my asking, does Faline have any other family you are aware of?”

    “Well, I know she has sisters who are also Pegasus Knights. Last either she or I heard, they were training in Jerusa.”

    The minute the name of the Cilaean capital was spoken, Wencelis felt his heart sink again, for he had an all too clear premonition on what fate had most likely befallen Faline’s sisters.

    “Your majesty, is something wrong? Wait, that’s a stupid question. We’re in the middle of a goddess-damned war.”

    “True, but circumstances offer us little pause for grief. I do need you, but I will try to have you back at Faline’s side quickly.”

    “Thanks, your majesty. What did you need?”

    “Well, as you may know, Queen Belinda, King Rothgar, and Queen Lilah have arrived here today. We decided to have a meeting about our situation and the war effort and, we’d like to invite you to join us. You are Astryn’s heir, after all, and I think it would be wise for us to act upon that.”

    “That’s a good idea. I’ll do the best I can.”

    “Excellent. Follow me. The others are waiting for us in the conference chamber. Louise and William will be there as well along with a couple other guests.”

    Bryan nodded and followed Wencelis out of the guest quarters. Within minutes, the two arrived at the doors to the conference chamber. As the Talgrian king cracked the door open, yet another cause for worry presented itself. It was no secret that the fall of Jerusa had badly shaken morale amongst the Allied leaders. And, as Louise had conceded, there was plenty of blame to go around for this latest, terrible setback. Wencelis had anticipated that tensions would be running high but, from the thunderous sounds lancing out of the crack in the doors, it was worse than he had expected.

    And, the Talgrian King had expected it to be very, very bad.

    Inside the conference chamber, the Talgrian king and the prince of Astryn beheld Rothgar, Belinda, Lilah, Louise, William, Derien, and a woman Bryan had never seen before. The new arrival had auburn hair and wore armor similar to Faline’s, only it was colored black and gold and was more ornate, no doubt distinguishing her as possessing a high rank in the Cilaean Pegasus knights, as well as a long, blue cape with a silver hem. The various figures were seated at the long, ornate table of the conference chamber...and, they were at each other’s throats.

    “By the Goddesses’ left boob, what were you thinking?!” the auburn haired woman railed at Louise. “You stripped Jerusa of its defenses while we were besieged on all sides!”

    “I didn’t have a choice!” Louise countered hotly. “We still hadn’t restored contact with our armies on the border and our troops guarding the coast were spread too thin.”

    “So, an invasion from the south didn’t even enter your head?!”

    “By the look of things, it didn’t enter yours either!”

    “Half of my Pegasus Knights lost their lives because of your incompetence!”

    “You want to yell at somebody about that, yell at the Melorans!”

    “What are they talking about?” Bryan whispered to Wencelis.

    “Jerusa has fallen,” Wencelis replied simply, blanching at the chaos unfolding before him. He desperately moved to intervene but, before he could even open his mouth, another brushfire crackled to life.

    “What did you just call me?!” Rothgar snarled at Belinda.

    “You heard me, murderer,” Belinda hissed, glaring at Rothgar with undisguised loathing.

    Derien looked ready to voice his displeasure with Belinda’s choice of words, likely with his fangs, but Rothgar restrained him.

    “The events you speak of happened long before I was even born, let alone took the throne, and our atonement was completed some time ago.”

    “Tell that to your victims. Cilae has not forgotten what happened, nor will they soon forget that your tribe abandoned us after professing to be our allies.”

    “Now, what is she talking about?” Bryan whispered to Wencelis, who looked as though despairing of stemming the chaos. “I mean, I know Eraghoa and Cilae aren’t exactly friends, but Queen Belinda is making some very serious charges.”

    “They are serious, but they are also irrelevant to the matter at hand,” Wencelis replied harshly, but then resignation softened his features. “During the wars between the beorc and the laguz, before the coming of the Oathsworn and the peace, the Melorans sacked Eraghoa. Most of the wild game was slaughtered and the granaries stripped clean, leaving the wolf tribe with no food. A harsh winter set in soon thereafter, and many of wolves were starving. After that, the Cilaeans arrived.”

    “Cilae invaded Eraghoa?”

    “I’d hesitate to call it an ‘invasion.’ The Cilaeans were attacked by Larame as well, and had fled into the Eraghoan woods to hide. The wolves, however, found them and…well…”

    “Wait, you’re not saying the wolves actually…ate beorc are you?!”

    “I’m afraid so. On one level, I can understand why the Eraghoans did this. One would be amazed, and horrified, at what people will do when they are desperate. Shortly after the peace, Eraghoa offered a formal apology for the incident as well as other gestures to foster goodwill, but, as you can see, Cilae was not convinced.”

    Bryan could see that very clearly, along with the fact that Allied Command was literally crumbling before his eyes.

    “Abandoned you?!” Rothgar roared, unable to restrain his incredulity. “I sent so many of my warriors to help you regain the territory you lost, that I was accosted by the Red Claw in my own castle and thrown in my own dungeon!”

    “I led the wolves into battle myself!” Derien seconded.

    “And, the minute you got out of your cell, you recalled all your wolves from Cilae after we’d been awaiting their help for weeks,” Belinda shot back. “It’s remarkable how quick you are to act when your necks are on the line.”

    “Please, my friends!” Wencelis called out vainly. “Our enemy is Melora, not those seated at this table!”

    Wencelis hadn’t even finished his sentence when the cauldron of anger before him boiled with even greater ferocity.

    “There’s no point in assigning blame for the fall of Jerusa,” William spoke up. “None of us saw it coming.”

    “We might have if you had bothered to rescue my raven messengers,” Lilah retorted. “They’ve been missing since the war began and, as I understand it, the “investigation” into their whereabouts is going nowhere.”

    “I’ve been a little preoccupied with stopping Melora from taking over the continent.”

    “So, my people simply aren’t as important to the war effort?”

    “I did not say that!”

    “You didn’t have to,” the auburn haired woman cut in. “All you and the others have been doing is stalling for time while half of your “allies” have been getting cut to pieces!”

    At this latest spark, the explosion finally came. The seated dignitaries suddenly vaulted to their feet, chairs flung to the walls, all screaming and shouting at once. Wencelis tried, yet again, to calm the storm but his words were swallowed by the din. Bryan looked on in shock, dismay and, eventually, anger as the arguing continued unabated. Finally, seeing Wencelis’ shoulders sag in defeat, the prince of Astryn decided to intervene.

    “Your majesty, let me try something.”

    “Please do, I only hope you are more successful than I.”

    “Just so you know, if this works, then I’ll reimburse you for the table.”

    “I…beg your pardon?”

    Without bothering to answer the king’s question, Bryan vaulted into the air. Twirling his Brave Lance in midflight, he came crashing down upon the conference table, impaling it with his weapon. The sound of the impact could’ve been mistaken for a thunderclap. The arguing abruptly ceased and, in sudden shock, the anger in the room abruptly crumbled…along with the table which came crashing to the floor as its legs gave out from beneath.

    “By the goddess’ left boob, what the hell is the matter with you people?!” Bryan fumed deafeningly. “Melora has us by the throats, people depending on us for leadership and protection are on the brink of enslavement and we’re here bickering?!”

    Bryan whirled to Belinda, seeming to tower over the Cilaean Queen.

    “You’ve been railing at Rothgar for some time now, maybe years, and over something that happened over two centuries ago! Shouldn’t the fact that your capital and your people are in Isis’ grip right now rank a little higher amongst your priorities?!”

    If Belinda was at all cowed by Bryan’s thunderous entrance, his words snapped her out of it.

    “I will not be spoken to by—” she began before Bryan cut her off.

    “Someone telling it like it is? I’ve seen what Melora and the Red Claw do to people like the ones left behind in Jerusa. They saw the attacks on Galden, Narcoss and Kolah, and they were all massacres. Every minute you spent bickering with Rothgar likely cost a Cilaean their life. I know you Cilaeans write down damn near everything in your journals and diaries and history books and what-all. Sooner or later, people are going to be writing about what you did in this crisis and is this,” Bryan paused to encompass the chamber with one arm. “To be what they have to say?”

    Belinda looked as though she wanted to strangle Bryan but, after a moment, she shook her head and conceded the point.

    “Very well,” the Cilaean Queen replied, eyeing Rothgar with a still smoldering glare. “This grievance will have to be set aside for my people’s sake. But, mark my words, it is not over.”

    Rothgar, looking rather displeased himself, only offered a curt nod in reply.

    “And, you!” Bryan thundered, turning on Lilah and the auburn haired woman. “You think we’ve just been leaving Perais and Cilae high and dry? The Red Claw is swarming here in Talgria; two attempted invasions of Aracion were narrowly prevented. And, we checked every inch of every camp we attacked for clues about the whereabouts of the Ravens and any other prisoners, but we came away empty-handed. That’s not for lack of trying, and we shed a lot of blood searching for the Ravens. And, as for who to blame for Jerusa being taken, I’ve got two very likely candidates: Isis and Flozell.”

    “Flozell?” the auburn haired woman spoke up. “What does he have to do with this?”

    “Very likely, everything. Not long ago, I fought him in the village of Keanu. He accused me of being a traitor and attacked me. We later found out, via Janz and Lauren, that the real culprits were Red Claw members disguised as my platoon, and that Flozzel was in on it. Janz and Lauren investigated his office and found documents proving that Flozzel had been working with the Red Claw. Who’s to say he didn’t have a hand in planning the Red Claw’s invasion of Jerusa as well?”

    Several pairs of eyes widened at this declaration. Granted, Flozell being an accomplice to the fall of Jerusa prior to his death was only an educated guess. But, if it encouraged the people seated at the ex-table not to kill each other, it would serve nicely. Thankfully, a smoldering calm seemed to settle over the assembly. Lilah was the next to speak.

    “I see you make your presence as memorable as ever,” she commented. “So, now that the theatrics are over, what do you propose that we do to stop Melora?”

    “The first thing we need to do is to even the odds,” Bryan replied. “Melora has had us outnumbered and off-balance for far too long. My plan is to change that by bringing Astryn into the war on our side.”

    Belinda was, to put it mildly, skeptical.

    “And how, oh Trouncer of Tables, do you intend to get Astryn to listen to you?” she inquired, with no small amount of sarcasm.

    “I have one advantage,” Bryan replied coolly. “I am the heir to Astyrn’s throne.”

    Bryan’s pronouncement was met with dead silence and clear expressions of astonishment.

    “Ah, so you’re the rumored prince of Astryn,” Belinda realized. “From your attire, I also must conclude that you are also Captain Bryan, the famed Emerald Sentinel. It’s certainly a surprise to meet you. This woman seated next to me is Eilonwy, the commander of Cilae’s Pegasus knights.”

    “What’s left of them,” Eilonwy commented venomously. “I believe I’ve heard quite a bit about you as well, Bryan, from Faline. She certainly made the “amazing and handsome lancer in green armor” sound like her prince, though that being a literal truth didn’t cross my mind.”

    “Eh, heh….” Bryan replied, his cheeks going red. “I’m still gettung used to the idea, but I’m prepared to go through with it nonetheless.”

    “I’m pleased to hear that, Bryan,” William put in.

    “As am I,” Wencelis added. “Bryan’s plan to use his royal blood to bring Astryn to our side could, indeed, better our chances in this war. However, I’m skeptical about how this will go at first for a number of reasons. Astryn and Talgria have never been on good terms, but we must prevail against Melora and, to do that, we all must set aside our differences and work together. Bryan, if you please.”

    “Of course. Firstly, my father and I have to prove that we are even connected to Astryn’s royal family,” Bryan began. “Father told me that almost everyone who could vouch for us was killed in the last war. Right now, we’re essentially strangers to the Astrynians and our chances of finding someone to validate our claim will be slim. But, I assure you all that it will be done. Next, we have to rebuild the Astrynian army, not only so that it can be of use to us, but because Astryn may already be under threat. From my father’s accounts of the last war, General Shigo of Melora sought Astryn as his personal domain. If he really has broken ranks with Queen Isis and struck out on his own, then he is bound to attack them again at any time. In fact, he might already have done so. If that’s the case, then I wouldn’t put it past the Red Claw or Melorans serving Shigo to interfere, and Melorans loyal to Queen Isis may also act against this mission. So, I’ll be working quickly. Defeating Shigo is likely the best way to build up my case. Once that is done, I’ll then work on convincing the nobles as well as Orenias to join Allied Command.”

    “Orenias too?” Louise wondered, impressed. “They should be a great help against Melora. The dragon laguz are very strong.”

    “Indeed. With the dragons fighting on our side, we may have a chance of winning. What’s more, this move may also help to secure the aid of the hawk laguz of Recathe,” Wencelis surmised. “The hawks are mercenaries and often hire out to Talgria, Astryn, and Orenias as airborne warriors and messengers. With all of their clients at war with Melora, it would only be a matter of time before they joined us as well. This is an excellent plan, Bryan.”

    “Thank you, your majesty,” Bryan replied. “I think that, if you agree, it would be best if I left for Astryn at once.”

    “But we still need a plan to take back Jerusa,” Eilonwy pointed out.

    “That’s right!” Belinda added. “Would it be too much to ask for aid in this matter too?”

    “Very well,” Wencelis spoke up. “Now then, I propose we divide our forces into three groups. The first will go to Astryn under Bryan and Azura’s command to secure the aid of Astryn and, if possible, Orenias and Recathe as well. The second will head to Cilae under Leyon’s command, to retake Jerusa and break through to our besieged troops on the Cilae-Melora border. William, you will lead the third group and remain here to defend Aracion against any further invasion attempts. Does this sound reasonable?”

    “Whatever you decide is fine with me, your majesty,” William replied.

    “Yeah, I think that should work as long as we allocate the troops prudently,” Bryan agreed. “I don’t think I’ll need a very large group to fight Shigo, as we’ve beaten his troops before. If I can revive the fighting spirit of Astryn’s army, I’ll have all the troops I’ll need.”

    “Agreed. I think most of the troops should remain here,” Louise proposed. “Aracion has already been targeted by the enemy, and I do not doubt for a moment that the Red Claw and the Melorans will try again to invade. Leyon would probably have a better chance taking back Jerusa if he had a fairly small group anyway. It would make it easier for him to avoid detection and take the enemy by surprise.”

    “A wise plan,” Rothgar agreed. “Myself and my personal guard will aid in Aracion’s defense. Derien will accompany Leyon along with troops of his choosing.”

    “Wait, what?” Belinda blurted, clearly displeased at the notion.

    “Leyon’s group will need speed and stealth to reach Jerusa without being detected, but that will do little good if his force lacks the strength to retake the city,” Rothgar pointed out. “Besides, you're hardly in a position to refuse our help.”

    “Argh. As much as I hate to admit it, you’re right,” Belinda replied, gritting her teeth. “But your retainer had best watch himself, or else.”

    “Hey! I’m sitting right here, you know!” Derien retorted.

    “Calm down, both of you,” Lilah cut in. “Bryan, feel free to add Janz and Lauren to your party. I feel Janz could learn a lot from you.”

    “Kiel and Sara as well,” Rothgar added. “They’ve been useful to you and your allies and I suspect you’ll need their help.”

    “Sure thing,” Bryan agreed, though he didn’t exactly like the idea of fighting alongside Janz again.

    “I’ll go with Leyon too,” Louise decided. “He may need me to reconnoiter the enemy and to assess the situation at the border.”

    “I’ll remain here. I have to watch over the refugees from Jerusa,” Eilonwy put in. “Many were wounded and took ill on the way here.”

    “The other monarchs and I will help defend Aracion. Are we all in agreement?” Wencelis inquired to be sure. To his profound relief, everyone nodded.

    When the meeting ended sometime later, Bryan exited the chamber to seek out Azura and relay to her the details of the planned return journey to Astryn as well as the bid to retake Jerusa. Just as he left the room, Wencelis came up beside him.

    “Hardly an elegant solution, but I must admit that you were…effective,” he commented with the barest hint of humor.

    Bryan blushed a bit and scratched at the back of his head.

    “Well, I’m just glad it worked,” he admitted. “I have no idea how I’m going to explain this to my father and Faline though.”

    “It takes quite a bit of courage to face down a room of powerful people and shove the bitter truth of the matter in their faces. Your sense of diplomacy could use some work, but you clearly have the determination and courage that will make you a great king.”

    “Thank you, your majesty. That...means a lot.”

    “You still owe me a table though. Now, carry out your plan.”

    “Of course, your majesty.”

    Bryan quickly found Azura and, after hurriedly explaining Allied Command's plan, the pair then met with Leyon to discuss who would accompany whom the next day. It was eventually decided that Ike, Elincia, Ranulf, Soren, Cato, Marc, Leona, Raela, Lily, Skye, Faline, Marina, Lartz, and Morris would go with Azura and Bryan, as well as Janz, Lauren, and the wolf siblings. Everyone else from Azura’s previous group, as well as Natalie, would go with Leyon, Derien, and Louise to Jerusa while the rest of Allied Command’s troops would defend Aracion. Bronwyn, Misty, Ryin and Owen would travel with Azura and Bryan’s group while a small convoy would travel with Leyon's group to carry their surplus weapons and supplies. They also agreed that the two groups would travel together until reaching northeastern Astryn, at which point they would split up. Lartz, however, would not return to battle until he was well enough to fight. Bryan was quite reluctant to tell Faline of Jerusa’s capture, as her sisters had been training there, but he knew she surely find out anyway. Since she was still resting in her room, and that she was already upset enough about her mother’s death, the young prince convinced Azura and Leyon not to brief their troops on their new missions until morning.

    Later that evening, Kiel kept his earlier promise with Azura and sought out Lartz’s room. After receiving directions, he quietly poked his head through the door in hopes that the dracoknight wasn’t already asleep. Much to Kiel’s relief, Lartz was laying partially upright in his bed, propped up against his pillows and staring intently at the wall. His blanket was pooled at his waist, revealing the fresh scar from his earlier wound across his lower chest and abdomen. On the front of Lartz’s right shoulder, Kiel spotted what was clearly the wyvern rider’s Brand. It was stylishly shaped much like a wolf pouncing upon unseen prey, proving that the dracoknight did indeed have the blood of a wolf laguz in his veins.

    “…Lartz?” Kiel greeted, vainly trying to hide his anxiety.

    “Hm? …Oh, Kiel,” Lartz replied, turning toward his visitor. “Hey there.”

    “Um, I-I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

    “Oh, don’t worry. In fact, I was actually hoping I’d have the chance to see you. I think it’s no secret that our…anxieties need to be dealt with. I need to stop being nervous around wolf laguz, and I’m sure you’d like to get over your fear of dragons.”

    “Ah, yes. That’s exactly why I’m here. I thought talking to you would be a good start.”

    “Likewise. That reminds me, is Fang okay? No one’s told me about how my wyvern is doing yet, and I’m getting worried.”

    “Oh yeah, I ran into Norman on the way here. He asked me to tell you that your wyvern is being well-taken care of. Fang will be alright. Not surprised at that name, by the way.”

    “Figures you wouldn’t be,” Lartz replied with a chuckle, sitting up. Without warning, however, the wyvern rider began to sway in place and sagged towards the left edge of his bed. Kiel instantly rushed over.

    “Whoa!” he cried, catching Lartz before he could fall off. “Are you alright?!”

    “…Yeah, that was a dizzy spell,” Lartz replied as he regained his balance. “I was warned about those, but damn, they’re annoying.”

    “I can imagine.”

    “Yeah. Well, I can’t really tell you anything about dragon laguz, but wyverns can actually be very friendly creatures when you treat them properly. Doesn’t occur often in Melora, but you probably already guessed that. They’re also very intelligent. It’s why they make such good mounts and friends.”

    “I see. That actually sounds interesting.”

    Before the conversation could continue, the door opened once more to reveal Marina.

    “I apologize for interrupting. But I heard your voices and was interested in joining the conversation,” she said and turned to Kiel. “Kiel, right?”

    Kiel nodded.

    “You’re Marina, aren’t you?”

    “That’s right. I came to talk to Lartz as well,” Marina replied, and turned to Lartz. “I heard that you are a Branded. And I can see by the mark on your shoulder that it’s true.”

    “Indeed,” Lartz confirmed, his tone becoming self-conscious as he quickly changed the subject. “And, you’re an Oathsworn? I think I overheard Faline mention that to Bryan on the way to the northern floodgate.”

    “Ah, yes, that is true as well. I’d like to show you something, by the way. Since you two were talking about…putting things in perspective, I think this may help.”

    “Hm?”

    Marina’s hands then went to the length of tunic covering her thigh and began to lift it up. At first, Lartz and Kiel seemed emphatically opposed to this, but sighed with relief when they saw Marina was wearing thin white shorts underneath. However, their eyes widened even further when she showed them her abdomen. On the left side of her waistline was a mark much like Lartz’s, only it resembled a cat rather than a wolf.

    “…You’re a Branded too,” Lartz uttered in astonishment.

    “So you’re both…” Kiel realized, barely able to speak. “I heard that’s extremely rare.”

    “It is,” Marina confirmed, putting her tunic back in place. “Oathsworn are not too common and Branded are rare enough as it is. But those who are both number even fewer. And those few seldom reveal this to others, as it would make them valuable hostages for enemies or possibly draw too much attention to themselves. I’ve told Faline about both my Brand and my Oathsworn ancestry since she has always been a good friend of mine. There are times I worry about her judgment, but she has been good at keeping secrets safe from the wrong people. I trust you both will do the same?”

    “Of course,” Lartz agreed.

    “Same here,” Kiel seconded.

    “Thank you. By the way, Lartz, if I may say so, I think that scar on your stomach suits you,” Marina complimented. “It makes you look even tougher.”

    “R-Really?” Lartz wondered as his cheeks went red.

    “Definitely!”

    “You know, I think I have to agree,” Kiel added with a sly smile.

    “Heh. Thanks,” Lartz replied, returning Marina’s smile with a shy one of his own. After so many years of seeking solitude and avoiding contact with others, he had finally found people that accepted him and that he wanted to get closer to. And, despite her harsh edge, Marina’s smile was remarkably warm and inviting.

    The next morning, everyone awoke and suited up for their next journey. Azura and Leyon went over their plans one more time to make sure they were ready to relay them to their troops. Bryan sought out his father and gave him the news that, at long last, the time had come to return to Astryn and defeat Shigo once and for all in Caline’s name. This warmed Owen’s heart, as his beloved wife would finally receive the justice she deserved. Unfortunately, Bryan was anything but satisfied. He still had to tell the already saddened Faline about the fall of Cilae, and it pained him to have to do so. Faline had already lost her mother, and Bryan was loathe to tell the girl he loved that she may have just lost her home as well. The young prince took a deep breath as he and Owen joined the rest of their comrades downstairs, where they’d been assembled. Bryan immediately approached Faline, who wasn’t looking much better than she had the day before.

    “Bryan! I’m so glad you’re here,” she somberly greeted, burying herself in Bryan’s torso again. “Without you, I feel so alone now…”

    “I’m so sorry…” Bryan replied, stroking her back. “King Wencelis needed me at a meeting. But you don’t have to be alone. What about Marina? You two have known each other for ages. And I’m sure Azura and many others would call you their friend too.”

    “That’s true, but with my mother dead, my father having abandoned me, and not having seen my sisters in so long, I just…”

    “I understand. I’m afraid there’s more bad news, though,” Bryan admitted, closing his eyes. “It doesn’t really involve your sisters, but…”

    “…But?”

    “Actually, everyone needs to hear this,” Bryan spoke up loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention. “Cilae has been defeated. The Red Claw has captured Jerusa.”

    Upon hearing these words, everyone either fell silent with shock or shouted their anger. Marina, Norman, and Kevin’s group were struck hardest by this news, as Cilae was their home.

    “…Oh. Oh no…!” Faline uttered, barely able to speak. She burst into tears and buried her face into Bryan’s chest once more. “I-I can’t believe this!”

    “I think it’s no secret that we’re hanging on by a thread,” Bryan continued as he hugged Faline. “We’re going to have to work hard, and fast, to turn things around. Generals Leyon and Derien will be leading a strike force to retake Jerusa. Half of our group will be going with them. Azura and I will explain what everyone else will be doing when she gets down here.”

    “Will Melora and the Red Claw ever give us a goddess-damned break?!” Skye opined angrily. “Still, Bryan, are you sure that an army should be sent to Jerusa this soon? Why not wait until Astryn and Orenias join us so that we have a larger force?”

    “ARE YOU CRAZY?!” Faline exploded, grabbing Skye by the collar of his tunic and throttling him. “MY SISTERS WERE IN JERUSA AND IF THEY’RE NOT DEAD, THEY’RE PROBABLY PRISONERS OR—!”

    “WHOA! Faline! Just calm down,” Bryan intervened, taking her gently by the arm. She panted while tears flowed down her cheeks and let Skye go.

    “Geez, man!” Skye replied as he adjusted his collar. “I thought she was going to take one of my arms off!”

    “She’s very upset, Skye,” Bryan explained, taking Faline back into his arms. “Anyway, the reason an army is going out there today is that if Cilae remains under enemy control, Melora and the Red Claw could easily mount assaults against Perais, Eraghoa, Astryn or even Talgria next at any time. And, the Allied troops at the Cilae-Melora border are now effectively surrounded. If we don’t get to them soon, we may lose them altogether.”

    “Well, that’s true.”

    “Also, Faline, Eilonwy told me to let you know that your sisters are among the Pegasus knights that escaped with Queen Belinda. The queen, and your sisters, came here to seek shelter in Aracion,” Bryan informed his love. “However, they were wounded and took ill during their escape, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to see them for awhile.”

    “Oh…” Faline sobbed. “W-What am I going to do? Waaah!”

    “Don’t worry, I’m here for you. And I’ll need your support when we battle Shigo’s army in Astryn. I know I’m going to be risking my own life in this, but I’ll be doing it for you, my dad, my friends, and all of Astryn. If we succeed, it could change everything; not just with the war, but what comes after the fighting’s over as well. And by the time we return here again to report to King Wencelis that Astryn joined the Alliance, your sisters will be well enough to see you again.”

    “I certainly hope so…” Faline replied with a sniffle. “Bryan, of course I’ll support you. And I know your battle with Shigo will be your fight alone, but I want to protect you in any way I can… And the truth is, I’ve wanted to do so practically ever since we met. I don’t think you noticed it at all, but I fell madly in love with you when you took me back home a year ago. I missed you so much after we parted ways, and it’s what made me risk so much to find you again when I heard you’d returned to Cilae…”

    “…Wow. I’m…I’m so touched,” Bryan uttered, nearly overwhelmed with shock at Faline’s words. “And you’re right, I had absolutely no idea, likely because I knew absolutely nothing about love until you showed me what it meant on the ship. In fact, now that I think about it, every time you came near me, a strange, warm feeling came over me, and my heart would race. At the time, I wasn’t sure why, but it wasn’t a bad feeling at all. What I’m saying is, I think I was falling for you too, but long before I knew it.”

    “Oh… Bryan…”

    Before anyone could say anything else, the doors of the main hall opened once more. Azura hurried in to join her comrades, followed by Leyon soon after. The three commanders then briefed the troops on their new missions and who would be accompanying whom once the group divided in Astryn. As Azura and Leyon were nearly finished, however, the door opened for a third time to reveal Cato.

    “Cato? I thought you were here already,” Azura spoke up, raising one eyebrow.

    “Yeah, me too,” Bryan added.

    “Oh, I wanted to do some more early morning training again,” Cato replied. “I was going to tell you, but I figured I’d make it here this time. Sorry about that.”

    “It’s fine. I’ll explain our mission to you on our way out,” Azura assured.

    With that, Leyon finished what Azura had been about to say and the troops headed out. Not long after they had exited the capital, Cato approached Marc, whom had been conversing with Marina.

    “Heya, Marc, right? I couldn’t help but overhear you. I’m an Oathsworn too,” Cato greeted.

    “Oh? That’s fascinating. I’m always glad to meet fellow Oathsworn,” Marc replied with a smile.

    Bryan, who had been nearby with Faline, simply rolled his eyes.

    “Cato, you never cease to amaze me with your eavesdropping skills,” he joked.

    “Oh shut up. You’re just jealous that I’m an Oathsworn and you’re not!” Cato retorted with a proud grin.

    “Psh, Cato, I definitely don’t need to be jealous of you,” Bryan replied with a chuckle. “I happen to be the prince of Astryn.”

    “…WHAAAAT?!”

    “Oh wow, nobody told you? Don’t worry, Azura can explain it. Oh, and by the way, this is my girlfriend, Faline.”

    Here, Cato could only remain silent as Faline shot him a smile…which carried more than a hint of warning.

    “Aw, Cato, come on, you know I just like to annoy you,” Bryan continued, giving his comrade’s shoulder a friendly pat. “While what I’ve said is actually true, I think you’re a fun guy. That’s what I like about you.”

    “W-What?” Cato uttered, shaking himself out of his trance.

    “Yeah. And just between you and me, you do have me beat in some things. For example, I always wished I could run as fast as you do even when wearing armor.”

    “Wow… Thanks.”

    “Sure thing. This doesn’t mean I’m ever going easy on you in spars though. But hey, keep training, and someday you just might beat me.”

    “Oh, you can be sure I will. You’re my rival and you always will be!”

    “Hehe.”

    “Oh, those two…” Azura uttered playfully from nearby.

    As the group traversed closer to the border, Azura explained the mission to Cato while Bryan carefully relayed what had happened during the meeting. Eventually, however, he let slip his rather unorthodox method of silencing the bickering dignitaries.

    “You did what?!” Faline blurted, looking as though she couldn’t make up her mind whether she should burst out laughing or hide under a rock.

    “I expected you’d do memorable things with that Brave Lance,” Owen said, looking similarly befuddled, “but wonton destruction of other people’s furniture is not what I had in mind.”

    “I can’t believe you insulted Queen Belinda!” Faline blurted.

    “I didn’t insult her," Bryan contradicted. “I just…curtly reminded her of her priorities.”

    “Sounds like she needed the lesson,” Owen conceded. “Still, you may need Queen Belinda as a partner in the future. So, don’t make a habit of riling her up like that.”

    “Well, King Wencelis did say it’s a good thing I’m not easily cowed,” Bryan tried, unsuccessfully, to defend himself.

    “I’m sure that defenseless tables everywhere are humbled by your might,” Cato added teasingly.

    “You’ll never let me hear the end of this, will you?”

    “Nope.”

    Deciding that the destructive future king of Astryn was on his own this time, Azura decided to check up on Misty in her supply wagon. The young merchant girl had hardly spoken to anyone since she had appeared before Bryan and Azura in Castle Talgria and Azura was still concerned about her. Misty’s recent disfigurement from her brush with plague in the ruins of Fort Absolon, and the botched surgery afterward, had shown no improvement. Misty reported that, though healers and researchers at the castle hadn’t yet found a solution, they were still looking hard. This relieved Azura greatly since, despite Misty’s less-than-gracious treatment of Bryan, the young earl had begun to feel sorry for her. Misty had become more and more reclusive lately, doubtless ashamed of how ugly her many scars and poorly healed injuries made her appear. She kept to herself as much as possible and, when she had to go outside, she always ensured that her face was shadowed by her voluminous hood. Azura was likely the only person who spoke to her, and Misty had been very surprised to hear that Bryan was really a prince. She could hardly imagine that the same boy she and other kids once bullied would one day become king of the largest country in Altarais. She had decided that she wanted to do anything she could to support Bryan, but was too afraid to tell him because of her appearance. Even so, Azura sensed that Misty would hang on until the damage to her face was undone.

    Several hours later, the large army finally crossed Astryn’s border. During this time, Bryan had been growing more and more nervous. Would the Astrynians accept him? Would he even be able to prove that he was their prince and that Owen was a Grand Duke? After all, as he had said during the earlier meeting with the monarchs and their retainers, he and his father were little more than strangers to the Astrynians. The only people who might vouch for him, aside from Owen himself, were Queen Marion and the mysterious Grand Duke that survived the last war along with Owen. And even then, Marion was reportedly on the brink of death and Bryan had no clue if the other Grand Duke was still alive at all. He could only hope that he and Owen could get to one of them in time. Unfortunately, the young prince’s thoughts were interrupted when someone shouted at the group from up ahead. Bryan shook his head and soon realized that he and his comrades had happened upon an Astrynian town. And, by the looks of things, they had also happened upon trouble.

    “Hey! Who do ya thinks you people are?!” a voice shouted. It belonged to a burly-looking dark-haired man with an axe slung across his back. “Yer not part of Melora’s army, are ya?!”

    “What?! We most certainly are not!” Azura retorted. “Besides, we came from Talgria. If we were Meloran, wouldn’t we be coming from the north rather than the east?”

    “Ha, with what they’re doin’ these days, anything’s possible!” the man replied. “Things change fast these days. Take meself, fer example. I be part of a vigilante group that used to protect this here town. Now, though, a lot of people seem to be givin’ up on those who fought to keep our country safe from dogs like Melora ‘cause of how much of a slump they’re in. It’s so pathetic, it turns me stomach!”

    “Well, that’s going to change soon,” Bryan spoke up and rushed ahead of the group. “I’m here to restore Astryn to her former glory.”

    The vigilante leader seemed to find this declaration amusing.

    “And, who bees ya to dare that?”

    “I’m Astryn’s prince and I’ve come to claim my throne.”

    “Ha, sorry, but I’m afraid that be impossible.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Didn’tcha hear? The prince is dead.”

    “What?! That’s not true! I’m right here and I’m very much alive!”

    “Psh, I seen plenty o’ charlatans more convincin’ than you. Word’s been goin’ around that the prince was killed while fightin’ against Melora elsewhere, so everyone quit lookin’ fer him. Just as well, says me. Queen Marion’s as good as dead and the rest of them blue bloods will be doin’ nothin’ but fightin’ over the throne any day now. We all be rats on a sinkin’ ship, and some of us be gettin’ off while the gettin’ be good. Me and me vigilantes be joinin’ up with the Red Claw fer some fun ‘n money. I hate them Meloran scum more than just about anything, but hey, if joinin’ their ally means we won’t starve to death, then a warrior’s gotta do what a warrior’s gotta do!”

    “You…You’re insane! I can’t believe you people!” Bryan angrily shot back.

    “Well, why don’t we settle this with a fight, then?”

    “Fine by me! I would never hesitate to teach traitors like you a lesson!”

    “Hope ya brought more friends than this though! I brought me plenty, ya see.”

    The vigilante then let out a shrill whistle. In an instant, dozens of Red Claw members emerged from the streets, alleys, and roads, completely surrounding the army.

  15. #30
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And chapter 28!


    Chapter 28: Breaking the Barrier


    “Damn it, Bryan! Now look what you’ve done!” Skye thundered angrily. “We’re completely surrounded and outnumbered!”

    “Hey, I wasn’t exactly expecting to fight against my own people, Skye!” Bryan retorted as he readied his lance and shield. “Besides, I was trying to be reasonable!”

    “By goddess-damn provoking him?! You have the diplomatic instinct of a pile of cordwood!”

    “Guys, come on. This is the worst time to be arguing,” Marc cut in before Bryan could retaliate.

    “Yeah, and I’m sure you all remember the last time this happened in the middle of a battle,” Azura added, a bitter edge in her tone as she recalled what happened to Leyon.

    “True…” Skye replied with a sigh.

    “…Yeah, I apologize. We’ve got a long way to go if we’re going do what we set out to do here. So, let’s get started and teach these thugs a lesson,” Bryan agreed.

    “Ha, yer gonna need more than that to beat me ‘n me mates!” the vigilante retorted with a sneer.

    Bryan merely snarled as he hefted his lance, wordlessly daring the enemy to attack. The rest of the group scrambled to take up defensive positions, the infantry forming a wedge around the healers and mages, fighting to fend off the bandits assailing their defenses. Meanwhile, the knights and wolves scattered and wove into the enemy, clashing with whichever bandits crossed their paths. Luckily, the bandits had been too complacent to press their initial advantage and, thus, Azura’s defenses held. Bryan, who was at the tip of the ‘wedge,’ however, couldn’t help but feel even more ill at ease at this latest turn of events. He had known that Astryn was in dire straits and, though Astrynian Pegasus knights joining the Red Claw probably should have been a warning sign, this had taken him entirely by surprise. That these traitors didn’t believe that he was their prince hardly bothered Bryan, but what if they were not the last? What if, amongst the people of Astryn, these were only the first of many who didn’t believe his claim? Even worse, what if other Astryninans had defected to the Red Claw just as these vigilantes had? Whatever the case, something needed to be done about it, and fast. Once this battle was finished, Bryan vowed he would make certain of that.

    ***


    Meanwhile, not more than a swallow’s flight away, a warrior garbed in purple armor astride a white warhorse tore through the gate of an old Astrynian fort. Once he brought his steed to a jerking halt at the gates, Commander Dougal quickly dismounted and barged inside, his features tight with anxiety. As sweat trickled down his brow and dampened his dark hair, the paladin quickly approached a patrolling soldier and inquired about Shigo’s whereabouts. After learning that his superior officer was in the training ground behind the fort’s keep, Dougal raced there as fast as his legs could carry him. He seriously considered running somewhere else, anywhere else, for he rather doubted that the general would be pleased at this news. Gulping audibly, he approached Shigo and hoped for the best.

    “G-General Shigo! I apologize for intruding, Sir, but—” Dougal began when he rushed outside, but was interrupted.

    “Ah, Dougal. Relax, I already told you that you’ve gained my trust,” Shigo reminded him as he finished a powerful, flourishing strike with his silver blade which made Dougal blanch all the more. “Though, I’ll admit I was just getting into the heat of the moment there.”

    “Yeah, but I know you don’t like having your training sessions get interrupted…”

    “Well, never mind that. What are you here for?”

    “Oh, I-I’m afraid I bring bad news. The scout commander just reported something disturbing. Apparently, th-there’s a rumor going around that Prince Bryan was killed in Keanu.”

    “…WHAT?!” Shigo thundered, nearly grabbing Dougal by the collar of his tunic. “What do you mean?!”

    “W-Well, the scout commander said that his men overheard some talk from the locals. Apparently, there w-was a Red Claw double-agent in Cilae. He’d been working to trick the Cilaeans into thinking Prince Bryan was a traitor. They s-say that, a few days ago, the Cilaeans found and executed him. We d-don’t know anything else, I swear!”

    At this, Shigo nearly exploded.

    “DAMN IT! He’d better be alive or else Isis and the others will regret ever ruining my plans! Bryan is my fight and mine alone!

    “Yes, Sir. But, if I may ask, what do we do now?” Dougal inquired.

    “For now, we gather information,” Shigo replied, though still fuming with anger. “We have little, if any, proof that Bryan is really dead. I want more scouts to be sent out, to keep their ears open for news. They are to write down what they hear and bring it to me directly. I will look over what these rumors say, to see if there are any…discrepancies.”

    “So, you believe Prince Bryan is still alive?”

    “Yes, I do. But, if these rumors turn out to be true, then we must adjust our plans accordingly. See to it that the scouts gather every bit of information they can get. And, should they sight Bryan himself, they are not to engage him. They are to report his location to me immediately. Is that clear?”

    “Perfectly, Sir. And I will do everything I can to ensure that this is accomplished.”

    “Excellent. The scouts didn’t blow their cover, did they?”

    “No, nobody even knows we’re here yet. It’s amazing how we managed to slip an entire army past the Astrynians without them noticing. General Shigo, you are a true genius.”

    “Thank you very much, Dougal; though, given the lackluster state of Astryn’s defenses these days, I must consider myself over-praised by that remark. Still, the question remains… If Bryan is dead, then this whole campaign will have been for nothing.”

    “I-I’m sure you’re right, Sir. About him likely being alive, that is. Isis surely knows we’ve broken ranks with her by now, and that Astryn entering the war would be a serious setback to Melora’s plans. This could just be an attempt to kill two Pegasi with one arrow, by throwing us off and keeping Astryn out of the fighting. Astryn is already in a big slump as it is, so it would be easy to make them believe such tales, with or without proof.”

    “My thoughts exactly. Should these rumors prove false, then we stick to our original plan. If Bryan is alive, then all we have to do is wait for him to appear and make his move.”

    “Understood, Sir.”

    ***


    While Shigo and Dougal discussed this troubling tale, and would doubtless be shocked at how close at hand their prey was, Azura and Bryan’s army struggled against the oncoming Red Claw assault. The leader of the vigilantes hadn’t been bluffing about bringing along “plenty” of friends, for it seemed that for every two of them that was defeated, three more took their place. Worse still, many of them were seasoned warriors. There were Paladins, Warriors, Snipers, Sages, Swordmasters, Halberdiers, and all manner of promoted beorc soldiers. Also among them were more wolf and raven laguz, as well as hawk laguz this time. This was most troubling. Bryan recalled his earlier theory that the Red Claw might be recruiting laguz bandits into their ranks, and Leyon’s theory that the Red Claw could also be forcing laguz to fight for them, but the presence of hawks worried him. This could mean that either some of the hawks had defected as well, or they were simply hired to fight alongside the Red Claw. That was the best case; the worst case was that the allegiance of Recathe, as a whole, had already been bought by Melora. Bryan shuddered at the prospect, but shook himself back to attention. Whatever the case, it was unacceptable. And Bryan knew that the Astrynians would need the help of as many hawk and dragon laguz as possible if their country was to be fully restored to her former glory. If Recathe had joined Melora, or was at least considering doing so, maybe a successful campaign in Astryn would get them to change their minds.

    As the battle wore on, Bryan and Azura’s group continued to clash with the veritable army of Red Claw. Their phalanx was holding up but, against the relentless onslaught, Azura feared it would buckle under the strain. And, if that happened, it was over. Desperately, she ordered the phalanx to divide into several smaller, diamond formations in order to force the Red Claw to divide their offensive in turn. Unnoticed by both sides, however, another combatant had joined the fray. He was a sea green-haired man garbed in grayish blue pants and a gold and brown shirt and carrying an axe. He had arrived on the battlefield via another road into town, and looked as though fresh from a very long journey. He soon came to a halt, panting as he caught his breath from his travels and bringing a hand to his slightly bloodied upper right arm.

    “Finally… I’ve caught up to them…” the man gasped to himself. “Hopefully, they won’t mind me helping out.”

    The young man began to make his way towards Azura’s phalanxes but, before he could call out to the embattled earl or her troops, Lily caught sight of him. After defeating a hawk laguz with a wind spell, she waved him over.

    “Why, hello there handsome!” she greeted with a smile.

    The axe fighter, jogged over, as close to the fire sage as he could manage, and then skidded to a panting halt.

    “Whew!” he gasped out. “I finally caught up with you guys! It took me a while, but it’s good to be here.”

    “I agree,” Lily replied, whipping out a fire tome. “Now, please hold still.”

    Realizing her intent, the axe fighter blanched and his words became frantic.

    “NO! DON’T! I’m here to help you!”

    Lily appeared skeptical, and her fire tome began to glow with arcane might.

    “You saved my grandfather at Fort Absolon,” the mildly terrified axe fighter explained, though his words were all coming out in a rush. “After I made sure he was well, I came here to pay my debt. I want to join Lady Azura’s army…and I don’t want to be charbroiled!”

    Lily’s expression softened just a bit, but she lowered her tome.

    “We’ll see if you mean it. My name’s Lily. Who might you be, handsome?”

    “Uh…I’m Zarek,” the man replied. “I’ve been chasing after you guys for days, maybe weeks. And, I was wondering if I could help out here.”

    “Oh, I’m sure Bryan and Lady Azura wouldn’t mind. And we practically need all the help we can get right now!” Lily pointed out, gesturing towards the fierce battle.

    “I see. I’ll do what I can, then,” Zarek replied, readying his axe.

    “Great! …Oh dear, you’re hurt, Zarek!” Lily gasped, taking note of the axe fighter’s bloody arm. “Don’t worry, I can get my sister to heal you right up, handsome! I’m afraid I’m not too good with a staff myself just yet…”

    “Oh, um, thanks…”

    With that, Lily yanked Zarek into the chaos and searched for Raela. Unfortunately, Zarek was far from alone in needing Raela’s aid. Many of the others had sustained injuries as well, and both Raela and Norman continuously had their hands full. Though Zarek’s wound was eventually healed, the Red Claw was not letting up. Several of Azura’s formations had either been forced back or had shattered, with troops frantically retreating to regroup and to avoid being surrounded and hacked to pieces. Bryan’s formation, in particular, was being heavily assailed. Soon enough, the formation crumbled and, Bryan found himself alone and completely surrounded by several axe and sword wielding combatants. Faline soon noticed and frantically raced to aid him, but before she could reach her lover, he was already making his move. And, it made her jaw drop.

    Bryan slung his shield over his back and thrust his lance into the ground. Then, he grasped the lance’s pommel, vaulted up atop the weapon and launched himself into a blinding spin while driving his heels into any foe that approached too closely. Which, indeed, many of them did…with most of whom losing a few teeth for their foolishness. Once Bryan had struck all of his adversaries who were within reach, he regained his footing on the ground and tore his lance free from the earth. He then spun it in a blinding arc so fast, the lance seemingly blurred to invisibility, striking several foes once more in the gut. Several were impaled on the lance’s forked blade while others were struck with the pommel, bones shattering under the blow. The vigilante whom had greeted the young prince before gasped in disbelief as he watched at least five of his cohorts get slain in all the same instant.

    “Damn! Yer much better than I thought!” he admitted, struggling to sound more enraged than terrified.

    “Well, what did you expect? I’m the prince! I have to be an experienced warrior if I want to save my country,” Bryan replied. “And just so you know, that earlier display was just a small sampling. I really think you ought to reconsider joining the Red Claw; I go through them the way a whale goes through krill.”

    “Ya sure be talkin’ a good game, but let’s see ya back it up!” the vigilante challenged, a Swordmaster and a Warrior racing to his side.

    “It’s your funeral,” Bryan replied ominously, twirling his lance as he performed Impale on the Swordmaster and crushed the warrior’s skull with his lance’s pommel.

    “Ha! Yer skill proves nothin’ about who ya are! But ye’ve caused us more trouble than we can be affordin’! Mates, retreat fer now!”

    With that, the Red Claw members disengaged and fled the scene, their leader at their head. Bryan had almost given chase, but stopped in midstride and doubled over, panting as he watched his enemies flee. Though he was not hurt, the battle had done much to exhaust him. As Raela, Norman, and the others treated their latest injuries, Bryan caught his breath and awaited Azura’s signal to continue their journey. Moments later, the young prince felt two arms curl around his neck and a pair of lips press into his cheek.

    “Bryan! Oh, you are so amazing!” Faline cried happily. “I was so worried about you just now, but then you totally pulverized those guys!”

    “Eh heh, yeah,” Bryan replied with a smile. “I practiced that maneuver for a long time, but rarely ever had the opportunity to actually use it in a fight. I’m glad to know all that training paid off.”

    “Me too. I was wondering if I’d ever see that move again myself,” Skye cut in, approaching the two. “I thought you were nuts when you first came up with it, but you actually managed to kill somebody besides yourself with it. Very impressive!”

    “Yeah, I’ll say!” Azura added with a smile. “Bryan, I’m really glad I decided to learn the lance from you!”

    “Heh, thanks, you guys,” Bryan replied. “…Huh?”

    Just as Bryan had turned away in a vain attempt to hide that he was blushing, he spied a flicker a movement amidst the village’s buildings. At first, he thought he’d just imagined it, but then he saw it again. And, he wasn’t alone.

    “Who’s there?” Skye called out, readying an arrow.

    A sharp gasp was heard from behind one of the shacks, and Bryan and Azura brought up their weapons as well.

    “Come out of there with your hands up!” Azura barked, certain it was a stray Red Claw.

    A pair of hands, both of which much too small to belong to any Red Claw members, shot into view and were followed by a small girl, pale with fright. Seeing her, the three adventurers sagged with relief.

    “Sorry about that,” Bryan spoke up. “We thought you might be another Red Claw member.”

    The little girl looked relieved, but she also looked like she’d seen better days. Her face and her short orange pigtails were caked with grime. She appeared to be no older than eight years old, but she looked terribly wan and weary. Her pink dress, which, like its owner, looked much the worse for wear, as it was badly tattered, poorly mended, and seemed as if it was hanging off of her body as though it was much too large to fit her. Perhaps it had been a hand-me-down from an older relative?

    More likely, it fit fine…until hunger made her shrink, Bryan thought.

    The girl appeared to be very nervous as well, as her body trembled slightly and she had not even lowered her hands yet, but when Bryan knelt to her level and smiled gently, she gradually became calm.

    “Hey there, what’s your name? What are you doing here?” Bryan inquired. “Oh, and you can put your hands down now.”

    The little girl was only too happy to obligue.

    “Thank you, Sir. Um… I’m Sally. I heard a lot of noise out here, and I wanted to see what was happening,” the little girl explained. “So I snuck out.”

    “Ah. You should have stayed home, Sally. I’m sorry to say, it’s very dangerous out here,” Bryan pointed out. “And your parents are probably worried sick.”

    “Yeah, I know… But I just had to see…” Sally replied.

    “See what?”

    “If the prince had finally come. Everybody was looking for him.”

    “Oh?”

    “Uh huh. But a lot of people now are saying he’s dead.”

    “So I’ve heard. Tell me, Sally, do you know where everyone is getting that idea?”

    “Yeah, some scary men told them. It didn’t take long for lots of people to hear.”

    “These scary men, can you tell me anything about them?”

    “I’m sorry, but my mommy made me go inside when she saw them coming. I never saw them, I just heard what they said. Things had been bad enough before they came, but now a lot of people are sad, hungry, poor, and even sick. Bandits have taken everything we have. We don’t get more to eat than broth and water every day and my grandma is sick.”

    “Oh… I’m so very sorry to hear that, Sally.”

    “Thanks, but I’m okay. My mommy and grandma always said ‘never stop hoping for the best.’ I think the prince is alive, but everybody says that’s foolish. My big brother and the other kids make fun of me all the time for thinking this and my mommy and grandma think I’m getting my hopes up too high this time, but I don’t care. Someday, the prince will come save us. I know he will…”

    Bryan couldn’t help but remain silent for several moments as he recalled the bullying he’d constantly endured as a child himself. He knew he couldn’t let poor Sally suffer a similar fate, especially since she was a poor and hungry child trapped in an impoverished village, something Bryan never was even when his problems were at their worst. In fact, on the heels of that musing came another. If he was, indeed, to claim the throne of Astryn, then these were his people. It wasn’t just Sally who needed him; judging by the look of the impoverished, slowly dying village, they all needed him.

    “I see. I know how that feels, because the same thing happened to me when I was your age. You want to know something, though?” Bryan replied, his smile growing larger. “You’re absolutely right, Sally. The prince is alive.”

    “He is?!” Sally cried. “How do you know?”

    “Well… You’re looking at him.”

    “W-What?! Really?!”

    “Yep. My name is Bryan and I’m the prince. My mother was Queen Marion’s younger sister, though I only learned this recently. I wish I could have come sooner, but I’m here now, and I will not leave until Astryn is back on her feet. I’m afraid I have no proof of my bloodline right now, but will you believe that this is the truth? Will you trust me?”

    For a long moment, Sally looked thunderstruck. Then, explosive joy dawned on her features and she practically charged at Bryan, curling her arms around his neck and hugging him fiercely. Bryan was caught off guard, but wrapped his arms around her small body and returned her hung nonetheless.

    “Oh! Wow!” she blurted, barely able to speak coherently for several moments. “Yes, I definitely trust you! You’re such a nice man and you protected my hometown from all of those mean men, so you’ve just got to be the prince! Oh, I’m so happy you’re finally here!”

    “…Thank you so much, Sally,” he replied, a tear forming in his eye. “Astryn’s been through some hard times, even more so than I thought, but I swear that I’m going to put an end to all of this. Once I’m done, all this misery you’ve had to put up with will be over.”

    “Can you help my grandma get better too?”

    “Of course. In fact, there might be something more that I can do for you and your neighbors as well.”

    With that, Bryan rose to his full height and signaled Bronwyn to move her wagon closer. Once it had arrived, Bryan rifled through its cargo until he produced four sacks of sturdy cloth, each one bigger than Sally herself was. When the little girl, at Bryan’s urging looked inside one of the sacks, she was astonished to see that it was brimming over with dried meat, bread, apples, roast chicken, sausages, butter, honey, cabbages, carrots, smoked fish, pork, cheese and leather flasks filled with water. There was, Bryan suspected, more food in that one sack than the girl had seen in her entire life. The sight made her lower jaw plummet and her mouth water.

    “I hope that will help you and the others here, at least until something more permanent can be done,” Bryan spoke up, breaking Sally’s astonished trance. “Now, listen carefully, I don’t know how long it’ll take me to reach Medann and set things to rights, and I might not come back this way in quite a while. In the meantime, that food has to last. Is there someone here who can make that happen?”

    “I can do it!” Sally volunteered, but it didn’t take her long to notice Bryan’s skepticism. “I’m serious! My mommy is the herbalist here, but she’s so busy taking care of my grandma that I’ve been doing her job for over a year now. I’m always making sure the people here have enough medicine and I never let the herbs go to waste.”

    Bryan smiled, wondering if he was even half as responsible at her age. He rather doubted it.

    “Alright then,” Bryan replied. “While I go to Medann, I need you to see that this food gets to the people who need it and to make sure that it lasts as long as you can manage. If you can plant the seeds from the fruit and vegetables, then you might be able to grow that much more food. I know this is a lot to ask from someone so young, but can you do it?”

    “Sure!” Sally replied with a sniffle. “I’m so glad you’ve come at last, and I’m overwhelmed by your kindness …I know you can save Astryn and that you’ll be a great king. You’re my hero, Prince Bryan.”

    “…And I’m very proud to be. I won’t let you down, Sally. I promise.”

    “Oh…Thank you…!”

    With that, the two let go and Bryan rose.

    “I have to leave now and continue on to Medann. You go home and do as I asked, alright?” Bryan advised.

    “Oh, don’t worry, I will!” Sally assured and raced off. As Bryan watched the little girl open up the sacks of food and begin running portions to the other homes, a few tears streamed down his cheeks. Owen, Faline, Skye, and Azura soon approached him.

    “Bryan… That was amazing,” Owen complimented his son.

    “It was. You really are a wonderful man, Bryan,” Faline agreed, kissing Bryan’s cheek again.

    Skye, however, seemed ill at ease with Bryan’s actions.

    “I really, really don’t want to say this,” the sniper entreated, “but was that such a good idea? Those rations would’ve lasted us at least a week, and there’s no way of knowing if we’ll be able to replace them if we get held up. We’re not going to do Astryn any good if we run out of food and starve before we even reach the capital.”

    “I know,” Bryan replied. “Still, these people need it more than we do. Besides, we’re sure to run into Shigo sooner or later, and we can always replace our food with his supplies.”

    “I agree,” Azura added. “Besides, what we did here is important. You really filled that little girl’s poor heart with hope, Bryan.”

    “Yeah, but…” Bryan replied, sniffling. “This is terrible. So many people are suffering here… I never thought things would be this bad…”

    “It’s not your fault, Bryan,” Skye encouraged, though he still looked leery about his friend’s sudden soft-heartedness. “These people never told—”

    “I know, but I can’t help but think I should’ve seen this coming! The vigilantes and people doubting my claims. And I didn’t… And now my people think I’m dead.”

    “But that little girl doesn’t,” Owen countered. “Bryan, what you did just now proves just how much of a man and a leader you’ve truly become. Even if we can’t find proof that we’re members of the royal family, you can still get people to believe in you.”

    “You’re right, Father, and I know. Sally believes in me, and I plan to make good on that faith. I’m going to stop Shigo once and for all and claim the throne. And I swear that anybody who stands in my way won’t live long enough to regret it.”

    “That’s what I like to hear,” Skye commented, patting Bryan’s shoulder. “But that food’s not going to last these folks forever. And the girl’s grandmother is still sick. What do we do about that?”

    “Simple. When we reach the capital and revive the army’s fighting spirits, I’m going to have food and medicine sent to the sick and injured. And, if we capture enemy supplies that we don’t need, we’ll send those as well. We’ll recruit as many new soldiers as possible so we can fight back against Shigo. We might run into him before then, but I don’t think we should go for the kill until we have the advantage. Once we do, he’s dead.”

    “Sounds good to me,” Azura replied. “Let’s keep moving north. We’ll have to march faster now, but we can handle it. We’ll march as far as we can and set up camp at dusk.”

    After the others voiced their agreement, the group continued their journey. On an impulse, Bryan continued to watch the impoverished village for as long as he could. Sally was still doling out portions of the food, knocking on doors and presenting her offerings to the astonished residents. Bryan was surprised, and impressed, with the little girl’s work. He was almost getting dizzy tracking Sally’s darting form as she shared his gifts, and very likely, news of his arrival as well, with her neighbors. And, even more impressive, she did not try to hide away a larger portion of the food for herself, even though she was surely famished.

    If she were nine or ten years older, I’d make her this village’s magistrate on the spot, Bryan thought.

    With a smile on his face and a spring in his step, he continued onward. Along the way, Bryan conferred with Owen about details on Astryn’s royal family, eager for any notion as to how he might prove his claims and for more insight into his own history. He was curious as to why Owen wasn’t eligible to claim the throne instead of his son, and the Grand Duke explained that it was tradition for blood members of the royal family to have the right to inherit the throne first. Bryan was the only one left who could claim the throne via this tradition, whereas the dukes vying to replace the dying Queen Marion could only do so by subduing or crushing all opposition…and plunging Astryn into chaos all the while. The young prince had also been curious about whether or not he had a surname and middle name since he was part of a highborn family. Unfortunately, though Owen recalled their surname, which was Novat, Bryan’s middle name had slipped his mind. There were many things about the last war which Owen longed to forget, but it seemed he’d relinquished more than he’d intended. However, Owen also assured that he would remember it eventually, as it had been very important to Bryan’s mother.

    Zarek also explained his presence to the group as they traveled. He reiterated his story about his grandfather having been rescued from Fort Absolon and his decision to repay his debt by aiding Azura’s army in the war. He was a mercenary and had been looking for the group ever since and, despite his near-miss with Lily’s fire tome, he seemed to get along quite well with the Fire Sage…though the sight of her playing with her fire tome did make him jittery.

    The large group had just begun to approach another town as the sun began to sink below the horizon, and it was agreed that they should set up camp nearby. Eager though Bryan was to find additional clues as to the rumors of his supposed death, he did not relish the idea of marching into another ambush. The tents were pitched and a guard was set so they could get some rest and watch for Shigo’s men at the same time. Bryan had half expected the renegade Meloran general to be actively seeking out the prince of Astryn or fighting to claim the country for himself and his followers. Yet, there was no sign that Shigo was doing either. What were they waiting for? Perhaps Shigo was too much of an egotist to fight a demoralized army? But what does he care about Astryn’s strength? He’s just a power-hungry madman who wants this country for himself, Bryan thought. So why doesn’t he attack? He must be here by now, and he’s sure to have brought a huge army. Whatever the case was, Bryan knew he would find out when he confronted Shigo once again. And the next confrontation between the two would be the last.

    While Bryan was mulling over Shigo’s mysterious absence, the others were setting up camp. Ike and Elincia, as might be expected, were setting up a tent for them to share. And Ike, as was also to be expected, seemed far more interested in crushing his lips against Elincia’s cheeks and neck than hammering in tent stakes. Azura, spying this, chuckled good-naturedly and gestured at the enraptured couple.

    “Looks like they’re setting up the honeymoon suite, again,” she joked.

    “Interesting you should mention that,” Ike replied as he, very, briefly disengaged from Elincia’s collarbone. “We were going to tell you guys at the right time, but there might not be one and Elincia and I have put this off too long as it is. We have some great news!”

    “Yeah, Ike and I are going to get married!” Elincia chimed in with excitement and flashed her engagement ring. “He proposed to me the night we got back from the northern floodgate in Talgria.”

    “Oh wow! That’s so wonderful! Congratulations, you two!” Azura replied, nearly jumping up and down and hugging the pair.

    “I agree! This is the first exciting thing we’ve heard in days,” Boyd commented, and then added something under his breath about a betting pool. “Congrats!”

    “Yeah, I knew you’d pop the question sooner or later!” Ranulf added happily, giving Ike a pat on the shoulder and then smiling coyly. “So who’s cooking the big feast for the bachelor party? How about we have a real cake instead of one of those hallow, wooden ones with the naked woman inside?”

    “Oh stuff it,” Ike retorted playfully. “I’d rather save the big feast for the wedding anyway. The cake idea’s fine though, but you can have my share.”

    “Of the cake or the girl?” Boyd inquired with a roguish grin.

    “Now, now Boyd,” Soren warned. “I don’t think your wife would appreciate that kind of talk.”

    “Wife?” Ike repeated, laughing at both Boyd’s embarrassment and at the notion of him settling down. “I never would’ve pictured you getting married.”

    “Neither did I,” Boyd admitted. “But then, things just sorta…happened between Mist and I. And before I knew it, we were wed. The only annoying part was that she turned into a crybaby during our vows.”

    “Whoa, whoa, wait, Mist?!” Ike gasped. “A hot-head like you married my sister?!”

    “Eh heh…yeah. Guess that makes you my brother in law, huh?”

    “Yeah, well, then why’d you leave her behind to go look for me, you dimwit?! Where’s the sense in that?! You can’t have been married for very long! And this is my sister we’re talking about, Boyd! If you’re not taking good care of her, you’re going to hear from me about it!”

    “W-W-Wait, I can explain! We were supposed to go on our honeymoon, but then all that trouble started like a couple days before we were going to leave. So we postponed it until things calmed down. But then King Renning needed a couple of your old allies to find you and Elincia. Oscar was too busy at the castle, Rolf is too young and whiny, Titania has leadership duties to attend to in the Greil Mercenaries, Mia’s practically vanished, probably traveling, Rhys is too sickly, plus he’s got a school to run, and you can be sure Shinon and Gatrie weren’t going to do a damn thing, so that left Soren and I. Mist wanted to come along too, but I told her it was probably too dangerous since there’s a huge war going on. She’s a skilled fighter and healer, but I thought this might be too much for her.”

    “Wow, I see. That’s understandable,” Ike conceded. “Keep it up. Getting back on topic though, I meant the cake. I don’t want it.”

    “Now there’s something I didn’t see coming,” Soren snickered. “But then again, it’s probably because there’s no such thing as a ribeye cake. Still, both of you have my congratulations as well.”

    “Thanks, Soren. I’m glad I can always count on your support,” Ike replied with a smile.

    “Same here!” Elincia added, giving Soren a warm but, judging by his expression, undesired hug. “I’m so excited!”

    “Me too! Oh, who’s going to be what at the wedding?” Azura wondered excitedly. “I’d love to be a bridesmaid!”

    “And I wouldn’t mind being a groomsman,” Boyd put in.

    “I’m best man, right?” Ranulf added, wrapping an arm around Ike’s shoulder.

    “Hey, wait a minute!” Soren retorted. “I should be best man! I’m Ike’s best friend!”

    “I’m his best friend too!” Ranulf shot back, letting go of Ike and fixing Soren with a glare.

    “WELL I WAS HIS FRIEND FIRST, CATFACE! AND WHO WANTS A SMELLY FELINE TO BE BEST MAN AT A WEDDING?!”

    “WHAT?! WELL NOBODY WANTS A GIRLY-LOOKING BOY TO DO IT EITHER, WINDBAG!”

    “YOU TAKE THAT BACK OR ELSE!”

    “HEY!” Ike cut in, grabbing Ranulf by the back of his shirt and Soren by his robes, practically lifting both of them off the ground. “That is quite enough! We don’t need to decide all of this now, alright? And besides that, if you two are going to fight about it, neither of you will be best man and Boyd will do it. Got that?”

    “Yeah, and you two deserve it more than I ever will,” Boyd added.

    “Fine…” Ranulf and Soren apologized at the same time.

    “Here, let’s pitch this honeymoon suite,” Azura offered, snatching up the mallet and tent stakes. “I don’t think these two are interested in working right now.”

    Ike and Elincia, by this time, had meandered to a nearby elm. Ike had sagged against it, yanking Elincia into his lap, as the pair were again lost in their mutual affection. Ike and Elincia exchanged long, probing kisses, between which Ike would lavish Elincia’s neck and collarbone while she craned back her head and moaned in ecstasy.

    “Ya think?” Boyd opined.

    “Gee, I hadn’t noticed,” Ranulf piped up sarcastically.

    “I’m just glad he’s got his girl,” Soren added, a fiendish grin dawning on his countenance. “There were days I thought I’d always be turning girls away from his door. Except for that one time though...”

    Ike, hearing Soren’s words, suddenly blanched with fright. He vaulted to his feet, so suddenly that Elincia was catapulted off of him, and he stomped over to Soren.

    “Don’t say another word!” he warned, though he sounded more desperate than threatening.

    And, much to Ike’s chagrin, he seemed alone in demanding Soren’s silence.

    “Really?” Ranulf chimed. “Do tell, oh blustery one.”

    “Yeah, let’s hear it!” Boyd agreed.

    “This is mutiny! Mutiny, I say!” Ike railed, sounding mildly terrified.

    “It was fairly soon after the Mad King’s War,” Soren began while Ike mouthed ‘somebody just shoot me.’ “We had just come home from a job. It was a terrible one, we should’ve been paid at least three times as much as we were. But, in any case, Ike went straight to his room and tried to get some rest.”

    “An hour or so later,” Ike cut in, shooting Soren threatening glares all the while, “Soren comes in and asks “are you home?” I said “yes.” He asks “for visitors?” I said “maybe.” Then, he said “for admiring ladies?” And, I pulled the covers over my head and said “no.”

    “Oh yeah, I remember this! I was laughing so hard, I had to have been on the floor in my room for an hour!” Boyd recalled, bursting into laughter once again.

    “So,” Soren continued, “I went back to the horde of ladies, fifty or so, if I remember right, and I told them “I’m sorry, Ike is a lout. I mean, he’s out.”

    “After that awful job, having my nap interrupted and girls hanging on the bell, Soren’s little slip was the last straw,” Ike went on. “Like an idiot, I barged out and said “hey, who are you calling a lout?!” Then, Soren said “oh my, he’s home after all.” And, well, you can guess the rest.”

    Which, apparently, they did…because everyone except Ike was rolling on the ground laughing hysterically. Even Elincia was tearing up with the hilarity of it all.

    “Traitor,” Ike remarked teasingly, swooping in for another kiss.

    “I still say I should be best man,” Soren remarked as the group got back to work. “I know all the funny stories about the groom.”

    “Another few stories like that, and he might have you roasted and served at the wedding feast,” Ranulf warned jokingly.

    “Doubtful, not enough meat on my bones. Besides, I hear that beer roasted cat is a delicacy on this continent.”

    “You wouldn’t dare!”

    “Remind me why I’m inviting you two again?” Ike groused. “Now, quit it and let’s get this tent up!”

    As the group continued pitching their tents, Ranulf and Soren continued to shoot glares at one another. Ike sighed in frustration while Elincia merely giggled.

    Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the encampment, the Royal Knights had dismounted and pitched their tents as well as a large pavilion to act as a temporary stable. The knights, and the horses, were savoring a final night with a roof over their heads as, when they split off for the journey to Jerusa, they would be leaving the tents behind. Not all of them were fond of the idea, but a camp of the Royal Knights was too easily recognized, especially on a mission calling for stealth in a country overrun with the enemy, and pitching and breaking camp would also take time they might not be able to afford. Eliot and Natalie had just finished putting their steeds away when Marc and Leona arrived to do the same. As they dismounted their horses, Eliot and Natalie approached them. Eliot sported his usual grin, the sort that betrayed his true youth and eagerness for a laugh…and which made most of his acquaintances want to punch him.

    “Heya, Marc. Forget any good stories lately?” Eliot greeted tauntingly.

    Marc, apparently used to this treatment, took the insult without so much as a blink. Leona, by contrast, looked ready to knock some of Eliot’s teeth out.

    “Can it, Eliot,” Leona retorted as she threw a thick rug over her horse.

    “Leona, just—” Marc began, but Natalie cut him off.

    “Leona, really, anyone knows that Marc’s condition is a liability,” she reasoned. “You should just stop denying it.”

    “No, you all are wrong. Marc has just as much potential as any knight!” Leona argued. “I’ve been his partner long enough to know that!”

    “And we’ve been knights long enough to see that Sir Forgetsalot can’t remember half of what his instructors tell him,” Eliot added.

    “That’s not true!” Leona shot back as she removed her horse’s saddle. “Just muzzle it!”

    “Honestly, Leona, why do you keep defending Marc?” Natalie wondered with a sigh.

    For a long moment, Leona simply seethed in silence, as though angrily contemplating that very question. Or, more likely, she already knew the answer but had never had reason to give voice to it until now. Whatever the case, she knew what she wanted to say. She also knew she wanted to give Natalie what-for, so she punched the deputy commander hard enough to make crimson trickle from her jaw.

    “Because I love him!” Leona replied hotly, tears forming in her eyes. “…I tried to deny it for so long, and despite all the bickering he and I used to do, I couldn’t help it. Marc isn’t the sharpest axe in the armory, we all know that, but he’s always had so much respect. He was always so kind to people and never lost his temper, even after being heckled so much. He just kept going and training, and General Leyon and I always had faith in him. Every time we were injured in a fight, he made sure I was fine before tending to his own wounds… He could never even remember what his parents looked like, but he thought of everyone that mattered to him, even me. So just clamp your jaw shut before I break it!”

    Leona looked quite out of sorts after her confession, and Natalie looked very nearly homicidal…not the smallest reason being that she had about six teeth ready to just fall out of her mouth. She was about to return the favor when Marc darted between the two women and pried them apart.

    “Hey, hey!” he urged. “Cut it out! You two want to wind up mucking stables?!”

    Marc was more than a little struck by Leona’s confession, and he could not help but suspect he would not be forgetting her words anytime soon, but he didn’t have time to appreciate it. At that moment, Leyon came in.

    “Atten-SHUN!” he barked, and the quarreling knights immediately disentangled themselves and fell in line.

    Leyon puffed up with aggravation but suddenly deflated, a look of helpless frustration on his face.

    “I don’t have time to punish all of you, so I’ll settle with the one who started it,” he declared.

    To everyone’s surprise, Marc raised a hand.

    “It was me. Deputy Commander Natalie said my mother was ugly, so I punched her.”

    Leyon looked skeptical.

    “I thought you didn’t remember what your mother looked like?” he recalled.

    “Er…uh…that.s irrelevant!” Marc retorted, unconvincingly.

    “Uh huh. So, how come the bruises are on the right side of her face? I thought you were left-handed.”

    Marc had never made a habit of lying and, as such, he was terrible at it. Trying vainly to ignore the sweat dotting his brow, he frantically struggled to come up with a plausible explanation. Even to him, the notion that sprang to mind didn’t sound convincing.

    “She, ah, wove to the side. So…I backhanded her.”

    Leyon regarded Marc with a raised eyebrow. Marc, the young general knew, was lying. If the forgetful knight sweating like a weary horse did not betray this truth, all that stammering did. Why, however, was far less obvious. As long as Leyon had known Marc, he had never lied, not even to avoid embarrassment over his impaired memory. When he forgot something he should not have, he simply said so…and everyone had a good laugh. So, why was this any different? Then, Leyon noticed something else.

    Marc’s eyes would not meet his gaze. Instead, they kept drifting in Leona’s direction.

    This caught Leyon’s attention. He had suspected for a long time that Marc and Leona had feelings for one another. In fact, that was why he paired them up in the first place. On an impulse, Leyon spied Leona out of the corner of his eye. She was fidgeting in place, even before noticing his scrutiny, and her gaze kept drifting between Marc and Natalie; concern for the former, anger towards the latter.

    Leyon couldn’t keep himself from smirking.

    “Very well,” he intoned, doing his best to sound severe. “Marc, I ought to send you back to Aracion, but that’s an indulgence I can’t afford and your skills in combat are too valuable for the mission. Therefore, you will spend the rest of this evening cleaning these stables.”

    As if on cue, one of the horses raised its tail. A splat was heard and the air became notably fouler. Just as Leyon was about to leave, Leona spoke up desperately.

    “Sir, wait! I wish to make a statement.”

    Leyon turned, nodded for her to proceed, and his jaw dropped when Leona drew back a fist and plowed into Natalie’s jaw. The deputy commander, who now looked angrier than a red dragon with indigestion, was about to retaliate when Marc stepped between them. All three began shouting at once and Leyon could not tell what one was saying to the other, but he didn’t particularly care. He had a hunch about what had just happened, and he wanted to test his theory.

    “Atten-SHUN!” he commanded, louder this time, and the knights came to attention. “Alright. Marc, Leona, both of you are mucking stables tonight. Natalie, find a healer before all those teeth fall out. Eliot, go find some way to make yourself useful.”

    With that, Leyon left the pavilion, more or less dragging Eliot and Natalie along. Once they were gone, Marc and Leona were alone…save for their rather fragrant charges. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Eventually, however, it was Marc who took the plunge.

    “Leona…” Marc uttered. “You didn’t have to do that.”

    “Do what?” Leona replied. “Punch Natalie, or admit that I was in love with you? I don’t regret either one.”

    “I thought that might be the case. We’ve been through so much together in our time as knights. In all that time, you were the only one who ever really believed in me. Well, at least some of the time.”

    “I do swing a mean tongue, don’t I?”

    “Yeah, and your right jab’s not bad either. Still, I admit, I fell in love with you too. But I’m not sure if I deserve you. My memory causes me enough problems as it is, and I’m not wild about the idea of you having to deal with it more than you do already. I don’t want to forget dates or important occasions or anything and have that reflect on you.”

    “I know. But it’s not your fault. And I understand if you don’t want to risk it. Your memory did cause some issues in the past, after all. Just know that I don’t think I could ever love another man as much as I love you…”

    For a moment, Marc was left stunned by Leona’s words. Could she truly mean what she said? True, she still took jabs at him for his lapses in memory but those had stopped months ago. And, even then, it was more of a joke between the pair than anything else. In fact, looking back, some of the exchanges the two had had were almost amusing. And, she had known about his condition practically ever since they met and had even tried, with wildly varying degrees of success, to help him with it. Yeah, who am I kidding? Marc thought. She knows about my problem better than anyone and has dealt with it for so long. I can’t break her heart like this. Marc then wrapped his arms around Leona’s waist, yanked her towards him, and allowed his lips to meet hers in a long, passionate kiss. She was startled at first, but quickly closed her eyes and curled her arms around his neck.

    “You’ve gotta be crazy to love a guy like me,” Marc opined. “But, I love you too.”

    “Oh, I don’t know about me being crazy,” Leona retorted playfully. “It was you who picked this setting, after all.”

    “Touché,” he conceded, and then kissed her again.

    Just as the couple had locked lips, Leyon had slipped around to peer into the stables. As he eyed the pair, he was unable to suppress a chuckle. He had been waiting for the pair to admit how they felt about one another for quite some time, and he was glad to see that it had finally happened. Still, the smile on his face eventually vanished, and he couldn’t prevent himself from sighing. This scene had brought him quite a bit of satisfaction, and he was very happy for Marc and Leona, but it also reminded him that there was something he needed to do, and that this evening might be his last chance. He needed to let her know…

    Around an hour and a half later, after removing his armor and trying to do likewise with his anxieties, Leyon departed his tent. He heaved a heavy sigh, squared his shoulders, and began moving. He was ready to do what he had to do, and he knew that his time was running out. He walked through the camp, wondering which tent might belong to Azura. He hoped she wasn’t already asleep, as he rather doubted that rousing the young earl would persuade her to listen to him. He’d already made more than a few blunders with her in the past but, after the next morning, he wouldn’t be seeing her again for some time. If the mission to Jerusa took a turn for the worse, he might not see her again, period. He had only one chance, and he was determined to make good on it. After discreetly poking his head into a few tents and asking several sentries, he was directed away from the encampment to a small lake nearby. Sure enough, Azura was standing at the lake’s banks. A full moon was shining radiantly overheard, reflecting on the lake’s gently rippling surface. Azura, apparently unaware of Leyon’s presence, stood bathed in the surreal glow, as she began to stretch and flex as though to relieve muscles cramped from too many swordfights with too many enemies. Her nimble hands then found the straps of her light blue armor, which she eagerly shed. This was followed by her shoulder guards, her hairclip and her boots…but she didn’t stop there.

    As Leyon watched, stupefied, Azura stripped to her skin. Even from behind, the light of the full moon made her feminine charms, no longer concealed by her rough-and-tumble garb and battle-hardened demeanor, all too visible. Her soft, pale skin, the subtle curves of her hips, the graceful arch of her back, her shapely limbs, and her hair which cascaded to her waist like a molten waterfall all left Leyon dumbstruck.

    Emphasis on “dumb,” he chided himself. Turn around, you fantastic idiot!

    Yet, it was as though he were rooted to the spot. He watched, transfixed, as she dipped one foot into the water, gave a quick nod and then dove in. Before Leyon could return to his senses, though he rather doubted he could have, she emerged again. Though, “emerged” might have been an understatement. In an explosion of foam, she burst free from the water, arcing upward and then downward to dive in again. Once under the water, she dove as deep as she could, pumped her arms and legs for speed and then launched herself skyward again and again like a dolphin or a fabled mermaid. Leyon watched, doubly impressed, for several long minutes until Azura finally tired and sinuously maneuvered towards the shore. With her lower half trailing idly in the water, she lay her torso upon the bank, water trickling down the curves of her exposed breasts…with Leyon less than a few yards away and still unseen.

    How Leyon kept himself from fainting, he would never know. All he did know was that she was stunning. And, that knowing overwhelmed him in much the same way that so much about her did, her courage, her fortitude, her strong sense of self, her beauty and her unbreakable spirit, and left him awhirl in his own thoughts of how much he longed for the fiery redhead.

    His senses returned just in time for him to see that Azura had noticed him.

    “WHAT THE—?!” she screamed, trying vainly to conceal her nakedness with her hands while the shamefaced Leyon, unable to salvage his dignity, turned away.

    He half expected her Regal Sword to plow through the back of his head at any moment. Slowly, and feeling mildly terrified, he turned around once more. To his surprise, Azura was still there. More curious still, she had not scrambled to retrieve her clothes. In fact, aside from pulling herself out of the water, she had barely moved at all. She just sat there, her features marred with an expression of disgust and revulsion. And, as Leyon was just about convinced that his chances with her had been utterly destroyed, he noticed that her expression wasn’t directed at him. It was directed at the water; more precisely, to her reflection. Puzzled, Leyon was about to speak, when her gaze swung back to face him.

    “Well, I guess this makes us even,” she commented, reaching for her undergarments.

    “Wait, what?” Leyon blurted, confused and trying to focus on something, anything, besides Azura’s soaked, nude form.

    “Fort Absolon.”

    “That again? Azura, I told you, that wasn’t entirely your fault. I should’ve paid more attention, and Natalie didn’t need to snap at you like that.”

    “Yeah, but I’m still to blame too,” Azura insisted as she slipped her undergarments back on. “I’m so ashamed of myself. How could I be so foolish and immature? And, in my first battle as a noble and commander of the army, no less? I felt terrible when King Wencelis told me how disappointed he was with me. I can’t say I blame him, given all the times I’ve done wrong. Especially to you, Leyon.”

    Leyon had been more than tempted to interrupt Azura’s tirade and tell her, quite forcefully, why he didn’t believe a word of what she was saying about herself. But he forced himself to calm down, to keep his gaze fixed upon her face and to let her have her say before he interjected. When Azura finally paused, he moved closer and cupped one of her cheeks with his hand. He silently marveled at how smooth her skin felt under his fingers, and marveled once again at the warmth that passed from her cheek to his fingertips, despite the chill of the water.

    “There’s been a lot on your mind lately, hasn’t there?” he asked courteously, forcing his eyes not to drift downward. Though Azura was no longer nude, it hardly made a difference.

    “Yeah,” Azura admitted. “Ever since I first found out the truth about my pendant and became an earl, I’ve been so anxious and nervous. It’s been making me wonder if I’m doing anything right. And then, all that trouble back at Fort Absolon…”

    “It’s alright, Azura. Even the finest leaders make mistakes. I know I did. Heck, even my brother did. And we both know Bryan made his share. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same held true for Ike as well. You’re not alone in this.”

    “Well, true…”

    “The best leaders aren’t the ones who never make mistakes, because that’s not possible. The best leaders are the ones who learn from their mistakes. You did that, better than that, in fact, by figuring out how to help me get my memory back. You took responsibility for what went wrong and you put it to rights. That is what makes a leader.”

    For a crazy fraction of an instant, Leyon believed that the sun had come up. Then, he realized that the sudden illumination was instead the radiance of Azura’s smile.

    “You can be real sweet sometimes,” she commented. “I can see why Natalie was so taken with you.”

    “I…beg your pardon?” Leyon blurted, confusedly.

    “Oh…oops. Well, while I was trying to find a way to restore your memory, I talked quite a bit with Eliot to see if I could learn anything that might help. He told me that Natalie used to have a crush on you.”

    “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

    “Yeah, that’s what Eliot said.”

    “It’s interesting you should bring that up though.”

    Here, Leyon paused to remove his cape and drape it over Azura to offer her some warmth. The pause also gave him some time to steel his nerve, for he’d been taken off-guard by her self-recriminating tirade…amongst other things. She shivered a bit under his cape, looking uncharacteristically vulnerable, and yet favoring him with a patient expression.

    “And why’s that?” Azura wondered, knotting the cape to cover her torso and folding her arms.

    “Well…I’m in love. I never thought I’d see the day that this would happen, especially after I lost my brother. But I’ve fallen in love with a very beautiful girl that I’ve spent some time with during this war and she’s amazed me time and time again.”

    Azura felt as though she’d been punched in the gut. She remembered how she’d mentioned Natalie earlier and had a sudden premonition that Leyon had not been so blind to how Natalie felt for him after all. Perhaps he had chosen to pursue his deputy commander? Azura knew she ought to feel happy for him…and yet, she was in anguish at the idea.

    “Oh?” she inquired, trying to keep her tone neutral.

    “Indeed,” Leyon confirmed, smiling broadly. “I admire her beauty, courage, and bravery. Her independence is also astounding. I’ve fought alongside her in many battles and she has impressed me with her skills every time.”

    “She has…?”

    “Very much so. And yet, I fear she does not feel the same towards me. We’ve had words from time to time, but they’ve rarely been friendly. She seems to think I want to coddle her, you see, and that I’m only concerned about her because of her importance to the war effort. Despite this, I’ve vowed to protect her with my life. Because I love her.”

    By now, Azura, was nearly in tears.

    “Leyon… I…I’m sorry. I was wrong…”

    “No, you don’t need to apologize. I should’ve made my intentions clearer. Besides, the fact that you survived the Red Claw for so long should’ve been more than enough proof that you didn’t need me looking over your shoulder.”

    “Yeah, but I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions the way I did. But who…who is the girl?”

    Azura drew in her breath in nervous anticipation and though she felt ready to burst, Leyon simply smiled before replying.

    “I believe you already know the answer to that. I’m heading in for the night now, but if you want know for sure, I think this will tell you.”

    Leyon then took her hand, leaned over, and planted a soft kiss on Azura’s cheek. After bidding his good night, Leyon walked off with new thoughts in his mind. Whether she loves me or not, my love is forever hers, he avowed as he headed back towards the camp. Meanwhile, a stunned Azura traced her fingers over her cheek.

    “He…loves me…” she murmured, stupified. “Oh, Leyon… Huh?”

    Azura snapped out of her daze to see that her other hand was holding something. As she opened her trembling fist, she discovered a small sheet of parchment with only a few lines written on it. It was a short poem that read:

    Azura,

    When I look into your lovely eyes
    I see this through and through
    My life and axe are yours because
    My heart belongs to you

    With all my love,
    Leyon


    “Oh… Leyon…” Azura whispered to herself after reading the poem. She then turned and spied Leyon as he strolled farther away. She couldn’t let him leave. Not yet and not when there was so much she had to say as well. And with that, Azura rose to her feet and raced after him. Somewhere during the journey, Leyon’s cape had come unknotted and pooled to the ground.

    “Leyon, wait…” she gently spoke up, taking his arm. He turned around to face her.

    “Hm?” he replied, again forcing his eyes not to stray from hers.

    “I…I don’t hate you… I never did. My mind wanted me to dislike you, but my heart told me otherwise.”

    Leyon merely smiled lovingly, affection and relief alike reflected in his gaze, as he and Azura moved closer to one another. He then cupped her cheek with his hand once more while interlacing his fingers with hers. Their faces soon inched closer and closer, until their lips met. Within the next few moments, Leyon had slipped his arms around Azura’s waist and pulled her close while Azura curled hers around his neck.

    “I love you, Leyon…” Azura whispered when they finally pulled away minutes later.

    “I love you too…Azura…” Leyon replied quietly, this time allowing his eyes free reign.

    “You like what you see, don’t you?” Azura teased flirtatiously.

    “A loaded question, if ever I heard one,” Leyon replied with a chuckle. “I say “no,” I’m insensitive. I say “yes,” I’m a pervert.”

    “I guess that is unfair. Just don’t let Mother find out about this. She’d kill us both.”

    “But of course,” Leyon agreed, understanding perfectly. He didn’t much like the idea of the others finding out either, especially the knights. They’d never let him hear the end of it, nor would Wencelis and Louise, probably.

    “Still, this is the last night we’ll have with each other for awhile,” Azura continued. “…Have a little fun with me?”

    Azura gestured towards the lake.

    “Heh… Why not?” Leyon replied, his grin growing larger.

    Azura, giving Leyon a parting kiss on the cheek, dove into the lake once more. As she had before, the young earl swam with dizzying speed and sinuous grace, leaping from the water amidst explosions of foam. After watching her in awe for several moments, Leyon began undressing as he prepared to join Azura for an evening swim. Leyon removed his tunic and pants, leaving him clad only in a pair of red shorts.

    “Bryan gave me the idea,” he said as he removed his tunic. “Saves me the hassle of changing my clothes every morning and evening when I’m in a hurry.”

    “Ah, clever,” Azura replied, eyeing Leyon’s shirtless form appreciatively. Leyon had a well built, almost sculpted form, and looked nearly as muscular as Ike himself. His broad chest and muscle rippled stomach made him look strong enough to carry his own horse, yet he had a more slender physique that looked far lighter, and swifter, than the hulking hero of Tellius. If the two were to arm wrestle, it would be very difficult to determine a winner. Leyon clambered down into the water and tried, with little success, to overtake the swift Azura. The young earl was like an eel in the water, fast and slippery, and she had no compunction against splashing Leyon after evading his fumbling grasp. Eventually, Azura swam over to Leyon, embracing her love under the moonlight.

    “You know, that poem was very sweet,” Azura complimented when the pair were shoulder-deep into the water, curling her arms around Leyon’s neck again.

    “Heh, I’m glad you liked it,” Leyon replied lovingly. “My grandmother was a great poet and she taught my brother and I a few of her techniques while raising us after our parents died. Trust me though, she was far better than either of us.”

    “She must’ve been very good then. You know, growing up, I was teased by boys a lot. They didn’t think I could be as good a warrior as them just because I’m a girl. As I grew older, and became a warrior, I took it for granted that they’d look down on me… But, meeting you and being on this quest has helped me see that not all of them think women are weak. It’s nice to finally meet some men who respect me for my skills.”

    “I see, and I’m glad… To be honest, I used to think women were better off with men to help them out. You changed my mind about that. Women can be strong on their own.”

    “I’m glad too…”

    With that, the two drew closer and locked lips once more, allowing their tongues to cross the thresholds of their mouths. They didn’t let go for a very long time as Azura slid her arms across Leyon’s shoulders and back while he caressed her torso.

    Not far away, on a small rise overlooking the lake, another couple had been roused by the sounds of small, but relentless splashes. Disentangling themselves, they poked their heads through the flaps of their tent and spied an interesting sight below.

    “…And I thought we weren’t supposed to be pulling shenanigans,” Ike grumbled, though a hint of surprise seeped into his tone when he got a clearer look at Azura as Leyon began leaving kisses on her neck. “Tsk, tsk. And, I thought Leyon was supposed to be a gentleman.”

    “Tell me about it,” Elincia agreed and then giggled. “And, just so you know, don’t go trying to talk me into that sort of thing...at least, not unless we’re really alone. But, they are adorable out there.”

    “Darn. I mean…right you are, dear.”

    ***


    The next morning, the camp rose at the brink of dawn and the troops suited up and armed themselves as quickly as possible. It was nearly time for the group to divide, with Leyon and Derien’s troops riding towards the Cilaean border while Bryan wanted to focus on finding some Astrynian soldiers as well as someone who could help him prove his and Owen’s connections to the royal family. After some deliberation, Ike decided to ask Boyd to join Leyon’s group rather than staying with Ike.

    “What, worried I’ll cramp your style?” Boyd joked at hearing the request, but he assured Ike and Boyd assured that he had no problem with it.

    Afterwards, Boyd sought out Skye. He soon found the Sniper sitting outside of his tent waiting for the order to break camp and march.

    “Hey there, you’re Skye, aren’t you?” Boyd inquired.

    “That’s me. Boyd, right?” Skye replied.

    “Yep. I've got something to show you. When Soren and I came looking for Ike and Elincia, I also brought this with me.”

    Boyd then produced a large gold bow with brown embroidery on its grip and curving arms.

    “Whoa. That’s one heck of a bow you’ve got there,” Skye commented, his eyes widening.

    “Yeah. It’s called the Silencer. My younger brother made it. Well, with supervision from his teacher, that is. Anyway, it’s the most powerful bow you’ll ever see. It was first designed by my brother’s teacher, who’s one of the best Snipers I’ve ever met. My brother figured it might come in handy over here after we heard what was going on, so he gave it to me. After seeing your skills, I think it’s perfect for you. So you can take it. I prefer my axe anyway.”

    “Oh. Wow, thanks a bunch! I’ll use it well.”

    “Great!”

    Skye then eagerly took the bow, almost drooling with anticipation. With practiced eye, he examined the bow’s accuracy and the tautness of the string, and found both to be flawless. With such an incredible bow, and his own remarkable skills, perhaps he’d earn an Order of the Golden Arrow after all. Meanwhile, as more of the army made ready for their departure, Derien approached Ranulf and the wolf siblings.

    “Kiel, Sara, his majesty wanted me to give you two something before I left,” he spoke up. “You too, Ranulf.”

    “Oh?” Ranulf wondered.

    “Ah, I bet I know what it is,” Kiel replied eagerly.

    “Me too,” Sara added, anticipation clear in her tone.

    “Indeed. They’re right here. There’s one for each of you,” Derien continued. He held out what appeared to be three golden medallions with the shape of a cross inscribed on them. In the center of the crosses were patterns of gleaming rubies. The three laguz each took one.

    “Wow, what is this for?” Ranulf inquired.

    “I’ll show you. First, Kiel, you transform,” Derien replied.

    “Sure thing,” Kiel complied. He then reverted to his wolf form without hesitation.

    “Now, I’ll transform.” Derien decided and did the same. However, aside from the color of his fur, Derien’s wolf form had several differences. He was a little larger, his fur was shaggier, but also darker and sleeker, and he had longer fangs and claws.

    “Whoa. Your wolf forms look a little different!” Ranulf noticed. “How did you manage that?”

    “Well, you know what a Satori Sign is, right?” Derien inquired.

    “Yeah. They allow laguz to unleash their hidden strengths. With it, they can use their mastery skills.”

    “That’s right. The medallion I gave you is called a Satori Symbol. It is similar to a Satori Sign, but it does more. It can also make a laguz’s animal form bigger and stronger. The human form remains roughly the same, however. Anyway, we call this process metavolution. It works fairly like a beorc soldier promoting, as it allows a laguz warrior to grow more powerful and learn new abilities. Few Satori Symbols have been made though. The first successful one was produced only around a year ago.”

    “Wow, I see. Thanks, Derien.”

    “No problem.”

    Within the next hour, the camp had been finished dismantled, the tents and bedrolls taken down and stored, and everyone awaiting the order to depart. Leyon was chatting with Derien about possible strategies to use in Cilae, but unfortunately, neither of them could think of anything plausible. Between Melora’s superior numbers, the breakdown in communications and their scattered objectives, the prospects for the mission seemed grim. When Ike saw that they were concerned, he approached them and revealed that Soren was a master tactician and that he should be able to help them out before the group divided. Leyon and Derien then asked that Ike bring him over, though Soren seemed nonplussed at the idea.

    “Ike, you know how I feel about using my skills for anyone except you,” Soren pointed out as his friend ushered him over to the two generals.

    “Yeah, but I’m fighting in this war too, so you’re still doing it for me,” Ike protested. “Come on, please?”

    “Sigh… Alright, fine.”

    “Thanks!”

    Soren approached Leyon and Derien and, after briefly introducing himself, inquired as to the strategic situation.

    “I thought your assessment of the strategic situation was “we’re screwed,” Boyd piped up.

    “Well, I’ve made that assessment before and have been disproven,” Soren conceded, favoring Ike with a rare smile.

    “Well, because of the communications breakdown due to the capture of the Raven messengers, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of our information,” Leyon began, tracing a rough map in the earth. “Queen Belinda and her entourage told us that Jerusa is being held by approximately five hundred Red Claw members.”

    “I’ve heard it mentioned that the bulk of the Allied armies are stationed along the Cilae-Melora border,” Soren spoke up.

    “That’s correct,” Leyon replied, tracing miniature tents to indicate roughly where along the borders those troops were bivouacked. “At the time of their arrival, they numbered roughly eight thousand Talgrian and Cilaen troops. Later on, Eraghoan and Perais troops were dispatched to join them, as well some two thousand new recruits and reserve troops from Talgria. Assuming they all arrived, that’s another four thousand all told. Of course, all this is based on speculation and assumptions. Without the Raven messengers to carry news back and forth, we don’t even know if any of them are still out there. And, if they are, they’re surely surrounded by Meloran troops.”

    “Are there any other Allied troops in Cilae?” Soren inquired.

    “Yes, at the coast,” Leyon replied, tracing more tents along Cilae’s northern coastline. “Because Melora had been seizing Cilaean ships out at sea, we expected them to use these vessels to smuggle their troops into port. So, the ports were under guard when Jerusa was invaded. I believe the troops there number some six hundred.”

    “What is your best assessment of those two troop concentrations?”

    “The armies at the border are all regulars, seasoned knights and soldiers. But, they’ve also been cut off from supplies for some time now. Assuming they’re still alive, they likely won’t hold out much longer without food, medicine and, most of all, fresh weapons and reinforcements.”

    “And the troops along the coast?”

    “They were defending Jerusa before being redeployed, and they left heavily armed. At least half of them are raw recruits, but many of Cilae’s Pegasus knights are among them.”

    “What has been occurring along the coast since Jerusa fell?”

    “Not much, actually. According to Commander Eilonwy, the Red Claw has the ports under siege but don’t seem to be in any hurry to advance. The Allied troops at the ports and the Red Claw in the area are roughly equal in numbers.”

    “I see. I think I know what we must do.”

    As usual, it only took the Wind Sage a short time to come up with the perfect tactic. He decided that since the Red Claw’s army was concentrated at Jerusa and at the border, the best chance for Leyon’s group would likely to lure them away from both areas.

    “And, how can we manage that?” Leyon inquired.

    “Simple,” Soren replied. “You told me that the Red Claw isn’t making a serious effort to attack the Allied troops holding the ports, correct? That is likely because, having stolen so many ships, the Melorans believe that the Allied troops there are trapped and can be crushed at any time. But, what if something occurred to make the Red Claw think that those troops were able to slip away? Something like a seaborne evacuation?”

    “Evacuation?” Derien repeated with bitter humor. “Those Melorans have stolen so many boats, it’s a wonder we even have two-man dinghies left. We can’t move six hundred troops by sea.”

    “We don’t have to,” Soren countered. “We just have to make it look like we can. If we manage to slip a few men inside the ports, and have them and the troops create the appearance that a seaborne evacuation is underway, then the Red Claw might be caught off balance. They might siphon off forces from Jerusa and the border to stop the “evacuation,” leaving you an opening to strike at Jerusa and relieve the Allied troops at the border.”

    “But, we’d be funneling hundreds, maybe thousands, of enemies at a force of only six hundred Allied troops!” Derien objected. “They’d be cut to pieces!”

    “I thought of that too,” Soren answered. “Surely, some Cilaean ships have been recovered?”

    “A few,” Leyon replied. “You’d never fit six hundred troops onto them though.”

    “That is not my intent,” Soren corrected. “We won’t be using the ships to move the troops out, we’ll be using them to deliver something that will help them hold out: siege weapons.”

    “Ah, that just might work!” Derien chimed. “Aracion has been producing ballistae and catapults non-stop ever since we received word of the Red Claw crossing into Talgria. We could probably load dozens of those things onto the boats.”

    “Exactly,” Soren confirmed. “We can have a dispatch rider return to Aracion with news of this plan, so that the siege weapons can be loaded onto the ships and sent to Cilae. The crews should, of course, take the pains to look like Red Claw until the time comes to disembark and deliver the weapons. We make sure word of the “evacuation” leaks out and the Red Claw will come running, leaving Jerusa and the border siege undermanned. While the Red Claw is getting clobbered by catapult stones and skewered by ballista bolts, you’ll be able to break the siege against the troops on the border and retake Jerusa. Once that’s done, and the tables have turned, the Red Claw attacking the ports will likely surrender.”

    “You’re a genius!” Derien cheered.

    “I have to agree!” Leyon added. “I don’t see how it can fail!”

    “Thanks, and no problem,” Soren replied. “Have the fastest among your riders carry word to King Wencelis. We need those siege weapons on the boats as fast as possible if this is going to work. Now, I suggest we all move out.”

    “Right. But one more thing,” Leyon insisted.

    He then approached Azura, whom was not far away.

    “Az…looks like it’s time for us to leave,” he spoke up.

    “Yeah… I guess this is good bye for now…” Azura replied, her eyes downcast. The pair had discovered their love just the previous evening, and the notion of parting so soon was saddening to them both. Even so, the couple leaned in for a farewell kiss, which resulted in many jaw-drops and head shakes.

    “Hehehe, I so knew it!” Eliot mumbled to himself with a chuckle. Natalie merely sighed, figuring that perhaps the two really did belong together.

    “Come back to me in one piece, you hear?” Azura said when she and Leyon parted.

    “Of course. I’ll see you again soon, my love,” Leyon promised.

    With that, the pair ordered their parties to move out and the two groups separated. Azura and Bryan’s group went west while Leyon’s headed northeast for the Cilae border. One of Derien’s wolves volunteered to deliver the request for the siege weapons to King Wencelis, saying he could circle back and catch up with the army faster than a knight. The two generals quickly agreed, wrote and encrypted the request and sent the wolf off. Leyon’s small army, thankfully, did not have to go very far since the group was already in the northern region of Astryn when they divided. They just needed to cross the foothills of the nearby mountain range and they would be in Cilae. Unfortunately, as those foothills came into view a few hours later, so too did another obstacle. Along the long, stone wall, which spanned the pass and served as a border fortification between Cilae and Astryn, were dozens of Meloran soldiers and Red Claw members, entrenched and ready for combat. Snipers manned ballistae at the wall’s edges while catapults and Sages were stationed between them. Pegasus knights and dracoknights above the wall while other cavalry and infantry stood atop it.

    “Damn it! I thought I smelled a lot of beorc ahead! They’ve formed a blockade here to keep us out!” Derien realized.

    “And that means they anticipated our arrival,” Leyon added. “But it doesn’t matter. We have to break through if we’re to reach Jerusa and our besieged friends. Everyone, CHARGE!”

    With that, the troops scattered and raced towards the staircases and ramps leading across the wall. It wasn’t long, however, before the enemy began retaliating, firing off siege weapons and other ranged attacks to stop Leyon and Derien’s men from closing the distance. The knights and wolves, too swift and maneuverable to be struck, wove out of the path of one barrage after another and soon assailed the enemy. Leyon ordered his troops to defeat every enemy they could find so that they could not warn or reinforce the enemy troops occupying Jerusa. Derien and Leyon both suspected that the army they would be facing at the capital would be large enough by itself and they could not afford to lose the element of surprise or be overwhelmed by reinforcements.

    Fortunately for the Allied troops, Jett and Magali reached Warrior and Halberdier status respectively during the battle, with Jett having promoted first. His shoulders were now clad in the same spiked armor which Boyd wore while Magali’s pink armor resembled Cato’s. Instead of leg armor, however, she wore magenta leggings and pink foot guards. Her shield became larger as well. With their newfound strength, the pair added greatly to the might of their group, which pleased Leyon and Derien all the more.

    “Either the strongest defenders are all at Jerusa, or these guys have underestimated us,” Leyon decided when the enemy’s numbers began dwindling quickly.

    “Yeah… But hey, their loss is our game,” Derien replied. With this, Leyon could not disagree, and ordered his men to take out the remaining enemies quickly so they could continue. If Soren’s plan was unfolding as they hoped, then the siege weapons could already be getting loaded onto the few remaining Allied ships for delivery to the troops at the besieged Cilaean ports. Making sure the “evacuation” got underway, and that Melora found out about it, would be crucial to success.

    ***


    While Leyon and Derien’s group finished their battle, Azura and Bryan’s pressed on towards Medann. Bryan and Owen figured that any help to be had, soldiers to help defeat Shigo and others to vouch for his identity and spread the word of his return, would be found there. Not to mention Bryan would get to see Marion before she passed away. His ailing aunt was one of the few people who could identify him as the prince of Astryn. If Marion could see the resemblance between Bryan and her sister, then she would surely know that he was her nephew. And if that wasn’t enough, finding the Grand Duke whom Owen had escaped the capital with would only lend further credence to his claim. When the group passed the fort where Bryan had first met Shigo, they saw it was eerily quiet and deserted. Bryan knew that the idea of Shigo hiding in the same place twice was too good to be true, but it was strange that the fort had not been re-occupied by bandits or Red Claw or Astrynians or anyone else, for that matter. At this, the group could only press on.

    However, it wasn’t long before the group came upon another camp built near the Lysthe swamp, a vast marshland where three Astryn’s three major rivers converged. One of these was the Ystrad River. The other two, according to Owen, were the Vena and Nepte Rivers. Unfortunately, the figures roaming the large campsite did not look friendly. Closer inspection soon revealed, inevitably, that it was yet another Red Claw encampment. Axe wielders, archers, swordsmen, and mages of all kinds wandered about while a few ballistae had been constructed on the outskirts.

    “Curses! These must be the thugs who spread those rumors about me!” Bryan realized. “I bet they heard about what happened in Keanu and twisted the facts!”

    “Yeah, I definitely don’t doubt that,” Azura agreed. “My guess is they’re also the ones looting the villages, like we saw when we first arrived. They’re probably robbing the locals of their food and money.”

    “DAMN IT! I won’t stand for this! I’ll turn them into shish-kabobs!” Bryan angrily thundered.

    “I’m with you all the way, Bryan. Let’s kick their asses!” Skye proclaimed.

    Bryan wasn’t hesitant to agree as he rushed towards the camp, followed by his allies. If the Red Claw really was stealing from the locals, Bryan knew stopping them had to take priority. If he could rescue the Astrynians from poverty and starvation, then they would surely trust him as their savior when the time came to battle Shigo. And by winning over the people, they would likely accept his claim that he was their prince, even if he didn’t have proof. Hopefully, this would help strengthen Bryan and Owen’s standing in Astryn and allow them to gain access to Astryn Palace. Once there, finding proof of Bryan’s heritage would hopefully prove a simple matter.

    However, there was no telling how many Red Claw members had crossed Astryn’s border. Thankfully, since Melora’s only interest in Astryn was making sure they didn’t join the fighting, the Red Claw incursion was likely to be a small one. Bryan surmised that this camp may very well be all there was, aside from Shigo’s forces. More likely, the Red Claw was only using Astryn as a sort of supply hub to move troops and weaponry into Talgria and Eraghoa. Still, as he angrily drove his lance into Red Claw members on all sides, Bryan knew this had to end, especially if he were to gain his people’s respect and trust. He, Skye, and the others tore through the tents, destroyed the catapults, and Skye manned a vacant ballista once more to rain death upon the Red Claw. And to Bryan, it felt almost as good as a night alone with Faline would. His ascension was at hand.

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