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    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Mkay, chapter 29 is a two-parter, so as with chapter 19, I'll post the first part now and put the second part up later.


    Chapter 29: The Blaze of War

    Part 1


    As the battle wore on, Bryan’s rage over Astryn’s plight slowly grew, burning hotter and more fiercely with every blow he suffered…and every blow he dealt. Any Red Claw bandits who crossed his path met their demise so quickly, it seemed as if the enraged Bryan’s glare was enough to kill them within seconds. Azura and the others showed no mercy either, and aided the prince as he cut one bloody swath after another into the Red Claw’s ranks. One Red Claw after another fell, most of which to Bryan’s wrath, crimson staining his lance, armor and shield. Not that he seemed to mind, for each kill seemed to spin him into an ever greater frenzy until he seemed less a man than a living whirlwind of death. Faster and faster he blurred, until one could not be certain if there was one Bryan or one hundred, and harder and harder he struck, until a single blow could fell even the hardiest adversary. Faline and Skye soon noticed this, however, and both their expressions turned grave. Moments later, they witnessed the young Sentinel aggressively perform Impale on two swordsmen in a row. Azura soon turned to see the second corpse fall to the ground, and when she, Skye, and Faline spied Bryan again, he was practically drenched in his victims’ blood. It dripped from his shoulders, his shield, his lance, his torso, legs, and hands. There was even a little on his face…along with a grin of feral delight.

    “Hey! Bryan!” Azura called and approached him.

    “What?!” Bryan replied hotly.

    “Are you alright?”

    “Of course I am! Never been better, in fact. Why wouldn’t I be?”

    “Well—”

    “Ye’ll pay fer this, ye gore slathered goon!” a gruff voice nearby interrupted. Bryan and Azura turned to see a burly man armed with a large poleax and clad in spiked shoulder armor much like Boyd’s. “Who bees ya?”

    “I’m the Emerald Sentinel,” Bryan replied, with an eerily calm tone. “But, my friends call me the prince of Astryn.”

    Whatever the Warrior had been expecting to hear, that wasn’t it. He blanched visibly and very nearly lost his grip on his poleax. He seemed to regain his composure after a moment but, when he spoke again, there was more than a hint of anxiety in his tone.

    “Y-Ye be too late,” he warned, but without great conviction. “Marion be breathin’ her last by now, ‘n them dukes be ready to start guttin’ each other o’er the crown. Astryn’ll tear ‘erself ta bits, ‘n the war’ll be over ‘fore ye puts ‘er back together.”

    “You're sure talking a good game,” Bryan commented, unbothered by the Warrior’s words. “Let’s see you back it up!”

    The Warrior, despite having an advantage in weaponry, seemed more than a little nervous about facing the frenzied Sentinel. He brought up his poleax for an overhead chop…and soon regretted it, as Bryan lunged forward and thrust his lance towards the Warrior’s chest. The Warrior managed to leap out of the blade’s path, but still came away with a deep gash in his side.

    “Not bad, princeling,” the Warrior snarled, anger crowding out his fear. “Let’s sees if I can match ye up!”

    The Warrior struck back, his poleax’s blade catching the pommel of Bryan’s Brave Lance and nearly wrenching it out of the Sentinel’s hands. But, the prince of Astryn tightened his grip and the two combatants ended up in a dead lock.

    “I’m guessing you worms are the ones who’ve been lying to the Astrynians about me!” Bryan growled, his voice tight with strain. “How did you know who I am?! ANSWER ME!”

    “Doncha ‘ave da wits ye was born wit?” the Warrior shot back between grunts of exertion. “O’course we knew! We been knowin’ ‘bout you, ‘n what ta do ‘bout ‘cha, fer ages now. Queen Isis don’t want Astryn te try gettin’ in ‘er way, so we volunteered to tear ‘em down a bit more. Not dat there be much left ta tear down, dem dukes’ll do it fer us once Marion keels over. ‘sides, Shigo goin’ off on ‘is own made Queen Isis mighty angry, ‘n she don’t take dat lyin’ down. One arrow, two Pegasi, as da sayin’ goes. Hahaha! As fer how we knows who ye are, the Meloran royals been knowin’ fer years. Irony is, dat be thanks to Shigo himself. All me queen had te do was give our leader de info and he gave me da honor of picking this dump of a country clean of ‘er supplies!”

    Bryan’s blood now boiled with a fury unlike any he had known is his harsh life; so hotly, that his face reddened until it was impossible to tell where the blood that stained his body ended and the flesh began. A red haze gathered at the periphery of his vision, and then spread until all the world seemed to have turned crimson.

    “…YOU HEARTLESS SON OF A DASTARD!!”

    Before the Warrior could react, the young prince had twisted the locked weapons upward, allowing him to rush forward and swing the edge of his shield into his foe’s head. It hit him with such terrible force that the sound of his skull cracking could be heard over the chaos of the battle. With the Warrior’s grip having gone slack, Bryan then tore his lance free and repeatedly drove the blade into the man’s face and torso. Gore sprayed the air and, within moments, one might’ve suspected that Bryan had literally painted his whole front with the Warrior’s life fluids. His face, hair, and armor were so soaked with crimson, that it was difficult to separate the man from the massacre. Skye gulped audibly while Faline gasped in horror. Azura merely stared, her eyes wide with shock.

    “Burn in hell, you rotten scumbag!” Bryan continued, fuming with uncontrollable fury. “I have seen the suffering you’ve put these people through and, so help me, I will not stop until I’ve rid Astryn of every…last…dastard…like…you!”

    He drew back his lance for yet another thrust but, before he could follow through, he was halted by a sudden grasp upon his arm. Bryan whirled, ready to skewer this latest assailant…and he nearly dropped his lance when he beheld Faline.

    “Bryan! Stop it! You won already! Please, knock it off!” she cried.

    As the red haze that had overwhelmed his vision began to lift, Bryan saw that Faline had dismounted and run over to seize his arm, tears flowing down her cheeks. The remaining Red Claw members, those who hadn't yet been killed or run off, stood petrified with fear.

    “Yeah, Bryan! What the hell’s the matter with you?!” Skye added angrily, though he kept a cautious distance.

    “What do you mean?! These thugs had to pay for what they’ve done!” Bryan retorted.

    “Damn it, get a hold of yourself! Didn’t you listen to a goddess-damned word Faline and I said to you back in Fort Hector?! Look at yourself! You’re lucky your father or some of the Astrynians hadn’t seen this!”

    Bryan then sagged with exhaustion, his earlier frenzy, and the overwhelming strength it granted him, suddenly vanishing. He paused and, with difficulty, forced himself to calm down. Then, he recalled the incident from Fort Hector, where he had almost murdered Lartz and where, in that same moment, he had very nearly sent the then-ill and severely wounded Ike toppling down a staircase to his death.

    “Bryan, please!” Faline begged. “Is this really how you want to win your battles? We want to defeat the Red Claw and help Astryn as much as you do, but being so ruthless and brutal will only cause people to fear you. Even I was a little scared just now, and so was Skye. Is that how you want your people to view you? As a man who kills anyone that angers him?”

    “But I would never—” Bryan began, but was cut off.

    “Bryan, I can see that I’ve rubbed off on you,” Skye continued, now sounding more concerned than nervous. “But I’m starting to think you’ve changed a little too much since we were kids. Don’t prove me right. Please.”

    “And Bryan, we understand how you feel, but what you did was unnecessary,” Azura stepped in. “You and I would both look bad if people thought we allowed our men to behave like this.”

    Bryan didn’t respond right away. Instead, his gaze drifted to his blood-stained clothes and armor. He could barely even see the emerald of his armor, and he grimaced when he dropped his equipment and gazed upon his blood soaked hands. He could almost feel the dark red liquid seeping through the fabric and leather, and the sensation turned his stomach.

    “You’re right, all of you…” Bryan finally replied moments later. “I-I don’t know what came over me. I’d never felt such anger, such hatred for my enemies before. And it scares me. I still want to make Shigo and the Red Claw pay for their crimes, but not like this. I’m so sorry…”

    “I understand, Bryan,” Faline gently responded, taking his arm again. “You didn’t even like to fight when you were younger, let alone kill someone like this, did you?”

    “No. I didn’t like it. In fact, I hated it. I liked learning to use a lance, but I just never had the heart to use those skills to hurt someone else. Skye was the one who finally convinced me to step up and fight back whenever someone tried to hurt me. And the first time I did…it felt good, and I’d regretted not doing so before. But, I didn’t think I’d ever…lose it like I did just now.”

    “Yeah, but I didn’t teach you to be that aggressive, pal,” Skye countered.

    “Skye, come on. You know Bryan’s shaken up. So give him a break,” Faline protested.

    “You’re right, you’re right. Sorry.”

    “Well, whatever the case, the fight’s over. Bryan, I understand where you’re coming from, and we’re not holding it against you. But now you know that we can’t afford to let this happen again, so please remember what we said and you’ll do fine,” Azura added, trying to sound reassuring.

    “Indeed. I promise to control myself from now on,” Bryan replied.

    “Glad to hear it,” Skye replied, clear relief in his tone. “Once we have this lot squared away, why don’t you go to the river and get cleaned up? You can’t present yourself to the Astrynians looking like that.”

    “Yeah, good idea.”

    Those of the Red Claw who were still in the area caught sight of their leader’s savaged corpse. Seeing the Warrior hacked to pieces in such a gruesome fashion made quite an impression, as the bandits turned as pale as a flock of sick herons and dropped their weapons.

    “W-We surrender!” one of them blurted fearfully, raising his trembling hands and dropping to his knees. “Take all the supplies back if you want! Just let us go! We’ll leave, we swear! We’ll even help take back Jerusa if you want! Just spare us, we beg you!”

    “…I don’t care what you do. Just get out of my country and never come back,” Bryan ordered. “If you do, you’ll regret it.”

    The Red Claw members hardly needed the encouragement. Without hesitation, they scattered in all directions, running for their very lives.

    “We’ll gather all of the loot while you’re washing up then,” Azura volunteered.

    Bryan nodded with a smile, though it seemed far from genuine, and then headed for the nearby river.

    “Well, one good thing came out of this. Bryan got those clowns out of our hair,” Ike pointed out.

    “That’s true. Also, if all the Red Claw was doing here was moving supplies and spreading those rumors, maybe we've seen the last of them for now. Well, here’s hoping. Anyway, Ike, since you’re one of the strongest here, we’ll need you to carry the heavy stuff,” Azura replied.

    “Of course.”

    With that, the group went to work and began searching what remained of the Red Claw encampment. Bryan, meanwhile, had approached the nearest bank of the river and began removing his armor piece by piece. He then removed his gauntlets and dipped his hands into the cool water, letting the chill ease his taut muscles. As he scrubbed them down, Bryan could not put Faline’s earlier words out of his mind. He had actually frightened her with his behavior, Faline of all people, who had always had faith in him and loved him more than anything. He had never even imagined that such a thing was possible. That it had happened anyway left him stunned, sick at heart, and more than a little fearful.

    “What have I done…?” Bryan whispered to himself, a grimace on his face as tears built up in his eyes.

    “Bryan…?” a familiar feminine voice rang out moments later.

    Bryan turned around to see Faline herself standing over him.

    “Faline,” he replied, trying vainly to hold back his tears. “I…I’m so sorry… The way I acted back there… I feel so terrible.”

    “I know, but none of these mistakes are entirely your fault,” Faline reminded him as she knelt to his level. “You do have a lot on your mind. Not everyone has the burden of literally battling for their country’s throne, you know. Besides, those Red Claw scumbags needed to be taught a lesson for what they’ve done to the people here.”

    “That’s true. Yet, it’s hard enough for me to even call Astryn my country. I mean, after having lived in Talgria for so long, how can I not say that it was my home too?”

    “I know what you mean. I’ve been away from Cilae for so long and, with mother…gone, I’m not even sure it is home anymore. And, Ike and Elincia. They’re fighting for Altarais, but it’s not their home. I’m glad they are together again, but I can’t help but feel that they burned a lot of bridges to make it happen. I don’t know if they would, or could, go back to Tellius when this is all over, and they probably don’t know either. And, I’m sure it’ll be a strange adjustment for Azura when she settles in Elhorhi for her duties as earl…not to mention that she probably lost her own house when the Red Claw burned down Galden. Ugh, I’m rambling. The point is we understand what you’re going through. It’s hard not to know where you truly belong.”

    “I know, and I appreciate that. But…you said I frightened you. I just can’t get that out of my head, especially when you grabbed my arm and I nearly…I can’t say it. I don’t want you to think that I’d ever hurt you, Faline… I couldn’t hurt you. No matter how angry I ever get.”

    “Bryan, I know…even when you had your lance drawn back, I knew you wouldn't hurt me. But that’s not what I was afraid of. I was afraid for you, of what might be happening to you. This war has taken a heavy toll on all of us, even those who’ve survived so far. I know that you want to help Astryn, but I don’t know what I’d do if you had to suffer like this because you’re only trying to do the right thing…”

    “She’s right, Bryan,” Skye’s voice added before Bryan could reply. “I have to admit, you had me worried too. It might not have seemed that way, but, well, you know me.”

    The pair then turned to see Skye approaching them. Whereas the sniper had kept a cautious distance during Bryan’s frenzy, he now approached closely and eagerly as if the air between them had been cleared.

    “Skye! It’s good to see you too,” Bryan replied, relief evident in his tone. “I don’t even want to think about what I’d do if I scared both of you off.”

    “That won’t happen,” Skye affirmed, giving Bryan’s shoulder a playful punch. “You’re stuck with me, and Faline’s stuck on you.”

    “What, no snarky lines like “there’s no accounting for taste?””

    “This isn’t the time. Besides, what’s the point of stating the obvious?”

    “Oh, muzzle it. I’m glad you’re both here, but I thought Azura wanted both of you helping her and the others.”

    “Yeah, but she figured you needed some bucking up. And who better to do that than your girlfriend and best friend?” Skye explained with a smile.

    “That’s right,” Faline added, wrapping her arms around Bryan’s neck and pecking his cheek.

    “…Thanks, you guys,” Bryan replied, a genuine smile forming on his face for the first time in hours. “By the way, Skye, I kinda expected you to be rougher in setting me straight. What’s up?”

    “Psh, like I can get away with that when I’ve got a Sleep Staff pointed at me all hours?” Skye countered.

    “Hehe, Raela’s still into you, eh?”

    “Yeah… Hey, wait a second! Don’t you go getting any ideas!”

    “What?” Bryan wondered, feigning innocence before chuckling at Skye’s discomfiture. Faline merely giggled.

    “Mkay, I’ll help you get cleaned, Bryan. Why don’t you go back to the others, Skye?” Faline suggested. “They probably need all the help they can get.”

    “And, I’m sure Raela misses you by now,” Bryan added with a smirk.

    “Well, I’m glad one of us is feeling better,” Skye remarked, muttering something about ingrates. “Faline’s right though, Azura wants all of us to pitch in. That includes you two when you’re done here, though.”

    “But of course,” Bryan agreed.

    With that, Skye departed to rejoin his comrades, leaving Bryan and Faline alone.

    “…Man, it’s too bad I can’t wash my clothes right now,” Bryan spoke up moments later after he’d washed his face. “They’re as bloody as my armor.”

    “So I can see. But let’s use these rags I borrowed from Lady Bronwyn’s wagon. It’ll get the job done faster,” Faline suggested and produced two white rags from her satchel. She then handed one to Bryan.

    “Good idea. Oh, hey, you got some blood on your chest plate too. No joke, I swear.”

    “I do? Oh, oops. Guess I should clean that off too, huh?”

    With that, Faline undid the straps of her chest plate and set it near Bryan’s armor. Bryan then grabbed his chest plate, dampened his rag using the river water, and began to scrub it. Faline took another piece of Bryan’s armor and did the same. As she began to wipe it down, she steadily inched closer to Bryan.

    “By the way, I’ve been wondering for awhile now, how come you don’t have a helmet like the other foot lancers?” Faline inquired.

    “Eh, I hate wearing one. I find them uncomfortable and irritating,” Bryan replied. “Besides, on this little jaunt, it would be best if I was easily recognized.”

    “Ah, good point… Oh, and Bryan…” Faline continued, somewhat shyly, but with palpable conviction. Bryan turned to face her.

    “Yeah?” he replied.

    “I still love you as much as I always have,” Faline assured, gazing into his green eyes as a loving smile graced her lips. Bryan couldn’t help but return it as the sunlight reflected off of her own pale purple eyes.

    “Heh. I’m very glad. I really have no idea what I did to deserve a girl like you, but I’m glad.”

    Before Faline could respond, a croaking sound rang out. Faline seemed to stiffen at the sound and, a moment later, a frog suddenly leaped out of the grass behind her.

    “Eeep!” she yelped and toppled into the arms of an amused Bryan.

    “You do know that frogs giving people warts is just a myth, right?” he inquired teasingly.

    “Oh, shut up,” she retorted, chagrined at her own jumpiness.

    Bryan chuckled playfully. Faline’s tumble had landed her in Bryan’s lap, their faces only inches away from one another’s. Faline curled her arms around Bryan’s neck in a passionate embrace while Bryan caressed her waistline. Their lips soon met, their writhing tongues grappling with one another. They remained lost in their affection for some time and, though Azura noticed that the pair was overdue, and deduced why quickly enough, she chose not to disturb them. Instead, she turned to Ike and Elincia.

    “Man, they’re starting to act like you two back in camp,” she teased.

    “Or you and Leyon in the lake,” Ike pointed out with a devious grin.

    At that, Azura’s eyes widened and the color drained from her face.

    “…W-What?! How’d you know about—?!”

    “We saw it through the flaps of our tent,” Elincia admitted with a giggle. “But don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.”

    “Thanks, b-but just how much did you see?” Azura inquired worriedly.

    “Oh, just you and him making out while neck deep in the water. Then he started kissing your neck and collarbone,” Ike replied, snickering under his breath. “And that’s all. I swear.”

    “Yeah, it’s true,” Elincia added. “We went back to bed afterwards.”

    “Alright then, I…ah…appreciate your keeping this between us,” Azura responded with a discreet sigh, more than relieved that Ike hadn’t seen her nude. Azura had hardly planned that little escapade but, after so many months of hacking her way through army after army of Red Claw and Melorans, not to mention evading their pursuit for years beforehand, she was impossibly eager to get away from the bloodshed and the killing and the gore that clung to her all hours, however brief that respite turned out to be. She had been revived by her jaunt in the bracing chill of the lake…and in more ways than one, when Leyon had joined her, but him seeing her naked had been terribly embarrassing. Elincia, at least, was another woman, and would not inspire such mortification. But, it was bad enough that Ike had seen her frolicking about with her newfound lover in nothing but her undergarments. Despite his vow of silence, Ike would surely tease her relentlessly about her night with Leyon, but two men seeing her completely unclothed? She’d never live it down.

    As Azura, Skye, and the others sifted through the remains of the Red Claw encampment, they began loading usable supplies and edible food into the wagons. They recovered weapons, armor, food, parts and ammunition for siege weapons and a vast assortment of valuables, all in such a muddled heap that sorting it all out took longer than the battle. Misty also offered to take any unneeded items to sell for a profit or to barter for extra supplies that could be held in reserve. At least some of the loot, Bryan suspected, belonged to the Astrynian citizens, though he had no idea how much, and he also knew that at least some of it would be needed by the army. With Bronwyn’s assistance, he began cataloging the loot, stitching numbers into the material of the sacks and writing up logs of what was loaded into each one. Hopefully, that would make the task of deciding who received what a bit simpler. Just as Azura had just finished loading yet another sack of food onto Bronwyn’s wagon, however, she heard a faint rustling coming from somewhere in the distance. She turned in the direction of the sound and spotted two wyverns wheeling through the air towards them, neither of which were Lartz’s. One was a dark green color while the other was a pale light blue. As they drew closer, they angled for a landing nearby.

    When Azura was able to get a closer look, she noticed each wyvern carried both riders and passengers. Astride the dark green wyvern, which was larger and sported the trappings of a Dragonmaster’s mount, was a black haired man armed with a poleax and clad in silver armor lined with green. Behind him rode an orange haired woman wearing pink robes and wielding what appeared to be a Mend staff. The blue wyvern was ridden by a dusty brown haired woman in gold armor and armed with an axe. Behind her was a man with light bluish green hair who was garbed in flowing blue robes and holding an Elthunder tome. At first, Azura was afraid that Shigo had finally resurfaced and had sent troops to attack the army once again. Much to her relief, as the two wyverns landed and the quartet dismounted, they made no move to attack. The man in the flowing blue robes, a Thunder Sage, by the look of him, approached Azura. His tome was tucked in his belt and, although he made no move to use it, his gaze betrayed his wariness.

    “We have had tidings of your comings,” he informed them. “Yet, these are perilous times and we can ill afford more troubles when we already have so many. We have been dispatched to learn your purpose.”

    “Dispatched? By who?” Azura inquired, wondering if these four might be hostile after all.

    “I will answer your questions after you have answered mine,” the Thunder Sage replied brusquely, his hands straying to his tome. “Whoever commands this troop, speak now...or defend yourselves.”

    Azura was more than a little nettled by the Thunder Sage’s words, but decided answering his question might be the wiser course.

    “I’m one of the people in command here,” Azura confirmed. “My name is Azura. Who are all of you?”

    “Perhaps I have not made myself clear. You will answer my questions before I answer yours.”

    “Oh, very well. We came here to hunt the Red Claw and to see Queen Marion.”

    “That is a peculiar claim, given that her majesty is hardly in any shape to be entertaining guests.”

    “She'll want to see us. We—”

    “Are Melorans? It’s no secret they’ve been moving about every which-where. That is not why you're here, I hope? If so, it would…rather sour this meeting."

    Azura sighed in annoyance.

    “That is the second time someone has asked us that since we’ve been here,” she grumbled. “And no, we’re not Meloran. We’re—”

    “Hey! Who do you people think you are?!” Skye butted in, cutting Azura off a second time. “There’s no way in hell we’re Meloran!”

    “Don’t tell me you came from Talgria then,” the Dragonmaster interjected with a chuckle.

    “You got a problem with that?!” Skye shot back, muttering something under his breath about “headshots.”

    “Oh, spare me your bravado! You’re morons for even coming here. We told one of your generals to kindly keep his distance when he marched through our territory!”

    “What did you just say?!”

    “Perhaps you're deaf as well as stupid?”

    “Let’s see if you’re still laughing after I make a pincushion out of you!”

    The Dragonmaster was about to retort when Bryan, who had heard the commotion, intervened.

    “Whoa, hey! Skye, what’s going on here?” he interrupted. “Who are these people?”

    “Ah, Bryan, there you are,” Skye replied. “I was hoping you’d show up. This idiot here needs a lesson in humility. He won’t accept help from Talgria even after we came to rescue his sorry ass!”

    “Oh really now?” Bryan wondered, his sentiments quickly mirroring those of Skye. “And I suppose you don’t believe we defeated the dozens of Red Claw members that were here too?!”

    “Damn straight! You Talgrians couldn’t defeat a mob of street urchins with wooden swords!” the Dragonmaster scoffed.

    “Wanna bet, tough guy?!”

    “You guys! Stop this right now!” Azura cut in. “It’s pathetic!”

    “General Eric, this is not the time,” the thunder sage interjected. “And besides, I’m still curious as to why Queen Marion would want to see you people. It is hardly a secret that her final hours seem to be drawing near, after all.”

    “The commander of this band of Red Claw mentioned that during the battle," Bryan spoke up. “So, it is true?”

    “Yes,” the robed woman confirmed. “Her majesty can hardly even speak nowadays, the poor woman. She’s so ill and frail. Not even our best treatments have been able to restore her.”

    “I see,” Bryan replied, trying to keep a pang of sadness from entering his voice. “That’s terrible.”

    “Indeed. She also won’t stop spewing gibberish about a sister and nephew,” the Dragonmaster reported, folding his arms. “Frankly, I don’t believe they even exist. She’s old and sick, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had hallucinations and the like.”

    “I would not be so quick to dismiss her claims,” the Thunder Sage advised. “If there really is a prince, he’s our only hope.”

    “So, you people serve Queen Marion?” Bryan inquired, realizing this group might get him into the palace…if he could convince them of his story.

    “That is correct,” the Thunder Sage confirmed. “Though, how I would serve my queen by allowing you to speak with her escapes me at the moment.”

    “Because we have a solution to this crisis,” Bryan replied, turning to his friends. “Skye, go get my dad. He’ll want to talk to these people too. Azura, you might as well go back and help the others.”

    “I’m on it,” Skye obeyed and departed in search of Owen.

    “Right,” Azura added and followed.

    “…A solution?” the Thunder Sage inquired skeptically, arching one eyebrow.

    “We’ve answered your questions, now answer ours,” Bryan demanded, deciding to learn what he could about this group before Skye and Azura returned. “Who are you and why are you here?”

    “Very well. I’m Francois, the Count of Urae and head of the noble House of Calfrew, which has produced many of Astryn’s foremost magic users. This is Eric, the commander of our dracoknights. These women are Olivia, Eric’s lieutenant, and Armelle, a bishop and the daughter of Count Adaon, the late head of the House of Menwy.”

    “We came under orders from Queen Marion herself,” Olivia added, though she seemed no less curious than Francois about the “solution” Bryan had mentioned. “We heard from one of our hawk messengers that a group of unknown warriors had appeared within our borders and fought against the bandits who were robbing the common folk. Our queen requested that we meet with you and learn who you are. So, who are you?”

    Such a seemingly simple question and, not so long ago, Bryan had known the answer. But then again, that was before learning of his royal blood, which he had never known existed. And, of course, these people would surely be harder to convince than a small girl who’d always had faith in the hidden prince of Astryn. Remembering Sally, however, reminded Bryan of what was at stake and why he had to succeed. He drew in a long breath, and then spoke.

    “I’m Bryan, the son of the late Princess Caline, who was, indeed, Marion’s sister,” he explained. “My father is Grand Duke Owen of House Novat. When Medann was attacked during the last war by the Meloran general Shigo, my parents fled the capital along with myself. Shigo eventually caught up with us on what is now called the Caline Fallows and killed my mother. After that, my father raised me in Talgria in order to keep us hidden from Shigo. My father kept my origins a secret until several days ago, as he knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the truth at such a young age. We have no proof of this right now, but I know my father, and I assure you that he speaks the truth.”

    Bryan paused for a moment to gauge the reaction of his audience. Francois’s brows had shot clear up into his hairline, though Bryan wasn’t certain if the Thunder Sage’s expression was one of astonishment or incredulity. Olivia looked cautiously intrigued, cocking her head to one side and studying Bryan’s face as if searching for something. Armelle seemed confused by this claim and her gaze drifted between her companions, as if hoping her comrades might know what to do. Eric merely snorted.

    “What? You? Our prince?” he scoffed, a mirthless chuckle escaping his lips. “Don’t make me laugh. No Astrynian in his right mind would ask aid from Talgria of all places.”

    “What?!” Bryan thundered, his hands straying to his lance.

    “Eric, that’s enough!” Francois ordered, then regarding Bryan as if seeing him for the first time. “You tell a curious tale. You say you are the unknown son of a sister to the queen whom, as far as any of us know, never existed? You claim too that you conveniently learned of this secret mere days ago and that you’ve come to our rescue at, incidentally, our most desperate hour? A curious tale, and preposterous.”

    Bryan was chagrined by the rebuke, but was not about to concede defeat so easily. Before he could argue, however, Francois cut him off.

    “Preposterous, but not impossible.”

    Bryan was more than a little taken aback at the sudden shift in Francois’s words. Eric, Olivia and Armelle, however, looked quite astonished.

    “What?!” Eric howled, grasping Francois’s shoulder and forcibly turning the Count to meet his gaze. “Have you lost your senses?! Are you seriously going to believe this half-pint could possibly be the heir to the throne?! We don’t even know whether or not Queen Marion ever had any siblings!”

    “But we have evidence,” Francois pointed out, working to pry himself free of Eric’s grip.

    “But it isn’t proof!”

    “It’s still enough reason to give my father and I a chance to prove our claim!” Bryan argued.

    “My son is correct,” Owen’s voice spoke up before anyone else could reply.

    “And you are the one who claims to be Grand Duke Owen, I presume?” Francois guessed.

    “That’s right,” Owen confirmed, but a strange expression dawned on his features when he caught sight of Eric. “Ah… Eric, is that you? It’s been so many years since I last saw you. You were just a baby back then, but I could tell you were a sturdy boy. You look so much like your father.”

    “Oh, I do, do I?” Eric inquired rather testily.

    “Indeed. Your father was a great general and a peerless warrior. I was honored to have known him, and honored all the greater to have been his friend. Bryan’s birth was quite close to your own, and your father and I hoped the two of you would become friends as you grew. Perhaps you still might? I suspect your father would want that.”

    Eric, it seemed, was quick to anger. For, after Owen had said this, the Dragonmaster became livid.

    “What do you know about my father?!” he demanded.

    A cunning, but friendly grin bridged the gap between Owen’s ears as he replied.

    “I know that he was forced to retire when he lost most of his hearing,” Owen answered, and had been about to say more but Eric’s scoff interrupted him.

    “That's no secret! It happened in battle when he—” Eric began, before he was cut off.

    “Got a little too close to the impact of a Meteor spell?” Owen finished. “Yes, that was the official story. But, the truth was different. He had been on patrol in the Dathyl Peaks and, afterward, decided to challenge himself by skirting the edge of those icy spires. However, he chanced upon a blizzard and the howling winds robbed him of much of his hearing. You, I trust, were told the truth when you began flying yourself?”

    Astonishment replaced Eric’s incredulity.

    “How…how did you know that?” he blurted, seeming as though struggling to keep his lower jaw from plummeting.

    “He told me from his own mouth over a pint of ale at the Red Rapscallion Inn and Tavern. While we were there, he also told me that his family always went there for a celebratory drink when one of their own came of age. You drank your first ale there, I trust?”

    Eric’s stupefied silence was all the confirmation that Owen needed.

    “I know also that he would not want you boys to be enemies,” Owen continued, his tone turning sober. “I was with your father in his final moments. I had hoped I could convince him to leave with us, but he refused. I saw his end from afar, and I was aggrieved.”

    Owen’s words, however, had an ill effect on Eric. The Dragonmaster’s confusion turned to rage and he might have struck at Owen had Armelle’s hand on his shoulder not strangely calmed him.

    “So, either you’re a charlatan or you left my father to his death,” Eric snarled. “I will bear that in mind, “milord.””

    Bryan moved to his father’s side, ready to intervene if Eric chose not to relent, but the Dragonmaster only met the Sentinel’s gaze with a seething glare.

    “I can see that, at the very least, investigating your claims will be no mundane affair,” Francois commented wearily. “Anyway, I see you already know Eric. I’m Francois, a Count of Astryn. I rule the province of Urae.”

    “Urae…” Owen repeated. “Oh my goodness…”

    “Is something wrong?”

    “No, it’s just that…Urae was the territory my family ruled over before they were wiped out in the last war. Bryan and I are the only members left.”

    Eric merely snorted again.

    “I see,” Francois replied, after giving the general a sidelong glare. “Queen Marion did say that I was the first of my family to be appointed a Count of that area. She mentioned that it had once belonged to another house that was wiped out, but she never did elaborate. I inquired once about who had governed Urae before, but the question sent her into tears.”

    “That’s understandable. Her majesty probably couldn’t bear to speak of it. She had a lot of faith and trust in my family, as House Novat had a long and glorious history. I can’t begin to imagine the pain she went through when the three of us went missing and she surely believed us dead. I felt terrible about having to abandon her for so long.”

    “I understand. Truth be told, I have no cause to take your claims at face value. But, there might be another way to discover the truth. Some years after the war ended, and the palace was being rebuilt, one of the work crews discovered an old portrait of a woman. No one at the palace recognized the woman and, though there was a name on the portrait’s frame, it was damaged in a fire and the name was lost. She does, however, bear a striking resemblance to your son, so there is some cause to believe what you have said. Unfortunately, if you are to make some sort of bid to inherit the throne when Queen Marion passes, then the other nobles will require more concrete proof of your claims.”

    “You can’t be serious, Francois!” Eric protested. “These two can only be charlatans!”

    “Will you shut the hell up already?!” Bryan retorted.

    “Make me, “your highness!”” Eric shot back, leaning hotly in Bryan’s face.

    “Delighted!”

    As Bryan drew his lance and Eric hefted his poleax, Owen and Francois stepped between the two.

    “Bryan, stop. You know better than this,” Owen lectured.

    “I’m afraid I must agree with Master Owen, Eric. The queen won’t tolerate such behavior, especially when we already have enough troubles to contend with!” Francois added.

    “Whatever. Then the “prince” and I will settle our score later,” Eric replied.

    “Fine by me,” Bryan agreed tersely. “Anyway, Francois, my father told me that there are two people who can validate our claims. Queen Marion herself is one of them.”

    “I suspected as much, but unfortunately, I doubt she can be of much help to you,” Francois reported. “Her condition has left her in such a state that she can’t speak very well anymore. What of this other individual? Perhaps that would prove a better alternative?”

    “Most likely,” Owen replied. “He is a Grand Duke of Astryn like myself and was one of the survivors of Shigo’s attack on Medann two decades ago.”

    “Ah, you must be referring to Duke Luther. Of the House of Pryderi, if I'm not mistaken?”

    “Yes, exactly. He is an old friend of mine as well.”

    “I see. I really wish I did not have to tell you this, but I’m afraid Duke Luther passed away a few days ago. He had been ailing for some time and, one night his heart failed him. We tried everything, but… Not even our best healers could save him. I’m sorry.”

    “…Oh. I see…”

    “…Then we have to see Queen Marion. She’s the only person left who can identify us,” Bryan insisted.

    “Very well,” Francois concurred. “We can only hope that she has the strength to judge your claim…one way, or the other. We will remain here until you are ready to leave, and then we will escort you to Medann. Come with us as soon as you finish your errand here.”

    “Of course. We’ll try to finish quickly.”

    With that, Bryan went back to aiding his allies. While that task was underway, Owen spoke with Francois at greater length. Though he was still skeptical of Bryan’s claim, the Count of Urae, it seemed, had found Owen to be trustworthy. The Count, however, was also palpably aware of Eric’s displeasure at this seeming acceptance of Bryan and Owen’s tale, and thus withheld many of the specifics. With Queen Marion dying, and supposedly without an heir, the question of whom would claim the throne was on everybody’s mind. The various dukes and duchesses were already planning their own moves. They were trying to determine who would, or would not, make a bid for the throne and were also working to build up their forces and to secure the allegiance of commanders to lead their troops as well as other nobles to ally with them. Francois and Eric had already been approached by several of the competing dukes and duchesses. These dukes and duchesses had offered them positions of command, both in their armies and in their courts after the crown had been won. Some of the other nobles who’d been similarly entreated had either consented to back one side or another while others, declaring themselves neutral, had armed themselves in case someone did not take “no” for an answer. With all the resources and treasure poured into these campaigns for the throne, however, there had been nothing to stop the Red Claw from ravaging the countryside and leaving in their wake the terrible poverty that the group had already seen the previous day. Francois had refrained from mentioning any names or other specifics during this discussion, but what he said was more than enough to confirm the urgency of the situation.

    Owen discreetly relayed this news to Bryan and, though he hardly needed to, urged his son to hurry. Thankfully, it was only a short time before the last of the loot was packed away into the wagons and everyone was prepared to continue on to Medann. Bryan relayed the plans he and Francois had decided upon to Azura and she assured him that she and the other troops would be there if he needed them. During the remainder of the trip to the capital, Bryan spoke with his father and inquired about their family history. Owen explained that their family had quite a remarkable legacy. Bryan’s ancestor, who had elevated the family to greatness, had not actually been a blood member of House Novat. He had been known to his friends as Iron Storm, not only for his strength and speed, but also for his insistence on only using iron weapons, “lest the fight be too easy,” he'd been known to say. Iron Storm had been a warrior and an instructor in the service of an Astrynian earl. That earl had a son, but he was cowardly and unfit to succeed his father. The earl and Iron Storm had attempted to train the son, but to no avail. Sometime later, the earl received word of a horde of bandits preparing to attack his lands. He led his warriors, as well as his son and Iron Storm, into battle. The bandits, however, were far stronger than the earl had expected and, to make matters worse, his cowardly son fled the battle. However, Iron Storm fought peerlessly and achieved victory. The earl, unfortunately, had been dealt a fatal wound. The earl was enraged by his son’s cowardice and, with his dying breath, disinherited his cowardly son on the spot and named Iron Storm as his successor. Iron Storm then went on to marry the earl’s daughter and, under his leadership, House Novat enjoyed a veritable golden age. By the time Iron Storm had passed on, House Novat commanded four times as much land and more than ten times as much prestige as it had beforehand.

    “Wow,” Bryan murmured, stunned. “That’s amazing. I actually feel honored to be a descendant of such a hero.”

    “So do I, Bryan. In fact, he was often mentioned in Astrynian history books,” Owen continued. “I’m afraid I can’t recall his name, though. He was called Iron Storm so much, and by everyone, that most people have forgotten what his real name was. I suspect that a history book is the only place you can find that out.”

    “That’s alright. One thing I’m wondering, whatever happened to the cowardly son?”

    “No one really knows. He wasn’t exactly missed, as you might have guessed. He did try to overturn his father’s dying decree in the courts but, obviously, he didn’t succeed. He vowed revenge, stalked off and was never heard from again. Although most had just balked at his threat, your ancestor did keep an eye out for him. The disinherited son might have been a coward, but he was also cunning and clever, and could very well have been dangerous.”

    “I see. So, what do you know about House Astryn’s history? What were my mother’s ancestors like?”

    “Well, I don’t know much, but I do know that they were an honored and beloved family. The Astyrnian people never once denied that they should rule the country, as they did so wisely and well for countless generations. They, too, have had their share of war heroes in their past, and that was what earned them the respect of their people and the right to the throne. Grand Duke Luther would’ve been delighted to tell you so much more, though. He was also a historian, you see.”

    “Hm…”

    Francois soon signaled for a halt and turned to the pair.

    “My friends, we will be in view of the palace soon,” he reported. “Assuming we arrive in time for you to meet with Queen Marion, we will—”

    “Count Francois, General Eric!” Olivia’s voice interrupted as she landed her wyvern nearby. “I’m afraid we have a problem!”

    “Great, now what?” Eric grumbled.

    “A huge force of beast laguz have been spotted! They’re beyond the hill up ahead!”

    “The Larameans?! What the hell do they want?!”

    “As if we don’t have enough problems already,” Bryan added angrily. “We should arm ourselves.”

    “Hold! We have no cause to believe they’re here to attack us,” Francois pointed out.

    As if in reply, the group heard a sudden inhalation that was followed by an overpowering roar. At that signal, dozens of cat and tiger laguz soon crested the hill and charged towards the group.

    “You were saying?” Bryan countered, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

    “…Let’s just keep them from tearing us to shreds,” Francois replied, a lopsided smile on his face.

    With that, the warriors rushed forward and clashed with the laguz. Much like the appearance of the Recathe hawks earlier, these new arrivals had Bryan, Azura, and their comrades deeply troubled. There didn’t seem to be any beorc amongst the enemy, which ruled out the theory that these might be conscripted prisoners, and Bryan was somehow certain that these were not laguz bandits. Could hostilities have broken out between Astryn and Larame? Francois, he was sure, would have considered such information too sensitive to share during their earlier conference, but the Count had seemed just as surprised as the rest of them. The question of why Larame had suddenly invaded the country, however, would have to wait. Every time a laguz was struck down, another took their place. And, these laguz were seasoned warriors. The cats were agile and fast on their paws while the tigers had the endurance to withstand one blow after another without faltering. Even after Lily, Soren, and Francois began to use fire tomes, the natural weakness of the beast tribe laguz, the enemy did not relent and Azura’s troops were hard pressed on all sides.

    “I don’t get this!” Bryan blurted sometime later as he raised his shield to deflect a blow from a pouncing cat. “Why would they attack Astryn?”

    “I must confess, I am at a loss to explain it,” Francois admitted as he launched an Elfire spell into that same cat from behind Bryan. “We’ve never had any quarrel with the Larameans before. Orenias’s relationship with them has rarely been friendly, but we’re not to blame for that.”

    Bryan was about to speak again but, before he could open his mouth, Eric streaked past on his wyvern. The Dragonmaster brought his mount to a halt and confronted the tiger whom appeared to be leading the Laramean attack. Unlike his brethren, whom were mainly gray tigers and pale yellow cats, his tiger form was white and bespangled with black stripes.

    “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Eric demanded as he hefted a steel poleax and made ready to spur his mount into motion for a swooping attack.

    “Ah, if it isn’t General Eric!” the tiger replied. “I was rather hoping I'd get the chance to see you, and personally repay you for your banditry.”

    “Banditry?!” Eric repeated, more incredulous than confused.

    “Don't you play the fool with me! The bandits robbed you of your food and supplies and you replaced your losses by looting our stores!”

    “…What in goddess’s name are you talking about?!”

    “You still dare to feign ignorance! We caught some of your men in the act just the other day!”

    “That’s preposterous! I never ordered any of them to do such a thing! Someone tricked you and I think I know who!”

    For a breathless moment, Bryan found himself wondering if Eric would implicate the Red Claw or the prince. The tiger, however, gave Eric no chance to decide.

    “Oh really?” the tiger scoffed. “Then prove it!”

    With that, the white tiger leaped towards Eric. The Dragonmaster heeled his mount into motion, taking him above the tiger’s attack. Francois, Bryan, and Azura, meanwhile, soon joined the general in order to prevent the other cats and tigers from aiding their leader. However, the white tiger moved far more quickly than his underlings. His claws had caught Eric in the thigh as he tried to take to the air and, when Eric swooped in for a strike, the tiger met him in midflight and very nearly knocked him out of his saddle. The tiger, on the other hand, had landed blows to the wyvern’s shoulder and arm. His claws sunk into Eric’s left arm as well, nearly making Eric drop his weapon. The general bellowed in pain, he angrily swung his poleax one more time and managed only to scrape the tiger’s side. The beast, rather amused at his faltering enemy, was about to attack again. Before he could strike, however, one of his subordinates raced over and reported that they’d lost too many of their men.

    “Blast! We’ll have to retreat for now then,” the white tiger ordered and then turned to Eric and the others. “You win this time, but mark my words, we’ll be back!”

    With that, the tiger and the remainder of his unit fled. Too weary and bloodied to pursue, and having already been delayed at the worst possible moment, Azura and her comrades let them go.

    “Well that’s just terrific! Warring dukes! Charlatan princes! And, now this!” Eric opined angrily. Kiel and Sara, on the other hand, stared at the white tiger curiously as he vanished from sight. He looked so familiar, but just who was he?

  2. #32
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And here is part 2.


    Chapter 29: The Blaze of War

    Part 2


    Across the Meloran border, Royce directed his wyvern to the darkened keep in the heart of Ebonar. As usual, the sky was overcast and broodingly dark, due to a recent volcanic eruption in the north. The smoke had spread upward and outward, creating more cloud cover and blotting out the sun. The Melorans, however, were used to this. There were many volcanoes in northern Melora, and several of them had been fairly active for years on end. Thus, dark, cloudy days were not uncommon. When Royce passed through the outer gates of the keep and returned his wyvern to the royal wyvern roost, he proceeded to the throne room to report to his mother. As he had expected, Isis was there awaiting him. Much to Royce’s displeasure, however, so was Bernard. A scowl crossed the Meloran prince’s features when he laid eyes upon the Red Claw leader.

    “Bernard! How dare you show your face?!” Royce blurted angrily as he approached. “I’m surprised Mother hasn’t had you hanged!”

    “Why, whatever do you mean, Prince Royce?” Bernard inquired with a false air of respect punctuated by a smothered chuckle.

    “You know damn well what I mean! My men and I were dispatched to rendezvous with yours near the Talgrian capital. We expected to find the stage set for an invasion of Aracion, and what do I find instead? A corpse pile, and yet another failure that you have handed us!”

    “What are you saying?”

    “We were poised to achieve a decisive victory, and you have turned it into a disaster, dumbass!”

    “Royce, that’s enough,” Isis intervened. “The failed attempt to invade Aracion is a minor setback.”

    “W-What?! Mother! Capturing that sorry ass excuse for a city is crucial!” Royce protested. “Talgria is the heart of Allied Command, and its fall would ensure our victory!”

    “Of course, but Bernard has good news.”

    “Indeed, I do,” Bernard confirmed. “The invasion of Aracion may have failed, but the assault on Jerusa did not. Cilae is officially ours. The mission in Astryn was also a success. Those pitiful Astrynians believed everything my men told them and gave up their junk without so much as lifting a finger. I also took the liberty of…ensuring that Astryn will not interfere with our plans, regardless of whether or not their “prince” secures his throne.”

    “Really? It’s about time you and your men did something right,” Royce replied tauntingly.

    “Don’t push me, Royce!” Bernard warned, abandoning his false show of respect.

    “Boys, quiet!” Isis ordered. “We may have taken Cilae, but Talgria and the other Allied nations are certain to retaliate. Our defenses must stay strong, and ready to beat back their attack. Is that clear, Bernard?”

    “Yes, your majesty,” Bernard complied.

    “Now, what is your report, Royce? Other than the “disaster” you mentioned?”

    Royce did not miss the note of challenge in his mother’s tone. Undoubtedly, she wanted to know if he had managed to achieve something at least comparable to Bernard’s recent successes. Unfortunately, Royce had little to offer…and the smug grin on Bernard’s face only rankled the Meloran prince’s pride all the more.

    “Well, all I have to say is that I had a little run-in with Lartz. He has turned against us, though we had already suspected as much. I was able to overpower him, but I did not kill him,” Royce reported.

    “And why did you let him live?”

    “To be honest, Mother, I wanted very much to kill him. I wanted to decapitate him, and rip his heart and guts out with my bare hands. But I let the bastard live because it may work to our advantage. If I’m not mistaken, he’s also fighting against the traitor, Shigo. If his powers are triggered at the right moment, he may very well kill that son of a dastard for us.”

    “Ah, I see. Not a bad plan. Then you’ll dispose of him afterwards, I presume?”

    “Exactly. I have to admit, I look forward to the suffering of these interlopers with great anticipation! And I’ll make certain that Lartz’s death is the bloodiest and most excruciating of them all!”

    “Well…” Isis replied, arching one eyebrow. “Then you should do well to maintain your self-control. We’re waging this war for a reason, not for your macabre fun.”

    “But of course, Mother. By the way, how is the research on our half of the Miracle Stone going?”

    “Ah, very well, actually. Our artificers had recently discovered a way to use the stone’s power without having to eliminate that girl who carries the blood of the Elhorians. All we need to do is get her half, and victory is ours.”

    “Excellent. Heh, heh, heh…”

    ***


    Meanwhile, in Cilae, Leyon and Derien had been rudely reacquainted with one of the most fundamental rules of war: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Soren’s plan had been more than sound, it had been brilliant…but things went wrong anyway. As the knights and wolves made their way towards the Meloran troops besieging the Allied armies at the Cilae-Melora border, the wolf Derien had sent to Aracion returned with bad news. Although the ships had been gathered and loaded with the siege weapons for Soren’s planned diversion, an unseasonable storm had struck and the ships would have to remain docked until the storm calmed. Thus, there was not yet a pseudo-evacuation at the Cilaen ports to draw away the enemy from Jerusa and the border. This had briefly left Leyon in a quandary, as he rather doubted he could afford to wait, certainly if he wanted to keep Melora from discovering his presence until after Cilae was already liberated. Forced to improvise, he decided that the only thing they could do was to covertly make contact with the Allied troops entrapped at the border and, in concert with them, attack the Melorans. It was a risky strategy, as even one Meloran escaping could cost them the element of surprise and very likely, the entire campaign. But the young general concluded that victory could be achieved.

    Azura, he suspected, would have approved.

    The group had managed to signal the Allied armies via a series of torch signals. With these, the two Allied forces first made contact and then devised a rough plan. After that, Leyon and Derien dispersed their forces, sending units to each of the Meloran troop concentrations along the border, so that each would be attacked from both an outward and an inward direction. A few hours later, Leyon relayed one last signal: “now.”

    Seemingly in an instant, the Melorans found themselves being crushed between two waves of Allied troops. Caught unprepared, they were hacked to pieces. Luckily, there had been few losses and, even better, the combined Allied forces had prevented any of the Melorans from escaping to sound an alarm. No less impressive, however, was the Allied troops who had held their ground at the border. Surrounded on all sides, cut off from supplies and reinforcements, they had nonetheless proven impossible for the Melorans to dislodge. While Leyon had been distributing new weapons and supplies, most of which the former property of the deceased Melorans, he could not help by marvel at the ingenuity and cohesion of the Allied troops here. Cilaen troops had lent their skills in botany to make medicines from wild herbs after their stock of vulneraries and elixirs has been depleted. The Talgrians had used their metal working skills to mend worn and damaged weapons and to “reclaim” those that had broken so that the metal could be put to other uses. The Eraghoan wolves used their skills in hunting and foraging to gather food, often at the expense of the besieging Melorans. And, the Perais Ravens used their mastery of the air to spy out both oncoming Meloran attacks and weaknesses in the siege. Through incredible courage, a flawless pooling of myriad talents and an awe-inspiring effort, the impossible had been achieved.

    It had not, however, been without cost.

    Of the more than eight thousand Allied troops holding the border, one out of every three was now dead. More than half of their warhorses, Pegasi, and pack animals had been lost as well.

    Honored and humbled to serve with such brave soldiers, and wishing fervently that he could do more, Leyon had given them nearly all of the supplies taken from the defeated Melorans as well as whatever supplies and troops he himself could spare. He also had Norman and the other healers with his force tend to the wounded amongst these heroes. Later, Leyon, Derien, and Louise led their party towards Jerusa, hoping that the diversion would be underway by the time they arrived. The battle at the border, however, had taken most of the night and Leyon was obliged to call a halt. A village was spotted in the distance and, though it was eerily quiet, there was no sign of any Red Claw or Meloran forces, so Leyon deemed the area safe to settle for the night. Unfortunately, the journey to the village wasn’t as safe as he had supposed. The group had run afoul of some Red Claw bandits on the way there, and although they managed to defeat them easily, Jett ended up taking an arrow to his leg, and was rendered unable to walk. Because the arrow was lodged deep in his flesh, Norman was unable to treat the wound right away and advised Leyon and company to move to a safer location. They traveled a fair bit, but thankfully reached the village before Jett’s injury grew worse. He had been confined to the convoy wagon during the journey, and did not bother to hide his displeasure. Since sunrise was not far off, Leyon and the others agreed to set up camp and rest as well as they could.

    “Dang it, Jett… Did you have to go jumping in front of me and taking that arrow?” Magali inquired irritably when she, Norman, and the other members of Kevin’s group entered the wagon to check on Jett.

    “Don’t be a moron, of course I did! You’d have been hit!” Jett argued as he clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut against the pain in his leg. “And you know full well that I swore to your parents that I’d protect you no matter what!”

    “Yeah, but I would’ve held up my shield! I was paying attention and you never are! Who’s the moron now?”

    “I am so! And, you were not! Paying attention, I mean.”

    “Was too!”

    Zane merely sighed.

    “Come on, you two, stop,” Kevin interjected, though it sounded more like a plea than an order. “This is ridiculous. Norman, how long is this going to take?”

    “Well, it depends on how deep the arrow is,” Norman replied. “I’ll do my best, though. Now Jett, this might hurt for a little while…”

    Zane turned to Kevin while Norman attempted to dislodge the arrow in Jett’s flesh.

    “Commander Kevin, may I speak with you privately for a moment?” he inquired.

    “Sure, Zane. You’re always welcome to talk to me,” Kevin replied with a smile. The two then departed the wagon and approached a nearby grove some distance from the camp.

    “So what’s on your mind?” Kevin inquired.

    “Well, you know, ever since we were kids, we wanted to be mercenaries,” Zane began. “Your dad was awesome too. He was the best fighter I’d ever seen and his small mercenary company could take on just about anyone and come out on top. It made me wish I’d known my own father. Sure, my aunt and uncle raised me like I was their own son, but it wasn’t the same.”

    “I hear you,” Kevin replied. “And we met because we both wanted to join my father’s group someday.”

    “That’s right. His men were amazing. Until that horrible day…”

    Here, Zane’s words trailed away and his expression turned grave. Not that Kevin could blame him, for he knew all too well what troubled his friend. Kevin’s father and his mercenary group had garnered great fame. Sadly, with fame came enemies. And, a particular group of bandits who sought revenge had proven terrible adversaries.

    “I know," Kevin replied. “Those thugs turned out to be so much stronger than anybody would’ve guessed. We lost two of the five members, as well as my mother. It practically destroyed me and my father. He could hardly bear to eat or sleep, let alone fight or run the company anymore. Those mercenaries were like brothers to him. And my mother...we all loved her dearly.”

    “Yeah. The two other survivors were very upset by the tragedy as well and also decided to retire. They still supported you and your dad as well as each other, but things were never the same. Even so, when we were old enough, we decided to become mercenaries ourselves. And not just because it was our dream, but also to do honor to your father and his company. It was just us two and we made a great team. We couldn’t wipe out hordes of bandits or pirates like your old man did back in the day, but those we did fight got clobbered. They were great times. …No, amazing times.”

    “What are you saying, exactly?”

    “I’m saying that ever since you let Jett and Magali join us, it hasn’t been as much fun for me. I gave them a chance like you wanted me to, but all I’ve seen from them is bickering, bickering, and more bickering. They’ve gotten on my last nerve.”

    “I know, but they needed work. Jett has no family and Magali’s mother is crippled and unable to work, so there wasn’t much for them to live on. And we’ve all grown to be a very good team. I know those two like to quarrel, but they’ve also become capable warriors. The four of us can protect Cilae just as well as my father’s group did if we work together to become better fighters and a better team.”

    “Well, I guess that’s true. They just better not start arguing more than they already do…if that’s even possible.”

    “Fair enough. Let’s go help General Leyon and the others now.”

    “Alright. And Commander, just so you know, I’d follow you anywhere.”

    “Heh. Thanks, Zane.”

    With that, the two rejoined the knights and wolves. As the group had left the tents behind so as not to attract undue attention, they just bundled up and settled down on the turf. Before retiring for what was left of the night, Leyon, Derien, and Louise discussed Soren’s strategy. They had expected the ships and siege weapons to be on their way to the Allied troops holed up at the Cilaean ports by now, but the storm in Talgria had made quite a mess out of their initial plan. They still had yet to decide how to compensate for the setback, and they were all too aware that they could not afford any mistakes. After all, they had only one chance to succeed, and failure could likely cost the Allied nations the entire war. And, even if Leyon and his group did successfully retake Jerusa, Bryan, Azura, and their army still had to do their part and get Astryn and Orenias to join Allied Command. The outcome of either mission could determine the future of all of Altarais, one way or the other. Leyon offered to go fetch some quills and parchment so that a revised plan of action could be laid out in writing. This way, no one would forget their roles.

    Leyon’s trip back to the wagon, however, was interrupted when Eliot suddenly emerged. He was carrying a compact rack filled with small vials of different colored paints, which he sometimes brought with him so he could paint his sketches between missions. Eliot had spotted Leyon a split second too late and slammed right into him, crushing the vials between the two of them. By the time the two knights hit the ground, both were covered in paint.

    “AAAH!” Leyon bellowed as the paint splashed everywhere. “Eliot, what the hell?!”

    “Ah! Oh man… I’m so sorry, General!” Eliot quickly apologized, standing up and offering his hand. “And there goes my paint too…”

    “Never mind that, we’re a mess now!” Leyon protested angrily and allowed Eliot to help him up. “And there’s purple paint up my nose!”

    At this, and despite his better judgment, Eliot couldn’t help but unsuccessfully try to suppress a chuckle. His superior officer had every color of the rainbow dripping off of his armor, face, and clothing. Leyon then noticed that Eliot looked even worse, and a smile soon formed on his face. Within the next few moments, both were laughing uproariously. Derien and Louise soon came over to see what the commotion was about and the wolf general soon found himself rolling on the ground in laughter while Louise giggled.

    “Oh! Oh my goodness, you two look absurd!” she opined.

    “Yeah. I’m just glad Azura isn’t here to see this,” Leyon agreed. “That would be terribly embarrassing. Well, Eliot, luckily for us, there’s a pond near here, so let’s clean up and then get back to work. I’ll meet you and Derien later, Milady.”

    “Alright. I’ll go get the parchment and quills then,” Louise offered and then noticed Derien was still on the ground laughing hysterically. “…Derien, was it really that funny?”

    “…Sorry, I couldn’t help it,” Derien replied, finally rising. “That was just priceless.”

    “Well, calm yourself and let’s go. We still have a serious situation to attend to, and I'd rather the Melorans didn't join us for this little comedy.”

    “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

    Although most of the vials had been shattered, Leyon and Eliot began to salvage what they could while Louise and Derien went about their tasks. Luckily, the ground was soft, and those vials that escaped being crushed between the two knights were still undamaged. The rack of vials, however, had been smashed to splinters, so they could only load the remaining vials into Eliot’s satchel and then head for the pond. Eliot then noticed that despite the severity of the situation and having been “painted,” Leyon had a large, genuine smile on his face.

    “Say, General. You’re in a pretty good mood lately,” Eliot spoke up kindly.

    “Yep. I did just recently win the heart of the girl of my dreams, after all,” Leyon pointed out.

    “That you did! I had a feeling you would too.”

    “Hm?”

    “I suspected Lady Azura had developed a crush on you,” Eliot explained when the two reached the pond and began washing their faces and armor. “I spotted her blushing a few times in your presence.”

    “Huh. First Natalie, then her. I never would've guessed that about either of them. I just could never think of Natalie as anything more than a trusted friend and ally though.”

    “Wait, how did you know about her old crush?”

    “Azura told me, actually. She said you told her.”

    “…Oh. Right…”

    A devious grin soon crossed Leyon’s features.

    “You know,” he began. “Since I’m with Azura, and Marc and Leona have each other, that just leaves you and…”

    “No way, Deputy Commander Natalie hates me,” Eliot protested.

    “Maybe. Maybe not.”

    “Now hold it, don’t go trying to get her and I together. You might have succeeded with Marc and Leona, but I’m afraid the deputy commander and I are a different story.”

    “Ah, so you do like her?”

    “I didn’t say that!”

    “Heh, we’ll see. Let’s just finish up here so I can get to that meeting.”

    “Alright then.”

    With that, the two continued scrubbing their armor and the stains in their clothes. When Leyon was finally finished sometime later and strapped his armor on once more, he quickly headed back to rejoin Derien and Louise. As Leyon expected, the two were already seated on the turf. Several sheets of parchment sat alongside quills and inkwells near each of them. Soon, Leyon greeted his allies and took his seat.

    Soren did his part by coming up with the brilliant strategies they were going to use, but the storm had thrown things into disarray. It was up to Leyon and the others to find a way to succeed despite this unwelcome surprise.

    “Alright, let’s get started,” Leyon spoke up as he took a quill and sheet of parchment. “First things first, though. Someone has to reach his majesty in Aracion to find out when those siege weapons will get shipped out. Lady Louise, would you mind if I had one of my knights take care of that?”

    “Not at all,” Louise replied. “In fact, I think that’s the best option, seeing as the castle guards won’t as easily allow a wolf laguz to enter. They were seen working for the enemy, after all.”

    “My thoughts exactly. No offense to you, Derien.”

    “None taken,” Derien agreed. “You probably have more knights to spare than I’ve got wolves anyway.”

    “Maybe. Now, the real question is what to do in the meantime,” Leyon continued. “I had hoped those weapons would be on their way by now, but there’s no telling how long that storm will last. And, I don’t think we can afford to wait. We need to figure out what to do, and we have to do it now.”

    “That’s a tough one,” Louise replied.

    “Well…” Derien spoke up. “Maybe we don’t need the siege weapons. At least, not right away. What if some of us slipped into the ports and made it look like the troops there were building rafts and dinghies to sail themselves out?”

    “It's risky,” Louise pointed out. “We were planning to funnel as many Melorans and Red Claw towards those ports as we could, and they’d need the siege weapons to hold out.”

    “Yeah, but what if we split up into separate groups? The first could keep going to Jerusa, the second can slip into the ports and get the fake evacuation going, while the third follows the enemy heading to the ports. Some of our fast units could hit them and run, again and again, to slow them down and keep them off balance. That might buy the ships carrying the siege weapons the time they need to get here.”

    “I think that might work, but who are we going to send? We can’t send too many, or else we won’t have enough forces to retake Jerusa. And, we can’t send too few either, or else the Melorans will wipe out the troops at the ports…and march right back to finish us off.”

    “Hey, it was my plan, so why not let me and my wolves do the honors? We’ve got mobility and speed on our side and we can tell the difference between Allied soldiers and the enemy by their scents. My men would know exactly where to find them and slip past their siege lines unnoticed. We can also track the Melorans leaving Jerusa the same way. I can lead either force.”

    “Actually, I’ll need you with us for the attack on Jerusa. Still, your plan is a good one. How many wolves did you bring?” Leyon inquired.

    “Jeez, I never get to have any fun. Well, since my king needed most of our army to aid in Aracion’s defense, I couldn’t take a whole lot, but I believe I brought enough. There should be around eighty with us.”

    “Good, we should be able to work with that. Now we’ll map out a route for your men to—”

    “General Leyon!” a panicked voice suddenly interrupted from nearby. One of the knights had raced towards the trio, panting heavily.

    “Huh? What’s going on?” Leyon inquired, rising to his feet.

    “I apologize for interrupting, Sir, but we have trouble!” the knight continued. “A few of the other knights and I spotted huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. We think the village is under attack!”

    “What?! Then get your butts over there now! We’ll be right behind you!”

    “Yes, Sir!”

    With that, the knight departed to alert his comrades and relay Leyon’s orders.

    “Lady Louise, you should round up the other troops. Derien and I will head to town,” Leyon continued.

    “Alright, be careful,” Louise warned. “I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

    “Right!”

    With that, the trio raced off. Louise and Leyon hurried to their mounts while Derien immediately headed for the village with two dozen wolves trailing him. As soon as he had mounted his horse, Leyon spurred the beast into motion, soon catching up with the wolf laguz general. Louise took her Pegasus and sought out Kevin’s group as well as Norman and anyone else who might not have heard the alert. Since the village was not far away, Leyon, Derien, and the others reached its outskirts quickly. The sight that greeted the generals, however, brought them to a stunned halt. Several of the village’s buildings were ablaze while the people, in a blind panic, fled every which way. Both Red Claw bandits and Melorans were either chasing after them or looting the buildings that weren’t yet burning. A few corpses also littered the ground, all of which were likely Cilaeans.

    “This…This is unforgivable!” Leyon seethed, tightening his grip on Olegxing. “Derien, have your wolves surround the town so none of the enemy can escape. My knights and I will do the rest.”

    “Alright,” Derien agreed and turned to his men. “You all heard the man, get going and don’t let a single Meloran or Red Claw member get past you!”

    With that, the wolves darted into the smoke and the shadows, waiting for unwary prey to come within reach.

    “Now everyone else, you know what to do!” Leyon finished.

    With that, the knights charged forward and attacked. Kevin and the others soon followed, disgusted at this latest act of abuse against their homeland and countrymen. The loss of Jerusa was bad enough. The enemy continuing to attack the common folk and pillage the countryside was beyond toleration. The panic amongst the surviving townsfolk came to an abrupt end, however, when they noticed their saviors.

    “Oh! It’s General Leyon and Commander Kevin! We’re saved!” a woman shouted from a window, which she’d been about to leap through.

    “The wolf laguz came to help too!” a man added joyfully as he sought refuge in a well. “Never thought I’d live to see the day. Give these monsters what they deserve!”

    “You can count on it!” Leyon replied as he flung Olegxing into a warrior’s chest.

    As soon as they realized what was happening, however, the enemy began swarming to meet the attack. Dozens of Red Claw appeared in the streets within minutes while the townsfolk quickly sought shelter. Even so, the enraged Allied troops had the advantage of both surprise and strength. Unfortunately, the fires threatened to turn the balance. They continued to burn, creating thick clouds of bilious smoke which soon covered the entire town. The choking fumes soon left the warriors coughing and gagging, and made it far more difficult to see the enemy. On the other hand, neither the Red Claw bandits nor the Melorans could see well either. Abruptly, two bright glows flared to life and illuminated the area. The knights and wolves, recognizing what those glows meant, averted their eyes but the enemy was left squinting from the sudden brilliance, allowing the Allied troops to seize the advantage once more. After striking down a Meloran Paladin, Leyon turned to see both Eliot and Natalie, both in similar garb to his own. The two each now had a cape flaming from their backs while their horses sported helmets with small horns on the noses. Ornate trappings now reached the horses’ ankles while Eliot’s and Natalie’s armor took on a similar look of high quality.

    “Heh heh…” Leyon chuckled as he turned his gaze towards his enemies. “Now you all are really in for it.”

    “You can say that again!” Natalie replied, twirling her sword and riding into combat once more.

    “Hey, don’t forget about me!” Eliot added and followed.

    While the trio charged into the fray once more, Kevin’s group was near the opposite side of the village picking off enemy stragglers. However, they didn’t notice a girl emerge from a nearby alley. She was a light, spritely figure with a curly green ponytail and armed with a steel sword. When she laid eyes on Zane, her jaw dropped and she excitedly rushed towards the group.

    “Zane! Commander Kevin! Oh, I’m so glad I finally found you guys!” she cried as she approached the two.

    “Huh? What the—?!” Zane replied, turning around to face the girl. “Jade! What are you doing here?! I told you to stay at the house where it’s safe! Don’t you know how dangerous this country is now?!”

    “What sort of a dolt do you take me for?! Of course I knew, but I’ve been so worried about you ever since you left! My parents are too!” Jade protested. “And ever since Jerusa fell, the Red Claw has been stomping all over us like we’re bugs! I couldn’t stand not being able to do anything, and it wasn’t as if I’d be any safer at home, so I set out to look for you and Commander Kevin. I’d I heard you had joined the Talgrians.”

    “But why, Jade? Your parents surely need you to protect them,” Kevin pointed out.

    “The Red Claw doesn’t want to waste their time on them,” Jade countered bitterly. “They just wanted our loot. They said as much themselves, but I’m not going to wait around for them to come back for more. So I left hoping to find you guys. I want to help you fight against these creeps. I got captured on the way here, but—”

    “What?! Jade, you could’ve been killed! And I never finished training you,” Zane argued.

    “Will you listen to me for one second?! I managed to escape. Those guards couldn’t handle me. See, Zane, I trained myself while you were gone. I’m not a beginner anymore. Just let me help you, please! I promise to be careful!”

    “Hmm… Commander, what do you think?” Zane inquired, turning to Kevin and looking too aggravated by Jade’s appearance to think clearly.

    “Well, we can’t afford the time to take her home. Besides, seeing as she succeeded in coming all this way, I think she could be helpful. And, besides, she’ll be safer with us anyway,” Kevin pointed out.

    “Good point. Alright, Jade, you can help, but don’t make me regret this. And, don't leave my sight either.”

    “Oh, thank you, Zane! And don’t worry, I won’t,” Jade promised.

    With that, Jade lost no time contradicting her own promise. She drew her sword and joined the fray, cutting down Red Claw with wild abandon.

    “What was I thinking?” Zane asked no one in particular. “I regret this already!”

    Despite his grousing, Zane had to admit that Jade did know how to fight. Still, he could only hope that he and Kevin weren’t making a mistake by letting her join them. After all, even one new ally could make a big difference. And, in order to retake Cilae, they’d need all the help they could get.

  3. #33
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And finally, chapter 30!


    Chapter 30: Desperate Ambitions


    Not long after Jade had joined the battle, the choking clouds of smoke from the blazing fires in the village had finally begun to dissipate, allowing both Leyon’s army and the enemy see one another once again. Though this meant there’d be no further concealment for either side, Leyon and company were relieved that their visibility returned was that much better. Now that they could see more clearly, it was easier for the knights to fight and to avoid accidentally hitting their comrades. Even better, the fires had begun dying down a short time as well. This left more room to wage battle across the ruined village and greatly reduced the threat of the knights being injured by the blazes. Unfortunately, the damage caused to the village still posed a danger. Many of the buildings had been literally gutted by the conflagrations and looked ready to collapse. Several had already fallen, possibly trapping many people beneath the rubble, and what might have been muffled cries for help echoed from several collapsed structures. Leyon quickly ordered some of the knights to break off from the battle and to attempt to dig the trapped villagers out before they were crushed or died of suffocation. He and the remainder of the army, meanwhile, focused on what was left of the Melorans and Red Claw members.

    Natalie, quite enthused at her promotion, directed her horse nearby a building to skewer an axe wielding Red Claw member lurking near the village tavern when suddenly, the building’s roof began to groan ominously. Natalie’s horse, already skittish from the fires, was spooked and neighed loudly, rearing up on its hind legs without warning.

    “Ugh! Aaaah!” Natalie yelped as she was thrown off of her steed and onto the ground…no more than a stone throw away from the crumbling tavern. Her eyes going wide at this realization, she scrambled to her feet, but she was half a second too late. The roof had split apart and a massive piece of debris hurtled straight towards her. Eliot, who had dismounted to search the rubble of another fallen building for survivors, saw her predicament and raced over.

    “NATALIE, NO!” he exclaimed, charging forward to shove the deputy commander out of the falling debris’s path. He tried to follow, but was a heartbeat too slow. As a result, an enormous mass of wood landed on Eliot’s legs with tremendous force.

    “AAAAAUGH!”

    “Eliot!” Natalie gasped and scrambled to her feet again. Eliot was gasping in pain and had dug his hands under the debris in an attempt to free himself. But the weight of the wood and the deep pain in his legs, particularly his right one, were too great. All he could do was lay there, pinned and trying futilely to shove the debris off of himself. Natalie attempted to aid him, working to shove or to lift the wood off of his likely broken legs. But even their combined efforts could hardly budge it. Regardless, she tried with all her might from above while he struggled from below. The spiteful debris bloodied the fingers of both knights, but refused to be dislodged.

    “Ugh, dang it, Eliot! You’re such an idiot!” Natalie opined.

    “What?! I just saved your life, thank you very much!” Eliot retorted through the pain.

    “I’m sure you could’ve done that without getting into such a predicament!”

    “And how, may I ask?”

    “I…I don’t know right now!” Natalie admitted, though she now sounded more afraid than annoyed and her eyes roamed the battlefield frantically. “General Leyon! Help!”

    Leyon, hearing Natalie’s cry, immediately brought his horse to a halt and scanned the decimated village for the deputy commander. Thankfully, by this time, the enemy’s numbers had dwindled a great deal, allowing the general to safely turn his attention to his comrade’s distress. When he saw Eliot pinned under the fallen rubble and Natalie trying to free the trouble-prone knight from its crushing weight, he immediately raced over.

    “No! Eliot!” he cried as he dismounted and took hold of the debris. “What the hell happened?!”

    “The building was about to collapse and the noise spooked my horse,” Natalie explained and told Leyon about Eliot coming to her rescue and how he’d ended up trapped when the chunk of the roof crashed down upon his legs.

    “Ugh, damn it!” Leyon growled, half in fear and half in annoyance. He then directed that, upon his signal, the three knights would simultaneously bring their strength to bear; he and Natalie would lift while Eliot pushed from beneath. Still, I am amazed, Leyon thought. First Eliot saves my life, then Natalie’s. And each time, he took severe injuries in so doing. I’m making sure he gets that Legion of Service medal. He may not be the sharpest axe in the armory, but he is a true hero. Though the addition of Leyon’s strength was enough to free Eliot’s legs, the dark-haired knight was still unable to stand up.

    “I- I’m sorry, you guys…” he uttered. “My left leg hurts like hell… And I can’t move my right one at all.”

    “Oh dear…” Natalie murmured.

    “Blast. I sure hope Norman can get you back on your feet,” Leyon added, picking up Eliot and carrying him on his back. “We’re on a tight schedule, and we need every man we have.”

    “I’m so sorry… But thanks, General,” Eliot replied.

    “Hey, Eliot, don’t worry,” Leyon assured as he helped the knight get onto his horse, swung atop his own mount, and then mounted and rode towards the edge of the village. “This isn’t your fault. And besides, you’re my good friend. …No, more than that. You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”

    “…I am? Really?”

    “Yeah. No doubt about it.”

    “I…I am honored, Sir. Thank you.”

    Leyon merely shot the wounded knight a wry smile as they continued towards the village outskirts. Along the way, the general signaled for Norman to join them and instructed Derien to order the wolves to finish off the remaining enemies and for the knights to begin searching for survivors amidst the rubble. Leyon, Natalie, Norman, and the wounded Eliot, meanwhile, retreated back to the area where the army had thought to camp for the night. Several injured knights and wolves were already there, as well as a few townsfolk who’d been rescued from the battle. Norman, thankfully, had the sense to use conventional medicines on the injured townsfolk and to conserve the staves for use by the army. They would be needed when the attack on Jerusa began…and, badly. Leyon ordered Natalie to stand guard outside while he set his comrade gently inside one of the wagons. Norman, looking a bit flustered from the battle, soon began to examine Eliot’s latest injuries. He swept a glowing Mend staff up and down Eliot’s upper legs, where the knight said the pain was most intense. Norman then set the staff aside and gently began feeling his patient’s upper legs. Eliot winced wherever Norman mistakenly triggered even more pain.

    “Hmm…” Norman contemplated worriedly after a few moments.

    “Well, is Eliot going to be able to walk again at all?” Leyon inquired.

    “Eventually, yes,” Norman replied. “His left thigh just has a bad sprain, but I’m afraid his right is broken. I can feel a clean break in the bone just above the knee. My staff can heal the sprain, but it can’t fully repair a broken bone. Eliot will have to stay off of his leg for a few days to allow the bones to mend themselves properly. And, as was the case with Ike back in Fort Hector, he’ll need to eat the right foods to help it along.”

    “Ugh…” Eliot uttered; though whether it was from losing his place in the fight or the prospect of the “right foods” could not be determined.

    “Blast…” Leyon fumed as Norman began rummaging through his rucksack. “This means we’ll be short one seasoned warrior, and at the worst moment. I damn well hope Eliot will be able to fight by the time we reach the capital. We’re going to need all the strength we can muster for this mission to succeed.”

    “I agree,” Norman replied, producing several flat pieces of wood and rope from his rucksack. “Hopefully, the time spent waiting for the “evacuation” will be enough to see him back on his feet. For now, I’m going to put his leg in a splint. Eliot, if you want to get around while we’re camped, you’ll need a crutch.”

    “But where am I going to get one of those?” Eliot wondered as Norman removed the greaves from Eliot’s broken leg, rolled up his pants, and set the splints in place.

    “Don’t worry, I brought a few along just in case. You can never be too prepared, after all. We’re just lucky they’re so light and compact, since I was rather…restricted in how much I could bring along on this mission.”

    “Ah, thanks.”

    As Norman was carefully securing the splint to Eliot’s leg, Natalie entered the wagon.

    “Oh… Deputy Commander,” Eliot greeted.

    “Natalie,” Leyon added. “Is something wrong outside?”

    Curiously, the normally poised deputy commander suddenly became rather flustered.

    “Oh, no,” Natalie replied, but seemed to regret her words the moment they passed her lips. “I mean…things are, well, about what you’d expect. There are more wounded on the way; townspeople who were caught in the fighting. I, uh, thought it best to give Norman a…head’s up.”

    As she spoke, her face became progressively redder. And, Leyon rather doubted that the heat of the fires in the village were the cause.

    “Heh, true,” he replied, suppressing a smirk.

    “Oh, dear, I had a feeling you’d broken your leg,” Natalie said as she took note of Norman finishing Eliot’s splint and then going to dig out a crutch. “You were lucky you didn’t get crushed back there.”

    “Yeah, I know. I’m afraid I’ll be out of action for awhile,” Eliot reported somberly. Norman then helped him set the crutch under his arm.

    “Does it fit alright?” Norman wondered.

    “…I think so,” Eliot replied, rising to a sitting position and then attempted to swing himself upright. After several experimental steps, he let out a sigh of relief. “Yeah, this’ll work. And don’t worry, I’ll be careful getting outside.”

    “Good. You don’t want to break your other leg, after all.”

    “Geez, I’m not that clumsy.”

    “Hey, um… Eliot?” Natalie spoke up hesitantly before the knight could leave.

    “Yeah?”

    “Well, I…I just wanted to say. Thank you… For saving me.”

    “Heh. You’re welcome,” Eliot replied with a genuine smile. “It’s a knight’s duty to aid his allies in battle, after all.”

    “That it is.”

    Wow… I never knew Eliot was such a hero. He’s saved my life and General Leyon’s, all in the space of a few months. And to think, I saw him as just a clumsy oaf, Natalie thought to herself as the corners of her mouth unconsciously drew upwards.

    “Aha, General Leyon was right!” Eliot continued when he noticed Natalie’s smile, his words shaking her back to reality. “You really don’t hate me! Heh heh.”

    “…Wait, what?!” Leyon blurted, stupefied.

    “Hey! Don’t make me take back my thanks!” Natalie retorted.

    “Oh, I don’t think you’d do that,” Eliot replied deviously as he carefully clambered down from the wagon and landed on his left foot. “And General, remember when I told you she hated me? You said perhaps she didn’t!”

    “I knew it!” Natalie groused, wheeling about to face Leyon with clear displeasure on her features. “I had a feeling you were up to your old cupid tricks again!”

    “N-Now hold on! Should we really be discussing this right now?” Leyon wondered nervously, raising his hands defensively.

    “Yes we should! You’re not going to convince me to date him!”

    “Hey, it was you who brought it up,” Eliot pointed out coyly, snickering as Natalie’s face reddened all the more. “In fact, you didn’t even mind when I simply called you Natalie back during the battle, heh heh.”

    “…W-What?”

    To Natalie’s consternation, however, it was true. Though she tried to tell herself otherwise, Natalie, for some bizarre reason, truly hadn’t minded it.

    “Alright, fine,” she seethed, still blushing. “I’ll admit it. I think of you as a friend too, but that’s it. Nothing more.”

    “Whatever you say,” Eliot replied, though he looked less-than-chastened. “Well, I think I’ll be missing my paint soon enough. I have a piece I’d really like to finish before the war is over, and working on it would’ve helped to while away the time I’ll be off my feet.”

    “Well,” Leyon spoke up, “we still need to get some rest before we press on. We’ll bunk down here once the fighting is over and, when that happens, you can see if there’s still a shop or two left in that village.”

    “Not a bad idea. I’ll go find out. See you all later!”

    “Alright then.”

    With that, Eliot turned around and hobbled back towards the village. As he left, he spared a glance over his shoulder at Natalie. He almost stumbled when he saw her staring after him. Then, when he saw her avert her eyes and blush, he did stumble. Heh… If only you knew the truth, Natalie. Then you’d see. You weren’t the only one with a crush way back when. And you still aren’t.

    “Well, Natalie… I just hope you find the right man someday. Whether it’s Eliot or not,” Leyon spoke up moments later.

    “Thanks…” Natalie replied, her voice suddenly distant. “Me too.”

    “Glad to hear it. Well, I’m going to go have a chat with Kevin’s group. I noticed an armed girl following them, and I’m going to see what that’s about."

    “Another new recruit?”

    “Looks like it, but I think she’ll be helpful. She barely comes to my elbow and is thin as a spear shaft, but I saw her take down several Red Claw who were twice her size.”

    “Careful, Azura might not appreciate you eyeing another woman.”

    Though Natalie had likely meant for that to be a playful taunt, Leyon could’ve sworn he detected a hint of envy in her tone.

    “Oh, don’t be silly,” he said. “I love Azura. Besides, this girl must be ten years younger than me. Still, I may as well make sure she can help our mission. I’ll see you around.”

    “Alright,” Natalie replied, almost tonelessly.

    With that, Leyon took his leave. As he made his way to the Cilaean mercenaries, he glanced back at Natalie. The deputy commander was trying to avoid watching the departing Eliot, and she was failing miserably. When she did, however, turn her gaze away from the trouble-prone knight, a curious expression was on her face. Her eyes held a distant, almost wistful look. Her once blushing face was now pale again, and the corners of her mouth had drooped. Leyon’s eyebrow arched, as Natalie usually wasn’t one to appear so downhearted. But, then again, she had been behaving in a curious fashion. Aside from blushing at Eliot, her jibe regarding Azura had sounded far different than he would have expected. Her earlier bard had carried none of her once palpable disdain for Azura, which Natalie felt quite strongly after Azura had unwittingly contributed to Leyon’s memory loss, but instead sounded almost envious. Not jealous, as if her old crush on Leyon had resurfaced, but envious; almost longing. His intuition seemed vindicated when Natalie’s gaze turned earthward and a sigh escaped her frowning lips. Leyon, intrigued, continued on his way and soon approached Kevin, Zane, and Jade, whom were deep in conversation. Kevin noticed him first and moved to greet the general.

    “Ah, General. I noticed Eliot hobble off on a crutch. What happened?” the mercenary commander wondered.

    “Yeah, is he going to be alright?” Zane added.

    “Eventually, yeah, but he broke his leg when he rescued Natalie from being crushed by a crumbling building,” Leyon explained. “He managed to get her away from the falling rubble, but didn’t get himself away fast enough. I’m afraid he’ll be out of action for awhile.”

    “Oh, that’s not good. We need every able warrior we can find,” Kevin pointed out.

    “I agree. Hopefully, we won’t actually have to fight until the time comes to retake Jerusa. If we're lucky, Eliot will be able to ride again by that time. Anyway, I came to ask you about something. I noticed that this girl joined our troop. I have no problem with her aiding us; I think it’s no secret that we need all the help we can get. But I would just like to know who she is.”

    “Oh, right. General Leyon, this is Jade. She’s my cousin,” Zane explained. “I was teaching her swordplay, but I had to leave home when our mercenary group was hired to aid the Cilaean army. She’s kept up her training, though.”

    “I see,” Leyon replied.

    The general turned to face Jade and, to his perplexity, she was gaping at him with wide-eyed astonishment.

    “Wow! You’re the General Leyon?!” Jade gasped in undisguised admiration. “I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you! Lots of people say you’re one of the best generals Talgria has ever had!”

    “Ah, well, I don’t know about that,” Leyon replied with an abashed smile. “But I do lead my men to the best of my abilities.”

    “I bet you do! I also heard that you even managed to beat General William in a spar!”

    “Oh, that’s gotten around too? I did win a couple times, but he still usually bests me. The guy is a bear; tough and relentless. And that’s despite him always having a disadvantage against me, no less.”

    “Oh wow. You two are amazing then! Oh, but Commander Kevin is too. When I started training, I wanted to someday be as great as he is.”

    “…Er, well…” Kevin stuttered, his cheeks suddenly going pink. “I’m…flattered, Jade.”

    “Hee hee,” Jade giggled.

    “Did you seriously just blush?” Zane replied, sounding more annoyed than amused.

    “Never mind that,” Kevin insisted. “I was just surprised.”

    “Whatever.”

    “Well, I think I’ll leave you guys to your conversation,” Leyon decided. “I should go send a couple knights to make sure the village is secure. I’d like for us to do what we can for the villagers before we press on. Besides, Eliot decided to run an errand in town and goddess knows what kind of trouble he might get himself into.”

    With that, Leyon left his comrades to their talk and began seeking out knights to assess the condition of the townsfolk. The villagers who’d been trapped under the rubble, he suspected, were already freed; but, they might require Norman’s ministrations. Still, Leyon also knew that there was a very definite limit on what the knights could do, as they were pressed for time and had to conserve their own supplies for the attack on Jerusa. As he oversaw the activity in the camp, Leyon considered his next course of action. Intervening at the village had cost them time and a valuable warrior, though Leyon could not say he would’ve done differently after seeing the Red Claw’s latest atrocities. The notion of postponing the retaking of Jerusa, at least until Eliot’s leg healed, occurred to him. After all, the dark-haired knight was one of the finest warriors the Royal Knights had produced, and his help could make all the difference when the battle started. Still, there was a risk. The longer the army waited, the greater the chances that their presence might be detected. Conversely, however, if the army arrived at Jerusa too early, then the Melorans holding the Cilaean capital would be at full strength and the knights and wolves would be faced with a hopeless battle.

    Leyon considered and decided, with some reluctance, that they’d have to wait. He didn’t like the idea of leaving the trapped Allied troops cornered on the coastline even longer, but this cloud did have a silver lining. It would give the ships carrying the siege weapons more time to arrive at the ports and deliver their cargo to the trapped Allied troops. And that could turn this suicidal gamble into a victory.

    ***


    Meanwhile, Azura, Bryan, and company continued on their way towards Astryn Palace, in hopes that Queen Marion might still live and could verify Bryan and Owen’s identities. The encounter with Larameans had delayed them badly, and at the worst possible time, so the group had kept a rapid pace. Though Bryan had forced himself to focus solely on reaching the palace in time, the incident with the Larameans yet lingered in the back of his mind. He could not help suspecting that the laguz believing that Astryn had attacked their country, and arriving to retaliate at the same time that Bryan was trying to secure his throne, was no coincidence. It was doubtful that Francois had any answers; the count had seemed just as astonished as everybody else and, even if he’d been feigning surprise, it was unlikely that he would share any sensitive information with Bryan until after his bloodline had been proven. The palace, however, might provide him with answers.

    Not long after the battle with the beast laguz had ended, thankfully, the palace soon appeared on the horizon. Even from a distance, it looked magnificent. Its walls of ivory colored stone and smoothly rounded towers shone in the bright sunlight. Stained glass windows caught the sun in rainbows of reflected light and delicate inlaid mosaics accentuated the artistry of the magnificent edifice. It was also enormous, even bigger than Castle Talgria, and Bryan suddenly found himself hoping they wouldn’t get lost while seeking the dying queen. Much of the group froze in their tracks, staring in slack jawed awe, but Owen regarded the palace with a nostalgic expression. His eyes had misted, and his lips twisted in a sad smile, prompting Bryan to clap a reassuring hand on his father’s shoulder. However, the group’s awed perusal of the palace ended abruptly when an unfamiliar foot soldier appeared in the distance, rushing towards them. Unfortunately, the look on his face was not a pleasant one. In fact, the man looked stricken; almost heart-broken. His eyes lit up, but only very slightly, when he caught sight of Francois and Eric.

    “Ah, Count Francois. I’m so glad I found you and General Eric so soon,” the soldier greeted. “I was sent from the palace to find you, and I feared I’d be seeking you for days.”

    “You were? What’s going on? We found evidence of the Red Claw and hostile Larameans while abroad. The capital hasn’t been invaded, has it?!” Francois frantically inquired.

    “Well, no… You see… Your mission has been canceled. You and General Eric are to let these travelers go their way, while you and your escorts are to return at once.”

    The soldier’s gaze then somberly strayed to the ground.

    “What? But… But why? These people are—”

    “Trying to help us? Yes, we suspected as much when we first heard news of them and saw them accompanying you just now, but…”

    The soldier sniffled before continuing, and Bryan had a sickening presentiment about what had depressed him so.

    “I…I’m afraid I bring terrible news. Queen Marion… She’s…”

    The soldier began to sob and could not finish the sentence. But then again, he hardly needed to. At this realization, Francois and Eric’s eyes widened with dismay. Azura, Bryan, and Owen’s expressions were no different. The soldier’s eyes soon welled up with tears.

    “…No,” Francois uttered moments later. “You… You don’t mean to say the queen is…?”

    The soldier nodded as tears began trickling down his cheeks.

    “Yes…” he confirmed. “She…has passed on.”

    “Oh…” was all Owen could utter, sadness choking away any other words he might've spoken.

    “Oh no…” Azura added, freezing where she stood.

    Bryan’s shocked expression soon crumbled into a twisted grimace as tears also began forming in his eyes.

    “…Damn it!” he cursed as he dropped to his knees and pounded the ground with his fists. “We were…so close…! There’s no way for us to prove my bloodline… And I promised Sally I would save this country… I promised that little girl!”

    “…Bryan, we’ll find a way,” Owen replied, kneeling he his son’s side and grasping his shoulder firmly enough to straighten up the despairing prince. “We have to.”

    “Yeah, Bryan. And we’re all behind you,” Azura agreed with a smile, though it didn’t touch her eyes.

    “But…what are we going to do now?” Bryan wondered. “Even if I do gain the people’s trust, I’ll never ascend to the throne without solid proof that I’m the prince.”

    “…Wait, prince?!” the soldier gasped, Bryan’s words causing him to choke on his sobs. “You say you’re our long lost prince? But we were told he was killed in Cilae!”

    “That was a lie,” Bryan replied, some measure of calm returning to his voice. “The Red Claw twisted the story because they wanted you to believe I was dead. I survived the incident in Cilae because I was rescued from being falsely executed. It’s the honest truth.”

    “Yeah, my comrades and I were all there,” Azura seconded.

    “And I’m the one who saved Bryan!” Faline put in. “A Red Claw double agent attempted to behead him, but I killed the rotten scumbag before he could release the guillotine blade.”

    “I see…” the soldier replied, though he hardly seemed convinced. “Bryan, was it? Then, there should still be a way we can find out if you are indeed our true prince.”

    “What? Really?” Bryan wondered. “Francois?”

    “Hm? Oh!” Francois blurted, his eyes pulsing wide. “He’s right, there is another way. Forgive me, I had forgotten in my grief. Anyway, it will not be easy, but if luck is with us, we just might succeed. Master Owen, if you are really an Astrynian Grand Duke, as you have claimed, then you should know what I speak of.”

    “…Oh, yes… Um…” Owen worriedly began contemplating, then comprehension dawning a few moments later. “Oh! How could I have forgotten?! The sacred weapons of Astryn!”

    “Sacred weapons?” Bryan wondered, puzzled as to how such things would aid him.

    “They are the prized treasures of the Royal House of Astryn. There are seven sacred weapons in all: a sword, an axe, a lance, a bow, a fire tome, a thunder tome, and a wind tome. There is no light tome or dark tome because members of the Astryn royal family were always partial to physical weapons and anima magic.”

    “That’s correct,” Francois replied with a smile. “I was wondering if you had perhaps forgotten.”

    “But, how can they help us?” Bryan inquired, confused and impatient.

    “You mean you do not know?” Francois queried. “It seems that Master Owen has neglected your education.”

    Eric gave a derisive snort, which prompted a baleful glare from Bryan, but Owen quickly stepped between the pair.

    “It’s simple,” Owen cut in, forcibly enough to arrest Bryan’s attention. “The weapons are ensorcelled with special, unbreakable magic. They can only be wielded by true members of the royal family. If someone not of Astrynian royal blood tried it, then the weapon would be useless…or might even kill the usurper.”

    Despite the unpleasant imagery that Owen’s words had conjured, the prince of Astryn found his hope returning.

    “So that means I have to try touching one?” Bryan guessed.

    “Precisely, but I’m afraid doing so won’t be easy,” Francois replied. “With our queen dead I fear it is only a matter of time before the matter of who will take the throne becomes heated. Perhaps even violent. Our late queen likely appointed a steward from amongst the nobles to act as her surrogate until a new king or queen is crowned. I do not know whom she chose, but I am certain whoever it is won’t let just anyone enter the palace and touch those weapons.”

    “Yeah, I had a feeling…” Bryan replied with a sigh, then his brow crinkled as a thought struck him. “Wait, would the legendary lance Eronite happen to be one of those weapons?”

    “As a matter of fact, it is,” Francois confirmed. “I’m surprised you’ve heard of it, Bryan.”

    “Oh, I’m not,” Owen contradicted with a chuckle. “When he was a child, my son loved to read about famous lancers and lances of all kinds.”

    “Heh, yeah, it’s true,” Bryan added, with a hint of abashment. “I read that Eronite was also called the thunder lance because of its bolt-shaped blade and how its wielder could toss it at the enemy like a bolt of lightning. But the books I read about Eronite never said it was one of Astryn’s royal weapons.”

    “Ah, true. Beyond our borders, aside from the royal families of allied kingdoms, we prefer that to be a secret,” Francois explained. “It’s to avoid drawing attention from the wrong people. Only members of our royal family can wield these weapons, due to their enchantments. As Master Owen pointed out, some of the weapons will actually harm a would-be usurper, perhaps fatally. But, not everyone knows that. A number of would-be thieves have tried to steal them, and discovered this too late. Not all of the enchantments function that way, however. There have been instances in the past where one of these weapons, whose enchantment would not kill a thief, was stolen. And, when the thief realized that using his prize was impossible, it was held for ransom and used as a bargaining tool in certain criminal deeds.”

    “I see. Makes sense. But wow… I never dreamed I would be able to wield such a weapon… If I could only get the chance to touch it…”

    “Well, we shall try. I must reiterate, however, that if someone who isn’t of Astrynian royal blood tries tried to touch one of those weapons… Well, let’s just say it isn’t pleasant. Only a true blooded member of Astryn’s royal family can safely wield them. More than a few who sought to challenge this claim found their decision to be…unhealthy.”

    “Oh, wow.”

    “Indeed. Well, let us continue to the palace. Undoubtedly, news of our queen’s passing has spread. At least a few of the nobles are likely to already be here. I’ll see if I can convince them to let you approach Eronite,” Francois offered. “I will be honest, the story you have told me is difficult to accept. Yet, despite that, I find myself believing that you’re trustworthy. And, in any case, it isn’t as though we’ve got anything to lose.”

    “Oh, that would be great. Thank you,” Bryan replied, anticipation leaving him nearly breathless.

    With that, the group pressed on toward the palace. They entered the large city of Medann, which sprawled all around the palace, and wound their way through the streets. Much like the palace, Medann was a beautiful sight…“was” being the operative word. Where there once had been broad streets of smooth and polished stones there was now a hazardous network of dingy streets riddled with potholes and shallow craters, the damage presumably caused by Meloran siege weapons and long, subsequent neglect. A network of bridges above, linking the upper portions of the taller buildings, had also fared poorly. Once crisscrossed in a lofty web, many of the bridges had crumbled; and, of those that remained intact, not one of them looked like they could support even Lily’s weight. The lofty spires of various buildings and homes now seemed withered and crumbling while gardens, once lush enough for a child to literally vanish into, now seemed drab and sickly. Even worse than the once beautiful city’s deformities, however, was its ghostly silence. Very few people crossed the group’s path, and of those very few, not one uttered a greeting nor even seemed terribly concerned with where they were going or what they were doing.

    Medann, it seemed, had taken on the air of a gigantic mausoleum; its people walking corpses, whiling away the time until the cold embrace of death claimed them.

    Owen, seeing the state of the city, seemed as though in silent anguish. And, Bryan couldn’t blame him; for the sight almost made him believe his mission to be futile; almost. He hurried through the pot marked streets towards the palace and, within the next half an hour, the group stood before its massive front gates. Francois then asked that the warriors wait for him while he entered and pled their case to whomever was present to hear him and who would judge his entreaty. Neither the count nor the prince could be certain whom among the various dukes and duchesses were within the palace, but it was certain that they were likely vying for the throne already. Bryan could only imagine what sort of chaos could be going on within the palace walls as he awaited Francois’s return. Francois had said that certain nobles already sought the crown, and were seeking to enlist the aid of military commanders and other nobles to support their claim. Lartz had made the same point back at Fort Hector; though, at the time, the group had expected that they would seek a competitor willing to aid Allied Command. That Bryan would be that competitor had never crossed anyone's mind at that time, least of all Bryan’s. The prince had also been informed by Owen, after his talk with Francois, that certain high-ranking individuals had either firmly declared themselves neutral or had not chosen a side…and that Francois’s backing was already sought after.

    Maybe somebody in there had grown tired of being refused?

    He hoped that the count would be alright. After all, Francois was about to inform a group of very powerful, very ambitious, very antagonistic and potentially very dangerous people that an unknown prince had appeared to snatch the throne from their grasp. Such a declaration could very well take a turn for the worst, especially if one of the nobles decided that they preferred Francois to be dead than to be alive in the service of an enemy. Time passed with oppressive languidness, and Bryan began to tremble and sweat trickled down his brow. Faline, Skye, Azura, and Owen soon took note of his anxiety and approached.

    “Bryan, are you okay?” Faline wondered. “I’ve been worried about you.”

    “So have I,” Owen added. “You can tell us what’s wrong, Bryan. We’re here to help.”

    “Well, I’m just…so nervous now,” Bryan admitted. “There’s no reason to think the nobles will even let Francois get a word in. We already know some of the dukes and duchesses who are after the throne have been pressuring him to take their side. For all we know, somebody got fed up with his refusals and shoved a knife in his back the minute he got through the door. And, that’s just the first hurdle. What if they don’t let me try to prove myself? And, even if they do and the sacred weapons prove my identity, what if they refuse to recognize me as their prince anyway? And, even if we do manage to get the nobles behind us…look at this place! It’s so…desolate. Heck, if it weren’t for the half-dozen people we saw on the way over, I’d think the city was deserted. I felt confident before, but now I realize I don’t know anybody here or anything about this place. I don’t know any of its customs, its laws and rules, or anything of the sort; much less how I’m going to get this place back on its feet. I just feel like I’m going to end up being a total failure.”

    “Hey! What kind of talk is that?!” Skye thundered. “You can learn everything you need to know! And you’re not going to act like a bum! Got that?!”

    Before Bryan could reply, Raela appeared, seemingly from nowhere, behind Skye and rapped him on the head with her Sleep staff.

    “Aaaah! What the—?!”

    “Watch yourself, mister!” Raela warned. Skye could only gulp and grimace as he clutched his throbbing head and Raela strode off. The others merely snickered.

    “Skye…” Bryan began, whatever else he was about to say lost amidst loud chuckling.

    “Hee hee, anyway, Bryan, don’t worry,” Azura encouraged. “You started out not even knowing you were the prince of Astryn, but look at how things have changed. You’ve sent Shigo slinking off with his tail between his legs, you’ve aided an Astrynian village, managed to convince an Astrynian noble to vouch for you and we even have a way to prove your bloodline. You’ve already accomplished a lot and, if you keep at it, I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do. And, there’s also something else you should know. Even if you don’t know a lot about Astryn yet, that’ll change if you try your best. I learned from a certain special someone, who is close to my heart, that the best leaders aren’t the ones who never make mistakes. The best leaders are the ones who learn from them. And that’s what makes a leader.”

    “Ah, that Leyon,” Bryan deduced with a smile. “I once heard the same thing from General William, actually. And, both of them are right. You’re a lucky girl to have Leyon, Az. I’m serious.”

    “Hee hee, I certainly feel so. For quite awhile, I thought I didn’t like him. But it turns out, he’s wonderful…”

    Azura then freely allowed her lips to curve into a bright smile while her cheeks turned red.

    “I bet. And thanks, guys. I needed that,” Bryan said feelingly.

    “You’re welcome, Bryan,” Azura replied with a pleasant smile.

    Just moments later, Francois finally emerged from the palace. While Bryan was relieved that none of the nobles had tried to harm him, the count’s expression did not look too encouraging. Bryan immediately approached Francois.

    “Well? What did they say?” he inquired, his heart pounding with eagerness.

    “Hmm… Well, let me put it this way,” Francois began. “I can’t say I managed to convince the nobles to let you have a chance, but I can’t say they’ve truly refused either. They were…quite struck by what I had to say, as you can imagine. However, they said that before they inform us of their decision, they would like to speak with the two of us, as well as General Eric and Master Owen, directly.”

    “What? Me too?” Eric replied, his tone equal parts surprise and annoyance. “Well, whatever then.”

    “Alright then. I feel we’d have better luck getting through to them by doing that anyway,” Bryan added, taking a deep breath and forcing his nervousness to drain away.

    “Agreed. I would also like to request permission to examine the old portrait they found,” Owen seconded. “I have no doubt that it’s my wife…”

    “Of course. Now follow me, if you please,” Francois instructed. He then led Bryan, Owen, and Eric into the palace grounds while the others waited outside in the city that was neither alive nor truly dead. Faline and Skye, in particular, wished they could have accompanied them, if only to defend Bryan in case one of the parties that opposed him attempted to lash out. But they knew they wouldn’t be allowed; and that doing so might even harm Bryan’s credibility. All they could do was hope that the matter was resolved peacefully. Bryan, meanwhile, was vainly trying to stay calm and not let his body begin to tremble again. He gazed around the outer gardens and the exotic trees and flowers that grew there, hoping to take his mind off of his troubles, if only for a short while. But as he followed Francois, he passed somber patrols of soldiers and saw servants going about their tasks distractedly; all trying in vain to take their minds off of the fact that someone dear to all of them was now gone. Bryan could understand their pain very well; Marion had ruled Astryn for many years, and losing her had to be quite a blow. Talgria would likely suffer no less if Wencelis were to die as well…an eventuality that would become quite certain for him, and many others, if Bryan’s errand failed.

    These thoughts seemed to temper Bryan’s resolve to succeed, but were interrupted when Francois led the small party through the large front doors of the palace. Contrary to the desolate capital, the palace was in excellent condition. Perhaps Shigo had not ravaged it as he had Medann, or maybe whatever harm which befell the palace had been repaired before Astyrn’s decline. Whatever the case, the large hall beyond was as beautiful as the interior of Castle Talgria. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling while ornate designs decorated the marble floors and walls. Ornate tapestries, whose images were lovely, if confounding to Bryan, lined the walls and fluted pillars rose to meet a lofty, domed ceiling crowded with pained images. Large vases, filled with exotic flowers, decorated small, fine silvery tables.

    At the end of the chamber stood three robed men of decidedly regal bearing. All three were fairly young, but this was hardly surprising given Owen’s account of Shigo’s attack on Medann and the massacre of the local nobility. The eldest of the trio was a burly figure clad in a beige robe, which looked a pinch tight about the shoulders. An elegant moustache of blue-violet flanked his nose and a pair of deep set blue eyes regarded Bryan unblinkingly, shining with an intellect which contrasted with his brawny frame. The youngest of the trio was garbed in white and regarded Bryan with unblinking scrutiny. Bryan couldn’t tell whether his gaze held curiosity or suspicion. Despite his youth, the youngest noble had an air of thoughtfulness and stoicism that reminded Bryan vaguely of Ike. His golden orbs were lambent, eerily bright and disconcertingly large, while long hair the color of ice brushed his shoulders. The third man wore a silver robe and was a grim, but sharp-eyed individual. Indeed, it was his eyes that caught Bryan’s attention; for they were the color of blood, and were narrowed into crimson daggers as they glared at the prince. His deep auburn hair was immaculately cut and styled, and Bryan suddenly felt a tad scruffy in comparison. Still, between the silver clad noble’s sharp glare and that he clearly was not pleased to see Bryan and company, Bryan sensed in his gut that this man might be dangerous. His musings were cut short, however, when the noble in the middle, spoke first.

    “Greetings. You must be Bryan, the one who claims to be our prince.”

    “I am,” Bryan confirmed, trying to remain as calm and collected as he could. “I was raised in Talgria, in the town of Narcoss. My father brought me there following Shigo’s attack and my mother’s death. I did not know of my heritage until fairly recently, when Shigo discovered that my father and I were still alive and pursued us.”

    “I see. I take it that the man behind you is your father?”

    “He is. He also told me that he is a Grand Duke of Astryn, and that we are the sole survivors of House Novat.”

    “Just as Count Francois has reported. Now, I will introduce myself. I am Laris, head of the house of Maryn and a Grand Duke as well. The man on my left is Canus, the count of Jupea and head of the house of Yssev. And on my right is Tavon, the duke of Dathyl and head of the House of Annuvin. In addition, Duke Tavon serves as steward of Astryn’s throne until a new ruler is crowned. We three were chosen to represent the nobility of Astryn in this…investigation of your claims.”

    “I understand.”

    “Hmph. You do realize that we will not simply let you approach one of our sacred weapons, don’t you?” Tavon rather testily inquired.

    “Of course, I would expect no less. However, I am prepared to do anything I can to gain the nobles’ trust,” Bryan replied.

    “Heh. Easier said than done, I’m afraid. How do we know you don’t just want to steal our weapons? There have been plenty who have tried. And, for that matter, how do we know you’re not some Red Claw or Meloran spy? There’s been no shortage of those either.”

    Bryan then growled angrily. However, before he could retort, Canus stepped in. The count of Yssev regarded Tavon with obvious annoyance.

    “Duke Tavon, hold your tongue. That is no way to treat guests.”

    “In these troubled times, prudence outweighs courtesy. An enemy can be lurking behind anyone's face, even yours.”

    “What?! Why you—!”

    “Both of you, that’s enough,” Laris chastised. “Tavon, you would do well to hold your tongue. We cannot afford such unbecoming behavior during, as you yourself put it “trouble times.” Least of all can we afford it from one entrusted to safeguard our nation’s throne. Bryan, I must apologize. Tavon can be rather rash at times.”

    Judging from the baleful glare Tavon had fixed upon both Laris and the young prince, Bryan suspected that Laris was understating the case a little.

    “You should also know this, however,” Laris continued. “Although Tavon acts as steward, he is seeking the throne as well.”

    “It is my right,” Tavon spoke, though more to Bryan than Laris. “If none other can prove themselves fit to become our new monarch, then I shall occupy the throne myself. And, I will, if your claims prove false.”

    “That much, I must confess, is possible,” Laris admitted, his words seeming for both Tavon and Bryan.

    Perhaps it was the soldier’s instinct, honed over Bryan’s career in Talgria’s army, which always alerted him whenever danger was near; or, maybe it was that baleful glare of Tavon’s which caused the hairs on Bryan’s neck to stand on end; possibly, it was the hint of urgency and warning in Laris’ admission that the throne could very well go to Tavon. Whatever the case, Bryan was suddenly and firmly convinced that Tavon ascending to the throne of Astryn would be a very, very bad turn of events.

    “So I figured. What must I do to earn the honor of approaching Eronite?” Bryan inquired.

    “Why, you will do that by proving yourself,” Laris replied. “Not only that you are trustworthy, but that you are prepared to serve this realm in its time of need. We have decided to send you on an important mission. By accomplishing it, you will not only prove yourself to be trustworthy, but that you are prepared to use your strength and skills in service to Astryn.”

    “Alright. What is this mission, exactly?”

    “We have recently received word that some hawk laguz, whom we wanted to hire for an important task, have been captured by the Red Claw. The information we have indicates that these hawks have been imprisoned in an occupied fort somewhere to the south, known as Fort Mercue. Your mission is to lead some of our soldiers as well as your own and rescue these laguz. In addition to your own troops, you will lead some of our soldiers as well. Through this mission, you will prove your trustworthiness not only to us, but to both our laguz allies and the kingdom’s soldiers. Only then will we allow you to touch Eronite and see if you are indeed our prince.”

    “Fair enough. Which men will I be given command of?”

    “General Eric and his men are the only elite warriors our army has left, so one of the dracoknight platoons will be accompanying you. And Eric, you shall go as well,” Laris decided. “We are all too aware of how dangerous the Red Claw can be, and we shall take no chances.”

    “W-Wait, what?! Grand Duke Laris, please reconsider! This is preposterous!” Eric protested, vainly trying to hold back his anger.

    Bryan merely grumbled. This mission just got a lot harder already.

    “Eric, do you realize why we called you to this meeting?” Laris inquired, a sly grin crossing his features.

    Eric’s burgeoning anger abruptly transformed into perplexity. Bryan was curious as well but, interestingly, a quirk had formed at the corner of Owen’s mouth; as though he rather liked the idea.

    “…No, I don’t,” Eric admitted, his tone almost wary.

    “Count Francois’ report mentioned the…difficulties you and Bryan have had with each other,” Canus explained. “We are aware, as are you, that the troops under your command are the only force of suitable caliber for this mission. What’s more, if Bryan is truly the prince, we feel it prudent that you and Bryan endeavor to come to terms with one another.”

    Though Bryan had only known Eric for a few, unpleasant hours, he already knew how the wyvern general would react.

    “Are you out of your—!” he blurted angrily, reining in his temper in mid-sentence and then continuing in a voice that was calmer, but no less harsh. “You ask me to place myself and my men under the command of a charlatan? You insult me and my men.”

    Canus looked rather displeased with Eric’s words, but a warning glare from Laris silenced him.

    “We are not ordering you to become friends,” Laris informed them, his tone firm enough to forestall any snide remarks. “However, we are advising that you should trust each other enough to be allies. Your mission, and many lives, may depend upon it.”

    “…I see. Very well,” Eric complied reluctantly.

    “Francois, would you mind joining them?” Canus added. “I believe that, prince or not, Bryan will have need of your help. Plus, I think it is obvious that there might be some additional tension along the way.”

    “Not at all,” Francois agreed. “We’ll take Lady Armelle and Captain Olivia as well since they are already with us.”

    “Excellent,” Laris replied. “Whatever happens, I pray you all return safely with our hawk mercenaries.”

    “We will,” Bryan assured. “I’ll make sure of that.”

    “Good luck,” Tavon replied, though there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Heh heh, you’ll need it.”

    Bryan growled again, this time grinding his jaw tightly to hold in a retort.

    “Bryan,” Owen spoke up, sensing his son’s thoughts and adopting a firm tone to ensure that he stayed quiet. “Now, before we leave, may I request to see the old portrait you found? The one that depicts an unknown woman? I strongly believe she is Princess Caline; my late wife, my son’s mother, and Marion’s sister.”

    “Hmm…” Laris contemplated. “Very well, but don’t be long. The rescue of those hawk mercenaries is an urgent matter.”

    “Of course.”

    “Very well. Tavon, would you be so good as to go fetch the portrait?” Laris ordered. “Given your words and behavior earlier, I suspect the journey might help to cool your temper.”

    “Grrr, fine,” Tavon reluctantly complied and disappeared through the doors behind the nobles.

    The surly duke of Dathyl had not been gone for more than two seconds before Bryan spoke up.

    “No offense, but I don’t trust him,” the prince opined, despite Owen’s warning glance.

    “Neither do I,” Canus agreed, prompting a relieved sigh from Owen. “Grand Duke Laris, I realize that Tavon is within his rights to become king if no other proves themselves fit to occupy the throne. However, I must insist that we prevent that from ever happening.”

    “Something is off about him, I agree,” Owen seconded, taking Canus’ words as an invitation for frankness.

    “I’ll admit Tavon is rather harsh and hot-headed, but he has not done anything wrong,” Laris cautioned. “Still, we will keep an eye on him. I’ve found his behavior to be somewhat suspicious lately.”

    “Fair enough,” Canus agreed.

    Bryan spied Owen of the corner of his eye, his gaze conveying an unspoken question. Bryan’s instincts had already been prickled by Tavon, and Laris’s words had been less-than-reassuring. The prince suspected that “lately” had encompassed far more than this meeting. Owen seemed to catch his son’s thought, but discreetly shook his head, advising his son against asking any prying questions before having proven himself. Instead, both men nodded their agreement to Laris and Canus.

    “If memory serves, though, you’re one of the strongest candidates for ascending the throne, Laris,” Francois pointed out. “Shouldn’t you be opposing Tavon as well?”

    “Well, it is true that I am also in a position to claim the throne and that I do not believe Tavon is fit to be our king. But, truth be told, I’m not certain if the title of king is one that I’d like to gain,” Laris admitted. “I’m deeply honored that my colleagues have such faith in me, but I cannot be certain if I’m really suited for such a grave responsibility. Although, if there were no one else to challenge Tavon’s claim, I’d certainly do so. Someone has to rule, after all; and I do not trust Tavon to occupy the throne.”

    “Ah, I see.”

    Again, Bryan and Owen exchanged discreet glances. Laris’s admission about Tavon seemed to reinforce Bryan’s impression that the duke of Dathyl was dangerous, and the crease of Owen’s brow suggested that he had reached the same conclusion. Before either of the two men could ponder the matter further, Tavon himself reemerged from the large doors, carrying an old picture frame. He then handed it to Laris.

    “Thank you, Tavon,” Laris said, though Tavon gave no reply. “Owen, I believe you wished to see this.”

    “Thank you…” Owen replied and, with some trepidation, somberly took the portrait. He motioned for Bryan to come to his side as they beheld the image of a young and regal woman. She was one of the most beautiful women Bryan had ever seen; and as he suspected, she bore a strong resemblance to him. The woman had the same olive green hair and green eyes as Bryan. Part of her olive green locks was tied into a braided bun while the rest cascaded down her back in smaller braids. Tightly curled strands of hair spiraled downward in front of her ears and tickled her cheeks. She wore a blue evening gown enshrouded by a shawl of a darker azure shade, which was of royal bearing but without being gaudy. Aside from her wedding ring, Bryan saw little jewelry on her person. But, of those few pieces was one he knew very well. About her throat was the very same necklace Bryan had discovered behind a brick in Owen’s shop, confirming her identity as his mother and Princess Caline. A thin, gold coronet encircled her brow while her smile was pleasant and content, as though she was posthumously welcoming her family home.

    “…It’s her,” Owen confirmed as he lowered his gaze and his eyes became glassy. “My dear wife… Oh, Caline… I miss you so…”

    Tears brimmed in the somber Grand Duke’s eyes as he looked at the image of his wife for the first time in years, his grief over her passing now crashing upon him like a flood. Bryan brought a comforting hand to his father’s shoulder as Owen’s tears fell upon the portrait.

    “Dad…” Bryan uttered, his tone soft but determined. “I’ll avenge her. I swear to you, Shigo will answer for her death on the blade of my lance. I can promise that.”

    “I know, Bryan. …And, I thank you…so much.”

    The three nobles had been watching the pair for some long moments, discreetly exchanging glances as they, no doubt, probed Bryan and Owen’s faces for any sign of duplicity. Tavon, unsurprisingly, was unimpressed by Owen’s display of grief, while Laris and Canus seemed cautiously intrigued.

    “Such grief is difficult to feign,” Laris spoke up. “Still, it does not prove that this woman was indeed a princess, I’m afraid.”

    “We understand,” Bryan replied. “But, I can prove the truth of my words, and that’s what I’m going to do. I will not fail the mission you’ve given me.”

    “And, I wish you good luck.”

    “As do I,” Canus added.

    Bryan nodded appreciatively. With that, he and the others departed the palace to rejoin their comrades.

    “Well,” Eric replied once they were outside the main gates again, folding his arms. “If those dimwits think I’m going to just let this so-called princeling command my men, then they need a sharp kick in the ass!”

    Bryan, his emotions still raw from seeing the state of Medann and the image of a mother he’d never known, wheeled on Eric and might’ve struck him if Owen hadn’t snatched his forearm.

    “If you are so anxious to fight, save it for the Red Claw,” Owen admonished.

    “Eric…” Francois said with a sigh. “Your antipathy towards Bryan is no secret, and it is understandable. However, we cannot afford to make enemies amongst ourselves if our mission is to succeed. Can you not give him a chance, if only so that we can accomplish our mission?”

    “No. But, since he and I still need to settle our score, I am willing to make a deal.”

    “Fine with me,” Bryan agreed, also folding his arms. “What did you have in mind?”

    “A duel,” Eric replied, un-slinging his axe. “If you can defeat me, then I’ll let you command some of my men. But if I win, well, then I guess you’re screwed.”

    Bryan, his patience with the wyvern general long since exhausted, hardly needed the encouragement.

    “Heh. Alright then, you’re on,” he agreed.

    With that, Bryan un-slung his lance and shield and motioned for everyone to step back so that the two combatants could battle without injuring the spectators. Francois then relayed to Azura and the rest of the group what had occured in the palace. As Eric and Bryan assumed battle stances, Faline approached Skye. Her eyes were filled with concern as she watched the combatants unblinkingly.

    “Skye, I don’t like this,” she spoke up. “Even if Bryan does win, he could get seriously injured.”

    “I know, Faline, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Skye replied, his smile broad with confidence. “He’ll be fine.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “Hey, this is Bryan we’re talking about here. You know as well as I do that many regard him as one of the best lancers in the Talgrian army. In fact, some even say he and General William are evenly matched now. So yeah, I’m definitely sure.”

    “Wow…”

    Faline then recalled the tales she had heard about William and his prowess. Everyone called him the Lion of Talgria, or as an affectionate nickname, the Bear, due to his brute strength, resilience to injury, and relentlessness. Bryan became the mighty warrior known as the Emerald Sentinel only recently, during the course of the war. Yet, Bryan’s fame was already spreading far and wide, and Faline had seen first-hand that the tales about him were not exaggerated. Skye was definitely right. If Bryan and William were to have a similar duel, the two would wage an epic battle. Still, Faline didn’t quite share Skye’s confidence. She knew Bryan was a very skilled lancer, but this didn’t stop her from worrying when her love was in danger. What’s more, skill alone might not decide a battle. Though Eric didn't bring his winged mount into this contest, being earthbound hardly made him defenseless. Eric was clearly taller, and likely physically stronger, than Bryan; and that could give the surly wyvern rider an edge. He was probably faster as well, since Bryan wore heavier armor and carried a shield whereas Eric’s armor, designed for use in flight, was lighter and would afford him greater mobility. What’s more, Eric wielded an axe, which held a clear advantage over Bryan’s lance. Then again, while Bryan had already attained the rank of Sentinel, Eric was not yet a Dragonlord, which could possibly even the odds. Faline then smiled and decided there was only one thing she needed to do.

    “Bryan! You can win! No one has ever beaten you in a battle, and no one ever will!” she cheered.

    “That’s right! Show this idiot who’s boss!” Skye added.

    Eric snarled while Bryan, wearing a grin to match Skye’s, turned to wink at his lover and best friend. Armelle, however, sighed and approached Eric. She laid a hand on his shoulder and, when Eric turned to face her, Bryan could swear that Eric was almost happy to see her.

    “Eric, really, is this necessary?” she worriedly inquired. “I don’t want either of you two to get hurt at a time like this.”

    That ghost of pleasure on Eric’s face vanished but, curiously, he did not seem angry at her words.

    “Sorry, Armelle, he replied, his tone hovering somewhere between gentle and firm, “but I will not take orders from this fool unless he can prove himself to be my superior. I will not allow my men follow a weaker commander than I.”

    “Sigh… Alright. I guess I can’t stop you.”

    That nearly invisible smile crossed Eric's face again as he rested a hand over Armelle’s. Bryan’s eyebrow arched at this exchange, but Armelle quickly withdrew to the sidelines. With that, Eric turned to face Bryan once more. The two reassumed their stances and began to circle one another, each observing the other’s movements with a discerning eye for several long moments. Finally, with jarring abruptness, they charged at one another. When he closed the distance between himself and Bryan, Eric drew back his poleax and went into a spin, the blade cleaving the air in a whirl of deadly steel. Bryan, at first, appeared as if he was about to try and brave the whirling blade to retaliate with his lance, but he instead brought up his shield. The blade of Eric’s poleax ground against the shield with a discordant shrieking, the sudden impact knocking the Dragonmaster backwards and almost off balance. Bryan thrust his shield forward, catching the poleax’s shaft and spinning Eric again…leaving his back exposed.

    Eric, however, managed to recover from the shock of Bryan's attack. He thrust the pommel of his poleax behind him, the blunt, heavy metal ramming into Bryan's chest plate. His armor absorbed the blow, but the impact sent Bryan stumbling backwards and bought Eric the time he needed to regain his stance.

    “Not bad,” the wyvern general commended. “I might have very well underestimated you.”

    “Heh. Believe me, there’s more where that came from,” Bryan replied. “They call me the Emerald Sentinel in Cilae and Talgria, you know.”

    “Ha, spare me your prattle. Let’s see you for once back up your words.”

    With that, the two combatants clashed once more. Eric’s poleax ground against the blade of Bryan’s lance relentlessly. Eric slashed, thrust, sliced and lunged with blade and pommel in a continuous, unbroken onslaught, seeking to find a weakness in Bryan’s defenses. Yet, no matter the speed or angle with which he swung his axe, Bryan deflected every blow easily. His shield and lance wove and danced in perfect harmony, allowing none of Eric’s blows to slip past. Bryan, on the other hand, had managed to knock back Eric’s axe with a swing from his shield and to ram his lance’s pommel into Eric’s gut. Despite that success, the prince had to admit Eric was putting up a good fight. The rapid and unpredictable rain of blows from Eris wasn’t giving Bryan many opportunities to strike at all; the opening which the prince had created had been as much a product of luck as of skill. As their bout continued, Eric drew back his poleax for an overhead strike. Bryan brought up his shield to deflect it when, suddenly, the Dragonmaster angled his swing to sweep at an angle, across Bryan’s shield arm instead. The blade slide into a gap in Bryan’s bracers and tore into his forearm and, in the split second while Bryan was thrown off balance by the pain, Eric struck. He swung his poleax so that the notch between blade and shaft caught hold of the side of Bryan’s shield and, with a mighty heave, Eric tore it free from the prince’s hand. The shield clattered across the ground, and Eric quickly darted over to block Bryan from reclaiming it. Faline gasped fearfully, knowing full well that, without his shield, Bryan was now at a far greater disadvantage. Bryan, having heard his lover’s gasp, turned to her and grinned.

    “Heh, don’t worry, Faline,” he assured. “This is just a minor setback.”

    Faline, despite an answering smile, wrung her hands and tried to calm her racing heart, hoping that her lover was right.

    “You’re still talking a good game, but let’s see you back it up for change!” Eric spat and lunged at Bryan again. The prince, however, ducked and twisted in order to avoid the axe’s blade as it clove the air about him time and again. To the perplexity of the onlookers, he rarely brought up his lance to deflect any blows and made no move to counterattack. Eric, red faced from aggravation, drew back his poleax and swept it at Bryan’s ankles, forcing him to jump. But, that attack had been a feint, for the Dragonmaster swept a leg at Bryan as he landed, causing the prince to topple to the ground. Eric loomed over the fallen prince, his poleaxe drawn back for a final overhead swing. Faline and Skye froze where they stood, stunned with disbelief at the thought that Bryan was actually defeated. Eric, smirking contemptuously, loomed over the fallen prince.

    “This was fun,” he remarked, not bothering to hide his disdain. “Still, as they say, “may the best man win.””

    “True,” Bryan replied, almost smugly, which sparked fresh anger in the dragonmaster.

    The poleax’s blade whistled through the air as it swung towards Bryan. Suddenly, as fast as lightning, the prince brought up his weapon and caught Eric’s axe in the deep notch of the brave lance’s forked blade. Faline’s jaw dropped while Skye’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. Eric, blanching as he realized the trap he'd just been snared in, bore down upon Bryan with all his might, but Bryan held back his foe’s blade. The deadlock, and the battle, ended with astonishing suddenness as Bryan swiftly jerked his lance to the right, forcing Eric’s axe to spring out of his hand and spin until its pommel slammed into the wyvern rider’s jaw. Eric staggered backwards, the axe falling from his slackening grip, and Bryan sprang to his feet.

    The prince then leaped into the air and spun into a wheel kick, striking the now-disarmed Eric in the chest and sending him crashing to the ground. The prince rushed over to the fallen wyvern rider and leveled his lance at his enemy’s throat. Eric, gaping in astonishment, merely stared at him, his breathing heavy and fast.

    “Well…” he panted. “Like I said, “may the best man win.” I admit defeat.”

    Bryan simply smiled and withdrew his lance, allowing Eric to rise.

    “Well, you put up a good fight,” he replied. “Not many flyers will fight on foot, and you nearly had me with that ankle sweep. I look forward to us fighting on the same side.”

    Despite Bryan’s attempt at being civil, Eric looked as though he did not share the victorious prince’s sentiments.

    “Hey, Bryan!” Skye called out excitedly as he ran over to his friend, followed by Azura, Owen, and an ecstatic Faline. “Man! Way to go! That trick with the lance’s blade was awesome!”

    “Aw, it was nothing,” Bryan bashfully replied.

    “It certainly was not!” Faline denied. “Bryan, you’re just the best!”

    Faline threw herself at her lover as she spoke her words, clasping her arms around his neck and planting a very moist kiss on his cheek.

    “Heh,” Bryan commented, his cheeks turning pink. “Thanks, Faline.”

    “Yeah, keep this up, and Shigo will be running for the hills!” Azura exclaimed.

    “I will agree, you’ve come such a long way, Bryan,” Owen complimented. “I think even William would be sorely pressed to hold onto his title if he faced my son in a spar now.”

    “Aw, Dad…” Bryan bashfully replied. “Thanks, you guys.”

    Bryan, still quite pink from the praise, turned to face Eric. The wyvern rider was back on his feet, a flustered Armelle fussing over him like a mother hen. Interestingly, Eric looked more amused than annoyed at Armelle’s fretful behavior. But, when he met Bryan’s gaze, his humor vanished and his lips twisted into a scowl.

    “I’ll admit, you are strong,” Eric conceded. “And, as promised, you may command some of my men. Temporarily, mind you. I will follow your orders as well. But don’t think this means we’re friends. You may be a competent fighter, but we’ve got a long way to go before I give you any more respect than that.”

    With that, the Dragonmaster retrieved his poleax and stalked off. Bryan merely grumbled in annoyance, knowing that Eric’s ambivalence could become a serious issue during the mission if the wyvern rider continued to let his distrust get the better of him. And, admittedly, Bryan had much the same problem. If not for Owen’s intervention, the “duel” would have begun much sooner...and been far less civilized. Still, neither meant that Bryan couldn’t gain the trust of the troops serving under the surly Dragonmaster. If he could achieve that, he would, indeed, achieve a great deal. For the time being, that would have to be his focus.

    Once Eric had his injuries healed, he gathered a platoon of dracoknights. After giving them a quick briefing, in which he studiously avoided mentioning Bryan, Eric led the platoon to accompany the group to Fort Mercue. Bryan, deciding that speaking to Eric would be inadvisable, looked to Francois to act as a guide. And thankfully, the Thunder Sage knew exactly how to get there. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours on foot, he had explained, and this relieved Bryan. He wanted to complete the mission entrusted to him by the nobles had with all possible speed. His instinctual distrust of Tavon had yet to diminish, and Bryan wanted to ensure that the duke of Dathyl would have too little time for any mischief while Bryan was gone. What’s more, though there was still no sign that Shigo had begun his expected attack on Astryn, he could do so at any time. It was only a question of where and when.

    As Bryan contemplated that matter, however, he realized that it was quite strange that Shigo hadn’t launched his invasion of Astryn already. Bryan recalled the words of the Red Claw commander he had encountered earlier. The Red Claw had let slip that Shigo had broken ranks with Melora, and that the rumors about Bryan’s death had been meant for Shigo as much as for the people of Astryn. Could Shigo have fallen for the ruse? Bryan quickly discarded that notion. Shigo was many things, but he clearly wasn’t stupid. So, why was he waiting when doing so only allowed Bryan a chance to strengthen the country? What is he waiting for? The last time I saw him, the dastard was power-hungry and acted like he would attack as soon as he had the chance, Bryan recalled in his thoughts. Yet, he’s had plenty of chances to do so, and he hasn’t. This doesn’t make any sense… After a minute or so, the only thing Bryan could decide was that he would find out in due time.

    During the journey, Azura decided to converse a little more with Zarek, since she had not had much of an opportunity to do so since he had joined the group. She always liked to learn a little bit about the soldiers she was commanding, as it made it easier for her to trust them, as well as the reverse, and to ensure loyal to her. And Zarek proved just that when he began explaining his reasons for joining her.

    “Ah, so you’re repaying us for rescuing your grandfather at Fort Absolon?” Azura inquired.

    “That’s right. I needed to get him home as quickly as I could though, and that’s why it took me so long to catch up to you,” Zarek continued. “See, Grandpa is old and ailing, and it was a miracle that he didn’t get worse from being crammed in a dirty prison cell, let alone end up catching that gross infection that went around in the fort. I just need to earn enough money so I can afford the medicine he needs. Grandpa was the one who raised me after my parents were killed in the last war, and he trained me in the way of the axe. I want to use those skills to help him, and whoever else I can.”

    “I see. You’re a wonderful grandson to him, then,” Azura complemented with a smile. “I’d be more than happy to let you fight for us so that you can help him.”

    “You are too kind. Thank you, milady.”

    No more than a heartbeat later, Lily came rushing over, a happy smile on her face. Azura was pleased at the sight, as it seemed that ever since Zarek appeared, the young Fire Sage was happier than before, despite the war and the death of her father.

    “Zarek! Hey there, handsome!” Lily greeted flirtatiously.

    “Uh…oh. Hi, Lily,” Zarek reluctantly returned, nervously eyeing Lily’s fire tome.

    “What’s up? You alright?”

    “Yeah, it’s just…uh, you surprised me.”

    “Oh, sorry! I just thought we’d spend a bit of time together,” Lily replied with a big smile. “You seem like a great guy!”

    “Er, thanks, but I was going to talk some more with Lady Azura. I’m still confused about what’s going on.”

    That was only partially true. Zarek already had a rough idea about Astryn’s situation and some notion of where they were going and why, but he had a feeling he would not enjoy Lily’s company for long…if at all. She was certainly adorable, but Zarek was leery after she’d nearly charbroiled him when they first met.

    “Really? I could tell you what you need to know! Come on, I wanna get to know you better!”

    “Well, I can see you’re all tied up here, Zarek, so we’ll talk later, alright?” Azura replied with a deceptively innocent smile. “Bye!”

    “Huh? W-Wait! Milady!” Zarek called back as Azura walked away. He had a strong feeling that she had actually left him with Lily on purpose. That musing prompting him to mumble under his breath something to the effect of “hazard pay.”

    “Oh, Zarek, you’re silly! Come on!” Lily gleefully insisted and yanked the axe fighter after her by the arm. Some of the dracoknights nearby began snickering at his predicament.

    “Daah! H-Hey!” Zarek protested. Lily, however, wouldn’t let him go. Damn it. I just know this girl is going to annoy and embarrass the hell out of me…I almost wish she did charbroil me!

    Sometime later, Fort Mercue came into view at last. As Bryan had suspected, it heavily resembled a keep with a fortified wall, perfect for housing prisoners. Its front gate was huge and locked tight while the outer stone walls looked so thick and heavily reinforced that not even the most powerful catapults or the largest battering rams would probably not breach them. This concerned Bryan, as he wondered just how the troops would get in to rescue the captive hawk laguz. Eliminating the Red Claw members that were patrolling the area was one thing, but getting through the massive gate and walls was going to be a different matter entirely, since the Red Claw could simply wall themselves in and wait out the army. Francois, noting Bryan’s consternation, explained that the fort was built thusly to serve as a prison and that the walls and gates kept the prisoners from escaping, as they were no less impregnable on the inside. It was extremely rare for one to ever succeed in escaping Fort Mercue.

    “You see, Astryn Palace, as large as it may be, has no dungeon of its own,” Francois continued. “This is one of the differences between a castle and a palace. Castles always have dungeons, but palaces typically do not. There are exceptions, of course, but unlike a castle, a palace mainly serves as a home for nobles or royals rather than a defensive fortress or a staging area for soldiers and knights. So, to compensate for the lack of a dungeon, multiple forts that also double as prisons were built around the nation. The others also have such fortified walls and gates, to prevent jailbreaks from within as well as from without.”

    “Oh wow, I had no idea. Shows how much I know about being a prince…” Bryan replied with a self-depreciating tone.

    “There is no need to worry. There are many royals and nobles that have much to learn, but no time to do so,” Francois assured. “Some people born into nobility never even get chosen for a single title.”

    “Like that cowardly son of Novat that my father told me about.”

    “Exactly.”

    “…But tell me something, Francois. Do you actually believe me when I say I’m the prince of Astryn? You told me you think I’m trustworthy but, on the other hand, you also said that my story is hard to accept.”

    “Hmm… To tell you the truth, I haven’t decided. It’s been most difficult for me to make decisions these days due to the state this country is in. The problems we face seem to know no limits; be it in depth, complexity, size or in number. And what’s worse, I was only recently granted the title of count of Urae a few years ago, so I have little experience as of yet. Before then, Queen Marion was quite reluctant to let anyone rule Urae, so I was also faced with the additional task of rebuilding the province from the ground up.”

    “Oh. I see. I don’t blame you. It has to be hard for anyone to make the right decision in times like these. If Tavon was right about anything back at the palace, it was when he said that anyone could be an enemy right now. With the Red Claw and Melora all over the continent, it can be quite difficult to determine who, if anybody, can be trusted. But I assure you, I want to do anything, and everything, I can to help Astryn.”

    “Hm. You are quite right. And what’s more? I think I do believe you now. You seem to be an honorable man and your words hold clear conviction. These are the signs of an ally worth having.”

    “Heh. Thanks, Francois. That means a lot to me.”

    “You’re very welcome…my prince.”

    “Hey, if you two are done over there, can we please start forming a strategy?” Eric angrily interrupted. “I think we all know that trying to break through those walls would work about as well as trying to move Mount Trito Mons.”

    “Ah, right. How exactly are we supposed to get in there, Francois?” Bryan inquired.

    “Well, obviously, we have to get rid of the Red Claw first,” Francois began. “But, as for how to get in, there are two entrances on either side of the fort. Each one consists of an outer gate and an inner gate. The outer gates we can get through without much trouble since they are locked from the outside. The inner gates, however, are locked from the inside, so our best chance is to have one of the wyverns fly over to one of the inner gates and open it for the rest of us.”

    “Alright, then that’s what we’ll do. Two dracoknights will take care of unlocking one of the inner gates while the rest of us deal with the Red Claw and the corresponding outer gate,” Bryan decided. “Eric, you can choose who goes for the inner gate.”

    “Fine by me,” Eric replied.

    “Just one more question before we get started,” Bryan continued. “What are those small towers scattered outside for? I think I’ve seen them a few times in Cilae and Talgria. Are they some kind of lookout tower?”

    “Ah, those are assault towers,” Francois explained. “They’re an invention of Cilae’s, believe it or not. Perhaps Cilae would have fared better, had they built these towers in the same quantities as we and Talgria have. Anyway, assault towers are much like your typical lookout towers, only these feature what the Cilaeans call “modular design.” Simply put, they consist of a number of small, portable sections, allowing them to be assembled, disassembled, transported, and then reassembled in a timely fashion. Although this means that they’re much easier to destroy than normal lookout towers, assault towers have their compensations. They can not only be used by archers, but also by mages and anyone else who can attack from medium to long range. Even mounted units can dismount temporarily and go inside to attack from one of the windows at the top. The tower features embrasures for firing arrows and throwing javelins, knives and hand axes, as well as casting spells. The tower, however, can be a bit confining, so one using hand axes might have a rough time of it, unless he can make the throw using a vertical motion, rather than horizontal. Being in a tower also gives archers a greater range, thanks to the elevation. The units inside cannot be attacked until they leave the tower or the tower itself is destroyed. That is, unless someone in a different tower is in range. An assault tower can accommodate up to four units at a time. There’s simply not enough room for any more.”

    “I see. Those towers sound really handy.”

    “They certainly are. However, if an assault tower is destroyed while someone is inside it, that unit will surely suffer serious injury…if they manage to get out alive. Also, a healer obviously cannot go inside a tower to heal an ally if there are already four people inside, so be careful when using them. Although, a healer can heal units inside a tower from the outside, but only with a Physic staff.”

    “Alright, got it.”

    “Great. Oh, and one last thing. If a staff wielder has a Hammerne, the staff that has the ability to repair weapons, it can also repair damaged assault towers.”

    “Ah, then we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for those. Now, let’s take that fort back!”

    With that, the group rushed forth and began the attack. The Red Claw members, whom were caught unawares, were soon pinned against the wall and were being picked off one by one. Bryan, meanwhile, ordered Skye and Lily to rush into one of the vacant assault towers as quickly as they could. This would increase the advantage the army already held, and prove invaluable if the Red Claw in the fort came out to counterattack or if enemy reinforcements arrived. Soren also headed inside another tower and was soon followed by Francois, as well as Kye, whom had earlier obtained some knives from Ryin. The others did their best to prevent the Red Claw from reaching the towers, either to destroy the ones the army was using or to make use of the unclaimed ones. Unfortunately, it seemed that not all of the Red Claw had been taken by surprise. A few of the towers already contained enemies. This meant that the only way these adversaries could be defeated is if the tower was taken down or the Red Claw members were forced out beforehand. Still, Bryan and Azura decided that they much preferred using these towers instead of destroying them. They were excellent offensive weapons, but they were also capable of protecting vulnerable units like archers and mages. The towers themselves simply needed to be guarded from enemy attacks.

    However, though the Red Claw was caught off guard, they quickly recovered and began to put up stiff resistance. The two dracoknights Eric ordered to get the inner gate open had difficulty even looking for a hole in the enemy’s defense, much less finding one. Everywhere they flew, they were spotted and attacked by the enemies manning the assault towers. Though the dracoknights were able to avoid being hit, their luck might change for the worse at any time. Bryan then grumbled and began contemplating what to do. If he had some of his troops attack the towers held by the Red Claw, and the enemies near them, then the other towers held by his allies could be left unprotected. To compound his worry, more Red Claw emerged from another side of the fort and charged towards Marc, Leona, and several other troops guarding Skye and Lily’s tower. Fire from the towers whittled down the enemy, but the Red Claw reached Marc and Leona. Both knights were forced into combat, as were the rest of their comrades soon after.

    With the Allied troops below them distracted, a few more Red Claw members broke away from the combat and went straight for the tower. Skye cursed at this reversal of fortune. The embrasure was too small for him to squeeze through, so he could not possibly fire an arrow straight down at the enemy. He hoped desperately that Lily had a plan. She had been about to cast an Elfire spell when the tower suddenly shook violently.
    “Aaah!” Lily cried as she and Skye were slammed against the wall.

    “Blast! Lily, we’ve got to get out of here now!” Skye insisted desperately and helped her to her feet.

    Bryan and Azura both gasped when they realized what was happening. Unfortunately, both were too far away to be of much help. Skye and Lily attempted to start down the ladder that led to the ground, but before they could, the tower shook once again before they could escape. And this time, the tower succumbed. It began to collapse, and though Skye was able to jump down the ladder, his hand slipped from Lily’s, forcing her to be thrown right toward a nearby embrasure. Though Skye could not squeeze through such a small opening, the tiny fire sage flew straight through the rounded hole and plummeted to earth. Her piercing scream echoed throughout the entire area. Raela turned in the direction of the sound and, seeing her sister's peril, blanched with terror.

    “LILY, NO!” she shouted in undisguised horror.

    “LILY, HANG ON!” Zarek shouted and rushed beneath the falling fire sage as fast as he could. I just know I’m going to regret this…

    Just seconds before Lily could hit the ground, Zarek came to a screeching halt below her. She landed safely in his arms, though the impact caused him to topple over. Lily fixed Zarek with a very grateful, and very flirtatious, smile which caused Zarek to grimace. Before they could get up, however, they found three Red Claw members standing over them; a fighter, a myrmidon, and a mage, all looking very pleased at the easy pickings they’d discovered. Their delight, however, came to an abrupt end when an arrow struck the swordsman in the back of the head while two red shockwaves clove into the other two, one right after the other. All three Red Claw crumbled, dead before the even hit the ground. Skye and Raela then rushed over, the latter dismounting from her horse and racing over.

    “Are you guys okay?!” Skye inquired.

    “Lily! Are you alright?!” Raela added breathlessly.

    “Yeah, thanks to Zarek!” Lily assured joyously, despite that the battle was still not over.

    “Yeah… Can you let me up now?” Zarek queried, more than a hint of annoyance in his tone.

    “Oh! Sorry!” Lily gasped and quickly scrambled off of him. She then threw her arms around his neck ecstatically.

    “Oh, Zarek! Thank you so much for saving me! I’ll never forget this!” she exclaimed and instantly smooched the axe fighter’s cheek. If Zarek had not already been lying prone, the shock would have likely knocked him clean off his feet. His expression also crumbled into slack jawed stupefaction. Once again, some of the other troops noticed and began to snicker. Zarek, recovering enough of his composure to feel angry, merely grumbled and glared at them as his cheeks turned a rosy red with embarrassment.

    “Zarek, I’m so grateful that you saved my sister,” Raela spoke up, hugging him and prompting a bemused stare from Skye. “Thank you.”

    “Ah, it was nothing. Just doing what I came here to do,” Zarek replied. “I wish those dirtbags over there would shut up, though.”

    Before anyone could say anything more, Azura and Bryan rushed over.

    “Whoa, I’m glad to see you guys are alright!” Bryan panted. “Zarek, right? Great timing there.”

    “Yeah, I don’t know what we would’ve done if you hadn’t stepped in,” Azura added.

    “Heh, I guess. No problem,” Zarek replied.

    “…Well, Ike and Morris just took out the towers which the Red Claw held, so it’s time we wrapped this battle up,” Bryan decided.

    Everyone nodded and raced to rejoin the combat. Bryan, by now, saw that the battle had taken a turn for the worse. The Red Claw here had put up a better fight than he’d expected, and he was growing increasingly desperate to tilt the odds back in his favor. Still, no matter what happened, he had to finish off the enemy and rescue those hawk mercenaries. He needed them and the Astrynian dracoknights to have faith in him, and being thrown back by the Red Claw would not inspire faith in the prince. No matter the time or cost, he had to prevail. The fate of his mission to prove that he was the heir to the throne depended upon it.

  4. #34
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Chapter 31 is finished! Oh, I've also finally added a Shigo mugshot to the first post. :3


    Chapter 31: A Traitor Emerges


    By the time Azura, Bryan, and the rest of the army had managed to force a breach in the enemy’s defenses and allow two of Eric’s dracoknights to fly over the front walls of Fort Mercue to the inner gate, many of the soldiers who’d accompanied the prince were wounded and exhausted. It was no surprise, as it seemed that with every battle, both the Red Claw and Melora grew stronger. It was only the good fortune that the same held true for the Allied armies that kept Bryan and his company from being pulverized already. As he watched many soldiers break away from the combat, too often in retreat, while panting heavily and clutching bloody arms or legs, Bryan gritted his teeth. For much of the battle, momentum had swung against the would-be prince of Astryn, and he and Azura had only one option remaining to them.

    “Azura, how much of the enemy force do you think is left?” the prince inquired, turning to the earl of Elhorhi, who knelt nearby while tending to a bloody gash on her left leg.

    “Out here? Not much, if any at all,” Azura replied. “I only see our soldiers right now. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more Red Claw members holed up in the fort.”

    “I agree. I have a plan though. You, Ike, and I will charge into the fort once the dracoknights give the signal that the inner gate is open. There could still be more enemies hiding inside, and the three of us would have the best chance of fighting off any ambushes. Eric, Marc, and Leona will circle around to block the back gates. If there are any Red Claw members left inside, they’ll probably attempt to escape through there. Everyone else is to pull back to the edge of the field. They’re to treat their wounds, reequip as needed, and keep their eyes and ears peeled for anything or anyone untoward. And, if someone does see or hear something, they’re to report it to us straight away.”

    “Sounds good to me. Let me heal up first and I’ll go get Ike.”

    “And I’ll relay the orders to everyone else. Meet me at the outer gate when you’re done.”

    “Got it.”

    With that, Azura hurriedly applied some Vulnerary to her leg wound and, time pressing her too sharply to wait for the medicine to work, limped off in search of Ike. Bryan then headed for the outer gate in hopes that the dracoknights had finished unlocking its inward twin. Thankfully, two were already awaiting him and he raced to join them.

    “Were you able to get the inner gates open?” he inquired.

    “But, of course,” one of the draconknights replied, a bit smugly. “The enemy had quite the reception waiting for us on the other side of the wall, but we cut them to ribbons. As far as we could see, there weren’t any more bandits or Melorans on the inside, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in there. Whoever’s going through those gates should keep their wits about them.”

    “Excellent. And don’t worry, I was planning on doing just that,” Bryan replied. “For now, I want you two to pull back and find General Eric. Tell him that he is to take Marc and Leona and block the back gates so no enemies, if any are left, can escape. Once that’s done, you are to follow the others back to the perimeter. Treat your injuries, reequip as needed, and then patrol the skies. If anyone sees anything out of the ordinary, they’re to notify me or Azura immediately.”

    “And, what about you?”

    “I’ll scout the area inside the walls and the interior of the fort along with Azura and Ike. Even if the enemy is still in there, we can take them. If we need help, however, I’ll have Ike signal you with an energy slash from Ragnell. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Two slashes means the fort is secure, and we want whoever’s healed up to come in and help us search for the prisoners. ”

    “Understood…your highness.”

    Bryan had been about to dash off in search of Ike and Azura, but the dracoknight’s surprising words had caused him to jerk to a halt. Much to the prince’s surprise, he’d heard none of the bitter sarcasm or skepticism he’d come to expect from Eric or Tavon.

    “I’m surprised to hear you say that,” Bryan admitted.

    “Well, I wasn’t expecting to say it either,” the dracoknight confessed in turn. “I was skeptical when I first heard about you. After all, there were plenty of charlatans trying to pass themselves off as the “Lost Prince of Astryn,” but not one of them did a damned thing to prove their claim; much less leading our troops in a great battle and charging into a fort that’s possibly filled with a battalion of reinforcements with only two allies at his back. Not even General Eric has the guts to do that. Don’t tell him I said that though, he’ll have me shoveling wyvern manure for months.”

    “My lips are sealed,” Bryan replied with a smile.

    “Well, all jests aside, Prince Bryan, I must say that you’ve convinced me at least,” the first dracoknight complimented. “I admire your courage and skill. And, I rather doubt I’m alone in saying so.”

    “Indeed, he isn’t,” the second added. “General Eric is an admirable man, but it’s been a long time since Astryn’s had a leader of your caliber. A man like you should be on the throne, your highness.”

    “Ah… Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me,” Bryan replied, his smile broadening. “Now let’s finish this!”

    “Yes, Sir!” the two dracoknights saluted in unison. They then took to the air and soared off to relay Bryan’s orders.

    While Bryan waited for Azura and Ike to join him, he could not suppress a sigh of relief, nor a sudden pulse of excitement. Though he tried not to let himself become overconfident, he could not help but suspect that many of the dracoknights shared the sentiments of the pair he’d just spoken with. And, even the possibility that he’d already won the loyalty of the dracoknights made him happier than he’d been in a long time, especially when he'd feared that Marion's death meant that his mission had already failed. If he could gain the trust of the imprisoned hawk mercenaries, and hopefully Eric as well, then the Astrynian nobles would have to let Bryan approach Eronite as they had promised. At long last, victory was so close that he could taste it.

    Of course, there was still a great deal to do, even with that success. Shigo, who had brought Astryn to its knees twenty years ago and killed Bryan’s mother, was still out there. And, he had gone unpunished for far too long. Still, the prince knew he would need to build up an army before he could and finally challenge Shigo to a final confrontation. And, he reminded himself, the support of the hawks would be crucial to that effort. Funny how everything depends on the opinions of a few hawk laguz… Bryan mused as he tried to force himself back to the present. Moments later, however, his thoughts were interrupted by a familiar feminine voice.

    “Bryan!” Azura called as she rushed over, followed by Ike.

    “Ah, there you two are. Good timing,” Bryan replied with a smile. “Now, let’s get in there. We’ll draw out and clobber any enemies still inside and then signal whoever’s able to come in and help us find those hawk mercenaries.”

    “Wait, just one question. How are we supposed to know how many to look for?” Ike inquired. “I don’t want to rescue a few and then find out later that we accidentally left more behind. That would reflect pretty badly on all of us.”

    “Hm, good point,” Bryan admitted. “We’ll just have to cover the entire fort. The hawk laguz might be able to tell us how many of them are here. But for all we know, the Red Claw could be keeping more prisoners than the Astrynian nobles know about, so let’s not take any chances. If Melora is using this place as a prison, they might have a manifest of the prisoners held here. So, keep an eye out for any documents.”

    “I like the sound of that,” Azura commented. “And you think you aren’t cut out to be a leader, Bryan. If anyone around here is a terrible leader, it’s me.”

    “That’s nonsense. I think you’ve done a fine job so far, Azura,” Bryan countered. “I still don’t know if I’m cut out to be a king though.”

    “I agree with Bryan, Azura,” Ike added. “But I know how you both feel. When I first became the commander of the Greil Mercenaries, I was terrified. Oh, I’d been training for that day for years; but, it came a lot sooner than anybody expected. I wasn’t even half the commander my father was; and, everybody knew it. Two of our members even deserted us when they heard the news that I was taking over. But, I took on the challenge; and look where it got me. I’ll admit, I didn’t exactly expect to become anywhere near as famous as I am, nor did I think that my future wife would end up being a princess, but even so. You both just have to keep going and never give up. It’s never easy, but it can be done. I’m living proof.”

    “That’s true, but that’s a mercenary company. Ruling an earldom, or an entire nation, is on a completely different scale,” Azura argued.

    “Maybe, but what I’m saying still applies,” Ike continued. “As King Wencelis said, only practice can make a good leader. Azura, you’ve led this company for a long time now, and Bryan’s led his platoon even longer; and, both of you have done pretty well. Besides, I had Titania and Soren to advise me when I wasn’t sure what to do. Bryan has Francois, and Azura, you have Bronwyn. You’ll manage, I know you will.”

    “You know, you’re right, Ike,” Azura agreed. “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”

    “Yeah. Hold on, Elincia is royalty too?” Bryan gasped, his eyes widening.

    At hearing the Emerald Sentinel's question, Ike's face screwed up in aggravation and he slapped a massive hand against his forehead hard enough to make Azura wince.

    “Aw, crud! Well, yes, Elincia used to be a queen, actually. She was a princess when I first met her…how long ago was it? I’d say over three years, maybe close to four. She was crowned following the Mad King’s War, but just before she came to Altarais, she stepped down. A while ago, I asked her about it, and she told me that she left to find me, but that she’d also been reexamining what she’d done during her reign and she believed that she was unfit to rule Crimea. I didn’t agree, heck, as far as I can tell, nobody did, but, she felt it was in the best interest of the people that she abdicate. It is true that she wasn’t raised to take the throne. Her uncle was originally named the heir by her father, the king, but he was thought to be dead after disappearing in the Mad King’s War. We found him during the Goddess War, three years later, and Elincia tells me he's likely taken the throne by now. Don’t tell her I brought this up to you though, she doesn’t want to hear of it again.”

    “Huh. Okay, fair enough,” Bryan replied.

    “When I first met Elincia,” Azura spoke up, after a contemplative silence, “she said she never wanted to speak of her royal blood again. By that, do you think that you and she will stay in Altarais when the war is over?”

    “I’ll be honest, I don’t know,” Ike admitted. “She and I have mulled over it a few times, but we haven’t really decided.”

    Here, Ike paused and let a humorous grin tug at the corners of his lips.

    “We were a little busy, you see. I think she would like to at least visit her uncle, and I wouldn’t mind seeing my sister and the other mercenaries again. But, I really don’t know if we could move back. I don’t know a lot about how royal succession works, and I’d like it to stay that way, but I kinda doubt that an abdication is the sort of thing you could just take back. Still, at first, the only reason I left Tellius was because I thought I’d lost her; and, one of her main reasons for coming here was to find me. If we could go back, if she wanted to, and we could be together, I’d follow her there in a heartbeat. Or, we might decide to stay here in Altarais. All the pratfalls and brushes with death aside, this place does have its charms.”

    “Well, if you decide to stay here, I don’t doubt for a minute that you’ll be welcome,” Azura affirmed.

    “I agree,” Bryan said. “Now, let’s get going.”

    “Heh, no problem,” Ike said. “And, of course.”

    With that, the trio proceeded through the open gates and towards the inner grounds of the fort. They hadn’t taken more than a few steps inside, however, when another familiar voice called out to them.

    “Hey, don’t go in without me!” Kye shouted as he emerged from the shadows beneath the fort’s ramparts and raced up to meet them.

    “What the—?! Kye! How did you get in here?!” Bryan blurted confusedly.

    “Oh, haha, I snuck in earlier after those dracoknights opened the gate,” Kye explained. “I wanted to go inside with you. And don’t worry, I already checked out the area. There aren’t any more enemies, at least, not out here.”

    “What?! Don’t you know how dangerous that could’ve been? What if there had been more Red Claw members waiting?”

    “Oh, don’t worry, I’d have been fine. We thieves and rogues have to be quick, stealthy, and able to think on our feet, you know. I got through the battle and past the dracoknights without being noticed, didn’t I?”

    “True, but still. I think you should stay with the others.”

    “I agree,” Azura seconded. “We don’t even know what we might be facing.”

    “But this is a time where my skills would be useful!” Kye protested. “Remember how the Red Claw have been plundering villages? They might have stashed some of what they took here! Not to mention the supplies that the Red Claw brought with them from Melora! We could use them; and, it’d be great to give the Red Claw a taste of their own medicine. Besides, I have lock picks and knives! If there’s any loot here, I’ll find it. Plus, if the hawk laguz are locked up or shackled, I can bust them out too. You wouldn’t need to search for keys.”

    “…He’s got a point, Bryan,” Ike replied, sensing that the Emerald Sentinel was still less-than-enamored with the idea.

    “Hmm, yeah, I’ll admit that you’re right,” Bryan conceded. “Alright, Kye, you can come with us, but you must promise to be very careful. You know how Skye is when you get in trouble.”

    “Yeah, I know. And I promise,” Kye agreed.

    “Good. Now since you already checked the inner grounds, let’s go inside.”

    With that, the four began to explore the large main building of the fort. Although this Red Claw-occupied fort was not filthy, nor run down like Fort Hector, it hardly came into the Red Claw’s hands unscathed. The main hall was opulent, so much so that it felt almost like the inside of a castle; but, here and there, the companions could see marble tiles that had cracked under the weight of armored knights or been gouged into by errant blows from Red Claw axes. Plush carpets spanned the floors of the main hall, though many of these had been knocked askew or torn during what must’ve been a pitched battle. Chandeliers, some of which were pierced by stray arrows, decorated the ceiling and pots of flowers sat on small side tables, though only half of these had escaped destruction. Bryan wasn’t surprised at the fort’s battered state but, as when he had seen the mausoleum-like Medann, he could not help a sigh of regret that this once magnificent edifice was so marred.

    “Okay, Francois said that the prison cells are on the lowest floor, so we’ll start down here,” Bryan decided. “Everybody, stay alert.”

    “Sounds good to me,” Azura replied.

    The others agreed and with that, they proceeded through the various hallways and corridors in the fort. The place was eerily silent after the tumult of the battle, but appeared to be empty. Less-than-reassured by the seeming absence of any Red Claw members, the four warily focused on locating the hawk mercenaries. Bryan suddenly found himself regretting that he hadn’t had Ike signal for other troops from the army to join the search, as the fort was huge. Though there was only one large building, whereas most forts had several, Bryan had gauged the structure as having at least five floors and, likely, several basement levels as well. In such an enormous structure, the Red Claw likely could’ve imprisoned the hawk laguz just about anywhere, especially given the bandit army’s cunning and the time they’d had to familiarize themselves with all of Mercue’s nooks and crannies. Bryan had been about to send Ike out to signal for more searchers but, before he could even open his mouth, a loud clanging sound rang out.

    “What was that?” Ike whispered, easing Ragnell out of its sheath.

    “Not sure,” Bryan answered, pointing to a doorway whose door had been torn off its hinges. “It sounds like it came from down there. I think I can see a stairway from here.”

    “Well, what are we waiting for?!” Kye asked rhetorically, sprinting to take the lead before several hands seized his scarf to snatch him back.

    “All of you, be careful,” Bryan warned, readying his shield. “If there are Red Claw down there, they could turn that stairway into a bottleneck and pick us off one by one. I’ll take the lead. The rest of you, stay behind me. If there are Red Claw down there, you can throw projectiles at them from behind me while I skewer them as they come in close.”

    The others agreed and, half expecting a small army to greet them, descended the stairs to discover a hallway filled with prison cells. Strangely, the hallway seemed to be empty. But, just when they were about to turn back, the clanging rang out again. This time, it was much louder. They followed the sound to a cell near the end of the corridor, and behind the bars stood two hawk laguz. One was a somewhat bulky man with silver hair and large, sharp-feathered golden brown wings. The other was a much younger looking girl with burnt orange wings and yellow hair. The man was holding a gold coin, likely what had been struck against the metal bars to attract the attention of Bryan and company.

    “Ah, thank goodness!” the man said with undisguised relief. “You heard my signal. Are you here to rescue us?”

    “Yeah, as a matter of fact, we are,” Bryan replied. “I’m relieved we found you so soon.”

    “As am I, but… Who are you? You don’t look at all like Astrynian soldiers,” the man observed. “No offense, of course, but we were obviously expecting them, since they surely know this fort had fallen by now.”

    “Don’t worry, I understand. I’d have thought no differently myself. But to answer your question, this is Azura, the Lady of Elhorhi in Talgria, Ike, a mercenary serving under her, and Kye, a skilled thief also serving under the two of us. And I am Bryan, prince of Astryn.”

    At this, the eyes of both hawk laguz shot wide open and the male hawk’s coin fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers.

    “Did…Did you say prince?!” the girl uttered.

    “I did. To be honest, I hadn’t actually known of my bloodline until my father revealed it to me several days ago.”

    “Wow,” the man commented as he bent to retrieve the bit of gold he’d dropped. “So the rumor about Astryn having a long lost prince is true.”

    “I’m really shocked. I had thought it was just a local legend that grew out of everyone’s worries over Queen Marion,” the girl added.

    I’m a legend? Bryan mused, somewhat self-consciously. Faline, Skye and Cato will never let me hear the end of it.

    “Well, the problem is, my father and I don’t actually have any concrete proof of our claims,” Bryan admitted. “We hoped that Queen Marion could confirm my identity, since she was my aunt, but she passed away before I could reach her. There might still be a way, however. In fact, we need your help if we are to have a chance at all. With Queen Marion dead, I only have one chance to claim the throne before certain other untrustworthy parties begin vying for the crown. The nobles sent me and my comrades to rescue you as a test of my abilities and trustworthiness. I’m hoping that retaking this fort will help me to make my case, and that you will aid me as well.”

    “I see. Then we will do what we can,” the man agreed. “In fact, I may be able to help more than you think. My name is Josef and this girl is my student, Sheryl. But before we do anything, there is one favor I ask of you, your highness.”

    “And what would that be?” Bryan wondered, unable to keep his eagerness from his tone.

    “I would like to speak with your father. I will explain everything then.”

    “…Uh, sure. I don’t see why not. Do you know if there are there anymore prisoners here?”

    “Sorry, no. But knowing the Red Claw, there could be, so it might be a good idea to do a search of the place.”

    “Then that’s what we’ll do. First, though, we have to get you two out of that cell. Kye, that’s your cue.”

    “Right!” the young thief happily complied. “Just give me a second and I’ll have you guys out of there in a jiffy!”

    With that, Kye produced one of his lock picks and inserted it into the lock on the cell door. Within seconds, it clicked open and the less-than-effective lock clattered to the floor.

    “And there you go!” Kye proclaimed proudly and opened the door.

    “Thanks!” Sheryl replied as she and her teacher stepped out. “You’re very skilled for one so young.”

    “I have to agree there,” Josef seconded.

    “Oh wow, thanks!” Kye replied happily.

    “My pleasure. Now, let’s get down to business,” Josef continued and turned to Bryan. “Prince Bryan, while your comrades search this place, shall we go see your father?”

    “Yes, of course. He’s with us, so that should be no problem,” Bryan agreed. “We’re going to need more people to search a place this big though. Ike, the others are waiting for you to signal them. Head back outside and use Ragnell to send two energy slashes into the air. I told the others that when they see them, to send in everybody who’s well enough to help.”

    “Gee, it’s like I’m twelve and the company errand boy again,” Ike snickered, somewhat nostalgically. “Seriously though, I’ll take care of it.”

    “Thanks. And Azura, would you mind overseeing the search?”

    “Not at all. I’ll have Eric and his men patrol the perimeter while everyone else joins us in here,” Azura agreed with a smile.

    “Sounds good to me.”

    With that, Bryan led the two hawk laguz outside of the fort while Ike raced to the courtyard to send the signal. Meanwhile, Kye immediately began scavenging the remaining hallways and Azura went to find Eric and the others and relay their new orders. Bryan’s journey to find his father, however, proved to be unexpectedly delayed. Not that Bryan had much cause for complaint, however. As the searchers poured into the fort, a number of Eric's dracoknights spotted the prince and a great clamor rose from their ranks.

    Having grown up as a lonely outcast, it took Bryan nearly a minute to realize that they were cheering.

    “Long live Prince Bryan! Long live Prince Bryan!” rang out from the aerial warriors, louder and louder until Bryan suspected the echoes could be heard all the way in Medann.

    And, they weren’t the only ones chanting. Bryan could hear the voices of Faline, Skye, Francois and the men of his platoon along with them. The Emerald Sentinel, blinking away joyful tears, felt himself flush right to the tops of his ears while the corners of his mouth drew upwards in pursuit. Several dozen hugs, handshakes and shoulder-pumps later, Bryan was still discreetly pinching himself to ensure that this was not some torturously delightful dream. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spied Josef and recalled his errand. With an apologetic grin, he led the hawk laguz to the army’s camp.

    Upon reaching the makeshift encampment, Bryan discovered that Owen had sought refuge inside Bronwyn’s wagon during the battle. He immediately summoned his father outside once he approached it and explained that one of the newly rescued hawk laguz wished to speak with him. When Owen stepped down from the wagon and laid eyes on Josef, however, he froze where he stood and his eyeballs nearly popped out of his skull. Josef, by contrast, merely gave a large, friendly smile, as if encountering a longtime friend whom he hadn’t seen in years. In fact, as Bryan’s gaze darted back and forth between the two men, he found himself suspecting that may very well be the case.

    “Master Owen,” the hawk laguz greeted. “How good it is to finally see you again.”

    Bryan’s eyebrow arched.

    “…Josef?” Owen uttered, still in shock. “Is…is that really you?”

    “It is. It warms my heart to know that you’re alive. I almost didn’t recognize you, you’ve changed so much.”

    “I can imagine. I never told anyone where I had gone. What had happened to you though? I didn’t think you survived the last war.”

    “Indeed, I nearly didn’t. And, I must admit, I’m curious about how you survived as well.”

    “Whoa, hold on a minute! You two know each other?” Bryan interrupted.

    “We do,” Owen replied with a smile. “In fact, Josef is my oldest friend, in more ways than one.”

    “It’s true, your highness,” Josef confirmed. “I’ve known your father practically from the cradle. When you first appeared to me, I could not help but notice how much your face resembled that of my old friend, Master Owen. Then, when you mentioned that it was your father who told you of your bloodline, I began to suspect that the resemblance was no coincidence. As for how I know your father, we hawk mercenaries are also hired to protect the children of Astrynian noble houses during troubled times. I was often hired by House Novat to guard your father. He was only a hatchling at the time, to coin a phrase, so I found myself disposing of soiled diapers almost as often as intruders.”

    “Josef!” Owen opined bashfully, noting the unmistakable snickering coming from his son.

    “Hey, I only speak the truth,” Josef chuckled. “Your family were good people and they paid me handsomely.”

    “Heh, that is true. But, what had happened to you during the war?”

    “Well, as you might have guessed, I was hired to fight in the war. But, Shigo’s forces overwhelmed our troops. All were slain, save for a few of us, and we only narrowly escaped death. We had no choice but to retreat back to Recathe when the war came to an end and, alas, we’ve not done much for Astryn since. There are more than a few who believe there is little we can do for Astryn these days, but today’s events might just change that. I had thought you had perished with the rest of your family in the war. So, I returned home and took Sheryl here under my wing. I sincerely apologize, Master Owen. If I had known you were still alive, we would have found one another again much sooner.”

    “Ah… Don’t worry, I understand. I’m just glad to know you’re still alright after all these years.”

    “Huh,” Bryan murmured, before sudden inspiration drove him to interject. “Josef, did you know about me or my mother? She was Princess Caline, Queen Marion’s younger sister.”

    “…Actually, no,” Josef continued and turned to Owen. “I didn’t even know you had married at all, let alone that you had a son of your own.”

    “Ah, yes… I wanted to tell you, but my family had no reason to hire you again at that time,” Owen explained. “I was planning to call upon you during the war, so that Bryan would be protected in case the worst should befall me, but Shigo overwhelmed Medann so quickly. I hadn’t enough time to look for you. But… Josef. You don’t know how happy I am to see you. I had believed I lost all my friends and family, aside from my son. I thought Bryan was all I had left…”

    Owen sniffled, unable to prevent tears from forming in his eyes.

    “I understand,” Josef commented, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m happy to know you’re alive as well and that your son is such a noble and good-hearted young man. I can see that you’ve raised him well, despite your grief. And, I have already vowed that Sheryl and I will support him with our very lives.”

    “Indeed we will,” Sheryl agreed, more than a hint of girlish excitement in her tone. “I’m quite intrigued by this little tale.”

    “Ah… Thank you so much,” Owen replied with another sniffle. “That means a lot to me.”

    “Me too. This also means that Father now has proof of his identity as a Grand Duke,” Bryan added. “You can vouch for him when we return to Medann, Josef.”

    “That I can. We should depart for the palace as soon as your errands are done here, your highness,” Josef agreed.

    “Of course.”

    With that, Bryan returned to the fort to join his comrades in their search. Thankfully, by this time, the troops had responded to Ike’s signal and Bryan could see Azura assigning several search parties to seek out whatever else might remain to be found within the fort. After several hours, however, no other prisoners were discovered. Thankfully, a search of the commander's office revealed what appeared to be the manifest of the prisoners the Red Claw had incarcerated, and the document confirmed that only Josef and Sheryl had been imprisoned at Mercue. Apparently, the two hawks were scheduled to be moved to Melora the next morning. The would-be prince of Astryn, it seemed, had come for them just in time.

    However, the search did reveal a vast trove of other treasures which had been hidden away within the fort’s walls. Kye managed to find thousands of gold pieces along with newly crafted weapons and fresh food. Some had originally belonged to the Red Claw, but ever every storage room in the fort had been crammed with additional supplies, likely plundered from Astrynian cities and villages. Bryan decided that most of the food and some of the gold pieces would go to nearby villages where they would be needed, and instructed Misty to ferry it to them. Bronwyn’s wagon, meanwhile, would carry the extra weapons and Ryin volunteered to melt down whatever she didn’t have enough space for so that the metal could be used to make new weapons in the future. Bryan and Azura were glad of this, as it turned out that they had discovered far more than even both wagons could possibly carry. Plus, the food Bryan had discovered would be more than enough to feed his hungry and impoverished people without running the risk of depleting the army’s provisions.

    When these many errands were finally completed, the army set out for the palace once again. Earning the trust of the hawk laguz had been easier than Bryan expected, thanks to his fortuitous meeting with Josef, and the dracoknights had already made it quite clear that they now had faith in him as well. Eric, obviously, was still resentful of the prince’s newfound popularity, and his mood did not improve when Olivia playfully cuffed the Emerald Sentinel on the shoulder, but Bryan knew that the nobles could not possibly refuse him the right to approach Eronite now. As for Eric, perhaps the chance to win over the surly wyvern general would present itself along the way to the palace. In any case, Bryan’s moment of truth was coming at last.

    During the journey, Bryan could not help but notice that Owen and Josef spoke a great deal, laughing and smiling as they, most likely, reminisced about their years together in Astryn and exchanging stories about their lives after Shigo’s invasion. Bryan knew very well that the two had a lot of catching up to do, but he knew as well that he hadn’t seen his father so happy in a very long time. Perhaps not in years, perhaps not since he had lost his wife. Perhaps, at long last, this reunion had helped to heal some of the scars he had borne from all of the losses he’d suffered at the hands of Shigo. At this, Bryan couldn’t help but smile himself. He had barely even met Josef but, after seeing how his appearance had helped his father, Bryan already liked the silver haired hawk. He had little chance to listen in, however; soon enough, the prince and his companions stood before the palace once more. It was finally time for Bryan to prove his bloodline and secure his throne. Owen would then be reinstated as Grand Duke and Tavon would never become king. And, very likely, Bryan would fulfill his mother’s wishes at long last.

    After Francois led the two men back into the palace and advised Josef to wait until he had permission to enter, they immediately sought out Laris, Canus, and Tavon. However, the trio of noblemen was no longer in the main hall where they had first met the prince. So Francois called over a patrolling guard and requested that they be summoned. The guard then left to seek the trio out and around half an hour later, the three nobles presented themselves to their guests once again. Tavon, as always, had a calculating expression on his face and looked at Bryan with scorn in his eyes.

    “Ah, milord Laris, milord Canus, and milord Tavon,” Francois greeted. “I’m glad all of you could answer my summons so quickly. We have much to tell you.”

    “Greetings, Count Francois, Master Owen, and our would-be prince Bryan. I suspected as much,” Laris replied. “Now, was the mission a success?”

    The count of Urae did not reply, but instead stepped aside and beckoned for the Emerald Sentinel to advance closer to the trio of noblemen.

    “It was,” Bryan confirmed. “And, the dracoknights have chosen to support me, as did the hawk laguz we rescued. In fact, one of the hawks is an old friend of my father’s and he can vouch for his identity as the Grand Duke of House Novat.”

    “Oh? Is that so?” Laris replied, his eyebrows arching.

    “It’s true,” Francois seconded. “They had explained it to me on the way here. The mercenary’s name is Josef. He claims to have served House Novat many times in years gone by.”

    “I see… Canus, what do you think?”

    “Well, the hawk laguz have been trusted allies to us, as well as Orenias and Talgria, for generations,” Canus pointed out. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t hear Josef out.”

    “And you, Tavon?” Laris inquired, a hint of severity creeping into his tone.

    “Hmph. I suppose this might be amusing,” the surly duke replied. “At least this charlatan spared us the trouble of tracking down his accomplices.”

    Bryan merely growled again, only barely suppressing his urge to un-sling his lance.

    “Bryan, calm yourself,” Owen ordered, snatching at his son’s arm.

    Tavon merely chuckled deviously. Yes, do listen to your father, you spineless fool. It won’t matter if anything you say is true. I have waited far too long for my due to be cheated by some exile crept from the shadows.

    “…Ahem, okay then,” Laris acknowledged, his tone still hard. “We shall first speak with Josef. As for you, Bryan, you have kept your promise, and we have not forgotten ours. You have earned the right to approach Eronite. It will be presented to you once Josef has given his testimony.”

    “Thank you very much,” Bryan replied with a smile.

    With that, Francois went to fetch Josef while Bryan and Owen awaited their return. Bryan, by this time, felt ready to burst from anticipation, and Owen had to ask him to stop pacing and fidgeting quite a few times. Thankfully, it only took minutes for the count of Urae to bring the hawk laguz mercenary before the three Astrynian nobles. Josef quickly reiterated his story about having known Owen very nearly from the Grand Duke’s birth and that he was, indeed, the son of a lost Astrynian noble house.

    “And you are certain that this man is the same person you knew all those years ago?” Laris inquired. “By your own admission, many years have passed since then and, in a matter of such importance, we wish to be sure.”

    “Yes. I’m as certain of this as I am of my own name, your grace,” Josef affirmed. “I would never dishonor the Novat family name by passing off a charlatan as one of their great progeny. They were honorable people and, as you should know, they had an extraordinary history.”

    “Indeed, that is very true,” Laris agreed. “As such, we will believe your testimony. However, you also say that you had no knowledge of Grand Duke Owen’s son, or even his marriage. This means that your story does not prove that Owen’s wife was a princess or even a noble; much less that Bryan is royalty himself. Therefore, he still must approach Eronite to prove his claims.”

    “I understand.”

    “So do we,” Bryan added. “And I am fully prepared.”

    “Good,” Laris replied. “Josef, you may go. Canus, Tavon, and I will now go fetch Eronite. Considering the…stir your arrival caused, I would not be surprised if other nobles accompany us as we return. I will be blunt with you, many of them would be very happy to see you fail this test. But, I believe you would nonetheless be well advised to show them respect, Bryan.”

    “Of course.”

    With that, the three nobles took their leave once again to bring the sacred lance to Bryan. Josef, meanwhile, clapped an encouraging hand on Bryan’s shoulder and departed the palace. However, as he waited, Bryan felt his anxiety from moments ago begin to return with a vengeance. He didn’t doubt for a moment that the nobles Laris mentioned would, indeed, want to see him fail. After all, him proving to be their prince would spell the end of their ambitions to claim the throne. Yet, Bryan knew also that he would have to win them over in order to restore Astryn and help Allied Command. His mind became a tangle of questions. What would they think of him, even if he did prove that he was their prince? Would he be able to win them over and earn their respect? What would he do if, despite having proven himself, the nobles chose to take up arms against him in hopes of snatching back the throne? As these questions whirled in Bryan’s mind, Owen laid a comforting hand on his son’s shoulder.

    “Bryan, relax,” he insisted. “You’ll be fine. Just stay calm and stay focused. You don’t want the nobles to think you’re a coward. Believe me, they’ll seize on such an opportunity.”

    Bryan took a deep breath before replying.

    “True, I’ll do my best. Thanks, Dad.”

    “And, despite Laris’s warning, I believe you need not worry about any of the others speaking out of turn or behaving in an…unbecoming fashion,” Francois added. “Laris is correct that many of the nobles wish to see you fail, but I suspect few of them would dare to challenge both you and Laris’s combined strength.”

    “Ah. That’s good to know,” Bryan replied, allowing relief to chase the anxiety from his face.

    Within the next few minutes, the large doors ahead of the trio yawned once more. Laris, Canus, and Tavon emerged, carrying a large, ornate chest. It was very broad and, rather than having a lid, it was entirely open. Inside, resting upon a large velvet cushion, was Eronite itself. As the chest was set down, Bryan stared, almost entranced, at its long shaft, ablaze with red and gold, and its silver bolt-shaped blade, shining brilliantly, even in the wavering torch light. Two pairs of smaller blades protruded from the shaft, one below the blade and another at the pommel. It was even more magnificent than Bryan had imagined from reading his books as a child, and he couldn’t wait to use the weapon in battle. Not for the first time, he found himself marveling at how his life had changed so much in only a few days. Even when he had fantasized as a child about using Eronite, he had never truly believed that he’d even lay eyes on such a famous and sacred lance outside of such dreams, let alone use one. His train of thought was broken, however, as several more men and women entered the hall, some wearing robes and others wearing armor and tunics. Laris then approached Bryan, but his words were for the assembly gathered to witness the would-be prince's moment of vindication…or failure.

    “My fellow nobles,” he announced. “This young man has come to us claiming that he is our long lost prince. He has fought hard and proven himself to be both trustworthy and stalwart in service to our nation. Now, we shall see if his claim is true. Bryan, you may approach Eronite.”

    Bryan took one last deep breath.

    “Thank you, Grand Duke Laris,” he replied.

    “I would warn you that Eronite has been known to shock wrongful claimants into stupidity,” Tavon jeered, “but, in light of what you plan, what’s the point of such a warning?”

    Somehow quashing the urge to knock Tavon’s teeth down his throat, Bryan then walked up to the chest and gazed upon Eronite with reverence and trepidation. He then closed his eyes, reached out, and grasped it. However, as soon as his fingers touched the tough wood of Eronite’s ensorcelled shaft, something went wrong. A terrible burning sensation flared against his palm, chaining up his arm nearly to the shoulder, while sparks sprayed the air. Tinted lightning violently erupted from the weapon, blasting into the astonished Bryan.

    “AAAAUGH!” Bryan yelped as he was thrown backwards and crashed to the floor. He landed with the wind knocked out of him, clutching his throbbing arm while red stars flared before his eyes. Everyone else in the room seemed to have fallen into stunned silence, though some appeared less-than-alarmed at this display.

    “Bryan!” Owen gasped and rushed to his son’s side. “Are you alright?”

    “…Damn…” Bryan uttered, gasping in pain. “That…hurt like hell…!”

    “Your arm has been burned,” Owen replied, noting the holes in Bryan’s sleeve and the dark red blisters on his exposed skin. “Laris, I swear to you, this wasn’t supposed to happen! Please, I don’t know what went wrong here!”

    Bryan’s head spun, and from more than just Eronite’s startling reaction. What had gone wrong? If he was the prince, then why had Eronite rejected him? He turned his gaze to Owen, and then Francois, but saw his own bewilderment and alarm reflected in both men’s faces. The Emerald Sentinel sagged in his father’s grip, stunned with sudden helplessness, and only dimly aware of whispered voices echoing to him from elsewhere in the room. All he could hear was his once soaring spirit crashing down at his feet.

    “Actually, I must agree,” Laris seconded. “This was, indeed, not supposed to happen. However, I think I know why it did.”

    “What do you mean?” Owen inquired, his anxious face furrowing in perplexity.

    Laris didn’t reply. The Grand Duke merely approached Eronite himself and reached out to grasp it. Many of the others in the room shook their heads at this seemingly insane act. But, when Laris’s hand coiled around Eronite, nothing happened. The lance did not spit lightning and hurl him across the room, as it had with Bryan. Instead, he was able to pick up the lance like he would any ordinary weapon.

    “I knew it,” Laris uttered. “This is not the real Eronite. It is a fake!”

    Once again, everyone gasped and began whispering amongst themselves…though not all seemed pleased with this relevation.

    “Someone must have arranged this, in order to cast doubt on Bryan’s story!” Canus added.

    “Precisely,” Laris confirmed. “I had suspected as much when Bryan reached for it.”

    “But…But how?” Owen wondered. Bryan still grimaced as he and his father tended to his burned arm, but Laris’s words caused anger to crowd out his pain.

    “You see, if this were the real Eronite, it would have glowed as Bryan approached it,” Laris explained. “The glow signifies that the weapon is determining whether or not the person approaching it is of royal blood. But, no such glow appeared.”

    “Of course! I’d forgotten about that! Someone must have crafted that cheap imitation in an attempt to throw us off!” Owen angrily deduced.

    “Exactly. The only question is who.”

    “Wait a minute, where’s Tavon?!” Canus inquired. “He’s gone!”

    “What?!” Laris exclaimed, his gaze darting in all directions, but the duke of Dathyl was nowhere to be found.

    “That…bastard,” Bryan uttered, finally rising to his feet, though he still cradled his red, blistering arm. “I bet he’s behind this! He must’ve fled when he realized the faults in his creation!”

    “It’s possible,” Laris agreed, signaling the guards and instructing them to seal the palace and not allow anyone to enter or depart. “I will ensure that Tavon is found and questioned. In the meantime, Bryan, you and your companions are to search for the real Eronite. Because its magic will harm a wrongful claimant, it may very well be that Tavon could not take it from the palace. You should begin your search here. When you find it, bring it to me or Canus.”

    “Understood.”

    “Also, another favor. We’ve recently received troubling news about General Alec, the commander of our main army. He hasn’t been seen in days, and I fear the worst. Please, look for him as well.”

    “Of course. Auggh…”

    “We have to heal that arm first. Let’s go see Raela,” Owen suggested.

    “Right,” Bryan agreed.

    With that, the two returned to their comrades outside. Faline, Azura, and Skye gasped in horror when they saw Bryan’s arm, ablaze with blisters, and demanded to know what had happened. Bryan and Owen explained the entire incident and asked for Raela to treat the prince’s arm. Luckily, the Valkyrie from Kolah was more than capable of the task, and Bryan looked on with profound relief as the redness and blisters on his arm vanished. Bryan then informed the group that they all were to begin searching the palace for Eronite, and the fugitive Tavon, immediately. Once the lance was in Bryan’s hands, the group would depart to seek out the missing General Alec.

    As the party split up into smaller groups and searched the palace, Bryan’s still tumultuous thoughts turned in a new direction. Even before this latest incident, Bryan had known in his gut that Tavon was not to be trusted and, now, he was certain that the duke of Dathyl had to be behind the theft of Eronite. Although there was no shortage of contenders to the throne, his claim had been amongst the strongest before Bryan had arrived. This gave him a very clear and compelling motive, and he had disappeared after Bryan had been burned; no doubt realizing that the counterfeit Eronite had not proven convincing. In fact, the prince found himself wondering if the duke of Dathyl might be cut from the same cloth as Shigo; a power hungry madman bent on taking over Astryn for himself. Bryan also wondered if Tavon might have had something to do with Alec’s disappearance as well. Whatever the case, Tavon was clearly a dangerous man; and hopefully, Laris and the other nobles would agree that the fugitive duke must never be allowed to occupy the throne.

    During the search, Francois, Eric, Armelle, and Olivia served as guides for the search parties so that no one would get lost in the large palace. There were so many rooms and hallways that one unfamiliar with the place would lose their way in the blink of an eye. Despite that, every room was searched from top to bottom. The royal kitchen, the dining hall, the bedchambers, the supply rooms, the armory, the guard barracks, and even the throne room were searched. Despite the gravity of the situation, Bryan could not prevent his jaw from plummeting when he laid eyes on the throne room. It was the most magnificent chamber Bryan had ever seen. The brilliantly colored marble, the stained glass windows and tapestries that adorned the walls, the plush carpets and intricate mosaics set into the floor, the immense ceiling crowded with painted images, the vases of exotic flowers decorating the edges of the room and, of course, the immense thrones themselves almost made him forget the present crisis. Even after shaking himself back to the present, he could hardly imagine himself seated upon one of the ornate chairs that looked to be worth more than half the Cilaean treasury. In addition to their daunting size, they were crafted of a material like burnished gold, trimmed with a regal red and encrusted with jewels the size of his fists. Above them hung gold crystal chandeliers which fragmented the sunlight into shimmering beams of many colors. Suddenly feeling downright scruffy, Bryan shook himself back to the present and resumed the hunt.

    Several hours of fruitless searching later, the various search parties had converged at the very back of the palace, where the palace granary was located.

    “If the lance is still in the palace, it has to be here,” Francois explained. “It would be discovered too easily anywhere else and no one has been in here for at least several hours. The palace was already stocked from these chambers this morning, and they are rarely guarded since they are so far behind the palace's outer defenses.”

    “Well, then let’s get to work,” Bryan replied.

    Francois nodded and opened the door. However, they hadn’t even taken a step inside when they discovered that their search was over. Another ornate, open chest, identical to the one which contained the fake Eronite, sat right in the middle of the room. Resting within was another Eronite, the real one. A quick glance revealed why the counterfeit had not been recognized sooner, the fake had been a near perfect replica.

    “…Wow,” Bryan uttered. “I’ve heard the old adage “the best place to hide something is in plain sight,” but this is a little much.”

    “Indeed,” Francois seconded. “Well, let’s get this back to Laris. He might have returned to the main hall by now. If luck is with us, Tavon is already in chains for this affront.”

    “Hope so. Ike, would you carry it?”

    “Sure,” Ike replied. The hero then bent over the chest, wrapped his huge arms around it, inhaled deeply, counted to three, made a pointed remark when Bryan expressed some impatience, and then hoisted the chest over his head. With that, he then followed his comrades out of the granary and back to the main hall of the palace.

    Upon arriving, it didn’t take long for Bryan to see that Tavon had not been apprehended. Several guard captains conferred with their men, likely hearing their reports on the search, and there was no hiding the frustration in their voices. Ike quickly set the chest containing Eronite down while Bryan scrutinized the room for Laris or Canus. Several nobles had already returned, and were pleased to see the real Eronite returned safely, but neither Laris nor Canus were anywhere to be found. Fortunately, both of them had emerged through the doors only moments later. However, their expressions did not look encouraging.

    “Ah, you found it!” Laris noticed and approached Bryan.

    “We did. Tavon had stashed it in the granary,” Bryan explained.

    “…Clever, I’ll admit,” Laris commented. “But we have no time to lose. Our efforts to locate Tavon himself have failed, so I must conclude that he has already fled the palace. It is unclear what he may be plotting, now that his deception has been exposed, but I have no doubts that he must be stopped.”

    “I agree, he may even be planning to betray Astryn,” Canus pointed out. “Bryan, did you have any luck in locating Alec?”

    “…Argh! No, we didn’t…” Bryan admitted. “I sincerely apologize. Tavon might’ve had a hand in that too.”

    “It’s possible,” Laris agreed. “But, don’t despair. Now that you have found the real Eronite, I believe it is time for you to approach it and prove your claim. We’ll continue searching for Tavon and Alec afterward.”

    “Alright.”

    With a long, indrawn breath, Bryan then walked up to Eronite, hoping to finally be able to prove his claim beyond all doubt. And this time, the lance was not a fake. When Bryan was mere inches away from the lance itself, a bright glow enveloped it; slowly flaring and dimming. Bryan closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and reached for the sacred weapon. As he felt his hand clasp the cool metal, the glow grew larger and brighter until it abruptly disappeared in a small explosion of light. When he’d blinked away enough lingering stars to see, the true prince of Astryn found that this Eronite had not blasted him with lightning nor blistered his arm, and that he could effortlessly remove it from its resting place. Bryan held the magnificent lance aloft, unable to keep a boyish grin from his features. Thrusting its blade into the air, he then twirled it once over his head and planted its pommel in the floor next to him. At first, the nobles eyed him with unabashed shock in their eyes. For a stretching second, Bryan found himself wondering just what they would do once they regained their wits. Would they pledge their loyalty to him, or would they seek his blood for foiling their shared ambition to rule Astryn? Within moments, however, he had his answer. One of their number, a young baron, approached the prince and, after a moment of perplexed hesitation, dropped to one knee.

    “I acknowledge you, my liege lord and king,” he affirmed, rather insistently grasping Bryan’s free hand and kissing it.

    “As do I,” avowed a marquis, bowing to the Emerald Sentinel.

    Within moments, the other assembled nobles, Laris and Canus included, knelt in homage before Bryan, their prince, and pledged their loyalty. Some did so eagerly, while others seemed reluctant, but all vowed to support this rediscovered heir to the throne.

    “…The power of Eronite proves that your claims are true,” Laris uttered, almost reverently. “You are, indeed, the heir to the Astrynian throne. As such, we pledge our loyalty to you…Prince Bryan, heir and champion of House Novat and House Astryn.”

    “And I thank you for your support,” Bryan replied with a smile. “Now, let’s find Tavon and make him answer for his crimes.”

    “Of course, your highness.”

    For a brief moment, Bryan was uncertain what to say; but, a moment later, he recalled Sally, and he suddenly had a great deal to say. He ordered that, with the matter of the succession having been resolved, the nobles were to cease their preparations to fight one another over the throne and, for now, dedicate their troops to rooting out and crushing the bandits that still ran rampant throughout Astryn. Meanwhile, the palace guard would defend the palace while Bryan and Azura, and everyone else would seek out Alec and Tavon. Though, Bryan had to admit, if Tavon had escaped the palace, then finding him would be a daunting task. Astryn was a very large nation, the largest in Altarais, in fact, and Bryan feared that Tavon could find any number of places to hide himself and his hostage. Still, he could only pray that they found both men soon. After all, Shigo was still at large as well, and there was still the matter of the beast laguz of Larame and their mysterious quarrel with the dracoknights. After the army was assembled outside of the palace grounds once again, Francois caught up with Bryan and spoke.

    “Your highness, if I may make a suggestion?” the count of Urae inquired, and Bryan was only too eager to nod his approval. “Well, if you’re right and Tavon did indeed kidnap Alec, it might be best that we find Alec first. With luck, we will find one with the other. And, if I wanted to imprison someone as important as General Alec, I’d ensure that he was kept somewhere that was both isolated and defensible. A likely place would be one of the old forts in the woods up north. They are rarely used anymore, if at all, because our more fortified forts, such as Fort Mercue, are better able to withstand an assault…usually. If I may say so, I also believe that Tavon has other reasons for abducting Alec. After all, his disappearance occurring so close to your arrival cannot be coincidental. There is more to Tavon’s actions than we know, and I believe we must find out what.”

    “Alright, then that’s what we’ll do,” Bryan agreed. “We move out now!”

    The assembled warriors immediately began to march for the woods that Francois spoke of. Thankfully, it was not a long journey and the woods came into view within an hour. Though less appealing, and much more foreboding, than the Forest of Hope, Bryan could tell that any building within those sylvan folds would be well hidden. The woods were so dense that the trees and undergrowth could conceal just about anything from view…including, problematically, where the group was going. As he and the group continued traveling into the woods, Bryan approached Azura.

    “Well, Az, I believe I can safely say that Astryn will be joining you,” the prince announced. “Your army is growing.”

    “Aw, Bryan… Astryn’s soldiers are yours to command, silly,” Azura pointed out with a chuckle.

    “Yes, but I’m still technically in your service. You were made the commander of this army, after all.”

    “Ah, that is true. I still don’t feel it’s proper for me to be giving you any orders, but if you don’t mind, then I won’t argue.”

    “And, I don’t. So once Shigo is dealt with, you’re taking the helm.”

    “Heh, alright.”

    With that, they continued on through the woods. Bryan suspected that Tavon might’ve had time to arrange a reception, so he ordered the heavier combat units to the front of the column while the lighter units guarded the flanks. The ranged attackers and healers, meanwhile, moved to the inside. Kiel and Sara scouted ahead while Ranulf, Josef, and Sheryl watched for danger approaching from either side or to the rear. Strangely, the expected enemies did not make an appearance. All the group did find were a number of old wooden buildings, likely old fishing shacks and hunting lodges, dotting the trails. Though all looked abandoned, Bryan suspected that searching them would be pointless. Tavon would want to keep Alec somewhere fortified and defensible, and those shacks looked as though they’d topple over if someone knocked on the door too hard. Sometime later, however, they came upon a large stone building, which Francois identified as one of the old forts. It was known as Fort Betel. In bygone days, it had served as an isolated prison and staging area for woodland patrols, but it had been abandoned in favor of such palatial redoubts as Mercue. Before Bryan could suggest that they search it, however, he was interrupted by a clattering sound which rang out from further ahead.

    “Did you guys hear that?” Bryan inquired.

    “Better than that! I just saw something fly out of one of the windows!” Ike exclaimed. “It must’ve made that noise when it landed.”

    “What?! Are you sure?”

    “Yeah, it came from the third floor. It was too fast for me to get a good look at it, but it was glinting in the sunlight. So, I think it was metal or glass. And, it sounds like it landed somewhere over that way.”

    Ike then pointed to the southwest side of the fort, barely a hundred paces from where the column had halted.

    “I’ll take a look,” the prince of Astryn replied.

    With that, Bryan rushed over to where Ike had directed him and peered into the scrub and dirt below. Sure enough, he discovered a glass bottle that had gauged a small canal into the forest floor. Inside it was a rolled up piece of parchment.

    “Here it is,” Bryan announced, removing the parchment. “And there’s something inside!”

    “Really?” Francois inquired. “Let me see it.”

    The count rushed to Bryan’s side as the prince dumped the parchment onto his hand. The message was barely legible, clearly scrawled on the page in a great hurry. It took at least a few minutes to decipher the barely intelligible script, but the message soon became clear.

    To whomever finds this note, please help me. My captors have abandoned me here and left me to starve. They are dangerous men, and Astryn may be in even greater peril than we thought! I’ll explain everything when you find me! Please hurry!

    “…Prince Bryan, this is Alec’s handwriting, I’m sure of it!” Francois gasped. “No doubt he feared we’d pass him by without realizing he was here, which explains why it’s even less legible than usual. We’ve got to get up there and help him!”

    “And we will. Dad, you, Azura, Kye, and Francois come with me. Everyone else, wait out here!” Bryan ordered. “If Tavon changes his mind about leaving Alec and comes back here, I want you guys ready to greet him. Kye, I’m going to need you to free another prisoner.”

    “Sure thing!” Kye happily obliged.

    With that, the five of them charged into the fort and raced up the closest staircase they could find. Bryan’s instincts told him that, based on Alec’s message, the general knew something about Tavon’s plans and had likely been captured and imprisoned here in order to silence him. Still, Bryan had no time to praise his own deductive skills; if Alec had been imprisoned here for days without food or water, then he might not have much time left. As soon as the Emerald Sentinel and the others reached the third floor, a clanging noise, the same kind Bryan had heard when he was rescuing Josef and Sheryl, but louder, rang out from a nearby hall. The prince and his comrades, recalling all too well how such a sound had led them to Josef and Sheryl, quickly raced to follow and it led them a prison cell on the far side of the hall. However, as the group approached, the clattering sound grew fainter and was replaced with a hoarse gasping and wheezing. Once they reached the cell, they discovered a man with a fairly large build, crumpled to his knees and sagging against the bars of the cell. His captivity had clearly been a trying one. The pallor and dryness of his skin and the sunken appearance of his cheeks and eyes made it quite obvious that he had gone too long without nourishment. His gray tunic was riddled with tears and splotched with stains, more than a few of which looked like blood, while dirt caked his grayish red hair. His face and hands were blooded as well, no doubt from fighting with his captors. Heaped behind him was a suit of heavy armor colored a deep blue violet, which the man had likely discarded when he’d realized that the hot metal accoutrements were dehydrating him all the faster. Alec, for Bryan was certain this was the missing general, had attempted to say something, but all he could do was gasp out in pain before collapsing to the floor.

    “Oh my goddess!” Azura gasped.

    “General Alec!” Francois cried. “No! He must be near starvation!”

    “Then let’s get him out of here and fast,” Bryan replied. “Kye!”

    “I’m on it,” Kye obeyed and quickly worked at the lock on the cell. Within seconds, he’d opened it and allowed Bryan and Francois to throw the cell door open.

    “Alright, I’ll grab his armor. The rest of you help him outside,” Bryan ordered. “Give him some food and water as soon as you can and let me know when he’s ready to talk.”

    The others nodded and the five got to work. Bryan quickly grabbed as many pieces of Alec’s armor as he could carry and hauled it downstairs. The large size of the shoulder guards indicated that he was likely the same class as Morris, so Bryan found himself hoping the cumbersome load would not cause him to topple down the stairway. Thankfully, Ike and Skye offered to give the prince a hand. Meanwhile, Azura and Francois helped Alec to one of the wagons. Azura prepared a plate of food and a canteen of water as the weakened general, still barely conscious, sat down inside.

    “General Alec! Come on, are you strong enough to drink some water, at least?” Francois desperately inquired as he tried to revive the half-starved general. Yet, Alec barely stirred, and count feared that Alec had used the last of his strength to alert his rescuers to his whereabouts.

    “Unnh…” the general moaned. “I…think so.”

    “Then go ahead, drink as much as you need, but not all in one gulp. Please!”

    Alec slowly nodded and took the canteen Azura had brought out.

    “And take your time, you don’t need to rush,” Azura added as Alec raised the canteen to his lips and, no doubt suppressing the urge to dump it all down his throat, began to sip the life-giving liquid. As soon as the cool water touched his lips, his better judgment failed him and he began to gulp it down faster than a Swordmaster would wield his blade, nearly choking. He truly hadn’t had a drink in days, and hardly seemed to care he'd make himself ill forcing so much into his shriveled stomach. Azura quickly tried to pull the canteen away and called Raela over to assess him.

    “Yeah, he’s definitely dehydrated and malnourished,” the Valkyrie confirmed. “It looks pretty severe. In fact, I’d say that had we not gotten here as soon as we did, he would surely be dead by now.”

    “Well, it’s fortunate that he managed to toss us that bottled message,” Francois replied. “At least we saved him. General, are you well enough to talk to us? Your message implies that you know something about the dangers facing Astryn.”

    “Ah… Yes, of course,” Alec agreed, though his voice was rather hoarse.

    “Hey! Is he alright?” Bryan interrupted as he rushed over, followed by Owen. “Ike and Skye helped me with the armor, it’s stowed in the wagons. I also brought my father so he could speak with Alec.”

    “Indeed. I’m curious about what he has to say,” Owen added.

    “Ah, I see. And yes, General Alec will be fine. Turns out, we got to him just in time,” Francois confirmed. “It might be a while before he recovers, but he should be out of danger.”

    “Oh, thank the goddess.”

    Alec, still sagged from exhaustion, straightened and gaped when he laid eyes on Bryan.

    “Hey! You…you must be Prince Bryan! I am honored to finally meet you, your highness,” the general greeted, nibbling chicken to coax his wasted body back to life. Bryan and Owen merely exchanged shocked glances.

    “Wait, how do you know who I am?! And for that matter, how do you know of my heritage?” Bryan inquired.

    “Where did you get this information? I told very few people after Shigo’s attack,” Owen pointed out.

    “Ah… Forgive me, it’s a long story,” Alec replied, a hint of normal color returning to his cheeks. “I learned this from Grand Duke Luther, just before he died. He knew his time would come very soon, so he summoned me to his bedside and told me about you. See, I am his nephew.”

    Alec then went on to explain that Luther said he had information regarding the rumors about a long lost prince, which only he and the ailing Queen Marion knew. However, the queen’s condition had deteriorated too much for her to properly relay it to someone else. Luther then revealed to Alec that the story was, in truth, no rumor at all and that his old friend, Grand Duke Owen, had married Marion’s sister, Princess Caline. They later had a son, a baby boy named Bryan, whom Luther then described as best as he could. Luther had agreed to be the young Prince Bryan’s guardian should anything happen to his parents; but shortly after, Shigo launched his attack and Caline’s body was found in the fallows. Owen and their infant son had vanished, and Luther never saw them again. Alec finished by revealing that Luther had suspected that Tavon was up to something and could not be trusted.

    “Why…why didn’t you tell anyone?” Francois inquired. “This information would’ve changed everything. His highness wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to prove his claims. And Laris would’ve had Tavon investigated.”

    “I know. And I sincerely apologize. I was meaning to tell Grand Duke Laris after my uncle had passed,” Alec continued. “But, as I was passing Duke Tavon’s chambers, I overheard him speaking to someone. The other voice wasn’t familiar to me, and my uncle's words had me suspicious, so I got as close as I could and listened in. What I heard shocked me and proved my uncle’s words were true. Unfortunately, as I tried to leave and summon help, I accidentally bumped against the door handle. That gave away my position. Tavon found me, and knew I had overheard his plans. I think he used an Elsleep staff on me, as I passed out and woke up inside that prison cell later in the day. He must’ve also taken my axe, because it’s missing. I called through the window for help, but no one came.”

    “I knew it,” Bryan growled. “What’s he planning? Is he the reason you said Astryn is in more danger than we think?”

    “Yes,” Alec confirmed. “That man I overheard him speaking to, turns out he was a Red Claw bandit disguised as a mercenary for hire. He helped subdue me, and I saw his brand during the struggle. From what I heard, Tavon had commissioned some smiths and Sages working for the Red Claw to forge a fake Eronite and to cast a spell on it that would make it reject your touch.”

    “And, when Tavon realized that we’d discovered the fake, he fled,” Francois finished.

    “…Oh no,” Alec replied. “He’s gone? This is bad. Very bad.”

    “And why is that?” Bryan wondered, more angered than nervous.

    “He also said that just in case you managed to secure your throne after all, he had something else planned. He’s going to meet with a Meloran delegation at the border to sign a non-aggression pact between Astryn and Melora!”

    “Are you serious?!” Francois and Owen exclaimed at the same time.

    “Wait, what exactly is that?” Bryan inquired.

    “A non-aggression pact is a treaty in which two nations pledge that no fighting will occur between them,” Owen explained. “Neither of them would be allowed to attack the other. My guess is that Tavon will pledge that Astryn will remain neutral in exchange for the promise that Melora will not attack.”

    “WHAT?!” Bryan exploded. “But, Tavon is a fugitive! How could him signing the treaty keep Astryn out of the war?!”

    “It’s quite simple,” Francois began, sounding as though frustrated that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. “Tavon’s powers as steward will not expire until you are crowned; or, in this case, if he is arrested. Granted, we know he replaced Eronite with the counterfeit, but the only evidence we have of his guilt is his hasty departure from the scene of the deception. Alec’s testimony would be enough for him to, at least, be relieved of his post; but heading back to Medann and having Alec testify would take too long. No doubt Tavon had that in mind when he left Alec here, as a simple way to buy him the time he needed. If Tavon does sign the treaty, while his powers remain in effect, then it will be legally binding and will strip you of any chance of having Astryn join the war against Melora!”

    Bryan clenched his fist until the chainmail about his hands groaned in protest.

    “That conniving son of a dastard! I’ll have his throat for this!”

    “Then we have to head north immediately,” Alec advised. “Every minute lost hastens his victory. If he can make that pact legally binding, then breaking it could turn the bluebloods against you.”

    “Agreed. We move out now!”

    With that, the group set off once again. Francois explained that the shortest route to the border was to the north, snaking around the fringes of the woods and then straight along to the northwest. At this, Bryan and Azura led everyone out of the woods while the laguz amongst their allies tried to pick up Tavon’s trail. Alec, once he had regained enough strength, donned his armor and armed himself with a new axe from the stockpile of weapons that had been recovered from Fort Mercue. Francois asked the general if he was sure he was able to do battle so soon after an incarceration that had left him near death, but Alec assured him that he would be fine. He wasn’t a general of Astryn for nothing. Plus, he wanted as much as Bryan did to make Tavon pay for his actions. Alec had learned much of the history of House Astryn and House Novat from his late uncle, and did not take Tavon's slights against their progeny lightly at all.

    Over the next hour, Bryan, Francois, and Alec held a hurried conference about how to deal with Tavon once he was found. Bryan and Alec, obviously, wanted to finish him on the spot; but Francois warned that doing so might damage their reputations and that it might be best if Tavon was arrested and sentenced, preferably to a lawful execution, later on. As such, the three decided to see what move Tavon would make. Unfortunately, Alec had no idea what escort, if any, Tavon might be traveling with. Still, even if the fugitive duke was well guarded, Bryan and Azura were confident they and their troops would win. Francois seemed quite insistent that it would be best if Tavon surrendered peacefully, which might very well happen if the fugitive duke was travelling alone when they caught up to him. Either way, death would be promised to the traitorous duke, and that was enough. If, however, Tavon had already met with the Meloran delegation, which would surely have its own escorts, then that might complicate matter. Isis had excellent reason to want this treaty signed, as Lartz later pointed out. At present, Allied Command was losing the war. But, if Astryn and the other nations of southern Altarais rallied in opposition to Melora, it might very well change everything.

    One way or the other, the next few hours might very well decide the fate of the entire continent.

    As the group traveled along the Astryn-Larame border, they kept a sharp eye out for any other armed parties. Bryan had not forgotten that Larame still blamed Astryn for looting their stores, and was only too aware that another attack by irate beast laguz was a delay they could not afford. What’s more, supporters of Tavon’s or even Shigo’s men might be abroad as well. Bryan had not forgotten that the Meloran general was still hiding himself and his army somewhere, and was quite eager to contend with him once Tavon was dealt with. Again, Bryan found himself wondering why Shigo had not revealed himself by now. The rogue Meloran general had allowed several opportunities to kill the prince to slip through his fingers, and the Emerald Sentinel was still at a loss as to explain this oddity. But, he had no time to dwell on the matter. Soon enough, another group of people was spotted along the path; smaller than Bryan and Azura’s, but clearly armed and on the alert. In their midst stood an all too familiar man garbed in silver robes: Tavon. Thankfully, the Meloran delegation did not appear to have arrived yet.

    “Tavon!” Bryan shouted as he raced ahead of his group.

    Tavon turned around, a devious smile on his face.

    “Well, well…” he said, snickering. “If it isn’t his highness. I see you managed to find the real Eronite.”

    “We did. We also know about all your plans, thanks to Alec!”

    “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you found that fool. I’ll admit that I half expected you to take him in the opposite direction. But then again, you’re already willing to sign all of our death warrants by having us take up arms against Melora. What’s one more death against that?”

    Bryan glowered, his gaze smoking with hatred. Alec, though no less incensed, merely growled.

    “You snake! You’re lucky I don’t lop your head off right now!” the general threatened.

    “Heh. You think your words scare me?” Tavon replied. “A Meloran delegation will be here any moment, and there will be nothing you can do once I have signed the non-aggression pact. The very laws you, Bryan, as a king, must uphold will compel you to honor Astryn's end of the bargain.”

    “You are as much a fool as you are a traitor, if you think signing a piece of paper with Melora will protect Astryn,” Bryan spat. “And someone who wishes to rule Astryn would not be so blind! We’re siding with Allied Command, and that will not change.”

    “You are persistent, Prince Bryan, that much I cannot deny,” Tavon admitted, though his tone was far less than complimentary. “However, raw courage simply is not enough to change the reality of the situation. Time is, clearly, not on your side. Melora’s manufactories and supply lines are operating at maximum capacity, whereas those of the Allies have been thrown into chaos by the loss of the raven messengers. Melora commands vast forces, both of their own army and the Red Claw, while Allied Command is currently experiencing a manpower shortage and cannot even account for the troops it has, due to the communications breakdown and the invasion of Cilae. Melora has repeatedly struck within the Allied Nations, in particular, the raid on Castle Eraghoa and the conquest of Cilae, whereas Allied Command has not been able to strike at Melora itself at all. And, most importantly, Melora is resolved to win the war, regardless of the time or the cost. I would be quite surprised if the Allied leadership has not already explored the option of negotiating their way out of the conflict, as I have already decided to do. So, candidly speaking, which side sounds like the wiser one to take?”

    Bryan’s answering glare was as hard and as sharp as Eronite’s blade, and only a hairsbreadth short of openly hostile.

    “The side most likely to leave Astryn in peace after the war is over,” he answered simply.

    The fugitive duke was clearly displeased with Bryan’s answer. He scoffed, sneered and then spat contemptuously at Bryan’s feet.

    “You call me a fool and a traitor for seeking peace while you seek a war that can only spell our doom. Again, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; but, I am disappointed.”

    “Tavon, why are you doing this?” Francois inquired. “Prince Bryan is right, Melora will never honor any agreement they sign with us! You must be mad to believe they can be trusted!”

    Mad? Indeed, I am. Mad of being cheated, mad of having what it rightfully mine snatched from my very fingertips,” Tavon replied, a manic gleam entering his eyes. “I suppose you might say it is my lot in life, as it was for my fathers, and their fathers.”

    Here, Tavon paused and turned his gaze fully upon the prince. The blaze of hatred in Bryan’s eyes was quickly matched by that of the fugitive duke.

    “You, I suspect, know a great deal about snatching away others pride and glory. After all, it runs in the family, does it not?”

    “What are you babbling about?” Bryan demanded, suddenly suspecting that Francois’s rhetorical assertion that Tavon was mad might not be far from the truth.

    “If you wish to know the truth, I guess there’s no harm in telling you,” Tavon replied. “My ancestors were of a great and noble house, far above the dreary province I rule today, until the machinations of a low born cur saw them disowned and their pride and glory stripped away. My family still lives with that pain, and has for generations, as we watched that cur turn our rightful lands and treasures into his own and become beloved by all who were fooled by that handsome face and that supple sword arm. He bewitched my ancestors’ ancestor, bedded one of the women of their house and sired his own bloodline. In fact, I’m surprised that my ancestors even had the will to live after watching all of these indignities on top of being stripped of their rightful inheritance. House Novat cast us out and ruined us! Ruling Astryn myself would’ve assuaged that pain and repaid us a hundred times over. But, once again, the progeny of my most hated enemy, a man who died hundreds of years before I was even born, comes to snatch away my prize. Just as you, progeny of Xavier, destroyed my plans to claim the throne, I’ll destroy any chance you have of victory in your war against Melora!”

    “What?!” Bryan exclaimed, his head suddenly abuzz with confusion and anger as he turned to Owen. “Dad, isn’t Xavier your middle name?”

    Owen could only nod in reply, his brow furrowed as he regarded the almost crazed Tavon. The fugitive duke regarded the pair almost expectantly for a moment but, after a time, he scoffed.

    “I’m not certain if I should be amused or insulted that you are so ignorant of history. After all, Xavier was exceedingly famous. Though, admittedly, his true name is, these days, known only to me and mine, who hated him from the moment we drew our first breath. He is more commonly known, I believe, as “Iron Storm.””

    The price’s eyes pulsed wide at the mention of his famous ancestor and, suddenly, Tavon’s almost delirious speech began to make sense. A quick glance at his father revealed that the former Grand Duke’s face had turned grave as realization dawned.

    “…Bryan,” Owen interjected. “His words just made me realize something more. “Tavon” is “Novat” spelled backwards. And, I can think of only one explanation for these ramblings of his. He must be descended from that cowardly son, who was disinherited for abandoning his father on the battlefield.”

    “I guess there is some intelligence amongst your branch of the family after all,” Tavon remarked, his face twisting with madness. “The day I learned that Shigo had wiped out your line was the happiest in my life. But, I suppose I should’ve realized that it was too good to be true.”

    “So that’s it,” Bryan replied, the barest hint of pity in his tone as he faced Tavon once more. “What a shame. Your ancestor had only himself to blame, for abandoning his father to his death. It’s too bad that neither you nor he realized the good Iron Storm had done for House Novat by putting you and yours in their place. What you’ve done though is worse than cowardice, it is betrayal of this country; maybe of the whole continent. I guess that means we both have a score to settle. Only, I won’t be as lenient as my ancestor was.”

    “Ha. Well, I may have been cheated out of the throne, but I will not go down so easy!” Tavon retorted and snapped his fingers.

    Instantly, an army of both Melorans and Red Claw members emerged from the paths and underbrush, and Bryan and Azura’s troops found themselves outnumbered.

    “Damn it!” Bryan opined angrily and readied Eronite.

    “You should feel honored,” Tavon continued. “I’m generous enough to give you a last battle and a warrior’s death! Unlike my ancestor, I’M NO COWARD!!”

  5. #35
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    So, it's been quite awhile since I last updated this. Originally, I was going to discontinue this story here because of lack of interest in it. But I changed my mind, so I'm going to update! Chapter 32 is divided into two parts due to the length, so the first part has no battle. The battle against Tavon still counts as chapter 31's fight.


    Chapter 32: Leyon's March

    Part 1


    Bryan's only reply to Tavon's remark was a low growl as he angled his shield and reached for his weapon. The prince of Astryn hardly needed Francois to tell him that, with Tavon having chosen to fight, the prospect of getting the traitorous duke to surrender peacefully had just become quite remote. Tavon's generations-old grudge against Bryan's family likely meant that he would prove as implacable an enemy as Shigo; and that nothing, short of death, would stop him. Tavon's motives were far too personal for him to be persuaded; and, again, Bryan found himself suspecting that Tavon and the renegade Meloran general were cut from the same cloth. That musing, however, sparked another; could they actually be in league with one another? Did Shigo put Tavon up to all of this, the capture of the hawks, the production of the counterfeit Eronite, and Alec's abduction, by promising him revenge against House Novat?

    At first, the notion seemed unlikely. After all, Tavon did originally want to take the throne for himself, and he seemed too twisted by his hatred of House Novat to settle for anything less. Yet, he'd also shown himself to be cunning and devious. Perhaps Shigo had convinced him that he would do great things for Tavon's family if he was crowned instead. Even if Tavon had bristled at the notion of being denied the throne, he might have used such an offer to hedge his bets, in case his own plans went awry. It was even possible that Tavon's attempt to claim the throne had been only a ruse to throw Bryan off; and, that could explain why Shigo hadn't attacked yet. But, would someone as twisted and power-hungry as Tavon accept help or trust another who also sought the throne? It still seemed doubtful, but the prince of Astryn knew that there was only one way to find out.

    Bryan had nearly un-slung his brave lance, eager to rush forward and ready to sound the charge, when he felt a hand seize him by the arm.

    "Bryan, wait!" Owen shouted. "Hold on for a minute!"

    "Huh? Dad, are you out of your mind?! You shouldn't be out here!" Bryan replied, though his tone held as much irritation as concern. "These imbeciles might know who you are and they'd skewer you in seconds!"

    "I know, but just listen to me. Think about what you're doing. Some of the soldiers supporting Tavon aren't Meloran or Red Claw!"

    "What?!"

    Bryan then whirled to look upon Tavon's troops once more, and the sight that greeted him caused his lower jaw to migrate earthwards. Owen was right. Many of Tavon's escorts were clad in armor that was colored silver, rather than the ebony of the Meloran soldiers and Red Claw members. They couldn't be from either arm of Isis's deadly army, which could only mean one thing.

    "Prince Bryan, I'm afraid your father is right!" Alec put in, echoing Bryan's thoughts. "There are some of my troops among them as well!"

    "Are you serious?!"

    "Hehe, you finally noticed," Tavon chuckled. "It is true. After I got rid of you, Alec, I reached out to some of your men. Like myself, they were…disappointed with the current state of affairs in Astryn, and wanted things to change. I managed to convince some that I could provide that which they so desired. Others were too stubborn to see what I am capable of, but I think what forces I did manage to gather should suffice."

    Alec growled angrily.

    "You traitor! You'll never get away with this!" he vowed, turning to face the Astrynian troops in the traitorous duke's entourage. "My fellow Astrynians, please hear me out! Tavon has deceived all of you! He's betrayed us all! I command you to serve Prince Bryan, rightful heir to the throne! He is sure to lead Astryn to a path of righteousness!"

    Many among Tavon's troops were men whom Alec had known for years, had trained with and whom he trusted. Thus, one can only imagine his astonishment when, rather than rallying to his order, they instead jeered and hissed and spat at him.

    "Wha?" Alec stammered, shocked and dismayed. "Why…? WHY?!"

    He was shaken from his stupefaction by the sound of Tavon mockingly applauding him.

    "What a sterling speech," he sarcastically opined. "But, what else can I say? They didn't put much stock in this story about a "Lost Prince." As for you…well, they weren't exactly impressed when they learned that I had managed to subdue and cage you."

    It took all of Alec's willpower to quash the notion of tearing Tavon apart upon hearing this. He merely grimaced, as the duke was right about one thing. He had managed to make Alec look weak, and had turned once loyal comrades against him. That wound clove into the general more deeply than any he'd suffered as Tavon's captive. Still, he knew what he had to do; and, as such, he turned to Bryan instead.

    "Your highness, it's up to you try and talk some sense into them," Alec said. "Please, I beg of you, convince them that your ascending the throne is what's best for this country. And that…that I'll grow stronger, and regain their respect. Please…"

    "Alec, don't worry. You have my word on that," Bryan replied, though he could not help but wonder if this promise might prove difficult to keep. "This will not stand."

    "Ah… Thank you so much…"

    Bryan reached for his brave lance again, but, having a thought, he un-slung Eronite instead. The sight of the legendary lance caused several of the Astrynians accompanying Tavon to gape in wonderment, and Bryan could not suppress a smug grin when Tavon blanched in dismay.

    Hopefully, the traitorous duke's entourage would not prove as loyal to Tavon as he had implied.

    "Now everyone, charge! Let me deal with the Astrynian soldiers! If they attack you, defend yourselves, but try not to kill them unless you must!"

    With that, prince of Astryn and his forces rushed forward to clash blades with Tavon's followers. Owen retreated to one of the wagons, his heart lurching as it always did when his son charged headlong into battle. Not for the first time, Owen wished to be at Bryan's side, guarding his back and helping him to return safely. Once upon a time, he might've been able to do just that; for Owen had once wielded powerful light magic. But, he had long since abandoned it to raise his son. Even so, despite his fear for Bryan, he was proud beyond words of his son. Proud of his resilience, his tenacity, his deep sense of loyalty, and his determination to never give up, no matter the odds arrayed against him. And, Caline would no doubt feel the same way if she were here to see their boy. Despite any lingering doubts that Bryan might have, Owen could easily see the truth in Alec's words. Once Bryan was crowned, he would lead Astryn to a bright future.

    As the battle raged on, most of Azura and Bryan's troops focused on attacking Tavon's Meloran and Red Claw allies. The prince of Astryn, meanwhile, engaged every Astrynian soldier he could reach, trying to appeal to them as they crossed blades. It was as plain as day that he could crush any of them in the blink of an eye, but if he could convince them to join him instead, then he would have more troops for his campaign against Shigo's forces. Still, even though he'd gotten their attention by displaying Eronite, Bryan suspected that persuading them would be no easy task. The Astrynians' reasons for siding with Tavon were understandable, given Astryn's decline and how far-fetched Bryan's story was. What's more, their reaction to Alec's entreaty had Bryan wondering if they would make reliable allies, even if he did win them over.

    What made things even more difficult, however, was Tavon himself. Francois warned Bryan that in addition to being cunning and devious, the traitorous duke was also a magic-user with the rank of Archsage; and, thus, he was very skilled with all forms of magic, particularly dark magic. In addition to that, he could use any kind of staff efficiently as well. Tavon gave a worrisome demonstration of this talent by frequently using a Physic staff to heal his wounded men.

    Bryan cursed the fugitive duke. Much though he wanted to tear Tavon limb from limb, he knew that a strong magic spell would go right through his armor and cut directly to the flesh beneath. The prince of Astryn found himself wondering who amongst his company would be strong enough to fight Tavon. Whatever he did, however, he would have to do it before the Meloran delegation arrived…or all hope was lost. The arrival of the delegation, which would surely be heavily escorted by Meloran troops, would force Bryan either to retreat or fight a hopeless battle. And, either way, the non-aggression pact would be signed and Bryan would be able to do nothing to help Allied Command fight against Melora…assuming the Melorans didn't simply kill him before the ink was dry.

    He shook the grim thoughts from his head, knowing they were a distraction he could ill-afford. Instead, he focused on winning the aid of the Astrynian soldiers that had sided with Tavon, trying to win over the aid of any he could. And thankfully, some decided to listen. As might be expected, they were still skeptical of this supposed "Lost Prince"; but, Bryan hurriedly relayed bits and pieces of Melora's dastardly actions abroad, and some of them realized that Melora could not be trusted. Several defected to Bryan's side, but others were deaf to his entreaties, and he was forced to take them down. The notion of killing fellow Astrynians, whose only real crime was being fooled by a villain, left a sour taste in Bryan's mouth. But, he forced himself to focus on the battle, and to take some comfort in the possibility that his and Azura's army likely outnumbered Tavon's.

    As the battle wore on, Bryan and Azura soon realized that, although the duke no longer held the numerical advantage, he had begun calling in reinforcements to replace the men that he'd lost. This put the traitorous duke and the prince of Astryn on near-even footing, which only served to make time press all the more heavily on Bryan and his troops. Thankfully, Lartz's most recent kill allowed him to promote to a Dragonmaster, and Marina followed suit moments later, becoming a Falcon Knight. The garb of Lartz and his wyvern now resembled that of Eric, only blue instead of silver and green. Marina, likewise, now looked more akin to Faline, only hers and her armor and Pegasus's trapping was green and yellow. While this seemed to tilt the odds back in their favor, neither Bryan nor Azura could be sure how much longer the group could continue to fight. The Meloran delegation, and more worrisome, its escort of soldiers, could not be far away.

    Yet, as was often the case, help came from a most unlikely source.

    One of the Astrynian soldiers among Tavon's troops, a dirty blonde haired paladin wielding a steel bow, had watched the battle with mounting despair. He had been reluctant to join up with Tavon and the other mutinous Astrynian troops, after all, they weren't the sorts to take "no" for an answer, and was even less eager to fight. But, with the battle now raging, his thoughts were turning away from how he'd gotten coerced into joining this battle and more and more towards how he would survive it. He was thankful that he had not yet been ordered to the frontline; and, he became all the more so when the corpse of a Red Claw member, riddled with arrows, crashed to earth no more than ten paces away.

    "Ugh… How did I ever wind up in this mess?" he wondered to himself, more than a hint of panic in his voice. "Liv is so going to kill me when she finds out about this…"

    His murmuring was cut off abruptly when the sound of leathery wings cutting through the air drew his gaze upward. Above, a wyvern swooped down upon a Meloran warrior and tore him to pieces. The insignia upon the wyvern's trappings, however, made nearly as much of an impact on the Bow Paladin as did the creature's handiwork.

    "Huh?!" he blurted, blanching like a sick heron. "The dracoknights?! If they're here, then that means… Uh oh…"

    "Hey, you!" a Red Claw member shouted. "Get out there and help the others! Go on, move it!"

    "Gah! Okay, okay, I'm going!" the Bow Paladin replied, hoping he sounded less terrified than he felt, and rode towards the combat. "That's it, I'm dead…"

    As the reluctant combatant warily rode forth, he soon spied Olivia and, idly suspecting that he'd lost his mind, he headed towards her. The only way he could get out of this situation alive was to reach her…and hope she was in a forgiving mood. The deputy commander of the dracoknights soon spotted him, and was so astonished by the sight that she nearly fell from her saddle.

    "What the—?!" she exlcaimed when she saw the Bow Paladin. "Fin?!"

    "Heh, hey, Sis!" Fin greeted with a nervous smile.

    "Fin, you pinheaded idiot!" Olivia barked angrily, turning progressively redder as she swooped down upon him. "What in goddess's name are you doing with Tavon's troops?!"

    "W-What? T-Tavon's troops? Uh, I just arrived!" Fin blurted, improvising his way around the truth.

    If it was possible for the incensed Olivia to turn redder, she did so.

    "Oh, please!" she scoffed. "That's the worst lie I've ever heard! You should be serving your prince, not that good-for-nothing traitor!"

    "B-But I can exp—Huh?!" Fin blurted, anxiety giving way to surprise. "W-Wait, prince?!"

    "I'll explain later, just get your lazy bum over to our army! NOW!"

    "Whoa! Alright, alright! Geez…"

    With that, though wondering all the while if he'd just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, Fin joined the other troops on Azura and Bryan's side and began combatting Tavon's followers. Bryan soon noticed the new recruit and smiled, glad to see yet another one of Tavon's men defect to his side. His smile, however, turned upside down when he saw that this latest addition to the army didn't seem to be very bright. He was struck in the leg by one of his former comrades within a minute of his defection and, by the time he'd even noticed, his assailant was well out of reach. Yet, despite this, Bryan could see that he nonetheless had superb skill with a bow; perhaps even rivaling that of Skye. His first arrow struck a foe who was standing thirty feet away, the shaft burying itself right in the middle of his forehead.

    The battle ground on and, sometime later, Tavon's healing staves had begun to run out of power. Several of them, their energies spent, literally crumbled in his grasp. Snarling a curse, he decided to join the fight himself. He withdrew from his robes a tome bound in black leather, spoke an incantation, and large waves of darkened purple clouds and mist billowed out onto the battlefield. A few of the Astrynian soldiers that had defected to Bryan's side fell to this powerful dark magic, some sent toppling to the ground and others sent beyond the realm of the living. The tome which the traitorous duke had used was clearly one of the stronger dark magic tomes, probably either a Verrine or Balberith tome. Though Verrine wasn't quite as powerful a spell as Balberith, as the latter was the strongest known form of dark magic in either Tellius or Altarais, either could inflict grievous harm. No less disconcerting was Tavon following up this arcane assault with blasts of Arcfire and Arcthunder as well, the strongest of the common forms of fire and thunder magic. A handful of light magic users who'd left the traitorous duke's service, realizing too late that their foe had turned the tables, were sent flying amidst salvos of fireballs and lightning bolts. Within a short time, Tavon had smashed his way through to Bryan, Francois, and Eric.

    "Hehe, you all have fought well," he commended. "I will admit, I did not expect you to offer such formidable opposition. Perhaps I should have. After all, I am uniquely aware that Novat blood isn't given to spill easily. But, it matters not. I have waited far too long for my due to give up now!"

    "We'll take whatever you dish out!" Bryan affirmed. "You won't win in the end!"

    "That's right, Tavon! Your scheming ends here! I won't let you force Astryn to side with Melora!" Francois seconded.

    Tavon merely chuckled contemptuously.

    "Well… We'll just have to see about that, won't we?" he snickered, and eyed Francois. He then produced another staff. But this time, it was not one designed for mending wounds. Tavon swept it toward the count of Urae and soon, a cold blue glow flared outward to envelope Francois.

    "Aaagh!" the count yelped as he collapsed to his knees.

    "Francois!" Bryan exclaimed and rushed to his aid. Before he could do much, however, Tavon directed the staff's icy glow towards Raela, Lily, Armelle, and Soren as well. Each screamed in pain and pitched headlong to the earth, their strength seeming as though it had been sapped in an instant. Raela and Lily, each sister clawing their way to the other, clung to one another in desperate terror. Ike and Elincia raced to aid Soren, finding him gasping unintelligibly and his eyes round with fright. Eric, more than a bit terrified himself, gasped and rushed to Armelle's side, lifting her up and taking her upon his wyvern. He then gazed upon Tavon, his face aglow with hatred.

    "Tavon, you son of a bitch!" he seethed, his rage beyond control.

    "Argh…" Francois groaned, his eyes glazed over.

    "Francois, what did he do to all of you?!" Bryan desperately inquired.

    "That…is a Silence staff," Francois explained, his words oddly slurred. "It affects the minds of spell casters and staff wielders. My spells…the gestures and the incantations, my memory of them is all jumbled. Our mages and healers will be useless until this affliction wears off. I beg your forgiveness."

    "WHAT?! Damn it!"

    "Hahahaha! This should make our bout a little more…interesting. After all, how will all of you continue to fight without being able to heal yourselves?" Tavon inquired rhetorically. "Vulneraries can run out quickly, you know."

    "You won't be laughing when I chop your ass to pieces!" Eric glowered.

    "For once, we can agree," Bryan added. "There won't be enough of you left to fill a funeral urn, Tavon!"

    Eric's glare, suddenly, swung away from Tavon to alight, no less furiously, upon Bryan.

    "Shut it!" he barked. "This lout is mine!"

    "Oh yeah?" Bryan snapped, Tavon briefly forgotten. "And just how do you expect to kill him when his Arcthunder tome can burn you and your wyvern to a crisp?!"

    "Errrrgh…Why you little—!"

    The two antagonists looked ready to fight one another, much to Tavon's delight, until a feminine voice rang out.

    "Neither of you will fight him!"

    All three men turned to see Faline. The Falcon Knight had brought her Pegasus to a halt between the two men and Tavon, her eyes narrowing into lavender daggers poised at the traitorous duke.

    "Faline!" Bryan cried.

    "What's she up to?" Eric wondered in annoyance.

    "You two need tend to the others. I will handle Tavon," Faline proclaimed.

    "What?! Faline, are you crazy?! That's suicide!" Bryan protested.

    "Haha, I'd listen to your boyfriend if I were you," Tavon laughed.

    "No. I've made my decision," Faline insisted. "Bryan is the man I love; and I will help him win, whatever the cost. He is Astryn's prince and I've seen how devoted he is to guiding this kingdom back to its former glory. As his love, I can do no less than he, and I will protect Astryn as well. I will not allow a perverted maniac like you to endanger this kingdom any further!"

    "But Faline—!" Bryan interjected desperately. However, Faline didn't listen, and spurred her Pegasus towards Tavon. Bryan felt his breath go short and hard as he watched the blur of feathers and steel that was Faline charge headlong toward Tavon, the traitorous duke's face contorting with mingled rage and alarm as he fumbled for a tome. The prince of Astryn tried to tell himself that Pegasi were naturally resilient against magic, and that their riders shared this gift as a result of their training; but, this knowledge did little to quiet the blood pounding in his ears. However, when he recalled as well that Tavon didn't have any wind tomes, which was the only type of magic truly deadly to a Pegasus knight, he found himself wondering if his love's seeming impetuousness might win the battle. Yet, was Faline strong enough to withstand the duke's other spells? There were more than a few amongst Bryan's troops who hadn't been, not all of whom had survived the traitorous duke's wrath. And, though Bryan himself had trained her, he was uncertain if she was ready to face as powerful an enemy as an Archsage. All he could do was hope and pray that either Faline would win, or that he would find the chance to intervene if things went awry.

    Faline leveled a steel greatlance, larger and even more powerful than a common steel lance, at Tavon as she swooped down upon him. But, he quickly sidestepped the blow and readied his Arcfire tome. With a powerful incantation, Tavon conjured a massive blast of fire and sent it hurtling towards the Falcon Knight. Bryan's blood ran cold at the sight; but Faline spurred Flower, known for being one of the fastest Pegasi on the continent, into the air. In a blur of ivory and feathers, the creature was in motion. The flames flew past Faline, managing only to lightly singe her arm, but this seemed only to spin the Falcon Knight into an even greater frenzy. The two continued trading blows, neither able to land a decisive strike. Tavon took only a few cuts and scratches from Faline's lance while Faline herself had sustained some more minor burns. Yet, despite this, they seemed evenly matched. Though Faline was not yet a Seraph Knight, the third tier of Pegasus knight classes, the Archsage she fought seemed unable to land more than a glancing blow with his deadly magic.

    Watch what I've learned from you, Bryan! Faline mused confidently as she urged Flower rise high into the air. Tavon, meanwhile, summoned yet another Arcfire spell and followed his foe's rise with unblinking, madness filled eyes. Bryan looked on, nearly lightheaded from breathlessness, yet somehow knowing in his gut told him that this was the moment that would decide the battle. One of these two attacks would hit its mark…and someone was about to die. The prince prayed that it would not be Faline, but if it appeared that such might occur, he would save her again…or die trying himself. He watched as Faline spurred Flower into a swift dive and Tavon hurled the massive conflagration into her path. The blast of fire soared towards Faline once again, but the Falcon Knight did not waver in her flight. Just as it appeared that the flames would strike her head on, Faline jerked Flower upward slightly. The flames roiled beneath the Pegasus's hooves, streaking off toward the horizon, and Faline then spurred her mount into a spiraling dive as she continued descending towards her target. She straightened out moments later, twirled her lance, and thrust it right at Tavon's heart. All Tavon could do was stare in wide-eyed fear at what was about to happen.

    "HAAAAA!" Faline exclaimed as she closed in on the duke at blinding speed. Her lance's blade went right through Tavon's chest, cleaving through his heart and killing him instantly. The entire blade, along with much of the shaft, burst out from his back, lending mute testimony to just how instantly fatal the blow had been. Faline didn't even stop her Pegasus until her lance's blade buried itself in a tree trunk, Tavon's body impaled upon the shaft like a skewered boar on a spit. She let the gruesome trophy hang there for a few moments, and then yanked the lance free of the tree's bark and out of Tavon's flesh. The duke's corpse then fell to the ground below, for all of his remaining followers to see. Many stood there frozen, gaping in shock and more than a bit of fear, and what remained of the enemy Astrynian soldiers quickly fled. Bryan, Azura, Elincia, and Marina approached Faline moments later, surprise and shock in their widened eyes.

    "Faline!" Bryan called, unable to conceal his stupefaction. "That…that was incredible!"

    "More than incredible!" Azura added. "I can't think of any words to describe it!"

    "I'll say!" Marina seconded. "Not even Commander Eilonwy has ever pulled off a maneuver like that!"

    "Yeah! I rode a Pegasus during the wars back in Tellius, but I looked like a rookie compared to you," Elincia put in. "You're a force to be reckoned with now!"

    "Ah…" Faline replied, a large smile dawning her features. "Thank you all! But I don't deserve all the credit for coming up with that one. Bryan was the one who taught me. All of the more advanced lancing techniques I know, I learned from him! If it weren't for Bryan, I wouldn't have ever come up with that spin dive."

    "What? Really? I don't know about that," Bryan countered, smug pride in his love tugging at the corners of his mouth. "All I know about Pegasus knights is what I've read in books. I couldn't teach you aerial techniques that advanced if you paid me."

    "But you're a great teacher, Bryan! To be honest, I was one of the weaker knights in Cilae before you started training me. At least, I thought so."

    "Oh, wow. Well, you're very strong now, and that's what matters. …Hm?"

    Bryan's words trailed away when he and the others belatedly realized that Alec, Francois, Eric, Olivia, and the other Astrynian troops and dracoknights were still staring wide-eyed at Faline in slack-jawed astonishment, no doubt shocked at what she had just done. The corners of Alec's mouth then curved upward, however, as a thought occurred to him, and he spun 'round to face his comrades.

    "Hey, everyone! Did you see that?! Tavon, the foul traitor who shed the blood of many of our friends, was brought down with a single blow!" he announced. "Let us salute this avenging Shield Maiden of the Skies! Three cheers for Lady Faline!"

    "YEAH! HIP HIP, HUZZAH! HIP HIP, HUZZAH!" the Astrynian army thundered proudly along with Alec. Even Eric had joined in the cheering, despite still having little respect for Bryan. Bryan himself, though proud beyond words of his love and realizing that her prowess did much to raise everyone's spirits, only hoped that none of the troops would start swooning over Faline. It was enough that she'd already picked up some unwanted male admirers in Cilae. Having Astrynian soldiers seeking her attentions, and while she was already with the prince no less, would surely drive both her and Bryan crazy. Still, Bryan was proud that Faline had also gained the troops' support and admiration.

    He did, however, notice that one of the Astrynian troops had remained conspicuously silent during the outburst of cheers. He looked to be a swordmaster, due to his long robe and sheathed sword at his side. His sinewy body was tense, like a cat laguz waiting to spring, and his sharp, angular features gave him a hawkish appearance.

    The Prince of Astryn suddenly found himself certain that, although this man didn't seem likely to start swooning over Faline, he might prove troublesome nonetheless.

    "You'll pardon me if I don't hold off on jumping up and down, I hope?" the swordmaster wondered, prompting a hard glare from Bryan. "You've proven that you can kill this kingdom's enemies; though, I'd have to say that your girlfriend upstaged you a bit on that score. But, can you guide Astryn to a better future?"

    Faline's smile suddenly twisted into a scowl and, sensing impending violence, Bryan laid a restraining hand on his love's shoulder

    "Why don't you stick around and find out?" the prince of Astryn replied, mentally revising his musing of the swordmaster's countenance from "hawkish" to "buzzard faced."

    "Tavon was right about one thing; the present state of Astryn is…disappointing," Buzzard Face countered. "I'm curious about whether or not you really can turn things around here."

    Faline nearly slipped free of Bryan's grip, and he could not restrain a flush of pleasure when he saw Buzzard Face warily draw back.

    "I say again, stick around and you'll find out," he intoned, though more firmly this time.

    "I will," Buzzard Face replied. "For now, however, think of this as me extending an Olive Branch."

    So saying, he unbuckled the sword at his waist and casually tossed it toward Faline. She snatched it out of the air and unsheathed it, revealing a serrated blade and a hilt fashioned like the claws of a dragon. It was a Wyrmslayer.

    "That's for getting so many of Tavon's followers to join you," Buzzard Face explained. "That takes icy nerves and quick thinking. I like that."

    The swordmaster was hardly concerned with ingratiating himself, but Bryan had to admit that his gift was impressive. Wyrmslayer blades were quite rare and, since Melora used wyverns so extensively, it would prove invaluable the next time the group faced down the Meloran army.

    "Well, would you look at that?" Bryan spoke to Faline moments later. "Even the skeptics love you now. And you even won Eric over. Faline, you're amazing."

    "Finally, something we agree on," Eric replied, his tone only half as sarcastic as usual. "Prince Bryan, I'll admit this. You have excellent taste in women. I'm not so sure about her taste in men, but maybe there's more to you than I thought. Maybe."

    Bryan's eyebrows rose upon hearing the general's words.

    "Really? Wow, uh… Thanks," he replied, more than a bit shocked at the admission, convoluted though it was. Faline, you're a life saver.

    With that, the cheering resumed. Faline, who still recalled the days when she was the punch-line of many a joke in the barracks back in Cilae, could only continue to smile while her eyes brimmed over with tears of joy. She was nearly overwhelmed with happiness now that both she and Bryan had gained Astryn's support. Even better, with Tavon's death, the plot to discredit Bryan's claim to the throne and to force Astryn into neutrality had been thwarted.

    Perhaps, at that very moment, the tide of the war had finally begun to turn.

    Suddenly, however, a loud, deep voice brought the excitement to an abrupt end.

    "I wouldn't celebrate just yet, punks!" the voice rang out angrily. It was followed by a frightened yelp and a sharp intake of breath.

    "KYE! NO!" Skye's voice cried out fearfully. Azura, Bryan, and the others turned to behold a tense standoff. Skye was facing down a lone Red Claw member, who was clutching a kicking and struggling Kye while holding his hand over the boy's mouth.

    "Huh?!" Bryan gasped, his eyes pulsing wide once again, but this time in fear. "Drop the hostage, you scum!"

    "Before I drop your body!" Skye seconded, readying an arrow. "LET HIM GO IF YOU WANT TO DIE FAST!"

    "Oh, that's right dangerous," the Red Claw member remarked, lifting Kye until the small rogue was in the path of Skye's arrow. "Ya might…miss."

    "Skye never misses," Bryan pointed out. "Besides, Tavon's dead. You blew your chance to keep Astryn out of the war. You really think Isis is going to be in a forgiving mood when you tell her about this fiasco? Release him, and you might keep your skin."

    "Or, if you'd rather be put out of your misery…" Skye trailed off pointedly.

    "Ha! Any of you move, and the boy is dead!" the Red Claw member threatened. He then unslung a large axe forged of crimson steel with small serrations on its edges, leveling it a hairsbreadth from Kye's throat. The young rogue stared at the blade in deep fear, tears trailing down his cheeks. It was a killer axe, one of the several weapons known for often dealing fatal blows to even the strongest opponents.

    "Errrrgh, DAMN IT!" Bryan thundered in despairing anger. Tavon was gone; but now, Skye might very well lose his brother, and Bryan could lose a good friend and a valuable member of his army. And, there seemed to be nothing he could do about it.

    "Yer not so tough now, are ya?" the bandit sneered, his gaze fixing upon Skye. "Threaten me all ya like, you can't do a thing to help this little worm! Despite Tavon's death, I thinks I can still salvage this bit. The worm fer the prince, and that's me final offer! Hahahaha!"

    Bryan knew immediately that he could not capitulate to that demand. Though he'd gladly give his life for a friend, he knew that doing so now would ruin any chance of Astryn joining the war. And, as much as Bryan hated to admit it, Kye was only one life weighed against countless thousands who remained imperiled by Melora. Skye, as though sensing the prince of Astryn's thoughts, growled louder than before.

    "Aw, somebody's getting angry," the Red Claw member chortled. "Guess this wee runt is important to ya, huh? Should I leave a few of his fingers fer ya to remember 'im by?"

    With this, Skye's rage reached the boiling point. Nobody insulted or harmed his little brother and got away with it, no matter what.

    "NnnghAAAAAAAAAH!" the sniper bellowed, so piercingly, that those nearest to him grimaced, and he clenched both of his fists until his knuckles crackled like one of the late Tavon's Arcfire spells. A split second later, a ring of white light erupted from the earth and encircled Skye as the ground beneath everyone's feet began to tremble violently. A searing wind blew in Skye's face and tossed his hair, his eyes scraping closed as the light began to induce a transformation. His scarf darted from his collarbone to his waist and his tunic became a surcoat that spread outward to cover his shoulders like a cloak. Dark fabric flamed out behind him to reach near his ankles while his shoulder guard expanded and smallish sections of armor appeared across nearly his entire arm. The armor on his legs grew slightly in size and became more ornate. When the light finally faded to reveal Skye's new appearance, the newly promoted Marksman opened his eyes, which shown with a bright white glow.

    "What the—?!" Francois gasped. Eric's jaw dropped.

    "FEAR THE POWER OF SILVER ARROW!" Skye shouted; but it sounded as though two people were speaking at once through the same pair of lips, with the second voice being slightly deeper than Skye's. No less shocking was the deftness with which the Marksman drew three arrows, then tossed the arrows skyward, leaped into the air and caught them, and fired them from his bow from midair. Each arrow struck one of the Red Claw holding Kye, missing the small rogue by inches, as one shaft found the villain's chest, another plunged into his side and the third struck him right in the forehead. Bryan could only stare in amazement as the Red Claw member, as though only belatedly realizing he was dead, remained upright for nearly ten seconds before crumbling to the earth, and the boy slipped free of the villain's death grip and rushed towards his brother and hid behind him. The remaining enemies fled in deep fear. Strangely, Skye's eyes then returned to normal, though he appeared rather confused as well as angry. What…the hell did I just do? He pondered.

    "What in the world…?" Azura blurted, stupefied.

    "…D-Did he just use Deadeye with three arrows?!" Bryan stammered, turning to Francois. Deadeye was well known as being the mastery skill of the Marksman class, but a feat such as Skye had performed was unheard-of. Had Bryan not seen it with his own eyes, he would have thought it impossible.

    "He did…" Francois replied, his eyes still gaping. "I don't believe it…"

    "And Skye, what in the world is Silver Arrow?" Bryan inquired.

    "Yeah, and where'd that small earthquake and those glowing eyes come from?" Azura added.

    "Honestly? I haven't a clue. It just…popped into my head out of nowhere," Skye replied, looking as bewildered as the others. "I don't know where it came from. As for the ground shaking and my eyes going all white, I have no idea about that either."

    "Well, I don't care, you saved me!" Kye blubbered, throwing his arms around his brother. "I was so scared… Thank you, Skye!"

    Not used to such a display from his younger brother, Skye looked almost as shocked by these words as by the strange transformation he'd undergone. Yet, a smile quickly lit up his face as he hugged the young Rogue.

    "Of course, little bro," he replied feelingly, noting Azura's approving grin out of the corner of his eye.

    "Pardon the intrusion, but I think I can explain what happened here," Francois offered. "And, I must admit, I'm quite amazed at this development."

    "Then tell us," Bryan urged. "Skye deserves to know most of all."

    "Of course. Now, you all know of Iron Storm," Francois began. "The man who led House Novat to an age of prosperity. Well, there was another famous Astrynian hero during his time, who also happened to be his best friend. His name was Angus. But he was better known as Silver Arrow."

    Francois went on to explain that Silver Arrow was one of the greatest archers Astryn had ever produced, and he and Iron Storm made a formidable team. During the same war that led to Iron Storm's being named successor to House Novat, Silver Arrow had served as a body guard to the other house members while Iron Storm and the others were engaged on the battlefield. Though the earl whom they both had served, who'd named Iron Storm as his successor after having been left to die by his cowardly son, had been slain, Silver Arrow managed to save the late earl's wife from a deadly assassin. He had done so by managing the seemingly impossible feat of firing three arrows while performing Deadeye. It was his most famous technique. Silver Arrow had earned his nickname from the silver bows he often used and how his arrows seemed to sparkle like silver every time he used Deadeye.

    "And, when he first became a Marksman, his transformation underwent a strange twist; exactly as yours did, Skye," Francois finished. "They say it's because he possessed such skill and such strength as an archer that his eyes lit up with a white glow every time he used Deadeye , just as yours did. He also often shouted "Fear the power of Silver Arrow" as well."

    "Okay, this is a fascinating story," Skye interjected. "But, how does it explain what just happened?"

    "I'm getting to that," Francois answered, with a hint of incredulity. "As you know, the young noblewoman who would later be Iron Storm's wife was the daughter of the woman whose life Silver Arrow had saved. As thanks, she gave him a remarkable gift: the Mark of the Phoenix."

    "I've heard about that," Bryan spoke up. "Isn't it supposed to be a way for the dead to return to life, or something like that?"

    "In a manner of speaking. It gave Silver Arrow's spirit the ability to affect the mortal realm, even after his death."

    Just like the Saints who created the Miracle Stone, Azura realized; but, with so many strangers about, she decided to keep this observation to herself.

    "But, the Mark of the Phoenix works in a particular way," Francois continued. "It is believed that, from time to time, Silver Arrow's spirit chooses to reincarnate itself in the body of a worthy and heroic archer. The hero he chooses is born with the birthmark of a bird on his or her right shoulder blade."

    "I used to have a mark like that," Skye admitted. "I knew it was a birthmark, but I would never have guessed it had such significance."

    ""Used to?""

    "I was outdoors too long on a sunny day, and it peeled off. The outline is still there, and some of the head too."

    "…That's disgusting. Well, I imagine those who chronicle the movements of Silver Arrow's spirit will find that to be an…interesting anecdote. But, that is all by the by. What has happened means, without a doubt, that Silver Arrow's spirit has been reborn once again, and has chosen to manifest itself within you. Skye, you now hold his power. You are this age's reincarnation of the great Silver Arrow."

    "…Wow," was all Skye could say. "I…I can't believe it…"

    "Yeah, neither can I!" Azura agreed. "That's incredible."

    "That is so awesome!" Kye cried and hugged Skye again. "I knew my big brother was the best!"

    "I'm shocked as well," Bryan admitted. "And Iron Storm and Silver Arrow were best friends? That's also like Skye and I…"

    "Indeed. It seems that far more than Silver Arrow's prowess with the bow accompanied him on this latest journey from beyond the mortal realm. Their strong friendship has also been rekindled between you two," Francois agreed. "Which leads me to believe that you, Prince Bryan, are Iron Storm's own reincarnation. Not in the same way as Silver Arrow, of course, but in how you live your life and fight your battles. He mainly used an iron sword, but he also fought with an iron lance, if necessary. Like yourself, he was known for his staunch loyalty and unshakable resolve. And, he had gained the support and adoration of nearly all of Astryn, as you yourself very well might."

    "Amazing…"

    "I must agree," Owen stepped in, having joined the group earlier. "My son and his best friend, each possessing the spirits and strengths of such heroes… And just when we need them the most."

    "Yes, it is most wonderous," Francois agreed with a smile.

    "But of course!" Faline added. "Bryan and Skye are two of the bravest and most noble men you could ever meet!"

    "Indeed," Owen seconded proudly. "And Faline, you're a great warrior yourself, you know. I've heard of how you've aided my son, most recently by killing Tavon. Bryan could not have found a finer girl."

    "Oh, Owen. You are too kind," Faline commented with an abashed smile.

    "And to think," Soren spoke up, a sly grin crossing his features. "Skye is the reincarnation of this continent's greatest archer, and folks back in Tellius who know of this war only think he's the Emerald Sentinel's Sniper Sidekick."

    "…Are you serious? "Sniper Sidekick?!"" Skye blurted, as much bewildered as angry. "What the hell kind of nickname is that?!"

    "Oh relax, it was mostly just a joke."

    Skye, looking far from amused, turned to face the Prince of Astryn,

    "Bryan, you know how, when we first heard about Tellius and I said it would be fun to go there and explore?" he inquired, not bothering to give Bryan a chance to reply. "I take it back…"

    "Well, if we're all finished here, we should return to the palace," Francois suggested, chuckling at Skye's reaction. "I also think it appropriate that we leave Tavon's corpse here for that delegation to find. That might convey to Melora just how interested we are in their empty promises."

    "Heh, heh, I like your thinking," Bryan replied with a devious smile. "Let's get going then! We have a lot of work to do before we can take the fight to Shigo!"

    Francois nodded in agreement and with that, the army began its march back to Medann and Astryn Palace. The journey was punctuated with many of the troops boasting raucously of their deeds in battle, and more than a few declarations that Shigo would soon rue the day he crossed Astryn's borders. Bryan found his mind much at ease with confidence running so high, and heartily agreed that Shigo's days were numbered. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? His and Azura's army now had the might of not one, but two ancient Astrynian war heroes; not to mention the strength of Ike and his fellows from Tellius, each a legendary hero of in his or her own right. Though Astryn's army yet remained tattered and dispirited, Bryan didn't doubt for a moment that this would change, and soon. Once this was accomplished, he knew he would have a powerful force to aid him in his battle against Shigo. With the power of Iron Storm and Silver Arrow on his side, the Meloran general wouldn't stand a chance. Bryan's train of thought was soon interrupted, however, when he heard heavy, running footsteps and the sound of someone calling out his and Owen's names. The two turned to see Alec rushing towards them.

    "Ah, good, I'm glad I caught up with you both," the general wheezed, breathless from sprinting in his heavy armor.

    "What's the matter, Alec?" Bryan inquired.

    "Yes, is it important?" Owen added.

    "Yeah, sort of," Alec replied. "There was one more thing I had forgotten to mention earlier. I…well…get distracted easily. And, in my anger towards Tavon and his foul schemes, I nearly forgot all about it. But I have something for you both."

    Alec then held up what appeared to be a large pipe…though, "large" seemed to understate the case a little. Bryan had seen more than a few of the pipes that farm workers and nobles alike would stuff with pipeweed and smoke, but this was easily the biggest one he had ever seen. The shank was as long as Bryan's forearm, including the hand and elbow, and was as thick as the shaft of his brave lance. No less shocking was that his fist could fit snugly in the bowl.

    "Er," Bryan stuttered, looking dubiously at the pipe. "Thanks, but neither of us smoke."

    "No, no, it's inside the pipe!" Alec corrected.

    "What is?"

    "My uncle gave me a piece of parchment just before he…he passed on. He told me that I was supposed to give it to you if you ever came. I stumbled upon Tavon's plot just after, though. I didn't have much time, so I rolled the parchment up and hid it in the shank to keep it safe. I'm just lucky Tavon's men didn't bother confiscating it. After you found me, I kept the pipe in one of the wagons, so that the parchment wouldn't get damaged during the battle."

    He then dug inside the pipe's shank and pulled out a rolled up scroll. He then handed it to Bryan. Bryan then unrolled the parchment, still uncertain why it was so important. Small portions of the parchment's edges had been blackened, suggesting that it had been badly burned, and much of the text written on it was smeared with soot. It appeared to be a very old document, for the unmarred portions were yellowed and faded, and Bryan had trouble making out what few words he could find. What he could see was that some of the text had been underlined for some reason.

    "…Please tell me you haven't lit that thing up recently," Bryan pleaded, arching an eyebrow.

    "Of course not!" Alec replied, though his incredulity soon turned to uncertainty. "Though, I can only vouch for myself in that regard."

    Bryan merely sighed. When Owen had examined the parchment, however, his eyes pulsed wide with shock.

    "Bryan…" he choked out. "This is… This is your birth certificate!"

    "Wait, what?" Bryan replied, stupefied. "How can you tell? This thing looks to me like it might as well have been some kid's schoolwork."

    "Yes, but look closely at some of these letters," Owen insisted, very nearly shoving the parchment in his son's face. "At the top, you can see a few letters from the words "Certificate of Birth." Below that, you see N, M, and E, and then on the line next to it, you can see B, R, and Y. Those originally read "Name of child" and "Bryan." And then look at the letters next to your name. C, R, I, N, O, and T. I believe the C, I, and R are part of your middle name. Alas though, I still can't seem to recall it for some reason. But, these other letters are part of "Novat." Below that, I can also see a couple letters of the words "Father" and one letter from my own name. Though, where it would say "Mother" and your mother's name, that's pretty much covered with these soot smudges."

    Bryan then looked at the letters more closely, and soon realized that his father was right. Now that he knew what to look for, and where, he could just barely separate the faint marks of the ink from the darker black of the soot.

    "Whoa… I see it now," he said.

    "Indeed, it is true," Alec confirmed. "Again, I apologize for not showing it to you both earlier."

    "It's fine, Alec, don't worry," Owen assured. "The good news is that the birth certificate is intact and legible. The bad news is the whole thing smells like pipeweed."

    "Ugh!" Bryan cringed after taking a whiff. "I hear it's some sort of Astrynian custom for new fathers to give out packets of that stuff to their friends, but I think I'll pass."

    "Well, anyway," Owen continued. "Alec… Luther had this all along, didn't he?"

    "Yes. My uncle was hiding it," Alec confirmed. "He said he had rescued it from the fires when Shigo attacked Medann. He meant to return it to you once all of you were out of danger; but you got separated in the chaos, and he never saw you again. Once the two of you made contact, after my uncle returned to Astryn, he considered sending it to you via a messenger. But he reconsidered, as he was afraid that it would put it at risk of falling into the wrong hands. So, he handed it to me the day he died, and instructed me to pass it on to you."

    "Wow… I see. Oh, Luther, my dear old friend…" Owen intoned sadly, bowing his head in prayer. "Thank you… May you rest in peace."

    "It does sound like he was a great man," Bryan opined.

    "Oh, you have no idea, Bryan," Owen replied. "Luther and Eric's father, General Reynard, were my closest friends. And your mother…she would be so happy to see your birth certificate safe and sound…well, mostly so, at least. She loved you with all her heart and the day of your birth was the happiest of her life. Oh, you were such a beautiful baby…"

    "Dad…" Bryan uttered, his cheeks going pink with embarrassment as Skye, Cato, and some others nearby began snickering. They were never going to let him hear the end of this.

    "Ah, sorry about that. Heh, heh… Perhaps I've gone senile with all this nostalgia about? Anyway, Luther must have gone to great lengths to save the birth certificate. Knowing him, he foresaw that you would need it."

    "I see… Well, we can talk more about this later. We have to get back to the palace as soon as possible."

    Owen could only nod in agreement and the group continued their journey. During the remainder of the trip, Olivia introduced Fin, who beforehand, seemed as though going out of his way to remain inconspicuous, to Bryan and explained that he was her younger brother and a member of the main army's cavalry unit. She admitted, however, that Finn was far better with his bow than his head. Fin merely glared at her, but then deflated and admitted that he was hardly clever or skilled with tactics and strategy. However, he also told Bryan that he would continue fighting for the Prince of Astryn. Aside from it being the right thing to do, he muttered that his sister likely wouldn't give him a choice in the matter. Olivia had earlier relayed to her brother the story behind the discovery of Bryan being the last remaining heir of Astryn's throne, and the events leading up to the battle with Tavon. Fin then explained that he had not ended up in Tavon's army by his own choosing. One of the deceased duke's followers had found him training at the palace and, already knowing of Fin's reputation as being a dullard and a fool, simply gang-pressed him into Tavon's service. Bryan was only glad to accept Fin into his and Azura's army, especially since they were noticeably lacking in archers, though he could only hope that Fin's "reputation" was unmerited.

    During the remainder of the journey, the earlier boasting and excitement gave way to calm chatter and gossip as the marching column sought to while away the long journey. Bryan talked to many of the Astrynian troops in particular, trying to get to know them better. They were the men he would be commanding, not only in the campaign against Shigo, but when he took his place as prince, and later, king, of Astryn. His time leading his platoon had taught him, at times, the hard way, that the best commanders cannot be strangers to their men. The best commanders knew everything they could about their men; where their strengths lay, who they worked together best with, who they had waiting at home for them. Loyalty ran both ways, and Bryan made sure to blaze his end of the trail. He listened to their stories, told his own, and worked to cement the newfound ties between him and the men he would soon lead into ever greater battles.

    As the palace soon came into view, however, Bryan belatedly realized that the sky was dark as ebony. Between the long march that had taken them to and from the battle with Tavon, not to mention the confrontation with the traitorous duke, the day had literally flown by. His and Azura's group had been marching and doing battle all day, perhaps for even longer, with little more than a moment's rest all the while. Though the prince was quite eager to confer with Laris and the other nobles and begin discussing plans for the battle against Shigo, but he knew everyone needed time to rest first, not to mention heal any wounds sustained in the fight against Tavon. Bryan was tired also, but his eagerness to defeat Shigo seemed to overpower his weariness. Yet, the recollection that Shigo had not yet attacked, for whatever reason, rose above the tumult. The Prince of Astryn still had no idea why Shigo hadn't yet made his move, but Bryan decided that the strange lull was best used to prepare his army. Still, why Shigo would choose this course of action was beyond Bryan. During their last encounter, the Meloran general seemed as if he would strike as soon as he was given the chance. Yet, he'd had plenty of opportunities, and had let them all pass.

    The young prince's thoughts were interrupted, however, when a familiar feminine voice spoke up.

    "Um… Prince Bryan?" Armelle called out, somewhat timidly, as she approached Bryan.

    "Hm? Oh, Armelle," Bryan greeted as he turned around. "What's on your mind? Are you feeling alright? You and the other mages and healers gave us a scare when Tavon blasted you all with that Silence staff."

    "Ah, yes. My head's still a bit foggy, but I think I'm as well as I could be right now. But, there's something…more pressing on my mind."

    "And what would that be?"

    Armelle looked almost hesitant to answer the question but, after a moment's indecision, she continued.

    "Ah, well… Like others, I've noticed the…quarrel between you and Eric."

    "Mm," Bryan huffed, almost in resignation. "Yeah, I bet. He's the only one around here that just won't give me a break. Even when he said I had good taste in women, he turned right around and made a jibe out if it."

    "Yes, I understand. But please, you must forgive him. Eric can be hot-tempered at times and he doesn't always think before he speaks. But he's really a good man with a kind heart. I think he''ll come around; and, I hope you will too. Please believe me."

    Bryan had to admit, he had considerable trouble accepting her story. Ever since Bryan had first met Eric, the two of them hadn't been able to so much as march in the same direction without some squabble erupting. Yet, there was no disguising the firm conviction in Armelle's gaze. She clearly believed what she said; and, strongly at that.

    "Hm…" Bryan considered, and then sighed. "I could try. He is hard to get along with, but it's obvious that he's a brave man and a skilled Dragonmaster. And, I did notice that he seems to care a lot about you."

    "Mhm, he does," Armelle agreed, her lips drawing upward into a smile. "You see, Eric and I…are engaged."

    At this, Bryan's eyebrows rose.

    "As in to be married?" he wondered, unsure if he should offer his congratulations or his sympathies.

    "That's right. He is my fiancé. We were betrothed to each other as young children. Our families have been friends for generations and this isn't the first time that they have arranged a marriage between their respective children. Eric and I met when we were both still crawling. But as we grew older, we grew closer. I love Eric dearly. Though, admittedly, he doesn't want to admit his feelings for me. Hee hee…"

    Finally, someone besides me is getting put on the spot! Bryan mused, snickering under his breath.

    "Heh. Well, perhaps I do need to give him a chance," Bryan decided with a smile. "Thanks for letting me know."

    "Of course, your highness," Armelle replied with a gracious bow.

    With that, the group proceeded into the palace, many of the soldiers quite relieved to be back after the confrontation with Tavon. As Bryan had surmised, a majority of them were either exhausted, injured, or both. Seeing that even the inexhaustible Kye was barely able to keep his feet, he realized that he had no choice but to let everyone relax and get a good night's sleep.

  6. #36
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And now for part 2, where we actually get to Leyon's part of the chapter. :P


    Chapter 32: Leyon's March
    Part 2


    Once most of the group had dispersed to seek their beds, Bryan, Owen, and Francois immediately sought out Laris and Canus. The prince of Astryn would have preferred to begin planning the campaign against Shigo, but he knew that he needed to report their success in stopping Tavon. Bryan was nervous about how they would react, however. Although he hadn't actually been the one to kill the traitorous duke, it was quite possible that Laris and Canus would not be pleased with how Tavon had been dealt with. What's more, now that the heat of battle had passed, Bryan found himself wondering if leaving Tavon's corpse for the Meloran delegation to find might not have been a wise decision. The delegation might bear word of what had happened to Isis, which could anger her enough that she might launch an attack on the palace. Yet, on the flipside of the coin, Tavon's savaged remains could send them a message saying that Astryn had regained some strength and shouldn't be trifled with.

    However Laris and Canus took the news, Bryan would have no choice but to pray for the best, yet brace himself for the worst. And soon enough, he, Owen, and Francois met once more with the nobles in the main hall. Laris spoke up first.

    "Ah, Prince Bryan, you and the others have returned," he noted. "We're pleased to see that you, Grand Duke Owen, and Count Francois are safe."

    "Indeed. We managed to rescue General Alec and bring him back safely. Though, it was terribly exhausting," Bryan replied.

    "I can imagine so," Canus added. "You three have been gone all day, perhaps even longer. But… Where is Tavon? Wasn't he arrested?"

    "Er… Not exactly," Bryan admitted nervously. "He's…dead."

    "…What?" Laris blurted, his tone betraying his consternation as he brought a hand to his face and sighed. "Don't tell me you killed him. That could be…problematic."

    "We can explain, Laris," Owen stepped in. "We learned of Tavon's whereabouts from Alec. We caught up with Tavon; but, he refused to surrender, and battle ensued."

    "Yes, it's true," Francois added. "He had Meloran soldiers, Red Claw members, and even some of Alec's troops under his command. We had no choice but to fight."

    Laris's brow was deeply furrowed, suggesting that this news greatly displeased him, and Bryan suddenly found his worries over the nobles' reaction taking a grimmer turn. What would happen to Faline when they learned that she'd been the one to kill Tavon? Would it be better for her if Bryan claimed that he'd done the deed? His gaze found Owen's, trying convey the question with this eyes. His father knew these people better than he, and Bryan could only trust that the Grand Duke knew what to do.

    "I can assure you that my son wasn't the one who killed Tavon," Owen spoke up, his gaze meeting Bryan's and silently warning him not to contradict the account. "Nor was it Francois. He was subdued by Tavon's Silence staff."

    "I see. But if none of you slew him, then who did?" Laris wondered, arching an eyebrow.

    Owen turned to his son again, this time motioning for him to speak.

    "…Would you believe it was my girlfriend?" Bryan said, somewhat abashed.

    "Hardly," Canus replied, folding his arms and giving the prince a stern look. "Trust me, we've heard similar tall tales before."

    "…Heh, thought so. But it's no lie. And, this tale is "tall" enough without embellishment. While I was tending to Francois after Tavon used that Silence staff and Faline flew in on her Pegasus to battle the duke herself. She was amazing, and came away with only a few minor burns from Tavon's Arcfire tome."

    "It is the truth, actually," Francois affirmed. "I saw it with my own eyes. Lady Faline is a powerful ally. She would do much for us alongside Prince Bryan."

    "I didn't see all of the battle," Owen stepped in. "But, what I managed to see from the wagons was incredible. Tavon was a powerful Archsage, and that girl slew him in one blow."

    "Huh," Laris commented, amazement easing some of the displeasure from his face. "I must say, neither Canus nor I expected such tidings. Tavon had this coming to him for his criminal deeds, none can dispute that. But, we would have greatly preferred that he be arrested, tried, and then executed. Prince Bryan, you are lucky that you had not been the one to kill him. If you had been, you would be in a great deal of serious trouble right now, not just with us, but likely with the entirety of Astryn's nobility."

    "Laris is correct," Canus added. "Your highness, for future reference, it would be very unwise to take the roles of a judge, jury, and executioner upon yourself. Do not make this mistake. Past kings who have done so found their reigns to be…brief. "

    "You both are absolutely right," Owen replied. "But, if Faline hadn't stepped in when she did, Bryan might not have had a choice."

    "Actually, I must agree with Grand Duke Owen's assessment," Francois admitted. "Tavon clearly wasn't going to surrender, and his magic could have cost many lives if Lady Faline had not acted when she did."

    "That may also be true," Laris conceded. "But the nobles would have still looked unkindly upon your actions regardless. Some among them might find themselves wondering if Tavon would be the only restive noble whom you would kill."

    "I would not resort to that, so long as I had an alternative," Bryan replied firmly, suspecting that this was the best answer he could give under the circumstances. "However, I understand what you're saying. And, I am sorry that things didn't turn out the way you'd planned."

    "You have nothing to apologize for, in my opinion. You've still done very well, and it's important that you all get your rest," Laris assured. "I'll have maids prepare rooms for everyone. I'm sure all of your troops are tired. We'll discuss what to do about Shigo in the morning."

    "Alright. Thank you very much."

    "Of course, your highness. Oh, and if you so desire, we'll prepare the royal bedchambers for you. They are yours to use, since Queen Marion is dead and you are her successor."

    "Thanks, but I'll just use a regular room for now," Bryan declined. Laris nodded and he and Canus directed their attendants to summon the maids. In truth, Bryan wouldn't have minded using the royal bedchambers, even though he might have found such opulence vaguely intimidating. However, he didn't want to spend a night in them without Faline. The first time he slept inside them, he wanted the girl he loved to share the moment with him. Besides, sharing any room with Faline at the moment would be terribly awkward. Aside from Owen's presence, and his dreadful habit of embarrassing his son, Faline and Bryan weren't yet married.

    Someone else might notice such a dubious act as them sleeping together beforehand…and, they might not react with Owen's good humor.

    Still, the notion of sharing a bed with Faline was a tantalizing one.

    After all, what great king was complete without a great queen?

    It didn't take long for the many servants and maids in the palace to answer the summons and, seemingly in the blink of an eye, they had prepared enough rooms for all the troops. As it turned out, much of this speed was because most of the troops were staying in the royal barracks. Spartan and simply furnished, these were ready in moments for the weary soldiers. Once the rooms were prepared, the majority of the army immediately sought them out. The night had grown late, and many were too tired to have dinner, or even to change out of their clothes, before collapsing onto their beds. Only a few soldiers chose to stay up for a little longer; such as Ike, who refused to even entertain the idea of sleeping on an empty stomach. Rolling his eyes at the recollection, Skye quickly dropped off his weaponry, armor and rucksack in his own room. Like the ever-ravenous hero of Tellius, however, the newly promoted Marksman wasn't in much of a hurry to fall asleep. The events of the day, and the revelation that he carried the eternal soul and the skills of Altarais's greatest archer, had left him much too excited.

    During the march back to the palace, Skye had grown more and more curious about the legendary Marksman; and, thankfully, he'd gotten permission to venture to the royal library so he could learn more about Silver Arrow. If Skye truly did possess all of Silver Arrow's abilities, perhaps studying the legendary Marksman would provide some clues about how to use this newfound power. And, perhaps Francois had left out a few details that could prove helpful. Unfortunately, the results of Skye's search turned out to be disappointing. There weren't many books about Silver Arrow, and Skye couldn't learn much beyond what Francois had already told him. Any other information had likely been lost in Shigo's first attack.

    With a frustrated sigh and a shrug, Skye returned the books to their shelves and made for his room. However, the sheer size of the palace soon had him asking for directions to the correct hall again and again. And by the time he had arrived there, the Marksman had completely forgotten which door led to his room. Gah! Was it the fourth one from the end of the right side or the fifth one? Or maybe the sixth? Skye wondered in his mind as he scratched his head. Damn it, why couldn't they have put numbers on these doors or something?! Deciding it was probably the fifth door from the end of the right side of the hall, Skye approached it and quietly pushed it open, so as not to wake anyone that was already asleep.

    Once he was past the threshold, however, Skye froze where he stood. The sight that greeted him caused his lower jaw to plummet and his eyes to nearly pop out of his head. In a queen-size bed, half buried beneath a small lake of blue silken blankets, were Marc and Leona. The two knights were cuddled together and lashing their tongues past one another's lips, contented moans and faint whispers passing between the melded lips of the two ironic lovers. Marc was shirtless; and Skye thought Leona was too at first, until he spotted hints of a rather revealing night gown. The material was thin and gauzy, offering more than a hint of the flesh beneath. It had no sleeves, nor even straps, and looked as though a brush of the hand could remove it…which might very well have been the whole point. Her hair was down too, as her hair clip lay upon a nearby end table as though casually tossed there, while her arms were curled around Marc's neck. Marc had her smaller form pressed against his torso, which was brawnier than Skye would have guessed, even though the knight did wield heavy axes.

    "Huh?!" Marc gasped when he heard Skye's footsteps.

    "What the—?!" Leona exclaimed when she turned around. Her face went beet red when she saw the stupefied Skye standing at the door. "SKYE! You pervert!"

    "Whoa! Sorry, sorry!" Skye apologized when he'd shaken himself out of his trance, his cheeks tinged red with embarrassment. "I thought this was my room!"

    "Well, it's not! What were you expecting?! Raela lying on your bed wearing a negligee and a sly, come hither stare?!"

    Skye's blush turned several shades deeper.

    "What?! No!" he blurted, though the two knights didn't seem to find his words very convincing. "Why does everyone think she likes me?! Or that I like her?!"

    "Maybe because she loves to tease you, and you talk about her so often?" Marc suggested with a snicker.

    If Skye wasn't comically red before, he was now.

    "Shut up, Marc!" he retorted with a growl.

    "Whatever! Just get the hell out!" Leona demanded, apparently tiring of the game.

    "Alright, I'm going! Geez," Skye replied and departed the room. After closing the door, he sagged against the wall nearby and a frustrated sigh parted his lips.

    "Man, that was embarrassing," he mused to himself. "And I swear, if Kye ever caught wind of Raela, he'd—"

    "What's this about me?" a familiar, dreaded voice interrupted. "And just what were you doing in Marc and Leona's room, Skye?"

    "Gaah!" Skye yelped and jumped, his blood tinged face suddenly turning pale. "R-Raela! You scared the crap out of me!"

    Though Raela yet wore her usual, sly smile, reminding Skye uncomfortably of Leona's earlier words, she nonetheless un-slung her Sleep staff before responding.

    "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't use this on you right now," she intoned severely.

    "Aaah! W-Wait, wait!" Skye protested, backing away. "It was an accident! I thought it was my room! Please don't!"

    "Oh, of course it was, silly. So, Skye, what makes you so afraid of a little Sleep staff, hm? Hmmm?"

    "Uh…um… Oh! I j-just remembered that I…uh…gotta go check on Kye! H-He's pretty shaken up from earlier; so yeah, see ya!"

    With that, Skye darted down the hall and disappeared around a corner, practically at a run. Raela merely giggled.

    "Oh, Skye, you cute and funny man."

    In his mortification, Skye had unwittingly left the door to Marc and Leona's room open a crack, and the couple had heard just about every word of the exchange between the Marksman and the Valkyrie. All Leona could do was sigh.

    "Geez, would you listen to those two?" she said, almost rhetorically. "Sometimes I wonder how Bryan or Azura put up with them. Especially Bryan."

    "Yeah, those two are at least as bad as we were," Marc replied, prompting Leona to roll her eyes and snicker at the recollection. "Still, at least we pretty much know for sure that Raela has a crush on Skye. Heh, heh. She said he's cute and funny, and she's always trying to spend time with him…"

    "True, but we really can't say whether or not Skye likes her back. He could still just think of her as a friend. His habit of running away from her could just as easily mean that he wants to avoid hurting her. And besides, matchmaking is General Leyon's specialty. Let's leave that to him."

    "Heh, good idea. If anybody can get those two together, he can. After all, we're living proof he can do it."

    "Hee hee, I hear that…"

    With that, the two entwined once more, finally allowing years of guarded affection and desire to bubble to the surface amidst an infinity of passionate kisses and soft caresses.

    In another of the palace's seemingly endless halls, Bryan had already burrowed under his blankets and had begun lightly snoring. At first, he had wanted to jot down a rough outline of his strategy for hunting down Shigo, but by the time he had finished speaking with Laris and Canus, the strain of the day had caught up with him. Upon reaching his room, much akin to Marc and Leona's, only his bed was full-size and the room itself was slightly smaller, he was almost too exhausted to stand. The prince of Astryn had shed his armor, setting it aside near a small table, and draping his tunic over the chair next to it. Bryan normally would have removed his greaves and undershirt as well, but he had been so tired that he hadn't bothered. Before he dozed off, however, Bryan spared a long glance at Eronite. The legendary lance was neatly propped up against the wall nearest the bed, a habit nearly every soldier developed, whenever one was bedding down in unfamiliar or dangerous territory, its blade cleansed of the blood it had shed during battle. Bryan's brave lance stood alongside it, the sight causing a nostalgic grin to cross his features. The prince would have liked to continue using it, as it had served him well in so many battles. But, Bryan knew that it was only proper that he wield Eronite when he led the charge to save his country and his people. After all, the fact that he could wield it would prove to anyone that he was the true prince.

    Curiously, it did not seem like Bryan had slept for very long when he suddenly awoke to behold bright sunlight shining down upon him. Worried that he'd overslept, he jumped to his feet, and to his perplexity, he realized that he was already wearing his armor. More curious still, Eronite was already slung across his back, as was his shield. Puzzled, Bryan took stock of his surroundings, and he found that he was no longer even in the palace. He was sitting in a beautiful meadow full of wildflowers, dotted by the occasional oak tree. The sun was shining, and the day was warm and cloudless while many rabbits, squirrels, and birds scurried or fluttered by. It was a lovely place, save for a massive, black scar upon the earth from which jagged timbers thrust skyward. The result of a lightning strike, or a wildfire, perhaps?

    "Where am I?" he wondered. "And why am I in my armor? This must be a dream of some sort. Too bad Faline isn't here with me. Aside from that burned area, this place is beautiful…"

    Bryan, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, settled upon the turf and relaxed, in case Faline might soon appear. As he idly gazed at his surroundings, he was surprised to notice a patch of wildflowers directly in front of the blackened scar. Perplexed, for he could've sworn that they hadn't been there a moment ago, he drew closer. When he knelt alongside the patch, however, wonderment replaced his confusion. The flowers were breathtaking.

    They were brighter, more vibrant, and more alive than those that he had noted earlier. More remarkable still, they had a strange glow about them that made them seem almost ethereal. Softly glowing colors pulsed and then dimmed in a strange, but delightful rhythm, the latter phase seemingly causing the flowers to vanish before they shimmered back into existence.

    What truly struck Bryan about these flowers, however, he found difficult to make sense of. It was almost as though he felt a touch of the person who'd planted them. And, in that touch, he felt an overwhelming kindness and unconquerable resolution to face each moment with joy and to make each day better than the one which came before.

    When he ventured to pick one of the flowers for Faline, however, he was astonished to see his hand pass straight through it!

    His perplexity, however, was blown from his mind, and then replaced tenfold, when a piercing wail reached his ears. It was the cry of an infant. The prince stood, seeking the source of the sound, and the sight that greeted him left him gaping. Where there had once been a blackened scar upon the earth was now a house. It was enormous, easily large enough to be considered a mansion. And, like the flowers, it had an ethereal glow that caused the structure to seemingly fade in and out of sight. As Bryan struggled to make sense of these nonsensical events, he noticed that the jagged timbers thrust up out of the blacked scar were now melded into the walls of the house.

    What he had taken for the effects of a wildfire was the house's ruins.

    More bizarre still, the cries came from within the ethereal mansion.

    Perhaps Bryan should not have been surprised when he discovered that he could simply walk through the door, without opening it first, but he was nonetheless. Shaking off his confusion, he followed the sound through a spectral entryway and then into what looked like an infirmary. Upon the bed was a woman. Like everything else, she possessed an ethereal glow that suggested that she was far beyond the reach of mortal hands. Yet, as Bryan approached more closely, his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

    He had seen this woman before.

    Her hair and eyes were the same color as his own. Her face, though bespangled with a cold perspiration, was regal and beautiful, with high cheekbones, smooth skin and full lips. Her hair, though unbound and disheveled, was lustrous and her eyes were aglow with happiness.

    Mother...? Bryan silently wondered, his tongue having become useless.

    Her legs were spread wide, her right hand held aloft to one side. Then, before Bryan's eyes, a second figure wrinkled into view. It was a young blue-haired man with green eyes, his fingers curled about the woman's right hand. Almost before Bryan realized that he was seeing a younger version of his father, a third figure shimmered into existence; this one clad in the trappings of a physician.

    "Congratulations, your highness and your grace! It's a boy!" the physician exclaimed happily. With a gentle tug, he raised a tiny infant, red and slippery and wailing in protest of the cold air and bright sunlight. After the physician had severed the umbilical cord, he wiped the infant clean, bundled him up and handed him to the new parents.

    "Ah…" the woman gasped, exhausted and yet overjoyed as she turned to face her husband. "Owen, my love, isn't it wonderful? We have a son…"

    "Oh, it very much is, my dear Caline," the man clasping the woman's hand replied, kissing her on the cheek and then craning over the see the baby boy. "I'm so happy that both of you appear to be healthy."

    When he heard these words, Bryan suddenly found his legs quavering beneath him. He instinctively tried to lower himself into a chair but, since the chair was only an image, the results weren't terribly pleasant. Dazed more from the scene than from the mishap, he continued to watch his parents, and the day he was born.

    "Oh, Owen… He's so beautiful," the princess gushed as she kissed her baby's forehead. "And he's our baby boy."

    "That he is," Owen replied as he leaned in to stroke his newborn son's soft cheek. "What shall we name him?"

    "Ah… Well, ever since I learned I was pregnant, I've been remembering our time together. And, one memory in particular struck me. Do you remember Sir Bryan, that knight in your service who introduced us? I think it would be appropriate to name our greatest joy after the man who brought us together."

    "Bryan, eh? That sounds perfect to me."

    "Oh, but Father was such a great man. He was always a hero to Marion and I; and we'll love him forever. I must honor him somehow. Then again, naming a child after a parent or grandparent is so common and overdone, don't you think?"

    "Yes, I can see your point. And yet, King Casimir was indeed one of the finest kings we've ever had. My parents have always been proud to have served him."

    "Yes, exactly! I have an idea, though. Casimir can be Bryan's middle name. Bryan Casimir Novat."

    "Ah… That has a nice ring to it. It's a very good name, my love. He shall be Bryan Casimir Novat."

    "Oh, thank you so much, Owen. Then he's our little Bryan…"

    Bryan watched, almost wistfully, as Caline placed another kiss on the brow of his newborn self. The Bryan who was now a man heaved a melancholy sigh as the scene faded away. A moment later, he found himself alone amidst the blackened scar that had once been the place of his birth.

    "So Casimir is my middle name," he thought aloud. "Dad, how could you have forgotten that if it was the name of my grandfather, a great king?"

    "Yes, your father is silly, isn't he?" a feminine voice replied. Bryan's jaw plummeted yet again as he recognized the voice. With a hint of trepidation, he turned to see the ethereal Caline herself, seated before the patch of spectral flowers. She looked much as she had in the portrait from the palace, only slightly older. Yet, in the ethereal light of her small garden, she seemed nearly as timeless as the kindness she radiated.

    "…M-Mother?" Bryan murmured, frozen where he stood.

    "That's right," Caline confirmed with a bright smile, beckoning for her son to be seated. "It's me. And what you just saw was one of my fondest memories. I have always cherished the day you were born. It was the happiest day of my life, even after my life had ended."

    Her words, and the unwitting reminder of how he had never known her, turned his eyes glassy. Caline instinctively reached out to comfort him, but belatedly remembered she was a tad insubstantial for such a feat.

    "I see… Then you came into my dreams yourself."

    "Right again," she confirmed. "As the story of the Miracle Stone and Silver Arrow might have told you, the deceased are never truly gone. I've been watching over you and your father ever since he brought you to Talgria; sometimes watching from beyond the realm of the living, sometimes seated at your bedside. And, in case you're wondering, no. I don't fall through the furniture…not anymore, at least."

    A trace of mirth crossed Bryan's features, and Caline waggled a finger at him in a scolding gesture that was less-than-convincing.

    "I knew your father would take such good care of you and raise you wonderfully," Caline remarked. "And now look, you've grown up into such a handsome young man, and a strong prince. You even have a loving girlfriend by your side, and the friendship between you and Skye is unbreakable. I am so proud of you."

    Caline then drew Bryan into her arms and, though Bryan could not feel her embrace, he nonetheless felt her presence, warm and loving, descend over him.

    "Er, yes… Thank you, Mother," Bryan whispered, seeing clearly that Owen had been right when he said that Caline loved her son dearly. "But, I must apologize. I was weak at first. I made it hard for Father when I was a kid; and, probably for you too, since you were watching over me. I'm so sorry…"

    "Don't worry, I understand," Caline replied, a hint of regret marring her features. "Believe me, I was upset to see all those children and even the adults treating my little boy so poorly."

    "Yeah. But, after seeing what those people had gone through, when the Red Claw burned down Narcoss, I just can't find it in me to be angry at them anymore. When I met Misty again, and saw how disfigured she was, I wanted so badly to tell her that it served her right… but, I couldn't do it."

    "I know. And, that's why I know you're such a fine man. You'd be amazed how hard it is to let go of old grudges or to master one's anger. Tavon couldn't do either, and look where it led him. But still, you rose above it. You grew and changed, and you have so many friends. And Faline loves you just as much as I love your father. Perhaps even more."

    "Yeah, that's true. She's the love of my life. But…Mother… I still don't know if I can rule Astryn. When I started out as a platoon leader, I was terrible at it. And I'm still not anything like the great and well-respected leaders of our time, like General Leyon or General William. I-I just don't know if I can live up to my grandfather and Iron Storm's legacies."

    "Mm… Bryan… Look around you. A few days ago, none of the Astrynian troops or nobles even believed you were real. Yet, look how things have changed. You've gained their support, and many of them would be overjoyed to see you on the throne. Even better, you've already rescued many of the Astrynian people from starvation and further abuse by Melora and the Red Claw. And, before all that, you've led your troops to one victory after another, even when the odds were stacked against you. If you can do that, I know you can do so much more. Believe in yourself, and never give up. Keep that in mind, and you will be an excellent king. You might even surpass your grandfather and Iron Storm."

    Bryan's answering blush spread from his chin right to the tops of his ears.

    "Well, I don't know about that…" he murmured, somewhat overwhelmed by the praise. "But, I will do my best. However it turns out, I owe Astryn and her people at least that much. And, you're right. I've done a lot of things lately that I used to think were impossible, despite the mistakes I've made. I just need to keep going and protect Astryn, no matter what the cost."

    "That's right," Caline agreed with a smile. "I'm sorry that your heritage was kept secret for so long, though. But you were just so young."

    "Yeah, I know. I searched for clues as best I could, but…looking back, I believe that Father did the right thing by not telling me until I was older. I wouldn't have been able to handle it. And, I also guess that's why you never came into one of my dreams before."

    "Yes, and it pained me that I couldn't. But Bryan, remember, you can do anything if you put your mind to it. And even though I can see that he's not the same man who invaded Astryn so long ago, I know you can defeat Shigo."

    Not the same man? Bryan wondered, perplexed. He was about to ask Caline what she meant by that, but reconsidered at the last minute, for fear of bringing reviving memories of her death.

    "…Yes, I can do it. I have to," Bryan vowed. "For you, and for all of Astryn."

    "That's right! Bryan, even in death, I still love you very dearly. And, though you're every inch a man now, you'll always be my precious baby boy."

    Caline then took Bryan into another ghostly hug, and planted a spectral kiss on his forehead. Bryan felt another flush of warmth, though whether it was from her loving presence of his embarrassment, he couldn't be certain.

    "Mother…" the prince groused.

    "Hee hee…"

    Moments later, the area grew dark again, and both Caline, the meadow, and the ruins of the Novat mansion vanished. Bryan's eyes opened again, and this time to behold the ceiling of his room inside the palace. His gear lay undisturbed where he'd left it, and the sky outside was still dark. Bryan could only sit up and stare out the window at the bright moonlight as the dream he'd just had whirled through his mind.

    Unlike most dreams, this one was no less vivid now that he had awoken. And, as he let his mind gloss over the strange visitation, he recalled the ruins where he had seen his long lost mother.

    Could that place have been real?

    If so, perhaps he might find it within Francois's land, since the former holdings of House Novat now lay within the Count of Urae's territory.

    Perhaps it would make a fitting testament to his forbearers if, once Astryn was strong again, he returned to the seat of House Novat and rebuilt his ancestral home…and grew another patch of the wildflowers his mother had been so fond of.

    "Mother… Thank you…" was all the prince could say.

    Had Leyon's men been aware of the accommodations Bryan and Azura's group presently enjoyed, it might have elicited some ill feelings. Still, despite having to bed down on the cold ground, amidst the roots and pebbles, and in the open air, many of them, even Leyon himself, were still sound asleep. Though they were still in Occupied Cilae, and deep behind enemy lines, preparations for the retaking of Jerusa had exhausted them. The knights had been training hard while waiting for word of the arrival of the siege weapons bound for the besieged Allied troops on the coast, as well as for Eliot's broken leg to heal. Just in case he did not recover in time to fight alongside the army as they stormed Jerusa, however, Leyon had trained well into the night. If Eliot could not fight, then the general decided he would need to train hard in order to be ready for the assuredly fierce opposition that awaited them in the capital. Thus, even as the sun rose, the general still slept soundly in his bedroll. Those had been a fortunate find, which the group had "appropriated" from a Meloran supply convoy after deciding they'd passed a few too many nights sleeping on the bare ground. Everyone's bedrolls had been dispersed and concealed as best as possible, to avoid attracting any undue attention as well as to make sure that no one's snores woke up the whole camp.

    Louise was soon roused, however, by a Talgrian messenger who'd ridden from Aracion on horseback. He reported to her that the siege weapons had arrived at their destination, and this was excellent news. When the Melorans and Red Claw holding Jerusa learned that Allied ships had arrived at the Cilaean ports, they'd surely assume that an evacuation was underway. They'd surely send a portion of their strength to attack those Allied troops before they could escape. Of course, since the Allied troops holed up there were receiving ballistae and catapults, the Melorans who attacked them would be in for a nasty surprise.

    With that diversion, and the Meloran defenders left undermanned, the group could finally proceed to Jerusa. She quickly suited up and relayed the news to Derien. The wolf general, no less eager to complete their vital mission, informed her that he would divide his troops into two companies; one to get the "evacuation" going, and the other to harry and delay the Meloran reinforcements that would depart from Jerusa. Louise quickly reiterated that the latter group must not bloody the Melorans up so much that they turned back, otherwise the attack on Jerusa might fail, and then ordered the other troops to suit up. She then made her way towards Leyon, but her dismay, however, he was still asleep and clad in nothing but his red shorts. How he could sleep through the running about of all the troops was beyond her, but before Louise could say anything, Leyon rolled over lazily and began to mumble.

    "Ah, Azura, my love… You're so beautiful…" he gushed as he slept. "…Oh, of course I'll flex my muscles for you!"

    Louise just stood there stupefied as the sleeping general flexed his right bicep. Leyon settled back against his pillow, snoring piercingly. But, before Louise could recover her wits, a lazy grinned tugged at the corner of the slumbering general's face.

    "…I love you more than blueberry cheesecake!" he proclaimed and then grabbed his extra pillow. Louise growled angrily as Leyon pressed his lips into it.

    "LEYON!" she bellowed. Leyon snapped awake, choking on one of his snores and rising with a violent start.

    "Waaah!" he yelped, trying to spring to his feet, but succeeding only in getting entangled in his bedroll and crashing to the ground. "Oh, for the goddess's sake!"

    "Leyon! You embarrassing idiot of a general!" Louise spat, her features turning livid. "Get your butt up before I drag you out of there myself!"

    "Huh? W-Wait, what did I do?" Leyon wondered as he finally freed himself from his bedroll.

    "You just started mumbling like a moron in your sleep about your girlfriend, is all," Louise replied, folding her arms in obvious displeasure.

    "I-I did what?! Uh…" Leyon blurted in embarrassment, and clapped a hand over his face. "Oh, damn it…"

    Louise was about to make a rather pointed comment on just how much Leyon had understated the case, when she realized that the work of breaking camp had more-or-less ground to a halt as most of the troops were now staring at the two. Leyon soon noticed their scrutiny as well, and the pair could only gape in shock and embarrassment.

    "Alright, alright, carry on people, there's nothing to see here!" Louise commanded once she'd regained her voice. The troops then slowly resumed their tasks and Louise shot Leyon a glare.

    "I know, I was being stupid," the general admitted ashamedly. "I'm so sorry."

    "You'd better be. You're just lucky that we have a mission to accomplish right now. I recently received a report that the siege weapons reached our friends on the coast. It won't be long before we can finally attack Jerusa."

    "Really? Excellent, then let's hurry! I heard last night that Eliot's legs have partially healed. With luck, he'll be able to ride again by the time we get there."

    "Right, now hurry up and get dressed!"

    "I will, I will, geez…"

    With that, Louise stalked over to rejoin the other troops, and Leyon quickly began suiting up himself. As he did so, he prayed that Azura would never find out what he'd muttered in his sleep. For the first time since the young earl's army had divided, he was glad that she wasn't present. Knowing the fiery redhead, she likely would have found it as much of an embarrassment as Louise did. And, it didn't help matters that Leyon recalled bits and pieces of his dream, and his less-than-eloquent declarations of love. Blueberry cheesecake? Really?! Leyon fumed to himself. First I watch Azura skinny-dipping, now this! How stupid in love can I get?! Still, the general had more pressing things to worry about than the scene he'd made. Trying to salvage his dignity, he quickly finished donning his armor. After rolling up his bedroll and loading it into the wagon, Leyon mounted his horse and rode toward Louise and the other troops. Much to his dismay, and further humiliation, he found that everyone, including Eliot and Natalie, had already arrived and had been waiting on him.

    "Ah, I apologize for taking so long," Leyon spoke up, his cheeks going pink. "I…ah…was having a really good dream. Eh, heh…"

    Louise merely sighed and rolled her eyes.

    "Well, at least you're ready," she replied, her tone a tad acidic. "Anyway, the messenger had brought word of the siege weapons' arrival. Since they were delivered by boat, and the ships will be staying in port for the time being, the Melorans will think that the Allied troops there are being evacuated. A contingent of Red Claw has the ports besieged, but Melora will need to send more, likely from Jerusa, in order to attack. Once they do, we can storm Jerusa while the enemy defenses are undermanned."

    "Excellent. Then Derien, let's split our group about half way there," Leyon suggested. "Most of our troops will be needed for the attack on Jerusa, but we'll also need to send one group to get the fake evacuation started. They'll work with the Allied troops already there and use the siege weapons to fight off the Melorans that are already there. We'll also need to send another group to pin down the Meloran reinforcements that'll try to reach the ports. Your wolves can move faster than the rest of us, so it's best if they handle that part of the plan. Meanwhile, my team will launch our attack once we have our opening."

    "Sounds good to me," Derien agreed. "I'll have around half of my troops handle the diversion then. I don't want to send too many, though. Even after we sucker the Melorans into dividing their strength, we'll probably still need a larger group to retake the capital. Whoever's staying here will join the attack on Jerusa."

    "Fair enough. Be sure to tell the group that'll be harrying the Meloran reinforcements that they must not bloody the enemy up so much that they turn back. If our forces attacking the capital get hit from behind, we're sunk."

    "You got it!"

    "And, that goes for the rest of you as well. We'll be able to hit Jerusa once the Meloran defenses are undermanned, but the timing has to be just right. We must strike when the departing Melorans are too far away to realize what we're doing, or too busy with the wolves to stop us. We can't strike too early. Also, Eliot, how are your legs? Are you able to ride?"

    "Well, it's only been a couple of days or so, but they're healing quickly thanks to the medicine and the…diet that Norman's been giving me," Eliot replied, wincing slightly at the recollection of the food Norman had chosen for him. "Unfortunately, I don't think I'd be of much help in a battle right now. I'm able to stay in the saddle, but I keep losing my balance whenever I spur my horse to a gallop. And mounting puts enough strain on my left leg as it is. Still, I might be able to fight by the time we reach Jerusa."

    "Alright, I hope so. Let's move out!"

    With that, the group began their journey to the capital. Along the way, Leyon, Louise, and Derien discussed possible battle strategies for when the time came to attack the city. They decided that it would be best to lay siege to Jerusa itself first, and move onto the castle afterward. That way, they wouldn't end up taking on the entire Red Claw army stationed there at once. As the capital drew nearer, Leyon found that he was growing more and more anxious about the upcoming battle. It would be, without a doubt, the single most important mission of his career…and, the most dangerous. Not even Russell had ever been tasked with such a crucial battle upon which the very survival of Talgria, if not all of Altarais, might depend. And, while Leyon believed that his brother would've been more than able to accomplish the mission, Leyon wasn't sure if he himself had skill enough to do the same. Derien and Louise, both of whom knew Leyon well enough to sense his trepidation, could only encourage the general to do his best and fight hard; not only to win the battle, but for both Russell and Azura. Especially Azura, as she was counting on Leyon to succeed, and return to her alive. Remembering this, Leyon's anxiety crumbled, and he found himself eager to see the look on the Meloran troops' faces when they were kicked out of Cilae.

    As had been decided earlier, when the group was halfway to their destination, half of Derien's wolves split off from the group. Several headed towards the northern ports while the rest dispersed to hide in the groves of trees and hills that dotted the horizon. Leyon quickly reiterated to his troops that, once they'd arrived at Jerusa, they would not attack until news of what was going on up north reached the enemy. And some hours later, the remainder of the group arrived in the hills located directly south of Jerusa itself. Using the terrain as concealment from the Red Claw, the group waited for their opportunity.

    As Leyon had surmised, however, there were dozens upon dozens of Red Claw soldiers waiting at the gates and, according to Louise, there were even more inside the city as well. Still, if enough of them were sent out of the city and northward, Leyon's group could gain an advantage, though one they could not afford to lose. However, there was still the question of how many Melorans and Red Claw awaited them inside the castle. Whatever the case, Leyon's group would be in for a long and hard battle. The good news, thankfully, was that while his broken leg had not completely healed yet, the sprain in Eliot's left leg was gone. Thus, the knight was able to maintain his balance atop his horse well enough to do battle. Even so, Leyon ordered him not to push himself too hard.

    Much to Leyon's delight, the group did not have to wait long for their window of opportunity to present itself. Within only minutes of their arrival, a Red Claw messenger rushed up to one of the soldiers outside the city gate, his body language hinting at panic. After a short conversation, nearly half of the enemy troops present rushed out of the city and began a frantic march towards the north…directly into the area now laden with wolves waiting in ambush. Sure enough, though only Derien and the other wolves could see it, the Meloran and Red Claw troops' advance had ground to a halt as the enemy was soon being pummeled from all sides by Eraghoan hit-and-run attacks.

    "Hehe, Derien, your wolves are awesome," Leyon complimented. "Please, pass along my compliments to them."

    "Yup, we train hard. And thanks! I'll be sure to let them know," Derien replied with a smile.

    "Heh, great. Now here's what we'll do," Leyon continued. "Lady Louise, after we take care of the guys outside, we need you to fly over the wall, find the gate mechanism, and open the gate for us. Then, we'll rush in, split into small units, and take the enemy by surprise by using the buildings as cover."

    "Alright, sounds good to me," Louise agreed. "Just be careful and keep an eye out for enemy reinforcements."

    "Don't worry, we will."

    "Oh, but before I forget, I left orders with my other wolves. They are to return to us once the situation up north is under control. They'll be our own reinforcements later," Derien pointed out.

    "Ah, excellent. Thanks so much, Derien. Now everyone, CHARGE!"

    With that, the small army spilled forth from the hills, charging directly for the remaining enemy troops stationed at the gate. Leyon took the lead and drew the first blood by launching Olegxing at a Halberdier. It struck the gaping fool clean in the neck, killing him instantly. The rest of the enemy troops, already rattled by news of the burgeoning disaster up north, were caught entirely off-balance and were being cut to pieces. Louise, meanwhile, took to the air in order to see over the gate and spotted three enemy guards defending the gate's controls. Unimpressed, she launched a spear at one of them. Before his corpse had even fallen, she followed up with a blast of Elthunder to take down the other two. Massive bolts of lightning streaked out of the sky, striking the flabbergasted guards and frying them in seconds. Louise could not keep a smug grin from her features, as she was the only known flier to use magic. Leyon knew this would definitely come in handy, and his supposition was right on the mark. The crown princess of Talgria then made for the controls and hurriedly began opening the gate for the others.

    The Red Claw had definitely been caught by surprise; even as Leyon and his men stormed the city, the enemy defense seemed panicked and sloppy. Soon enough, however, large numbers of enemy reinforcements began streaming out of several buildings and gradually, Leyon's group found themselves surrounded. The enemy garrison must've been much, much larger than was supposed, for it seemed as if the wolves luring some of the enemy away had made little to no difference. Leyon's grip on Olegxing tightened until his knuckles popped, anger and frustration burning in his gut.

    "Damn it!" he snarled. "Everyone, just fight as hard as you can! We're not giving up! We've got to hold out until our reinforcements arrive!"

    The group was not hesitant to obey the general's orders and charged at the tightening ring of enemies, blades clashing on all sides. Norman, being the most vulnerable, remained in the middle of Leyon's defenses, so that he could safely heal his wounded allies. This wisdom seemed to be contradicted, however, when two steel-tipped arrows slipped through gaps between the knights and came flying in Norman's direction. Petrified with fear, Norman stood frozen, his Mend staff clattering to the ground. Before the arrows could pierce his flesh, however, Boyd leaped in front of him and brought up Urvan. The arrows hit the axe's massive blade instead, shattering from the impact and falling to the ground in splinters. Norman, who'd stopped breathing somewhere during his near-miss, began heaving air back into his lungs and shakily retrieved his staff.

    "Oh… Oh my…" he gasped as he did so.

    "Norman! Are you alright?" Boyd inquired, turning around to help him to his feet. "Calm down, man! You're safe."

    "I-I know… I'm fine… It's just that being in such a pitched battle…" Norman jabbered. "I'm really nervous. I got used to being in smaller battles, but… This is j-just…"

    "Overwhelming? Ah, yeah, I understand. I did hear about your…issue with being in the middle of a battle. But you've gotten so much better at it since you started, you know? At least, that's what it seems like. I wasn't with you guys when you joined up, after all. But you're hanging tough, just like you should be!"

    "Ah, true. And thanks so much, Boyd. I will get better at this! I can promise that! …Oh my goodness! Your leg's been cut to shreds!"

    "You're quite welcome! And yeah, a guy with a sword managed to get the drop on me just after I'd chopped a lance paladin to pieces. It hurts like hell to walk on."

    "Oh, then let me heal that right up for you!"

    With that, Norman quickly leveled his Mend staff at Boyd's injury and whispered the incantation. A soft glow bathed the savaged limb and, gradually, it began to heal. The wound stopped bleeding, and then vanished entirely within several seconds.

    "It feels as good as new!" Boyd remarked as he tested the limb. "Thanks a bunch!"

    "Ah, it's the least I could do to repay you for saving my…Huh?" Norman began, his words trailing off abruptly. "Oh!"

    Suddenly, an all too familiar glow surrounded Norman, and his attire began to change. His robes became somewhat more ornate, lengthening to enshroud his legs. His small cloak cascaded further down his back and acquired a more ornate design as well. Once the glow vanished and his transformation was complete, Norman looked at himself curiously, shock evident in his expression.

    "Oh my!" he exclaimed in wonderment. "A-Am I a Bishop?"

    "You are!" Boyd confirmed with a large grin. "Norman, this is the first step to conquering your fear for good! Bishops can use light magic. So now you can help us clobber these idiots if you can find yourself a light tome!"

    The newly promoted Bishop gave a sly grin, and then produced a tome of basic light magic tome, its creamy white, yellow, and light blue colors glistening in the sunlight.

    "Something I learned during my time in the laboratory," Norman intoned, already sounding more confident. "Never discount something you don't yet know how to put to use."

    "You had that all along?" Boyd wondered, surprised. "Norman, that was a smart move! Now don't worry, I'll protect you. You just attack from behind me."

    "Ah, alright. I'll try."

    With that, Norman opened his tome and quickly studied the gestures and incantations he needed. He raised his right hand, chanted, and watched as a wave of light burst from his fingers and struck a swordmaster standing within a pace of Boyd. Having been wounded on his arm, he was killed instantly.

    "There you go!" Boyd commented happily. Heh, Norman kinda reminds me of Rhys, he thought. Only, he was frail and sickly rather than cowardly.

    "Hey, I did it!" Norman cheered. "Studying these spells beforehand really paid off. You know, I think I could actually get used to this!"

    Boyd smiled at the older man's almost boyish enthusiasm as the two continued to cut a swath through the enemy. Eventually, despite the enemy ambush, the group broke through the Meloran lines and reached the castle gates. Once again, Louise flew over the wall to find the gates' mechanism. There were more guards awaiting her this time, but these were easily clobbered them by her thunder magic and spear. However, she soon realized that there were many more enemies stationed within the castle grounds. To complicate matters still further, these foes were clustered together, which meant they could surround lone attackers and strike from all sides. Leyon, however, was not going to back down. He had promised Azura that he would win; and, he would keep his word, no matter what. If his group had to retreat and devise a new strategy, they would do so. But the general would not return to his beloved lady of Elhorhi without Jerusa having been retaken and under Allied control once again. What's more, if Leyon did win this battle, then Russell, wherever he was, would surely be proud of him.

    However, unbeknownst to Leyon and his troops, there was more than just the enemy awaiting within the castle grounds. Locked inside a horse pen, that was heavily guarded by Red Claw members, was an orange-haired Valkyrie. Typical of her vocation, she was garbed in an ornate red and gold outfit and an elegant white horse fixed her with an almost worried gaze from a neighboring stall. She sighed gloomily as she endured the misery of incarceration.

    "I just had to get myself captured on my way back to Kolah…" she groused to herself. "And if that wasn't bad enough, I found out my poor village was sacked by these heartless scoundrels as well. Oh, how I pray that Raela and Lily are safe…"

    "Hey! Shaddup in there! Or do ya want t'die now?!" one of the guards shouted, overhearing her.

    "Fine, whatever…" the Valkyrie replied, sour resignation in her tone. If only I had a Florete or a Rewarp staff… Or even some Warp Powder. Then I could escape.

    The Valkyrie could only remind herself that she was lucky not to have been locked inside a dungeon cell. She might very well have been, if the Melorans had not crammed them with prisoners, and she knew that she had at least some chance of escaping from a horse's pen. Besides which, a Valkyrie's mount was also a valuable prize, so having her horse nearby would be a great boon if she found a way out of her manure scented cell. Her thoughts were interrupted, however, by a masculine voice shouting at the guards.

    "Oh! So you dirtbags are keeping prisoners here too, are you?!" Leyon's voice snarled. "Don't worry, Miss! I'll get you out of there right away! Jett, give me a hand!"

    "You got it, General!" Jett, who had followed Leyon, replied. The two then assailed the small group of guards stationed at the pen. As they were well behind their own lines, they had been caught by surprise and quickly fell to both Leyon and Jett's blades.

    "Oh! I'm being rescued!" the Valkyrie cried happily. "I'm so relieved!"

    Once the guards were reduced to nothing but a pile of corpses, Leyon and Jett hacked away at the door on the pen. The wooden barrier shuddered, splintered, and then fell to pieces, allowing the imprisoned Valkyrie and her mount their freedom. As she approached Leyon, however, she jerked to a halt and gaped in amazement.

    "Hey, wait a moment! You're General Leyon, the commander of Talgria's Royal Knights, aren't you?" she blurted, her jaw going slack.

    "Yes, that's me. My army and I were tasked with retaking Jerusa," Leyon confirmed. "Who might you be? And how did you get here?"

    "Ah, my name's Lisa," the Valkyrie replied. "I'm from Kolah, a village in Talgria near the Forest of Hope. I had left there to aid another town that was in need of my healing arts. But on my way back, I ran afoul of the Red Claw and was captured. When they realized that I was a Valkyrie, they assumed I was part of the Talgrian army. I was imprisoned here after this city fell. By then, the dungeons of Castle Cilae were chocked full, so I was locked up here instead."

    "I see. We've great need of your aid, I'll admit, since you can both heal our wounded and use a weapon. Would you like to come with us?"

    "Oh, most certainly. It's the least I could do to repay you. But I have to ask you something. When I was captured, I was trying to find out what had happened to my apprentice and her younger sister. Their names are Raela and Lily. Have you seen them? Do you know if they're safe?"

    Hearing this, Leyon brightened.

    "Ah, as a matter of fact, I do," he confirmed. "They are alive and well, and currently with another allied army in Astryn. This group is being led by Azura, the lady of Elhorhi, and Bryan, Astryn's prince."

    "Oh, thank goodness," Lisa sighed, sagging with relief, but then springing upright as realization dawned. "But, wait… Did you say Azura and Bryan? Why, I ran into them awhile back , while I was off aiding that town. Sir Ike had injured his ankle, and I healed it. I did hear about Azura being granted a noble title, as well as Bryan's renown as the Emerald Sentinel. But...wow! Who would have guessed that he was also the fabled Astrynian prince…?"

    "Really? Well, this makes things all the better then. We're going to rejoin them once this mission is complete. You should stay with us so you can meet them and Raela again."

    "Yes, I quite agree. Thank you so much, General."

    "My pleasure."

    With that, Lisa rode off towards the Allied troops. Seeing that Norman was hard pressed to keep healing the wounded, she spurred her mount to join him. In addition to her advantage of mobility, Lisa had managed to recover her Physic staff from her late captors, allowing her to heal wounded comrades from a distance. Why the Red Claw hadn't taken the pains to hide it better was beyond Leyon. Perhaps they already had a large enough stock of staves, and had no use for it. Maybe it was simply an oversight born of complacency, for the enemy clearly had not anticipated that Allied Command could launch such a bold counter-attack.

    Whatever the case, the general was glad Lisa still retrieved it. With the pitched battle still raging, such a staff, and a talented healer to wield it, would be worth their weight in gold. Hopefully, that would be enough; for waves enemy reinforcements continued to arrive, this time pouring out of the castle itself. Leyon knew that this battle was far from over, and he could only hope that he and his group would prevail. He and his troops had the advantage of skill, strength and surprise; but, the enemy's numbers seemed limitless. If they were not shattered, their foes would crash down upon the Allied army until exhaustion sapped their strength…and ultimately lead to their doom.

  7. #37
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Alright, small update! The flashback at the beginning of chapter 1 has been revised. Hopefully, I should be getting out a new chapter sometime soon though.

  8. #38
    Reader and Writer Legacy's Avatar
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    Review Game review:

    First off, I knew nothing about Fire Emblem at all so I feel like you did a very good job of setting the stage and informing a novice reader like me in a little of the backstory throughout the text. I'm not really a big fan of stories with character profiles, though, because I enjoy it better if the author introduces the characters naturally through the story.

    The beginning was full of emotion and passion between Elincia and Ike and their romance. This was expertly written and your prose were elegant which matched very well with the romance of the moment. You are very talented at writing your stories in such a way that isn't choppy. It flows nicely as its being read, if that makes any sense.

    You really feel for Elincia with the whole Geoffrey situation, but strangely enough, you kind of feel for him too, which I think is awesome. Good work there, making the storyline and how the reader feels and relates to the characters more complex.

    The dialog is very natural sounding which is good. A lot of times, myself included for sure, we can focus too much on how we want the dialog to move the story along and lose the essence of it and it ends up sounding forced or awkward. You avoid that, especially with how Elincia speaks to Geoffrey and Ike, etc.

    There are some spots where the text gets a little heavy. Maybe throw in some more dialog if possible to break up the big chunks of description, or just shorten it. There's a fine line between not enough description and too much, and there are some spots where it gets to be a bit much, but its not that bad, just a suggestion.

    Overall, you should be proud. You are obviously a very talented writer with the ability to tell a great story with your words. Congrats and keep up the good work!

  9. #39
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    @Legacy;: Ah, thanks a lot! This means a great deal to me, as I was not sure that the early chapters of this fic were as good as anything I've written recently, seeing as the early chapters are the oldest. xP

    And yeah, there is a lot of description at times (since my co-author/editor likes description quite a bit), but I rather like it that way myself. I would like to balance it with dialogue a bit more though, as you say, so thanks for reminding me of that.

    Having the reader feel for Geoffrey, Elincia, and Ike was my goal with this chapter. In fact, you could feel for Ranulf too since he also had a sad tale to tell. So I'm glad you picked up on that. :)

    So again, thanks a bunch, Legacy! I really really appreciate it. ^^

  10. #40
    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Maaan, I must apologize for the long delay in the next chapter guys. My co-author and I just ended up being so danged busy, what with him working with other clients and me trying to get a blasted job... xP

    Anyway, first off, since I remembered some people voicing that they didn't favor seeing the character descriptions in the first post, I put them in spoiler tags. This way, anyone can choose whether or not to read them. Second, here is the first half of the next chapter! It's another long one that had to get split into two...lol


    Chapter 33: Forging Alliances

    Part 1


    The sounds of battle had become a low but incessant rumbling, like a thunderstorm punctuated by the wails of the dying. Arcing weapons clove through the air like lightning as the sparks of clashing blades danced about the two armies like some perversion of the beautiful fireflies that often swarmed Jerusa during early spring. Within the grounds of Castle Cilae, the Allied army fought, with a ferocity inspired by courage and desperation, while cobblestones turned slick with blood and corpses piled up on all sides. The Royal Knights battled with peerless skill, and the Red Claw could only bring down one of them by sacrificing ten of their own number…

    …but, they could afford to.

    There seemed to be hundreds upon hundreds of them.

    By now, Leyon felt as though he'd hacked his way through at least half of the enemy's army, and idly hoping that such wasn't far from truth. He'd cost the enemy much of their number, but more and more Red Claw appeared to replace those he'd slain. Though most had been greeted by Olegxing's edge before they could come close to drawing blood, the sheer weight of the assault was taking its toll, and even he had sustained a few wounds from combat. No less troubling, weariness was slowly creeping upon him, causing his weapon arm to grow numb and Olegxing to seem heavier and heavier. The general risked a quick glance at his comrades, only to find that a few of the knights had fallen not far from Lisa's former prison. The bodies of knights and mounts alike lay strewn beside the pen where the Valkyrie had been locked up, their corpses seemingly hacked to pieces. No doubt the enemy had been angered that they lost a valuable hostage, and Leyon had lost still more friends to the enemy's spite. Enraged, he'd vowed that these knights would be honored with a funeral service befitting their courage in undertaking this pivotal mission. At least a few of the deceased, Leyon knew, also had families; people who would surely be waiting in vain for their son, or daughter, or husband, or wife, or brother, or sister, or father, or mother…who would never return home. The Royal Knights looked after their own, however, and Leyon vowed that he would ensure that those families received whatever help and support they'd need.

    Still, the general knew that he had to be alive in order to keep that promise.

    And, that would be challenge enough.

    Though the Red Claw spent lavishly of their lives to bring down the Royal Knights, Leyon could see that their assault would ultimately prevail. Still, Leyon did not despair, for he knew that they just needed to hold on until their wolf allies returned from the ports up north. Once they arrived, their strength would turn the balance…but, would they come soon enough? The laguz could travel much faster than any beorc ever could on foot, but they still needed time. Not to mention that they would also need to find their way through the city to reach the castle.

    The wolves could manage this, but would any of the knights still be alive to meet them?

    With that dreaded question plaguing his mind, Leyon almost felt afraid. And, as though fate sought to remove the "almost," his train of thought was suddenly interrupted by a familiar voice.

    "Aaah!" Eliot cried from nearby. Leyon turned to see the clumsy knight in yet another predicament. Though Eliot had recovered enough to ride and fight, his right leg had still not healed properly, and after narrowly dodging an arrow, he'd lost his balance and had nearly fallen from the saddle. Thankfully, Zane and Boyd had rushed over just in time to catch him before he could fall from his mount and into the waiting arms of the merciless Red Claw. Relief washed over Leyon, but within seconds, it was gone. His gaze roamed the battleground once again, only to behold still greater misfortune. Red Claw reinforcements, still streaming forth from the castle, now had his entire group surrounded. Despite having to clamber over a rampart of their own dead, they approached in such throngs that Leyon blanched with dread.

    An instant later, the sound of heavy footfalls and ragged breathing jolted Leyon from his reverie, Olegxing rising above his shoulder for an overhand chop. Yet, it was not a Red Claw that greeted the general, but a knight under his command. Though the knight had managed to keep his life in this furious battle, he'd done so only by the skin of his teeth. Deep cuts had been cloven into his arms, legs, and torso; yet, he grit his teeth in defiance of the pain and hurriedly limped over to Leyon. Leyon was about to order him to Lisa's side immediately, but the battered knight spoke up first.

    "General…Leyon!" he rasped.

    "What the—?! What do you think you're doing?! You need to see a healer immediately!" Leyon commanded. "I found a Valkyrie being held in the stables. She's been freed now, and has a powerful healing staff, so—!"

    "I-I'll go see her, but I'm afraid…we're in big trouble!"

    This inspired revelation of the perfectly obvious nearly prompted a reprimanding blow from Leyon's fist, but an oncoming Red Claw forced him to redirect his aggression elsewhere.

    "Yeah, I can see that!" he intoned with biting sarcasm. "Now get your ass over to that Valkyrie!"

    "N-No, that's not what I meant!" the battered knight protested, trailing off as his wounds abruptly throbbed. "…Aaaugh! Our reinforcements…have been delayed…!"

    "WHAT?!"

    Leyon was so thunderstruck by this dire news that a whirling Red Claw hand axe nearly took his head off. Snapping back to attention, he cast Olegxing in the direction of his would-be assailant. The axe then reversed its course, twisted through the air until its haft smacked into Leyon's waiting palm, its edge glistening crimson. A half a second later, the sound of a body hitting the cobblestones reached Leyon's ears.

    But, he didn't have time to savor this small victory.

    "The enemy…has the wolves pinned down at the castle's back gate," the battered knight continued, once he was certain that the general was unharmed. "I was over there, along with some other knights… The wolves told me to tell you…that they're fighting to break through as quickly as they can, but… Aaagh…damn!"

    "Rrrgh! NO!" Leyon bellowed in anger, almost absently bringing Olegxing down upon a nearby foe. "And now we're surrounded! I have no idea how we're going to get out of this!"

    The moment the words had passed his lips, Leyon clamped his mouth shut in a vain attempt to snatch them back. He knew, both from Russell's stories and his own experience, that such an admission could have a terrible effect on his troops' morale. A commander, Russell had told him, could not afford to let the strain of leadership be plain to see. Soldiers or knights, beorc or laguz, they looked to their commanders not only for leadership, but for faith that they could prevail. The best commanders, such as Russell and Ike, engendered such courage and determination that their very presence could make all who followed them believe that victory was inevitable.

    Leyon had long since admitted that he simply did not possess the same overwhelming charisma as such lofty peers, but he'd done the best he could nonetheless. And, in time, he'd become a general that any man-at-arms would gladly follow anywhere, confident of victory.

    But, if the esteemed General Leyon could not find a way to win this battle, then what chance was there?

    The battered knight's features seemed to pale, as though he were contemplating that very same question. Cursing himself for his loose tongue, Leyon tried for his customary expression of brotherly reassurance, accented with a gleam of determination in his eyes. Though wondering all the while if it was convincing, he nonetheless spoke once more.

    "But then, it might not matter," he suggested, underscoring the point by cleaving through yet another Red Claw member. "If the enemy keeps this up, they'll run out of men."

    The battered knight didn't look particularly reassured, but some of the color had returned to his face.

    "Well, I got cut up pretty badly on my way back here…" he admitted. "I'll be back to fight once I get healed up, but… We gotta find a way. So many people are counting on us."

    "Yeah, so why don't you get healed up so I can concentrate?" Leyon suggested with something resembling good natured sarcasm.

    "Yes, sir."

    With that, the knight limped off to seek out Lisa and, idly wondering if his unthinking admission had just cost them the battle, Leyon turned his attention back to the fierce melee, desperately seeking some way out of the situation he'd led his troops into. And, yet, all he could see was death pressing in on all sides. Though Leyon had long since accepted that his service as a knight might cut short his life, the seeming inevitability of his demise made him recoil; not out of fear, nor even the anguish of never seeing Azura again, but the knowledge that Allied Command's doom might very well be sealed in the next few minutes.

    Gnashing his teeth, he shook off the dread musing. Something had to be done to save everyone, and that duty fell to Leyon. He could not let fear overtake him, for such would mean certain defeat. And yet, from what he could see, it appeared that the enemy had the beleaguered Allied troops right where they wanted them. The knights could not break through the Red Claw army, and escape was impossible. Time was running out, and yet Leyon could find no solution. And, with each futile search, he felt more and more frightened. A cold sweat had begun to trickle down the sides of his head and tears welled up in his eyes.

    Would this indeed be his final battle?

    Had he failed as a general, when his king and country had needed him most?

    Had the wiles of fate determined that he was he not meant to live up to his brother's legacy after all?

    Perhaps Russell would be waiting in the afterlife with the answer? Leyon suspected he'd pass into that realm soon enough.

    The notion of seeing Russell again almost made death seem appealing. All his life, Leyon had known Russell. More than an older brother, Russell had been his confidant, his protector, his role model and his best friend. He had also been Leyon's only family. The two brothers had lost their parents when they were quite young and had been taken in by their grandmother, only to lose her as well when Russell was barely upon the threshold of manhood and Leyon still a young boy.

    At times, Leyon was certain that his life would have been quite brief, and would've had a decidedly grim ending, if not for his older brother. Russell's iron will and staunch refusal to fail had buoyed Leyon through boyhood and adolescence, and had inspired him to become a knight as Russell had done. Yet, when Russell had been lost, it had cloven a wound into Leyon's very being that, he suspected, he would carry so long as he walked the realm of the living.

    Perhaps, soon, that pain would be gone…

    …but, along with what else?

    It almost didn't seem to matter, so near and so certain death was. The general had even found himself wondering what Russell would have to say upon their reunion…

    …and, that musing snapped him out of his resigned languor.

    Russell would certainly have a good laugh over Leyon's fumbling love affair with Azura, and would laugh raucously over Leyon comparing the fiery redhead to blueberry cheesecake. But, the revelation that Leyon had failed a mission upon which the very survival of Talgria depended, largely because he had succumbed to panic and then defeatism in the face of danger, would surely earn his brother's disappointment.

    And, that hurt more than anything which Isis' hirelings could inflict.

    A pulse of resolution, fragile but determined, coursed through his veins, nerving his arm and causing Olegxing to become light as a feather. He still could see no means of smashing through the trap that continued to close in around him, but perhaps it did not matter.

    Leyon was not Russell, that much he knew; but, he was himself. He would not fail here without a fight. Though he could not cast Olegxing with the same deftness that Russell had possessed with his bow and arrows, he could still slay almost any foe with one stroke. Though he could not turn a legion of knights into an unbreakable wall, he…

    …except, what if he could?

    A sudden flash of memory stole over him, and he recalled a daring maneuver that Russell had once spoken of. It was a defensive formation which, if properly applied, would allow smaller armies to withstand and, ultimately, defeat vastly larger numbers of enemies. It could turn the tide of this battle, but it entailed great risk. This maneuver would strain the strength and stamina of an army to its very limit…limits which Leyon's men might already have passed. He feared the knights would not be able to hold out for much longer before succumbing to weariness, and then to the Red Claw blades.

    Even so, Leyon knew that he had no choice. If this desperate strategy succeeded, then he could save his troops and win the battle for Jerusa. If not, then at least he could hold his head high when he met Russell beyond the mortal coil. And, whatever the outcome, it was a risk he had to take.

    Shouting above the tumult of the battle, he directed all of his troops to regroup around his position. The beleaguered Allied troops, many of them limping or clutching at bleeding wounds, fell back towards the general, fighting off enemy pursuit all the while. Once they arrived, he ordered the knights to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a ring. The more vulnerable troops, such as the healers and those who could engage in ranged combat, would form a second ring within the first and would serve to support their hardier comrades.

    This pronouncement was greeted with considerable skepticism, but the knights did as they were ordered. The Red Claw, perhaps after a moment's perplexity of their own, came on as the knights assumed this new formation. But, though the continual onslaught claimed a few, one arc of men-at-arms formed, followed by another, and another, until the two rings had been forged. Some of the Allied troops seemed to regain their strength, as though anticipating that this strange order might somehow portend victory, but, Leyon knew that this tactic alone would not save them. The knights were already exhausted, and the Red Claw yet numbered far too many. The group was simply too small and too weary to hold out long enough against so many foes.

    Fortunately, Leyon's creative mind lent itself to far more than just poetry.

    And, just as he could improvise his way around stubborn meter and rhythm, so too could he improvise a way to withstand the Red Claw onslaught.

    Seemingly unimpressed, the Red Claw came on in an endless tide. Again and again, they broke upon Leyon's lines like water upon a rock, seeking to erode the stone into sand. And, for a moment, it seemed to be working. Just as before, the knights' arms grew weary and their enemies drew blood. Sensing victory, the Red Claw surged forth in an almost bestial charge…

    …except, they faced not the exhausted outer ring of Allied troops, but those of the inner ring.

    What's more, these had had the time to get their second wind, and they handily threw back the enemy's clumsy charge.

    That ring, too, eventually began to buckle under the continued assault, however. Yet, when at last it seemed the new outer ring would crumble, the knights who'd comprised the original outer ring, now refreshed and healed, moved to the fore once again.

    Leyon had derived this maneuver from two that he'd learned of from Russell, and the general had woven the two together as seamlessly as the poem he had written for Azura. On the one hand, there was the phalanx formation that Russell had learned from General William and his foot knights, where armored infantry would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a wall within a narrow passage. In that tight space, the enemy would be constrained, only able to send forth a fraction of its strength at a time, while a solid wall of armored knights smashed these piecemeal forces, again and again, until none remained. On the other, the fighting retreat tactics Russell had devised, where small groups of knights would harry an advancing foe and then break away, only to be replaced by other knights who would also strike and then flee. The pattern would be repeated, with fresh riders being brought to bear again and again, to sap the enemy's strength.

    Now, these two tactics had been combined to form a mighty ring of defenders, who always had a reserve force in waiting, and which was as implacable and untamable as a fierce, earthbound thunderstorm.

    The Ring of Storms, Leyon mused. Catchy.

    He didn't let himself get caught up in the moment though. This was the first time he'd employed such an outlandish tactic in a battle.

    If he was careless, it would also be his last.

    "We can do this! Keep it up, everyone!" Leyon ordered as he tossed Olegxing into one enemy after another. As the Red Claw pulled back from another futile charge, the general took a moment to survey the battlefield. The scene was a grim one, as the once beautiful courtyard would not soon be cleansed of the day's carnage, but he could see that he'd chosen the right place to make this stand. The Allied troops had gathered to form the Ring of Storms at the heart of the winding garden paths, with hedgerows taller than Leyon himself was rising on all sides. The Red Claw could only reach him and his troops via a tangle of garden paths, hemmed in by the hedgerows and now congested with the corpses of knight, wolf and Red Claw alike. With the enemy now only able to attack in fairly small numbers, the odds were slowly swinging back into balance. Still, after all the rude surprises he'd had during this mission, Leyon knew better than to become complacent.

    The Ring of Storms had given him a chance, but he wasn't sure if it would be enough. This was a strategy that no one had ever tried before, employed during a mission of such importance that nothing undertaken by any of his contemporaries could compare, not even Russell. Leyon could only pray that it would work. He wanted to win this fight; not just for himself, or Azura, or everyone else whose lives were at stake and whose futures might very well ride on this undertaking , but also for his brother as well. Leyon owed nearly everything he had, and everything he was, to his older brother. And, wherever he may be and whether was alive or not, Leyon had to give proper honor to his memory.

    For what felt like days, the battle continued. The Allied army continued to beat back the endless throngs of Red Claw and, finally, after many torturous minutes of slaying the merciless bandits, readying weary troops to fight again, and shoving aside the corpses to make room for battle, the enemy's numbers began to dwindle. Unfortunately, Leyon and his troops it seemed, had weathered the onslaught. But, they had not done so without cost.

    Many Allied troops, far too many, numbered amongst the dead, and those who still drew breath seemed utterly exhausted. Leyon's hair and face had become so damp with sweat that he almost looked as if he'd just emerged from another moonlight swim with Azura. His breath came in short, ragged gasps as he slew yet another Red Claw, and he could easily tell that his comrades were no better off. Kevin could barely move in his heavy armor, which was now warped and dented seemingly beyond repair, and Norman leaned heavily upon his staff, looking ready to collapse. Many of the knights sagged in their saddles and what wolf allies who yet lived had been bloodied and cleaved, whimpering as they licked at their wounded pelts. Leyon supposed he shouldn't be surprised, for his weapon arm felt as though it would fall right off if he tried to throw or swing Olegxing again. Suddenly, a feminine voice jolted his weary mind back to attention.

    "General Leyon, look out!" Jade's voice called to him. Leyon's gaze darted in search of whatever had caused her alarm, and he beheld a swordmaster lunging at him. Leyon tried to defend himself, but Olegxing slid free of his numb, blood slick fingers and the swordmaster, grinning smugly, drew closer. Jade, however, had raced towards the imperiled general with speed that even a bird laguz could be impressed with. In midstride, the young myrmidon bounded atop the back of Leyon's horse, then leapt again to sail right over the head of mount and rider, meeting the general's assailant while still airborne. Her sword clove into the Red Claw member's neck, almost deep enough to behead him, and he fell to the ground with a look of utter astonishment permanently etched on his face. Jade then dashed to the general's side, snatching up Olegxing and almost bashfully returning it. Leyon shook his head, almost unable to credit what his eyes had told him of the myrmidon's impressive attack.

    "D-Dang! Jade, that was amazing!" Leyon complimented, though his voice was raspy from fatigue. "Thanks for the help. He might've had me back there."

    "Aw shucks, it was nothing," Jade replied, her cheeks going pink. "I'm just honored to help!"

    "And I'm glad you did."

    Still, Leyon mused. She took down a swordmaster, a swordsman that was clearly more experienced and should've been stronger than her. Maybe she's close to becoming a swordmaster herself, for she has the makings of one.

    Abruptly, Leyon's thoughts were interrupted once again by the sound of several howls followed by many screams and cries of alarm. In the distance, the general could see Red Claw members seemingly devoured by leaping shadows; and the sight eased a smile from his weary features. It was the wolf reinforcements, at last! The leaping shadows soon resolved into numerous lupine forms as Derien's men raced to join Leyon's tired and battered party, plowing through the remaining Red Claw members all the while. Those few Red Claw who'd yet kept their lives, their resolve broken at this reversal, succumbed to panic and scattered in all directions…though, Leyon had no doubt that not one would escape the wolves.

    With the enemy in the castle grounds now routed, Norman and Lisa quickly began tending the injured. Unfortunately, however, the staves' gentle power did nothing to ease their weariness. The group was in dire need of rest, if only for a moment, before advancing further into the castle. Such was a dangerous prospect while in hostile territory, but Leyon felt there was little chance of being assailed by fresh attackers. The flood of enemy reinforcements coming from the castle had stopped some time ago, which probably meant that the Red Claw had already sent forth nearly everyone that might've been inside the castle itself. With luck, they'd find the castle empty of hostiles and ripe from reclamation. Wouldn't that be a nice surprise, Leyon mused. He knew better than to expect such a thing, however. He also ordered that Norman and Lisa worry about his injuries later, as there were many others who needed their attention more.

    Leyon stretched life back into his limbs and, after several of his troops were pronounced as being well enough to carry on, he led them through the inner front gate and up to the main doors of the castle. As the general had surmised, there were a few Red Claw awaiting them. Standing before the doors was a man with a lithe but sinewy build, clad in a long cloak and with sections of armor along his left arm. He carried a silver bow and definitely looked to have the caliber of a Marksman, the highest tier of archers. Alongside him were several heavy foot knights, each seeming at least comparable to Kevin and Morris. Boyd and Kevin, the latter eyeing the enemy knights and muttering something about "replacement parts," quickly charged to meet these latest foes. Several other infantry units quickly joined the pair, followed by Derien's wolves. Norman raced to catch up to Boyd, narrowly avoiding charging into his newfound friend when the latter came to a sudden halt, and readying his light tome. His studies of light magic, no doubt, had informed him that such spells were highly effective on heavy knights, even more so than other types of magic. Not only did it go straight through the thick armor, but the metal of the armor actually seemed to amplify the damage, much like how glass could concentrate sunlight. The Marksman, seemingly unperturbed by the apparent reversal of fortune, merely folded his arms and glowered at Leyon. The general, meanwhile, regarded this foe with suspicion and a hint of perplexity. When Queen Belinda had relayed the tale of Jerusa's fall, she'd said that Bernard, who'd led the assault, wielded axes. This man, therefore, could not be him.

    "Well, now. Look who's shown up at my castle," the Marksman greeted with a smirk. "General Leyon, of Talgria's Royal Knights. I'm impressed that you've made it this far. And with such a paltry army, no less."

    "Your castle?! Try again, weasel!" Leyon retorted. "Where's Bernard?! A lot of people want him to answer for what he's done here, especially me!"

    "Oh, how rude of me," the Marksman replied with a sarcastic chuckle. "I'm afraid you won't find Commander Bernard here."

    "Ha! Do you really expect me to believe that?! Bernard was the one that invaded this city in the first place! Is he too much of a coward to try and hold on to it?"

    "Heh, I'm sure he'll enjoy making you pay for your impertinence. You are correct about one thing though, he did take Cilae. And, most deftly, I might add. But he left defending the capital to me, as he had more pressing business to attend to in Melora and Astryn."

    Leyon had been about to make a snide remark regarding Bernard's wisdom, in trusting his prize to a commander who could not hold onto it, but the Marksman's last sentence drew him up short and caused the barb to die in his throat.

    "…Wait, Astryn?!" he blurted, his eyes pulsing wide.

    "But of course," the Marksman confirmed, flashing a sickening grin. "I suppose there's no harm in telling you, since it's far too late for you to do anything about it. Commander Bernard sent some of us over there to pick clean a number of towns and to spread rumors that their "lost prince" was dead, cut down by our hand. By all accounts, the people of Astryn weren't hard to convince."

    "You son of a bitch!" Leyon bellowed, the consternation on his face replaced with murder.

    "Tsk, tsk, such language! Still, as you may have gleaned from how Commander Bernard led you around by the nose to ensure that Cilae was vulnerable, his plans didn't stop there. The group he'd dispatched was also ordered to capture the hawk mercenaries that were going to be hired to help fight against us. And, as a finishing touch, we've secured the aid of the steward of Astryn. He seeks the throne, as well as the so-called Prince Bryan's neck, and he's decided that a partnership with us would be to his advantage. By now, the princeling and his little friends should be dead, and the steward has likely signed the non-aggression pact with our envoy that will keep Astryn neutral in this war, and unable to do anything to help you!"

    Leyon's eyes pulsed even wider and his face turned ashen at these words. If Bryan and his men had been defeated, which was bad enough, then surely it meant that Azura had been killed as well. Images of the fiery redhead who'd enchanted him, cut to pieces by the brutal Red Claw, flashed before Leyon's eyes, nearly turning his guts to water. But, at the last, he regained control of himself. Bryan and Ike were outstanding commanders, and their troops were all seasoned warriors. What's more, Azura had been outwitting and outfighting Red Claw pursuit for the better part of her life. Surely, they could not fall so easily.

    "WHAT?! NO!" the general exploded in anger, gripping Olegxing as if it were Bernard's neck. "I'll hack you limb for limb for this, you goddess damned whoreson!"

    "How did you manage to become a knight with such poor manners and so little control over your temper?" the sub commander inquired in a patronizing tone. "Your anger does seem a tad premature, though. I don't know for sure if your little friends are dead…yet. Though, just between us, I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you."

    "I refuse to believe it! Bryan has never lost and he never will! And Azura's been giving the Red Claw the slip for years now. Besides, for all I know, Bernard's hiding somewhere in here because he's too spineless to fight me, and you're just bluffing!"

    The sub-commander's answering grin gave Leyon the sudden urge to start removing his foe's teeth by hand.

    "Heh, if that's your decision," the Marksman replied dismissively. "You don't look so ready for a fight, though. Just the opposite, in fact. You look half dead. Are you sure you wish to challenge me?"

    Leyon brought up Olegxing, tossing it into the air and deftly snatching it by the grip, and then chuckled with grim humor.

    "Not a doubt in my mind. My girl is waiting for me to return and tell her that we've taken this city back."

    "Aren't we getting ahead of ourselves?" the Marksman wondered, no small amount of condescension in his tone. "You haven't taken this city back."

    "Not yet, but by now, you're the only ones left. The army you dispatched north has been routed, the sieges against the Allied armies along the border and the coast are broken, and the garrison here has been cut to pieces. You've lost. You had the advantage of numbers, surprise and tactical acumen behind you, and it still wasn't enough."

    Leyon had the gratification of seeing the sub-commander's smugness waver a bit, twisting into bitter anger.

    "Do tell me, oh sage, what were we missing?" the sub-commander inquired, almost spitting the words.

    "Conviction," Leyon answered simply. "I won because I have faith in my men and myself, because I refused to give up, and because I never forget who and what I'm fighting for."

    Though Leyon noticed only belatedly, his words seemed to catch the sub-commander's attention. The Marksman's brow furrowed, as though he were searching his memory, and then he suddenly burst into derisive laughter.

    "…Ha, I should've guessed!" he blurted out, his words trailing off amidst a cruel chuckle which caused redness to gather at the periphery of Leyon's vision. "I thought you looked familiar, and, after hearing your spiel, it just hit me!"

    "Speaking of things hitting you…" Leyon growled, trailing off ominously as he drew back Olegxing for a killing blow.

    Despite the general's thinly veiled threat, the Marksman remained perfectly still, his eyes glinting with malicious humor.

    "You bear a resemblance to that delusional sniper Talgria once called a general," he remarked, his words causing Leyon to go rigid. "The one that "disappeared" three years ago? Pshaha! He always did have a knack for childish clichés!"

    Leyon felt something crackle and then sizzle in his blood. His lips peeled away from his teeth and a growl rumbled from his throat.

    "How dare you insult my brother!" he thundered. "And how do you know who he is?!"

    "What else can I say?" the sub-commander replied, a hint of pleasure in his tone at having riled the general. "You perk up your ears at the right time, and there's no telling what you might learn…"

    "I'll be sure to carve that on your funeral urn!"

    Letting out a long, piercing battle cry, Leyon spurred his horse to a gallop. Barely seeming to notice the sub-commander snatching an arrow from his quiver, the enraged general swung Olegxing in an arcing pattern. The sub-commander quickly notched an arrow to his bow and fired it, but Leyon leaned to one side and it whistled past. As he came to a sudden halt in front of the Marksman, a golden glow suddenly flared to life, expanding outward to envelop him, his horse, and Olegxing in such brilliance that the suddenly terrified Marksman was left blinking away stars. Leyon then swung the axe into the sub-commander's torso, one blow gouging a deep crimson gash that ran from one shoulder to the opposite hip. Olegxing glowed more fiercely than before, and the luminescence spread to encompass the sub-commander. Except, the light that bathed the Red Claw Marksman was no sunburst, but instead seemed almost sickly.

    In the midst of Leyon's follow through, the strange, sickly light flowed up and into the general's battered form. At its touch, the bleeding wounds on his body began to scab over. This was the magic of Sol, the mastery skill of Gold and Silver Knights as well as Valkyries, which allowed them to heal their wounds by draining the vitality of their foes.

    With nary a moment's pause, Olegxing then rose and descended again, leaving another very deep gash bisecting the first. The lights of Sol flared again, this time causing crimson rents in the general's flesh to become pale skin. Leyon was not finished yet, however, and the display of overwhelming power was concluded when the general's mount reared up onto its hind legs and Olegxing came down in a final, vertical slash that fell upon the sub-commander's chest. The blow fell with such immense force that the Marksman was dead before he even hit the ground. The Marksman's body, what was left of it, came to rest in a crumbled heap in a large pool of his own blood.

    Yet, Leyon barely seemed to notice either the savaged corpse or the blood that splattered him and his mount. Utterly spent by the long battle, the general seemed to crumble against his steed's long neck, the bloody Olegxing falling once more from his nerveless fingers. His arms were too heavy to lift and his thoughts were languid and jumbled, for though Sol had the power to heal injuries, it could do nothing against sheer exhaustion. Thankfully, Boyd and Kevin had , by this time, also vanquished their opponents, and the battle was over at last. Leyon and his men had fought hard, many of their band had fallen and none had come away unscathed. And, yet, they had won. With Jerusa having been retaken, Melora's hold over Cilae had been broken.

    Allied Command, which only days earlier seemed on the verge of total defeat, had withstood Isis' greatest blow and had repaid her underhanded assault with a stinging defeat.

    Maybe, just maybe, the war could still be won.

    "Heh, it's sure been awhile since I last saw Sol in action," Boyd commented. "And it's just as handy as I remember."

    "Yeah, that was a magnificent sight," Kevin agreed. "Poor General Leyon, though. He looks like he could fall out of that saddle any second. We'd better give him a hand."

    Boyd nodded, and with that, Leyon agreed to allow them to help him dismount. With everything below his waist having gone numb from so long in the saddle, he barely managed a step before falling to his knees. Though several raced to his aid, he waved them off and ordered them to keep watch for any enemy stragglers. The general then heaved himself to a sitting position, working to massage life back into his cramped legs, and ordered Eliot to take whatever knights were healed to search the castle. Lisa had mentioned that many prisoners were being held in the castle, and Leyon also warned them to be on the alert in case Bernard really was hiding within the city after all. Leyon was quick to remind them of just how dangerous the Red Claw commander was reputed to be and that, if they spotted him, they were to follow him, but remain out of sight. Once Leyon was well enough to fight again, he would follow and, if Bernard was found, he would engage the villain in single combat.

    This pronouncement was greeted by a few concerned remarks that the general was in no condition to battle such a deadly foe, and some snarky comments about Bernard's prospects of living long enough to face Leyon, if the Red Claw commander was found. Normally, Leyon would have replied with playful threats of disciplinary action, but he instead chose to reiterate his orders in a tone that brooked no disagreement.

    Any man who could orchestrate the downfall of an entire country was not to be taken lightly.

    As the Allied troops entered the castle and divided to search its myriad halls and corridors, the general quickly found himself lost in thought over what the sub-commander had said just before he was killed. Ever since Russell had disappeared, Leyon had tenaciously refused to believe that his older brother was dead. This was no secret amongst his friends and acquaintances back in Aracion, yet they all simply shook their heads pityingly and whispered to themselves that Leyon was tormenting himself with false hope.

    For a long time now, it seemed that Leyon was alone in believing that Russell yet lived…

    …but, the sub-commander's tone seemed to suggest otherwise.

    The condescending Marksman's words rang shrilly between Leyon's ears. Somehow, the sub-commander had realized that Russell and Leyon were related, for he had commented on the two brothers' resemblance. And, when he'd taunted Leyon's beliefs, which he'd learned from Russell and which the sub-commander also seemed familiar with, there had been that strange twist in his tone when he spoke of Russell's disappearance. It was as though the sub-commander had been intimating that he knew something about the general's older brother…something which, aside from Leyon, no one else even considered.

    Could this mean that Russell was, indeed, alive after all?

    Leyon suddenly had trouble breathing.

    How long had he been seeking some clue, no matter how suspect, that might reunite him with his brother? How many nights had he prayed that he might chance upon Russell the following dawn?

    Now, at long last, he had struck upon something…

    …or, had he?

    The bandits, brigands and villains that formed the Red Claw weren't exactly the most reliable witnesses. And, even if the sub-commander's intimation had been true, Leyon had no idea where he might find the next clue. The deceased Marksman had spoken as if Russell was alive, but had he known that for a fact? If so, might he have also known something about Russell's whereabouts? Or, had it all been just a simple stratagem to throw Leyon off-balance during the battle?

    Well, if it was, it sure didn't do him any good, Leyon mused with a contemptuous glance at the few recognizable portions of the Marksman's body.

    Still, though this last notion was surely the most likely, Leyon could not make himself believe it. Some inner voice insisted that this sudden discovery must not be ignored. And that, whatever meaning there was to it, Leyon had to find out, and fast. If his brother was alive, as Leyon had suspected for so long, then there was no telling how he was faring amidst this terrible conflict. He might not have much time before fate snatched Russell away again, and permanently.

    Unfortunately, the general had no idea where to search next. For now, he could only hope that another clue would turn up later, and search thoroughly for Bernard. If the Red Claw had had a hand in Russell's disappearance, as Leyon now suspected, then Bernard would surely know…and if so, they would pay dearly for it.

    Several minutes later, enough sensation had returned to Leyon's legs that he was finally able to walk and join his comrades in the search for Bernard. He quickly snatched up Olegxing, slung across his back, and hurried inside the castle. He was promptly met by a pair of wolf laguz who informed him that, as Lisa had reported, many of Jerusa's citizens and the castle staff had been found imprisoned in the dungeon below. Leyon quickly joined the search, allowing not one nook or cranny to go unexplored. Though he was all too aware that Azura and Bryan were still in Astryn and waiting for him to rejoin them, he nonetheless sought any sign of the man that was likely involved in Russell's disappearance. After nearly an hour, however, it seemed that Bernard's underling had been telling the truth after all. Bernard was not in Jerusa.

    And, the question of where he might be suddenly brought the question of Azura and Bryan's wellbeing back to the forefront of the general's mind.

    Leyon wanted to believe his own words that they could never lose, and that they were alive and well, regardless of whatever schemes Bernard could devise. But, he also knew that the mission to bring Astryn into the war would surely prove to a far greater challenge than any they'd yet faced…and, that was before learning that Bernard was at large in Astryn and that he'd had the country's steward as an ally. Could the situation in Astryn possibly have proven simply too overwhelming for them?

    Leyon prayed that this was not the case.

    Still, he decided that it would be wise to find out. He quickly ordered his troops to rest in the castle for a little while, and he began mulling over which of the knights and wolves should accompany him on the journey back to Astryn and who would remain at the castle to defend it.

    "General Leyon!" one of the knights called out, interrupting Leyon's train of thought.

    Leyon turned in the direction of the sound, and quickly recognized the man who approached as the same one who'd delivered the news of the wolves during the battle. The knight skidded to a halt and snapped a crisp salute.

    "Sir, there's no sign of any remaining Red Claw," he reported. "It seems that maneuver of yours really broke them."

    "Very good," Leyon replied with a curt nod.

    "And, if I may say so, sir, that was incredible. I've never heard of a tactic like that."

    The general could not help the wry smile that tugged at the corners of his lips.

    "That's because I just invented it," he remarked, chuckling good naturedly at the knight's look of slack-jawed astonishment.

    "…Seriously?" the knight asked when he'd found his voice.

    "Indeed. I'm just glad it worked. Is there anything else?"

    "Ah, yes, we found this."

    Belatedly, Leyon noticed that the knight was holding a length of fabric, rolled up and cradled in his arms, which he handed over to Leyon. When the general unrolled it, he was greeted by the light blue and stained glass-like pattern of the Cilaen flag.

    "Bernard must've wanted to keep it as a trophy," the knight opined. "The Meloran flag is still flying above the castle gate. Even after the battle, that thing still gives me the creeps.

    Leyon couldn't blame the knight for his discomfiture, as the Meloran flag depicted what looked like an especially gruesome display of dark magic. Still, the discovery of the flag was fortuitous, since the people of Cilae would be grateful to have it back.

    And, he knew who amongst them had earned the honor of carrying it back to its rightful place.

    "Kevin, Jade, over here!" he called out.

    The two Cilaen mercenaries, the latter nearly jumping out of her boots at being addressed directly by the general, raced over to meet him.

    "Kevin," Leyon began, "I want you to go to the castle gate and remove the Meloran flag."

    "Delighted, sir," Kevin replied, his armor creaking as he saluted.

    "And, Jade," Leyon continued, pressing the Cilaen flag into her arms, "I want you to put this back where it belongs."

    Having admired Leyon for years, being accorded such an honor sent Jade into near hysterical delight. She very nearly leapt on the general, hugging him with astonishing strength, as she gushed uncontrollably about what an honor he'd just conferred on her. Leyon, after several futile attempts to extricate himself from her grip, resigned himself to her clenching as he suddenly became aware of several gawkers who'd trickled in to behold his predicament.

    What was I thinking? Leyon mused as he noted several people trying desperately to choke down their laughter.

    "Is she even allowed to do that?" Natalie whispered as she watched the scene from around a corner, snickering despite herself.

    "Doubtful," Eliot remarked, rosy cheeked and breathless from raucous guffawing at Leyon's misfortune. "But, no sense spoiling the moment."

    ***


    Far from the site of a battle that would be remembered for generations to come, sinister events were being set in motion within a ruined fort, whose name had long been forgotten. At the abandoned fortress controlled by the renegade General Shigo's army, Dougal rode toward the gates, nearly shouting himself hoarse as he cried out for the gates to be opened. Shigo's confidant didn't have to wait long for his request to be granted, for it was obvious that he had urgent news for his superior officer. Dougal's face was streaming with perspiration and his mount had ridden into a lather from what must've been a grueling journey. But, Dougal knew it would be worth it. For, this time, he had information that he knew Shigo would be pleased to hear. Dougal quickly dismounted, tossing his horse's reins to a sentry, and rushed into the fort's main building. He found Shigo in back training once again, as the general was determined to be at his strongest when he finally confronted Bryan. Dougal quickly made his way over to Shigo, having no hesitation about interrupting him this time.

    Shigo could be volatile at times, but this news was certain to put him in much better spirits.

    "General Shigo!" Dougal called out as he approached, his words punctuated by ragged, heaving breaths. "I apologize for interrupting again, but—!"

    "Sigh… Dougal, what is it now?" Shigo replied, hardly in the mood for more bad news. "You better not tell me that Bryan is dead."

    "Oh! No, no, Sir. Just the opposite, in fact. My suspicions have been confirmed. Bryan is alive and well."

    "Ah, that's excellent. Thank you for letting me know. But I am curious about what he's been doing all this time. I grow eager to face him, but my patience is wearing thin waiting for him to offer a worthy challenge."

    "Ah, yes, about that…" Dougal continued, his tone suddenly turning wary. Shigo surely would not be pleased that the Red Claw had intervened. "Unfortunately, Bryan and the Astrynian nobles have been having…difficulties."

    "Such as? You already told me about the rumors claiming Bryan was dead."

    "Yes, well… We discovered that the Red Claw was indeed behind that. It was as I suspected. They wanted to break the Astrynians' morale and trick us into abandoning this mission."

    Shigo chuckled.

    "I knew it! Well, that pitiful subterfuge has failed! We will continue our mission as planned. Now what of these "difficulties" you were talking about?"

    "Well, firstly, Prince Bryan and his companions were attacked without warning by the Larameans. They had accused the dracoknights of raiding across the border and looting their stores. This apparently happened just after the Red Claw came in and picked some of Astryn's towns clean."

    "Bernard's handiwork, no doubt," Shigo spat. "A cowardly wad of dung like that would never have been deemed fit to serve as King Darthen's rat-catcher. That Isis has someone like that at her right hand is rather telling, wouldn't you say?"

    "My thought exactly, sir," Dougal concurred. "Prince Bryan's group was able to turn back their attackers, but our spy has assured me that the Larameans plan to return. More startling still, it seems that Isis had Astryn's steward in her pocket. He apparently sought to take the throne for himself. He had some kind of vendetta against the prince's family, dating back goddess knows how long. This steward attempted to discredit Bryan and, when that didn't work, he tried to sign a non-aggression pact with Melora, to ensure that Astryn would stay neutral in the war. Again, Prince Bryan's group prevailed, though I have a feeling he might now suspect us to have been in league with this steward."

    "Bah…" Shigo scoffed. "I'd never stoop so low as to align us with such refuse. People like that are as much a tumor as Isis and Royce. I'm guessing that it was actually some of the Meloran dracoknights that robbed the beast laguz?"

    "Indeed. Our spies at the border discovered this not long ago. The laguz, no doubt, were tricked into thinking Astryn was attacking them."

    "Just as I thought. Isis will do whatever it takes to get whatever her greedy little heart desires, and she won't take no for an answer. Still, in a way, this all might actually work to our advantage. Bryan at least now has experience in defending his people and battling powerful enemies, even those lurking within his own camp. If he does believe that we were behind this traitorous steward you mentioned, then he might very well come to us. And, soon."

    "That's true, yes. But the beast laguz are certain to return, no doubt stronger than before. What if the Larameans kill him before we do battle?"

    "Hmm… Admittedly, that is a possibility. Still, I seek a worthy opponent in Bryan, and he would only prove himself all the more if he were to diffuse this situation on his own. He will come to us, and I expect you and the men to be ready when he does."

    "Understood. And, I believe Prince Bryan may, indeed, be able to resolve this crisis. According to what the spies told me, his girlfriend is a very skilled Falcon Knight. They said she slew the traitorous steward in one blow, and while he was pelting her with Arcfire spells, no less."

    "Heh, excellent. I look forward to meeting her on the battlefield. I just want a fair, honorable battle with the man she loves, without any of this sneaking around and dirty work that Isis so delights in. Things might have been very different in the past, but it's the truth. I find that, in my old age, I've taken to glossing over my past and, now, much of what I see displeases me. If I had it all to do over again, I would've given Caline a fighting chance before slaying her. Or, at least, a cleaner death than stabbing her in the stomach like a spineless Red Claw. I'm just glad that I had the sense to let baby Bryan live. He looked…I'm not sure I can put it into words. But, I sensed great potential in him, and was somehow certain that killing him then and there would have been a waste. And, it seems I was right. I still desire Astryn for my own, as it is my promised due. However, I wish to keep it out of Isis's hands. I will not let her turn another nation into the depraved hell Melora has become. They don't deserve that. No country does."

    Shigo paused for a moment, then chuckled with deceptive joviality.

    "I must sound quite senile," he opined, letting out a rattling chuckle which betrayed his true age. "Rattling on about the old days like this."

    "On the contrary, sir," Dougal denied. "What you say about Melora and Isis makes a lot of sense. You might have had some doubts about me at first, but… You rescued me and practically raised me from the cradle when I had no one else in the world. How could I not stand by your side when you need me to repay that loyalty?"

    "You've always been a fine pupil, Dougal. Thank you."

    "You're welcome, sir. And I thank you too."

    ***


    The light of the sun had long since bathed the marble exterior of Astryn Palace in its warm radiance, but many of its current inhabitants were still asleep or recuperating from the previous day's events. Though, this was hardly surprising after Azura, Bryan, and their troops had gone through so much traveling and combat the previous day. A few had risen, however, as they wanted to get an early start on preparing for the campaign against Shigo. These included Laris, Canus, and several other nobles who were quite eager to voice their ideas to Bryan the moment he was up. After all, though Bryan had proven himself to be an able commander time and again, it was plain to see that the scope of the situation in Astryn was far larger than any he'd yet faced, and the rediscovered prince would definitely require aid in deciding upon the proper strategy. Other people that had risen early included Ike, whom could not pass up the smell of breakfast cooking in the royal kitchen, and Owen, who decided to join the other nobles and try to get a sense for which of them would have the best counsel to offer his son. Faline soon woke up as well, and decided to check on Bryan.

    After slipping on a pair of soft slippers she often packed when she was traveling, but deciding to leave behind her armor and only don her tunic for the time being, Faline entered the halls to find some of the others who were preparing for the day as well. As she'd suspected, Bryan was not amongst them. This was hardly surprising, given all he'd been through since the group had arrived in Astryn, and she hoped that he'd made good use of the opportunity to get some badly needed rest. Thankfully, his room was not far from hers and naturally, she had lost no time committing its location to memory. Upon arriving, Faline quietly opened the door and peered inside. Only faint snores greeted her and she could make out Bryan lying sprawled upon the bed. She smiled as she watched the man she loved continue to doze, relieved that he'd gotten this respite. Bryan undoubtedly worked harder than anyone else the past few days, and the combined strain of seeing his future kingdom's decline and confronting skeptics and threats alike had surely wearied him to the bone. He probably hadn't had such a good night's sleep in a long time, and he'd need it for the trials that still lay ahead.

    As such, Faline decided to let him sleep, though she hoped he would wake soon. She also decided that in the meantime, she would prepare some breakfast for him. Perhaps she might even bring it back to Bryan when she was done so he could eat it in bed. Faline couldn't help but snicker at how such would be a strange adjustment for her lover, since Bryan seemed somewhat intimidated by the decadence and luxury of Astryn Palace. Still, if his day proved as hectic as she suspected, she felt that he deserved to enjoy whatever relaxation could be found. And with that, she quietly departed her lover's room and headed for the royal kitchen.

    Some of the kitchen staff found it a bit odd that a supposed guest would come in to cook a meal, but they relented when they realized that, at the very least, they wouldn't have to worry about her burning the palace down. Indeed, Faline was well practiced in the kitchen. After her father had abandoned her and her family, Faline learned to cook and clean so she could help her mother whenever she was ill or overwhelmed by other work. Faline's sisters had still been rather young yet, though eventually they also were taught such skills. Thinking back on those times caused a nostalgic, almost sad smile to cross her features. After her father had abandoned them, her family had had a difficult life. Their mother had tried to support them as best she could, but, though she soldiered on without complaint, Faline could clearly see how badly she'd been wounded by her husband callously walking away from her and their children.

    Yet, beyond even the grievous wound of being betrayed by a man they all had loved, was the far more tangible implications of her father's actions.

    Faline's family had always been one of, to put it charitably, modest means. But, once her father had stopped contributing his earnings, funds had become terribly scarce, and luxuries even fewer and further between than before. The house they'd lived in was small and cramped, but, since they could afford nothing better, they kept it up as best they could. Many a time, Faline had to count herself lucky if she'd gotten more than one simple meal a day and more than a single gift in all the live-long year.

    It had been a hard life, but Faline's mother had never complained; and, thus Faline hadn't either.

    But, it wasn't for lack of temptation.

    Faline had been nearly an adult before she'd scraped together the funds just to have her own bed. And, since Faunir, her youngest sister, had the less-than-endearing habit of kicking and flailing in all directions when she was having a nightmare, it couldn't have come soon enough for Faline's tastes.

    Though the falcon knight hardly missed the man who'd coldly abandoned them, she soon found out that a girl who didn't have a large and loving, but intimidating-looking father at her side had other problems to concern herself with. Since her father had left them, she'd attracted more than a few unsavory characters. Some professed that they were besotted with her, despite her impoverishment. But, if they really did want her, it had always been for all the wrong reasons.

    The only thing her father had given her, that she'd actually wanted, was a keen eye for men who were best avoided.

    And then, she'd met Bryan.

    If she'd thought she'd been an outcast as a child, he'd been even more so.

    Yet, it had been more than a kindred spirit she'd seen in him. Even as a small girl, she could tell that there was vastly more to him than met the eye and that, far within, lay great worth.

    And, I was right, she mused with a smug, inward grin, though it soon turned a shade nervous. Still, this is going to take some getting used to.

    Bryan hadn't been the only one who'd found the splendor of the palace a tad unsettling, for it taken quite a bit of willpower for Faline to convince herself that she needn't be afraid to touch anything in the opulent seat of the Astrynian royal family. Still, by rights, this was Bryan's home and he had vowed to put it in proper order.

    And, perhaps in time, it would be her home as well?

    As she began cooking a few pancakes and eggs, thoughts of what the future held for her and Bryan swam through Faline's mind in an almost dizzying succession. She had no idea how to help her beloved rule a country, but just doing her best to aid Bryan by being at his side as his wife the rest of their lives would be more than good enough for her. And if they desired them, she vowed that she would be the best mother she could be for his children as well.

    As she finished preparing the repast, Faline grabbed a banana from the fruit rack and poured a cup of orange juice. After placing the food on a plate and grabbing the appropriate silverware, she set everything on a bed tray and made her way back to Bryan's room. During this journey, it became obvious, comically so, in fact, that word of both her and Bryan had gotten around. Servants and nobles alike stepped aside and bowed as she passed, and she'd found herself waving off more than a few insistent entreaties to let another carry the tray for her, one of which nearly saw her going back to the kitchen to cook the meal all over again.

    Deciding that Bryan wouldn't be the only one having difficulty adjusting to life in the palace, she carefully carried the tray to his door and quietly opened it once again. Bryan still appeared to be asleep, so Faline tip-toed over to the small desk in the room and placed the tray there. She considered rousing Bryan, if only so the food wouldn't become cold by the time he awoke. Moments later, however, Faline noticed him roll over in bed and his eyes fluttered open.

    "Huh…? Oh, Faline," he greeted in a drowsy voice. "You nearly startled me."

    "Ah, sorry about that," Faline apologized and then flashed a loving smile. "I was just seeing if you were awake. Also, I made you breakfast."

    "Oh? You didn't have to do that. There must've been a hundred other people who would've been happy to save you the trouble."

    "More like a thousand. And, they caused me trouble, by all trying to snatch the tray from me so they could deliver it instead. Seriously though, I wanted to. You've been working so hard lately, Bryan. You deserve some rest and relaxation."

    "Well, that's true. Besides, once this day gets started, I get the feeling it'll be a long one. Thanks so much."

    "You're very welcome, my love."

    Bryan answered with a bright, if drowsy smile, and Faline found herself thinking that it was a sight she'd enjoy seeing more often in the future. The prince of Astryn then sat up to see what Faline had cooked for him. He had just gotten himself propped up against the headboard when Faline suddenly leaned forward to give Bryan a good morning kiss. Bryan was slightly startled by this gesture, but happily returned it nonetheless.

    "Oh, you poor dear. You didn't even completely change out of your clothes," Faline noticed when their lips parted. "You must have been so exhausted."

    "Yeah, I sure was. I'd wanted to jot down some plans for seeking out and fighting Shigo's men before getting some sleep. But by the time I got up here, I was just dead on my feet. Still, that breakfast sure smells good! I'm already getting an appetite too."

    "Oh, I hope so! I cooked it with love especially for you. And, I ran a real gauntlet getting it up here."

    Bryan muttered something under his breath about "endearing melodramatics," and, despite the good natured teasing, Faline smiled again as she picked the tray back up and set it over Bryan's legs. She then pecked his cheek.

    "I swear, I'm in love with an amazingly wonderful girl," Bryan replied with a smug smile. "But, you already know just how great you are, don't you?"

    "Aw…" Faline gushed bashfully, her cheeks going pink. She then sat down on the bed next to her lover as he took his fork and began working on the eggs.

    "Wow, this is delicious! I had no idea you could cook so well," Bryan complimented after several rapid bites had passed his lips.

    "Heh, thank you, Bryan! I'm so glad you like it!" Faline gushed as she lowered herself onto the bed. "My mother taught me and my sisters to cook, clean, sew, and other things. She always had so much to do, and, even then, we were barely getting by. My sisters and I wanted to help her however we could, but that's also why my sisters and I were always lagging behind the other Pegasus knights in our training."

    "Wouldn't they be surprised by how you've turned out? Seriously though, I wish I'd had another chance to meet your mother. You girls really had a hard life, and I think it might've done her some good to see…well, this."

    He waved a hand to encompass the chamber, or, more likely, the palace and kingdom that lay beyond. And, despite a pang of grief at the reminder of her mother's death, Faline could not suppress a small laugh. Her mother had not been impressed with Bryan when she'd first clapped eyes on him, and she'd lost no time relaying this opinion to her daughter. And, though Faline was hardly the vindictive sort, she imagined a most hilarious expression of utter, slack-jawed befuddlement crossing her mother's features at her lover's newfound destiny.

    Her eyes turned glassy, however, when she recalled that she'd never be able to see that, nor have the satisfaction of whispering "I told you so" as her mother fawned over her grandchildren.

    Some of her distress must've shown, for Bryan brought up one hand to caress her cheek, his expression turning apologetic.

    "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought that up," he offered in recompense.

    "No, no need," Faline contradicted. "I mean, I understand that she's…gone, but with everything that's been happening, I've had no chance to grieve."

    Faline knew Bryan well enough to sense he'd make some self-depreciating comment about how he'd contributed to that fact, so she preempted him by pressing two fingers over his lips.

    "Don't worry, the time will come," she assured. "I'm just glad I didn't lose my sisters too. I really don't think I could bear that."

    "I'm glad too," Bryan replied, a wistful grin crossing his features a moment later. "It makes me wonder if I'd have been less lonely growing up if my parents had had other children. Of course, Skye has always been like a brother to me, but, since my father was always so busy with his shop, it was often so lonely at the house."

    "At least you had your privacy," Faline snickered. "My whole house was probably the size of this room. And, with four people living there…well, use your imagination."

    Bryan did, and he suddenly found himself reconsidering his earlier words.

    "I see your point. I suppose I can't truly understand, since my father was able to provide for us well enough, but…"

    "Oh Bryan, you had it rough too, you know. Just in a different way. I could tell that right from when we first met."

    "Well, true. I'm just glad things eventually worked out for both of us."

    "Hee hee, me too."

    Faline then scooted closer to Bryan and let her lips meet with his once more. She wrapped her arms around his neck, being careful not to knock the food tray or orange juice over. Bryan let his arms caress Faline's waistline as their tongues probed one another's mouths. Within the next few moments, Bryan pulled away to let his lips seek Faline's neck, eliciting light moaning as he pressed kisses into the hallow of her throat. For a time, the two had forgotten about Bryan's food, the nobles that were still waiting for him, and the still lingering menace of Shigo and his rogue army. Suddenly, however, their moment of bliss came to a jarring end when the door abruptly opened again and a deep voice rang out.

    "Ahem," Owen spoke up. By this time, Bryan had opened up the collar of Faline's tunic and his lips were exploring her collarbone. However, upon realizing they were no longer alone, the now blushing couple immediately separated.

    "Huh? Aw, Dad!" Bryan protested, irritation adding several new shades of red to his cheeks. "You could've knocked, you know. You ruined the moment!"

    "Actually, I did knock," Owen corrected, folding his arms and eyeing his son knowingly. "About four or five times, I might add."

    "Uh… Oh."

    "Indeed. Now just what were you two up to?"

    "Huh? Nothing! Honest. We were just having a few minutes alone together, that's all."

    "Yeah, there's nothing to worry about, Owen," Faline added in a perfect-little-angel sort of voice.

    Owen was silent for a moment after hearing this, a wistful grin tugging at his features, but which became tarnished with conflict a moment later. After the visitation from his mother's shade the previous night, Bryan could readily guess what was happening in his father's mind. Like as not, the Grand Duke was torn between his desire to see his son happy, as Owen himself had been during his married life, and the knowledge that this romantic escapade could prove damaging to Bryan's image.

    "I understand," Owen remarked feelingly after a pause. "Just so long as you know your limits right now. I heard some noises as I came to the door and I know you two ought to know better than to have any funny business going on at a time like this."

    "Oh come on, Dad, really?" Bryan replied, unable to keep a touch of incredulity from his tone. "You know we're not that careless."

    "Just being cautious is all. It's not that I'm against you both wanting time alone, it's just that now is not the time to be getting carried away."

    "Yes, we understand. You are talking to the one leading the effort to save this country, you know."

    "That's true. But it doesn't hurt to still be a father and make sure my son is the same boy I raised."

    Bryan merely grumbled while Faline giggled.

    "Fine…" Bryan uttered grumpily, conceding the point.

    "Good," Owen replied. "Now I came to tell you that the nobles are all ready to meet with us to discuss this effort to save the country which you oh-so-modestly mentioned earlier. You'd best finish your meal and get dressed quickly."

    "He's got a point, Bryan," Faline agreed, though with the barest hint of reluctance. "You don't want the breakfast I put so much effort into to get cold either."

    "Yeah, yeah," Bryan retorted playfully.

    "Heh, I thought that delicious-looking meal was your work, Faline," Owen commented with a smile. "I can see you're already taking good care of my son."

    "Yep, that's right! You can count on me!" Faline replied, returning the gesture.

    "Eh, heh…" Bryan murmured bashfully, resuming his meal in an almost crestfallen fashion.

    Despite Faline's peerless culinary skills, embarrassed incredulity seemed to crowd out Bryan's sense of taste. Though the prince of Astryn could appreciate his father's logic, he hoped that the older Novat barging in on him like this would not become a recurring event. Bryan could not help but cringe at what the shade of his mother would have had to say, had she made another visitation at this moment.

    That musing, however, jolted Bryan so soundly that his fork clattered to the floor.

    "Oh, Dad!" he blurted, oblivious to the surprised stares that greeted him. "I nearly forgot. I need to talk to you for a minute."

    "Oh?" Owen uttered, perplexity upsetting the sole syllable. "Can't it wait until later?"

    "It could, but I really think that you'll want to hear this now. Trust me. You know neither of us remembered my middle name? I now know what it is. It's Casimir. It came from my grandfather, King Casimir. You should remember him, for he was Mother's and Aunt Marion's father."

    Owen's eyes widened to an impossible breadth and his lower jaw plummeted halfway to the floor.

    "…Wha—?!" he blurted, incoherent with befuddlement. "How did you—? Who—?"

    "Mother told me," Bryan replied simply, underscoring just how far from "simple" the answer truly was.

    "…Wait, what? But how could she have—?"

    "I had a dream about her last night. And during it, I saw the day I was born. You know, I think it's best if I continue explaining once I'm dressed and finished eating. It's a long story."

    "…W-Well, alright. I'll see you later then."

    Though still looking shaken by his son's words, Owen somehow managed to gather himself and slowly departed the room. During the seemingly miles long trek to the door, his mind burned with confusion as he contemplated how Bryan could have dreamed what he'd claimed. He had seen his mother in the old portrait from the palace, but that was all he knew of her besides what Owen had told him. He had been far too young to remember her as she'd been when she was alive, he could not possibly remember the sound of her voice, or what she had looked like when he was born, or anything else of Caline. The memories had just been too painful for Owen to share, even after revealing his son's secret destiny.

    And, yet, beneath his anguished confusion, was a glimmer of light that was somehow familiar and yet enigmatic all at once.

    Could it be that, maybe, his late wife wasn't truly dead?

    True, it had been many years since she was slain and interred, but, perhaps spiritually…she yet lived on in this world. The souls of the Saints who'd created the Miracle Stone yet lingered in amongst the living, discharging their duty to safeguard the powerful artifact, and Silver Arrow's spirit was reported to periodically migrate to the bodies of worthy heroes, the most recent of which being Skye. As he thought more of what his son had said, Owen grew more eager to hear Bryan's story. All he could do was wait in the hall for his son to be ready, passing one torturous minute after another.

  11. #41
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And here's the second half! ^^

    Chapter 33: Forging Alliances

    Part 2


    Deep within the borders of Melora, however, far less benign contemplations were afoot. Royce had newly returned to the keep in Ebonar, bearing yet another report for his mother. The last time he had stood before Isis's less-than-motherly presence was to report that his plan to swiftly invade and capture Aracion had been derailed. Despite her nearly dismissive attitude toward the setback, Royce had been doubly incensed. Not only had he been denied the chance to win the war for Melora in one blow, eclipsing Bernard's capture of Jerusa, and ensuring that the name of Royce would know eternal glory, but the added insult of Bernard's smugness and Isis's indifference had nearly sent him into a rage. This time, however, the Meloran prince entered with news of an unfolding disaster in hand and a devious grin on his face. This time, it would be Bernard who would suffer for the fickle whiles of fate. Royce never really did like the bandit commander, which was quite ironic, since it had been his idea to hire the Red Claw in the first place.

    Though Royce had committed many a deed that would cause any person of decency to shudder, the decision to enlist the Red Claw was his sole regret.

    Bernard was an insolent, impertinent piece of gutter trash, which Royce so desired to hurl back into whatever heap of refuse the bandit commander had crawled out of. The sting had been all the more acute during the brief eternity in which all Melora seemed enchanted with Bernard's victory over Cilae. Whatever semblance of mercy the Meloran Prince possessed had been bent to its limit to keep himself from decapitating as many of Bernard's newfound admirers as could be found.

    Still, Royce knew that if Melora was to defeat Allied Command, they would need all the strength that they could muster, especially if the Orenias dragons were brought into the war on the Allied side. Individually, Melora could defeat any of the other nations with a speed and ferocity borne of nightmares. But if enough of the other nations banded together, they might pose a potential threat. So, he chose to plug his nostrils and put up with the Red Claw leader…but, not for a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. And thankfully, Isis had not yet ordered the two to lead a mission together as joint commanders. She likely knew that doing so would cause all hell to break loose and destroy any chances Melora had of winning the war.

    Though some suspected her mental faculties to be unbalanced, Isis was nobody's fool.

    And neither am I, Royce affirmed, silently vowing that no one, not even his forbearers or his descendants, would outshine him again.

    After his wyvern alighted upon the royal wyvern roost once again, Royce descended the structure, entered the keep, and continued to the throne room to report to his mother. This time, he actually hoped to see Bernard as well, but only until after Royce got there first. That would make the Red Claw commander's failure all the more delightful to savor. And much to Royce's pleasure, the commander of the Red Claw had not arrived yet. Isis was alone, seated upon her blood red throne with a languid posture that belied just how deadly she could be. Royce eagerly approached his mother, stopped a few paces short and offering a perfunctory bow.

    "Ah, Royce. By the look on your face, I suspect you have good news?" Isis greeted.

    "Some at least, Mother," Royce admitted. "The plan to turn Larame against Astryn has worked. Spies have confirmed that the beast laguz blamed Astryn for the raids on their lands, as we had hoped, and have already retaliated against them. What's more, my men are fully stocked with supplies that we may need in the future. We shouldn't have to worry about that for a while, which will bolster our resources for the war effort all the more."

    "Ah, excellent," Isis commented with a devious chuckle. "But I'm guessing there's bad news also?"

    "Indeed. I'm afraid this time, Bernard hasn't kept up his end of the bargain. The army led by the girl and Astryn's so-called prince have traveled to Astryn and the prince has proven to be more of a problem than we expected. From what reports have reached me, they have wiped out all of the Red Claw there with relative ease, and the prince had proved his bloodline. They even managed to stop the duke whom we hoped to install on the prince's throne. The delegation that was bringing the non-aggression pact for the duke to sign found his bloody corpse along with many others, including the men we loaned to him. What's more, the prince has turned out to be none other than that wretched Emerald Sentinel, who slew so many men of our men in Cilae. The prince has, apparently, secured the throne of Astryn, and that country gradually becoming a threat. And to top it all off, we've learned that the girl whom we hunt has made a troubling discovery. Apparently, the strong archer she has in her army is actually the latest reincarnation of that famous Astrynian hero, Silver Arrow. Along with Silver Arrow's spirit, this archer possesses his power. Our foe is a great deal stronger than we initially anticipated. Bernard should have his throat torn out for costing us so!"

    "I see. Yes, Bernard has failed, and it angers me," Isis admitted, an eyebrow arching at the sight of a feral grin spreading on Royce's face. "However, the blame for these developments is not his alone. Disciplining him now will not do us any good."

    Royce's feral grin turned into a twisted grimace of anger that even one of the Feral Ones on Tellius would be sore pressed to mimic.

    "W-What?!" he thundered, sudden redness gathering at the periphery of his vision. "But we can't afford any more failures! And this debacle could prove disastrous!"

    "I know, and I will make sure Bernard is very well aware of this. He will have one chance to rectify his mistakes, however. The time is approaching for us to bring our full strength to bear. A few more preparations still need to be made, but we have the time. The girl's army is still in Astryn and since they still have Shigo and the Larameans to deal with, they will likely be tied to the spot for some time. Besides, the other nations clearly have neither the strength nor the will to strike back at us. Also, I think it best for us to finally, should I say, mend fences with the herons."

    During his life, Royce had left many a woman bruised and bleeding in his wake, and had very nearly entertained the notion of adding Isis to his credit for denying him his rightful glory yet again. However, as the merit of her suggestion sank in, he reconsidered.

    And, it was fortunate that he did. Not only had Isis taught him everything he knew of violence and cruelty, but she could've taken him.

    "Ah. Excellent…" he purred. "Heh, heh."

    "Indeed!" Isis cackled. "Now Royce, I require your aid in this. We'll show them the real power we've developed since we last clashed!"

    "Yes! Anything you wish, Mother! Hahahaha!"

    While Isis and Royce reveled in the excitement of their latest plans, Owen listened with rapt attention as Bryan relayed his dream. The prince had been all too eager to tell his father after finishing his breakfast and suiting up for the day. Owen, however, appeared stunned as his son described every detail of the dream and the conversation Bryan had had with the shade of his mother.

    "I saw the estate I was born in…and how you and Mother contemplated on what to name me," Bryan explained. "She said that a knight in your service named Bryan had introduced the two of you, and Mother thought it was only right to name me after him for that reason. And then she spoke of her father, King Casimir. She said he was a great king and you said that your parents were proud to have served him. She said she'd been torn for a while about whether or not to name me after him, and then decided that Casimir would be my middle name."

    "…That…that's right…" Owen confirmed, his eyes wide with shock. "I remember it all now, and what you saw is uncannily accurate."

    "I had a feeling."

    Perhaps the onrush of resurfacing memories had come too swiftly and proven too much, for Owen's breathing had become ragged and he began groping for something to support his suddenly quaking legs. Bryan moved to aid him, but was a half a second too slow, and Owen went sprawling to the floor.

    I'm having one of those funny déjà vu flashes, he mused as he helped his father to his feet.

    "I'm sorry," Owen blurted once he was standing again. "Perhaps the years really are catching up to me."

    "Oh, don't be ridiculous," Bryan chastised, though he nonetheless looked his father over for injury. "You're not hurt, are you?"

    "My head is spinning so much, I can't even tell. But Bryan, this is remarkable. Spirits of the dead entering the dreams of the living is a very rare occurrence. In fact, it's been practically unheard-of. Some say it hasn't happened since before the Oathsworn made their pledge."

    "Wow… Well, Mother must be special. More than either of us could've guessed, that is. When she came to me, we talked about what's been going on. She saw how hard my childhood was and told me how much she regretted that she couldn't come into one of my dreams before, to comfort me and tell me of my heritage. And she also said that she still loves us both. Oh, and…you were quite right when you said she loved me so dearly…"

    Bryan scratched the back of his head as he recalled how Caline had hugged him and kissed his forehead in the dream, eerily and wonderfully tangible despite her seeming to have little more substance than a puff of vapor.

    "Ah, ha ha, I thought as much. Your mother held you, cuddled you, and kissed your forehead just about every day."

    "I'm not surprised. Well, shall we go join the other nobles now?"

    "Ah, yes. Let's go before they start getting impatient."

    Bryan nodded and the two made for the palace's conference chamber where the nobles awaited them. While they did so, the rest of the troops conversed or passed the time as they awaited their next orders. Kiel and Marina went to join Lartz once more, but this time, they sought him on the palace training grounds. Some of Bryan and Azura's men were already there, preparing themselves for the campaign against Shigo's troops. Some of Alec's men were there as well, though not as many as one would've hoped to see.

    Though Bryan had gone to extraordinary lengths to convince the Astrynian soldiers that had sided with Tavon to join their newly discovered prince, many had been deaf to his pleas. And, those who hadn't listened had perished with their traitorous master.

    Still, even though Astryn's army had grown sparse since Shigo had sacked Medann, the Astrynian troops which the group had met during Tavon's last stand couldn't have been all of Alec's men.

    Perhaps discipline had become lax during the years of Astryn's decline, and they simply hadn't risen in a timely fashion?

    Or, perhaps they still didn't give much credence to the story of the "Lost Prince" having returned?

    Either was to be expected, but it was also yet another concern to add to a seemingly endless list.

    Hopefully, however, Bryan would be able to convince more of them that he was the true successor to the throne, and persuade them to fight at his side. Knowing that Bryan alone could accomplish this, the others continued their training. Lartz, who had long since recovered from the injury Royce had dealt him back near Aracion, and he had been eager to get himself back in fighting trim and to make up for his absence from the battlefield. When Kiel and Marina found him, however, they saw him setting a meal in front of Fang.

    It was a bowl of meat, and it looked very fresh; raw, red, and still-bleeding fresh.

    "…Ah! Oh dear…" Kiel uttered, literally freezing in midstride. He immediately began to tremble.

    "Oh, Kiel, calm down! You know Lartz's wyvern is gentler than most," Marina reminded him, the slightest hint of irritation in her voice.

    Kiel didn't seem particularly convinced. In fact, he didn't seem to even hear Marina. The red wolf's intact eye, round with terror, remained fixed upon Fang's long snout and the fluids escaping his grinding jaws. When these grisly morsels traveled down Fang's throat and he thrust his snout into the bowl for more, Kiel was suddenly certain that if he got close enough to the wyvern's bowl, he'd be devoured in nary a bite.

    Marina must've gleaned Kiel's train of thought, for she looped her arm with his, as much to keep the wolf from running as to reassure him.

    "Now don't worry," she offered, underscoring her words by squeezing Kiel's hand. "I had a feeling that this would be difficult, and this is exactly why I invited you along with me."

    Hearing these words seemed to shock the red wolf from his frightened stupor. He whirled, nearly wrenching free of Marina's grasp, and his gaze hardened into a glare.

    "W-What?! You knew Lartz's wyvern was with him?! Of all the low down dirty…!" Kiel trailed off angrily, though there was still quavered with anxiety.

    Had Faline been present, she might have commented on Marina's quick temper, and the danger Kiel was in of discovering this first-hand. And, indeed, Marina looked tempted to dislodge a few of Kiel's fangs, but settled for fixing him with a glare that even Ike would find intimidating.

    "I am losing patience," Marina warned in the sort of tone that Faline sometimes heard in her nightmares, though it softened a moment later. "But, you're in danger of losing a lot more. I'm doing this for your own good! And, more than that, I might add. Don't you remember how nervous Lartz has always been around wolf laguz? But, you know he really is a good soldier, and a better man. You two owe it to each other to help sort one another's issues out. And, if that's not enough, how about Sara? Your sister might be a bit tart about saying it, but she's always worried sick about you. She fears that you'll freeze in the middle of a battle and then get yourself killed."

    These words seemed to overpower Kiel's incredulity, almost as much as Marina's fearsome glowering, and the red wolf gave a reluctant nod.

    "Well, that's true…" he admitted. "And I can't let her see me in another mess. Not like the one that cost me my right eye. And, you're also right about Lartz. After we spoke with him back in Castle Talgria, I did feel like I could trust him. That's why I showed him my scars."

    "Exactly," Marina affirmed, gently pushing Kiel forward. "Now be brave and go say hi!"

    Marina's shove met little resistance, but she could tell that Kiel's knees were knocking together.

    "Are…are you sure we can't wait until Fang's full?" he wondered, prompting Marina to roll her eyes heavenward. "Come on! I'd rather be half-blind than half-digested!"

    Marina muttered something under her breath about "the real weaker sex" and began silently counting to ten, though she only got up to six before her frustration got the better of her.

    "You're going up to him, and that's final," she informed him, unmistakable finality in her tone."

    "O-Okay…" Kiel uttered, his gaze fixated upon Fang's slavering jaws.

    With that, Kiel approached Lartz and his wyvern, seeming to tremble a bit more with every step. Marina followed a pace behind, a hand clamped upon Kiel's shoulder to urge him forward. The red wolf, it seemed, had no chance of avoiding this confrontation.

    "Hey there, Lartz…" he greeted nervously and waved.

    "Hi, Lartz!" Marina greeted with a girlish grin.

    "Ah, Kiel, Marina. I'm glad to see you two again," Lartz greeted, a grin tugging at his features as he approached and extended a hand.

    Having met the former Meloran soldier when he was still a mistrusted outsider amongst the band, Kiel was more than a bit surprised by the dragonmaster's apparent ease, especially with a wolf laguz. Some of his perplexity must've shown, for Lartz had begun to withdraw his hand. But, at the last moment, Kiel's own hand darted out to snatch that of the dragonmaster.

    "Sorry about that," the red wolf apologized. "You…kinda caught me off-guard back there."

    "I understand," Lartz replied, a hint of sheepishness creeping into his words. "And, I'll admit, I really had some misgivings when I first joined this group, not the smallest of which being you and Sara. But, looking back, I know I made the right choice."

    He paused, his gaze drifting tellingly in Marina's direction, then turning his attention back to Kiel.

    "Those talks I had with you and Sara also helped me a lot," Lartz went on, subconsciously massaging his side. "The...reception I received from Bryan had me wondering, but, I feel like I finally found someplace I belong."

    "Oh, that's good to hear," Kiel replied, more than a bit surprised by the admission.

    "I don't feel as leery of wolf laguz as I used to, but your superior officer is another story, I'm afraid. What was his name? Derien? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate him saving me back in Talgria; but, good goddesses, he gives me the chills. Especially when he's transformed, with how he looks about twice the size of any other wolf."

    "Heh, rub it in, why don't you?" Kiel complained good-naturedly. "But, I agree. General Derien can be like that sometimes. It's part of what makes him a great leader, though. The way he looks so fearsome by giving them that you-don't-want-to-mess-with-me look can unnerve his enemies and get them to lower their guard. And him being a dire wolf only makes that technique even more effective."

    Kiel had been about to say more, but perhaps the reminder of Derien harkened him back to the dangerous mission his superior officer was even now undertaking. The dragonmaster and falcon knight lapsed into silence as well, perhaps even more aware of just how deadly a gamble it was to be skulking about behind the Red Claw's lines. Still, the trio shook off any grim musings that might otherwise have taken root.

    Leyon and Derien would succeed.

    After all, what was the alternative?

    "I've seen plenty of bandits soil themselves just from the sight of him," Kiel continued with a snicker. "His little junket in Cilae will be no different."

    "I figured as much," Lartz replied, though he couldn't quite match Kiel's grim humor. "I'm just glad I had the chance to thank him before we split up. But, you're shaking quite a bit. Are you okay?"

    Kiel's forced levity suddenly faltered, his snickering degenerating into a nervous chuckle.

    "Oh, w-well, I…" he stammered, his gaze straying once more towards Fang and his grisly meal.

    "Ah, right," he noted, giving Marina a nearly invisible nod of approval. "I remember you talking about your fear of dragons. But hey, I've begun to think that my wyvern can help you cope with that. Fang is as gentle as a lamb."

    An expulsion of digestive gas punctuated his sentence and a flying piece of raw beef suddenly plopped upon Lartz's shoulder. The dragonmaster, apparently used to such occurrences, did not even blink.

    "His table manners are those of less endearing creatures," Lartz admitted, flicking the dripping morsel back in Fang's direction. "Still, he trusts anyone that I trust, like you and Marina."

    "That's right, Kiel! You have nothing to worry about," Marina put in. "Lartz will even let you pet Fang! He's the sweetest wyvern I've ever met."

    "How many wyverns have you met that weren't being ridden by people who were trying to kill you?" Kiel inquired, though with more humor in his tone than trepidation.

    "…You've got me there, I know that! But, still, I think it'll do you a lot of good to go through with this."

    "Yeah, go ahead. Fang doesn't even mind that sort of thing while he's eating, so as long as he trusts the person," Lartz added with a smile. "And he knows you don't want his food or anything. Though the way he eats, you might get some anyway."

    "W-Well…if you're sure," Kiel reluctantly agreed. His levity suddenly slipping away, he then began to slowly approach Fang. Seemingly heedless, the wyvern continued chowing down upon the meat in his bowl, the occasional juicy bits flying out to buffet the approaching red wolf. Fang soon heard Kiel's footsteps and looked up from the bowl to see him. The red wolf briefly jerked to a halt as Fang's reptilian yellow eyes found his own, a sudden onrush of memories overtaking him. He saw again the bodies of his parents washed up on the riverbank, rent and torn so that, for a time, he could not recognize them. Images of the claw marks flashed through his mind, causing his head to lighten and his steps to falter. A hand suddenly clapped onto his shoulder, jolting him back to the present, and he turned to see Lartz at his side. The dragonmaster nodded reassuringly and gave the red wolf a nudge forward. Gulping audibly, Kiel offered no resistance.

    Through all this, however, the wyvern's interest had turned back to its meal. Kiel gulped once more as he stared at the creature, and reached out a trembling hand. His quavering fingers found the scales on the back of Fang's neck and, when Fang showed no inclination to bite off his arm, the red wolf exhaled. Seeing Lartz, who was still at his side, offer another encouraging nod, Kiel held his breath and stroked the wyvern's scales, which the winged saurian did not seem to mind at all.

    "See? What'd I tell you?" Marina commented smugly once Kiel had finished. "You did it!"

    "Yeah, I did, didn't I?" Kiel blew out in a long breath and his lips curved into a smile, though he was still trembling a bit. "I might be able to get over this after all."

    "I agree. We'd do pretty well together, I think," Lartz surmised, playfully cuffing Kiel on the shoulder.

    "Aw…" Marina uttered, smiling at such comradely antics. She was starting to like Lartz more and more every time she talked to him. Though she hadn't yet joined the group when he'd been unexpectedly added to Azura's army, it was plain to see that he hadn't been a happy person. Yet, it had been no less clear that he was a good man and had a heart far kinder than that of any other Meloran.

    "You know how you spoke of how glad you are that you met us?" Kiel asked, his smile broadening. "That goes both ways. And, I'm feeling that I can beat this fear thanks to you two."

    "Heh, I'm glad," Lartz replied, thanking Fang for his participation with a stroke upon his scales.

    "You know what's funny though?" Marina continued. "All this talk about when we first joined Azura's army reminds me of when I first met you guys. I…can't say I was too impressed, especially since Faline was with you. Back during her time in Cilae's Pegasus knights, she struck me as a washout. She was always behind in her training, seemed distracted so often, was late more times than I could count. But, wow, did she surprise me with how she's improved since then."

    "I know what you mean," Lartz chimed in. "I had similar misgivings about Bryan, especially since he nearly killed me twice in a row. Even aside from that, he seemed too hotheaded and impetuous to be a captain. Still, he's gotten much better since then. I really think he and Faline help to get each other's heads mortared on straight."

    "Indeed. And, Faline and I got to talking the other day. She must've just had some romantic moment with Bryan or something, because she was flittering about like a drunk Pegasus."

    That analogy was greeted with bemused stares from the red wolf and the dragonmaster, though Marina simply chuckled.

    "Every once in a while, as something of a hazing prank, somebody adds malt whiskey to the water troughs of the pegasi. It's not a pretty sight. But I'm rambling. Anyway, I was talking about how you and I had some things in common and that I'd made you blush, Lartz, Faline coos and says to me, "Oh, that's so cute! I bet you two would make a lovely couple!""

    If Marina's story about Pegasi and malt whiskey had been startling, this tale had left her small audience stunned. Kiel gaped as his gaze turned to Lartz, whose eyebrows shot clear up to his hairline.

    "W-What? Well, th-that was…uh…sudden," the dragonmaster uttered, his cheeks going deep red with embarrassment. "But l-let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here."

    There was a quirk at the corner of Marina's mouth which, for some reason, caused the hair on the back of Kiel's neck to stand on end. When he saw it blossom into a sly grin that bridged the gap between the falcon knight's ears, the red wolf was suddenly found himself drawing back.

    "Oh?" Marina chuckled. "Are you saying you aren't interested?"

    "Er…what…I mean…" Lartz stammered, his cheeks suddenly reddening again.

    A coy light gleamed in Marina's eyes as she drew closer to the still incoherent dragonmaster, bringing up one long finger to trace over his lips.

    "Well," she remarked, a hint of feigned petulance in her words, "then what was that flirtatious smile you flashed me a moment ago?"

    "I…" Lartz blurted, wiping at his suddenly streaming brow. "That was…an approving smile. I saw what you…ah…were doing to…help Kiel and I was…er…I was…approving, that's it! Ah…Kiel, tell her!"

    Kiel, however, seemed engrossed in cultivating his newfound friendship with Fang, and the dragonmaster found himself alone. Muttering something under his breath about ingrates, Lartz tried to talk his way out of this mess.

    Not that Marina gave him much of a chance.

    "I'll bet you're like that with all the girls," she jibed, but then her expression softened. "Don't take it hard though, I was just teasing you. And, I'm glad you were willing to help Kiel. It shows you're a good man, even if you fluster too easily."

    "Thanks…I think."

    "Well, how about we all get some training in? Would you guys like to spar? I think the next step for you, Kiel, should be battling a mounted dracoknight anyway. It'll help make sure you don't panic during a real battle."

    Kiel had been snickering all this while, his laughter muffled by Fang's noisy meal, but Marina's suggestion caused him to stiffen.

    "Ah, uh…I d-don't know about that…" the red wolf stuttered, his pleading gaze darting toward Lartz.

    Unfortunately, the dragonmaster's answering grin offered no escape.

    "Oh come on!" Lartz intoned, seeing the red wolf tremble all the more. "She meant that I'll be your opponent, not that we'd send you up against an enemy. And you know Fang and I will go easy on you…but, the Melorans won't. So, you should learn how to deal with dracoknights now, rather than in a real battle."

    "W-Well, I guess I could try…"

    "Glad to hear it!" Marina agreed. "I'll spar with you guys after."

    "Mkay, that settles it then!" Lartz replied with a smile. "Let's go once Fang is finished. He's almost done."

    As if on cue, a great saurian belch erupted, sending a foul-smelling cloud billowing towards the trio. Kiel, whose sense of smell was easily the keenest of the three, turned fairly green from the stench.

    "Ugh!" he groused, pinching his nostrils shut. "Just so long as he gets that out of his system first!"

    After sharing a good natured laugh, Marina and Kiel waited as Lartz began to tack up Fang and led the beast onto the training fields. Though the red wolf's thoughts were quite fixated upon whether or not Lartz would prove as good as his word during their bout, some others found their thoughts traveling in directions other than honing their skills. While Bryan and Owen met with the Astrynian nobles, Faline had lingered near the conference chamber, anxious to know what was going on inside. Though she had donned her armor, she merely sat upon a bench in the hall, craning her head towards the huge mahogany doors for any portent that might slip through the cracks. It soon became apparent, however, that the wood was much too thick for anything softer than an earthquake to reach her ears. Frustrated, her gaze fixed upon the doors, as she worked both to kindle hope that that Bryan would soon emerge and to resist the urge to try and open them a crack so she could listen in.

    Neither was an easy task, and Faline found herself snatching back her own hands more than once.

    Although Faline was glad that Tavon's plans had been thwarted, even if she had been the one to strike the final blow, she was still worried about her love. Though his determination to lead Astryn to a better future was beyond question, she nonetheless was concerned with how he'd been affected by suddenly being thrust into the position of leading a deeply troubled nation in the midst of an ever-expanding war. After all, Bryan had been shocked to his foundation when he'd first learned of his royal blood and his mother's true identity. He'd been thrown into a daze, at a complete loss as to what to do until Skye had rather harshly knocked some sense into him. And later, after seeing the horrors inflicted upon his homeland, Bryan had flown into a rage against the Red Claw commander that had led the sacking of Astryn's towns for their loot.

    Though understandable, this act of pure and uncontrollable rage had nearly cost him more than he could have ever foreseen.

    It was quite possible that the pressure of being a prince might eventually prove overwhelming, especially since Bryan had the title of a prince but none of the political grooming that came with it. Such monarchs as Queen Belinda, King Wenceli,s and presumably, the late Queen Marion had begun learning what they'd need to know to succeed their parents as soon as they crossed the boundary between childhood and adolescence. Bryan, by contrast, was armed with little more than his instincts and a few snippets of advice from his father. And, much though she tried to tell herself that such could not happen, Faline feared that this might affect how the people or nobles saw Bryan, or even change him for the worse. The man she loved had always been kind, strong, brave, and staunchly determined to protect those he cares for, whatever the cost to himself might be.

    Faline hoped that the Astrynians would find him much the same way she did, but would they instead find a man crumbling inwardly and out under the strain of a duty he was born to and yet had not been trained to bear? The falcon knight sighed as she prayed to Ashunera that the latter outcome would not happen. Moments later, however, Faline was snapped out of her trance by the sound of footsteps drawing near. She looked up to see Elincia approaching her, armored up as well and with Amiti sheathed at her hip.

    "Oh, hey, Faline," Elincia greeted with a smile. "I'm not surprised to see you here, what with Bryan being on the other side of those doors over there."

    "Ah, Elincia," Faline replied, putting a lot of effort into painting a smile on her face. "Hey, I heard the good news that you and Ike are getting married! That's so awesome!"

    "Hee hee, I guess word has gone around by now," Elincia surmised with a giggle, though her levity quickly faded. "Hey, are you alright? You're smiling, but you're also fidgeting."

    Faline looked down to see her hands clenching and trembling of their own accord.

    "Oh, uh…" she began, and then sighed. "I guess there's no hiding it. I've just been worried about Bryan, is all."

    "Why's that? He seems to be fine…all things considered, that is."

    "Well, I'm not sure. Ever since we first found out about his royal blood, he's changed. And even before then, when I first found him and Azura at sea, it was clear enough to me that he was different. Don't get me wrong, I still love him the same way I did when he escorted me home a year ago. In fact, it's because I love him that I worry about him so. I mean, all of a sudden, he has all of…well, this to worry about."

    She punctuated her words by wildly flinging her arms about to encompass the expansive marble corridors, the gilded ornamentations, the opulent tapestries, and all the other astonishing decadence that marked the palace as the seat of kings. Curiously, Faline noticed an odd gleam in Elincia's eye as her gaze scanned the decor. Elincia, Faline belatedly noticed, did not seem overwhelmed as the falcon knight and her beloved sentinel had, though the emerald-haired woman hardly seemed at ease.

    There was a curious light in her amber colored eyes, almost like…nostalgia?

    Where did that come from? she wondered silently, but then shoved aside the question and turned her focus back upon Bryan.

    "He's in there, and everybody expects him to find a way to guide this country back to greatness," she went on. "And, I can barely even guess at how much of a burden that must be. It was really hard for him to accept that he's a royal, and, even now, I fear it's going to become even more difficult for him."

    It might've been Faline's imagination, but Elincia's expression seemed to be one of empathy.

    "Mm," Elincia intoned. "I can definitely understand that. Any way you look at it, what he's going through is tough."

    Though Faline would later convince herself that worry for Bryan had over-fired her imagination, she had not been mistaken about Elincia's seeming empathy. Having once been a queen, and having faced the same challenges as Bryan, without success in Elincia's opinion, she knew full well that a crown was more burden than adornment. The one time she's deigned to wear it for Ike, she'd remarked that it felt as though she'd been balancing an anvil on her head.

    She hadn't been speaking just figuratively, even though it had felt good to have Ike soothing her bruised cranium with his tender kisses.

    Elincia found herself wondering if bringing up her own time as a monarch might help, but decided against it. Though Ike had never missed an opportunity to argue otherwise, she hardly considered her reign a good example from which Bryan or Faline might draw reassurance or advice. And, relaying the story would more likely end up worrying Faline instead.

    She hardly liked to speak of that part of her life anyway.

    Even if she was alone in believing her reign had been a failure, her shortcomings had been too glaring and too numerous for her to dismiss.

    "I guess it really started back at Fort Hector," Faline went on, shaking Elincia back to attention. "Bryan just…lost it and he nearly killed both Ike and Lartz. He was so angry and he had such wild hatred in his eyes. When I first met Bryan, he never would've acted like that in any situation. Even Skye agreed that he had gone way over the line when he went ballistic against that Red Claw commander from before. And…I…I understand that he's changing, and that he might have to in order to be the ruler Astryn needs. But, I don't want that person who went into a killing frenzy to be what he changes into!"

    "I don't blame you at all," Elincia replied, having to take in a breath before she continued. "Once Bryan came back to himself, after the incident with the Red Claw commander, he felt horrible. I noticed him sitting by that lake, and he was in tears."

    "True. He even feared that he might have lost me; that I was so horrified at what he'd done that I'd leave him. But I could never leave him. Not for anything."

    Elincia lowered herself onto the bench and clapped a reassuring hand on Faline's shoulder.

    "And that's something that should help him keep going, no matter how hard things get," she intoned, smiling with approval at Faline's resolution.

    "You think so?" Faline wondered, her eyes turning glassy.

    "Of course. Back on Tellius, Ike and I went through a lot of hardships just to see each other, let alone be together. At that time, opportunities to be together were few and far between. But, through it all, and even when things were at their worst, I never stopped believing that, one day, all that would be behind us."

    Elincia's eyes alighted upon her engagement ring. "And, I was right."

    "That's a great story," Faline replied, though her brow furrowed with perplexity a moment later. "But, why did you have to go through all that trouble anyway? I mean, you and Ike had to elope to a whole other continent! I'd probably do the same thing for Bryan, if I had to. But, how did it come to that for you and Ike?"

    Elincia's cheeks had suddenly taken on a dusky hue, which caused the furrows in Faline's brow to deepen.

    "It's…complicated," the emerald-haired woman replied vaguely.

    "Did your parents not approve of Ike? My mother first saw Bryan a long time ago, and she didn't like him at all."

    Again, a curious light flickered in Elincia's eyes, as though her thoughts had migrated to another time…one far removed from what had truly transpired.

    "Actually, my parents were killed before Ike and I even met," she answered.

    "I'm sorry to hear that," Faline replied, recalling her own mother's death.

    Elincia didn't immediately respond. Instead, her gaze had once more become distant.

    "Sometimes, I find myself wondering," she said, almost to herself. "Maybe, if they'd lived, things would've been much different."

    For a long moment, Faline wasn't sure if she ought to speak. But, after a moment, she found herself asking "Was it Ike's parents?"

    "No," Elincia replied, seeming more present than before. "Ike lost his mother when he was little, and his father was killed not long after Ike and I first met. I didn't have the chance to get to know him, aside from the stories Ike told me. I really wish it had been different though, since losing him was so hard on Ike."

    Faline couldn't help a twinge of envy, since Elincia's tone said a great deal about how different Ike's father must've been from Faline's, but lingering curiosity soon moved to the forefront on her thoughts.

    "Then, why couldn't you two have been together in Tellius?"she wondered. "I don't understand."

    "In a lot of ways, I don't either," Elincia admitted cryptically. "But, if I had it all to do over again, the decision to be with Ike is probably the one thing I wouldn't even think of changing."

    Faline, her thoughts moving once more to Bryan and echoing the emerald-haired woman's sentiments, clapped a hand on Elincia's shoulder and gave a comradely squeeze. Even though the falcon knight could readily discern that Elincia hadn''t told her everything, not by a long-shot, Faline could not help but feel a sense of admiration for the courage and determination it must've taken to, almost literally, chase her love to a whole different world.

    The emerald-haired woman was keeping her secrets about just why being with Ike had required such an elopement and so much sacrifice, but Faline decided she could respect the other couple's privacy.

    "And, getting back to Bryan," Elincia went on, sounding almost eager to shift the focus of the conversation. "He has you, Skye, and many other friends and supporters to help him through these tough times. You'd be amazed how many people looked to Ike to guide them through dark days back on Tellius, and he'd been even less prepared than Bryan. But he had others he could turn to for advice, and I've never met a braver man than him. So, personally, I like Bryan's chances."

    "That's true too, but…" Faline's words trailed off as her gaze lowered. "After what's happened, I'm worried that even Skye and I just may not be enough… And then, there's still my sisters back in Aracion, who are ill and probably wounded too. They were lucky enough to have survived the fall of Cilae at all. And then there's my mother…who wasn't so lucky…"

    Faline sniffled as a tear trickled down her cheek.

    "Just this morning, I was thinking quite a bit about her," she went on, "especially how surprised she'd be with how Bryan turned out. I could just picture her fawning over her grandkids while I was sitting right next to her, smugly saying "I told you so.""

    A peculiar sound escaped Faline's throat then, as though she couldn't decide if she ought to laugh or sob, and had somehow managed to do both in the same breath.

    "I know, that must sound so childish," she admitted.

    "A little," Elincia remarked, though with no hint of reproach.

    "But afterward, it just hurt so much when I realized that it would never happen."

    "I know… I lost my parents because of a war too. Ike also lost his father in that same war, and Raela and Lily lost their parents to the Red Claw as well. And, of course, the man who killed Bryan's mother is still out there. Many can sympathize with what you're going through in that matter, but we all had to find the strength to move on. I may not have met your mother, but, from what I do know about her, she'd want you to find some happiness in your life."

    "Yes… I've been trying. It's just so hard."

    "I understand completely. Wounds like that never really go away. Believe me, I know. All we can really do is learn to live with them."

    "True…"

    Faline lapsed into silence for a long moment, her thoughts once more straying to her mother, and she was suddenly, painfully aware of the truth of Elincia's words.

    Living with that pain would be difficult.

    Elincia seemed to sense Faline's mood, for her brow furrowed in concentration for a moment, and then she suddenly brightened.

    "…Ah, I have an idea that might cheer you up, Faline!" she blurted out, so abruptly that it caused Faline to jump. "How about we pester the boys into taking us on a double date sometime when this is all over? Wouldn't that be fun?"

    At this, Faline's face lit up.

    "Ooh, that would be wonderful!" she gushed, but her excitement seemed to dim in an instant. "Oh, but… Bryan's probably going to be so busy even when this war is over. He might not have the time…"

    "Oh, he'd always have time for you! He and Ike would love the idea, I'm sure."

    "Well, if you say so. It'll be exciting, I know that! Say, where is Ike, anyway? I can't even remember the last time I saw the two of your apart."

    "There might not have been a last time, actually."

    "Yeah, probably not. But, I would have thought that he'd be on his way to the training field by now, at least."

    "Oh, he's probably still in the dining hall. Last I saw of him, he went to get breakfast. He said he absolutely loved the dinner he had last night and, after his fourth serving, he told me that he simply couldn't wait to try the breakfast."

    Faline chuckled and rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

    "I swear, he could probably clean out this place's whole granary if he wanted to!" she remarked.

    "Can't say it would surprise me, since he already did that back at Castle Eraghoa."

    "…seriously?"

    "We visited Castle Eraghoa on our way to Aracion, a ways before we met you. King Rothgar invited us to dinner, but I suspect he won't be doing so again anytime soon."

    "…Wow. If I ate like that, I'd need a whole team of pegasis just to get me off the ground."

    "Oh, Ike's been like that for a long, long time."

    As she finished the sentence, Elincia found herself harkening back to another adventure she'd had with Ike. Some months after the end of the Mad King's War, she'd managed to escape long enough to join him and the Greil Mercenaries in their hunt for Ettard. During their search, they'd met Rosie, a laguz shaman who'd known Ike when he was a tot and had adopted him as her grandchild.

    And, by all accounts, she had been the single most indulgent grandmother that Elincia had ever even heard of.

    Even back then, Ike had had a hearty appetite, and Rosie had been only too happy to oblige his every wish. Because of Sephiran's tampering with Ike's memories, Ike recalled very little of that time, and had been quite anxious to discover more of his past. However, when he'd received an old family portrait from Rosie, the image of himself as a very tubby toddler had rather thoroughly dampened his enthusiasm.

    The other Greil Mercenaries having a bit of rude fun over Ike's embarrassing discovery hadn't helped matters either. But, since Ike was the one who paid their salaries, he did get the last laugh.

    Whatever happened to that portrait anyway? Elincia found herself wondering.

    Between navigating the perils of the Gallian jungle and racing every which-where to follow the clues leading to Ettard, she hadn't had a chance to find out what had become of the old portrait. Ike hadn't seemed particularly eager to keep it but, since it was the only picture of his mother he'd ever found, perhaps he'd reconsidered. As far as she knew, he hadn't brought it with him, so maybe it had gone up in smoke when the former mercenary fort had been torched? She hoped that wasn't the case, and that Geoffrey truly was recovering after his melancholy had driven him over the edge.

    "Elincia?" Faline spoke up, snapping her back to attention.

    "Oh!" Elincia blurted. "Sorry about that, I had let my thoughts wander."

    "Yeah, I can't say I blame you. But, there's one thing I've been wondering for a long time now. When this is over, will you and Ike go back to Tellius?"

    That question caused Elincia to fall into another contemplative silence, though one of a darker bent than those prior.

    Could I go back if I wanted to? she inwardly wondered. And, for that matter, do I?

    Two questions, which, in truth, encompassed hundreds more.

    Elincia knew she would dearly love to see her lord uncle and her milk-siblings again. She also would dearly like to visit her parents' resting place again and see how Gwydion, her elderly Pegasus, was enjoying his retirement. And, she had a feeling that seeing Boyd and Soren had given Ike a pointed reminder of the people he too had left behind.

    She much wanted to see them again. But, would they want to see her?

    Many people had surely been disheartened and disappointed when she'd abdicated the throne, regardless of whether or not she'd been right to pass the crown into her lord uncle's hands. And, by the sound of it, the blame for Geoffrey's short-lived rampage was likely upon her head.

    The notion of what he, and Lucia, had been put through filled her with grief.

    Perhaps it would be best to cut all ties, and leave the people she'd left behind to their own devices?

    From the news Boyd and Soren had delivered, the situation in Crimea had begun to turn around, and perhaps it would be best if she didn't appear to reopen old wounds.

    And, yet, the former queen was nonetheless at odds with herself.

    Crimea might or might not be her home anymore, but, despite her decision to leave, the land of her birth was nonetheless still dear to her. And, she knew Ike had roots there as well. Her heart ached to try and make some sort of recompense for what had happened to Geoffrey, and what anguish it must've caused Lucia. And, even if she could not hope to be the stateswoman Crimea needed and, mistakenly in her opinion, believed Elincia to be, she could not help but believe that she ought to do something to take responsibility for the harm her shortcomings as a queen had caused.

    She owed it to her former subjects, and the return of a great hero such as Ike might regale the people's spirits.

    She did not trust herself to wear the crown again, but she might seek service as a healer or a diplomat in her lord uncle's service, or even a mercenary fighting alongside her beloved Ike.

    Of course, that brought up a very prominent point of contention in the matter.

    If she and Ike returned, would they been separated once again?

    Perhaps they would be, their engagement forcibly sundered and the chasm of their birth, once bridged, would yawn wide once again.

    Or, maybe the people had either learned from her departure, or no longer cared whom their former queen consorted with.

    Elincia rolled her eyes at the accidental pun, but her levity was short-lived.

    For all her ponderings, she was certain only that the question of where she would live would be answered by which continent would accept her and Ike's love.

    And, for all her ponderings, she had wound up right back where she started.

    "I'm really not sure," she finally admitted. "It would depend on whether or not I could be with Ike. Like I said, it's complicated. And, I'm sorry to say, I really don't want to talk about it anymore. Not yet, at least."

    "Okay," Faline replied, not pressing the issue. "I'm here though, if you change your mind."

    "I appreciate that, thank you."

    "And, if you can't go back to Tellius?"

    A wry smile crossed Elincia's lips, one not too dissimilar from Ike's rakish grin.

    "Well," she began, almost coyly, "aside from all the people who've tried to kill me lately, this place does have its charms."

    Faline and Elincia laughed long and raucously together over the emerald-haired woman's words while, barely a dozen paces away, the newly rediscovered Prince Bryan was busy making history…

    …in ways both desirable and not-so-much.

    Owen had, rather hastily, given his son a quick lesson on how best to deal with the nobles. Although Bryan had interacted with such people before, he'd always done so as a subordinate.

    Being the prince, his role and theirs were now reversed.

    Owen had advised Bryan to treat them as he might his own troops; speaking to them with a firm but respectful manner, listening to their suggestions, but not letting them make his decisions for him.

    In hindsight, Owen might find cause to regret his choice of analogies for, when confronted with a room full of opulently dressed nobles rising from their chairs to bow and curtsy respectfully, his son had perfunctorily intoned "As you were."

    The perplexed stares that greeted his words, and the nearly inaudible sound of Owen grinding his teeth, told Bryan that he must've gotten the phrasing wrong. But, thankfully, the meeting soon commenced. The various nobles, evidently, already knew that this "Lost Prince" was the genuine article, which Bryan knew would save precious time. Bryan quickly outlined to the assembly what had happened since he'd arrived in Astryn. In particular, he'd relayed that Shigo had returned to complete what he had begun more than two decades prior and Tavon's scheme to force Astryn to remain neutral in the war between Melora and Allied Command. Bryan had been worried that Tavon being killed, rather than arrested and tried, might make these supposed allies wary of helping him, but they seemed to understand that he'd had little choice in the matter.

    With that, done, the meeting began in earnest. Between Shigo's return, the continued threat from the suddenly hostile Larameans, and the possibility that Melora might retaliate over Tavon's death, there was no shortage of threats confronting the prince of Astryn's new reign. Still, though Bryan knew little of statesmanship, his strategic mind was not shaken by these strange, new circumstances.

    Unfortunately, neither his strategic mind nor the others at the table could offer much encouragement.

    A large portion of Astryn's army had, apparently, shared the same sentiments as the band of deserters he'd faced some time ago, and those who'd sided with Tavon. Believing Astryn either needed different leadership, or was beyond saving, many of them had deserted and turned to banditry. Those who remained were much fewer in number and, aside from Eric's dracoknights, largely untried.

    Between Shigo's army and the potential Laramean raiders, Bryan could foresee that Astryn's army was too few and weak to confront these threats directly.

    And, when the topic of where Shigo might be was discussed, the situation seemed even grimmer.

    Ever since Shigo's first invasion, large portions of Astryn had fallen into lawlessness. Some regions were, for all intents and purposes, controlled by bandits, while others, largely picked clean, had been abandoned entirely. Since Shigo's troops encroaching upon the still populated regions would have been noticed long ago, the renegade Meloran general could only be somewhere amongst those wild regions. Information about them was sketchy and outdated, but Bryan could see that a number of deserted villages and abandoned forts lay within these lawless provinces.

    Thus, Shigo had vast swaths of the country to hide in, while all Bryan had to seek him out and confront him with was a skeletal army of inexperienced and dispirited men.

    Yet, this didn't stop Canus from insisting that Bryan address what troops he had at his command, and then to seek out and attack Shigo as soon as possible.

    "Canus, I won't say it again," Bryan replied testily. "We will not strike now. We have no way of knowing where Shigo might be hiding and, even if we did, I don't feel we are ready to confront him yet."

    "Why not? Once word of your return spreads, our troops will regain their fighting spirit!" Canus argued. "Our people have, for the most part, not had a leader for many years, but, you have already proven yourself to be a peerless commander! And besides, not only could Shigo attack us at any time, but we face other threats from Larame and Melora! I really think it's best for us to deal with Shigo as quickly as possible, lest he still be lurking at our backs when we face the threats lurking from beyond our borders."

    "I agree," Alec put in. "With things as they stand, we likely won't have much time before more trouble crosses our doorstep. We should deal with Shigo as quickly as possible."

    "But what good will it do if we attack Shigo when we don't have the strength to win?" Bryan pointed out. "Even if I can motivate the soldiers, that will only do so much. From what you tell me, our troops are too few and too inexperienced."

    "I'm inclined to agree with you, your highness, but are you sure it's worth the risk of Shigo attacking us first?" Laris inquired. "There's no telling when the Larameans might attack again, or if Melora might attack us. If we were to face one, or both of those threats with Shigo still at large, it could be disastrous."

    "That much is true, your highness," Francois seconded. "The strategic situation is…less-than-favorable, but, waiting might very well make it worse."

    "I'm afraid I must concede that point as well, Bryan," Owen added.

    "I understand what you all are saying, but I feel that we must wait," Bryan insisted, taking on a firmer tone. "Also, I don't think Shigo will attack us any time soon."

    "W-Wait, what?!" Canus exclaimed, so stunned that an Arcfire tome nearly fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers. "Are you insane?! Your father told you about how ruthless and cold-hearted he is!"

    Canus had been about to say more, and it looked as though several others at the table were ready to join in, but, Bryan silenced them with an upraised palm.

    "I am all too aware of the history I have with Shigo, but…hasn't it occurred to any of you that he may not be the same man that he was twenty two years ago?" Bryan suggested, recalling what his mother had said in his dream.

    Yet another uncomfortable silence fell over the room, this time chafing and stifling. Bryan's gaze roamed over the assembled nobles and, inevitably, his eyes met those of Owen.

    And, there was no hiding the expression of shock and pain on his face.

    "Bryan, what are you saying?!" Owen blurted, his customary calm nearly evaporating. "You know what he did to our land…our family…your mother. How can you defend him?!"

    "Don't put words in my mouth!" Bryan snapped, though more for the sake of maintaining a commanding appearance than out of anger. "Just listen to me and you'll understand. First of all, I cannot condone or forgive Shigo for what he did those years ago, nor can I ever forgive him for killing my mother. However, the fact remains that he has been here for some time now, but that he has taken no action. Not to mention that he let me live despite murdering my mother. Wha''s more, he's had plenty of opportunities to kill me since then, and to take Astryn for himself. Yet, he's let them all slip past him. There's only one explanation; he's waiting for something, and, whatever it is, it's important to him."

    Some of Owen's incredulity seemed to seep out of him and, when he met his son's gaze, his expression was apologetic. Trying not to let his relief be terribly obvious to his audience, Bryan gave a sliver of a relieved nod in reply.

    "Perhaps you are right," his father intoned, his brow suddenly furrowing. "But, what is he waiting for? And, how does it help us?"

    "The way I see it, there's only one reason for him to wait," Bryan replied. "Somehow, some way, I think he is waiting for us to be ready for him. If that's true, then he'll give us the time we need to give him a proper challenge. And, that's time we'll put to good use. Please, just trust me on this."

    "Sigh… If you say so. But for all our sakes, I hope you're right," Canus replied.

    "I have no doubts." Bryan said, his tone brooking no argument. "I may not understand why he'd wait for us to be ready for him, but his doing so gives us a fighting chance. And I intend to use it."

    "Well…then, what would you like to do before we strike?" Laris wondered.

    "As I said earlier, what troops Astryn has are too few and too inexperienced to deal with Shigo, much less those Laramean beast laguz. They still believe that we looted their stores, and they will surely be coming back as well. We need more men."

    "Well, I have a thought on how we can address that problem, Prince Bryan," Laris cut in. "I would advise that you take a group and travel to Orenias to meet with King Cragen. He will be more than glad to assist us, since our nations have been friends for generations. Admittedly, he doesn't know any of you, and he can be rather blunt and intimidating at times. However, so long as you show him Eronite, he will know you can be trusted."

    "That's a good idea," Francois agreed. "Whatever reason Shigo has for staying his hand, it's doubtful that Melora or the Larameans will have any such compunction. However, if the Orenias dragons were to lend us their aid, it might give our enemies pause. We can use that time, in particular, to discover who framed Eric's men for robbing the Larameans."

    "Speaking of which, where is Eric?" Owen wondered, already sensing his son's displeasure at the question. "I thought he would be here with us."

    "He said he wanted to make sure that Armelle was alright after what Tavon pulled with his Silence staff," Bryan replied, ending the sentence with a grumble. "But, I know it's really because he didn't want to be in my presence."

    "Typical…" Alec groused. "I swear, Eric is as stubborn as a mule. Just like his father was. I was still a child when General Reynard died, but I remember him…"

    Though he tried to hide it, Bryan could detect a hint of grief in Owen's face at the mention of his old friend. Bryan slipped one hand under the table, grasping for his father's. A flicker of surprise crossed Owen's face, but his expression eased as Bryan felt his hand being gently squeezed in answer.

    "Seeking help from Orenias might help," Laris spoke up. "But, what of our own army? It has been in tatters for years now, and our kingdom has been crumbling all the while."

    "Talgria has been known to use conscription during wartime," Bryan spoke up. "Could we do the same here?"

    "That might help to bolster our numbers," Alec conceded. "But, our real problem is that, aside from the dracoknights, we have few experienced troops. Indeed, over the years, many of our seasoned warriors have abandoned their service and turned to banditry."

    Recalling running afoul of such a group, Bryan had to struggle to keep a scowl from his features. Even if he could understand why those deserters had made the choices they did, the recollection of Sally and her impoverished village caused the logic to turn his guts.

    Thus, at Canus' next words, he was briefly leapt gaping in barely restrained fury.

    "Would you mind repeating that?" he replied, his tone flat and grim.

    "I realize that it might sound…questionable," Canus said warily. "But, perhaps those who have deserted our army could be drawn back by the offer of a…general pardon?"

    Some of Bryan's displeasure must've shown, for Canus began to lean back in his seat, as though to put in a little more distance between him and the prince.

    And, indeed, he might need every last inch.

    Despite his anger, Bryan was stunned at the suggestion. How could he expect his people to trust him if he allowed people who had terrorized them to go unpunished?

    Didn't you take a similar risk with Lartz? some inner voiced asked.

    That musing extinguished Bryan's anger like a dose of cold water. It had been quite some time since the former Meloran dragonmaster had defected, and Bryan suddenly found himself remembering his own doubts about Lartz's sincerity.

    In hindsight, they seemed almost silly. But, though Lartz had long since proven himself trustworthy, the prince realized he'd only given the faintest consideration to what Lartz might've done before his defection.

    For all Bryan knew, Lartz's past might very well be marred by far worse than banditry.

    And yet, despite that possibility, Bryan trusted him.

    Might there be others, among the deserters who were the same, who could be trusted with a second chance to serve the people and country they'd once turned their backs on?

    "I'll consider it," Bryan decided. "But first, we'll travel to Orenias. I've seen on maps that an area called the Dragon Claw Desert straddles the border between Orenias and Astryn. Will we have to cross it?"

    "No, King Cragen's castle is northwest of the desert," Laris explained. "You can easily travel around those wastes. The terrain near the border will grow mountainous, making travel a little more difficult, but the mountains are certainly passable."

    "Alright, that's good. I would hate to have to worry about running out of water along the way. Anyway, while I'm gone, I'll need you to see about the recruitment efforts. Deliver conscription notices everywhere you can think of. And, if we have any reserve troops, call them up as well. However, I want the majority of the army to remain here for now to guard the palace and capital. As has been said earlier, Melora may retaliate against us for the thwarting of Tavon's plans and I refuse to take any chances."

    "That's a good plan," Owen commented. "And I would like to join you again. Orenias is unfamiliar territory to many of you, and I have actually been there once before, so I can serve as a guide."

    "Alright, that works. If that's all for now, then let's adjourn this meeting. Azura and I will gather some troops and get ready to depart."

    Perhaps Bryan had overlooked some rule of how princes were expected to conclude such conferences, for the other nobles seemed surprised by the abruptness of his declaration. Knowing that time was against him, he fell back on Owen's earlier, somewhat flawed advice and intoned "You are dismissed."

    With that, Bryan and Owen departed the chamber, the latter rubbing at his temples and muttering something to the effect of "what was I thinking?"

    "Was I really that bad?" Bryan wondered, almost conversationally.

    "You need practice," Owen replied curtly.

    "I'll be sure to put that on my Royal Itinerary, right after "Save Civilization," "Marry Faline," and "Figure Out How To Navigate The Palace."

    The two men shared a raucous laugh, and then went about making their preparations. After greeting Faline and Elincia, Bryan decided that Laris and Canus had best remain at the palace to aid its defense and to ensure that the recruitment efforts went forward. Francois, meanwhile, would accompany Bryan's group once again. Alec would also journey with Bryan, as he felt that the more Astrynian support Bryan had with him on this journey, the better. The prince also requested, after a great deal of cajoling from Faline and Owen, that Eric and Olivia go as well. It quickly became apparent, however, that Eric wanted to stay so he could be with Armelle. Bryan was almost relieved to hear this, but Armelle insisted that she accompany them as well because she wanted Bryan to have as many healers as possible. Seething, Eric then gave in and chose to go along as a result, but only because of Armelle and the fact that he had yet to find "the scum" that framed his men for robbing the beast laguz. Bryan could understand the sentiment, and even sympathize, as his Talgrian platoon had also been framed for crimes they had not committed. He told Eric about it and promised he'd help, despite the tension between the two. All Eric had said in reply was that he didn't care as long as Bryan stayed out of his way. Bryan merely scowled as the dragonmaster left for the main hall.

    Since most of the group was already out on the training grounds, it did not take long for Azura and Bryan to gather the same troops. They assembled the same group that had accompanied them when they first arrived in Astryn, along with Zarek and Fin. By this time, a number of the Astrynian troops had trickled onto the field, and Bryan suddenly found himself second-guessing his decision to entrust the palace to them. Although he recognized some of the men who'd left Tavon's side to join him as capable soldiers, most of the others had seen too many winters, or too few.

    Some were too small for their armor, others too large. Several had their armor on backwards, and others wore armor that was suffering from visible neglect. Looking at the sorry specimens before him, Bryan found himself fervently hoping that he was right that Shigo would not attack any time soon. But, then again, there was no telling whether or not the other Melorans, or the Red Claw, or even the Laramean beast laguz might strike while the prince and his companions were gone. Though he idly wondered if it would do any good, Bryan ordered the Astrynian troops to train, and hard. Still, he was already planning to give the lot of them a severe dressing down when he returned.

    And on that cheerful note, his and Azura's group departed once more, this time heading further west toward the land of the dragons. Kye, even after nearly being eviscerated by a Red Claw member the day before, was very nearly jumping up and down with excitement, saying that he'd always wanted to see a real dragon laguz up close in person. During the journey, he even claimed that he had seen something big flying high in the Talgrian sky some months back. It had been too distant for him to see clearly, but he swore on his life that it was a red dragon laguz. However, Skye never believed him. He said there was simply no reason for a dragon laguz to be clear on the opposite side of the continent and that Kye must've seen a bird laguz messenger or something. However, Kye staunchly refused to concede, and stood by his claim.

    Over half the day passed as the group traveled and they gradually approached the border that separated Astryn from Orenias. The Dragon Claw Desert covered much of the southwestern area of Astryn, spreading across the border to encompass the southeastern regions of Orenias. In order to circumvent it, the group was forced to pass near the border of Larame. Both Azura and Bryan had heard of the desert before, but all they knew for certain about it was that it was named for its curving shape, which resembled the claw of a dragon. And of course, part of it lay within Orenias's borders.

    Still, the small army wasn't keen to see it up close.

    The group cautiously skirted the Laramean border and, as Laris had said, they soon came upon a mountain range. However, unlike many of Talgria's mountains, these slopes were low and gentle, and covered with forests that offered ample defense from unfriendly eyes. Few of the rocky peaks were impassable, and luckily, none stood in the group's path. Suddenly, however, just as the group was mere miles from crossing into Orenias, a loud shriek echoed from above them.

    "You guys, that was a wyvern!" Lartz shouted. "I'd know that kind of roar from anywhere!"

    "So would I, and he's right!" Eric seconded. "I bet you it's the dirtbags that framed my men!"

    "Blast! Not now!" Bryan opined in frustration. "They could draw the attention of the beast laguz, and we'd be vastly outnumbered! Everyone, just be quiet and stay low and maybe they won't notice us!"

    "What?! You're a fantastic fool if you think I'm going to just let them go!" Eric shot back and turned to the dracoknight in the sky. "YOU WON'T GET AWAY WITH THIS, YOU SLIMEBALL!"

    With that, Eric spurred his wyvern into the air. However, he didn't get far. The other wyvern rider had heard his shout and turned to face the oncoming Dragonmaster.

    "Damn it, Eric! Your idiocy is going to get us killed!" Bryan angrily shouted, though Eric merely ignored him.

    "Geez, his temper is worse than mine," Skye commented.

    As the wyvern rider Eric had shouted to descended to meet the dragonmaster, both aerial combatants hovered in the air, weapons angled for the kill. Eric noticed, however, that a pair of bulging sacks had been lashed to either side of the other rider's saddle. Moments later, at least two dozen other dracoknights appeared behind the first, each similarly laden.

    "Well, well," the enemy dragonmaster spoke up, chuckling. "Look what we've got here. It's General Eric. I must admit, I wasn't expecting to see you way out here."

    "You're damn right it's me! If those sacks are what I think they are, you're in for a world of pain!" Eric threatened.

    "Hey! I smell the meat and herbs that the beast laguz like to use inside those sacks!" Ranulf shouted.

    "So do I!" Kiel seconded. "They must be the ones that robbed the Larameans!"

    "Heh, heh, so we are," the enemy dragonmaster confirmed. "Pity we had to meet so soon, though. My men and I were going to "deliver" some of the loot to a fort near Astryn Palace, so as to leave no doubt in the Larameans' minds that you were the culprits. But it looks like we'll have to settle for defeating you instead."

    "Ha, dream on, whoreson!" Eric retorted and unslung his poleax. "I knew it had to be Meloran dracoknights that framed my men! Prepare to die!"

    Suddenly, however, Eric noticed that the flock of wyvern riders he faced each carried infantry units as well as loot. In an instant, numerous snipers, warriors, halberdiers, sages, and swordmasters from the wyverns to the ground, setting upon the group from air and land. Bryan clenched his teeth and grimaced in anger, wishing fervently that Eric would've just listened to him and kept his big mouth shut. Now, however, he had no choice but to do battle. He un-slung Eronite and the sounds of the other troops drawing their own weapons reached his ears. Still, this encounter could not have happened at a worse time. The Melorans he faced would be trouble enough, but, the Meloran dracoknights were carrying sacks of food and other supplies stolen from the Larameans. If any of the beast laguz were nearby, they would surely smell them and follow the scent.

    And, given how close they were to the Laramean border, it would surely be a matter of time before they showed up to give Bryan's group even more problems to contend with. He doubted that his and Azura's men could win this battle and leave before that happened, so their only other option was to whittle down the Melorans' numbers enough so that by the time the laguz arrived, the odds would be even.

    Knowing that the Melorans' advantage in the air posed the greater threat, Bryan ordered Skye, Fin, and the magic users to focus mainly on the dracoknights, hoping that arrows and thunder magic could clear the skies of hostiles. Francois, being the most proficient with thunder magic, proved deadly to the saurian flyers. Faline also engaged the dracoknights since she had the wyrmslayer that had been given to her by the Astrynian swordmaster after she'd killed Tavon. As the enemy dracoknights charged, Kiel gulped audibly as the enemy dracoknights swooped down on the party, though, since he'd been pushed into his close encounter with Fang, his dread of wyverns was no longer overwhelming. Azura also decided to fend off their airborne foes since her sword offered her an advantage against the dracoknights' axes.

    Sometime later, however, just as Bryan had feared, the roar of a tiger suddenly echoed in the distance. Though he could not see the tiger, he didn't doubt for a moment that it was the same white tiger laguz that had led an attack against the Astrynians mere days before. And sure enough, an all too familiar blur of claws and stripes burst forth from the nearby woods. Bryan growled angrily and then blanched with dread as he noticed that there were far too many Melorans for the group to break off the engagement. Worse, enemy reinforcements had appeared from the hills, leaving the group outnumbered and trapped.

    "Blast it! The beast laguz are here!" he shouted.

    "They are?!" Eric replied from above, although he seemed neither surprised nor worried.

    "Yeah! Eric, this is exactly why I didn't want these Melorans to see us!" Bryan shouted, wishing he could reach the dragonmaster and strangle him. "That goddess damned mouth of yours might've just signed all of our death warrants!"

    "You moron! It's good that the laguz are here!" Eric retorted. "If we can convince them that these Meloran worms are the ones that looted their stores, they'll help us!"

    Bryan merely grumbled, as Eric did have a point.

    "Huh, easier said than done," he uttered in annoyance, though the dragonmaster likely cared nothing for the prince's opinions.

    Deciding he hardly had a choice in the matter, Bryan tried to approach the laguz. Before he'd taken more than half a dozen steps, however, something rammed him in the chest, knocking the breath from his lungs and sending him sprawling to the dirt. Once he'd blinked away enough stars to see, he beheld the white tiger looming over him.

    "You! I knew we'd find you at the other end of that scent!" the tiger intoned, his fangs bared. "You won't give me the slip this time! We know some of what was stolen from us is here, and I'm eager for some payback!"

    "Idiot! They're with those Meloran dracoknights, not us!" Bryan retorted, using his eyes to direct the tiger's gaze upward, lest an attempt to point cost him an arm. "It's the truth! See for yourself!"

    "Oh, I see plenty. It's your eyes I'm wondering about. Look to your left."

    Suddenly feeling a chill at the base of his spine, Bryan turned his head and saw a pile of bulging sacks sitting on the ground nearby. The dracoknights must've cut them free of their saddles during the battle, dropping them there to make it look like Bryan and Azura's group had been carrying them.

    "If you're not the thieves, then perhaps you can explain that?" the tiger suggested rhetorically, his eyes dilating with anticipation of vengeance.

    "Damn it, those dracoknights—!" Bryan groused, but an impatient growl from the tiger reminded him of his more pressing difficulties. "Look, we're kind of in trouble here—"

    "You have a remarkable gift for understatement," the tiger commented dryly. "Perhaps my claws can remove a few of your cares?"

    "Listen to me! Those Melorans are the ones who raided your lands! They were carrying that loot when we found them, and they cut the sacks free while we were fighting. Look at the sacks and their saddles. You see they're freshly cut ropes on both, right?"

    The tiger had one paw hovering over Bryan's face, claws unsheathed. And, yet, he paused and gave the sacks a cursory glance.

    "I see cut ropes, and that's all," he intoned, unimpressed. "For all I know, you and these dracoknights are in cahoots."

    "Then why are they attacking me and my men?!" Bryan thundered. "Look, if you don't believe me, fine. We can settle this matter after these Melorans are defeated."

    The tiger's ears flattened against his skull, and he looked ready to turn the prince of Astryn into a scratching post.

    "I am not letting you out of my sight," he warned, hardly needing to describe what would happen if Bryan tried to flee.

    "Then help me fight these Melorans," Bryan suggested desperately. "We have great need of your strength."

    "And why should we help you?"

    "Because if you don't, there might not be any of us left for you to deal with at all!"

    "Grrr… Fine! But only because we wish to be the ones to rip you to shreds!"

    With that, the tiger drew back from the prone prince and roared a second time. Before the echo had even faded, a fearsome band of cat and tiger laguz streamed forth from the woods and charged onto the field to engage the Melorans. Bryan sighed with relief, glad that Eric's plan had worked…to some extent. The laguz were still angry with Bryan's group, and the tiger seemed quite intent on keeping Bryan well within reach of his claws, but at least they agreed to help. Now, hopefully, the battle would end with the Melorans being defeated and the beast laguz's goods returned safe and sound.

    The tiger would likely point out that Bryan returning the loot didn't mean that the prince hadn't stolen it in the first place, but Bryan decided he'd have to deal with that eventuality after there were a few less people trying to kill him.

    Whoever said "It's good to be the King" needs a bracing reality check!

  12. #42
    I shot a god Ryuutakeshi's Avatar Social Media Editor
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    As a Fire Emblem fan I felt it was my duty to read this fic. I've read several FE fics over the last several years, some good and some bad. I'm only on Chapter 3 right now, but I do have some points I want to make.

    1. Characterization. I have to say that I HIGHLY disagree with your characterization of Elincia. You established that this was set after the events of RD, which states that Elincia goes on to become a great queen of Crimea and is aided by Renning. Here you portray Elincia as a lovesick girl who has no sense of self worth whatsoever. While I can understand wanting to take an alternative approach to characters from the source material, I feel that doing so after the events of their story and still claiming that this is the character we know doesn't work very well.

    2. Ike's leaving. I know that Ike is fated to leave Tellius and you wanted to justify it. I think that's great. But his reasoning really doesn't make sense. He's been with Elincia for three years. They love each other. They're passionate. Then he hears she's getting together with Geoffrey and just leaves? He doesn't even stop to confirm it? It isn't until a month later that he considers he might have overreacted? And I noted that in Chapter 2 you changed it around. You state Ike left BECAUSE Elincia married Geoffrey whereas in Chapter 1 you state Elincia married Geoffrey BECAUSE Ike left.

    And another thing. Ike is a hero. You even say he has been lorded. He helped protect the princess when she was in danger. Going by the logic of Fire Emblem, I'm not sure why there would even be a scandal to begin with regarding their relationship. It seems like an odd choice for springboarding a conflict.

    Also, Ranulf's logic regarding the twins comes across as nonsensical. I'm not sure how you can state that it's possible to love both twins because they're so similar when they have so little in common in the source material. And leaving both because he couldn't choose seems... silly.

    3. Azura. While I respect the writer's right to OC's (and I've used them before too), Azura came across rather odd in her first scene. She recognizes Elincia on sight despite never having seen her, she knows she's looking for Ike despite there being no reason she could have guessed that, and it's handwaved as "Ike spilled his soul to a random girl he met and that gave her enough information to deduce who Elincia is." Now, that sort of setup works great for someone like Sherlock Holmes, but Azura doesn't seem the type. I'm sure it gets better later on, but my first impression of her had me asking how she was able to figure all this out so easily.

    I'm going to continue reading. I am interested to see where this goes, but do answer this for me. How is it that an amazingly strong guy with a blessed sword who has defeated a literal goddess got his ass handed to him by a group of bandits?

    Evil Figment (7:59:44 PM): Ryuu, however shakily you started, I've got to hand it to you that you earned my respect the hard way.

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    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Quote Originally Posted by Ryuutakeshi View Post
    1. Characterization. I have to say that I HIGHLY disagree with your characterization of Elincia. You established that this was set after the events of RD, which states that Elincia goes on to become a great queen of Crimea and is aided by Renning. Here you portray Elincia as a lovesick girl who has no sense of self worth whatsoever. While I can understand wanting to take an alternative approach to characters from the source material, I feel that doing so after the events of their story and still claiming that this is the character we know doesn't work very well.
    A couple months after the events of RD, yes. Also, you might not agree with how I portrayed Elincia, but I think what I did with her is perfectly in-character. She never had much confidence in herself as a queen and she even says this herself in RD to Leanne. She literally states that she never wanted to be queen. Yes, she grew a little stronger by the end of the game, but that doesn't mean she suddenly decided she wants to be queen after all or thinks she'd be an awesome queen. I just feel Elincia's development should be taken in a different direction post-RD and that's what I'm doing here. If you don't like it, that's fine. I don't expect everyone to.

    2. Ike's leaving. I know that Ike is fated to leave Tellius and you wanted to justify it. I think that's great. But his reasoning really doesn't make sense. He's been with Elincia for three years. They love each other. They're passionate. Then he hears she's getting together with Geoffrey and just leaves? He doesn't even stop to confirm it? It isn't until a month later that he considers he might have overreacted? And I noted that in Chapter 2 you changed it around. You state Ike left BECAUSE Elincia married Geoffrey whereas in Chapter 1 you state Elincia married Geoffrey BECAUSE Ike left.
    Ike's not thinking straight because he just had his heart shattered. Wouldn't you be all messed up if something this bad happened to you? And Ike left because Elincia got engaged to Geoffrey and because he wanted to get away from his fame (this is implied later). Elincia then went on to marry him because she later heard of Ike's departure. If I actually literally wrote that Ike left because Elincia already married Geoffrey, that was an error on my part. I'll fix it as soon as I can.

    And another thing. Ike is a hero. You even say he has been lorded. He helped protect the princess when she was in danger. Going by the logic of Fire Emblem, I'm not sure why there would even be a scandal to begin with regarding their relationship. It seems like an odd choice for springboarding a conflict.
    I'm not exactly sure what you're trying to say here. ._.

    Also, Ranulf's logic regarding the twins comes across as nonsensical. I'm not sure how you can state that it's possible to love both twins because they're so similar when they have so little in common in the source material. And leaving both because he couldn't choose seems... silly.
    I find Lethe and Lyre to be a lot alike, to be honest. In appearance, and in character. The only difference I see is that Lyre isn't as into fighting as Lethe. Otherwise, I see them both as hot-headed and somewhat immature. Lyre is more immature at times though. And Ranulf isn't quite thinking straight either because of his problems. I can't think straight when I'm dealing with problems like this, so I felt this was fine. Sure, these characters aren't me, but what else can I do but go with what I've found to be natural?

    3. Azura. While I respect the writer's right to OC's (and I've used them before too), Azura came across rather odd in her first scene. She recognizes Elincia on sight despite never having seen her, she knows she's looking for Ike despite there being no reason she could have guessed that, and it's handwaved as "Ike spilled his soul to a random girl he met and that gave her enough information to deduce who Elincia is." Now, that sort of setup works great for someone like Sherlock Holmes, but Azura doesn't seem the type. I'm sure it gets better later on, but my first impression of her had me asking how she was able to figure all this out so easily.
    Ike loves Elincia. Because of that, I'd think he'd talk a lot about her to a new friend like Azura. And I was trying to imply that he did.

    I'm going to continue reading. I am interested to see where this goes, but do answer this for me. How is it that an amazingly strong guy with a blessed sword who has defeated a literal goddess got his ass handed to him by a group of bandits?
    Okay, though it doesn't sound like you're enjoying this much. Disappointing for me, but hey, you can't please everyone. And as for what happened with Ike and those bandits, he still isn't thinking clearly because of his depression, plus one of the bandits snuck up on him from behind. These guys are later revealed to be part of a larger group that's quite cunning. Oh, also, Ike no longer has Ragnell at this point. I've written that he returned it to Sanaki again (but he will get it back once more later).

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    I shot a god Ryuutakeshi's Avatar Social Media Editor
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    And another thing. Ike is a hero. You even say he has been lorded. He helped protect the princess when she was in danger. Going by the logic of Fire Emblem, I'm not sure why there would even be a scandal to begin with regarding their relationship. It seems like an odd choice for springboarding a conflict.
    I'm not exactly sure what you're trying to say here. ._.
    What I mean is that you claim Elincia was thinking of restoring Ike's title as a Lord. This shows that he was considered a Lord beforehand. As a lord he is nobility and thus has full rights to engage in relationships with higher-born women. The entire conflict could have been resolved if Elincia said, "Ike, I love you. You are now Sir Ike/Lord Ike/Count Ike/Baron Ike/Duke Ike/Marquis Ike/etc. Let's get married." And then no one could cry foul or claim scandal because it's two nobles getting married.

    And again, Ike is a hero of the realm and he defeated Ashera. I still don't understand why people would have objected to him marrying Elincia in the first place.

    Evil Figment (7:59:44 PM): Ryuu, however shakily you started, I've got to hand it to you that you earned my respect the hard way.

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    Secret Sword of Justice Kelleo's Avatar
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    Default Re: Fire Emblem: Dawn of Darkness

    Yes, Ike was a noble beforehand, but he renounced that title (before he realized he loved Elincia, no less) and even if he gained it back, he's still not of noble birth and that's what the nobles wouldn't like. Ike and Elincia don't care so much about their opinions themselves, though, it's moreso what they could try to do about it. There was already one rebellion in RD. There's no telling if there could be another. And Ike no longer has the power Yune blessed him with, or Ragnell, so he's not as much of a threat as he was when he took down Ashera.

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