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Rise of the Crimson Tactician

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-Streets of Parise, Rosanne-

“Vermil, give me covering fire!” Robin gestured with his weapon. Behind him, the red-robed mage grinned evilly and raised a hand, pointing it at the archers that were drawing their bows at the end of the alley.

“Arcfire!” A jet of flame roared down the alley, swirling around it and igniting everything within. Vermil the mage looked pleased with himself until the smoke cleared. Out of five, two were left standing, bows drawn. The two pointed their bows at the mage. Vermil swallowed.

“Watch it, kid!” A soldier shoved Vermil aside. The mage hit the ground and watched as his ally took the pair of arrows meant for him. One skirted off his blue shield, but the other impaled itself in his left shoulder. The lancer turned and howled his challenge. “Is that all you have!? I’m Zuras, veteran of a hundred wars, and you can’t take me!”

A figure darted out from a crack in the wall, dancing between the two remaining archers. One fell to his blade, and the other to lightning. Robin waved his weapon in salute, and gestured to the two to catch up. “Yes, but I took them fist, Zul.”

Zuras looked at Vermil. “He had you barbecue the hallway just so he could run up it?”

“Eh-heh. I think the plan was just for me to smokescreen it.” Vermil chuckled. “Maybe I went a little overkill.”

“You’re crazy, kid.” Zulas shook his head, then started sprinting to catch up to Robin. As he ran, he saw Robin duck and then an axe swing over his head. “Aw, they’re using axes…”

The fighter tried to attack again, but fell with a wordless cry. Behind him stood another one of the Crimson Squad. The small woman sheathed her daggers, reflexively standing in Robin’s blind spot.

“Heya Dant.” Vermil skidded up to them. “Where’d you come from?”

“Around. It pays not to lurk to close when you go all magic-happy.” The woman sighed. “Must you go overkill, mage?”

“Hey, as long as they’re dead! Right, Robin?”

“Well I suppose better safe than sorry.” Robin chuckled. “But a skilled warrior knows not to waste magic, and can tell how much to strike with. Elfire would have sufficed. You’ve still got to learn that.”

“Aww.” The mage looked downcast.

“Where to next?” Zulas asked. “This whole area’s one crazy war zone. Are we moving to take the castle, or what?”

“You’re not going anywhere!” A clip-clop interrupted the group. A troubadour was riding over. “Need I say this, Zulas, but you have an arrow in your shoulder?”

“So I do.” Zulas said, noticing it for the first time. “Argeni, I’m fine. I’ve been shot before.”

“No, you are not fine and I don’t care how many times you’ve been shot.” Argeni put a gentle hand on the shaft and ripped it from Zulas, ignoring the shout of pain. She put her staff on the wound. “Heal! Next time, don’t run off without me, you four!”

“You’re on a horse.” Dant pointed out.

“Leave her, Dant.” Robin said. “I told her to stay back. Her father would have a fit if I got her killed. Sorry, Argeni. We’ll go a bit slower next time and we won’t leave until you finished patching up Zulas.”

“Thank you.” Argeni was mollified. “I’m done. Well, what are you waiting for?”

“Right, let’s get ready to take the next block and wipe out those rebels. We'll work our way to the castle, but our goal isn't to be the first one there." Robin looked over to the next section. “For Valm!”

-Nameless Village, Heart of Valm-

-Months Prior-

Zulas cut his way through a pair of raiders, swirling his spear around him. Of common birth, but uncommon skill, the lancer had used the combination of the two to assume second-in-command of his unit. His commander, a particularly dull minor noble named Glass, usually led from the rear, leaving Zulas’s handpicked squadron the honorable role of ‘first blood’. This resulted in consistent, but not spectacular, victories, so the situation was unlikely to change anytime soon.

“Get him! He’s the leader.”

“Not technically.” Zuras grunted as an electric shock hit him. The mages that the raiders had picked up were weak. Normally, he’d at least spasm when he tanked electric magic. “Wolk, open fire!”

The archer beside him fired across the square, felling the enemy mage. The rest darted for cover as the archer began nocking a second arrow. Zuras gestured quickly, and two of his cavaliers rode through the town’s square. The raiders were dispersed with looting and pillaging, and the cavaliers had only served to split them further.

“Pair up and take ‘em out.” Zulas howled. His men pounded the stones as they rushed through the square. With the advance soldiers guarding the street down, and their mages scattered, Zulas intended to make use of the wide open square and his superior numbers. “We outnumber ‘em, so don’t fight fair.”

“But, sir.” Zulas sighed and turned around. Wolk was talking to him, although the young archer’s voice sounded more like a whine to the veteran’s ears. “What about what the Conqueror says?”

“Look, kid.” Zulas said. He tossed his spear aside and gestured to one of his men. He continued, “You want to fight alone to prove how strong you are? Fine. But do that on your own time. You’re in my squadron, you fight to win. That means you’re with people who you can count on.”

“But the Conqueror says that strength through outside means is false strength.”

“Two things.” One of Zulas’s subordinates dropped a fresh lance at Zulas’s feet, and ran off. Zulas looked the archer in the eye. “One. Don’t quote the Conqueror at me unless you can beat me in a fight.”

“I don’t see how – ahh!”

Two more raiders were charging at Zulas. The azure soldier spun around and thrust his spear forward in a single motion, impaling the first one. The second leapt up and sliced downwards at him, so Zulas let go of the spear and rolled out of the way. Considering him harmless, the raider instantly turned his attention to the nearby archer.

Wolk froze. The raider approached him, chuckling sinisterly.

Then a spear impaled him. Zulas withdrew it and kicked the man aside. “Stupid idiot. There was a spear by my feet, and he didn’t even notice. Second point, Wolk – you suck as a fighter at close range. It's nothing personal, you're an archer and fight at range. Now, find an escort and make your way to a roof! I’d rather not have a repeat of last time, when we got wyverned into cover.”

“Is that a word, sir?”

Zulas considered. “It is now.” He jogged off, gesturing to a pair of armor knights. “Wendell. Boris. You two hold this entrance, spread the word to the other. Now, I’ve got some rat sweeping to do.” With that, he sped off into the alleyways.

-Alleyways- 

“Die, Valmese dog!”

“Was that supposed to be insulting?” Zulas grunted. He was holding his own against two raiders, straining to keep them at bay. A third was watching, but not interfering. Fortunately, they all had swords, giving Zulas a slight advantage. He shoved forward, then leapt back, spinning the lance around him. "Some of us pride ourselves on loyalty, you know."

One of them is definitely going to rush that soldier, perhaps both. If they don’t both do it at once, he can sweep the first, and stab the second. Might have time for a withdraw after that to hold back the first. But if they both do it at once, he can rush past the one on his right – his guard’s not so good that he can cover his weak side. But then what? The third one is waiting for the soldier back there. So the obvious solution to them both rushing is-

Both rushed him. Zulas briefly considered running past them, but instead feinted twice to check their movement, and dashed back two steps, holding the lance in guard. Zulas weighed his odds. If he kept at defense, he’d lose.

-remove the third piece. Robin stepped out from behind the shadows and dropped the third man from behind with a clean stroke, severing the man’s spine. He gestured with his left hand and chanted, summoning a ball of lightning from the tome he carried.

He needn’t bothered. The lancer dashed past the raider on Robin’s left, the lancer’s right, and with a bit of intricate footwork, impaled them both on a single lance. Robin let the ball of electricity fade.

“Thanks for the help.” Zulas yanked the lance out of the pair of chests in was sunk into. He pointed in at Robin. “You friend or foe?”

“Friend. Definitely friend. My name is Robin.” Robin said. “Look, I won’t bore you with the details, especially since I can’t remember most of them, but I’m here to help. My name is Robin.”

“I … see?” Zulas stared at him. Robin sighed. Probably not the best way to make a first impression. "You can't remember details?"

“No, it's ... I mean, yes. Amnesia, but that doesn't matter right now." Robin tried making his way through the conversation without getting impaled. "Okay, look. So, you came to this town because you got word that the grain storehouses nearby were being attacked, right?”

“Is that what it was?” Zulas asked. Robin stared at him. Zulas shrugged. “My commander doesn’t give me details.”

“Well, that’s helpful.” Robin sighed. “So, can’t you take me to whoever’s in charge here?”

“Speaking.”

“And you didn't know what you're protecting. Wow. No offense, but your chain of command sucks.” Robin blinked, then realized what he just said. “Um, I take that back.”

“I’ll allow it. You did help save my life. What do you want to tell me?”

“Right. Well, it’s like this.” Robin’s sword drew lines in the alleyway’s dirt. “So, the raiders knew a direct assault on the grain warehouse would be impossible, right? So, they attacked it with a small force, and then retreated into this village.”

“Right.” Zulas looked it over. “Yeah, so?”

So I’ve been here for the past week.” Robin tapped to point at the juncture of lines. “They’ve fled into the alleyways to draw out your forces. These two areas? They’re fronts for the rebels in the town square, they’ve got twenty-five raiders apiece. They’re going to collapse your lines, then when you call in reinforcements from the grain warehouses, a small team is going to go light them on fire.”

“Oh.” Zulas blinked. “Oh. That's not good. How do you know this?”

“I’ve got eyes and ears. The inhabitants were forcibly evicted, and I heard them complaining in the bar. Next thing I know, the horse-seller is out of a job, because he doesn’t have horses. A bit of snooping, and I pieced the connections together.” Robin said. “Um, it’s not like I’m a rat, or anything. These townsfolk have been pretty decent to me, so I’d hate for them to get implicated just because the raiders decided to use this as a staging ground. The raiders aren't connected to this town, I promise.”

“Right.” Zulas gestured. “Follow me.”

“I was actually thinking that I could-“

“Wasn’t a request. Follow. Me.” Zulas said. Robin sighed, and started running after him. “So, why didn’t the raiders suspect you for snooping?”

“I’m a foreigner. They wouldn’t dream I’d help the enemy.” It was then Zulas noticed Robin’s pale complexion coupled with shock-white hair and odd black coat. “So, you’ve got a plan, or do you need help with it?”

“I’m going to light those houses on fire, then bar the entranceways. On second thought, other way around, assuming we’ve got time.” Zulas said. “Then we’re going to get horses and ride to the grain warehouse.”

“Wait, what?”

“You know my idiot commander? Well, he decided to make that his base of operations, which means he probably dismissed the real guard there and substituted it with his own crowd of flunkies and sycophants. Most of ‘em are rich nobles who only trained with weapons, but never actually fought with one. If the raiders hit ‘em it could be trouble.”

“For the commander?”

“The commander?” Zulas snorted. “He can be replaced. The grain is a different story.”

"And why do I have to come along?"

"Because I'll need someone to blame if you're lying. Nothing personal, I promise."

"Oh." Robin sighed. "Why can't we have nice things in this world?"

 -Burning Grain Warehouse-

One of the grain warehouses was on fire by the time the pair had arrived. Sounds of pitched battle echoed throughout. A few corpses in various uniforms were strewn across the path to the warehouses. Zulas gestured for the cavaliers accompanying them to fan out. “Search and destroy, people.”

“Don’t bother.” Robin said.

“Hmm?”

“Zone defense.” Robin replied. When Zulas gave him a blank stare, Robin sighed. “Order them to circle the remaining warehouses. It’s more important to protect the goods in this case. The grain houses are far apart in case one of them catches fire, so it won't spread easily.”

“Fine.” Zulas inhaled. “Countermand that order! I want team protecting the grain warehouses! Focus on torch carriers! Robin, you’re with me.”

“Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”

“You see that warehouse on fire? The one two are guarding?” Zulas jabbed with his lance. “That’s the one my commander was in. Let’s go save his sorry hide.”

Robin nodded. “The two on watch aren’t Valmese. They must’ve swapped uniforms.”

“You sure?”

“No. But if they are, we can kill them for dereliction of duty, because that door seems to be bolted shut.” Robin whispered. “Even if they were keeping raiders locked in there, there’s no reason to be on guard.”

“Good job. But they’re also wearing their uniforms incorrectly.” Zulas replied.

“Oh. I guess there’s that.”

“I’ll take the one of the right.” Zulas sprang into action, whipping his lance around, throwing it. It sailed through the air, cleanly piercing the chest of the first guard. Zulas pumped his fist. “One down.”

“Je-e-e-e-z!” Robin moaned and he ran towards the second guard, running serpentine and swapping which direction he was coming. “Why would you take my element of surprise?”

“Yah!” The one raider left attacked him. Robin parried with his own blade, and shoved a ball of electricity into the man’s chest. The raider froze, stuttered, and fell. Robin dropped his blade into the man’s chest, then electrocuted it again for good measure.

“A bit overkill, much?”

“Ain’t no such thing as overkill.” Robin replied. “I didn’t know you could throw lances.”

“Everything is throwable once.” Zulas yanked his lance out, spinning it above his head. “Good lesson to learn. Ready to rescue everyone?”

Robin shoved down the hatch and yanked the door open. He ventured a brief glance inside, and immediately regretted it when a tongue of flame hit him. He dove backwards, rolling on the ground. “Fire, fire, fire!”

“Moron.” Zulas sighed. He ran in himself. Robin got up and checked to see that nothing was burning. He stared at the open warehouse, sighed. Well, I got this for a reason. Robin reached into his coat, chugged a pure water and ran in himself.

And was promptly attacked.

Why!? Robin cursed as he parried the blade. His opponent was bigger than him, stronger than him, and had a larger sword. And was trying to kill him. I was trying to help!

The man swiped his blade at him again, but Robin easily dodged. Robin struck back and connected, leaving a dent in the man’s breastplate. His opponent roared, but couldn’t hit him on the return strike. Smoke inhalation. Blindness. Robin realized. This guy can’t beat me. Wait. Those are only happening because the whole building is on fire. Which means that will happen to me if I stay in here.

“Sorry about this … probably.” Robin dove and rolled past his attacked, dropped his spellbook and gripped his sword two handed. He swung the blunt side on the back of the man’s head. His opponent dropped like a stone. Robin sighed, dropped the sword and began hauling the man out of the building.

“Robin!” Robin turned to see Zulas, carrying a man on his back. “Good to see you found one too. How are you holding up?”

“Fine?” Robin said. “Urk. This guy is heavy. But fine.”

Zulas ran ahead, dropping his man off. Robin turned back, to the see the whole barn aflame. Shouldn’t I be feeling that?

“Wow.” Zulas showed up and helped Robin drag the man outside. “Your resistance is pretty incredible. Like, seriously.”

“Resistance?” Robin asked, once they were outside. “What do you mean?”

“Y’know. Resistance to magic and the elements.” Zulas said. “I got a talisman awhile back to let me take the heat, but you seem to have no problem.”

“Oh, that.” Robin grinned. “I drank some pure water.”

“Huh. I didn’t know water could do that.”

“Not water. Pure water.” Robin waved the vial. “This stuff?”

“I know, I’m just messing with you.” Zulas grinned. He looked at the man he carried outside and frowned. “So, did you get the captain? Because I didn’t.”

“Ah, is this the captain?” Robin asked.

Zulas looked at the unconscious body that Robin had dragged. “Yup.”

“Ah.” Robin took a step back. “Well, glad to be helping, but I really got to go. Um, look at the time. Where does it all go? So, glad to help, see you, remember my name isn’t-”

A lightning bolt arced into him from the burning warehouse. Oh. Robin’s mind thought, in the nanosecond before the charge hit his brain. I dropped my spell book in there. I guess it reacts violently when burnt. Good to know for the future, I suppose and agggggghhh! A bolt hit Zulas as well, but he shrugged it off. And a bolt hit both unconscious bodies.

Robin slumped to his knees, shocked. So he could only stare dimly as the unit’s captain, Glass rose to his feet and began mouthing orders. Robin was sure that there were words coming from his mouth, he just didn’t know what they were.

Then Zulas hit him in the face with the haft of his spear.

No good deed goes unpunished.

 -Report to REDACTED from REDACTED, XX/X/XX-

Bandit activity has increased in Ylisse. From the reports, it’s only increased near the Ylissean-Plegian border. Strange, right? What are the odds. It’s almost like Plegia is attacking them with the cover of bandits, but that’s impossible… nah, who are we kidding? The Ylissean-Plegian war is gonna start over again. I’ve got fifty gold they’ll be at each other’s throat in the month.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Zulas? We’re friends, right?”

“No.”

“Come on.” Robin wheedled. “I saved your life.”

“A lot of people have done that.” Zulas replied. “Doesn’t make ‘em my friends. Usually just nameless soldiers in a formation. I buy them a drink afterwards, of course.”

"I need something stronger than a drink right now." Robin tried again. “Acquaintances?”

“I don’t know your last name, Robin.”

“To be fair, neither do I.” Robin sighed and considered his options. The prison cart that was taking him to Fort Steiger to be judged was cramped and uncomfortable, not to mention smelled funny. He might be able to kick it apart, but he’d be on foot. And there was a mounted convoy escorting him. “So, Zulas, any idea what’s going to happen?”

“Yes.” Zulas replied. Robin suspected that he was starting to regret volunteering as guard. “You’re going to be found guilty of assaulting an officer and suspected of being in league with the rebels.”

“I saved Glass’s life!” Robin exclaimed. “I dragged his sorry corpse out of that burning building, facedown in the mud!”

“You might not want to mention that. They’ll take it as an admission of guilt.” Zulas advised. “Just admit to everything, and beg for mercy.”

Robin moaned. “This is great. I have a week’s worth of memory, and I’m going to be scapegoated. Great army you got here. Almost makes me sympathize with the rebels.”

“You probably don’t want to mention that either.” Zulas shrugged. “Look, I’ll recommend a harsh sentencing of mandatory lifetime conscription. You might get to serve with me, if you’re very lucky.”

Robin shuddered and closed his eyes. “Yay. No offense intended. Pardon me while I use the remaining time I have left dreaming of freedom.”

“No, you don’t get to be like that.” Zulas whacked the bars with his spear. Robin’s eye shot open at the clang. “Listen, kid. I’ve got a few years on you. You made your choice when you decided to interfere with the fight I had.”

“Oh, because I was supposed to let them kill you?”

“It was your call.” Zulas said. “I’m not an innocent bystander. I represent one of two warring factions. You choosing to side with one of them – well, that has permanent consequences, and I expect you to know that. You could've been killed. This isn't so bad, compared to that.”

“Alright, alright.” Robin opened his eyes. “Yeah, I knew this was a possibility. Still, the least I could do for that town.”

“You’re alright, kid. This shouldn’t have happened to you. I’ll see what I can do.” Zulas frowned as the carriage came to a halt. “And, that shouldn’t have happened, either. I wonder why we stopped?”

“If we’re under assault, can I have my sword back to defend myself?”

“If we’re under assault, you’re safer as a prisoner, and you know it. Well, probably.” Zulas looked out the window and grimaced. “Oh. Well, the good news is that we aren’t under assault.”

“Dare I ask the bad news?”

“Yeah. That was the personal standard of Walhart the Conqueror.” Zulas swallowed. “I, ah, heard rumors that he likes taking discipline issues into his own hands.”

“Well, that makes sense.” Robin said. Then the magnitude of the lancer’s words struck him. “Oh. I’m going to get turned into an example, aren’t I?”

“Well…” Zulas said. “You might not.”

“Hey, Zulas. Want to accidentally-on-purpose stab me through the chest? I think that might be less painful.”

“You have an awfully chipper attitude right now.” Zulas said, unlocking the door. “And, no, I ain’t stabbing you. I don’t feel like stoking the Conqueror’s wrath either.”

 -Valm War Camp, Walhart's Division-

“Is this report true?” Walhart asked, thumbing through the hastily written report. It had taken the noble, Glass, fifteen minutes to ‘find’ the incident report that he was using to charge the prisoner. The sloppiness of the report left Walhart little doubt that the man had used the troop’s best scribe to throw together an incident report in those fifteen minutes. The troop’s best scribe was also the best scribe only relative to this troop. And possibly the only one.

“Of course, Your Excellency.” Glass bobbed.

A lie. It was amusing how many people thought to try that with him, especially when they knew they couldn’t get away with it. The report was riddled with inconsistencies. It was obvious that the noble had been embarrassed by needing the foreigner’s rescue, and sought to blame him instead. A mark of weakness, thrice over. First, by lying to the Conqueror. Second, by seeking to foster his own weakness onto another. And third, by having the weakness itself.

“Excellus.” Walhart said.

“Yes, Your Grace?” The toad-like tactician materialized behind Walhart’s chair.

“Talk to this man’s lieutenant. Get his side of the story. See if it conflicts.”

“At once.” Excellus laughed. The viceroy vanished in a circle of magic, chuckling. “Heh heh.”

“Your Excellency!” Glass protested.

“Don’t bother.” Walhart grunted. He stood up, drawing Wolf Berg from the ground beside him. “Move from that position, and I test my aim against you. To be honest, I was looking for an excuse to do something like this for a while, and you happened to come across my camp with just that reason.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Of course, you don’t.” Walhart’s hand gripped the handle of Wolf Berg. He itched to use it against the obvious weakling in front of him. “You rely on others for strength because you have none. A rotten timber holding up the roof. You are the worst kind of leech my army needs. I long for the day when I can discard the nobility like the damp, smothering rag they are, but for now I must suffer them. I see no reason to suffer you.”

“Your Grace.” Excellus had appeared behind him. The mage was gifted with teleportation magics, and seems to prefer it to walking. It wasn’t something Walhart disapproved of, after all, if you had no need to walk, ever, there seemed no reason to waste time developing a useless skill. On the other hand, Walhart was also of the belief that the toad-like tactician’s inability to run would one day be the death of him. Excellus continued. “The lieutenant approaches.”

“Very well.” Walhart turned towards Glass. “You will remain silent if you value your life.”

“Conqueror.” A soldier with blue accents in his uniform knelt before him. “My name is Zulas. What reason have you requested my prescence?”

“Curiosity.” Walhart sunk his axe into the ground and rested his right hand on it. “What happened in the previous day’s events?”

“We fought off some raiders, but not before they managed to light a grain house on fire. Captain Glass, the stalwart and brave commander that he is, managed to rally his troops to protect the rest, but was brought low by a foreigner feigning to be a friend.”

“Good.” Walhart instructed. “Now, repeat yourself, this time without the lies.”

Zulas considered for a second, then nodded. “Well, I’m not going to get a better chance than this, I suppose. What happened, Conqueror? Our captain screwed up a routine mission, again, and when I and the foreigner went and bailed his rear end out of the literal fire, he blamed it all on Robin. It did help that Robin knocked him unconscious, but, in Robin’s defense, Glass ambushed him inside of the flaming warehouse, pardon my tongue but I’m being literal when I say that. Not a lot of good choices there for out ‘stalwart and brave commander’.”

“I see.” Walhart said. “So, the only real charge against this man is striking a commanding officer, and striking a member of nobility.”

“No, sir.” Zulas said. “The commanding officer at the time wasn’t acting like one, because he was assaulting one of his allies. Under military code, he's classified as a combat ally, and assaulting him is a treasonous offense. That means that Robin was permitted to strike a commanding officer, under those circumstances.”

“And what made this Robin one of the commanding officer’s allies?”

“I did, sir.” Zulas said. “I made the decision to include Robin within my squad, acting on my own authority as lieutenant,”

“So, you would accept responsibility.” Walhart said.

“I … guess, sir?” Zulas cocked his head. "I will accept fault for succeeding in the mission.”

“Hmph. You are weak, to require help. But not as weak as your commander though I suspect there is a reason you will never rise above lieutenant. Regardless, I tire of this farce. Captain Glass, please speak.” Walhart instructed. “Tell us if anything your lieutenant said was true.”

Glass gave an angry look to Zulas. His face was beet red. “Yes. My lieutenant is right that this … foreigner, attacked me! I demand justice as a member of the nobility.”

“Hmmm.” Walhart considered the request. Glass was vocal, and it might annoy the nobility if his request was left unfulfilled, if for no other reason than they had to put up with him. On the other hand, Walhart didn’t care for the man at all, and it would bother Walhart to fulfill the man’s request. “Excellus. Fetch me a book of court protocol. And fetch me the foreigner.”

“At once.” Excellus bowed, and vanished. Walhart waited for a few minutes, enjoying the tension of the lesser men around him.

 -Prison Carriage-

“Come with me, foreigner.” The words contained an unmistakable sneer. Robin sighed, looked up, and recoiled. Excellus sighed. “Yes, I know I’m not pretty.”

“I am sorry about that. Usually I'm a bit more tactful, I've just had a bad day.”

"Well, it's only going to get worse."

"Lovely." Robin muttered under his breath. He left the carriage, following the slow gait of the mage. Out in the field, stood a man in dynamic crimson armor, standing a full seven feet tall, at the very least. The captain knelt on one side of him, and Zulas knelt on another. Walhart raised a massive, red, axe and pointed it at the tactician.

“You. State your name, and place of origin.”

“Robin.” Robin said. “Robin, of lands far away. I recently suffered from amnesia, and I do not recall anything else, I am sorry.”

The toad-like mage whispered something in Walhart’s ear, but the Conqueror ignored him. “Tell me. If you were commanding a large cavalry force, pursuing an enemy, and you reached a river, what would you do?”

“Stop.” Robin’s mind went into high gear. “Water and cavalry don’t mix. Everyone knows that. That being said, the defenders probably have an ambush set into motion, so I’d split my forces, keep half as a front, and send one half upriver to find a good crossing point and see what I can do to flank them.”

“Why upriver?”

“Because an ambush would have to be set up downriver to be effective.” Robin explained. “It’s hard to avoid traces when you cross water, like arrows drifting down the stream, or the like.”

“Interesting.” Walhart betrayed no emotion. “Your forces are outnumbered, three to one, and you are engaging an opponent on open plain. What do you do?”

“Retreat.” Robin said. “I don’t like dead men. Barring that, you could try splitting your army into three groups, and flank your opponent from all directions. What you do is you collapse your front, and then encircle. It’s, um, hard to describe without the diagram.”

“Can you play chess?”

“I think so, but I’m not good at it.” Robin replied. “Not enough unpredictable strategies.”

“I see.” Walhart said. “Excellus will be disappointed. He could use a good opponent for his games. Next question. Zulas decided to burn down the houses containing enemy troops, while blockading the front of them. How would you have done things differently?”

He knows about that? Robin’s mouth went dry. “Um. Lighting the house on fire is bad, because you risk spreading fire to the rest of the town during a fight. That’s only good if you’re on offense, but we were trying to protect the town. What we should’ve done is barricade the entrances, then slowly knockout the support frames using wind magic.”

“Very well.” Walhart nodded. “It seems that you have some knowledge of tactics. You won’t be completely useless for my purposes. Final question. What does strength mean?”

I totally do not get what is going on right now. Robin swallowed. Should I say what I think he wants to hear? No, he’ll be able to tell, I’m not such a good liar. Robin looked up. “Strength is, strength the collective sum of everyone’s power working together.”

“I see.” Robin thought he caught a note of disappointment in Walhart’s response. “A good answer, for a tactician. Regardless, we now have the matter or your trial to get to. Captain Glass, what grievances do you have?”

“I was assaulted by that man!” Captain Glass shouted. “He admitted to it, and I have eyewitnesses!”

“I see.” Walhart’s eyes narrowed. “Excellus, my book? Thank you. According to your rules of nobility, Glass, the very punishment for striking you is death. Do you seek this as punishment?”

“I do.” Glass gave Robin a vicious grin.

“Very well.” Walhart snapped the book shut. The snap caused Robin to jump. “In that case, I will also point this out to you. If Robin was nobility and you were not, you are liable in the same vein, correct? For, after all, you were engaged in even combat.”

“Correct…” Glass frowned. “But he isn’t nobility! He’s a foreigner! Any title he holds is worthless here, even if he did have a title, and I do have one!”

“Ah, but my titles are not worthless here.” Walhart said. “I have amassed a small collection of them, and I distribute them as I please. Robin, you have interested me.”

“Conqueror?” Robin asked. “What do you mean by that?”

“Bold enough to ask me questions?” Walhart said. “I scarce know it myself, but there is something about you which has me curious. Perhaps it is merely my imagination, but you should serve to amuse me if nothing else.”

“What do you mean by that, Conqueror?” Robin asked, swallowing

“That is a riddle for you to solve.” Walhart said. “Every man has his own path to power and I would watch you attempt to seek out yours. Robin, I grant you a title of nobility. From now on, you are a … hmm. A lord seems improper. You do not have the air of a lord. From now, henceforth to all eternity and from the dawn of time, you are a Count of Valm, to be known as Robin Obsidian.”

“You named me after a rock?” Robin blinked.

“Change it, if you are so inclined. My patience for ceremony is thin.” Walhart said. “Captain Glass, I believe you have admitted to striking a Count of Valm. The punishment is death.”

“I’m nobility!” Glass protested.

“I strip you of your titles.” Walhart stated. “Now, you are not.”

“Wait a-” Robin started.

A red axe flew through the air, smashing through Glass. The captain was destroyed, his chest missing and a shocked expression on his face. Walhart raised his hand, and the axe flew back. Magic axe, apparently. Walhart chuckled. “I believe the expression is ‘what goes around comes around’. Or, as I would say, reap what you sow, maggot.”

“Count Robin, as nobility, I expect you to help with this war effort.” Walhart said. “I, of course, would not wish to saddle you with the burden of taking over an old, experienced unit, like of the late Captain Glass, so you shall have a command. Excellus! See to it that he gets a new unit. Make them mostly green.”

“Yes, sir.” Excellus bowed, and vanished, clearly happy with the situation.

“But … why?” Robin asked, very confused about this whole ordeal. “Was this just to get rid of Glass?”

“That was the main objective, yes.” Walhart said. “As I said, there is also the matter that you interest me. I can afford to lose a few cogs in my war machine for curiosity’s sake, and regardless, you are not as incompetent as your former captain. I would see were you go, tactician.”

“In that case, I request a transfer of Lieutenant Zulas to my command.” Robin said. “I could use his expertise, and I fear he is being underutilized.”

“Request approved.” Walhart said. “Now, be on your way. I have an army to crush.”

 -Robin's New Estate-

“Holy-!”

“You know.” Robin sighed resignedly. “That loses the effect every time you say it. Yes. I now have a mansion. Plus, a barracks. Plus, stables. Plus, several servants. Plus, an army of money.”

“Look at these weapons!”

“And now, I have an armory full of rare weapons.” Robin looked over the walls. His unit had been given leave so he could ‘reorganize’, which meant training the army of new hires how to fight properly. Robin was taking inventory of all his stuff. Apparently, Walhart had killed several dozen nobles on his conquest of Valm (and, as far as Robin was concerned, who could blame him?). So, Excellus had given him the stuff, with a look of loathing. Not that Robin blamed the man.

“I just went from zero to nobility.” Robin sighed. “Zulas stop gawking, and take inventory.”

“You have scribes for that, now.” Zulas said. “So, we’re friends, aren’t we? Friend? Right, friend? And you’ll let me have a crack at this, being that we’re friends and all?”

“Sure.” Robin sighed, massaging his temples. “I just want to sleep. Any good weapons?”

“Ooh, a Levin sword.” Zulas said, taking it down from the wall. “Pity I can’t use it.”

“I meant for me.” Robin clarified. “Why would I want a Levin sword when I have magic? What’s the highest-level thunder tome we have?”

“Superior Jolt, from the looks of it.” Zulas said. “it’s, ah, oh. It’s an anti-magic tome. Cool. Didn’t know they made those because they're totally useless for me.”

“I can’t wield that.” Robin sighed, and plucked an Elthunder. “This will suffice for now, I guess. Zulas, where are the normal swords?”

“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that.” Zulas said. “You want to learn how to use a spear?”

“Do I want to learn how to use a spear?” Robin asked. “Why? My magic has the same range that spears do. Swords will work just fine for me, thank you very much.”

“Maybe across the ocean…” Zulas said. “Most mercenaries and raiders on these sides of the water use swords or lances, Robin. Magic is fine against javelins and thrown axe, but you might want to be able to dominate swords, and not have to run like a coward from every other soldier. Also, you’ve got no good anti-cavalry options.”

“You do have a point.” Robin considered, and noted the shiny halberd propped up. “You don’t want the that? Well, actually, I think I have enough for the both of us. Fine. Let’s train.”

Let’s train?”

“You’re training me.” Robin clarified. “I’m now your Captain. I get to order you around. And you still owe me a drink for saving your life.”

  -Report to REDACTED from REDACTED, XX/X/XX-

Report: Do you believe in zombies? I’m not sure why I asked that, because I don’t know what a zombie is. But there are reports of these weird, undead creatures that are showing up all over Archaneia continent. Yeah… Weird crud is going down there. Let’s blame Plegia.

Chapter Text

“Fall in!” Robin barked. He paced across the head of his small platoon. “Now, I know you’ve heard some rumors about me. I'm really not sure why that is. I've been a captain for maybe a week. Not enough time for any decent or juicy ones. Point is, none of them are true. Yet. The Conqueror decided to entrust me with you lot, and I can see why. You’re the kind of soldiers none of his other commanders or even captains wanted. That’s fine with me because you’re the kind of soldiers I want. Lieutenant Zulas, explain!”

“Yes, sir.” Zulas stepped forward and saluted. “Captain Robin means to say that you all don’t have bad habits to break out of. We’ll be doing basic combat drills today. But, instead of the one-on-one drills you’ve been used to, I want you all to pair up and be prepared to fight two-on-two! The pairs don’t matter for now. Left row, second left row. Look at the guy next to you. That’s a pair. Third and fourth, same rule. I hope the rest of you can figure it out. Now, pair up!”

Robin watched as his ragtag army followed his directions. Of course, they were doing it wrong. Not pairing up wrong, but their formation was horrible. Robin shook his head. “Soldiers! Eyes up front. Zulas, assumed a pair-up with me.”

“Yes, sir.” Zulas stepped forward, shunting his spear so he was poised ready to strike it. Robin withdrew his Elthunder tome, summoned electricity, and stood behind Zulas, ready to use it.

“Good!” Robin said. “Do you see how this works? We aren’t on top of one another, but we support each other in the same combat zone. Reasonable space, maximum flexibility. Any questions?” No one raised their hand. Robin mentally sighed. “I said, ANY QUESTIONS?”

“Yes, sir.” One of the men raised his hand. “Is this really so effective?”

“I’m glad you asked.” Robin gestured. “You! Form up and attack us. Both of you! No questions, just do it!”

The first pair attacked them. It was kind of laughable. They both charged for Zulas simultaneously, so Robin shocked one of them when they charged, and shocked the other after Zulas parried him.

“Good try!” Robin barked. “What did they do wrong? Anyone?”

“Sir!” Another man raised his hand. “They weren’t working together, and both went for the same person, leaving you able to blindside them.”

“Excellent!” Robin said. “Correct their mistakes. Come on. You and your teammate attack us. Go!”

The second pair attacked, after exchanging a few words beforehand. One went for Robin, the other went for Zulas. Robin smirked. “Switch.”

Zulas reversed the spear, and hurled it at Robin’s man, knocking him down. Robin fired a bolt of electricity at Zulas’s man, stopping him in his tracks until he keeled over.

“Good!” Robin said. “But not good enough. What was their mistake, anybody?”

“Sir!” A voice called from the back. “They didn’t keep an eye on both of you!”

“Well, that’s part of it.” Robin said. “You try! You and your friend. This time, keep an eye on both of us. Go!”

The third pair tried, but it ended no different for them. Zulas feinted the throw at one of them, and Robin nailed the man when he dodged it. The other managed to get a hit on Zulas, but quickly lost from the two-on-one.

“Almost!” Robin said. “Keeping an eye on both of us is essential. Has anyone figured out the larger issue that every team has been plagued by?”

“Sir!” A man shouted out. His teammate tried to silence him, but Robin waved him off. “They’re attacking you both! They should only be attacking one of you?”

“That’s what the first pair did.” Robin pointed out.

“Sir! The first pair weren’t working together and weren’t keeping an eye on both of you. If we teamed up on one of you, while keeping the other at bay, we might have a chance.”

“Congratulations, you’re now a sergeant.” Robin said. “Good for you. Well, come on up and try it!”

A brief exchanged later, the two of them were on the floor, groaning. They had a good idea for a strategy, but Robin and Zulas were just better fighters. They'd get better at teamwork with work. So would Zulas and Robin.

“Excellent.” Robin said. “You men now have the basics. Good for you. Keep an eye out for all opponents, communicate, and coordinate. I want the rest of you all lined up against Zulas and myself. After we beat all of you, we’ll break down into drills pairing you against each other. The ones who aren’t fighting, watch us and learn. Next group, go!”

A glint appeared in Robin’s eye. “Let the training begin!” Cue training montage!

--

“This exercise is meant to help you with battlefield approach. The first half of the archers over the line gets the other half's drink rations. You are also to stay out of the front lines! Doesn't matter how tempting!” Robin yelled. “If you can’t remember this, I’ve set up some helpful ways to remind you all.”

“AAAAAGH!”

“Remember, if you run up for targets before your infantry escorts have cleared you, you’ll wind up like that one.” Robin spared a glance and winced. “Someone get him a healer before the rest of you slip on that blood.”

--

“Cavalry, you have one job.” Robin snapped his finger, to create a crackling bolt of lightning. “It’s to get from point A to point B. We can focus on the whole stabby-stabby thing next session. Next bolt, I want you to run across the field to where I’ve planted the blue flag, then back. You have sixty seconds”

Robin snapped his fingers.

Th cavalry charged across the plain, hooves thudding into the ground. They reached the far end, wheeled their gorses around, and made it back. Most of them within the time limit. Robin gave them a second to look proud of themselves.

“Again!” Robin snapped his fingers.

--

“Ow.” Robin took a shot to his face. “Ow.” Robin got his knees cracked. “OW!” Robin felt the wind being driven out of his lungs, and he dropped to the floor on his knees.

“Get up.” Zulas growled. “I see you give no quarter on the training field. Why would I give any to you?”

“Ten … seconds …”

“You’ve got five.” Zulas said. “Remember, you don’t use a sword! Use your range, and keep your weight better distributed! Time’s up!”

--

“Mages!” Robin yelled as he walked in front of them. “What’s the best element of anima magic? Well, whatever you’re thinking, it’s wrong. The best element is the one you’re naturally attuned to. Using any other element will give you a bit of trouble. Eventually, I will have you drill yourself will other elements to lessen that gap, but for now, we are working on what you’re good at. Understand?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

“Good. I’m sure some of you were thinking your own element when I asked you what the best is. In that case, good job. Now, some elements have advantages over others. Thunder, for instance, is the strongest. Wind is effective against flyer. Now, what advantage does fire have over the other two?” Robin whisked his finger. “No, no, no, someone who can wield fire. Yes, you in the back?”

“It’s more accurate than-”

“No, it’s not more accurate than Wind.” Robin corrected. “Let’s try again. You, front left.”

“None, sir!” The mage said. “It’s just average.”

“Good. You’re now promoted to sergeant. Recognizing your own weakness is crucial.” Robin tapped his foot. “The rest of you, line up and attack me. If I feel it, you’re promoted.”

Robin then drank a pure water in front of all of his mages. He grinned evilly. “Good luck!”

--

“Faster, knights!” Robin yelled as he jogged alongside them. “My grandmother could crawl faster than you’re running. If I pair you up with a myrmidon, how are you going to keep pace?”

“But, sir, we’re exposed if we move fast.” One of the knights complained.

“Two things.” Robin jogged alongside the offender. “One. If the myrmidon is setting pace, that means he’s in front. Two. You’re still more well armored than the rest of us. Three. I will electrocute you if you fall behind again.”

“You only said two-”

Robin snapped his fingers.

--

Robin blocked, blocked again, then ducked. He spun his spear and jammed the butt of it into Zulas, sending the soldier back. Zulas stumbled, regained his footing and looked up. Robin leapt across the room, bringing the spearhead down until it was an inch from Zulas.

“I win.” Robin panted. “First time.”

--

“All right, I have one more open slot for sergeant.” Robin announced. “Now, some of you may be thinking that I have only one lieutenant, so maybe I should look for one of those instead. Those of you who are, well, good job. You have basic observational skills. Those of you who aren’t, well, good luck making it to sergeant.

Robin’s entire force stood lined up, infantry in front of him, ranged fighters in the rear, and cavalry in the back. Robin looked upon him men and smiled. “Now, sergeant. I was considering having the lot of you fight each other in some gruesome free-for-all with last one standing getting it. I understand that’s all the rage these days but! I had a better idea.”

“Sir!” One of the spearmen piped up. “What is it, sir?”

“Good question.” Robin said. “We’re still going to do the whole free-for-all thing, but it’s going to be the first one who gets knocked out who becomes sergeant. And attacking yourself is grounds for instant disqualification, discarding your weapons is grounds for instant disqualification, and lethal attacks are also grounds for instant disqualification. Begin!”

--

“They’re ready.” Robin said, observing his troops. They had spent the last few months running through every unorthodox drill he could think of, and he was satisfied. The last drill had gone for all of thirty seconds, before one of his mages finally got fed up with the inaction and started hurling lightning bolts at random. This quickly led to a group of able bodied men beating one of the more sensible mercenaries to a pulp so he could be sergeant before the lightning chose someone at random. “Pity I couldn’t find any like you, though.”

“Captain?” Zulas asked.

“Oh, they’re good, make no mistake, but they’re all rank-and-file.” Robin frowned. “A small team of elites was occasionally more effective than entire armies. I could use some more lieutenants like you.”

“’Was’, commander?” Zulas asked. “I thought you said you lost your memories.”

“Ah.” Robin started. “No, you’re right, I did say ‘was’. Curious. Maybe I was a member of an elite squadron at one point. It would certainly explain how I know all my tactics, wouldn’t it? Anything come for me, this morning?”

“Just this.” Zulas held a thick envelope.

Robin opened the envelope slowly, reading it line by line.

Zulas tapped his foot impatiently the entire time. “Anything interesting?”

“Oh, I should say so.” Robin turned to his troops. “Fall in, men! We’re marching towards war.”

“Finally. I’ve been out of combat for a while.” Zulas said. “What are we doing?”

“There’s a Chon’sin fortress which has been holding out for a while.” Robin said. “Yen’fay was ordered to take it, and he’s requested reinforcements. We’ve been chosen.”

-Chon'sin City, under siege by Valm

Robin watched as the Valm siege weapons hurled another few tons of stone and rubble into the city. By his estimation, the walls had fallen silent half an hour ago, and now they were just trying to cause chaos before the Valmese army rushed them. He watched in silence, occasionally taking sips from his canteen.

“Nervous?” Zulas asked.

“Maybe.” Robin frowned. “I feel … odd. You ever wonder if we’re doing the right thing?”

“Nope.” Zulas said. “I swore an oath to the Conqueror. Not my place to question these kinds of things.”

Robin shot him a look that said ‘Really?’.

“It’s a bloodline curse.” Zulas answered , as if that explained everything.  “Besides, you didn’t have any problem with training, and you certainly had no problem cutting your way through that army of bandits, earlier.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. But it’s a lot easier to slap on the label of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ when you’re fighting to protect civilians.” Robin gestured. “We’re on the offensive, right now. And we aren’t even fighting to reclaim our land, we’re fighting to subjugate.”

“Well, strictly speaking, we aren’t fighting to subjugate.” Zulas said.

“Oh, no?”

“No.” Zulas shook his head. “We defeated Chon’sin the better part of two years ago, but they won’t give up. I was there when it happened.”

“You’re referring to the Battle of the Cherry Plains.” Robin said. “I read the reports…”

“I was there, captain.” Zulas slammed his spear on the ground. “We beat them. They fielded Yen’fay against us, who met the Conqueror head-on – and lost. Honor? Hah! Instead of submitting, all they did was turn tail and run. Then they ‘surrendered’, behind the safety of their fortresses. And now, the Chon’sin dynasts seek to thwart us at every opportunity. They’re scared to fight us openly, so all they do is sabotage from the shadows.”

“Is that so?” Robin slowly asked. “I did read that most of the Chon’sin were present at that battle.”

“The dynasts that rule Chon’sin are warlords, each with their own specific estate and army.” Zulas explained. “They squabble and fight amongst themselves constantly, and that’s when they aren’t raiding other kingdoms. Walhart wanted to wait to fight them until after we took Rosanne, but they wouldn’t stop nipping at us, so he decided to meet them in battle head-on.”

“I see.” Robin said slowly. “And they were doing this, ‘nipping’, before Walhart was around.”

“Yes.” Zulas said. “But that’s in the past. Anyway, Yen’fay managed to rally most of the dynasts around him, and they met the main Valm host just outside their beloved cherry orchards. Walhart chose to meet them head-on.”

“Because you can’t expect good teamwork from a group of armies which hate each other, can you?” Robin asked. “I see. The rest is history. So, you know how these goons fit into the picture?”

“Nope.” Zulas shook his head. “And I don’t-”

“I do.” Robin said. “Apparently, they’re a branch of one of the dynasts. They were silently attacking patrols, until Excellus got wind of it and set up an ambush. We chased ‘em here, and they barricaded themselves in the city. They sent runners for reinforcements, but no one seem to be coming.”

“Their commander left them here to die, then.” Zulas said. “A sacrifice for his sins against Valm.”

“Yeah. And they refused surrender.” Robin said. He gripped his spear, white knuckled. “I don’t know if I’ll ever support invasion. But these people? Don’t fight wars unless you’re ready to lose. If what you’ve told me is true, regardless of past actions, what these Chon’sin currently are doing is wrong. And if they refused surrender, they’ll get what’s coming to them. Don't take the lives of others unless you're ready to ante up your own.”

"Does that apply to you?" Zulas asked.

"I don't intend to die." Robin said. "But that choice isn't left to me, is it?"

"'I don't intend to die' is what every dead man I've met has said so far." Zulas said. "Actually, most of 'em, I've known a few death seekers. But I can tell you aren't scared of it. That's good."

A loud horn blew, echoing over the battlefield. A cry went up from the massive red army surrounding the city, as they began running towards it. Robin stood up and started gesturing orders to his platoon. “Ladders in front, prepare to climb. Knights double-time to the front. Healers and mages stay back for the second wave. First one over the walls gets a free drink on my tab. Go!”

 -Beachhead-

“Secure this sector.” Robin gestured. “Fourth squad, fifth squad, form pair-ups and be ready if they push back against us. Healers, I want to set up safehouses on any sturdy structure next to the walls. Treat our injured, get ‘em back to fighting shape.”

“That went well.” Zulas commented.

“You mean a textbook assault against a destroyed and demoralized target went well?” Robin said. He raised his voice. “First and third, I want you to head to the east. Meet up with Yen’fay’s main host if you can, and see what you can do about linking us together. If you can’t harry any enemy forces you meet. Second squad, secure the wall above us.”

“You seemed paranoid.” Zulas said.

“I don’t have time for you right now.” Robin scanned the area they had taken. They were assigned one of six different breach points into the city, but no one seemed to be using their entry. There wasn’t enough manpower to send armies through all six, so only three were used. For security reasons, Robin wasn’t informed whether or not his breach would be used. In the event it wasn’t, Robin’s orders were to secure his beachhead. “We have a problem.”

“What’s that you say?” Zulas asked. “You mean to say that we’re about to be attacked because the rest of the Valmese army is driving splinters of Chon’sin forces throughout the city? I never would have guessed.”

“Hammer and anvil is the classic technique.” Robin agreed as he kept his gaze. “The problem isn’t the fact that we’ll be attacked, it’s that I don’t see where they’re coming from, and that’s starting to unnerve me – there! Ten o’ clock. All remaining troops, form on Zulas and me! Artillery units, ready your aim.”

Dozens of Chon’sin myrmidons were rushing haphazardly through the streets at Robin’s entrenched position. Robin reached into his coat, pulled out his tome, and gestured. “Open fire!”

Lightning, wind, fire, and arrow sang through the air. The initial barrage wasn’t as effective as Robin hoped, due to the spread-out nature of their opponents. Robin set his lance on the ground, holding it steady. “Lancers to the front! Prioritize defense, not offense. We’re just here to keep ‘em from running.”

Then the myrmidons were upon them.  Robin thrust his lance forward, engaging the first opponent at long range. The myrmidon was force to block, setting his feet. Robin came forward, and performed a combination of moves Zulas had shown him. Wielding the lance like a quarterstaff, Robin hooked a low sweep, the iron-banded bottom clanging against the myrmidon’s sword. With the sword blocking the lance’s butt, the tip was free, so Robin used it to slice diagonally across the man’s chest, and finished with a stab.

The myrmidon fell. Robin leapt back, and Zulas swapped, engaging a second that was running up to fight. Ignoring that one, Robin noticed a third myrmidon was coming at Zulas. Robin planted his lance, and drew a spellbook from within his coat. The pages flipped themselves to the right one. Robin gestured at the man, igniting spell energy within the book and focusing it to his hand. “Elthunder!

A bolt of lightning struck the man. Robin repeated the spell a second time, and he dropped, a smoldering corpse. “Robin!” Zulas cried, fending off his own attacker. Robin looked at Zulas, picked up his lance, and lunged forward. Zulas’s second opponent had just enough time to look up before Robin buried his lance through his chest. Robin grinned, kicking the man off it.

“Three to your one, Zulas.” Robin said. There was a lull in the battle. Around three dozen or dying myrmidons littered the front of the street. The fourth and fifth squadron each had around ten frontline fighters, and that again for range. In contrast to the thirty-something enemy casualties, Robin had loss four men, three of them who were being treated. The second had sent in men to replace. Robin wished he could chalk it up to his leadership, but the truth was that the Chon’sin had charged a wall of soldiers in loose waves.

“Day is still young, Captain.” Zulas reminded him. He hefted his own lance, pointing it at the remaining Chon’sin soldiers, clustered by the end. There were less than twenty. Robin guessed they were waiting for reinforcements “Can we get them?”

“No.” Robin read the situation. “We don’t have the manpower to extend and – oh no.”

A large newcomer had joined their ranks, with sword-wielding mercenaries following him. Clad in impressive scale armor and wielding a giant silvery axe, with a sword strapped to one leg, and a short throwing axe on the other. An armored headband covered most of the man’s face, but it was clear he was looking at Robin. Robin gulped.

“A hero. Y’know, if that was a Chon’sin swordmaster, I think I might have a chance.” Zulas said. “So, you want to take him, boss? I would hate to take the glory from you.”

“No.” Robin said. “Ranks, form! Archers, mages, at the ready!” Robin stepped forward, conjuring a lightning ball in his hand. “Get ready…”

The hero was no fool, unfortunately. He gestured with his axe, and the Chon’sin myrmidons alongside the mercenary counterparts ran down the street, headlong. Robin swallowed. He reared back to cast the first lightning strike.

“Never fear!” A small mage in a red robe dropped in front of them. “I am Vermillion Rojo Rubrum, Fire Mage Extraordinaire!”

Great. Robin said. It’s a pint-sized meat shield. Then he noticed the large fireball forming above the red mage and blinked. Correction. It’s a pint-size conflagration.

“Feel the fires of scorching Hell!” The mage shouted, thrusting his hand forward. “I cast from my abilities the final flames from the dawn of man. Dying Blaze!”

The fireball erupted in front of the mage, causing a tornado of fire in front of him, tearing through the streets, never mind the ranks of enemy soldiers. The howls were briefly cut off as they were turned to ash. Robin stared in amazement. “No way…”

Then, quickly as it came, the fire faded, leaving a decent part of the enemy’s forces still intact. Including the hero. Who was grinning.

“Ready!” Robin cast his hand forward. Bolt and arrow went at them, forcing the enemy to take cover. During the time, Robin ran forward, grabbing the mage (noting he was comatose) and dragging him back. “Hey. You awake?”

“Oh, good.” The mage looked at him. “I thought I wouldn’t make it.”

“You were sent to help us? By whom?”

“Him.” The mage pointed. Robin looked into the street and saw another figure standing there. This one in black armor, and twin blades by his side. “General Yen’fay.”

“Wha….” Robin’s mouth went dry. He saw Yen’fay approach the army. Then attack. There were twenty-odd myrmidons and mercenaries, plus the hero who had switched to his sword.

It wasn’t even close. All in all, Yen’fay’s blades were blocked three times. The first was when a mercenary had gotten lucky. The second was when two myrmidons teamed up. The third was the hero. Within thirty seconds, Yen’fay was the only one standing. He surveyed the battlefield, and turned to walk away. Behind him, the hero got up, blood running down his face, an empty blue glass bottle between his lips. He drained the elixir, and drew his axe, slowly stalking Yen’fay. Robin raised his hand forward to warn him.

He needn’t have bothered. The hero came up behind the ebony Chon’sin swordmaster, slicing his axe down. In a flash of motion, Yen’fay disappeared. The hero looked confused for a second, then fell with a spray of blood erupting from his chest, revealing Yen’fay sheathing his sword behind him.

Robin’s jaw dropped. “No way.”

“Yup.” Zulas punched his shoulder lightly. “That’s Yen’fay for you. Remember, he survived the Conqueror.”

“Fourth squad fall back.” Robin gestured, snapping back into focus. “Fifth squad, on me.” Robin jogged forward, catching up to the Yen’fay, who was standing there.

“At ease, Robin.” The Chon’sin swordmaster voice was calm. “Well met. You have done well.”

“Thank you.” Robin knelt on one knee. “I would reinforce you, if you would have it.”

“Fie.” Yen’fay shook his head. “There is no need for that. You have done well enough for today, not to be overrun.”

“Nonetheless.” Robin said.  A good relationship with Yen’fay would be invaluable if I want to avoid these kinds of suicide assignments in the future. Besides, he did just save my life. “You leave me in your debt, and I would repay it.”

“If that is your desire, I have a simpler solution.” Yen’fay said. “The fire mage you rescued was one of mine, so that makes us even. If you desire to help me still, please train him. I do not have the time to do so.”

"Are you sure I can't do more?" Robin frowned.

"That is sufficient for now." Yen'fay said. "Though be warned. The tale of your origin, and Walhart's interest has spread. Perhaps it would be prudent to guard your back."

“If that is your wish. Thank you.” Robin stood up. “It was pleasure to meet with you.”

“I would say the same.” Yen’fay bowed, then walked back into the city.

“Well, that was helpful.” Robin turned back. “Kid! Red mage! Fire mage! Whatever your long name was!”

“My name is Vermillion Rojo Rubrum.” The kid stood up, brushing ash and soot off his cloak. “Yen’fay assigned me to help you.”

“Well, congratulations.” Robin said. “We’re shortening that to just Vermil. And you’re now of my lieutenants.”

Chapter Text

-Robin's Tent-

“Count Robin Obsidian.”

“Gah!” Robin jumped and spun around. “Who in the devil’s name – oh. Hello, Excellus. Here for the report?”

“Indeed.” The Valm viceroy nodded. “Yen’fay told me that you were put in charge of writing the battle summary. Do you have it ready?”

“Yes, it’s behind you.” Robin gestured to box of loose papers and scrapbooks, then turned back to his desk, focusing on reading a manuscript. “I put it there for safekeeping. The notebook with blue on it should be the one you want. I would get it and hand it to you, but you’re in the way. Something that wouldn’t happen if you came into my tent normally.

“Heh heh.” Excellus chuckled. “Poor Robin. Do you want to know the secret to my teleportation?”

“Not particularly, nor why you think that you were only given your legs to stand on. It’s not like you can tower over other people, so they clearly have another purpose. No, I’m more concerned with what happened over the course of the battle.” Robin said. “See, it looks like a lot of papers were misplaced during this mission. I was supposed to be guarding the section to the right from Yen’fay’s main group, whereas the more experienced units were going to be in our place on the left and serve as the anvil instead.”

“Ah, I see.” Excellus said. “Well, you know, miscommunication happens…”

“Yes, of course. We’re quite lucky Yen’fay showed up when he did.” Robin said. “Also, it seems like one of your clerks was going to be responsible for this report, but the paperwork was burnt in a freak fire, so I got reassigned instead.”

“Nrrgh.” Excellus exhaled. “That’s why.

“What was that? I mean, I’m quite aggravated about it as well. Lot of extra work for me now that it happen.” Robin asked, writing smoothly on his desk. “You’re going to have to speak up if you want me to understand you, though. Did you find the notebook yet?”

“I coughed.” Excellus said. “Well, it seems you were lucky, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, quite.” Robin didn’t bother turning around. “We might even get a commendation for my ‘superior tactical sense’.”

“And does that translate into throwing a confidential notebook into a pile of junk?”

“Of course. The best place to hide a tree is in a forest.” Robin said. “Besides, after-action reports aren’t that big a deal, for the most part, though I did take the precaution of having one of my scribes makes additional copies. They’re en route to Walhart ‘s troop as we speak, so don’t worry about losing that copy. See if you can get it to him before they do.”

Behind Robin’s back, Excellus’s eyes narrowed. Robin didn’t notice, but he did see the viceroy’s hand inch inside of his robes with the mirror he’d set up on his desk. Robin spun around, casually spinning a knife in his fingers. “Hey, Excellus. How do you use that teleportation of yours? I’m curious after all.”

“Like this!” Excellus hissed and vanished.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Two-bit villain can’t resist a good exit line.” Robin’s eyes narrowed. “Zulas, you can come out now.”

“Risky.”

“Well, I had to meet with him anyway.” Robin said. “It was better to be alone so that he thinks he has the advantage.”

“He might’ve fireballed you, you know.” Zulas emerged from a thick roll of canvas set against one of the tent’s corners. He was holding a pair of short blades.

“I have pure water. I would’ve been fine.” Robin waved his hand.

“Putting the fire out after he burns your face isn’t that impressive.” Zulas said. “You want a nice, thin scar across the side of your face. That's what gets the girls.”

“No, pure water.” Robin frowned. Coincidentally, Zulas also had the thin scar he was mentioning. Not that Robin intended to get scarred. Tacticians didn’t belong to the front lines. “I – you’re doing this deliberately, aren’t you?”

Zulas hid the grin and changed the subject. “You confirmed your suspicions. He tried to get us killed?”

“No.” Robin rolled his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’d never do something like that. He was trying to embarrass me by having my squad fail at my first assignment. If I was dead, how could he do that? See, I need to be alive to be embarrassed. The rest of you, on the other hand…”

“So, he was just trying to kill me.” Zulas said. “I see.”

“You catch on fast.” Robin said. “Yes, but I wouldn’t get a swelled head over it. I don’t think it was anything personal. I’ve read a few of his more notable ‘victories’.”

“You say that like they ain’t a thing.”

“Well, sure they happened.” Robin’s eyes narrowed. “But from the reports, it was Walhart’s presence that did it. There are at least two separate instances of front lines collapsing from just Walhart's own personal charge. Exaggeration, surely, but not by that much if the ranks broke. From what I can tell, Excellus isn’t that competent of a tactician. He just got his job through seniority and people making mistakes.”

“Like, for instance, you ‘misreading the orders for this battle’.” Zulas said. “I take it that was the mistake.”

“Yes.” Robin pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “If I have that clown in authority, it’s going to be hard bringing everyone home alive. Zulas, we’ll need to get rid of him.”

“Aye, sir.” Zulas said. “We’re a pair of soldiers, recently promoted, but we’ll take on one of the top-ranked officials in the Conqueror’s army, no problem.”

“That’s what I like about you, Zulas.” Robin said. “Always the optimist.”

“I am being serious.” Zulas said. “My first loyalty is to the Conqueror, and my second is to you. If that toad-hole is as bad as you say it is, we ought to teach him a lesson. What’s your plan?”

“Recognize this?” Robin held up an annotated manuscript. “It’s the Conqueror’s treatise on power. ‘When two forces collide, it is inevitable that one wins. If they are of different natures, then it is the stronger of the natures that wins. If they are of equal natures-”

“-the stronger within the two natures wins.” Zulas said. “Thus, an enemy whose numbers exceed our own can be defeated because our own warrior nature is superior to theirs. And even the handful that do have a nature of ours must fall too, for I am the Conqueror, and no one shall oppose me.’ Yes, I’m familiar. So, what shall we engage him in.”

“Tactics.” The tactician smiled and tapped his head. “My tactics are better than his, which means that I can’t lose, so long as I use them. Like I told him early, he’s caused me a lot of extra work.”

 -Forest, en route to Robin's Barracks-

“So, Vermil.” Robin started the conversation as the three of them sat in the lead wagon on his convoy. They were heading back to his mansion / barracks combination, and Robin insisted that the two lieutenants sit with him. “Let’s play a game, shall we?”

“A game? I like games.” The fire mage replied. “But what kind of game?”

“This is the kind of game where we get to know each other.” Robin said. “As one of my trusted lieutenants, I need you and Zulas to get along, which means you need to know each other. So, I ask you a question, and you each give me an answer.”

“This doesn’t sound like a game to me.” Zulas protested. “Are you sure you remember what a game is? How about we play something else, like-”

“Zulas, you’re up first.” Robin ignored his protests. “Question: What is power?”

“Fine, I’ll answer that.” The soldier in blue was silent for a moment. “Ah, there’s no point in thinking about it, I know what I’m going to say. It’s undying loyalty to a cause.”

“How’s that?” Vermil asked. “I mean, isn’t that kind of the opposite of power? You work for the cause, after all. And undying loyalty? I mean, that’s basically voluntary enslavement.”

“I guess that’s one way to look at it, sure.” Zulas said. “The other way is my way. Because I’ve sworn in with Walhart’s ideals and dreams, alongside hundreds of thousands of others just like me, our strength is all of ours, collectively. Even if I fall, my dreams will still be realized through the hands of my comrades. My dream continues on through my death. That? That’s real power. And my hold on it is only as strong as my loyalty to the cause. And when it comes to loyalty, few can top mine.”

“I see.” Robin nodded. “So that’s the reason for your loyalty. But what if you swear with a bad cause?”

“What if?” Zulas raised an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t be an if there, but I’ll see if I’m the first in the family to break that bloodline curse. My family apparently has a habit for fighting for the wrong side, you see. And, yeah, that’s a downside, but you’re deluding yourself if you think there’s any cause which is ‘purely righteous’. Well, any cause with power behind it. A cause with one person ain’t a cause so much as a fool’s crusade. The trick is picking well. And I’ve picked fine with Walhart.”

“Fascinating.” Robin said. Though his tone belied it, Zulas’s word had given him cause for thought. “Vermil, your turn. What’s power?”

“Power is weapons and weapons are power. It’s the Pyromancer’s Code.” Vermil said, eyes bright. “Complacency is a lie, there is only change. To enact change, I need fire. To enact fire, I need weapons. To use weapons, I need power. Nothing shall stand unmarred in my way. I walk through the valley of flames, and I burn everything in my path.”

“Is he for real?” Robin asked Zulas.

“I heard some fire mages get pumped up about their magic, but this takes the cake.” Zulas shrugged. “Probably burnt it too. I hear some of ‘em subsist entirely on charcoal.”

“Hey!” Vermil scowled. “You just don’t appreciate the philosophy! We don’t just burn everything to a charred, smoldering crisp, you know!”

“Sure about that? I've seen what happens when you lot go crazy and it generally involves obscene amounts of ash.” Zulas said. “How are ‘weapons’ power, anyway?”

“It’s not weapon themselves.” Vermil sighed. “It’s – look, soldier boy. You stab things with the lance, right? Pointy-pointy. I burn things. Crispy-crispy. If I didn’t have my tome, and you didn’t have your lance, we couldn’t do either, which means our power must be tied to our weapons. Now, if you take the view that the only weapon I have is my tome, it doesn’t make much sense.”

“Ah.” Robin said. “But there is a great deal more than just the tome in your arsenal, is there not?”

“Yup.” Vermil smiled. “I graduated first in my class in the academy. I’m cleared all the way to A-rank tomes. And that’s a weapon just as valid as the actual tome itself! Robin’s knowledge of tactics is a weapon too. Master Yen’fay has battlefield awareness, which he got from fighting for the better part of two decades! Also a weapon. True power,” Vermil’s eyes glinted red, “is all the means and abilities you have access to and at your disposal.”

“But aren’t you nothing without your tome?” Zulas rolled his eyes. "Whereas I could just whack you with my fists."

“Good question!” Vermil said. “That is a point which hasn’t ever been made to me before. And, yes. So what? You’re nothing without your arms, friend. Or your muscles. Face it – every source of power can be stripped, so it matters how strong you are when you have it, not how strong you are when you don’t. But, um, yes I would like to be able to fight with weapons. Too much effort though.”

“Nice, kid. Good line of thought.” Zulas sat back. “You’ve impressed me. Not bad for such a lame name.”

“Take that back!”

“Hah ha.” Robin chuckled. “Vermil, you’ve got to admit the name ‘Vermillion’ is a bit coincidental for a fire mage to have, right?”

“I like it.” The red mage sulked. “Besides, you’re named after a bird.”

“Actually, I can’t remember my name, and this is the first thing that popped into my head.” Robin explained. “So there’s that. It’s fine, I’m just going to call you Vermil from now on. I’m not quite certain I can bear the thought of having a color in our squad.”

“Cough Count Obsidian cough.” Zulas verbally spoke the word ‘cough’.

“Quite, you!” Robin spun around to Zulas. “I will have that changed one I think of something better. And now I can’t do ‘Alabaster’ without looking like a hypocrite about the whole color thing. So thank you for ruining that.”

“Onyx?” Zulas suggested. “Moonstone? Opal? How about just going with Noir?”

“Oh, that is it.” Robin said. “You are going to want to stop now, or there will be consequences.”

“See this, kid?” Zulas winked at Vermil. “In gambling, this is known as ‘calling the bluff’. Raven. Robin Raven. That’s a good last name.”

“Hey, Vermil.” Robin turned to him and jerked a thumb at Zulas. “His last name is Albert. Not joking.” Vermil burst into laughter. Robin turned to Zulas and smirked. “First rule of gambling, Zulas. Don’t raise the stakes unless you’re willing to pay them. I read the registry.”

“Son of a-” Zulas had an angry look on his face. Then it changed it a split-second. “LOOK OUT!”

Robin felt an impact as Zulas dove into him and knocked him off the wagon, thudding into the earth. A volley of arrows soared past his vison, thudding into the wagon. He had a sudden flash of panic for Vermil, then a jet of flame roared back, and a red blur dashed off the wagon.

“You know, there are easier ways of getting back at me for that.” Robin groaned.

“Because I planned a freakin’ ambush to get back at you.” Zulas got up and howled. “Ambush!”

The cry was raised. All the wagon stopped as soldiers leapt off them, forming shield-walls. A quick ring was constructed around the fallen soldiers. Robin got to his feet behind a pair of knights and winced as an arrow ricocheted near him. Robin snapped a lightning bolt back, feeling a sense of satisfaction as a howl indicated success.

“Good job.” Robin made quick hand gestures, diverting his forces. “Cavalry, dismount. Mobile units, move and sweep. Encircle ‘em back. Use trees for cover when possible. Knights stay here to protect the wagons, archers, take out any of the mages threatening them. Mages ONLY, leave the enemy archers to the javelin corp. Uses the longbows if you have to, but ONLY if you have to. Vermil, where are you?”

“Right here.” Vermil popped up behind him. “You want me to toast ‘em?”

“Vermil.” Robin sighed. “We’re in a forest! NO FIRE MAGIC! Jeez, please tell me you don’t need as much babysitting as the archer corp.”

“I’m eighteen, you know.”

“Really?” Robin spared him a quick glance. “You don’t look it.”

“Fine, I was lying. Anyway, if I can’t use my beloved flames.” Vermil swapped the bright red tome in his hand for a green one. “Arcwind it is then!”

“There we go. That’s using your head for something other than inane B-class casting formulas.” Robin said. Which I still haven’t mastered. “Go drop some trees on them.” He looked around again. His forces were doing a split job of safeguarding the wagons and sweeping the forests. Robin was a man of many talents, and one of them was paranoia. He’d predicted this scenario happening, so he gave orders in the event of them getting ambushed. That was on point in his favor.

He hadn’t expected the arrows to almost hit him. If they had, he'd have all the points in him. He’d have to do better next time.

“Zulas, I want you to take a squad and sweep our rear.” Robin said, turning his attention to Zulas, who was busing dropping rebels with javelins. “We might have a few tails, so make sure we’re clean. Take a squad of ten.”

“What about you, captain?”

“Me? Oh, I’ll be fine. I’ve got a plan.” Robin drew his spear, watching Zulas leave. “Vermil, drop the trees on our eleven. See if you can line ‘em up.”

“Ay, commander.” Vermil raised his green book. “Silver sword of the skies, become my blade and banish these banal bark barriers from my path!”

Blades of wind shot forth, slicing through the tree trunks. With a yawning thunder, they dropped, forming a barrier. “I see.” Vermil nodded. “Now that can’t get us.”

“Not exactly.” Robin ran forward, gauging the distance. When he judged the distance to be right, he stabbed his spear into the ground, using it as a pole vault, sending him up. He landed on the top of the wood jumble, grabbing on to stabilize himself. He looked outwards.

Around a dozen ambushers were getting ready to move around the woods. Robin figured he had a few seconds before they noticed him. He drew his Elthunder tome. “Hey! You know what the number one cause of forest fires are? Me neither, but it probably sounds like this!

With a magnificent crack, Robin cast his spell, channeling all his energy into it, sending a gigantic lightning bolt with a thunderous crack into a tree, instantly igniting it. Robin grinned, saluted, and backflipped off. “Vermil!”

“Yeah.”

“How good are you at putting out fires?” Robin asked.

Vermil looked at the blaze Robin had started. “Aw, you did it first…” He glanced back and Robin was gone.

 -Forest-

They would have had a spotter to warn them of our approach. Robin thought. He picked the one area he didn’t see fighting occurring, and ran into it. Probably went this way.

He was rewarded with a fresh set of prints for his trouble. Robin grinned, and redoubled his pace. He suddenly heard voices, so he stopped, hiding behind a tree.

“We didn’t get him, sir.” The voice said. “His lieutenant pushed him out of the way, then a kid barbecued half the archers we had. After that, well, all hell broke loose, and I lost track of him.” Ordinarily, Robin would continue eavesdropping, but he couldn’t resist a line like that, and it made no difference to his plans at any rate.

“You lost track of him.” Robin announced, walking into the clearing. “But did he lose track of you?” There were three of them. One was a thin, smaller one, probably the scout. The second was man in thick armor, with a sword sheathed across his back, an angry look on his face. The third was a quite-looking woman in black armor with bright pink hair. Robin blinked. Pink hair? What?

Then he snapped back into focus and electrocuted the scout in the back. The scout dropped, unconscious. “Sorry, but this isn’t for his ears.” Robin said. “Let’s stick to the two of us.”

“Cherche, leave him to me.” The swordsman drew his blade a charged him. Robin swirled his spear, drawing it with his right hand and stowing the tome with his left. Robin grinned and replied. “Come get some.”

“Hah!” The swordsman sliced down. A heavy sword can do as much damage as an axe of similar size, with even more control. Robin didn’t bother meeting the blade, and jumped backwards. He set his feet. The main advantage a spear has over a sword is reach. Zulas’s training echoed in his mind. If you aren’t using it, ask yourself why.

Robin lunged, thrusting the spear. The mercenary stopped short and snapped his sword up to deflect it. Robin used the momentum to spin the spear above his head and stabbed low, aiming for the man’s foot. He hit it, partially, scoring a deep cut on his opponent’s right thigh.

The swordsman swung his sword down, now that Robin had been overextended. The textbook move would have been to lose the spear to the slice, and capitalize on the wound. But Robin was a spellcaster, and that gave him more options. Robin summoned electricity in his left hand, and blocked it.

“What!?”

“Welcome to Magnetics 101.” Robin grinned, a matrix of electricity lighting up his face as the sword was stopped within it. “By creating a magnetic field and adjusting the orientation of it, I can apply force to your sword, stopping you from impaling me.  I can’t fight up close, like I could with a sword, so this is how I compensate!” Robin released the flow, grabbed his spear, and rolled out of the way so he was back out. The trick could only be used defensively, but it was still a good one. Now to capitalize on his limited movement.

The mercenary tried, but Robin was fast in his own right, and his foot couldn’t bear his weight properly. Robin moved around him like a blue, systematically hitting him with non-lethal cuts until he could knock the sword from his hands. Curiously, Cherche hadn’t moved the entire time.

“There.” Robin panted. “Now we can talk.”

 -Forest-

“Robin probably wants me to use wind.” Vermil said. He threw aside the green book and took up a red one. “But the best way to fight fire is with more fire.” The small red mage clapped once, summoning two giant balls of flames off of each palm. Rebels charged the convoy’s position from either side of the wood barricade, so Vermil chucked them to either side, forcing a retreat.

He focused, taking a step backwards and bringing his hands together, firing a jet of flame into the barricade. It resisted for a few seconds, then ignited. Vermil kicked up the green book and snatched it from the air. He fired a blast, scattering the flames.

By now, the entire section was burning. Vermil smiled. “Every mage, join me. We need to form a vortex around it. Use wind magic!”

 -Forest-

Zulas stabbed one rebel in the throat, swirling the spear around him to deflect another thrust. One of his subordinates leapt forward, striking the man down. Zulas nodded and hurled his spear, impaling another man in the chest. “Not too bad.”

“Die, Valmese dog!”

"Now there's a creative insult." Zulas ducked out of the way as an axe slid over his head. He waved off the helpers. The rebel scowled at him, swiping again, to which Zulas sidestepped. “That’s kind of the problem with axes. You can’t commit to strikes without telegraphing them ahead of them. Not a problem when I have a spear’s long attack katas, but…”

The rebel kept swinging, with Zulas dodging the blows. Zulas waited for the right moment, then stepped forward. The blue lancer stepped forward and cracked his fist against the rebel’s jaw, sending him stumbling. Zulas took the axe handle with two hands and threw it aside. The man opened his mouth to speak, but Zulas kicked it. He gestured with his hand, and one of his men tossed a spear into it.

Zulas survived the battlefield, noting the large amount of corpses from the rebels, and a handful from the Valmese. “Tip of advice,” Zulas said. “Try to have more than the element of surprise on your side the next time.”

A wave of heat washed over him. Zulas impaled the rebel and turned to it. A pillar of fire had risen up above the forest, swirling as it washed into the sky. Zulas had seen the technique before, once when he had seen Valkyrie Pheros take the battlefield. It was an extraordinary complicated technique. Zulas whistled. “So the new one isn’t entirely useless. But if he’s doing that, I wonder where Robin is that he didn’t keep an eye on him.”

 -Forest-

“Talk?”

“Yes.” Robin said, flinching from the heat. Mental note: Define ‘putting out a fire’ for Vermil. “Talk. As in, the thing you do to resolve conflict without burying a length of steel through the other guy’s throat. I had to whip up some tasks to distract my lieutenants so they wouldn’t notice.  We aren’t enemies, so I want to talk.”

“Funny way of showing it.”

“Yes.” Robin rolled his eyes. “Okay, let me spell this out for you, because you seem to be the ‘thick’ type. I needed to prove I could beat you in a fight, so that when I tell you I don’t want to fight, you’d believe me. The only way to prove that was to beat you in a fight. Understand?”

“So, you want to join us?”

“Do I want to join you? No.” Robin sighed. “This conversation is going nowhere. Cherche, right? Please tell me you’re smarter than him.”

“She’s only here to observe.” The swordsman snapped. “I’m in charge!”

“Ah. So you’re probably from Rosanne, then.” Robin said, still addressing Cherche. “I would guess that you’re watching this ragtag group of fools to see whether you want to support them. That explains why you didn’t attack me during the fight. Rosanne just became a vassal state, which means that directly attacking a Valmese officer would result in severe repercussions.”

“That’s right.” The swordsman gasped. “How did you-”

“I didn’t, that was a guess, you just confirmed it.” Robin said. “You moron. Cherche, would you mind being a diplomatic envoy for me? Tell the leader of whatever rag-tag group of scoundrels he works for that I’d like a meeting. And I’ll even forgive their assassination attempt ahead of time. And I won’t tell my own men about you.”

“Hmm.” The woman considered, then nodded. “Why would you help us?”

“The Conqueror is wrong!” The swordsman spat at him. “Our cause is just!”

“No, shush!” Robin said. “Shush! I said, I’d like a meeting. Nothing more. For now.”

"And how would like this meeting, nameless sir?" Cherche asked. "Would you tell us your name?"

"No." Robin shook his head. "Though my identity should be obvious to you. If you must speak of me, I suppose Quartz will do."

 -Barracks-

“So, Captain, where were you?” Zulas asked as Robin was directing a new series of drills.

“Hmm?” Robin said. “When?”

“I don’t think you would have let Vermil get away with his ‘pillar of fire’ if you were there. You weren’t. Where did you run off to?”

“I don’t have to defend myself from you.” Robin said. “But if you must know, I wanted to meet the leader of the group that attacked us.”

“Ah. Had a nice conversation, did you?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking. Or rather, no manner of speaking.” Robin said. “Lance work, mostly. He wasn’t such a good fighter. Though I wouldn’t expect much.”

“I see.” Zulas was silent. “You remember our conversation about loyalty early?”

“It was about power, not loyalty.” Robin’s brow furrowed. “Yes.”

“Good. Just curious.” Zulas said. “So, what are you up to now? These are siege drills.”

“Ah, yes.” Robin tapped the side of his head. “I was meaning to ask you. Would you have any contacts that would loan me a hundred men or so? Preferably without asking questions, so we can get multiple units. I need four of them.”

“That puts our strength at roughly five hundred.”

“Actually, I’m scheduled to get reinforced from the losses I took at the battle.” Robin ticked his fingers. “So I asked them to send me recruits. I’ve got an additional 100 men, as well as 100 more for training purposes. Plus, I’ve sent a requisition form. Might get as many as three hundred men after that.”

“Congratulations.” Zulas said. “You’ve increased your army tenfold. What’s the purpose?”

“Currency, Zulas.” Robin flashed a smile. “And victory is the best that there is. We’re taking the Beskagar Fortress.”

“The impenetrable one? The one that’s cost Walhart ten thousand men?” Zulas asked. “The one with no strategic value whatsoever.”

“Not precisely.” Robin said. “It has no value for the Chon’sin campaign, but it does for Rosanne. The river it guards is essential for shipping goods deep into the continent.” Robin smiled. “I have a feeling control of that fortress is going to be essential.”

-Report to REDACTED from REDACTED, XX/X/XX-

I’ve got those results you wanted from the Feroxi tournament. East Khan won, but iIt’s weird. Very weird. Apparently both sides had the same champion? I heard from a guy who talked to a man there, and the description was ‘like watching mirrors fight. ‘Cept one was wearing a mask’. So, uh, make of that as you will. Does this mean we can recruit the West Khan to help us?

Chapter Text

-Barracks, Magic Training Center-

“All right, Vermil.” Robin faced the red mage in a large, empty room within the training center of the barracks. “I haven’t had a good opponent for spell casting sparring. Normally, I have the mages train here but, ah, I suspected room would be good for you.”

“Gotcha.” Vermil’s red robes flared around him. He reached for a tome from his satchel, then Robin stopped him.

“Ah ah.” Robin said. “Nope. We’re both using our baseline spells for the first round. Thunder for me, fire for you. I’ve had the fire tome enchanted, so it’s of equal strength. Expensive, sure but it’s worth it to compare your baseline abilities to mine.”

“I … see.” Vermil said. “Ummmm…”

“Something wrong?” Robin asked. He withdrew two tomes, one red and one yellow. He handed it to Vermil and began walking away. “Don’t nail me in the back now.”

“Robin…”

“Yeah?” Robin turned around, preparing for his first spell. “We cast in three, got it?”

“I think so,” Vermil sighed. “I just – never mind. You’ll see in a second.”

Robin focused his power through his hands, focusing the power with them. Vermil waved his hand over the tome, enchanting the cover and pulling a fire ball from within it, holding it over his hand. Lightning crackled. Robin chose to use one hand, forming arcs of electricity around it. Vermil mirrored his position, preparing to launch his fireball.

Vermil is, without question, the most powerful mage we have. Robin thought. I haven’t even scratched B-class yet, and he’s tearing up the field with A-class spells. I can’t underestimate his strength. I’ll have to put everything I have into this shot.

Vermil was focused even harder than usual, visibly chanting formulas to conjure his fireball. Wisps of flame licked and swarmed it. Robin swallowed. Jeez. If he’s actually putting effort into this – well it might hurt. Robin had decided to forego taking pure water so he could accurately use the pain to judge Vermil’s power. Also to avoid Zulas finding some way to make a joke off it. Now he was coming to regret that decision. I pray he doesn’t kill me.

“Crimson flames, aid my call.” Vermil said. Flames engulfed the fireball, doubling its size as Vermil’s raw magic overpowered the spell. “Vermillion Rojo Rubrum, channeling his most powerful attack! Fires of hell to my aid. Volcanic maw!”

When in Rosanne, do as the Rosannes do. Robin thrust his hand. He felt the power surge at his fingertips, multiplying itself. Robin decided to try something that was briefly mentioned in his textbooks. He took his second and, and conjured a purple arc between them. “Cage of lightning – Jacob’s Ladder!”

Robin’s vortex shot forward, becoming a thin beam of crackling lightning, shooting across the distance. Vermil’s fireball lit up, flaring orange, then shot forth, becoming a meteor-like streak against Robin’s lightning. For one brief moment, they met head-on.

Robin lightning cut through Vermil’s fireball, dissipated it, continued and struck Vermil head on. The red mage took the full brunt of the blow, flying backwards. Robin watched in horror as Vermil was thrown airborne, landing twenty-five feet backwards, his robes cushioning his fall.

“Vermillion!”

“I’m – okay.” A bolt of electricity crackled over the prone body. “Never mind. Ow. Jeez, you hit hard.”

“Stay down.” Robin dropped his tome and sprinted, making it over the prone fire mage. Robin reached into belt, pulling out a blue-tinted glass vial, and poured into Vermil’s mouth. “Drink this.”

Robin stepped back, and watched with satisfaction as the elixir did its job. Vermil didn’t get up, but he looked better. “Vermil, what happened?”

“I threw a fireball. You threw lightning. You won.” Vermil said. “What did you think?”

“It just, you know. You’re supposed to be the hard-hitting mage of our party.” Robin said. Then a possibility crossed his mind. “Oh. Oh. Don’t tell me-!”

“Figured out why I use A-rank tomes, huh?” Vermil sighed and sat up. “It’s my fault, I should have told you sooner, though you know…”

“I’m so sorry, Vermil.” Robin said.

“It’s kind of a joke, isn’t it?” Vermil looked down. “I’m one of the most talented spellcaster in this generation, and I’ve got the magic power of a brain-dead barbarian. Yen’fay knew within moments of meeting me.”

“That’s what you meant my battlefield awareness.”

“Yeah.” Vermil fell silent for few seconds. “He promoted me to his personal squad once that happened. I guess he was just happy for an expendable spell slinger, ‘cause he got rid of me at the first opportunity.”

Robin was silent for a few seconds, taking the information in.

“You can leave me behind, I guess.” Vermil said. “I mean, do you have use for a lieutenant who’s constantly compensating?”

Robin found himself laughing. Vermil turned to find him doubled over. “Hey!”

“Vermillion Rojo Rubrum. There’s a reason why I’m the tactician.” Robin straightened up, looking him in the eye. “Yen’fay didn’t swap you to get rid of me. You see, we both share a common enemy. Him assigning you to my squad was a subtle gesture of his support. And while he certainly wouldn’t send his strongest, sending his weakest would serve no point.”

“I am the weakest, though.” Vermil protested.

“Currently.” Robin said. “We’ve got a month until our attack on Beskagar. And that’s the second reason Yen’fay assigned you to us. His army is composed of veterans, but we got greenhorns. I’ll put you through the ringer, kid.”

“Wait.” Vermil looked up. “Am I still a lieutenant?”

“You are until I get promoted, then I’m taking you with me.” Robin offered his hand to Vermil. “Now, get up! We’ve got exercises to run through!”

 -Barracks, War Room-

“Beskagar is nearly impregnable.” Zulas gestured to the model in the center of the war room. “See? It’s got thick walls, at least six feet, of stone. Built on bedrock too. Sappers are right out. The walls have several hundred Chon’sin who are skilled at archery, in addition to ballistae. Climbing the wall is a fool’s errand.”

“Right.” Robin studied the model. “So, what if we besieged them? Where does their food come from?”

“The water is from an underground spring.” Zulas said. “It’s supplied by the river. As for physical food, I’m really not sure, though the storehouses are extensive. That being the case, several nearby villages have been raided by ‘bandits’ recently, so the storehouse are full.”

“That’s going to be at least a year, then. Maybe more.” Robin scowled. “The river. What can you tell me about it?”

Zulas shrugged, so Vermil took over. “It’s a deep river that runs past the fortress, but within ballistae range. And they’re specially equipped with fire ballistae to counteract ships.” Vermil explained. “The river supplies the spring for the fortress, but it’s probably inaccessible.”

Robin withheld a choice curse. “And even if we take the walls, we have the keep to worry about.”

“Yup.” Zulas agreed. “It’s higher than the walls, and well-fortified. The full complement is 2,000 Chon’sin troops. Well, Robin?”

“Hmmm.” Robin studied the map. “Undoubtedly, a frontal assault will fail. I can’t tell for certain, but I’d like at least 8,000 men. I have one-eighth that.”

“The wheels are turning.” Zulas observed.

“Got something?” Vermil asked.

“Yes.” Robin said. “With one thousand men, any attack on a defensible position will result in a loss. So, we must begin our attack from a place which cannot be defended from. And, fortunately, our enemies have provided such a place for us.”

“So you have an idea?” Zulas said.

“Talk to me in two weeks.” Robin replied. “And train our soldiers in indoor, castle fighting.”

 -Two Weeks Later-

“This plan relies on three actors.” Robin ticked his fingers. “The inside man. That’s me. The con man. That’s Zulas. The lookout. Vermil, that’s you.”

“Me?” Vermil asked. “What’s the lookout do?”

He’s not going to take well. Robin internally sighed. “I need you to wait on a distant hill and watch for my lightning. I’ll go over the different patterns with you once I’ve figured out all the possibilities.”

“Why me?” Vermil asked. “Is this because I can’t fight?”

“No.”

“It is!” Vermil looked away. “You don’t want me on the frontlines!”

“Vermillion,” Robin sighed. “It’s not because I don’t trust you on the frontlines. Hell, you’re a better mage than I am. It’s because, during the operation, Yen’fay’s forces are going to be five klicks to the east, marching onto his old province, to reclaim it.”

“How do you know that?” Zulas asked.

“Never mind how I know!” Robin snapped. “That’s not important right now. Anyway, if the operation goes south, you’re the only backup we have, and you have the best chance to get Yen’fay’s aid. Though I promise you’ll see action by the end of the night.”

“Well, that’s good enough for me.” Vermil said. “What’s Zulas do?”

“That’s on a need-to-know basis.” Zulas said. “The fewer people that know the better.”

“Jeez,” Robin rolled his eyes. “This unit functions on trust, Zulas. Anyway, Vermil, Zulas is going to get our men inside the fortress. We’ll be posing as mercenaries, and offer our services to the fortress. Zulas is in charge of making that happen.”

“They’re aren’t going to fall for that.” Vermil said. “Come on, do you think they’re stupid?”

“If they aren’t, we’re in for a rude awakening.”

-Fort Beskagar, Commander's Office-

“And who is it you serve again?” The Chon’sin commander looked up at Robin and Zulas. They had changed clothing to look more mercenary. Robin opted for a cut-off jacket as opposed to his cloak, having fake dye applied to his arms for lightning tattoos. He had twin tomes hanging from his belt, in custom holsters, along with a pair of magical letters earrings. Completely useless, but Robin was acting as the dumb magic muscle. Dumb magic muscle. Ha.

Zulas, in contrast was wearing a utilitarian grey cloth uniform, with indents indicating the armor he normally wore over it. The armor, Zulas’ spear, and Robin’s tomes were lying by the entrance. Zulas folded his hands on the desk. “We’re the Nevermore mercenaries. A new outfit. We were hired by rebels in the north a few months ago, and the contract ran dry about two weeks ago. Since we’ve got the ire of the Conqueror, we figured it was the best to look for work elsewhere. We heard a rumor of a Valmese expedition running south towards this fortress, so we figure it’s a good place for coin and blooding the Valmese.”

“You’re competent?”

“Eh.” Zulas shrugged. “We’ve got a few good eggs, but a good deal of ‘em are little more than arrow bait or meat shields for the competent ones. Still, we pay ‘em less.”

“Very well.” The Chon’sin commander considered. “Now, can you prove that you’re an ally?”

“Yeah.” Zulas nodded. He jerked his head back. “I can’t do it in front of him, though. Either we move, or he leaves for a few minutes.”

“Hey!” Robin protested. “I-”

“Zip it, Shock.” Zulas said. “The information we got can’t be told to you. You know that.”

“Don’t like it.” Robin muttered, trying to sound thick.

“You don’t get paid to like it.” Zulas gestured. Robin found himself being shoved out of the room, leaving him in a stone corridor. Zulas voice drafted out. “Hey, could we get a guard to make sure he doesn’t overhear?”

“I’ll do it.” A guard volunteered, stepping forward.

Robin growled as a guard stepped out, giving him a pointed look. Robin walked back, leaned against the far wall and attempted to give a sneer mixed with contempt. It didn’t work, and Robin just looked like an idiot. He slid down and idly spun a gold coin around his fingers. Cool. Didn’t know I could do this.

“Nice trick. What’s that on your face?” The guard asked.

“What’s on yours?” Robin countered. Zing! That was my intelligence dropping.

“Good question.” The guard looked at him and removed her helmet. Robin looked back and blinked in surprise. The guard was a woman, with raven-black hair and a profound lack of Chon’sin features on her face. She had red eyes and was looking at him unnervingly. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Shock.” Robin shrugged. “I’m a muscle man.”

“No, you aren’t.” The guard corrected him. “The caliber you use is ‘Arc’, or C-tier spells. You aren’t dumb muscle, like you’re pretending to be. Intelligence is required for those kinds of spells. At the very least, you’re feigning idiocy.”

“And you’re too smart for your own good.” Robin said. “I noticed you managed to make your way into the meeting as a guard by replacing one of the regulars. I don’t know how you managed to blackmail him, I’m curious, but that can wait. What do you want from me?”

The guard checked both sides of the hallway. “I’m looking for something.”

“And you think I can help you?”

“I think we can help each other.” The guard smiled. She slammed Robin against the wall and whispered in his ear. “There’s a supply tunnel we built alongside the river to our spring. Follow the river, find a patch of rocks arraigned in a spiral. It’s twenty-three paces north of that, you’ll have to dig two or three feet to find it.”

“Dant!” A voice snapped. Robin looked path her shoulder to see the Chon’sin commander standing there, scowling at her. “What’s going on?”

“Sorry, sir.” Dant let go, stepped back and turned around, saluting. “He wouldn’t stop flirting with me, so I had to get the message across.”

“Come on, love.” Robin slurred, falling into character. “Your good looks will go to waste if you don’t use them.”

“Shock!” Zulas slapped him across the face, hard. “Behave yourself.”

“Sorry commander.” Robin said.

“You’re dismissed.” Zulas said. “Anyway, we need to get the rest of my boys. We’ve got near a thousand men to get in here before dusk.”

 -River-

The pretext was built on the setup from earlier. Robin had merely needed to ‘pick a fight’ with one of the fortresses officers and take a blow. The initial plan was to have him thrown in the prison for the evening, but Zulas had modified so that he was thrown out of the fortress instead. Robin had found the area without much trouble, and had taken an hour to dig through the dirt. Now he was walking through a dark passageway, lit only by fire. “Great. I hate the dark.”

His footsteps echoed. He wouldn’t have the element of surprise. He doubted they could hear him, but they’d at least have some sort of warning. Hopefully, Dant was her own agent, and not working for the Chon’sin. That would be bad. Not unsurvivably bad, at least not to the plan.

Robin was lost in thoughts, all alone in the tunnels. That being the case, he almost didn’t notice reaching the door. He tested it cautiously, after letting the fireball die out. The door was locked. Robin sighed. This is a Chon’sin door, which means that the door is probably bolted shut from the inside. This is a great thing for the op to fail on. I’m going to go down in history as Valm’s worse tactician and-

The door swung open. “Sorry about that. I couldn’t leave it unlocked and risk them finding out.”

“Give me a heart attack, why don’t you?” Robin stepped into the light and let his eyes adjust. The same guard from earlier was standing across from him, except now she was wearing a loose tan cloak over burnished light breast armor. She had a green band tied around her upper left arm, and a dark purple one tied around her right, her arms bare aside from that and a pair of fingerless gloves. Twin daggers were strapped to her belt, modified for easy drawing. An assassin!?

The woman grinned. “Are you ready to help me?”

“Who are you?” Robin asked. “You’re no guard, that’s for sure.”

“Suffice for now, my name is Dant.” Dant said. “I was pressed into the Chon’sin army when the Conqueror came, and they were looking for strays to throw into the frontlines. I survived and wound up here, waiting for a chance to get back. I, of course, have no need to ask for your name. Your real name is actually Count Obsidian, and you’re a Valmese captain trying to take this fortress by guile.”

“Actually, yes.” Robin blinked. “How’d you know that?”

“Your buddy ratted you out.” Dant said. “The one who you came with? Yeah, maybe recruiting mercenaries isn’t the best of ideas. His half is going to betray yours.”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Robin said. “What’s going on?”

“Albert.” Dant said. “The mercenary you recruited to boost your army? He sold you out. The Valmese know that you’re planning to open the gates at midnight for your main host. But Albert’s forces are going to betray you, and close the gate at the last second. You’ll be trapped in here, outnumbered, and ambushed, while Chon’sin cuts your main army to ribbons. If we work fast, we might be able to threaten him into helping us-”

“Correction.” Robin grinned. “His name isn’t Albert, it’s Zulas. And he’s not a mercenary commander, he’s my second-in-command.”

“What.” Dant blinked. She blinked again. “Oh. This is a trap, isn’t it? Your objective isn’t to take the gates. It’s to take the fortress with a mere thousand men.”

Robin nodded. “Yup. It’s easy to trick someone if they think they’re the ones in full control. The bait is an army of five thousand Valmese soldiers, and the poison in that is a double-agent. You know what I love about mercenaries?”

“I doubt I’ll like the answer.”

“No one has any standards for them.” Robin said. He drew this spear, spinning it. “We strike half an hour from midnight. What’s your skill set?”

“You know I’m a mercenary, right?” Dant raised an eyebrow.

“That can be remedied quite easily if you’re amendable to a job offer.” Robin said. “Or, if you aren’t, I do carry the universal form of persuasion in the form of yellow…”

“We have ten minutes on the half hour.” Dant narrowed her eyes. “I’m interested. What’s the job?”

“I was supposed to disrupt their means of communication.” Robin said. “One problem we always had in the plan was the commander. He’s a skilled swordsman, if rumors are to be believed. Our current plan was to have him retreat after we take most of the fort.”

“Commander Mitsuhide. He’s prideful. Don’t count on him surrendering.” Dant said. “That said, I still think I can take him. He and I have some unfinished business.”

Can you take him?” Robin asked.

“Yes.” Dant smiled and drew her knives. “Trust me. Now, let’s discuss payment.”

 -Fort Beskagar, Courtyard-

“Captain Albert!” One of guards monitoring Robin’s troops saluted him. The extra thousand troops had been given the stables and the practice yard for sleep that night. Albert’s ‘double-crossing mercenaries’ were given the yard to set up tents, the rest were locked in the stables and told to go to sleep. “What are you doing here?”

“Are you familiar with tonight’s plan?” Zulas asked. “You’re a captain, right? You were informed.”

“Yes, but – don’t we have half an hour?” The captain asked, confused. “I mean, half my troops are still resting in preparation.”

“Yeah, just checking.” Zulas pulled a thin tube out of his pocket and lit it, inhaling from the other end. “Ah, that’s good. Nothing like a smoke before the fight. Want one?” The captain shook his head, but Zulas flicked out a cigarette and held it to him. “You’ll insult me. Take one.”

The captain sighed and lit it up.

“Excellent.” Zulas said. “I’ve taken the liberty of having my soldiers spread out among the guard. Reinforcements, you know.” Zulas tapped his cigarette. Ash fell. “Your orders, of course.”

“Wait, what!?” The captain turned to him. “That wasn’t in the plan!”

“Change of plans.” Zulas stared at him. “Ah, heck with it. Poison takes too long.”

“Urk!”

“And that’s why I’ll never be an assassin.” Zulas withdrew the spear he had drawn and spat out the cigarette. “At least I get to avoid the dumb ‘smoking kills you’ statement.” Zulas lifted the bar for the stables. “Let’s go!”

Men poured out of it, in dark clothing. There were sentries posted to ensure there wasn’t a situation like this, but they had been killed by Zulas’s men as well. Zulas watched as they went. The more ruthless one were directed to the barracks, the more honorable ones to the wall. A mage paused by Zulas. Zulas nodded.

The mage raised his hand and shot two rapid fireballs up in the air, lighting up the night sky.

-Fort Beskagar, Outer Fields-

On a faraway hilltop, Vermil saw a fireball emerge over the fortress. Two was the signal for normal plan operations. Everything was going smoothly. Vermil nodded to himself. Just because he was far away didn’t mean that he couldn’t help. Robin’s plan would work even better if they had a dummy force acting outside, but Robin couldn’t spare enough troops for it to be plausible, and still have the necessary forces to take the fort.

Besides, it would almost certainly mean the death of all those involved. Robin hated losing men, especially borrowed men. Vermil reached into his satchel. One of the tomes was a recreation of something he had read in ancient history scrolls. The theory was mostly sound.

“O molten rock within the skies.” Vermil raised the book. Rings appeared around him, several of them, mimicking the spread of the planets within the system. Vermil chanted, maneuvering the rings so they lined up in proper order and drew a line through them. “Strike from the starry skies and slay the scoundrels who stand in my sight.”

A fiery red ball appeared in the sky over the fortress. Vermil smiled and channeled every bit of magical power he had in his body. “M-E-T-E-O-R!”

-Fort Beskagar, Commander's Office-

A massive blast shook the room he was in. “What is happening now!” Mitsuhide demanded. “For the love of all that is-”

“Sir!” One of his lieutenants poked his head in. “We’ve been attacked! There are mages shelling our fortress from the outside.”

“So send cavalry to-” Mitsuhide grit his teeth. “We don’t have cavalry left, do we?” The lieutenant shook his head. “Fine. Escort a team of snipers to the wall and see what you can do.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mitsuhide grumbled. “I have do everything myself.” He walked towards the back of the room where he kept his beloved no-dachi. “I suppose its time to show these traitors why I’m known as the Butcher of the Cherry Plains.”

“You aren’t called that.”

“You!” Mitsuhide cried, then spun around.

“Hello, Mitsuhide.” Dant was in the doorway of Mitsuhide’s room. “Nice to meet you. Remember me?”

“No. Wait. Who are you?” Mitsuhide leveled his blade at her. "I expected Albert. Or the one called Shock."

“That’s a no. I do suppose it'd be a bit more exciting if it was, but we all have to put up with disappointments.” Dant smirked. “My name is Dant. I suppose I’m what you might call an assassin for hire.”

“Dant. I need your help.” Mitsuhide scowled. “The ambush failed, I don’t know why. We’ve got to evacuate. Help cut me a path.”

“That’s not going to happen. See, I may be for hire, but I’ve been hired already. The one that’s done it has also been the one to play you like a fiddle.” Knives appeared in Dant’s hand. She pointed one at the commander. “I only joined you because I'm not really a fan of killing people for not reason, and I kind of sympathize with your cause enough to not kill for annoying me. But I’m done with you now because I've got an offer you could never match. You’ve got two options. Either you commit seppuku or I make you.”

It was then that the commander noticed the corpses lying outside the door and the blood on Dant’s knives. “What have you done?”

Dant remained silent.

“Traitor!” The commander vaulted over his desk, drawing his sword as he did so, slashing at Dant. Dant spun the knife in a reverse grip, holding in so the blow deflected just past her. It didn’t even nick her cheek.

“I was never one of you.” Dant dropped low and spun, knocking the commander’s legs from under him. She got up and backflipped, landing with her knives at the ready. “Hard to betray a worthless cause. The only thing you could use to convince me is something you don’t have. Die.”

The commander grit his teeth and charged, slashing wildly. Dant danced and weaved to avoid the blows, letting the sword miss her by inches every time. One reckless charge brought him too close. Dant flipped the daggers, blocking the sweep using the both of them in an X, bringing them face to face with each other. Then she kicked his kneecap, sending him stumbling.

She spun as he back-upped, slicing him with her daggers. Red blood dripped from them. Dant pointed one at him. “Come at me.”

“If you insist.” The Chon’sin commander sheathed his blade and set his stance, preparing to draw. “Die, traitor. Of the Chon’sin, I am one of only seven that can perform this using a no-dachi.”

“Iaijitsu? Good try.” Dant lunged forward. As she predicted, the commander began the lightning fast draw technique unique to Chon’sin. But Dant was faster. He first slashed severed the nerves in his wrist, sending the blade flying from his hands as he drew it. The second slash met her target.

The Chon’sin commander looked to see a dagger in his chest. “No…”

“Unfortunately for you, I was trained by one of those seven as well.” Dant withdrew the blade. “Die.”

 -Several hours later, Fort Beskagar-

“Well, isn’t this grand.” Robin stood atop the walls of Beskagar. Zulas, Vermil, and Dant all stood before him. The Chon’sin had been routed. They wouldn’t stop fighting once they learned that the commander had died. Robin was forced to incur heavier losses to take them. Of his five hundred, he had lost around sixty men, and the soldiers on loan had lost close to one hundred. “Lieutenants – make no mistake. This is war.”

“Grand, you call it?” Dant asked. “An assassin like me is treachery. But trickery and stealth to win a fortress is grand?”

“You misunderstand me.” Robin said. “When I say grand, all I refer to is scale. But now Beskagar is in our hands. Yen’fay should be reinforcing us soon.”

“Ah, question.” Vermil gestured. “Who is she?”

“Dant.” Robin said. “I purchased her service with a position in my army. She seems to be an assassin of some skill.”

“I see.” Zulas said. “Well, I haven't worked beside one of those since that fireman a few years ago. Do you charge per lock?”

“Thank you.” Robin cut them off. “You all performed admirably today. Zulas, excellent sticking to the plan. Vermil, you took initiative and it paid off. Good for you, next time check with me first. Dant – are you the strongest lieutenant we have? Nice job with Mitsuhide.”

“Thank you.” Dant bowed. “I would clarify that I’m not just the strongest lieutenant in the army.”

“Don’t get a swelled head.” Robin said. “Good. We’re now up to three. Well, maybe I’ll get a fourth at our next engagement. That’s the only silver lining I can think of.”

“Oh?” Zulas grinned. “That’s what I think it is, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Robin groaned. “Zulas, you have escort. Vermil, you have one week to research. I need every possible speck of information you can glean. Dant-”

The woman looked at him expectantly.

I have captured this fortress for purely logistical reasons, and to further my own aims. I didn’t think to include the schemes of others in my plans, or at least, the others in this case. Yet, if I ignore them, I doom myself to oblivion. The law of unintended consequences strikes again. Robin sighed. “You know, I really have no idea what an assassin would do at an Imperial Ball.”

“Hmm.” Dant smiled. “Well, at the very least, I can teach you to dance.”

-Report to REDACTED from REDACTED, XX/X/XX-

Ylisse has invaded Plegia! Apparently, they decided to attack first, to try to get the first blow in, as well as the edge in the war. Unfortunately, it failed horribly. It seems like the entire troop was vanquished, because the only person I could confirm was captured by Plegia was the Duchess Maribelle. I suspect it was just a failed reckless charge on her part, but now Plegia has an excuse for declaring war on Ylisse.  Also, could you supply more funds? I can only afford low quality informants. The price goes up as information gets more valuable. Some of it may be, heh, slightly incorrect. Just saying.

Chapter Text

-Vermilion Palace-

“M’lord.”

“Give me lip and I will end you.” Robin hissed under his breath. He raised his voice to normal tone. “Thank you, Lieutenant. That will be all.”

Zulas bowed, closed the door behind Robin and retreated back to the carriage. “Will m’lord require my services later this evening?”

“Yes, but far later.” Robin said. He adjusted his jacket self-consciously. “Park the carriage in the stables and find the servant’s mess. I’ll send a runner when I need you. Please tell me Dant managed to worm her way into the event.”

“Last I heard, she did, but I’m not sure how successful she was.” Zulas whipped the reins, riding the carriage away.

Robin walked up the marble stairs leading to Walhart’s crimson palace. Tonight, would be one of the semi-annual Imperial Balls, used to placate the nobility. However, unanticipated, a series of victories won by Walhart and Yen’fays’ armies had led to a final Chon’sin defeat. And my own victory, Robin reminded himself. Tonight, we celebrate the victory over Chon’sin. Any other ruler would have thrown a separate party for the victory, but it seems that Walhart does not wish to stomach these balls any more than I do. Robin’s opinion of Walhart rose several notches.

Tonight is very important. Since the Imperial Ball was also the Victory Celebration, any noble worth his salt (and most who weren’t) would be there, currying power and favors. Robin needed powers and favors if he was to survive in this kind of a cutthroat world. I have plans. And those plans require resources.

Robin paused before the massive doors, and adjusted his suit. He had opted for charcoal grey, unwilling to just be plain, but disliking anything flashier. The cut was unique as well, the lapels on his jacket stylized to look like bird’s wings. He adjusted the cufflinks (obsidian stones, of course), checked his hair once again, and stepped through. A crier was waiting on the other side, alongside a page who took his cloak. Robin slipped a notecard to the crier.

“Announcing Count Obsidian, Captain in Walhart’s Grand Army!” The crier announced.

Robin nodded to the man and tipped him a silver. The crier nodded, bowed, and whispered to him. “My lord, would you care for some advice?”

Robin flipped another silver. “Whatever you can.”

“Find a lady, quick.” The crier told him. “The early evening is a masked ball. It wouldn’t do for an up-and-coming single noble like yourself to be single. You’d attract gossip. The wrong kind. And, might I say your suit is one of the more remarkable ones this evening, but at least you should have a simple mask.”

“Thank you, but I have that.” Robin said. He removed a thin black object from his jacket pocket, sliding it on. A stylized black mask domino mask, with the ends on each side jagged in both directions to give the impression of wings. “I think this would be appropriate.”

Robin walked away, heading towards the dance floor. The floor was moderately crowded, the ball had started a mere half an hour earlier, but it wasn’t in full swing yet. Dant drilled him on what to do. Robin hadn’t a companion, so he just had to get one. Several women were waiting in the wings of the ballroom’ main floor, their very presence indicating availability.

Now to just waltz over there, smoothly ask one to dance, rinse and repeat for the remainder of the evening. Robin thought. He mentally sighed. Right, that’s going to happen. Maybe I should have listened to Zulas' advice on the way over here about taking that drink after all.

“Well, who would’ve thought you of all people would be here?” A nasal and obnoxious voice interrupted Robin’s inner monologue. “I mean, surely they had some form of entrance standards, did they not? Or perhaps it’s just that your very presence elevates everyone surrounding you, and you got in that way.”

On the bright side, I now don’t look like a fool standing on the sidelines, by himself. Instead, I’m talking to the Empire’s foremost strategist. Robin grit his teeth. On the downside – I’m talking to the Empire’s foremost strategist.

“Hello, Excellus.” Robin turned around. The plump toad-like man was wearing the same looking robes he always wore, though these were made of obviously more expensive material. It still didn’t make him look any better. Excellus also wasn’t wearing a mask, unfortunately. Robin really wished he didn’t have to see that face. “Were you waiting here for them to announce me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, inferior tactician.” Excellus said. “I still haven’t forgiven you for what you did.”

“Odd.” Robin signaled for a pair of drinks from a passing waiter. “I wasn’t aware I did anything to offend you.”

"Excuses." Excellus gave him a baleful glare. “I don’t have time to waste on you, pathetic worm. I just came to warn you. Don't let your recent success go to your head. I don't think I will either.”

“Well, now your warning is delivered, so don’t let me keep you.” Robin said, taking the pair of drinks and offering one to Excellus. “But before you go, a toast to the capture of Fort Beskagar.”

“Only a heathen proposes to his own successes.” Excellus refused it and walked away.

“Well, that was a mistake.” Robin sighed. He looked at the drinks in his hand. “Now, what to do with this? I suppose it’d be nice to offer to a lady, but-”

“How generous, sir.” The drink was snatched from his hand. Robin turned to look, only to clench his jaw to stop it from dropping. Pale hair, almost silver with a long dress colored to match. She wasn’t tall, but only a bit shorter than Robin. A simple white mask with silver trim covered almost all of her face, except for a playful smile. All in all, an absolute beauty had decided to take his second wineglass and was rapidly finishing it. "It's delicious. You must have excellent taste."

“The pleasure is all mine, I assure you.” Dant’s training shot to the surface of jumbled thoughts in Robin’s head. He bowed. “I am Count Obsidian. Whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

“Argeni.” The woman finished the drink and placed it on a passing servant’s tray. “Or, more formally, I am Argenita di Cratez, daughter of the Duke Cratez. Thank you for offering me the drink.”

“And, if I may be so bold, would you mind gracing me with a dance as well?” Robin offered his hand.

“A gentleman.” Argeni took it, smiling. “I would love to.”

And so they did. Argeni was light on her feet, keeping in time to Robin’s movements. Dant had done a good job training him in the basics. The dance floor wasn’t crowded yet, giving them plenty of room. Even still, they made one of the more elegant pairs under the magnificent chandeliers.

“So, Miss di Cratez…” Robin said as the two danced around the floor.

“Oh, don’t start.” Argeni smiled. “Please. Call me Argeni. All my friends do.”

“And I’m a friend? How generous. I see we're forming a relationship fast.”

“Don’t get the wrong idea now.” Argeni said. “You look sweet, that’s for sure, and I like the cut of your jacket, but I’m not sure how I feel about tacticians. You can never tell what they’re thinking. Just friends will do fine, for now.”

“You know, I think that’s the politest rejection I’ve ever gotten.” Robin said, twirling his dance partner. “Not that I asked in the first place.”

“You shouldn’t be too disappointed.” Argeni said. “After all, how would you handle the rest of the lovely ladies you’ll dance with tonight if you’re anchored to me?”

“Well, I don't think that will be a problem in any event. To tell the truth.” Robin gave a wry smile. “I suffer from a crippling lack of self-confidence when it comes to women.”

“You seem fine.” Argeni smiled. “But I do suppose I have a natural flair for approachability.”

“Yes, that’s it.” Robin laughed. “Must be it.”

“I’ll tell you what. I have a few friends.” Argeni said. The music was winding down. “I’ll tell them about you, and I’m sure you can take it from there. You’re a tactician.”

“Very astute, Argeni. It was nice to meet you.” Robin bowed as the music ended. He extended his hand and the silver-haired maiden twirled off, picked up quickly by another dancer.

He danced twice more, each with suitably high-class woman. Robin wasn’t interested in either of them personally, but as a bachelor count he had a professional duty for social interaction. Then his next dance was far more interesting.

“Dant? Is that you” Robin recognized the ebony black hair, but not the emerald dress not the mask that came with it.

“I did say I’d show up to help you if you needed it.” Dant smiled as she shifted into a more complicated dance, forcing Robin to keep up. “You seemed like you were doing fine, so I decided to have fun too.”

“And this is having fun?” Robin sighed. “Do I even want to know how you got here? And where you got the dress from?”

“No, of course not.” Dant twirled and stepped up her pace, forcing Robin to attempt to keep up with her. Dant smiled. “What do you think of all this?”

“Why ask?” Robin replied. “I mean, its gaudy, sure, but necessary. The gears of humanity always require grease, and this is the form of it. Why ask me questions?”

“Actually, I’m waiting for you to ask me. You know, the question you ask everyone.” Dant said. “Ask me what real power is. Go ahead.”

Robin spun Dant, and finished with a bow. “Forgive me, but you seem under the impression I’d do something predictable. What kind of tactician would I be in that case?”

A hand suddenly clamped on Robin’s shoulder. He spun around, expecting the worse, but relaxed when he saw a large man with silver-ish hair. A picture appeared in his head with a brief description. “Duke Cratez.” Robin bowed to the man. “It’s good to meet you. Dant, would you mind?”

The black-haired assassin shrugged, and backed off.

“You’ve met with my daughter earlier this night.” Duke Cratez stated.

“M'lord, I assure you-”

“Save it for the battlefield, tactician.” Duke Cratez raised a hand. “I’m fully aware of her actions, and mostly supportive of them. She wants to join your squad.”

“My … squad?” Robin asked. “What do you mean? M'lord.”

“Your little band has made quite a name for themselves.” Duke Cratez. “Calling in every favor you had to gamble it all on a risky venture, and succeeding has made you a rising star within the military. If we had a few more of you, we’d win against Rosanne in no time at all.”

“M'lord flatters me.” Robin bowed. “I merely got lucky. That’s all.”

“Well, luck is one of those things that can’t be taught, you know. Regardless.” Duke Cratez coughed. “Argeni recently graduated from her academy as a troubadour, and she wishes to be placed within your army.”

“Odd, m'lord.” Robin frowned. “I was under the impression that noble women were all but in General Pheros’ legion.”

“Ah, yes. Sore topic, that.” Duke Cratez dropped his voice. “You see, Pheros has romanticized the idea of women at war. Not that I’m opposed to it at all! But, you see, the ladies of the court have gotten this … notion that they need to fight. Including the ones that have no business doing so. You understand. So they call in favors, and Pheros gets forced to take them.”

“She must not like that.” Robin said, slowly. I’d hate it, personally. I suppose chucking them on the frontlines and getting them killed would stop new ones from joining, but then you have a bunch of irate nobles. “How did Pheros deal with it?”

“She assembled a squad of all of them. It’s nicknamed the ‘Damsel Brigade’ and they’re completely useless. They’ve never seen combat.” Duke Cratez shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s gotten to the point where any noble gets reassigned there upon joining Pheros. And my Argeni wants to be useful. She’s decided that she wants to join your division.”

“A troubadour, you say?” Robin considered.

“Yes. Excellent, if I do say so myself.” Duke Cratez said. “She’ll just heal from the back.  All the paperwork has been filled out, and we just need your approval. Would you mind?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.” Duke Cratez said. He frowned. “Wait, did you just-”

Robin pushed the Duke’s hand off his shoulder. “You daughter is exceptional, but I’d rather not include members into my ranks just because a high-ranking noble asked me to. It’s no different from Pheros. And I don’t just expect my healers to stay behind. If Argeni proves herself to me, I see no reason not to accept her, but I won’t do it right now, based on nothing more than your request. It's nothing personal, just good tactical policy. Good evening.”

With that Robin spun and walked off. I’m paying for that. I’m absolutely paying for that. But I've got principles.

 -A Few Hours Later-

“So, I hear you turned down my father’s offer.” Argeni flashed a brilliant smile at him.

Of course she managed to be seated next to me. Robin internally scowled. His feet hurt. He didn't think dancing would be any more strenuous then fighting, but it seemed that he was wrong. Different muscle groups. Of course. Stupid nobles. He couldn’t see Dant anywhere near him, so he’d assume the worse, that he was without backup and dealing with a (potentially) crazed stalker. You know, I don’t think any tactics book I read mentioned how to deal with those. Of course, that could be because none of those authors had that problem. Why can I remember every page of those treatises, but not anything before that?

“It’s impolite to keep a lady waiting, you know.”

“Of course.” Robin inhaled. Why can’t the announcements commence? “Look, Argeni, like I told your father. If I accepted you just because of your position, that’d make you no different from the girls you’re trying to distance yourself from.”

“Ah, but there is a key difference you forgot about.” Argeni looked at him. “I’m me.”

“I get that.” Robin nodded. “This is the second conversation I’ve had with you, and you’ve impressed me. You’re a lovely, well-spoken woman, and I’m sure you’re a terrific troubadour on top of that. I have no doubt, once you prove your worth, you’d make an excellent addition to my team. But that’s kind of the point.”

“You know, I think that’s the politest rejection I’ve ever gotten.” Argeni sighed. “Nicer than Pheros, anyway. She adamantly refused to consider my request to join her personal squad. Of course, I did admit that I wasn’t a devout of Naga like she was.”

“Really? I heard she renounced her claim.”

“Well, apparently not.” Argeni sighed. “I mean, she did, but I insulted Naga and she kicked me out almost immediately. I read the situation wrong. It’s not that I mind non-violence – I’m a healer! But this whole belief in peace just gets to me.”

“You’re a believer in non-violence, but not peace.” Robin blinked. “What.

“More or less. Does that make me weird? I think problems can be solved without needing violence, but I'm not sure we'll ever reach the state where we can just have peace everywhere, you know? And even than usually fighting is a quicker and more permanent solution than any other. Peace is pretty much just a lie.” Argeni bit her lip. “Oh, now I’ve said too much and you’ll never want me in your squad.”

“Actually-” Robin was cut off as the announcements started.

“Lords and Ladies of Valm!” A herald stood at beside the throne where Walhart sat. “Under the leadership of Walhart the Conqueror, we have once again been successful! The last holdouts of Chon’sin have been destroyed, cracked like a nut, and are now part of our glorious empire. As such, the Conqueror will now distribute the lands and titles therein…”

Robin paid most of his attention to the announcements. A scribe would deliver a copy to his manor within the month. One of the commanders who had loaned him men had been given a title, alongside a decent amount of land. Robin made a mental note to send the man a gift to court his allegiance. Yen’fay, surprisingly, received almost a quarter of Chon’sin.

Almost certainly games at work. Robin surmised. I know Excellus had been pushing for him to receive nothing from Chon’sin. That means there’s a group of nobles using Yen’fay as a cat’s paw to push out against him. Regardless, he must be on a serious leash for them to give him the means for a minor rebellion. I wonder what that is.

“And now, we would like to offer promotions.” The herald announced. “First, is Count Robin Obsidian. His military rank will now be Colonel, following the successful seizure of Fort Beskagar. In addition, he will be given the fort, with all the additional manpower necessary allotted to him.”

Excellent. Robin smiled. I now have access to five thousand men. And, should I be awarded much more land, I might even get a new noble title, or two. The one problem is that Fort Beskagar is a quarter of the continent away from my manor, but I think that won’t be a problem. The real problem is going to be-

“I protest!” A voice loudly croaked.

Of course you do.

“The so-called honorable Count Obsidian is nothing more than a traitor waiting to happen! His promotion must not be allowed to occur!”

“That’s it.” Robin muttered under his breath. I'm doing something about Excellus. He stood up and spun to face his accuser, one inferior tactician named Excellus. Robin pointed at him. “Prove it! Your accusations are baseless, and I have faithfully served the Empire since I was recruited within it.”

“With pleasure.” Excellus gleefully rubbed his hands. “Aside from your bungling of orders during the first operation you ever took part of, which almost lead to the death of all your men, you also have been drilling your men in non-orthodox means. You’ve lead your men into an ambush, you are indirectly responsible for Captain Glass, a fine officer, being killed. And, to cap it off, while even I must admit your tremendous risk at Beskagar paid off, you did so with the knowledge that Yen’fay was in the area and could reinforce you. You were in contact with him!”

You misdirected those orders. I drill the men unorthodox because your drills revolve around using the front lines as a giant moving meat shield. Glass was killed by WALHART for being incompetent. And, yes, Yen’fay was nearby during my operation, I was not in contact with him. Robin mentally refuted the arguments. Can’t say most of those out loud, of course. I’ll take the critique about the ambush, though.

“So you’re saying I’m incompetent or a traitor?” Robin asked. “Both are clearly not true. We both know that every tactician has bad days.” Well, I don’t, but time to choke on humble pie. “You’ll have to do better than list a very small list of minor shortcomings to prove that I’m not worthy.”

“Oh, I think you are worthy. Just not of becoming Colonel.” Excellus smiled. “Remain what you are. It will make things better for all of us.”

“You don’t have that authority!” Robin yelled back.

“Amusing!” The two squabbling tacticians turned to see Walhart standing up from his throne. “I thought you might amuse me, Count Obsidian. I am pleased to see I am right. But you will have to win your own battles. I will not simply speak to give you what you want. Take it for yourself. You will have to end this battle of warring tacticians by yourself.”

“Hah! See, the Conqueror refuses to endorse him! That’s tantamount to rejection!” Excellus crowed.

Robin was about to spit back a reply when he felt a tug on his sleeve. Argeni looked at him, a coy smile of her face, as if to say You could use my help, can’t you? Robin inhaled deeply. He closed his eyes and nodded.

A second later, Duke Cratez rose, pointed to Excellus, and thundered. “YOU! What gives you the right to deny your rival’s promotion? We all know the reason. You aren’t as skilled as you would like, and you don’t want a challenge to your position!”

“Tch!”

“Yes!” Another noble stood up. “My cousin, once removed, died because you gave bad orders!”

“Let the Count take the promotion!” “Give it to him!”

Robin just smirked as he watched Excellus’s face turn a variety of perplexing and interesting colors. Worth it. Completely worth it.

-Vermillion Palace

“Evening, Robin.” Zulas waved as Robin exited the building, followed by a cloaked figure. “You’ve got a shadow.”

“She’s coming with us.” Robin said. “I told her I’d accept her if she proved her worth. And, well, she did. I’m now a Colonel, and we’ve got another lieutenant. Well, technically, you’re a major now, but I just prefer calling you my lieutenants. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Zulas shrugged. He bowed to the woman. “My name is Zulas, Count Robin’s first lieutenant and most loyal soldier. And who might you be?”

Argeni threw back the hood of her traveling cloak. She looked up at Zulas, and their eyes met. “My name is Argenita di Cratez. But, please. Call me Argeni.”

“Argeni, huh?” Zulas smiled. “It’s my pleasure to meet you.”

“I assure you, sir, I’m just as touched.” Argeni said. Robin waited for her next comment, but none came. It was then Robin noticed a faint blush of red on Argeni’s cheeks. No way. She wasn't lying when she said her type wasn’t tacticians. Guess it's rugged, battle-scarred soldiers. Argeni smiled a bit. “Are you driving us home?”

“That I am. The Count needed a reliable footman.” Zulas opened the carriage door. “M’lady.”

“A gentleman.” Argeni smiled and got in. She waited, then noticed Robin wasn’t following her. “Are you getting in as well, Count?”

“I’m afraid not.” Robin said. “I’ll join Zulas at the driver’s seat. We’ve got things to discuss.” Robin closed the door and swung up beside Zulas. Zulas started the carriage, leading them out. Robin waited until they left the palace, gave a slow count of twenty, then broached the subject. “So, Zulas, about Argeni...”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Zulas sighed. “You want her, right?”

“What? No!” Robin said. “I mean, she made it very clear she wasn’t romantically interested in me. I just don’t want the two of you dating. I’m not sure I could stomach that dynamic.”

“It wasn’t going to happen anyways.” Zulas said. “I’m willing to put fifty gold that she’s engaged to someone else. Bloodline curse.”

“You blame that for everything.”

“Trust me, I would like not to.” Zulas sighed. “It’s always royalty, it’s always mutual, and there’s always a reason why it doesn’t work out. And it’s only the men in my family. My sister had it lucky. No curse at all.”

“You have a sister!?”

“Yup. Two years older than me. Married with two kids.” Zulas said. “The younger one is going to be soldier, like me. The older one is smart as a whip. I’m hoping she makes it into a cushy administrating job with no fighting.”

“Can I hire her?” Robin asked. "I'm going to need more staff."

“No, you idiot. She's still in her early teens. I'm not that old.” Zulas cuffed him. “Wait a decade.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Robin said. “So – sorry about Argeni.”

“Not as sorry as you’ll be.” Zulas sighed. “It’s going to get worse. Trust me. And even if you expel her, it’ll still be bad. I don’t know what we did to get it, but the bloodline is bad. Trust me.”

Robin glanced over to his dejected first lieutenant. “You know what, Zulas?”

“No, but I like the tone in your voice.” Zulas said. “It’s that crazy tone you use when you do something reckless.”

“To hell with military protocol! And to hell with fate!” Robin said. “Maybe married couple fight better on the battlefield. I’ll have the two of you test that, mark my words!”

“Fist.” Zulas offered it to Robin. Robin stared at it blankly. Zulas sighed. “It’s a symbol of a promise between men. Make a fist and hit mine. Not too hard, but nor soft either. Just do it.”

Robin looked at it curiously. He curled his hand into a fist and connected with Zulas’s. Zulas pumped his other hand. “Yeah! I’ve got the best tactician in Valm on my case! Let's do this!”

 -Count Obsidian's Manor-

It was a long day. A long day. Robin had started drafting letters congratulating the commanders he hoped would be his allies after he got back, on top of arranging completely separate living quarters for Argeni. (Dant had refused his offer, something about ‘not being pampered’.) Argeni was scheduled to run drills tomorrow, so he could gauge her base skill level. On top of that, he had to find a way to let a commoner like Zulas marry in to the di Cratez family, and, if Zulas was right, maybe even find an excuse to break up an engagement.

It was, therefore, completely expected that he’d be surprised by the intruder in his study.

“Well met.” A shadow detached itself from the wall and walked in front of his desk. “You asked to see me?”

“Gah!” Robin jumped. “Please tell me you didn’t teleport in here.”

“Fie.” The figure removed her black headwrap. “I was trained in Chon’sin’s stealth arts. Slipping into a manor of this sorts was naught but child’s play.”

“Well, I guess I better run a few drills.” Robin said. “I take it you’re a good assassin.”

“No. Walhart’s style of leadership means that most of the ones worth killing are the hardest. That, and I dislike assassinations. It is a coward’s way of fighting.” The woman bowed. “I am Say’ri, the last princess of Chon’sin, leader of the Rebellion. It is my honor to meet you.”

“You took quite a risk.” Robin stated.

“I received your message.” Say’ri said. “I spent the last week scouting to ensure that there was no trap. That aside, I felt it is worth the risk. Why do you want to meet with me?”

“To ask you questions.” Robin stood up from his chair, and faced the window. “If you’ve done some digging on me, you know I was conscripted into Walhart’s army. I made Captain shortly thereafter. Now I’m a major, and there’s talk of my being one of the youngest to reach Colonel. Of course, that’s judging from my looks. I have amnesia, so I don’t remember who I am.”

“That has not stopped you from being effective.”

“No.” Robin shook his head. “But it has made me ask questions. Why do you oppose Walhart?”

“Walhart is a tyrant! A conqueror!” Say’ri said. “Do you ask why I oppose evil?”

“Yes.” Robin said softly. “I guess I do.”

“Is it not obvious to you that those who seek that which isn’t theirs is wrong?”

“Wrong?” Robin shook his head. “No. Say’ri, that is human. Human is to seek that which we do not have. It is only when seeking brings conflict that it may be wrong. And that is not always the case.”

“How do you mean?”

“Conflict.” Robin said. “Walhart wishes the Chon’sin lands. You wish for them. Who is right?”

“We are. The lands are ours.” Say’ri said. “Ours by ancestral right.”

“There are two main types of war.” Robin said. “War for gain. War of ideals. In a war for gain, the aggressor rarely holds the moral ground. Walhart’s realm has ample resources. If he was attacking Chon’sin for Chon’sin bounty, that would be wrong.”

“I ask again.” Say’ri said. “Will you aid us?”

“A war for ideals is different.” Robin said. “In that, it makes no difference as to who the aggressor is. If Walhart’s ideal of strength is morally superior to the Chon’sin philosophy, it is Walhart duty to conquer your lands.”

“And do you agree with Walhart’s philosophy?” Say’ri asked. “Do you believe in the strong over the weak?”

Robin sized Say’ri up. She had twin swords sheathed at her side, had snuck into his manor without alerting his guards, and was Yen’fay’s sister, if she was telling the truth about who she was. On the other hand, Robin had Dant crouched beneath his desk. If we fight, I can win. Robin thought. But if I do, that only proves me correct within Walhart’s philosophy. I am attempting to see things Say’ri’s way.

“I … do not believe in Walhart’s philosophy.” Robin said. “Currently."

“Then we are not enemies. Currently.” Say’ri relaxed from the position Robin had suddenly realized she was in. “Good. I did not wish to come to blows. Had you responded in the positive, I would have been forced to play my hand to strike first.”

“I would like to meet with you again. I will have my hands full preparing for the invasion of Rosanne, so you should not be worried, but given that, I give my word that I will make to effort to turn any more of my pursuits after you until after we meet again.” Robin said. “Can I trust you?”

“I have trusted you, so yes.” Say’ri nodded, putting her headwrap back on. “Fare thy well, Robin. And mayhap tell your bodyguard to breathe quieter next time.” With that, the Chon’sin princess disappeared.

“I don’t like her.” Dant rolled out. “But she is good, I’ll give her that. Maybe next time I’ll put effort into concealing my presence.”

"Dant." Robin said slowly. "How do you feel about her?"

"An idealist and honorable to her dying breath." Dant said. "I'd hate to cross blades with her. It's those that value things greater than their life which are truly dangerous."

"Good." Robin said. "I'm planning a joint operation with her Rebellion."

"I thought you were attacking Rosanne. She's not going to help you do that." Dant said. "I don't care, of course. Our contract is valid, and I remain loyal to you until it is up."

"Like I told Say'ri. I'm not quite certain I believe in Walhart's ideals." Robin unrolled a map. He pointed to a spot on it. "This is Bastein Castle. It's a Rosanne stonghold not fifty miles from their border. Once we break the walls, someone will need to lay siege and conquer it. Thanks to my miraculous win at Fort Beskagar, I've been given the task of taking it."

"And what's you plan?" Dant said. "Seems like a hard battle to win, doesn't it?"

"That's only if I was planning on winning it." Robin looked at the map and chuckled. "I need you to deliver a message for me, Dant. Two, in fact."

-Report to REDACTED from REDACTED, XX/X/XX-

This is crazy! In retaliation for the border skirmish, Plegia has attempted an assassination of the Ylissean Exalt. Get this! The blue-haired mask fighter from the Feroxi arena? Apparently, she was there! Fighting alongside the Ylisseans. Heck, if the rumor I heard is true, she might be directing them now, but I can't be sure. The source of information was just overheard mentioning that, and he was on a clear sugar high.

Chapter Text

-War Room-

“Three entrance points.” Zulas pointed at the map. “Here, at the northern walls, where the stone is lower, and not as thick. We can climb up the walls or blast them through. Here, at the main gate in the east. We can batter through the door. Here, where they built an extension to include parts to the south. It’s weaker stone and not as well defended, so we've got the most options there. Those are the weak spots of Castle Bastein. It’s quite clear that these are the only spots to storm the walls.”

Robin studied the plans carefully. Vermil was looking at the map too, muttering under his breath about wall thickness and necessary firepower. Dant wasn’t paying attention at all and was balancing knives on her fingers just to see if she could. Argeni was trying to help, but she was nervous being the new one, which inhibited it somewhat. Also, she had no training in siege warfare. Well, she had training, but not practical training.

“Can’t we use sappers?” Argeni asked. “The ground is the right type. We can crack too many holes in the wall for them to defend, can’t we?”

“We can, technically. Though tunnels take a long time to dig.” Robin said. “That will extend the siege to at least half a year.”

“Safe and steady.” Dant commented. She flicked her hands to spin the daggers, snatching them out of midair. “I like safe.”

“No, we can’t do that. I like safe too, but safe isn’t an option.” Robin shook his head. “Pheros wants this fortress as a staging ground for a campaign she’s planning within the next four months and she’s willing to lend me ten thousand men to do it. I want to take it by that point. Options which don't succeed by that point aren't good options.”

“So, siege equipment. Let’s bombard the place with rock and magic until they surrender.” Argeni said. “That’s what they said back in my academy.”

“No.” Robin sighed. “I’d do it under normal circumstance, but my hand is stayed.”

“There are thousands of refugees seeking shelter inside.” Zulas explained. “We’d kill innocents as well. They should have the sense to stay out of once the fighting starts, and we really can’t help anything if they choose to attack us, but-”

“I will not attack those who cannot attack back.” Robin growled. “That simply won't happen. For those who choose to fight, death awaits. But we're not butchers or bandits. We're an army fighting an army, and as such, have the decency to refrain from directly assaulting them.”

“So, we’re stuck.” Vermil sighed. “I wish they had magic that could just tunnel through walls. Well, this is going to take a lot of time or a lot of men.”

“Chin up, Vermil.” Robin said. “This represents a priceless opportunity. I’ll have the castle within two weeks, mark my words, with minimum casualties.”

“What are you planning?” Zulas asked.

“I think I’ll set a trap.” Robin said. He looked over the map again. “The real question is how we muster our forces. Dant, do you have accurate numbers of their defenses?”

“Yes, of course.” Dant said. “They have roughly twelve thousand soldiers stationed there. Luckily, most of the retreating army didn’t fortify there.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it.” Two weeks prior, the main body of the Rosanne army had met the Conqueror’s on the fields outside of Rosanne. They had been smashed and routed. Out of nearly 100,000 soldiers, some 60,000 Rosanneans survived in some capacity, but, thanks to targeted strikes at enemy commanders, they had scattered. “Walhart knew what he was doing.”

“Yeah, but now the hills swarm with them.” Vermil complained. Every inch of Rosanne was filled with guerrilla forces. Since they weren’t united, they only posed minor nuisances, but frequent minor nuisances. “We’ve had three attacks on the supply wagons. I mean, none really successful, but still.”

Robin wasn’t allowed in the battle to keep his troops fresh for Castle Bastein, so he was at full strength. In addition, he had been requisitioned additional troops for the fight plus the ones Pheros lent him.  “We have twenty-two thousand men, right now.” Robin studied the plans. “Let’s face it – this is just going to be a shell game.”

“Shell game?” Argeni asked, puzzled.

“It’s a gambling game.” Zulas explained. “You put a nut inside of one of three shells. Then you shuffle it, and someone tries to guess which one the nut is in.”

“Oh! I get it.” Argeni said. “There are three places to attack. If we commit most of our strength to one of those places, and they don’t, we win. But if they do, we lose. So the goal will simply be to trick them, won’t it?”

“Yes.” Robin studied the diagram. “Here’s what will do. A strike to the east gate to draw their attention. Then we hit from the north – but it’s a feint. There are too few soldiers. It’ll look like the real attack is going to come from the south. And that’s when he hit from the north – for real.”

“A bit simplistic, isn’t it?” Zulas asked. “I mean, a double-feint it nice, but you usually like to go overboard on these things. Like, overboard to the point where no one has any rational reason to suspect what you're doing.”

“No, I don’t think I’ll need to do it this time.” Robin smiled. “This plan is perfect for what I have in mind. Trust me.”

“Well, I’ll trust you.” Zulas said. “So, I take it you’ll lead the fake assault from the south, to give it as much credence as possible.”

“Close. Very close.” Robin shook his head. “No, I won’t do that. I plan to lead the first attack from the east. After all, we want them to pay attention to it.”

“So, I’ll take the south, then.” Zulas said.

“No way!” Vermil shouted. “My turf, Zulas! The south is a distraction – and I’m the best at explosions. I’ll shake the castle, light it on fire, and then turn it into lava. They won’t know what hit ‘em. Until they do. And it’ll be me.

“You’re right.” Zulas nodded and gave a dramatic sigh. “I guess I have to lead the main attack from the north.”

“I’ll back him up.” Argeni quickly piped up. “I mean – we need healers among the main forces, don’t we?”

“Good idea.” Robin nodded. “Thank you all for your input. Dant, what do you plan on doing?”

Dant shot Robin a look, essentially spelling out You need to ask me? Robin kept the look, so Dant sighed. “Wherever you assign me. You’re the brilliant strategist.”

“Don’t be like that.” Robin said. “Dant, I need you to pick something.”

“Fine. I’ll join Vermil’s group.” Dant said. “I might be able to get in, anyways, from his distraction.”

“So, it’s settled.” Robin took a quill and ink and started writing notes on the map. “I’ll just write it down here. Speaking of which, Dant, did you deliver those messages I asked of you?”

“Yes.” Dant said. “Why are you writing your invasion plans on the map, instead of detailing them in one of your notebooks?”

“Convenience. I have this on hand.” Robin gestured. “It also lets me find flaws with this plan. For instance, suppose an enemy were to figure out the northern feint wasn’t actually a feint at all? What would they do?”

“I know.” Argeni said. “They could just post a heavy guard there. That would work.”

“Yes, it would.” Robin said. “See? Now, if they have a heavy guard at the north, we’d know to change plans, or retreat. Good job, Argeni.”

“Thank you.”

“Uh, Robin?” Zulas raised a hand. “Wouldn’t-”

“Hush.” Robin said. “I’m writing. This takes concentration like you wouldn’t believe. Speaking of which, Dant, what was the reply from the messages?”

“You want me to say it out loud?”

“I don’t see why not.” Robin said. “After all, you all are my heavily trusted lieutenants. I can't imagine any information within them that I wouldn't want as public knowledge.”

“Reply from the first recipient. ‘Thank you, I will be meeting with you later this night’.” Dant recited. “The second gave no reply, but he did get the message and will be acting accordingly.”

“Do we know how accordingly?” Robin asked.

“No.” Dant shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Well, no matter.” Robin put the quill away. “Now to wait for it to dry. Zulas, Vermil, you have training to do tonight, correct?”

“Don’t remind me.” Vermil groaned as he and Zulas left.

“Dant.” Robin said. “I require two rare texts that my library doesn’t have. I need you to get me a Wilderwind, and a Dying Blaze. I need them in pristine condition.”

“Those only come in pristine. They fall apart as soon as you cast.” Dant shrugged. “I can handle that.”

“After that, I need you to get the object we talked about and get it to the location as well.”

“Paranoid, much?” Dant snorted. “Sure, I’ll get the you-know-what to the you-know-where. You might not see me for a few days.”

“Just be ready to march out with the rest of us.”

Argeni looked at Robin. “And what job have you for me, now?”

“Two things. The first, I want to talk to you about Zulas.”

“I know.” Argeni bit her lip. “It’s kind of embarrassing, right? I mean, I act all impressive when we met at the Imperial Ball, and then I immediately go and get a ‘maiden’s first love’ act on your coachman. I mean, he’s actually your second, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

“You know, he’d say it wouldn’t have mattered what he was at the time.”

“Yeah.” Argeni sighed. “And he’s a commoner, and I’m already engaged to someone else and this is a war, and all the other problems that mean why this could never work out. I’ll try to stop, I guess.”

“No, don’t do that.” Robin interrupted. “I’m the greatest military mind this continent has ever seen.”

“Ego, much?”

“Yes, yes.” Robin waived his hand dismissively. “Fine, maybe not the greatest, but I’m good. And I’ve completely had it with Zulas’s stupid bloodline curse, so we’re going to work together to stop it.”

“Wait. A bloodline curse? Zulas has a bloodline curse, and that’s why we became star-crossed lovers?” Argeni asked. Robin nodded. “Well, now that just makes it more romantic. No sense in stopping now, even if it isn’t true. So, what do we do about it?”

“The romance? Well it’s not my specialty, so I can’t help with that, but you seem capable enough.” Robin said. “For now, we need to focus on the upcoming battle. Now, you’re a royalty. That means you can notarize documents. Do you know how to?”

“Sure.”

“Good. Because we’ll need it.” Robin said. “Listen carefully. This is what I need you to do…”

-A few hours later-

The forest was dark and, therefore, inviting. Robin walked down one of the paths. He had informed the Resistance contact Say’ri had given him of a desire to meet. Now all that was left was for one of them to show.

Beating wings alerted him to their presence. The forest was somewhat out of the way, and his manor was only mildly close to the capitol. Ideal meeting spot. A wyvern rider dropped down. Robin recognized her from the pink hair. “You were Cherche, correct?’

“That’s me.” The woman smiled. She patted the wyvern. “And this is Minerva. She’s a bit disappointed she didn’t get introduced last time, so I decided to do it first thing.”

“Well met, Cherche. Well met, Minerva.” Robin bowed. “I have something you’d be interested in.”

“Oh? What is it?”

“This.” Robin withdrew a canvas scroll. “This is a map of Castle Bastein. Are you familiar with it?”

“Yes, of course.” Cherche nodded. “The map is nothing new, though I’m curious as to how you got plans to one of our castles.”

“Trade secret.” Robin said. “And the one whose trade it is isn’t telling me it. Anyway, the map isn’t so important. It’s what is on the map. Have a look, but be careful.”

Cherche accepted the canvas, unrolled it, and began studying it. After a few minutes, she looked up. “This is the Valmese invasion plan! Complete with engagement notes, and all the probable attacks, feints, everything! How did you get it?”

“I wrote it.” Robin said, smiling.

“Amazing. Say’ri told me who you were, but this is simply incredible.” Cherche looked it over. “You’d give this to us?”

“That was my intention.” Robin said. “No charge.”

“Why?”

“I don’t understand.” Robin cocked his head, purposefully dodging the question. “Do you not want it?”

“Why betray your countrymen?” Cherche asked. “What is the Resistance giving you to do this?”

“Before I answer – and I will!” Robin held up a hand. “What do you value most, Cherche? The most.

“My lord.” Cherche answered with no hesitation. “He may have abandoned me, but he is my lord still. Despite the fact that he is only a viscount of Rosanne, he desires to protect the people, so his desires have become mine.”

“I see.” Robin nodded. “Loyalty runs deep within you. One of my lieutenants has the same disposition. I do not. My bond is to my ideals. I have been given a rare gift with my tactics. Anyone can be taught to swing a spear, but, for reasons I do not know, I am gifted. It is my duty to use those abilities to the fullest extent that I may.”

“And you would fight the Conqueror for those ideals?”

“If such is the case. I give you this scroll because it furthers the cause of us both. Castle Bastein must not fall to Valm hands during the assualt.” Robin said. “If we were brought into conflict over ideals, I would stand against him. You would never stand against your lord, so I imagine this may be a foreign concept.”

“A little.” Cherche admitted, smiling. “But I understand enough to trust you.

“Good. Because, after all, a little trust goes a long way.” Robin said. “In any event, I assure you those plans are accurate. Or, at the very least, as accurate as I could possibly hope to achieve. Upon my word as an ally.”

“Very well.” Cherche slid onto her wyvern. “Let’s go, Minerva. We have defenses to attend to.”

Robin looked up. “We march in two days’ time – the day after the morrow! Remember that!”  The wyvern rider nodded in understanding, then flew off, silent in the night. Robin walked away, taking the path back to his manor.

Neither was aware of a set of watching eyes and listening ears, marking everything the pair has said.

-Training Arena-

“Burn marks.” Robin noted. He had come back late, well after midnight. The walk back was a few hours. Instead of going to sleep, he decided to have a late night, and sleep in. What’s the point of being in charge if I can’t take advantage of it? After grabbing a small snack, he had decided to head to his magic arena to make sure he had a solid grasp on B-rank spells.

That was when he discovered it had another occupant earlier the evening, practicing fire magic. Robin examined the test globes set atop pillars. The pillar had flame residue and off center burn marks. “Those are some pretty powerful spells. But I’ve never seen him miss like that. I wonder what caused it.”

“That’s for another time.” Robin flipped through the books he had on hand, selecting Thoron. He strode purposefully to the end of the room, selecting a target orb at the far end. “Those are only calibrated for C-rank spells. Let’s see what I can do with a B-rank tome.”

The ozone crackled around him as Robin drew on his inherit power. Arcs of lightning appeared around him, permeating through his clothes and jumping on his skin. A faint glow rose up. Robin placed his hand on the tome, removing a sphere of electricity using it. The sphere flashed, lighting up the room. Robin felt the energy though his body, directing it. He pointed his hand towards the test orb. “Lance of the storm, answer my call! THORON!

The orb exploded into fragments.

Robin bent over gasping. One use gave me this. And Vermil can rapid-fire Class A. Well, the important thing is that I did it.

“Good job, Colonel.”

“Who’s there?” Robin spun around. He recognized the soldier in blue. “Zulas?”

“Yup. You were out late, so I figured I’d keep watch.”

“Well, thanks for being the manor’s matron, I suppose.” Robin snorted. “Didn’t know you cared.”

“Actually, I wanted to give you this.” Zulas tossed a black object to Robin.

“Isn’t this already mine?” Robin caught it deftly. It was a black mask. "My ball mask?"

“Not quite.” Zulas said. “That covers the full upper half of the face. It’s made out of some kind of metallic weave with a bit of sorcery built it.”

“Like my robes.” Robin said. “So it’s armored?”

“Not as well as, say, a helm, but yes.” Zulas said. “The main point of it is to protect the wearer’s identity. It’s not going to get cut off in a fight.”

“But why are you giving it to me?” Robin asked.

“The world isn’t black and white. Even for soldiers like me, who prize loyalty above all, it still dips into gray once or twice. That mask is for those times.” Zulas said. “Five years ago, I had a force under my command that all but enslaved a village when they were ordered to conquer them. We had orders to ignore them, because they paid good tribute and we had more pressing concerns. But they were once my men, I passed down that order, and therefore some of the responsibility was my own.”

“You did something about it, didn’t you?” Robin asked, eyeing the mask in his hands carefully.

“Me? Of course not.” Zulas shook his head. “Killing other soldiers is treason, even if they are scum of the earth. And we’d need some form of a court-martial to hold them accountable to their crimes. Sure, if we could pull together something, they’d all hang, but we didn’t have the time. Funny thing, though, they were all killed within the week. You ask around, the villagers will tell you about a masked man named Polaris who rescued them.”

“Well, legends are everywhere.” Robin said. “Who knows how they appeared?”

“I thought you’d get it. You’d seem like the type to.” Zulas nodded to the mask. “Anyway, that’s a loan. If you need to do something to hide your identity, use that. I can't help but think you might need it with how you've been acting lately."”

“Thank you.” Robin waited until Zulas was gone, then spun the mask in his hands. “Though, for my intentions, I think all the major players need to know who was responsible for this. I do not need to conceal my identity. But this may come in use some say.”

-Next Day-

“Vermil, your form is off.” Robin said.

“No, it’s not.” Vermil winged another blade of wind around a practice pillar. “I’m doing this deliberately. It’s called the Gale Boomerang technique. I read about it and wanted to try it.”

“Vermil, two things.” Robin sighed. “One, we have a full-scale siege tomorrow. Not the time to start learning new tricks. Two, I was referring to your fire magic.”

“I suppose I might be rusty ‘cause I spent the last week perfecting that move, but I’ll throw in an hour or two of practice later tonight.”

“Wait, what?” Robin’s mind went click before he put the pieces together. Then he did. “ARGENI!”

“She’s outside, riding practice.” Vermil supplied. “Oh. Are those blast marks hers?”

“They had better not be.” Robin muttered through his teeth. Actually, this could be perfect.

-Outside-

“Argeni!” Robin growled, walking in front of the troubadour’s horse. Argeni squeaked and brought her horse to a halt. “We need to talk about last night.”

“Um, didn’t we already do that last night?”

“No. I’m referring to when you decided practicing fire magic was a good idea.” Robin’s eyes narrowed. “And don’t lie your way out of it – I use thunder and Vermil’s spent the week on wind.”

“Heehee.” Argeni gave a nervous grin. “Can we forget about that?”

“I expressly forbade you from using combat tomes.” Robin tapped his foot. “Nope.”

“Well, it’s not my fault. If you hadn’t forbade me, we wouldn’t have this problem.” Argeni said. “I need to defend myself, you know.”

That’s not my problem.” Robin snapped. “We’re conducting a military scale siege tomorrow. That means you’re going without weapons. It’s dangerous to you without a weapon, but nothing and I mean nothing is more dangerous to their allies than a fire mage without proper training.”

“You didn’t have to ban me from training.”

“You’re right. I didn’t.” Robin sighed. “But I gave you an order. And I expect you to follow them.”

“Yes, but as we agreed, your order was stupid so I really don’t see the problem.”

You are now grounded.” Robin gestured. “You are staying in the manor, while the rest of us march, tomorrow.”

“Well. If you’re going to be like that.” Argeni frowned. “I think I will.”

“Wait.” Robin removed an envelope and tossed it to her. “I need this document signed. See if you can do it by tonight. Also, nice spellcasting. When we get back, talk to Vermil about control, but your power is impressive. You might become the most powerful one we have.”

-War Room, Evening-

“Sure about this, Robin.” Zulas asked. “This is the weirdest mission you’ve asked us to run, yet.”

“Of course.” Robin said, smiling. “What, don’t you trust me?”

“Of course.” Zulas echoed. “It’s just – we agreed last night I’d be leading the main forces. But here you have me leading the auxiliary forces.”

“Last minute change.” Robin said. “I just thought it’d be better to put you in a more flexible role, especially without Argeni supporting you.”

“That as weird too.” Vermil frowned. “It’s not like you to be that strict. You usually reward initiative and questioning bad decisions.”

“I guess I just had a long day.” Robin sighed. Well, that’s not the real reason, but it’s not like I can tell them. “Vermil, it happens to all of us. Remember that time you caught a cold, and couldn’t cast a fire spell to save your life?”

“That was a bad day.” Vermil subconsciously wrapped his cloak around him. “Do you know how hard it is for a fire mage to catch a cold? Really hard.”

“Yup.” Robin said. “About as hard for me to get the shivers. So, anyway, Vermil. What’s your plan for assaulting the south?”

“I thought I’d stick to the classics. You know, throwing meteors and creating great gouts of gargantuan flame.” Vermil smiled dreamily. “Unlimited fire power.”

“No.” Robin said. “Sorry, Vermil. I didn’t realize it last night, but that’s kind of a flaw. No offense, but you’re pretty recognizable. If you lead the south assault, which is supposed to trick them to drawing back the defense, they might realize something is up.”

“So, you’re saying I’m the weakest.”

“No, I’m saying you’re the logical choice for a distraction.”

“That’s fair.” Vermil sighed. “So, um, what’s the plan?”

“This.” Robin withdrew an envelope. “Take this little guy. It contains the orders you’ll need. A few, shall we say, helpful suggestions. You get one too, Zulas. Happy birthday.”

“Aww, how’d you know?” Zulas accepted the envelope. “I mean, it’s not for another four months, but it’s nice of you anyways.”

“Don’t open those until tomorrow.” Robin said, standing up and dusting his hands. “Well, I’m heading to take control of my forces. I recommend you two do the same. Don’t expect to see me until Bastein.”

“Aren’t we marching out tomorrow?” Zulas asked.

“I think that staying with the men tonight will boost morale.” Robin explained. “That’s why I want you two to do it as well.”

“Wait.” Vermil asked. “Where’s Dant?”

“Around.” Robin shrugged. “Truthfully, I do not know, but she’s never been one to fail me before. Good night.”

Robin waved goodbye and left.

-Robin, en route-

“All tasks at hand have been cleared. Every piece I can move is exactly how I want it.” The rebels have been delivered the plans. Dant is far away. Argeni was locked down in the manor based on some pretext. Zulas has been reassigned to the auxiliary squad. Vermil’s instructions will get him as far away from the battlefield as possible. And I don’t plan on being there either.

Robin chuckled. It takes an artist to paint this picture. Now, no matter what, the Valmese army will suffer a crippling defeat tomorrow. There will be no heroes to turn the tide. And no tacticians to pull the upset.

“So proud of yourself, are you?”

“Who’s there?” Robin spun around, an orb of lightning in his hands.

“Awfully jumpy, aren’t we? Eheheh.” The voice continued. “It seems that your … double dealing … didn’t go unnoticed.”

“Excellus.” Robin growled. “Only you would dare.”

“Well. More or less.” Excellus appeared in front of him. “I just thought I might cut myself in.” Robin gestured, sending a lightning bolt forward. Excellus disappeared, reappearing ten feet to the left. “Naughty, naughty. You’ve been selling secrets to the rebels, Robin. Something that bad must be punished.”

“Ooh, you caught me.” Robin summoned a pair of lightning orbs around his hands. “I’m so scared. Except I’m not, I can just switch plans. Right now, it’s your word against mine, fat man. And you’re out of favor. You can’t do anything to me.”

“True.” Excellus mused. “I mean, if I killed you now, that might pose some problems and prove nothing. Fortunately, I happen to be a tactician, and a rather better one than you. I’m not going to kill you.”

“Because you can’t.” Robin said. “You want to fight? I’ll beat you.”

“I have no interest in fighting you when I could fight Rosanne. I’m going to take over your army.” Excellus smirked. “See, Colonel, you might have a high rank, but I’m higher still. I can take command of your operation. Last night, Yen’fay took a peek at your invasion plans. You know, the detailed ones that you used to calculate the perfect Rosanne response and sold that to them? Well, it wasn’t too hard to figure out a way to counter that Rosanne response.”

“I’m sure you have something brilliant in mind.”

“Simple.” Excellus smiled. “I’m merely going to make the attack from the south the real one, while they have some clever plan to deal with it from the north. I’m going to smash the rebels, using your own plan against you, and then ride the victory wave to your trial and follow-up execution. You are relieved of command. Your army is now mine. And the icing on the cake? I just paraded this whole plan before you and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

Robin swore violently, using every word he had learned from his men. It took him a few minutes.

“Eloquent.” Excellus smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m outsmarted people far smarter than you.”

“Fine. Let’s pretend all that you say is true – and I’m not saying it is. What makes you think I’m going to let you? I could easily destroy you here and now, turn around and blame you for this whole mess.” Robin said. Electricity glowed. “You see, Excellus, plans are good, but improvisation is better. What are you going to do now?”

“And that is why you fail. You see, I anticipated you doing this. It’s not like you posed a threat to me, of course, I just wanted you to see I anticipated your every move.” Excellus snapped his fingers. “Yen’fay? It’s past Robin’s bedtime. Send him to dreamland, if you would.”

Robin spun around to see the Chon’sin samurai. “No…”

“My apologies, Robin.” Yen’fay placed his hand on his sword. “I will make this quick.”

Robin saw a blur, then felt a blinding pain.

-Unknown Location-

Where am I? Robin wrists chaffed uncomfortably against the cuffs, even through the vellum gloves he was wearing. He opened his eyes and was greeted with a dim light. A solitary window faced him far atop the opposite wall. A dungeon? Robin looked up. His wrists were bound to cuffs, chained to the wall above him. Dungeon.

The events of the previous few hours hit him. Great. Just great. Robin grit his teeth and tugged. The chain held. Of course. Let’s see. I’m in Excellus’s dungeons, he intends to use my own plans against me, and then reveal my betrayal. I’m stuck, chained to a wall, and without weapons. This day really just could not have gone any better.

It’s three days until my army reaches Castle Bastein. Robin thought. And Excellus gave me that window so I could see that. Three days. Then all hell breaks loose.

-Report to REDACTED from REDACTED, XX/X/XX-

Plegia is ready for war. Judging by the shipments they’re throwing around, they’ve mobilized their entire army for an invasion against Ylisse. And Ylisse isn’t prepared. I heard they’ve got the Feroxi marching in to help them, but it’s not going to be in time.

Chapter Text

-Excellus's Dungeons-

Three sunrises. The attack on Castle Bastein would start within the next few hours. If I make a move, now is the right time to do it. Robin looked around. One guard was in the cell, watching him. The door was locked with a heavy iron bolt. Judging from footsteps he heard the previous days, one was patrolling the hallways, and he’d bet even money that his cell had guards, just in case he somehow escaped from his chains and subdued the lone guard.

“I feel sick.” Robin complained. “Really sick. I think you might have to unchain me and take me to a healer, or something.”

“Really?” The guard raised an eyebrow. “You think that’s going to work?”

“Silence, Faceless Henchmen Number One.” Robin glared at him. “You are interrupting my perfect escape plan. Now stick to the script, or we'll have to take it from the top. Ahem. Allow me to continue. Go fetch a healer. I’m sick.”

“You don’t look sick.”

“Oh, I assure you, I’m quite sick. My stomach feels awful.” Robin groaned. It wasn’t convincing. “See? S-I-C-K.”

“What are you trying to pull?”

“I don’t know, I’m bored.” Robin sighed. “Do you even know why I’m in here? I mean, I do, but I don’t think Excellus would tell his faceless goons all his plans – urk!”

The guard jammed the butt of his spear into Robin’s stomach. “There. Now you really do have an upset stomach.”

“That was good.” Robin gasped. “Maybe I’ll spare your life when I escape.”

“You aren’t escaping.”

“I disagree.” Robin said. He yanked on his cuffs, straining the chain. He did it again. “See, I’ve been working on the brick these chains have been bound too for the last three days. I’m getting loose. I’m going to yank it out of the wall and beat you two senseless with it.”

“What?” The guard looked at the brick. He slowly walked near it. “You couldn’t have-”

Robin released the extra length of chain he’d been concealing in his hands, giving him more mobility. Then he nailed the guard with a kick to the groin and was rewarded with a high-pitched squeal of pain. He ran around the guard and looped the chain around his neck, pulling it to choke the man. Footsteps pounded as guards ran to the sound of the cry.

Robin narrowed his eyes to the door. “Open this cell and release me!”

The door opened, and two guards walked in, holding spears at him. “Drop him.”

“Counter offer: You drop your spears, or I kill him and then I kill you.”

“Excellus will have our heads if we release you. He'd be dead either way, and I've got no intention of dying with him.” One of the guards said. The guard in Robin’s chain tried choking out a sentence, but Robin wasn’t interested in letting him. “That said, he still owes me five gold. Release him, or we stick you full of holes.”

“There are two problems with that plan. The first is that Excellus wants me relatively unharmed. And here’s the second.” Robin snapped his fingers on his left hand. “Wild wind, become my blade. Wilderwinds!

Special for this mission, he’d felt the need for a backup, concealed weapon, so he put his ingenuity to the test. By using the pages from out a Dying Blaze and a Wilderwind, he’d managed to make a mismatched pair of elegant, vellum gloves. The left hand one was Wilderwinds, a wind tome which used razor winds as a weapon rather than the blunt force most of the other one wind tomes did. And, like he'd thought, Excellus's hubris left him everything except his weapons.

A sheaf of razor wind slashed his cuffs off of him. Precision small cuts. Difficult, but doable, especially with Wilderwinds’ low level magic being easy to control. Robin hurled the unconscious man aside and faced the two soldiers. “Thank you for opening my door. But it’s time we ended this.

On Robin’s right hand was the Dying Blaze. He brought his hand up and tugged the glove to make sure it fit. He pointed it at the two soldiers and snapped his fingers. “The last spark of fading embers. Dying Blaze!” Flame blossomed around them, castigating the two soldiers into a hellish fireball.

A fourth soldier popped his head into the room, attracted by the noise. He had time for a brief glance before Robin severed his head with the Wilderwinds.

“Two mostly-used magic gloves.” Robin stripped the fourth guard of his iron lance, but as he told him earlier, left him alive. The man had a decent sense of humor and hadn't been terrible to him in prison. “A rather deficient weapon, trapped in my enemies’ stronghold while he decides to destroy all I hold dear. Everything is proceeding precisely how I planned it.”

 -Fields of Rosanne-

“The caravan is over there.” Zulas gestured. Behind him, the nearly one thousand troops Robin had given him broke into squadrons. “Remember, our goal is capture, not destroy. We don’t know what’s in these wagons.”

Robin’s envelope had contained a new set of orders, telling Zulas to wait at a spot in the north of Castle Bastein. He claimed that a supply caravan would be there, and Zulas was more needed to deal with it than anything else but stressed that the wagons must be captured intact.

“Fifth through twelfth.” Zulas raised and clenched a fist. “Go!” Cavalry thundered, heading towards the wagon from a flank. The guards went to deal with the incoming cavalry. Zulas charged, leading his own infantry squadron, ready to hit them from head on.

The infantry in front of them set in a formation, ready to intercept. Zulas skidded, and hurled his lance, taking a man through the throat. One of his men tossed him a new one, and Zulas charged through the hole in the line he made.

“Follow me! We need to break their lines!”

 -Castle Bastein, Southern Walls-

Your instructions are as follows. While your attack at the south is likely to be all but ineffective, there are three key targets you must destroy with your magic. The meteor tome you've procured should help, but they must be destroyed at all costs. Use your personal squadron to take a spot on the walls if you must.

The invasion was going horribly. Vermil didn’t know what happened, but three thousand troops, all bearing Imperial standards, had joined their army, along with the main force that was shifted to attack from the south. Someone had made a last minute decision to shift the focus to the south walls at the last second, and Robin had vanished.

And the assault was failing horribly. At first, the defenders had crumbled beneath superior numbers, but then an army showed up, most of the castle’s garrison, and fought them back. Now, they were struggling to hold the first wall, and they weren’t going to hold even that.

Vermil withdrew the tome and started targeting. But why water tanks, of all things?

 -Vermillion Palace-

Argeni took a deep breath in. The red doors almost taunted her. True, her nobility gave her access to Walhart’s court, but it was never something she had taken advantage if in the past. But Robin’s ‘message’ had just been a blank letter to someone Argeni didn’t recognize, who gave her a letter back. When Argeni opened it, it was from Robin with a second set of instructions.

Argeni, I apologize for the deception, but I needed you to act in stealth. To trick your enemies, you must start with your allies. You must have known you would be in for rough times when you joined me, but even I did not suspect how soon they would be. I have one task for you. You must go the grand court and-

“Denounce the second-in-command of the Empire.” Argeni inhaled. “Robin knows what he’s doing. Robin knows what he’s doing.” 

 -Excellus's Castle-

“The armory is that way.” Robin spun at the voice. A woman in a tan cloak was flipping a dagger. Three corpses lay around her. “Didn’t you take a look at the layout? You’ve been here for three days. You took so long, that I was about to come looking for you.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve been chained up.” Robin sighed. “What have you been doing, Dant?”

“I was cooking, actually.” Dant said. “Well, when I wasn’t snooping around. Excellus has an excellent kitchen. I haven’t seen ashwaha spice for nearly a decade at this point. Don’t worry, I pinched it for my personal stash. Ask nicely and I might even show you how to use it properly. It's really easy to get into the kitchen staff when you're a good cook.”

“Have you been to the armory, then?”

“Yup. It’s better than yours.” Dant sighed. “I wish I had a limitless bag. Though you will be getting all this anyway, right?”

“Let's not count our chickens just yet." Robin raised an eyebrow. "Find anything good?”

“These letters. And this crystal. It seemed weird. Very weird.” Dant passed him them. “The letters are intelligence from the Archaneian continent. It seems Excellus was keeping tabs. Well, several, but these letters in particular are from someone named Anna.”

“As in, the merchant guild?”

“Yup.” Dant smirked. “They’re charging him through the roof. And they made him pay up front. And I've got the contract, so I'll be getting the intel now. The crystal seems inert, though. Still thought you’d like it.”

“Is everything else going according to plan?” Robin said. “You got the weapons?”

“Near as I can tell.” Dant said. She slung the pack over her shoulder, drawing three things. “The best spear I could find. The tome you requested. And, finally, I thought you might like this.”

“Seriously?” Robin accepted the third object. “These aren’t supposed to exist. A magic seal?”

“My guess is that he was saving it as an ace-in-the-hole.” Dant laughed. “Presumably Yen'fay would have used it, as the toad would be helpless in its presence. The irony being, of course, he couldn’t magically ward it because of the nature of the device. Be careful, alright?”

“I’ll need your help with one more thing…” Robin said. "Can you build a wall?"

"Poorly."

"That's all I need."

 -Excellus's Office-

Excellus materialized in his office, gasping for breath. The Rosanneans had broken through his lines and were moments away from reaching his personal guard. The retreat he had called meant that reinforcements weren’t coming, so he’d been forced to warp away, leaving his guard behind. That meant, on top on everything else that had gone wrong, he’d need new elites. His reputation was now shattered, he'd need a scapegoat, and his plan with that infernal upstart was going to need a last-minute change. Wait. He could just blame Robin for all of it, couldn't he? Perhaps. What had gone wrong, anyway? The Rosanneans were waiting for him at every turn. They knew he was going to attack from the south. How did they know that? Robin had to be behind this somehow.

“Robin.” Excellus growled. “I will make you wish you’d never been born.”

“Mmm, I doubt that. Though I do get were you’re coming from. Kind of sucks when your plans don’t go your way, am I right?” Robin asked, chuckling. “I mean, take it from me. Three days ago, I had this whole plan which involved backstabbing Valm to delay their acquisition of Rosanne, and then this absolute jerk had to go ruin it for me.”

“Robin!” Excellus spun around to see the grinning tactician.

“None other.” Robin said. “Hey, you’ve got a pretty sweet pad, you know that? Well, had a sweet pad, I sort of ransacked the place, but I think we can agree to let bygones be bygones. You foil my plans and imprison me, I destroy your stuff. Seems like a fair trade.”

Excellus growled and went for his tome. Robin barely ducked the lance of fire that went over his head. He held up his hands. “Woah, chill the hatred. Look. I know we don’t like each other, and I agree this will end in a fight to the death, but can we be civil and talk first?”

“What do you want to say to me?” Excellus spat out.

“You seem annoyed. Did your big plans not go as planned?” Robin asked. “See, if I recall correctly, this is the sequence of events. I sold the siege plans to Rosanne. You arrested me. You changed the plans to counter the plans I sold to Rosanne. What went wrong, or perhaps am I wrong about the sequence of events?”

“Someone betrayed me, insect.” Excellus seethed with fury. “The Rosanneans knew about my trap! The plans you showed them should have instructed them to keep a reserve force in the north, waiting to counter the real attack. But it was in the south. I was defeated.”

“I see.” Robin said. “Although, of course, I need to correct you on one small detail. The plans I sold Rosanne instructed them of an incoming attack from the south.”

What?”

“Yes.” Robin sniffed. “Tragically, it appears that the plans left in my tent that you had Yen’fay look at weren’t the real invasion plans – they were the mock-up I drew. My lieutenant, Argeni, will attest the fact that I changed plans afterwards. In fact, she notarized them herself, with a magic seal and all. The real plans? They just had me lead the assault from the east. Perfectly effective, since Rosanne thought I was coming from the north, thanks to the plans I sold them.”

“You’re lying!” Excellus stared at Robin as his mind refused to process the information.

“No. I do admit that a straightforward charge is a bit simplistic for me, but,” Robin shrugged. “It was all that I needed at the time. Or haven’t you realized?”

“Oh no…”

“Oh yes.” Robin grinned. He held up his fingers. “Step one: Create a bogus defense plan to a bogus invasion plan that you pretend to sell to your enemy. Step two: Tip off your rival that you’ve done so. Step three: Your rival locks you in a prison cell. Step four: Your rival attacks based on the bogus defense plan, but you sold a defense plan perfectly tailored to that invasion plan. Step five: Enjoy.”

“You set me up!”

“Actually, you set yourself up.” Robin clarified. “Or, as they like to say, what goes around comes around. If you hadn’t kidnapped me, none of this wouldn’t happen. I was counting on you biting the juicy bait I laid out, but if not, capturing Castle Bastein would have been a good consolation.”

See, even if Rosanne hadn’t believed my plans, they would have expected the attack to come from the north, because the plans conditioned to believe the dynamic I was planning was north/south and the plan was to assault the west from the east. The only flaw would be if Rosanne believed I was tricking them and Excellus taking over my army. In that event, Excellus would not suffer a humiliating defeat, but Rosanne would learn to trust me in any event. I would be fine, because of the notarized plan that Argeni helped me with. Robin ran through his checklist. This is the best possible outcome – Rosanne trusts me, Excellus humiliated, and I look perfect. Now, there’s only the finishing touch.

 “I’ll see you burn, foreign scum.” Excelus hissed. “You’ll die!”

“You know when I said I ransacked your pad, earlier?” Robin reached into his coat to pull out an encrusted seal. “You have quite the collection, Excellus. It’s a magic seal, isn’t it? This seems a bit worn down, but I should be able to fire it up for a few moments.”

“You wouldn’t dare-”

“We’re going down that route?” Robin laughed. “Why don’t you make a list of things that I’ve done to you today and ask yourself if stripping your magic will make it in the top five? Here’s a hint: I had Argenita di Cratez denounce you publicly for betraying Valm.”

Bolga-”

“Kishuna!” Robin activated the magic seal first. Excellus’s magic energy fizzled out. Robin dropped the magic seal, laced his fingers together, and cracked them. “This is going to be fun.”

His first punch hit the rotund tactician square in the chin. The fat softened the blow, so Robin didn’t even feel the full impact. Robin followed the right cross with a left straight right into the man’s gut. It sunk in, right into a generous layer of blubber.

"What a miserable failure." Robin stared in disgust. “You can’t even take a beating properly, can you?”

“Stop!”

“Nope.” Robin looked at the second object he had taken from the vault. “I suppose I’ll have to dip into this earlier than I expected. Pity for you.” Robin readied the jet-black spear he had swiped from Excellus. Runes lit up on top of its surface.

Robin dropped low, sweep-kicking Excellus. As the fat tactician dropped, Robin cocked back his right foot and punted him, connecting his foot with the man’s jaw. The Valmese was sent flying backwards, collapsing in a heap.

Excellus got to his feet to see Robin rushing him. Robin swirled the lance around and stabbed through Excellus, the lance cleanly piercing thought him. Robin put a foot on the man and kicked him off the lance. Excellus collapsed, a neat hole put through his chest.

“Huh. So the Luna can really cut through any armor.”  Robin looked admiringly at the spear. "I'm going to have fun with this one."

A gasp sounded behind him. Robin turned to see Excellus get up, draining a blue-tinted bottle. He swung the lance and shattered the bottle. “Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear, Excellus. I want you dead.”

“I’m not going to roll over and die.” Excellus growled, turned, and ran. Robin sighed. The Valmese tactician reached the door, yanked it open and ran through. Then he bounced off the wooden barricade set behind it.

“Are you familiar with the concept of walls?” Robin asked, raising an eyebrow. “See, when I had the benefit of the whole day to set up this ambush, I was able to do a bit of interior decorating. Well, I didn’t do it, my assassin did, but it’s pretty much the same.”

“You trapped me in here!” Excellus growled.

“Not exactly. Neither I nor Dant are what you would call a qualified builder, so I bet you could break the wall with a few good punches. Of course, when I say ‘you’, I mean ‘me’ because you couldn’t break a pane of glass with those flabby arms. Heck, if a pane of glass dropped from the top of a tower on you, it’d probably just bounce.” Robin jerked a thumb at the window behind him. “Coincidentally, there’s a window if you want to try. Please do. I'll even let you go for it.”

“That’s not really a window, is it?”

“See, now you’re getting the hang of it. Good.” Robin took a step back and carefully aimed. “Stay still.”

“So you can impale me?”

“More or less.” The Luna flew straight and true. Robin sank the lance threw Excellus’s ample gut, running him through and pinning the man to the wall. Robin kicked the magic seal up and caught it deftly. Then he deactivated it.

“What-?” Excellus stared at him.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I don’t kill you outright.” Robin said. “Believe me, I’d like to. Well, you’re too important and I'm just not enough. Even with evidence, it won't be enough if I just stand over your corpse. So we'll go another route. You’ll be court-martialed for your betrayal today, and put to death. But I’d like my revenge all the same, so instead of killing you, I’m just going to break you. You think you’re smarter than me? You haven’ managed one victory all day. And, just to prove it, I’ll let you fight me. Everything’s disabled now. You can run if you’d like. I mean, if your pride will let you. Because you’ll be running knowing that I’ve bested you in every way.”

Excellus howled and ripped himself off the spear. He drew a red tome from his robes. His eyes glowed red. “Mistake! You want to challenge me on my field? You think to challenge Valm’s most powerful spellcaster to a duel of magic? There won’t be enough ash left over to fill a spoon, let alone an ashtray.”

“Red blood of the earth, gather thine energy and pass through me like a red conduit of the earth’s crust.” A red outline seared itself around Excellus. The air itself ignited. Excellus gestured. “A searing volcano to eradicate my foes. Bolganone!”

“The absorbing crackle of ozone.” Robin reacted quickly, drawing a yellow tome from his holster. “SUPERIOR JOLT!”

A crater of magma erupted beneath Robin’s feet, spewing red-hot lava. Then, a split-second later, a cloud of electricity buzzed into life around Robin, absorbing the magma into the electricity, solidifying the matrix.

Excellus collapsed, defeated. Blood had soaked his wounds from the hole Robin had put in him earlier. Robin sighed, pulled out a blue-tinted bottle, and forced it down the fat Valmese tactician’s throat. “Don’t die on me.”

“Glug…”

“Get up.” Robin slapped him awake. “I have one more thing to tell you.”

“Urgh.” Excellus’s eyes opened. “What do you want now?”

“That window was actually just a window.” Robin gave a slow clap.

-Vermillion Palace

“And so, I bring you, Excellus, accused on counts of high treason!” Robin shouted, before the assembled crowd of nobles, with Walhart sitting upon his throne. “He attempted to deceive us all. He sold the Rosanneans my battle plans ahead of time, hoping that I would be killed in the ensuing massacre. Upon finding out that he had accidentally used my prototypical plans, he was forced to take things one step further.”

“Excellus kidnapped me, and took control of my forces, implementing my initial battle plans, in an attempt to recreate the circumstances.” Robin continued. “I can only speculate from there. I believe he captured me alive, because he considered me no threat. Excellus would most likely have killed me during the battle, and dump my body somewhere near the castle.”

“I see.” Walhart folded his hands. He’d known things would happen when he appointed the white-haired stranger to his glorious legions, but even he didn’t see this turn of events. He doubted that the slovenly coward who was Excellus would attempt such a plan like this. “And then what did you do?”

“Fortunately, I had an ally.” Robin coughed. “I foresaw the possibility of something of this nature, so I slipped in a contact within Excellus’s staff. I didn’t foresee that I’d be the one needing it, though. Using her, I was only able to get messages to my trusted lieutenants. One of them, a specialist in these regards helped me break out.”

“From there, we set a trap for Excellus when he came back. Using nothing but my wits, a spear and a tome, I defeated and bound him.” Robin concluded. “And that is that.”

“I see.” Walhart rumbled. “Excellus, is this true?”

“No! It’s all lies! ALL LIES!” Excellus spat. He was chained within a pentagram, blocking his magic. “Robin requested that I take over his forces for the battle, as he had urgent matters. Magnanimously, I agreed. This foreign piece of scum gave me his battle plans, insisting that I follow them. He sold me out! Then, when I was forced to flee the battle field, after making a valiant last stand with my personal guards to buy soldiers time to escape, I was ambushed by him and his assassins in my own castle! I slew five of them, but it wasn’t enough!”

“Hmm.” Walhart stood up and drew his axe. “Robin, I do not care for your response to him. I merely have a single question. What are you doing?

“You said we must end the battle of warring tacticians ourselves, Conqueror.” Robin knelt on one knee and bowed before him. “I am merely following the instructions you left for us.”

Honesty. Walhart appreciated it. Lies help keep the weak from being pulled down by their own failings. While nothing else Robin would say would have the same level of truth, Walhart would at least know the motive. The world does not change. There must always be one leader of the pack. The clash between them was evident from the beginning. And the winner –

“I see.” Walhart said, finally. “And have you finished with your battle?”

“I have, my liege.” Robin looked up. “What is your verdict?”

“I say this.” Walhart walked forward with his axe. “One of you will die today. An act of unparalleled treachery has been carried against my Empire. Castle Bastein was to have fallen so Valkyrie Pheros would have it to conquer Rosanne. And, through the machinations of one of you, that has failed. That man deserves death, and he shall receive it.”

“Robin it is, then!” Excellus said. “He is the one who sold the battle to Rosanne! Ask him, Conqueror! For none can lie in your presence without your knowing it.”

“Indeed, Excellus.” Robin said. “None can lie – your very self included. In any event, I can guarantee that I will not feel the axe.”

“So sure of yourself, Robin?” Walhart asked.

“My actions have conquered Castle Bastein.” Robin said. “Thanks to your brilliant military planning, Conqueror.”

“And how have you accomplished that?” Walhart raised an eyebrow.

“Almost a score thousand Rosanneans seek refuge within their walls.” Robin said. “They needed food, and what better time to get it than after a successful battle? Under my orders, Zulas seized an incoming convoy of food. Vermil targeted their water towers. Within a week, they shall run out of food, and have to choose between sacrificing their citizens, or holding the castle.”

“Clever, tactician.”

“It was my intent from the beginning.” Robin said. Again, Walhart sensed no deceit this time. The white-haired foreigner had always intended to starve the fort into surrender. A glint appeared in Robin’s eyes, hard and black. “Do my actions please you, Conqueror?”

“They do.” Walhart pointed his axe at Excellus. “You, coward. You are sentenced to death for betraying the Valm Empire.”

“Liege. A boon.” Robin knelt again. “I would ask for a private word with Excellus.”

“Very well.” Walhart gestured. “Lords and Ladies. Your leave, now.” Walhart waited for a few minutes until the room was empty, save for him, Robin, and Excellus. “You have your word. I shall leave now as well. Wait for my executioner.”

 -Vermillion Palace-

“Robin!” Excellus hissed. “What now? Come to taunt me in my moment of defeat?”

“No. I’ve come to bargain.” Robin said. “It is within my power to free you.”

“Liar!”

“Of course.” Robin said, leaning in next to him. “We both know that. But who can a liar trust if not another liar? I have a plan to get you out of it, Excellus. But you must give me information worse it. And I mean now, else I have no cause. Give me reason to free you. Put me in your debt.”

“Very well.” Excellus said. “I see you’ve come to your senses. There is a crystal in my castle. It connects to one possessed by a Plegian named Aversa, who wants me as ruler of Valm. Help me, and I will cut you in on it.”

“Very nice.” Robin said. “Thank you.”

“Now, your end…?” Excellus looked hopeful.

“Here’s the thing, fool.” Robin hissed. “Why would a liar trust another liar?”

“You…” Excellus looked ready to explode with rage, than burst into sobs instead. “You cannnnn’t!”

“One last thing, Excellus.” Robin said. “This is between you and me, because no one will believe you now. You think I did this because I’m loyal to Valm or my quest for power? That couldn’t be furthest from the truth. Here’s the truth. I’ll die for my ideals, but I’d rather live for them. I don’t care for power for power’s sake. I’ll become the most powerful man on this continent. If Aversa is willing to work with you, she’ll be willing to work with me. All to achieve my goal.”

-Vermillion Palace-

“Yen’fay. Attend me.” Walhart fell into stride, walking out of the palace.

“As you wish.” The dark-clad samurai fell in line beside him.

“Your reason for being here is gone.” Walhart said. “I am aware of the schemes that Excellus used to entice you to my side. Excellus will be executed. What do you desire, Yen’fay?”

“I apologize, Conqueror.” Yen’fay turned to him. “I cannot tell you that.”

“Will you leave Valm? Join the Chon’sin again?”

“I swore an oath to serve. I cannot betray my oath.” Yen’fay said. “There is one thing that I place above my honor, and with Excellus gone, I will never betray my oaths again. My blade cannot be turned against you.”

“But you have already sworn an oath to serve Chon’sin.”

“Aye.” Yen’fay nodded. His statement was one syllable, but it signified something of importance to both men. “There is only one my blade can be turned against now. I must ask leave, Emperor of Valm.”

“It is granted, on one condition.” Walhart said. “You must execute Excellus.”

-Vermillion Palace-

“And what is my goal?” Robin asked. “Quite modest, if you ask me. My amnesia clouds my mind, yet what I desire is clear as day. Furthermore, I am gifted, that much I know, so the responsibility towards fulfilling my dream is all the more greater due to the greater power at my disposal. I would set this world so all who follow me receive it better than I. Something which I will succeed at by killing you.”

“The ends justify the means, Robin?” Yen’fay asked.

“Gah!” Robin jumped and spun around. The ebony samurai was right behind him. “How long have you been behind me?”

“Only for your declaration of what your goal is.” Yen’fay said. “I thought you here to gloat, but you measure your weight against his. It is good. Learn why your rival falls, so you do not make his mistake.”

“Of course. That's, ah, exactly what I was doing.” Robin said. “Yen’fay, why are you here?”

“With this cut, I release myself of all obligations.” Yen’fay placed his hand upon his sheathed hilt. “Then I may discharge myself with honor.”

Discharge with honor – the leash the Empire has on Yen’fay – the Chon’sin I spoke to who moves silently like him – the same Chon’sin who is an infamous rebel – Excellus holding the leverage – Everything clicked into Robin’s head as Yen’fay executed Excellus with a single stroke. The Yen’fay turned the blade inwards.

“Don’t do it, Yen'fay!” Robin shouted. “Say’ri wouldn’t want it!”

-Report to Excellus from Anna, XX/X/XX-

Ylisse lost. Hard. Ylissotopol was destroyed and the Exalt was captured. She's on trial to be executed.

Chapter Text

“Robin, I say this only because I consider yourself to be my friend.” Zulas said. “TAKE. A. BREAK.”

“We move the 6th Legion to the south. That takes care of those routes. The fifth and fourth will eliminate the Roseanne forces there.” Robin’s quill flew over parchment, as he dictated orders. “Pheros will take charge of western Roseanne. Cervantes’s job is to suppress their guerilla strikes.”

“Vermil?” Zulas said.

“Aye, sir?”

“Light it up.”

“Aye, sir!”

“Gah!” Robin tumbled backwards as his desk lit up in flames. He hit the floor behind him, groaning as he watched all the paperwork burn. Then a gust of wind shot alongside it and blew it out. “Why-y-y-y-y?”

“You’ve issued those orders already. Four times.” Zulas said. “Argeni, you’re up.”

“Robin.” The silver-haired troubadour looked at him with kind eyes. “You’re overstressing yourself, you see. Emotional trauma will do that to a person.”

“I’m fine.

“We get it. We’re all sad about what happened to Yen’fay.” Argeni said. “But we’ve dealt with it, whereas you’ve just pent it up. You need to focus on something else, alright? Take a break. We can handle this just fine.”

“No. Go away.”

“Vermil will light your documents on fire again if you try to write.” Argeni said. She looked at him. “Robin, please? You usually trust our judgement.”

“Fine.” Robin said. “There’s scouting that needs to be done, so I suppose I’ll do that.”

“No.” Dant stood in front of him. “I’ve picked you a nice little seaside town. You’re going to stay there for a few days, so you can work things out.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Nope.” Zulas shook his head. “We’ll drag you their unconscious if we have to. You need some rest. We all do.”

"Technically, I can order you all out of my way."

"And we'll listen to that order once we get the Robin we know and love back." Argeni smiled.

"...Fine." Robin said. "If it'll satisfy you, I'll do it. I've got two weeks until we need to march anyway."

 -Idyllic Seashore, East of Valm-

They weren’t so wrong. Robin reflected as he inhaled the sea air. He sat at the edge of the vast ocean. Beyond it lay the continent of Archeneia. First warlike Plegia, and then peaceful Ylisse, locked in war with the Feroxi northerners attempting to tip the scales to Ylisse’s side. Personally, Robin doubted that even the combination had a chance for a decisive victory, and, if anything, the war would be so pyrrhic in nature, it’d be a mercy for the Conqueror to sail across the ocean and conquer them all. But that seems far away.

Water lapped at his toes. His boots were off, sitting in the sand behind him, with his cloak on top of it. His spear was planted in the ground, and a thunder tome lay open in the sand beside him, though Robin hadn’t glanced at either of them for at least half an hour.

I can’t escape that moment. Despite Robin’s best efforts, his mind turned to Yen’fay again. He’d buried himself in work to avoid it, but that carried its own penalties. All the clues were there. I just didn’t put them together in time. Yen’fay was blackmailed by Excellus to betray his own people – if not, Excellus would hunt and kill Say’ri.

The ebony samurai had killed himself shortly after dispatching Excellus. Robin had attempted to stop him, to no avail. Calling Say’ri’s name had made him stop for an instant, giving him time to cast his magic. Yen’fay withstood the shock, and moved past him, slashing his tome in half. Robin resorted to the Luna spear he had stolen from Excellus, attempting to cut Yen’fay’s blade in half. That hadn’t worked. Yen’fay deflected with his odd branched sword, and then committed seppuku.

“May you have your honor, Yen’fay of the Chon’sin.” Robin said, talking to the waves. “Vermil would never forgive me if he learned the truth. Neither, I suspect, would Zulas if he learned the other truth of what I did. Thankfully they believe the story I gave the court.”

But that is not why you are upset, is it?

“No.” Robin sighed. “If I continue on my path, I might lose all that I can trust. It’s the sad truth of someone who spends their days dealing in deception. But I knew that from the onset, and I don’t regret it. It’s necessary.”

You regret that which you did not know from the onset.

“Blasted sand! Sun-bleached bones!” Robin swore. “No! I owe Yen’fay my life. And his death is on my hands. They are stained with blood.”

They are stained with the blood of countless individuals. You have killed many. You have caused many more to be killed. Your very scheme to depose Excellus caused more to be killed than if you had not tried it. The voice in his head wouldn’t shut up. Aren’t you getting a little self-righteous about your hands right now, crimson tactician?

“Silence!” Robin spat. “Soldiers die. That’s how wars work. If you prepare to end the lives of others, you can hardly complain when they end yours. Besides, it may sound callous on my part, but I control life and death, because I’m the best at it. My job is to minimize casualties and maximize victory overall. You can’t win a game of chess without sacrifice. Why would war demand anything less?”

If that were true, you wouldn’t feel unsettled. Perhaps that’s because you know your choices directly lead to Yen’fay’s death?

“I did not force him, did I? I tried to stop him. But he chose to do it.” The words sounded hollow to Robin, despite the fact that he was correct. For all his skill and planning, the pieces in his plans had free will to choose. “He chose death.”

If you knew, would you have abandoned your plans?

“No.” Robin said softly. “I can’t have done that. Yen’fay choices would not have tipped the scales overall. I would have gone through with most of the plan.”

But you would have done something different?

“Yes.” Robin said. “Yes! I would have! I might’ve killed Excellus and pretended that he had escaped. I might’ve told Yen’fay that had taken up the role of Say’ri’s executioner in place of Excellus. I might’ve captured her myself, as part of the plan.”

You failed. That is why Yen’fay died.

“Failure.” Robin said. “That’s what this is. If I hadn’t been so confident in my own skills, this might not have happened. I suppose a perfect victory is not yet within my grasp – or even if it is possible. But I have failed Yen’fay, though my own hubris.”

Mercifully, the voice in his head fell silent. Robin sat like that for a while. Coming to terms helped, but not as much as he would have liked. He sat there, in silence, watching the waves.

The sun had moved through at least a quarter of the sky when he heard a set of soft footfalls in the sand approaching him.

Robin turned to look. A young girl, no more than ten was standing there. Like him, she had shock-white hair. But their similarities ended there. Her cheekbones were different, a softer shape in her face, as well her eyes. Robin’s were dark red going on black. Hers were a light hazel.

“Hey. You’ve been here for a while by yourself.” The girl sat down next to him. “Are you like me?”

“Maybe.” Robin looked at her. The girl met his glance. “I lost a friend because of something I did wrong. And he’ll never come back.”

“Oh.” The girl sighed. “Then you aren’t. I never had one of those. Are friends nice to have?”

“I guess.” Robin said. “Though we never really were friends. His duty stopped him, I think, from becoming my friend. His duty is also what killed him.”

“Duty is stupid, if it gets you killed.” The girl flung her hand. A smooth rock skipped across the ocean. Robin counted at least seven. “Someday, I’m going to be that rock. I’m just going to skip out to sea. Then I’ll be free.”

“If you have nothing to die for, can you really be said to have something to live for?”

“Who cares?” The girl turned to him. “Grown-ups like thinking things too much. Who cares whether you have something to live for if you aren’t even living?”

“Is that what I am?”

“I asked if you were like me.” The girl threw another stone, sending it skipping as well. “Well? Do you live?”

I would set this world so all who follow me receive it better than I. Robin’s own words rang in his ears. And why not? It’s a noble goal. One that I think Yen’fay would approve of. I choose to believe he didn’t sacrifice in vain. Yen’fay must believe his sister to be more important than him. If I gave up now, or just settled in, it would be a blight against my honor. There's no shame in trying and failing. The shame is when the attempt wasn't good enough.

“I live.” Robin said. He reached to his hair and felt it. Luckily, it escaped his mind to have it cut. Another month or so, and it’d be long enough to set in a similar style as Yen’fay. He glanced at his cloak. A bit of armor wouldn’t hurt, and the lacquered style of Chon’sin armor would keep up his mobility. “Thank you. Who are you?”

“I am the Witch-Child. They call me an omen of dark tidings.” The white-haired girl shrugged. “If you believe in those kinds of things, I guess. Who are you?”

“Count Robin Obsidian.”

“…” The girl stared at him. “A noble? Don’t you have some castle of servants to go back to?”

“Technically, yes.” Robin sighed. “Seriously? You don’t know who I am?”

The girl shook her head. “News doesn’t travel well here. And when it does, everyone’s around. No one likes me, so I say away.”

“Fine, I’ll tell you. Maybe boasting of my accomplishments will get me out of my rut.” Robin stood up. “I was appointed my title my Walhart himself, despite my foreign status. I was instrumental in the capture of several major Chon’sin fortresses and won the final battle of the campaign. Then I fought within the Rosanne campaign, and, although no one can prove it, everyone thinks I was somehow involved in Excellus’s eventual betrayal of Walhart. Oh. I’m also a gifted strategist, competent tactician, skilled spearman, and I’m quite the powerful mage.”

“Is that all?” The girl skimmed another rock. “Do you feel better?”

“Are you always this mouthy to complete strangers?” Robin demanded. “And no, I don’t!”

“I’m mouthy to the ones I know won’t hit me. They’re few between, so I kind of have to get all my frustration in.” The girl smiled and raised her hand. “And I can one-up what you can do. Azerath!”

A dark sphere materialized above the girl’s palm. Dark magic, also known as elder magic. Robin had read about it, but it wasn’t used in Valm’s theater of war so he really didn’t have firsthand knowledge. Experts were far and few between, it offered little practical benefits over traditional anima, and it was countered the same way, with pure water and barrier staves. His tactical mind shut off, and Robin just stared openmouthed.

“Dark magic?” Robin looked the girl over. She didn’t have a tome. “That incredible.”

“So I’m better than you?”

“Sure. But only for twenty-four hours. I’ll be out of my rut by then.” Robin plucked his spear from the ground and twirled it. “But I can do this. It’s almost as good.”

“I guess so.” The girl stood up. The dark sphere floated above her hand.

“How do you that?” Robin asked. “Where you born with it? Did you learn it?”

“I was born with it.” The girl turned away. “I don’t know my parents, so I don’t know if they have it. I’ve been on the run as long as I can remember. This town’s not so bad, as long as I keep my head down.”

“Then we are alike, you and I.” Robin placed a hand on the girl’s head and ruffled her hair, to her indignant protest. “My memories were lost. I don’t know where I came from, and I don’t know where my skills came from.”

“Hey! Brat!” A rough voice interrupted them. Robin turned to see a crowd gathered by the far side of the beach. At least fifteen adults, most roughly armed, but some with real weapons. The girl squawked and dropped the dark sphere. The speaker, the de facto leader, pointed his sword. “You were warned to cut that out! We won’t have you cursing the town!”

“Don’t respond.” Robin stepped in front of her, holding his spear. “I’ll handle this.”

“Stranger. You’re a guest. Back away.”

“Tell me why I should first.” Robin challenged.

“She’s a demon-kissed.” The man’s eyes turned violent. “She’ll bring doom upon us if we let her continue with her foul arts. We have no quarrel with you, but she’s from the evil dragons.”

“Duma?” Robin guessed. Superstitious peasants.

“Exactly. She’s one of them witches. Now back away.” The man grinned. “We’re gonna teach her to stop doing that.”

“Sorry. I’m not about to back away.” Robin bent down and picked up his tome. “This is your first and only warning. Back away, or you all will be hurt. And I’m not talking about the kind of hurt you walk away from.”

“Who are you?”

“Count Robin Obsidian.” Robin said. Electricity blazed up his arm, coalescing in an orb. A purple blaze shot to life around him. “Colonel. Strategist. Warrior. And this one is under my protection. Now, walk away or I shall inflict harm on you few have ever felt.”

They did. More correctly, instead of walking, they ran for their lives, half stumbling and tripping over each other. Robin sat back and laughed.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to.” Robin said.

“Why did you want to?” The girl looked at him, persisting. “Did you do it to protect me?”

“Yes.”

The girl hugged him suddenly. It was an odd sensation, one Robin couldn’t say he ever felt before. He didn’t even get déjà vu from his forgotten memories. Robin stared. The girl looked up. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.” Robin said. “Are you alone?”

“Mostly.”

“Do you want to come with me?” Robin asked. “I have a manor, and a few people who would be friends with you.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Who doesn’t want to be friends with a precocious ten-year-old?”

“Yes!”

 -Training Room-

Zulas concentrated on the training dummy, repeating his strikes. He was reaching the top of his game as a spearman and would need to advance somehow. His old drill instructor would tell him to become cavalry. Of course, that’s because his old drill instructor was cavalry. Robin never seemed to even consider the concept of being more mobile, which left him in a bit of a quandary. Maybe he'd ask Robin about it.

He’d never admit it, of course, but Robin left a lot to aspire to. Except for his loyalty. Zulas had given up on even considering what had happened with Excellus’s ‘supposed’ betrayal. Dant apparently had been privy to more information, but Zulas wasn’t going to pry at her.

“Help me.” A voice sounded. Zulas turned to see a surprisingly out-of-breath Dant panting in front of the training room’s doors. “Please.”

“What?”

“Vermil.” Dant shot a glance over her shoulder. “He’s been trying to find me all day, and I overheard him talking about ‘confessing’ something.”

“You think the half-pint in love with you?”

“I don’t care to find out.” Dant winced as she heard footfalls. “Just … see what you can do.”

Zulas looked over her shoulder to see Vermil walking around the corner. He looked back and Dant was gone. Zulas sighed. “Kid!”

“Vermil!” The fire mage corrected. “Hey, have you seen Dant around?”

“Why are you looking for Dant?” Zulas asked.

“Private.” Vermil glared. “And I haven’t seen her all day. And I know she’s not off on assignment.”

“Makes sense.” Zulas shrugged. “Maybe she’s practicing avoiding you.”

“Ha ha.” Vermil crossed him arms. “No, I want her for something else.”

“Like what?” Zulas asked. “Romance?”

“What!?” The fire mage sputtered. “No! Not that at all!”

“You can tell me.” Zulas coaxed. “I might be able to help you…”

“Okay, first! I want to ask her to make me her apprentice.” Vermil said. “And, second! You suck at romance, Mister I-Am-Alone-At-Thirty. I mean, jeez, you’ve have had a total of how many girlfrie- ulp!”

“Think very carefully about your next sentence.” Dant advised. She shifted the grip on her dagger at Vermil’s throat. “Because some women like men who don’t go around trying to get with every woman they see. And you are dealing with one of those now.”

“I – apologize – for – my – terrible – taste!” Vermil said. “PleasetaketheknifeoffI’llbegoodIpromise!”

“Fine.” Dant whisked it away. It disappeared up her sleeve. “I suppose I can't fault you for wanting to be my apprentice, though. But why do you want to be my apprentice?”

“You have enough magic power to qualify within the elite of the elite mage corps.” Vermil gasped, checking his throat. “I want you to teach me!”

“You have magic?” Zulas asked.

“Eh.” The assassin shrugged. “My mother was supposedly from a tribe of powerful mages. I’ve only got enough skill to use weak spells, and my affinity is wind magic, of all things. I knocked the squirt around the other day when he was training his gale boomerang spell.”

Please!

“No!” Dant said. “I can’t teach you my bloodline. If you want, I’ll show you a few tricks you didn’t know with wind, but I can’t make you stronger.”

“Nah.” Vermil sighed. “If you can’t use B-Class spells, there’s nothing you can show me. Thanks anyway.”

“Arrogant squirt.” Dant rolled her eyes. “And I spent all day avoiding you. But at least the practice was good. Get lost." 

"Whatever."

Zulas watched Vermil leave and then turned to Dant. “You’re that type, eh? Wouldn’t have pegged you.”

“Yes, yes.” Dant shrugged. “Chalk it up to my upbringing. You’re mildly attractive, I suppose, but even I can see that you and Argeni are doing nothing but throwing lovestruck looks at each other. Argeni, by the way, finds the idea of ripping you from an old love romantic, so even if you have an old skeleton, you don’t have to worry about it.”

“Thanks – and how would you know that?”

“We talk.” Dant disappeared again.

Zulas shrugged and turned back to walking the dummy with his spear.

 -Outside-

“Robin!”

“Hello, Argeni.” Robin got off the wagon. “Glad to see there are no hard feelings between us over that incidence a while back.”

“Well, I am annoyed at the reprimand, but I see where you’d be coming from with your ideas and your tactics.” Argeni flicked her hair and handed him an envelope. “This came in for you, by the way. So, how was your vacation?”

“I sorted a few things out.” Robin said. “I’ve got a clearer goal in mind, too.”

“Oh, well that’s good. You look better, too.”

“I feel better, certainly." Robin replied. "Anything happen when I was away?”

“Nothing out of the usual, I would say.” Argeni considered. “No, I can’t really say anything happened, though you did get some orders. Why, did anything happen to you?”

“Are we there yet?”

“Yes, we’re here.” Robin turned back to the wagon. “Come on out.”

“Finally!” A little girl rose out of it, draped in a black coat with a few white locks visible. She curtsied. “Oh, this is m’lady Argenita di Cratez.”

“Oh, aren’t you cute!” Argeni grabbed the small child. “This is adorable! Robin, I want one of these. How do I get it?”

“Put me down.” The girl requested. “Now.”

“Okay.” Argeni put her down. “My name is Argenita, but please call me Auntie Argeni, OK? Who are you?”

“My name is Ravena Obsidian.” Ravena stood up. “And I’m Robin’s daughter.”

“Adopted.” Robin hastily interjected, stopping a look of delighted bewilderment on Argeni’s face. “Please don’t let your imagination wander. We decided it was the best course of action.”

“We?”

“Both of us.” Ravena explained. “Robin wanted to be my friend, but normal people think that’s weird. Robin doesn’t mind, he said he has enough rumors that more doesn’t make it worse, but I thought that him adopting me would not only mean we could be friends but would also make him look good. So Robin agreed and told me I needed a new name.”

“She’s smart.” Argeni commented. She knelt down. “Can I be your friend, too?”

“Okay.” Ravena nodded. “I like having those.”

“Good job, Ravena. That’s two in one day.” Robin opened the envelope. “Ah.”

“What is it?” Ravena asked.

“Orders.” Robin said. “I’ll make temporary arrangements for you to be a ward at my manor. Argeni, we have two dawns to march.”

“Where to?”

“Parise. Rosanne’s capital.”

-Report to Robin from Anna, XX/X/XX-

New customer, same contract. I won’t ask how you got your hands on it, but I will ask for some help in not asking. The golden kind of help. You know what I mean. Anyway, your first bit of news is a doozy, and I mean a DOOZY. Emmeryn, Exalt of Ylisse, sacrificed herself. Chrom lead a strike force to rescue her, it failed, and Gangrel was going to use her as a bargaining chip to get the ‘Crest of Flames’, whatever THAT is. Emmeryn SACRIFICED herself to avoid conflict. I mean, wow, that’s hardcore.

Anyway, all-out war between Ylisse and Plegia will start within days, if not weeks. I’ll give you good odds for Plegia winning…

Chapter Text

-Valm’s Camp, Temporary Throne Room-

“You summoned me, Conqueror?” Robin asked, kneeling. Walhart’s throne room traveled with him. Robin wouldn't call it vain – not out loud, at any rate- but it was more of a symbol of power. The throne traveled with Walhart, because it was he who gave it power, not the other way around.

“Tactician.” Walhart inclined his head from atop his seat. It was the closest that Robin knew he would ever get to a friendly greeting. “Rosanne falls tomorrow. I have no wish for any more delays. The Chon’sin are no longer a problem, and their army is in shambles. We will destroy Parise.”

“Those were my instructions.”

“Troubling rumors have come to my ears, tactician.” Walhart frowned. “It seems you felt it was a good idea to form companies exclusively containing anti-wyvern soldiers. And that you have left Yen’fay’s army surrounding the city, rather than allowing it to join me in battle.”

So a signed missive to Walhart is now considered a ‘troubling rumor’. I suppose this is Walhart’s way of saying he doesn’t like my battle plans. Robin nodded. “Yes. In mundane combat, we’ve felt it smartest to incorporate anti-flyer units within the army squads, to discourage harrying from the opponent’s flyers. However, Rosanne does not use its wyverns like other armies. They are home to several large wyvern colonies and have a number of elite wyvern academies. They don’t use their flyers for scouting and surgical strikes like we do – rather they use them as mobile swarms capable of overrunning entire squadrons. The only thing that can discourage a hundred battle-hardened flyers charging our frontlines are squads consisting of the same number of anti-flyers. I’ve also kept a few cavalry regiments back to support the squads in case trouble arises. Each one of the attack vectors has at least one dedicated unit, ready to swap-in at will. Hopefully the strategic flexibility will outweigh the loss of the tactical flexibility.”

“And Yen’fay’s former army? Why are they not on the front lines?”

“With due respect, Conqueror, they are unfit for combat right now.” Robin said. “Their leader has killed himself and question are circulating throughout the unit. Morale is at an all-time low. The Chon’sin Dynasts on our side can’t be trusted. In addition, there still are at least 20,000 Rosanne troops unaccounted for – and I believe the number may be even higher. If they choose to flank us at Parise, possibly with the dynast’s private armies, that city could very well be our doom. I’ve ordered Yen’fay’s army to stand as a rearguard. If they do see combat, it will combat solely dedicated to protecting our armies. Hopefully, that will raise morale. Besides, we have enough soldiers as it is to approach the city from five different spots. More soldiers would just choke the approach.”

“I see. Your choices are well reasoned.”

“Are you disappointed, Conqueror?” Robin asked. He sounds like it.

“No.” Walhart said. “You show more finesse at this game than Excellus. However, you have yet to properly appreciate the force I bring to the battlefield. I do not appreciate being … underutilized.

“I don’t understand.” Robin stammered. “I … have you leading the charge on the main gate.”

“Yes.” Walhart smiled. It sent shivers down Robin’s spine. “You want a conventional approach, using portable shields and staggered infantry. We aren’t going to do that. There is no need when I am there, after all.”

“I see.” Robin swallowed. “So, what’s the plan?”

“I will charge with my elites.” Walhart said. “You may bring in the infantry to clean up after me if you desire. Bring ladders.” Walhart stepped out. Robin blinked. Then he heard the voice again. “And you’re going to watch me! Set yourself by my army.”

Robin blinked again. “This can’t end well.”

-Gates of Rosanne-

“This isn’t going to end well.” Vermil said.

“Easy, squad.” Robin said. He was riding a horse, for once, enjoying the vantage. Argeni was right beside him, a pale hand on her silver staff. The crystal tip at the top glowed, in preparation for its usage. Zulas stood beside her, blue cloak flapping in the faint breeze, holding an anti-cavalry lance in one hand and a razor-sharp one in the other. He wouldn’t be fighting with both at the same time but switching off between them to compensate for his weakness. Vermil was behind Robin, on a horse of his own. Surprisingly, he was trained to ride. He lightly tapped the red tome he was holding, a spellbag by his side containing more. Dant was the other member on the ground, holding twin daggers, her brown cloak flapping in the wind. For some odd reason, she’d tied a green band around her head, a rare look of serenity on her face.

“We’ve never fought a foe like this.” Zulas said. “It’s all right to be nervous. This is going to be one of the largest sieges in Valm. And we want to take this in a day. This could end poorly. Very poorly.”

“This is going to be dangerous.” Argeni chewed her lip. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you all alive.”

“A thousand-meter charge toward the gates.” Robin said, summarizing. “Across arrow and magic. Then we scale the walls, take them and open the doors for the army.”

“Then we fight street by street.” Dant said. “Bloody combat the entire time. Until we reach the palace and take the king’s head. There’s no combat like siege combat.”

“Are you enjoying this, Dant?” Argeni asked.

“Enjoy? No.” Dant said. “But this is where I feel at peace. I was trained for this.”

“And that’s the real reason you follow me.” Robin noted.

“One of them.” Dant said. “Things aren’t idle around you. Give me the order, Robin.”

“Not mine to give.” Robin said, eyeing the troops around them. “Vermil, can you project an air screen as we charge?”

“Not on horseback!” Vermil said. “Nope.”

“Very well.” Robin swallowed. “On the Conqueror’s signal.”

The sun rose slowly as the crimson armies of the Conqueror waited. The defenders of Rosanne favored colors of blue and black, waiting for the inevitable charge that seemed like it would never come. Twice, Robin had to focus to control his breathing. Dawn seemed like the perfect time to attack, but the Conqueror had overruled him, in favor of playing with the Rosannean’s minds. The longer they waited, the less time they would have until night fell.

It was almost midmorning when Walhart gave the signal. He didn’t howl, nor give a war cry. Instead, he spurred his massive mount into action and charged across the plain on it. A split-second later, his personal honor guard charged with him. A few seconds after that came the rest of the cavalry, followed by massed infantry rushing in.

“Wait.” Robin said, holding his hand, and gave a slow count to ten. No sense in joining the crowd. Then he dropped it. “My army, mount up! Mount up now!” Zulas swung himself onto Argeni’s mount, as Robin caught a flicker of Argeni’s happy expression. Dant did the same behind him, accompanying him. Vermil had no extra rider. His own personal army followed suit, double mounting, or pairing up. “NOW!” Robin lead the charge. Well, his charge.

“Isn’t this horrible tactics?” Argeni shouted at Robin as they rode forward. “I thought you didn’t lead with cavalry against during a siege!”

“Normally, yes!” Robin said. “But he’s Walhart! Look!”

Walhart charged ahead, alone. Arrows fell around him, pelting off his armor like gravel. Magic struck around him, with the Conqueror ignoring it completely. His honor guard received a similar treatment to a lesser degree, with a good number of them ignoring it just as Walhart did. For those that didn’t, powerful troubadours rode within the main body of cavalry, bolstering the lead squadron with healing from afar. But men still fell. And with the entirety of the army charging, those that did would not get up later.

Then Walhart drew his axe. The giant red weapon whirled about him as the Conqueror wielded it like a man possessed, deflecting as the rain grew fiercer the closer he got. Robin could only watch in slack-jawed awe as an entire wall of Roseannes couldn’t inflict a dent in him. Orders were barked, and suddenly the targets were switched. Now the arrows rained freely among the rest of the charging troops. They'd decided to ignore the impossible and attempt to drop the men around him using the rank and file soldiers.

On top of the wall, space was suddenly cleared. Five bowmen, each wielding a bow as large as themselves, targeted Walhart, alongside three incredibly powerful mages. Robin swallowed as they unleashed their full might at once, as Walhart was less than a hundred meters away from the wall. Lightning, fire, steel, and wood crashed into the Conqueror all at once. The surface erupted in smoke, concealing the Conqueror for view.

Robin had only enough time for his breath to catch when the red axe sailed up the sixty-foot wall, striking one of the mages down. The axe disappeared, and reappeared when a shockwave cut away the smoke, revealing a very unharmed Conqueror on his horse. The ground beneath him was charred beyong recognition.

What is he? Robin’s breath caught. That’s not a man. That can’t be a mortal. He’s taken enough damage to kill me thrice over and he made an impossible shot – blind. His axe is magical, and his steed seems just as strong as he is. His entire plan was to draw fire because he cannot be killed. Which devil did he make a deal with?

“I AM INEXORABLE! COME BREAK YOURSELVES ON ME!” Walhart’s axe started claiming more victims. By that time, the ladders had reached the walls, and his soldiers had swarmed up it. Robin’s squad had reached Walhart a few moments later.

“Tactician!” Walhart said. A broad smile was on his face. “Find this day well?”

“Well enough.” Robin said. “How do you plan on getting in?”

“The wall, tactician.” Walhart gestured. “Get on it.”

“Right.” Robin gestured. “Dant, Vermil, you’re with me. Argeni, heal any wounded, Zulas protect her.” And with that he started climbing.

Unsurprisingly, Dant was faster than him, nimbly scurrying by on the same ladder with a dagger between her teeth. By the time Robin got up, there were three corpses, and Dant was locked in combat with an axe wielder twice her size, unable to get close or to block accurately. Robin nailed him with a quick jolt of focused lightning, before assembling his spear in a rapid series of movements and using it. He dispatched his first opponent surprisingly easy, kicking him off the far side of the wall with just two moves.

“Too easy.”

A blast of flame lit up the wall, sending a trio of Rosanne reinforcements back down the stair they came from. Robin turned to see Vermil. He looked around. Valm red vastly outnumbered blue. The attack was going well. He nodded. “Vermil, keep control of the wall. Dant, follow me.”

Robin ran across the wall until he was on top of the main gate. He looked down. The gate was bolted shut, with heavy bars across it, and the doors themselves seemed to be controlled by giant winches in guard houses. Walhart’s men were fighting their way into them, but they’d have no chance to open them with the bars in place.

“This is going to be difficult.” Dant was next to him. “Barred shut. I guess we’ll have to wait for the rams to get here.”

“Dant, I have an idea.” Robin took a few steps back and gauged the distance.

“Good, that’s supposed to be your job.” Dant blinked as she realized what he intended to do. “Oh, this is going to be reckless.”

Robin drew his Luna spear, and jumped. He spun around in a 180 and brought the spear down. Luna’s enchanted edge sliced through the heavy bars with ease. Robin gritted his teeth, struggling to keep the spear in place to make all the cuts and to keep himself from panicking. Ten feet from the ground, he threw the spear away, pointed down with his hand and snapped the final charge from his Wilderwinds glove. The cushion bounced into him, slowing his fall, but sending him sprawling.

Robin blearily looked up to see a Rosannean charging at him, only to drop from an arrow shot. He sighed in relief, and propped himself up with his spear, turning around and slicing the final bar off the door. The lance shattered.

“So much for a lance that can cut through anything.” Robin sighed. “Well, it cut through most of them.”

“That’d just be a contradiction.” Dant appeared next to him. Robin had no idea how she had managed that. Maybe she just clambered down with her knives. “Yeah, that Luna looked a little beat-up, though I thought the enchantments on it would last for longer. Magical weapons only have so much charge you know. Well, except for ancestral ones. But those have other limits.”

“You seem to know a lot about these.”

“Yeah, train under a guy who won’t shut up about Ragnell will make you curious. Then annoyed when you find out you can’t get one.” Dant frowned. “You know what, forget I said that. Anyway, Luna lances are a silvered lance forged with a Luna tome. Somehow. Luna tome happen to be as rare as Blizzard tomes these days, so that’s why you don’t see ‘em that often. Levin sword is Arcthunder and a steel sword.”

Robin noticed something and ducked. A sword swing passed over him. “Excuse me,” Robin said, blasting him with electricity. “I’m trying to have a conversation. Thank you.” Robin raised his voice. “Valmese, to me! Protect us while we gate open.” Robin dropped his voice. “Dant, how do we open the gate now?”

“Did you look? You managed to put a decent nick in it.” Dant dryly asked. Robin glanced over. His cut had managed to get though the majority of the bar. Dant pulled an axe from the ground, set her feet and gave a powerful thwack. It took four tries from Dant and a few more from Valmese heavy infantry Robin sent her way to do it. At that point, ratcheting sounded from the gate, slowly opening it. Robin breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the crimson Conqueror in full plate before him.

“Well done, tactician.” Walhart said. “Now. Let us proceed.”

“At my lord’s command.”

-The Rookery-

“Madam Cherche!” Cherche turned away from scratching Minerva’s jaw to see an irate official walking to her. “The walls have fallen.”

“Good.” Cherche said. “Send messages to the rookeries and the nests. Tell all the riders we have to prepare to saddle up, and to fly out on my signal.”

“I don’t understand.” The official said. “We need reinforcements now. They’ll take Parise if we don’t repel them here.”

“They will take Parise even if we do hold them here.” Cherche said. “My liege has told me as such. We can’t hold out against the might of Valm.”

“Then Duke Virion’s battle plans-”

“Yes.” Cherche said, sadly. “Those were never to win. He has plans for that, from what I understand, but he knows that victory is impossible. So he settled for the step below that. Parise is a poisoned fruit. The city will fall, but by our choosing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish caring to Minerva.”

“Ah.” The official swallowed. “And after…?”

“If either of us survive, make your way to Ylisse.” Cherche said. “Good luck.”

-That Scene From Chapter One-

“Vermil, give me covering fire!” Robin gestured with his weapon. Behind him, the red-robed mage grinned evilly and raised a hand, pointing it at the archers that were drawing their bows at the end of the alley.

“Arcfire!” A jet of flame roared down the alley, swirling around it and igniting everything within. Vermil the mage looked pleased with himself until the smoke cleared. Out of five, two were left standing, bows drawn. The two pointed their bows at the mage. Vermil swallowed.

“Watch it, kid!” A soldier shoved Vermil aside. The mage hit the ground and watched as his ally took the pair of arrows meant for him. One skirted off his blue shield, but the other impaled itself in his left shoulder. The lancer turned and howled his challenge. “Is that all you have!? I’m Zuras, veteran of a hundred wars, and you can’t take me!”

A figure darted out from a crack in the wall, dancing between the two remaining archers. One fell to his blade, and the other to lightning. Robin waved his weapon in salute and gestured to the two to catch up. “Yes, but I took them fist, Zul.”

Zulas looked at Vermil. “He had you barbecue the hallway just so he could run up it?”

“Eh-heh. I think the plan was just for me to smokescreen it.” Vermil chuckled. “Maybe I went a little overkill.”

“You’re crazy, kid.” Zulas shook his head, then started sprinting to catch up to Robin. As he ran, he saw Robin duck and then an axe swing over his head. “Aw, they’re using axes…”

The fighter tried to attack again, but fell with a wordless cry. Behind him stood another one of the Crimson Squad. The small woman sheathed her daggers, reflexively standing in Robin’s blind spot.

“Heya Dant.” Vermil skidded up to them. “Where’d you come from?”

“Around. It pays not to lurk to close when you go all magic-happy.” The woman sighed. “Must you go overkill, mage?”

“Hey, as long as they’re dead! Right, Robin?”

“Well I suppose better safe than sorry.” Robin chuckled. “But a skilled warrior knows not to waste magic, and can tell how much to strike with. Elfire would have sufficed. You’ve still got to learn that.”

“Aww.” The mage looked downcast.

“Where to next?” Zulas asked. “This whole area’s one crazy war zone. Are we moving to take the castle, or what?”

“You’re not going anywhere!” A clip-clop interrupted the group. A troubadour was riding over. “Need I say this, Zulas, but you have an arrow in your shoulder?”

“So I do.” Zulas said, noticing it for the first time. “Argeni, I’m fine. I’ve been shot before.”

“No, you are not fine and I don’t care how many times you’ve been shot.” Argeni put a gentle hand on the shaft and ripped it from Zulas, ignoring the shout of pain. She put her staff on the wound. “Heal! Next time, don’t run off without me, you four!”

“You’re on a horse.” Dant pointed out.

“Leave her, Dant.” Robin said. “I told her to stay back. Her father would have a fit if I got her killed. Sorry, Argeni. We’ll go a bit slower next time and we won’t leave until you finished patching up Zulas.”

“Thank you.” Argeni was mollified. “I’m done. Well, what are you waiting for?”

“Right, let’s get ready to take the next block and wipe out those rebels. We'll work our way to the castle, but our goal isn't to be the first one there." Robin looked over to the next section. “For Valm!”

“Colonel Robin!”

Robin spun around. A messenger on horse had arrived. “Report? How are we in taking the city?”

“We’ve taken three-quarters of the city.” The messenger said. “The Conqueror himself has stormed the palace. We expect all out surrender, soon.”

“Well, there goes the ‘reach the castle’ goal.” Dant said. “Walhart will have killed everyone within it by the time we get there.”

“Hmm.” Robin thought for a second. “Vermil, how many wyverns have we encountered so far?”

“Zero.” Vermil said. A few seconds later, he blinked. “Wait, that’s not right.”

“There weren’t any by the walls, either.” Robin said. “Argeni, get off your horse. Now. Zulas, scan the skies. I’m an idiot.”

“What’s going on?” Argeni swallowed as Zulas helped her down. The messenger moved to do it too.

“Not you!” Robin said. “Go back to the camps. On my authority, I need the anti-wyvern squad on the walls moved to the roof of that building there.” Robin gestured. “We’ll have the path cleared.”

“This area is secure.” The messenger frowned. “You took out one of the last groups.”

“If I wanted your opinion, I would have asked for it.” Robin snapped. “Go!” The messenger fled. Robin nodded and turned to his squad. “All right. See that bell tower?”

“The one overlooking the roof you just moved the anti-wyvern squad to?” Vermil asked. “We’re going to attempt something dangerous, aren’t we?”

“Something like that.” Robin grimaced. “Assuming we all survive.”

-The Rookery-

“Walhart has entered the palace.” Cherche leapt up on her wyvern. “Send the message. Now’s our best chance.”

-Rosanne-

Wyverns bloomed over Parise. Warehouses exploded all over the city. Dark shapes dropped off the cathedrals. And, in the rafters above the palace, close to a thousand wyvern riders and lords emerged, axe and blade in hand. The day was now in the late afternoon, with light slowly fading. But not enough to conceal the red of Valm spread across the entirety of the city. And not enough for the Valm soldiers to miss the incoming wyverns swooping down en masse and taking squadrons.

Virion had known that defending the city was impossible. However, the only victory he had in mind was a pyrrhic victory. By allowing the majority of Valm’s forces into the city, and then ambushing the soldiers stuck in the city, it would be possible to abuse their high mobility to corner and slaughter the Valm troops, trapped in a city they didn’t know. Parise would fall, possibly even burned to the ground in Walhart’s fury, but the wounds would be deep. Possibly even unrecoverable.

Cherche herself lead a squadron. “Don’t stop until they all fall!” she howled to her teammates. She tapped Minerva with her heels, indicating a dive, and lead them down. “Evade.”

The Valm squadron didn’t even see them coming, too focused on trying to run away. Cherche swung her axe, slicing through two of them as Minerva roared triumphantly. The soldiers beside her took them as well. Then Minerva went up, taking them back to the safety of the sky. Blood from her axe rained on her as she raised it high.

Cherche wiped a streak of it off her cheek. “Poor you…”

Suddenly, she noticed a gale of wind cut through the squadron ahead of her. Cherche spun, looking around. Two figures were standing on top of a bell tower, blasting wind spells. One had a cloak of red, the other a black greatcoat. Cherche narrowed her eyes. She gestured to another squad to evade as a wind spell ripped through the air around them. She gestured to the squadron.

-Streets-

“Robin, we’ve got a squadron coming after us.” Vermil said. “Looks like they’re angry.”

“What, did we annoy them?” Robin said. “Can you stop them?”

“I think if we double-cast Rexcaliber we might be able to.” Vermil said. “You have one, right?”

“Have one, yes.” Robin drew it out. A group of wyverns dived towards them. Robin swallowed. “I’m just not good at casting B-class spells.”

“If you don’t, we die.” Vermil said. “But I think we’ll pull this off.”

“You’re awfully calm.” Robin sighed.

“It’s my focus. I can’t be nervous when I’m casting spells, or I won’t put my all into it.” Vermil said. “You need inner resolve now! Formulas only help to a point.”

Focus. Right. If we can’t stop them here, they might go towards the camps. Robin thought. And Ravena’s there. I thought it was the safest spot. I can’t leave a girl with a dark gift like that alone in my manor. White hot anger burned within him. It’s not right! I promised I’d protect her. And I’m not breaking my promises.

Something unlocked deep within Robin. An inner resolve he didn’t know he possessed. He felt energy flair up around him as his focus went razor-sharp. “I’m ready, Vermil.”

“Oh, sword of the wind. Head my call, for I am worthy to wield your might.” Robin and Vermil chanted. Magic flared up around them, wind whistling in their face. They thrust their right hands at the oncoming wyverns. “Become the unending gale that will cleave through my foes! REXCALIBER!”

A massive torrent of wind blew off the pair of mages, slamming into the wyverns. A series of loud cracks echoed as their wings were shattered. Robin had a single moment to watch them before they plummeted, heavy armor and all.

Robin fell, gasping. “Oh, that took the wind out of me.”

“How do you feel?” Vermil asked. “Allright?”

“I’ve cast B-class tomes before.” Robin got to his feet. “But I think I’ve actually got it this time. You were right about that focus helping.”

“Yeah. I figured it out because – you know.” Vermil sighed. “My diminutive magic power. Anyway, we’ve got company again.” Vermil gestured. Another group was heading towards them.

“No worry.” A salvo of arrows and magic intercepted them. Robin caught a flash of pink as the lead rider spiraled away after being hit with an arrow. His eyes narrowed. Her. Vermil looked to see the anti-wyvern unit on the roof next to them. Robin waved. “This area is now wyvern free, or wyvern dead.”

“So that’s the plan.”

“Yup.” Robin grinned. “Anyway, we’re good. Let’s go.” He slid down the roof and swung into the window. Vermil followed him. They ran down the stairs, where a bloodied Zulas and Dant were waiting by the entrance. Argeni was focused on healing Zulas.

“Worked?” Zulas asked.

“Yeah.” Robin nodded. “The anti-wyvern units are going to spread from this point, using the rooftops as areas to destroy swarms.”

“I don’t understand.” Argeni frowned. “Why is this more effective than integrating the anti-flyers?”

“Follow me.” Robin took off at a spring. The rest followed him. Robin explained as they ran. “The Rosanneans are trained to fight anti-fliers, of course. Now, an entire group of them can take out the half-dozen anti-fliers in an army unit, before slaughtering the rest. But a group of entirely anti-wyvern can kill them right back. If we establish them on rooftops, we can create safe sections of the city, and retreat to them.”

“You knew they would do that?” Argeni said. “Wow, you really are the greatest tactician.”

“Now, I didn’t know they would do that.” Robin said. “I did know they’d use entirely wyvern-composed companies, but I didn’t predict this. This is a work of a tactical mastermind, someone who was willing to sacrifice their entire hand to deal a crushing blow to Valm. Even with the countermeasures we help start, we’ll lose ten of thousands to those wyverns. Maybe even more.”

“So what are we doing.” Argeni said. “Stopping them?”

“Not quite. We aren’t large enough in number, and I just hope my orders go around. I’m reasonably confident they will, though.” Robin said, darting through an alleyway. “I saw something.”

“Saw what?” Zulas asked.

“A pink-haired wyvern rider.” Robin said. “She was in that second wave and managed to escape. Her wyvern was wounded, and she couldn’t get far. We need to find her.”

A roar of a wounded beast interrupted them. Robin stopped and stared up. “There.”

-Rooftop-

“Quartz. Or, I should say, Robin Obsidian. I should have expect you to be here.” The pink-haired knight was there, tending to her injured wyvern. “Thank you for taking Fort Bastein from us.”

“Well met by dying light, Cherche.” Robin said to the pink-haired knight.

“You know her, Robin?” Zulas asked. “How?”

“We met, briefly.” Robin said. “There’s unfinished business between us.”

“That’s true.” Cherche stepped up from tending her wyvern and drew her axe. “Unfinished business.”

“Stand back.” Robin said. He raised his hand. “That’s an order. This is between me and her. In fact, leave this rooftop altogether.”

“Robin…” Zulas frowned.

“Calm down, Zulas.” Robin gestured with his spear. “At this point, we’ll do nothing but exchange blows.”

“Aye, sir.” Zulas nodded and left, along with the others.

“Just us, alone.” Cherche said. “You were supposed to be on our side.”

“You were a fool if you believed that.” Robin said, bluntly. “You were using me. And I was using you. We merely had a set of goals in common. You wanted to win. And I needed Excellus to lose. Hence the alliance. But that alliance was temporary.”

“I see.” Rage flared in Cherche’s eyes. “Is this all a game to you!? You sacrificed your own ally to gain power! What kind of monster does that?”

“Ask whatever strategist gave you this plan.” Robin said. He saw the flicker of uncertainty in Cherche’s eyes. “You know him, don’t you? He’s the same as me – willing to sacrifice to achieve ultimate victory. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't cast stones.”

“My liege is nothing like you. He’s fighting to protect that which he loves, while you just want power.” Cherche spat and drew her weapon. Her rage suddenly turned to a saccharine smile “Now, how do we settle this?”

“I betrayed you.” Robin said. “And if anyone finds out that I sold the plans to you, I’ll be labeled a traitor. You can’t run, and I can’t let you live. Therefore, we have no choice but to settle this, here and now.”

“So one of us isn’t leaving here alive.” Cherche said. “I’d think you were honorable, but you can’t have your friends finding out about this, can you?” She smiled. “That’s the reason, right?”

“Dant already knows. Vermil, well, he’s kind of oblivious to tactics as a whole, and doesn’t have a clue how I do half the things I do. Argeni, well I think she’d understand if she ever put the pieces together.” Robin said. “Zulas – well, he’s an idealist. He’s lying to himself right now, even though he knows better. If he ever found out – well, that’d mean the death of one of us. So, you are correct. Now, shall we fight?”

“My beloved country is in shambles. My wyvern can’t fly. And I’m all alone. I have nothing to lose.” Cherche patted her wyvern on the head. “Minerva, save your strength. I don’t even your help to kill this bird of ill omen. After all, I have nothing to lose – and everything to gain.”

Never leave your opponent no escape. Robin remembered too late. I’ll have to make do. He drew his spear. Cherche lunged forward, moving with a speed that belied the fact she fought mounted. Robin barely had time to dive out the way, before coming up in a roll and stabbing. Cherche caught the spear with her axe and deflected it. Then she charged in. Robin got to his feet and leapt backwards. Too late.

Red glistened on Cherche’s axe. A thin line of red ran down Robin’s forehead. A clean, shallow cut. Cherche smiled. “First blood.”

It’s not a serious wound. Robin focused. She fights with speed, I guess? And her axe. So, speed and strength. Let’s see about landing a blow. Robin lunged forward, twirling his spear around and unleashed a salvo of thrusts, as Zulas had taught him. It was meant to fight sword wielder, but it would work against agile sword wielders.

Cherche took the rain of blows, deflecting off her black armor, then struck back. Robin managed to parry it, sweeping the axe out and spun a quick 180, striking her hard in the chest with the back end of his spear. His blow struck hard and true, sending Cherche backwards, gasping for breath.

Robin finished his spin and went in with a sweep aimed at her unprotected face. Cherche batted it aside with her ungloved hand and resumed her stance. Robin for his part took two steps backwards and caught his breath. Almost worked. But that’s not going to happen a second time.

“No magic?” Cherche taunted him. “You can’t beat me like this.”

I was planning on that anyway. “Thunder!” Robin thrust his left hand forward. Cherche dodged the ball of lightning, but it bought Robin enough time to get a thick tome from his holster. He raised his hand, arcane glyphs appearing around him. “Cage of lightning! Arcthunder!”

A lightning matrix appeared, surrounding the pink-haired knight. Cherche reached into a pouch on her waist and chugged a glass vial of clear liquid. The lightning struck her as she walked through it, but she did nothing more than wince.

“Thirsty?” Robin asked, as he pulled out a vial of his own, downing it. “So am I.”

“No, that’s pure water. It’s…” Cherche frowned. “Wait, was that a joke? And what was that?”

“Yes, I know that’s pure water. I just wanted to be on the other end of that for once.” Robin thrust with his spear. Cherche blocked, and Robin slammed a lightning-holding hand on her axe and released its power. “And that was a magical tonic.”

The roof exploded with force, sending them back. Robin got up first, smelling ozone. Cherche got to her knees, shaky from the electricity overload. Electricity crackled through her body, giving her spasms. She managed to stabilize herself by leaning on her axe, only to see Robin aiming another spell at her.

“Sorry about this.” Robin raised his hand up high. Lightning from the sky struck it, forming a nexus around it. Electricity crackled. He pointed it at Cherche, swapping for the strongest lightning tome he carried on him. “But I just learned how to focus enough. No hard feelings?”

“Today is not a good day to die.” Cherche managed to get out. She held her axe in shaking fingers. Robin would only have a few moments until the electric shock wore off. “But I wouldn’t do any different in your shoes.”

“Thoron.”

Electricity coursed through Robin as he fired a lightning bolt with the power of a storm behind it. It would kill the creature it struck, with certainty. But as he cast the bolt, he became aware of a dark shadow dropping in front of Cherche. The electrify stuck the shadow, which gave a single howl, lost among the hundreds like it around them. The sound of a dying wyvern.

“MINERVA!” Cherche was by the creature’s side in an instant. The beast whimpered softly as electricity sparked through it. Robin could only stare, shocked beyond words. Minerva coughed softly, once. Then her eyes closed, and the wyvern went still.

Oh no.

Cherche turned around with rage in her eyes. “You. Killed. Minerva.”

Robin summoned his lightning again as Cherche rushed him. He blasted her at point blank with all the magic he could muster. He was drained from casting Thoron, but even still, the energy was enough to overwhelm any foe. At least that’s what he thought.

Cherche took the blast, point blank, and simply took her axe to him. He had nothing to defend himself, so the blade cut across his chest, a deep gash, cutting through cloth, skin, muscle, and into bone. Robin was standing one moment. Then he fell, his chest nothing but red.

Pain exploded in his chest as he gave a single loud cry. His vision went blurry, but he could see Cherche reaching up to deliver the coup de grace. She was going to make sure he was dead. It seems that she wasn’t going to do anything different.

“NO!” A figure sprang out and attacked Cherche. Robin couldn’t see clearly, but the person was somehow managing to hold her at bay.

“Stay with me, Robin.” Something had taken hold of his hand. Someone. Robin blinked, and Zulas appeared. “OPEN YOUR EYES!”

“I … ordered … you … away.” Robin couldn’t talk well. What was wrong with him? Something was in his lungs. Something wet.

“ ….rew ord…!” He couldn’t hear clearly now. “…geni w… heal…”

Light washed over him. He could feel it, pouring into him. Maybe it would be enough. Maybe. But maybes weren’t for tactician like him. There were only definites. And the wound was definitely lethal. It would take a healer beyond the power of Argeni to heal him now.

No it’s not!”

“What?” Robin said, softly.

“GET UP! I won’t let you fall here!” Energy flowed into him. More healing energy. “I need to remember! Remember your goal. Your purpose!”

“The world to build. For Ravena.” The word popped into Robin’s head, unbidden. “IGNIS!”

 

“RAH!” Robin stood up. His chest was still bloody, but the bleeding had stopped. Ugly purple scar tissue had formed over it. His arms and legs felt like they were being dragged through thick mud. He had a throbbing headache. But he was alive. And purple fire was lit around him.

Zulas and Vermil had teamed up to hold the berserk Cherche at bay. Argeni was pouring healing energy into him – alongside Dant. The woman had two purple orbs in her hands and was pouring raw dark energy into him, a look of intense concentration on her face.

“Dant?”

The woman gave no answer.

“I killed you.” Cherche howled. “I KILLED you!” Robin saw the pink-haired knight dodge a thrust from Zulas and crack her elbow into him, sending him flying. Vermil summoned up a fireball, but Cherche hurled a throwing axe at him, forcing him to dodge. She set her feet and charged at Robin. “WELL DIE AGAIN!”

Robin stood up, purple flames cascading over him. Argeni kept her staff on him, muttering in disbelief.  Robin picked up his spear and focused his purple flames into it. Then he simply caught the axe. “See, here’s the thing, Cherche. You have nothing to live for, and that makes you dangerous. But I have things to live for. And that’s make me worse.”

“Ambition? You’re just power hungry.” Cherche snarled.

“Power hungry for what!” Robin said. “It’s the step everyone gets hung up on. I don’t care for power for power’s sake! I have gifts, and I must use them!”

“To what end!? WHAT END!?” Cherche strained.

“I understand.” Robin said. “I know how I must look – like a villain. But I promise you, that isn’t me. Sometimes, innocents get caught within the gears of machinations. But I fight so that might not happen.” Robin’s powered flared up. He shoved forward, shattering Cherche’s axe. He spun the spear once, and stabbed her. His spear went clean through her chest. Cherche looked down and sighed. “Poor… me…”

Then she fell. Robin saw her, slowly drop to the ground, blood pouring from her chest wound. “Argeni. Dant.” Robin stammered. “Save her. Please.”

Argeni rushed over with her staff. Dant shook her head, exhausted. “I can’t… sorry. Haven’t used healing magic… in ages.”

“It’s all right.” Argeni said. “You missed her vitals, Robin. But what should we do with her?”

“I couldn’t bear leaving her to die.” Robin sighed. “It’s funny. I can kill Rosanne without pause by issuing orders. But once I know their name, their face, know that they’re a human – it seems I can’t. Anyway, we have nothing to gain from her death at this point.”

“Nothing?” Zulas asked.

“The wyverns are being routed.” Robin said. “Surrender will happen before the last light of the day. Argeni, Dant, would you mind dressing her in Valmese armor, and taking her to the mansion?”

“Not in front of you, obviously.” Dant said. “But, yeah, that’s easy.”

“Wait.” Zulas said. “We’re taking an enemy in? As one of our own?”

“She won’t be an enemy once her side surrenders.” Dant said, mildly.

“Then why the deceit?” Zulas said.

“So we don’t have to explain ourselves to every knucklehead like you.” Dant said.

“And where did you learn healing magic from!?” Zulas said.

Dant raised a slow eyebrow. “You’re questioning your good fortune? Wow.”

“Dant. Be civil.” Robin dropped and groaned. “You can tell them.”

“Fine.” Dant sighed. “I’m Darkgifted. Like Ravena. I had a rough childhood and was forced to pick up skills fast. I’ve learned a bit of just about everything during my travels.”

“You knew?” Zulas turned to Robin. “Of course you did. I didn’t give you that mask so you could hide secrets from me.”

No, that’s exactly why you gave me that mask. You’re just annoyed you found out about it. Robin grimaced. “She asked me to keep it a secret. It was one of the conditions for her helping me.”

“Well, that’s that!” Argeni brightly said. Fortunately, since she said it, Zulas simmered down. “It’s nice to know more about you, Dant. Anyway, you two need to leave if we’re going to re-armor her.”

“Right.” Robin said. A large horn went off as he said that. Then again, in a specific pattern. “Oh. That’s good.”

“Surrender?” Argeni asked. “That one meant surrender, right?”

“Surrender.” Robin confirmed. “The entirety of this continent is now – officially – under Walhart’s boot. Hooray.”

 

-Report to Robin from Anna, XX/X/XX-

So, anyway, war happened. Ylisse won. Seriously. Most of Plegia deserted, thanks to her sacrifice, and Gangrel was killed by Chrom on the fields of battle. Looks like peace reigns supreme on this side of the ocean. How’s your side going?

Chapter Text

“You know.” Robin said to an empty room as he scribbled furiously across a page. “I wouldn’t have won this war if it meant dealing with all this paperwork.

“That’s more because you successfully deposed Excellus than winning the war, you know.” Dant said, standing in the doorway. "This whole thing couldn't have been avoided if you hadn't done that. Ah, the folly of your own decisions."

“Where did you come from?” Robin asked, still writing. “And, better yet, can you, I don’t know, help me with this?”

“My penmanship is noticeably different than yours.” Dant said. “I’m never been a good forger. Or even an adequate one. Anyway, it’s nice to know the reason you’re burying yourself in work is because you actually have work to bury yourself in. Unlike last time.”

“I know.” Robin sighed. He massaged his temples. “Another hour, and I’m taking a break to spend some time with Ravena. You know, she’s actually a good tactician.”

“Really, now?” Dant raised an eyebrow. “I never would have guessed.”

“I taught her chess the other week. She picked in up in five games.” Robin said. “Of course, it took her three more to beat me, but still! That was fast.”

“She beat you at chess?” Dant snickered. “That’s great. The almighty crimson tactician, losing to his own daughter in chess.”

“I’m no good at chess.” Robin said. “There are-”

“-too few unpredictable variables.” Dant rolled her eyes. “And speaking of unpredictable, why did you decide to disband the squad?”

“I didn’t.” Robin sighed. “We still exist – on paper, anyway. You four are all still the highest rank officers I have – well, the highest ranked officers under my direct control.”

“Did you notice the amount of qualifications you threw on there?” Dant sighed. “Vermil is off to who-knows-were teaching magic, Zulas is conducting drills – across the continent! – and Argeni is a few klicks away, but might as well be miles, because she’s helping you smooth into politics as Valm Tactician.”

“The truth sucks, Dant.” Robin said. “And after tomorrow, you’ll be gone too.”

“My deep-cover assignment.” Dant scowled. “Is it really necessary?”

“Yes.” Robin said. “Dant, you know that we couldn’t keep this going. We aren’t the Shepherds. We have actual organization and structure. Once I was promoted, it was only a natural consequence. But we can all still keep in touch.”

“How touching.” Dant grimaced. “Ugh, I can't believe I said. Anyway, you have a meeting with Walhart tomorrow. It’s about something important, I just don’t know what.”

“With Walhart, it’s always something.” Robin said. “I have figured out what true power is, though that’ll be nice.”

“Really?” Dant asked. “Huh.”

“Speaking of, how do you define true power?”

“Finally got around to asking me. Honestly? I don’t care.” Dant said. “I just do what I need to do and learn what I need to learn. I work, so my skills don't get rusty. And, as long as I've got you, I've got no shortage of that.”

“Right.” Robin said. “I thought so. Anything else?”

“I caught Zulas and Argeni kissing the other day.”

“What?”

“I caught Zulas and Argeni-”

“I heard you the first time, don’t get smart with me.” Robin sighed. “I thought I told you not to spy on the rest of them.”

“It was an accident.” Dant’s tone didn’t sound too convincing.

“That, and a three hundred and fifty gold will get me a bronze sword.” Robin rolled his eyes. “Um, did I miss something here, or was that awfully fast?”

“More the latter, I think.” Dant said. “War can make hormones go crazy. They’re kind of riding a high after the high stakes battle where you almost got killed, the end of the grand Valm campaign, and then you deciding to split them up for who-knows-how-long. Honestly, it’s kind of surprising it only stopped at kissing. Which, mind you, is too far already, but not to the point of disastrously far.”

“I don’t need your commentary.”

“Yes, you do.” Dant said. “You are terrible at this whole ‘romance’ thing. You do realize that there is a list – not a small list, mind you, a large list – of eligible women in Valm’s court that are just waiting to be courted by you. And you’ve gotten no less than three full marriage proposals.”

“That’s not for me, though. That’s just for my titles.” Robin waved his hand. “You can just burn them all.”

“That’s not the best idea.”

“I said to kill it with fire.”

“Right-o. You’re the boss.” Dant shrugged. “Probably for the best, considering one of those marriage offers was from Duke Cratez. For Argeni. That would … complicate things.”

Robin sighed again. “I know I promised Zulas I’d help, but this is kind of too soon. Can we give him a title of nobility? Walhart did that to me.”

“Walhart has the lucky advantage of nobody willing to challenge him.” Dant said. “You don’t have that luxury, y’know, being a foreigner and holding one of the highest positions in court. If he does something truly outstanding, then maybe.”

“Right.” Robin frowned. Then an idea struck him. “Wait. Actually, can you accept Duke Cratez’s offer?"

“I can. I mean, I'm not going to because I'm not your secretary, and my ability to impersonate one doesn't make me so, which means you'll have to do it.” Dant said, frowning. “But that is literally the most un-bro move I have ever seen.”

"Why? That’d get the stress off my back and stop the flow of political faux paus by refusing all the other women. And have Argeni completely unavailable to every other suitor. We'll just have to have a long engagement period.” Robin said, frowning. “Very long. In fact, indefinite, until I can find a good reason to break it off and substitute Zulas in place.”

“I take it back. That is actually a decently fine bro move.” Dant said. “Should I carry the message for them, or…?”

“Yes, for all that is holy, tell them!” Robin said. “In fact, let's not do anything unless both of them are fine with it! The last thing I need is infighting.”

“M’okay.” Dant said. “I’ll be off preparing.”

“How’s the guest, by the way?”

“Still unconscious.” Dant frowned. “Probably.”

 "Estimates?"

"Honestly? She's fine. We've healed the wound, and her body's almost recovered." Dant said. "If she doesn't wake up soon, she's probably never waking up."

"Thank you for the grim prognosis, Dant." Robin sighed. "Just ... hold down the fort. I've got a Conqueror to talk to."

 -Throne Room-

“Tactician.” Walhart said. “Thank you for coming.”

“My pleasure, Conqueror.” Robin said, kneeling. “What is thy bidding, my master?”

“Hmph.” Walhart stepped off his thrown and started walking towards him. “Is there a need for such theatrics, Robin?”

“No. But they amuse me.” Robin said.

“Ah, yes. You most certainly are more amusing than Excellus, and that’s even without secretly plotting to overthrow me with that Plegian harlot like he was." Walhart smiled. "I believe her name was Aversa?”

Robin couldn’t keep the look of shock from his face. “You knew?”

“Of course.” Walhart said. “I also know you’re keeping a Rosannean girl in your manor. Though I do wonder. If you knew about Excellus’s plans, why did you go through all the trouble of rigging that trap for him?”

Breath. Inhale. Exhale. Just because Walhart knows Cherche is recovering in my house means nothing. After all, I haven’t exactly been discrete about the fact I took a wounded soldier directly to my manor, and he doesn’t necessarily know that we’ve been in contact. The first step is to avoid the trap, though.

“I don’t know what you mean when you say I ‘trapped’ Excellus. His greed was his own downfall, and I most certainly had nothing to do with it.” Robin said. “However, some of the papers I took from his estate indicated that, in addition to betraying me, he was intending to betray you as well. Of course, I only learned about it after Excellus’s death. In fact, I have one of my lieutenants, Dant, undergoing a deep cover assignment in Plegia as we speak.”

“I believe that.” Walhart said. “Regardless, I did not bring you here to discuss your loyalty. I think you have the sense to not challenge me. I came here to reward you.”

“Is that why we’re alone?” Robin asked.

“Something like that.” Walhart smiled. “I don’t need guards, and if they overheard, I would have to have them killed. What I’m about to tell you is a secret of the highest order.”

“I understand.”

“Good. There is a plot underway.” Walhart said. “A plot to destroy the human race, once and for all, and to once again have this world inhabited by dragons.”

Dragons?” Robin said, blinking. “I’m sorry, what did you say? A plot to destroy the human race?”

“Yes.” Walhart said. “Are you acquainted with the belief systems of Plegia and Ylisse?”

“No. Yes. Wait.” Robin frowned. “Right, Argeni told me about them. Ylisse worships the Divine Dragon Naga, and Plegia worships the Fell Dragon, Grima. The priests of Grima are known as the Grimleal. They’ve been active lately.”

“Yes.” Walhart said. “Thirty years ago, the cult was preparing its largest ritual. In response, the Ylissean Exalt at the time, father to the current Exalt, lead a holy crusade against them. The war was long, bloody, and by its end, one in four men had died within each nation. But, for some reason, it worked. The cult forewent its preparations but did not … desist from them. It seemed that they were waiting for something, a ‘final piece’ that the Ylissean Exalt had managed to stop them from obtaining.”

“I’m sorry.” Robin said. “But this is going too fast. Do you expect me to believe that the first Ylissean-Plegian war was over some mad ritual?”

“Stranger things have happened throughout our own history.” Walhart mused. “My ancestor, Alm, united the continent to destroy a dragon himself. But yes, that is what is happening. I guarantee it.”

Robin had no response to that. Wait, there was one.

"You were descended from Alm?"

"I prefer to think of myself more of a successor to his father, Emperor Rudolf." Walhart clarified. "Regardless, dragons have seemed to be pulling the strings behind several of the more prominent events in history. And it seems this period will not happen without exception."

"I see. I have some reading up to do."

“If this ritual succeeds, then Grima shall awaken.” Walhart said. “I don’t know the exact nature of the ritual, for it seems to be guarded by the hierophant of Plegia. He is also a very difficult man to kill. But I know something.” Walhart drew forth a brilliant green gemstone.

Robin blinked, forcing himself to look away.

“This is Vert.” Walhart said. “The Chon’sin safeguarded it until they could not, and then it was mine. It is one of two upon this continent, the other is held by Lady Tiki, the Voice of Naga. There are three more. The Ylissian Exalt holds one, but I don’t know where the other two are. All five are required, along with the Shield of Seals to complete the ritual. So long as I have this, the ritual will not be completed. This, I know for sure, as one of Aversa's condition was to obtain this item at all costs.”

“I understand.” Robin said. “So that’s the reason.”

“Reason?” Walhart said.

“Yes. I figured out what power was.” Robin said.

“Do tell.”

“It’s an illusion.” Robin said. “Or, rather, the chase for it is. Power is just, after all is said and done, a measurement. A relative measurement, at that. My power as a tactician only exists because I am better than everyone else. You could simply say that power is something that you are best at that other people are not. And that also means that, since some powers are mutually exclusive, that there will always be someone with a power you do not have. My lieutenants, for instance, all possess power I do not. But that’s fine, because, after all, power is just a means. It is not an end, nor will it ever be an end. Pursuing power because you believe it to be ‘true’ or perhaps to be the ‘ideal’ is a fool’s errand.”

“On that last point, we agree.” Walhart said. “But if power is merely a means, then what is the end?”

“Whatever ‘end’ you have, of course.” Robin said. “Power is only used to achieve the end. Now, for meager men, the desire is selfish. For you, it's to stop this ritual. But for me – it’s protection. Of myself, so I can protect others. And for others, to protect yet more.”

“Insufficient.” Walhart said.

“Conqueror?” Robin said. “Isn’t your reason to conquer the continent to stop the Grimleal?”

“It appears you have yet to … outgrow … your weakness.” Walhart said. “You have power yourself, but like you said, there are always those with power you do not have. Can it ever be said then, that you have ‘real power’?”

“It may seem not.” Robin said.

“And yet, I say that it is so.” Walhart smiled. His white eyes blazed with zealotry. “Tactician, I shall have to correct your arrogant, erroneous thinking. Power is when you have it, and no one else does. It will not be until the point that I am truly conqueror of the entire realm that I have achieved power, achieved freedom. You are correct that I wish to stop the Grimleal. But that is because I view them as rivals to the same goal I have. It is not because I share some foolish notion of heroism. Truthfully, if they have the means to overpower me, perhaps they deserve their victory. But they do not - that is why I am the Conqueror.”

“But- Conqueror.” Robin stammered. “No, I don’t think that’s true. How would that make you different from a man who believed he had conquered the whole world when all he had was but an island and knew nothing else?”

“Your sophistry does not interest me.” Walhart said. “If we were to fight, here and now, who would win?”

“You, Conqueror.”

“Exactly. You may win the game of minds, but you will lose the direct confrontation.” Walhart smiled. “Power lies in the heart, not in the head. You only feel the way you do because you do not possess the strength otherwise. Should you posses it, your mind will change. Let us see…”

“GAH!” The verdant stone flared brilliantly, channeling energy into Robin. Unbidden, he felt the power of Ignis, the magic he had used back in Parise, flare up around him, creating a purple blaze that surrounded him. Energy forced its way into him, and Robin felt it channel through the veins in his body. Slowly, he became numb from his extremities, until the feeling worked its way all the way into his chest, then up to his head. He gave one last cry as his eyelid was forced shut and darkness overtook him.

 -???-

“This is it! Our final battle! You're one of us, Robin, and no "destiny" can change that. Now let's kill this dastard and be done with it!” A memory? Someone in blue hair was leading in through an underground temple. Lightning flared around his fingertips.

“If Validar somehow does gain control over me... Promise me... Promise me you'll cut me down.” That was … his voice? It sounded so weird. Like it wasn’t even him.

“Yes, well, we play the roles we're given, Robin, as you'll soon discover.” Now he was fighting someone. Someone darkgifted. A sword was in his hands? But Robin didn’t use swords. And who was he fighting? A white-haired witch on a black pegasi.

You have power… like mine.” Robin blinked. A beautiful green-haired woman was standing before him. With pointed ears. A manakete?

“This is not your- your fault.” The blue haired man was back, now with a crackling bolt of lightning in his chest. Did Robin do that? His hand was crackling with lightning. “Promise me you’ll escape from this place… please, go…”

 -Throne Room-

“Gah!” Robin snapped back into focus, kneeling before Walhart. “What was that?”

“Did you see something, tactician?” Walhart asked. "I had hunch you would react to the stone."

“Memories.” Robin frowned. “They’re mine, I think. Maybe they’re how I lost them?”

“I see.” Walhart drew a crimson sword and tossed it to him. “Try this.”

Robin caught the blade and fell into a stance. He took a few experimental swipes with it. The balance was correct, but the reach was a little longer than he was used too so he adjusted to a different stance and swung again. “This is a fine blade. It’s a Sol blade, isn’t it?”

“Yes. And that was an Ylissean dueling stance.” Walhart said. “You’ve traveled far, tactician, to be able to use it.” And it was at that moment Robin realized that the Sol blade was a master-level sword that he was wielding effortlessly, with a practiced stance. But he had abandoned his attempts at swordplay to learn spearcraft. Hadn't he?

“What.” Robin blinked. “How is that possible?”

“The world is full of many strange things, Robin.” Walhart said. “I suspected the gemstone would resonate within you, but why I do not know. I have guesses - but that can wait for another time. Should you figure this out, that may tell you something about your past. Now, how do you feel?”

“Amazing.” Robin said. “It seems … well it seems that some of my skills were locked behind my amnesia.” He raised his hands. Lightning appeared on it, crackling as the tactician smiled. “This might take some getting used to.”

“Very well.” Walhart smiled. “Count Robin Obsidian, I hereby name you the Battlemaster of the Valmese army. Yen’fay’s army will be under your control, and, except for me, you outrank every other person of rank within the Valm Empire.”

"Quite the promotion." Robin flinched. “Conqueror. May I be frank?”

“I expect nothing less.”

“Why do you trust me?” Robin asked. “We don’t share the same views.”

“It seems to me, Battlemaster, that I don’t need to trust you for you to perform well. Or, perhaps as you might put it: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Walhart said. “From my perspective, though, I look forward to the day when we clash and we see which of the two of us are stronger. You represent the purest form of your own strength - far more than a tactician like Excellus had. I am not weak enough”

“Very well.” Robin swallowed. No, I can’t leave on that note. He looked up. “I sincerely hope I provide you with a challenge when that happens.”

“Ha! Now that is what I wanted from you. I knew you would entertain me when I incorporated you into my army, but I had no idea to this extent.” Walhart said. “What do you intend now, Battlemaster?”

“My lieutenants can finish the suppression campaigns and help build up the army towards the invasion of Archaneia.” Robin said. “As for myself, the Ylissean Exalt is getting married to the adopted daughter of a Feroxi Khan. It wouldn’t do for us not to attend.”

“Hmm.” Walhart said. “Do you have plans beyond that?”

“Of course.” Robin said. “Shall I tell you them now?”

“Do not trouble me with the mundane, Battlemaster.” Walhart said. “Go forth and conquer.”

 -Robin's Manor-

“He’s insane.” Robin said. “Insane.

“Are you only figuring this out now?” Dant asked. “I mean, how long have you been fighting for this guy?”

“I didn’t think he was doing it just to do it!” Robin said. “Look, infighting on this continent is nothing new, but while Walhart is conquering everything, he’s, well, nice about it. No pillaging, no raiding. Most of the new recruits from conquered states just fall in line with his charisma. I thought he was working towards a goal of world peace!”

“No, you didn’t.” Dant said. Robin glared at her. Dant merely shrugged. “You didn’t. It’s only now that the enormity of what he’s trying to do is reaching you.”

“I don’t object to unifying the world.” Robin sighed. “But only for the right reasons. And those aren’t Walhart’s. The man would be contend standing on an island by himself, if he didn’t know the existence of any other islands.”

“What do you plan on doing?”

“Help him, for now.” Robin frowned. “I just disagree with his motives, not his actions. Plegia and Ylisse have fought back-to-back wars of near total annihilation. That’s got to stop and some point, and it’s only going to stop when one of them are dead, or we make it stop.”

“So you will go along with your invasion of Archaneia?”

“That’s not for another five years, at the least. We’ve got preparations to make for an overseas campaign like that.” Robin said. “Plenty of time to figure out what to do in the interim. Sabotage, assassination, open revolt - they're all on the table for now.”

“Openly talking treason?” Dant smirked. “Can we do this more often?”

“Walhart basically told me he expects it from me. We need more actors. That’s what it comes down to.” Robin said. “I need more pieces on my side of the board. I need more information, as well. Walhart told me about a ritual that can destroy the world.” Robin looked at Dant. "Know anything?"

“What?” Dant threw her hands up. “I don’t know everything. Especially a secret closely guarded within the Ylissean family.”

“Fine. We need to know information about that. And dragons.” Robin sighed. “I have a feeling this is going to be a very busy trip.”

“Trip?” Dant perked up. “Where are you going?”

“The wedding.” Robin said. “I just need to pick up a bodyguard, now that you’re gone.”

"Don't look at me." Dant said. "I'm gone in a few hours. Deep cover assignment."

“You were never my choice.” Robin said. He flexed his hand. “Walhart gifted me with a few new abilities when he promoted me to Battlemaster. I have a debt to repay, and I intend to repay it in full.”

 -Deep Forest-

“Say’ri.” Robin said. “Thank you for meeting me here.”

“I have come here with one reason only.” Say’ri raised her blade. “I will kill you, Robin. Your bodyguard isn’t here right now.”

“I want to talk.”

“Fie!” Say’ri vanished. Robin barely got his spear up in time to block her lightning-fast slash. “You told me you didn’t believe in the Conqueror’s ideals!”

“I don’t.” Robin shoved back and hurricaned the spear over his head, forcing Say’ri to keep the distance. “I told you that already.”

“Your actions speak louder than your words.” Say’ri backflipped and rushed him low, under the spear. Robin leapt up, scything it around. Say’ri managed to roll to avoid it, then was forced to parry against Robin’s thrust. "I know of your betrayal of Rosanne!"

“Actions louder than words? What if I told you that my philosophy was similar to Walhart’s, similar enough to his that my actions would be the same for now, until the point at which they weren’t?” Robin said. “What if I told you my ideals were the same as yours?”

“You speak in lies and hypocrisy!” Say’ri was furious. “What you speak of cannot exist!”

“I say it can. I am the Battlemaster. What I say becomes reality." Robin tossed aside his spear. "The duty of the strong is to protect the weak. I believe that, as you do. I just choose to express my ideals differently from you. I choose to express them in ways that can actually accomplish my ends.”

Say’ri lunged, a perfect Chon’sin thrust. Robin snap-drew his silver sword, deflecting it past him. Say’ri stared at him, dumbfounded. “But you cannot fight with swords.”

“I am the Battlemaster. I say I can.” Robin shoved the blade and began an assault of his own. “Does the swordfighter stand like the unbending oak, or does the swordfighter move like a willow in the breeze?”

“Both sides have their merits.” Say’ri kept her stance flexible, deflecting Robin’s battery of thrusts.

“And the same to ideals.” Robin said. I have to time this right, or this is not going to work. “Sometimes, you must be rigid in your ideal for it to succeed. And sometimes you must be flexible. Sometimes the good of now must be sacrificed for the future of better.”

“And you claim to do that?” Say’ri backflipped and set her stance. Her sword was ready to perform the ultimate swordmaster’s technique. “You claim to be acting for the greater good? Even if that was true, it would make you no better than Walhart!”

“I’ve discarded my honor by joining Walhart?” Robin asked. He walked forward, sword held in a guard position.

“Yes! Like my brother!” Say’ri’s eyes flared. “Astra!

Ignis!” Robin cried. Check and mate.

In the end, Say’ri was a skilled Chon’sin warrior. But Robin apparently had fought stronger swordmasters than Say’ri, because his body knew just what to do, deflecting the thrusts as they came one by one, and shattering the last blow with a magic-enhance strike.

The broken katana went sailing into the air. Robin dropped his blade, caught it, and put it against Say’ri’s neck. She offered no resistance. They stood like that for a while, Robin in his dark cloak, fluttering in the night wind, Say'ri looking on at the moonlight with a single mournful tear of her cheek.

“I have failed.” Say’ri whispered. “Do it.”

“Why? So you can die like Yen’fay?” Robin asked. “I will not let his sacrifice be in vain. He saved my life and I owe him a debt.”

“What?” Say’ri looked at Robin’s hard eyes. “I do not understand.”

“I was there when he committed seppuku.” Robin said. “Do you know why he did it?”

“His shame … caught up with him.”

“No.” Robin shook his head. “It’s because Excellus no longer existed. He no longer threatened to kill you if Yen’fay did not accede to his orders. Your brother did not discard his honor. He chose to protect you, his little sister, and he was willing to go to any lengths to do it. It was only once the threat was gone did he allow himself to die."

“No. That’s impossible!”

“It’s not. I wonder … how different are you, Say’ri?” Robin said calmly. “You knew Yen’fay better than anyone alive. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. And you’ve been running from it. He only joined Walhart to protect you."

"I can't believe that."

Robin withdrew the katana from her neck. “That needs to stop, if you want to honor his memory.”

“The memory of a traitor?”

“He had no choice.” Robin explained. “He swore an oath to Valm, and you were no longer in danger. He took the only way out he knew. But you’ve sworn no oath to Valm. You can finish what he started, once upon a time.”

“Yen’fay was not a traitor.” Say’ri said slowly. “But … that means he was doing it all for me!”

“Yes.” Robin sighed. “I regret to say that is the case, but that only means that you can continue his legacy. And I want to help you.”

“This is your … greater good?” Say'ri said. "Your ... path?"

“Yes.” Robin said. “Recently, I had a talk with Walhart. I need to stop him. And I need allies to do it.”

“Do you expect me to trust you?” Say’ri said. “What if this is a trick?”

“That’s why I fought you. To prove a point.” Robin said. “If I wanted you dead, you would be. Now, let’s try this.” Robin handed the blade to Say’ri. “Let’s see if you want me dead.”

“Is this a trick?”

“No.” Robin turned around and started walking. “You can put the blade in my back if you choose. If you don’t – that means you choose my side.”

“Fie!” Robin blinked as Say’ri appeared in front of him. Her face was a confusing mix of emotions. “I have a question of my own.”

“Ask.”

“Why do you want to help me?”

“Because Yen’fay’s death was my fault.” Robin said. “If I had been more responsible, more thoughtful, that might have been prevented. I – realized that he was protecting you, too late. And I had an unpaid debt in addition to that. He saved my life, once. You are the only way I can pay that.”

“I see.” Say’ri inhaled. “I need time to think.”

“I leave from the coast in two days’ time. The Raven’s Pledge.” Robin said. “If you wish to join me then, I shall arrange it. If you do not, well for the time being you can expect to not be harried until you are ready to give me your reply.”

 -Valm Harbor-

It took Say'ri a surprisingly short amount of time to come to her answer. Her emotions clouded her mind, but for the first time, she wasn't conflicted with herself. Yen'fay hadn't betrayed her. And Robin seemed to seek a path to end war. Odd for a tactician to walk, but she did not believe he was lying to her. Of course, last time she didn't believe he was lying either. So, in less than a day, she had made her way to the coast, asking after Robin's ship. True to his word, no one seemed to be looking for her. Now, she was following her latest line of query. The man she was told was the ship's captain. “Excuse me, I was told that you were the master of the Raven’s Pledge could be found here.”

“Well met, Say’ri.” Robin grinned. “It seems my disguise worked.”

“Robin?” Say’ri blinked. She was in disguise herself, her long black hair tied in a bun and eschewing her ever-present armor for her old riding armor back when she used to ride pegasi. “Is that you?”

Robin’s dark purple coat was swapped with a dark red one, which had a few cosmetic differences. He had dyed his shock white hair to a dark brown, figuring it to be a relatively innocuous color. And he was wearing Zulas’s mask. “Just practicing my disguise. Follow me.”

Say’ri cautiously followed him through the port town as he navigated until he arrived at one ship in particular. It was a warship, with ballistae mounted on it, as well as a few squads of the Conqueror’s crimson soldiers. Before the ship, a small girl was waiting, tapping her foot.

“I know it’s you.” Ravena said. “Nice disguise, though.”

“Hello, Ravena.” Robin said. “Have you made up your mind?”

“Well, I’d like to come with you.” Ravena said. “But who else do you have to watch out for our guest? I’ll have to stay behind.”

“Are you sure you can handle it?”

“If you got the Chon’sin princess to join your side, I think I can handle it.” Ravena said. She smiled at Say’ri. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Who are you? Another one of Robin’s strange friends?”

“His daughter.” Ravena said. “Adopted.”

“I would not have guessed.” Say’ri blinked. “How did that happen?”

“Robin will be glad to explain.” Ravena bowed. “I must be off.”

Robin chuckled as he watched her go. “I take it this means you’ve decided to accompany me?”

“Yes. But with one condition.” Say’ri said.

“And that is?”

“I shall tell you a day out to sea.”

 -Raven's Pledge-

“Good morning, Robin.” Robin nodded back. It was the third day at sea. Say’ri had taken to it almost instantaneously, but despite the fact he must have done it at some point himself, Robin had taken seasick. It took him until the second afternoon to get out his bed, and he didn’t want to face anything Say’ri said on an empty stomach, so he waited until he could get solid food. Say’ri was drinking tea. Robin had a single glass of water.

“Morning, Athena.” They’d agreed upon the name. It made more sense for her to use a pseudonym. “Alright. Now that I’m feeling slightly workable, can you tell me what the condition is?”

“Yes.” Say’ri said. “It required though on my part. You see, I realized that you have never actually lied to me outright, rather you have managed to use an ingenious system of deception to keep me along by manipulating your language and heavily implying things that would be outright falsehoods.”

“Guilty as charged.”

“So, obviously I need some system where I know you will not turn your power of deceit against me.” Say’ri said. “I would also wish for you to see things from my perspective.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I am willing to believe that you are a good person, Robin.” Say’ri said. “But you are not a great person. You have taken steps from Yen’fay, but there is much about honor that you do not understand. I do not mind helping you, but I need to know that I will be helping you, and not sending you further in the abyss.”

“Then what is your solution?”

“This.” Say’ri withdrew her blade and offered it to Robin. “I am ronin. That is the Chon’sin word for a masterless warrior. It is usually a dishonor, however, there are no longer any honorable masters to fight under, so I have determined the path of ronin to be honorable until a master could be found that is worthy. You understand the concept of on and giri, or you would not still hold yourself accountable to my family. Thus, I have determined that you may one day be an honorable master. Therefore, I swear my service to as your samurai. Allow me to be your blade.”

“Wait.” Robin blinked. “Athena, are you sure? Once I accept this, there’s no turning back. Your honor will bind you to your oaths. And you will not agree with the things I’ve done, or some of the things I will do.”

“Now, more than ever. Should you jump at my oaths, I would be concerned.” Say’ri smiled, one of genuine warmth. “But you understand the weight of honor. It is my trust that your understanding will keep you on the right path.”

“I see.” Robin inhaled. Absolutely beautiful. She actually expects that of me. Say’ri truly is an idealist. I can see what Yen’fay was protecting. Robin accepted her sword. “I accept your oath, Say’ri. In return, I shall give you a blade worthy of being known as my sword.” Robin opened a container under his bunk and withdrew a seven-branched sword. “I believe this is yours. The Amatsu.

 -Ylisse-

“We’re clear.” Gerome said, landing his wyvern. “No one’s around for miles.”

“Thank goodness.” Lucina removed her mask and set her hair back. “I honestly don’t know how you can stand it, Gerome.”

“Practice.” The blue-haired wyvern rider said. “You don’t need to keep the mask on, you know.”

“I’d rather not chance my Brand being seen.” Lucina said. She walked to the warehouse where the rest of the children had made their base. Secrecy had necessitated them to build it a ways away from the main base of the Shepherds. Of course, Lucina hadn't intended on inducting the future children into the Shepherds, much less becoming their tactician. But Robin's disappearance had thrown their plan to pieces.

"Remember, Lucina."  Robin's cheerful voice sounded in her head, as she had studied tactics. "You can't ever expect your plan to survive first contact with the enemy."

Robin. Upon my fond memories of you, I swear that I'll stop this future from happening. Lucina sighed. “Hopefully, we can be a bit less cloak and dagger once they finish building out our wing onto the barracks.”

“Commander!” The green-haired knight guarding the door saluted.

“At ease, Kjelle.” Lucina said. “Gerome did a fly-around. There’s no one else here.”

“Right.” Kjelle opened the door. “Commander on deck!”

“There’s no need for this.” Lucina groaned. “I get enough respect as it is among the Shepherds. I’d like nothing more than to relax back here.”

“No problem, darling sister.” Inigo was right beside her. “Perhaps a night out? I’ll find a nice boy for you, and you can find a nice girl for me.”

Lucina smiled. Inigo, in his own way, was always trying to help her. “Perhaps later,” she said. They both knew the day would never happen. “Where’s our cousin?”

“He and Cynthia are escorting Brady.” Inigo said. “Apparently, there’s was a rash of fever in a nearby town.”

“Brady.” Lucina smiled. He was gruff on the exterior, but Lucina never doubted his core. “The gentlest soul of all of us.” She fell on one of the chairs in the room. Across, Noire and Yarne were talking, with Yarne wincing when Noire's alternate personality flaired up. Nah was watching Inigo with puffed out cheeks, but was a bit hesitant to join the conversation. Like usual. “Is Severa on cooking tonight?”

“Yes, and she could use your help!”

Lucina bolted to her feet, only for Inigo to gently push her down. “I’ll handle her, sis. She can’t resist the ol’ Inigo charm.”

Lucina counted to five. She got to three before Inigo was sent out of the kitchen in an ungainly sprawl. Lucina sighed. “Kjelle, would you mind?”

“I’ll do it for you, commander.”

“We’re going to have to get her to knock that off, one day.” Lucina said.

“Why, commander?” Inigo asked. “I think it suits you, commander.”

Lucina resisted the urge to giggle. “Inigo, can we be serious?”

“I think we’ve earned the right to joke.” Inigo sat up. “I mean, we haven’t won yet, but we’re making progress. The war with Plegia is over, Chrom is healthy, and our parent’s wedding is in less than a fortnight. If that’s not a reason to celebrate, I don’t know what is.”

Wingbeats sounded overhead. Lucina instantly put her mask on, only to remove it when she heard a loud muffled curse. “That sounds familiar…”

“Behold! We have journeyed lands far and wide, battling all manner of creature, large and small, all to embellish out name before you!”

“We are – the JUSTICE CABAL!”

“All right you two, knock it off.” The door opened, and Brady, followed by a posing black-haired myrmidon and an alabaster-haired pegasus knight. walked in. “Seriously, why does it have to be those two.”

“Brady!” Lucina said. “You’re back!”

“Yeah, sorry.” Brady sighed. “I would have been sooner, but those two talk a lot.”

“We missed you too, Brady.” Inigo said, amid the chorus of agreements. “Well, we’re all here for once. Except for Laurent. Where’s Laurent?”

“We passed him over here.” Cynthia said as she headed into the condition. “Severa! Can I have food? Ow!”

“Help me or leave!” Severa's temper was on full display. They'd all taken the field during the battle with Gangrel, punching through the line so Chrom could kill him. She'd gotten them off the battlefield, but Cordelia had managed to land a compliment on the unfortunate ginger-haired mercenary. Lucina wondered if that was the reason Severa was on edge.

“Fine, jeez. I'll help.” A loud clatter came from the kitchen. “Oops.”

“JUST LEAVE!”

Lucina and Inigo exchanged glances. “I’ll fix up the mess.” Lucina said. "The rest of you, setup."

Lucina busied herself in the kitchen, cleaning up Cynthia's mess, getting Kjelle to take off her outer armor so she'd have room to work with, and busied herself with slicing the vegetables. Outside, she heard Inigo giving directions to the crew. Her brother liked joking around a lot, but when push came to shove, she felt he'd just as capable of leading the future children as she was. He definitely had surpassed her own swordsmanship, she hadn't as much chance to keep practice juggling a secret identity. 

“Can we eat now?” Cynthia asked.

“I would like to wait for Laurent.” Lucina said. “How far away is he?”

“Well, hmm.” Cynthia thought. “Um, maybe an hour when I passed him? So, five minutes from now.”

“Let’s wait. Besides, I would wait until we’re all here to discuss our next move.”

“Excellent.” The voice came from the door. “Because we’re all here.”

“Laurent?” Lucina asked. “Is that you?”

“And an old friend.” Laurent walked in, followed by an older woman with jet-black hair and her trademark smile. Lucina stared. The 'first' member of the future children. Robin had adopted her on a journey after the Ylisse-Plegian war in her time, and she was always around the children, helping them. When the Shepherds fell, Lucina had become the de facto leader of the resistance, Inigo had become the heart, and Morgan, the darkgifted adopted daughter of the never-married Robin, had been their tactician.

Up until that final day. Lucina had opened the portal, only for Grima to send his strongest champion to stop them. Himself. The dark dragon, in the guise of Robin had relentlessly hunted them. The entire garrison had given their lives for the children to enter through the portal. But when they were done, it was down to Lucina and Morgan against the monster. Morgan, always the tactician, told her that her Brand was the proof that they had come from a future past, and held off Grima so she could get to the portal. Lucina had refused to tell the others, but inside she despaired against seeing her adopted older sister.

“Morgan?”

“Hey!” Morgan smiled. “Sorry it took me a while. But the tactician of the Shepherds is back. And nothing can stop us. Except, for you know.”

"Amnesia." Laurent said. "Unfortunately."

"Yeah! Heh heh." Morgan said. "That's kind of why I didn't come back sooner. I didn't really remember anything, aside from my name. I had no idea what was going on, until I stumbled across Laurent. But don't worry. I'm still as tactical as ever."

"Yup. That's Morgan." Inigo smiled. "I'm-"

"Inigo, right?" Morgan said. "Laurent filled me in. On everything. Don't worry. I'll do everything in my power to make sure this future's right. You can count on me."

Chapter Text

-Robin's Estate-

Cherche awoke with a gasp to find herself lying in a large bed, staring up at the ceiling. She tried moving and immediately regretted it. There was an extraordinary pain in her chest. She lifted the cover to find herself wearing a long gown, like the kind in Rosanne’s hospitals, and bandages on her entire torso under it. But she wasn’t in a Rosanne room. “What happened?” she muttered.

“Oh, you’re awake!” A small girl with jet-black hair was looking at herself in the room’s mirror. She turned to Cherche and blushed. “Sorry, I was supposed to keep an eye on you.”

“To keep me imprisoned?” Cherche asked, wincing as she spoke.

“What? No!” The girl scurried to the cabinet, withdrawing a bottle and a cup of liquid. “We wanted to know the moment you were awake. Of course, the ‘we’ is just down to me now. Here, this should help with the pain. The healers have done all they could, but your body is going to hurt something fierce for a while.”

Cherche accepted the cup and drank it. “Thank you. Who are you?”

“My name is Ravena.” The girl curtsied, or at least tried to. She got it slightly wrong, but Cherche though it was cute anyway. “You’ve been asleep for almost a month.”

“What happened?”

“Do you remember?” The girl asked. “I’m not supposed to tell you if can’t remember.”

Cherche sent her mind back. Vivid images came to her mind. “I was fighting. Then – then Minerva! Then I – the tactician. He was dead and came back! The demon tactician!”

“Easy.” Ravena said, softly. “You’re safe.”

“Minerva…” Tears fell down Cherche’s cheeks.

“It’s all right. You can cry.” Ravena went forward and hugged Cherche. The pink-haired knight felt the little girl’s touch help remove part of the pain.

“So it all happened.” Cherche said. “All… of… it.”

Ravena looked down and nodded. “Sorry.”

“…It’s not your fault.” Cherche said. “I expect to die that night, and for Parise to fall. The fact that I’m alive is nothing short of extraordinary. I … also presume Parise fell.”

“Rosanne has surrendered.” Ravena said. “Sorry.”

“So I’m in Valm, now.”

“Well, yes.” Ravena said. “I mean, now every part of this continent is Valm. Except for the islands to the southeast. But those don’t matter much. The plan is to consolidate the army and prepare an invasion force to conquer the Archaneian continent. But that’ll take a while. Sorry, I’m rambling right now.”

“Where in Valm?”

“The Vermillion City.” Ravena said. “The outskirts, actually.”

“Wait.” Cherche felt her blood chill. “That means-”

“Yes, this is a lord’s house. A count’s, to be specific.” Ravena sighed. “You really have to stop worrying. No one here wants to hurt you, or anything. We want to help you. You’re perfectly safe.”

“We have to-”

You do nothing.” Ravena said. “You still need to recover. You almost died.”

So I’m in the house of an internal resistance. Cherche surmised. “Can you get a message to Ylisse?”

“Hmm.” Ravena said. “I think we can. At least, I’ve seen the reports we get from Ylisse, so we’ve got a message tube one way. I’m not sure about sending a message, though.”

“Who is this ‘we’?” Cherche said. “Who are you people? And why did you save me?”

“Father doesn’t have a name yet.” Ravena said. “And, well, technically Auntie Argeni saved you, but Father did it because he didn’t want to see you die.”

“Father?” Cherche asked.

“My adopted father.” Ravena said, her eyes lighting up. “He’s super awesome! And I’ve only had him for a few months. He likes me a lot too. I think that’s because we have things in common. Like, we’re both kind of outcasts, and tacticians.”

“Outcast?”

“Forget I said that.” Ravena said. “Sorry, that part is supposed to be a secret.”

“All right. Can you introduce me to your father?” Cherche asked. “I’d like to meet the leader of this resistance group of yours.”

“Resistance group?” Ravena frowned. “Oh! You haven’t realized yet. I thought something was wrong. We aren’t a resistance group. Anyway, my father isn’t home right now.”

“Where is he?” Cherche frowned. “And what do you mean, ‘aren’t a resistance group’.”

“Ylisse. He’s attending the Exalt’s wedding.” Ravena said.

“He must be high-ranked.” Cherche said. “Who are you?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you that, either.” Ravena said. “Of course, if you guess, I can’t tell you whether you got it right. Hint.”

“What?”

“The problem is that you asked the wrong question.” Ravena said. “You asked ‘Why’ we saved you. You should have asked ‘How’ we saved you.”

“No. Nononono.” Cherche blinked. “Count Obsidian is your father?”

“I am not allowed to tell you that Count Robin Obsidian, Battlemaster of Valm, is my adopted father.” Ravena said. “I am not allowed to tell you that you are correct.”

“You got to be- ” Cherche tried getting up and was rewarded with pain.

“Please, stop.” Ravena looked at her with puppy-dog eyes. “We don’t want you getting hurt.”

“I will not be a pawn in that demon tactician’s plan!”

“That’s not a very nice thing to call my father.” Ravena said. Cherche felt a stab of pain and brushed it away. The child was trying to manipulate her. “Besides, what can you do? You’re injured, and if anyone figures out who you really are, then you’ll be in trouble.”

“So will Obsidian.” Cherche grimaced. “I’ll gladly take him down with me.”

“I am not allowed to tell you that you’re currently being treated as a Valmese soldier.” Ravena frowned. “I am not allowed to tell you that you were smuggled off the battlefield in Valmese armor, and thus my father has the easy excuse that you stole our armor and wounded yourself deliberately to place yourself under our hospitality and within our army like a spy.”

“You little brat.” Cherche said. “You’re Obsidian’s daughter, through and through.”

“I try to be.” Ravena smiled. “Now, rest up, please. Like I told you, you’re safe. Father just wants you to get better, and we’re perfectly willing to blackmail you to do it.”

-Raven's Pledge-

“Your form is average.” Say’ri said. She and Robin had practice swords out and were practicing on the deck. “But your skill comes from the fact that you seem familiar with every sword style there is and can use the perfect counter to them. It's almost as if you developed the skills without the muscle memory, which is only catching up. Where did you learn this?”

“I don’t remember, honestly.” Robin said, performing a riposte. “I suffer from amnesia. But, recently, I managed to get my skills through the memory block, thanks to Walhart. Maybe I’ll get my memories through as well.”

“Perhaps.” Say’ri said, flicking aside his blade. “And what happens if you do, and your memories are of someone completely different?”

“Hmm.” Robin said. He tried a thrust pattern. “Honestly? It depends on the memories. But I won’t abandon what I’ve already accomplished. The ‘now’ is more important than the ‘past’, because only in the now can we act and effect change. But the past cannot be changed.”

“I see.” Say’ri deflected the thrust pattern. “You should focus on getting a little faster. But your form is good – perhaps a bit like it expects you to already possess that speed. Now, it’s my turn.” Say’ri attacked.

They kept on like that for close to half an hour, before Robin called a break. “I wonder if there are pirates in these waters.”

“Unlikely.” Say’ri said. “Trade was cut off when the Conqueror declared war upon the other nations in Valm, as the only nations that were on the coast were the ones attacked by him. Pirates starved or joined the Plegian Navy. And, as of yet, major trade hasn't resumed.”

“That matches with the reports, I just didn't know the reason.” Robin said. “And only a fool would attack the Raven’s Pledge. This was custom made for Excellus, then retooled for my own use. And renamed.”

“How much longer until we reach Ylisse?” Say’ri asked.

“A few days, I think. Wind mages really speed up travel time.” Robin said. “Seasick?”

“No.”

“It’s the hardtack, isn’t it?” Robin said, grinning.

“I do not understand how you can stand eating that.” Say’ri said. “It has no taste and a horrid staleness. And furthermore, you must soak it before it can even be eaten.”

“Honestly, better than some rations I had.” Robin said. “The Conqueror’s army may march on it’s stomach, but it’s a large one, so bland taste was universal. Still, Vermil was actually a very good cook when we managed to have the time. Of course, Dant had to threaten his fingers to stop him from turning every food we ate into nothing but a spicy mess. He really liked taking his image as a fire mage seriously, and had this stash of dried red-hot pepper from somewhere.”

“Ha.” Say’ri laughed. “What I wouldn’t give for some of Chon’sin’s cooking – even if it was the spicy kind. ‘Tis a pity. Especially since we are surrounded by fish but seem to have no luck with them.”

“That gives me an idea.” Robin smiled. “Ever hear of lightning fishing?”

“Lightning … fishing?” Say’ri asked. “No.”

“It’s a trick Dant told me about. It works best in a lake, but we might be able to do it hear.” Robin called out. “Stop the boat! I’m going to do a quick spot of fishing!”

 -Cabin-

“Raw fish?” Robin stared at the thin slice on his plate. Instead of sending for the cook, Say’ri had offered to prepare the fish herself, Chon’sin style. But all she did was slice it up. “Are you sure?”

“Among my people this is a delicacy. It must be eaten fresh, of course, and it is unsuitable for freshwater fish.” Say’ri ate the fish slices using a pair of thin sticks. “Ah, delicious.”

“Not bad.” Robin tried his. With a fork. “But I think this would go better with taters.”

“Taters?” Say’ri frowned. “What are ‘taters’?”

“Po-ta-toes.” Robin said. “Good ballast for an empty belly. Boil ‘em, fry ‘em, or just put ‘em in a stew.”

“I’ve never heard of them.”

“It’s a vegetable that the Rosanneans are fond of.” Robin said. “Fried fish and fried potatoes are a quick-and-easy fast meal they eat. Quite good. Well, at any rate, I’ll be prepared for the food served at the wedding. Can't be weirder than raw fish.”

“It’s not the food you should be concerned with.”

“Hmm?”

“Feroxi is known for their alcohol.” Say’ri said. “How well can you keep yours?”

“Not well.” Robin grimaced. “I think. Haven't really drunked alcohol since I got amnesia. Will I be expected to?”

“It would be impolite to avoid drinking, at the very least.” Say’ri said. “Though, of course, I only drink sake. ‘Tis an alcohol made from rice. But the Feroxi will have it.”

Robin’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll have a drink then. But only one. Let’s change the subject. What did you think of my swordsmanship?”

“Impressive.” Say’ri considered. “Though, I would say I’d be able to defeat you if we fought again, now that I no longer underestimate you.”

“Even though I can fight ambidextrously?”

“You were only doing that for a few minutes.” Say’ri said. “And that trick is only useful against swordsmasters who have never fought left-handed opponents before.”

“You still wouldn’t beat me if we fought again.” Robin ate another slice of fish. He tapped the sheathed blade by his side. “The Sol blade absorbs the strength of its foes.”

“Aye.” Say’ri nodded. “I had forgotten. Though it may not fare as well against the Amatsu as you believed.”

Robin was about to respond when there was a knock on his cabin door. He walked over and swung the door open. “Captain Dan?”

“Battlemaster.” Captain Dan saluted. “We have a ship approaching us.”

“Pirates?”

“Not … exactly.” Captain Dan frowned. “Plegia, flying under their own flag. They’re flying truce colors, sir. Seems like they want a meeting. I just came to inform you of this.”

“I see.” Robin said. “Tell the crew to gear up below decks and have an escort ready above. There’s no point in being unfriendly.” He closed the door.

“Did you expect this, Robin?” Say’ri asked.

Robin’s mind flashed to the communication crystal hidden in a drawer in his room. He opened his mouth. “How could I have?”

“I see.” Say’ri turned back to her fish.

“…Yes.”

“What?” Say’ri turned to him.

Robin sighed. “Yes, I arranged this with Plegia in advance. Excellus was in contact with the second-in-command.  She apparently survived the war, so I told her a few sparse details about myself, and arranged the meeting.”

 -Deck-

“Valmese tactician.”

“Battlemaster.” Robin corrected. His mask was back on. Say’ri stood behind him at a distance, ready to intervene if need be. The Plegian representative, Aversa, was a scantily-clad woman, who in Robin’s opinion, seem to rely to heavily on her womanly charms. I know I’ve seen her before.

“Battlemaster? Your predecessor wasn’t called that.”

“I think you’ll find I possess a great many qualities that my predecessor did not. That is why I have the position and he does not.”

“Mmm.” Aversa smiled. “You know, you look vaguely familiar.”

“Is that so? Well, I could say the same to you.” Robin said. “It’s probably the mask.”

“Why wear it?”

“It’s … complicated.” Robin said. “Now, what would you like to tell me?”

“I would like to cut a deal with you, Battlemaster.” Aversa said. “Of course, we’d need privacy for this. Perhaps … in the privacy of your room? It could take … a while.”

“Seducing me already?” Robin snorted. “Do you really want to have that kind of a reputation?”

“I have all kinds of them. You’ll find out soon enough.” Aversa said, smiling. “We do need privacy, though.”

“Athena is a trusted vassal. You can discuss treachery in front of her.” Robin said.

“So, you trust her that much. Interesting.” Aversa licked her lips. “I apologize for … putting you in such an awkward state. You wouldn’t want her to think there’s anything between us, right?”

“Are you done?” Robin asked.

“I haven't even started.”

“Right, then.” Robin said, rolling his eyes beneath his mask. “I suppose you don’t know when to quit, and I also suppose that’s part of what men find charming about you.”

“It’s like you read my mind.” Aversa kept up her smile.

“Okay. I think we’re going to have to switch this conversation to something a little more primal.”

“Wasn’t I already doing that?”

“You’re talking lust.” Robin raised his hand, forming a nexus of lightning around it. “I’ll talk violence. Drop another innuendo, and I’ll knock you out with lightning, tie you to the mast of your ship, then light it on fire.”

“Are those your preferences?”  Aversa asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Right. You were warned." Robin blasted her. Aversa flew ten feet, lightning sparking around her. She got up groaning. Robin summoned another lightning bolt. “Try me.”

“Is this necessary?” Say’ri asked him.

“It’s not like that’s going to cause an international incident. We’ve got plausible deniability. My word against hers.” Robin shrugged. “And if she doesn’t cooperate, she’s an enemy strategist. That’s as good of a target of opportunity as I can get. Ships are lost at sea every day.”

“I understand.”

“Little minx.” Aversa hissed, getting to her feet. “I don’t appreciate being denied. But it seems you are well trained by your master.”

Say’ri did not respond.

“Are we ready to be civil?” Robin asked.

“Just testing your resolve. And you have quite a lot of it.” Aversa smiled. “My master instructed me to do so. I hope I haven’t earned your ire.”

“A necessary precaution, I suppose.” Robin said. His eyes narrowed behind his mask. “But now that it’s over, there’s no need to continue it.”

“It’ll be less fun. But, very well.” Aversa smiled. “It’s very simple, really. How interested are you in continuing the deal your predecessor had?”

“Very little. I prefer being the puppet master rather than the puppet.”

“And – say – a mutual understanding between people who share common foes?”

“That’s reasonable.” Robin said. “But what foe could we have in common?”

“Ylisse. Don’t be foolish.” Aversa’s voice dropped to a hiss. “They’ve formed an unbreakable alliance with Feroxi – thanks to the Exalt marrying the daughter of one Khan and having the favor of the other. It’s only a time before they decide to march on your empire – or for you to declare war on them.”

“We’ll declare war on you too, you know.”

“Oh, we aren’t a concern of yours.” Aversa smiled. “Please! We have no army. What threat could we provide? And, even if you should, well I assume you have a place for high ranking defectors.”

“Of course.” Robin smiled. “You can start early, if you want. I could you a high-ranked defector.”

“Oh! That’s a tempting offer.” Aversa said. “But you’ll understand that I’d like to remain here.”

“I see no problem with that.” Robin said. “In fact, I’d prefer if you’d stay as a tactician within the Plegian Empire. Now, is there a reason you’d refuse my offer?”

“Well, what would you do if I refused your offer?”

“What would I do?” Robin smiled again. “Why, I’d burn you like the witch you are.”

“That seems stacked out of my favor.”

“Did you truly expect anything else when you came to parley with a superior force?” Robin asked. “Now, it’s not much I ask for. All I want is your oath of allegiance to me.”

“Not to Valm?” Aversa smiled. “Nau-u-ughty. But how could I refuse? I, Aversa, swear allegiance to the Valmese Battlemaster – ah, your name?”

“Count Obsidian.”

“I, Aversa, swear allegiance to the Valmese Battlemaster, Count Obsidian.” Aversa looked at Robin and winked. “Good enough?”

“It’ll do for now.” Robin turned to Say’ri. “We have another member of our cabal, Athena. Happy?”

“Ecstatic.” Say’ri voice was emotionless.

“Now, I’ll need you to return to Plegia. Keep in regular contact with me.” Robin said. “Oh, and warn your Master that Walhart knows of his little ‘dragon ritual’, and he means to stop it.”

“How generous.” Aversa smiled. “Do you want anything in exchange?”

“From you? No.” Robin laughed. “That’s what my spies are for.”

“Indeed? But I’ve heard something your spies haven’t.” Aversa smiled. “A pirate lair, to the southeast. They’ve captured a man – and, well, I couldn’t spare the manpower, but if you find him, it’ll certainly help you win against Ylisse.”

“Farewell.” Robin motioned with his wrist. Say’ri flashed forward, slicing the ropes holding the ships together. Aversa’s ship sailed off, sinking into the mist, with the woman smiling all the while.

“Why did you not ask her about the dragon ritual?” Say’ri said.

“She’d lie to me, of course. Hopefully, stoking Plegia's paranoia will cause the information to slip as they scramble to  guard it.” Robin said. “I do wonder about that pirate nest, though. But we won’t have time for that.”

“No?”

“We’ll land in Port Ferox, on the west coast.” Robin said. “The journey inland will take almost a week to Ylissotol. That said, we’ll arrive three days before the wedding.”

“Fie.” Say’ri said. “Do you think I wear my flight armor for naught? We’ll be able to do it in four on pegasus-back.”

“You can double-up riders for that?” Robin frowned. “I though Pegasi couldn’t do that for long distance.”

“Valmese pegasi.” Say’ri said. “But my instructor told me that Feroxi pegasi are a far hardier breed. They are a fair bit more expensive.”

“I can afford it.” Robin said. “As long as it’s not too astronomical. Consider it a gift.”

“Ah.” Say’ri blinked. “Thank you. But that's really not necessary.”

 -Ylisstol-

It took them two days to get the pegasus, as they didn't keep stables of them right next to the port. Robin would have like to spend a third day haggling on just principle of the matter, but he was in a rush, and money wasn’t an objection. They only ended up saving one day on the way down to Ylisse, which wasn’t used for that much. After securing suitably diplomatic lodging by presenting his Valmese credentials to the royal offices (thankfully, the seal Ylisse had was current), Robin was forced to spend the next day meeting and instructing the half-dozen spies that Valm had. Not enough, in his opinion.

He had to spend the entirety of the next day getting ready, especially since they had to travel lightly by the back of a pegasus. He managed to carry his suit, but he’d need alterations, and Say’ri did not possess formal wear. He tracked down a few instructors to give him an hour’s instruction each on Ylissean court politics, so he wouldn’t be completely ignorant.

That left him two days, with the wedding on the night of the second. Robin elected to spend his free day meeting one person in the city that he actually knew beforehand.

“Who are you?” The red head was examining a sword, frowning as a price tag in her hand hesitated over it.

“Not again.” Robin sighed. “How many of you are there!?”

“A few.” Anna said. She finally put the tag on. “Steel sword, a third off! Want one?”

“No, but I’ll take a Shockstick if you have it.” Robin said. “Regardless. You don’t recognize the name ‘Count Obsidian’ either? I’m a regular customer of one of you, but I can’t find which one.”

“Hmm.” Anna frowned. “Well, let’s say you were a regular customer. What exactly did you say I sold you? Because, remember, it might be trouble to sell a foreigner something like weapons. And, if maybe I sold you something more than weapons, perhaps something deadlier – well, there are definitely people that wouldn’t appreciate an honest deal.”

“I see.” Robin said. “Now, of course, if I was the regular customer, you’d have no concerns, because Count Obsidian appreciates an honest deal, but if I was someone else – well that’d be a problem. Especially since you protect the integrity of your customers.”

“Of course.” The redhead cheerfully agreed.

“I have a receipt.” Robin removed a thin white paper and slid it across the table. “This is your mark, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Anna said. “Okay, you said you wanted a Shockstick? I’ve got one in the back. Follow me.”

“Stay out here, Athena. Watch for eavesdroppers.”

Robin followed her inside, with Say’ri close behind. Anna nimbly leapt up on top of a crate, and sat there, flicking a curtain shut after the two of them entered.

“So, you’re the legendary Crimson Tactician?” Anna said. “Not much to look at. Especially, you know, with the mask.”

“I’ve been told it’s not on the outside that counts, but the inside.” Robin removed his mask. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Anna.”

“Same here.” Anna nodded in Say’ri’s direction. “That who I think it is?”

“She is known as Athena here, and I expect it to remain that way.” Robin said. “You’re awfully sharp.”

“Well, those of us who are information merchants have to be.” Anna said. “Of course, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction sometimes. Why are you here, by the way? Don’t you know how dangerous this is to meet me face-to-face?”

“Yes, believe it or not.” Robin said. “As long as this is the only conversation we have, we should be fine.”

“True.” Anna said. “As long as you were discrete in inquiring about me.”

“We were, assuming the others Annas can be trusted.”

“My sisters, cousins, aunts, nieces, and completely un-related lookalikes can keep a secret.” Anna said. “So, why’d you come here?”

“Just wanted to meet you at least once.” Robin said. “It’s much better to work with people you’ve met with, don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely.” Anna said. “So, same of the same? Just want intelligence reports?”

“Just intelligence reports, for now.” Robin said. “Same price.”

“I think you can go a little higher.” Anna said. “It’s awfully risky, you know.”

“I can, but I won’t.” Robin said. “Spycraft is expected of me, even in a time of peace, and you’ve gouged Excellus already. You’re lucky I’m not negotiating lower.”

“Yeah, you do have a point there.” Anna sighed. “Aw, there goes my easy gold…”

“Don’t give me that.” Robin said. “This is a nice shop, and I’m giving you a tidy nest egg.”

“Huh. Bet Anna with the Shepherds is making more money.”

“There’s an Anna with the Shepherds?”

“Yup!” Anna winked at Robin. “Ready to sign me on, chief?”

“…I’ll pass. I like you better as an informant.” Robin said. “Also, you’re getting paid ten times as much as a foot soldier would.”

“But I’d be sign up as a supply merchant.” Anna grinned. “All those juicy deals, supplying an army the size of Valm!”

“The Valmese Empire does not employ independent merchants. They exclusively use quartermasters, which I would sign you on as in a heartbeat, but the pay is still less than what you’re getting paid.” Robin said. “That said, the offer is always on the table, should you need it.”

“Awfully generous of you.”

“You’re currently working under me. I’d be the poor leader if I didn’t help you.”

“How generous.” Anna tossed him a cloth-wrapped long package. “On the house.”

“What is this?”

“The Shockstick you wanted. Pro bono.” Anna got off the crate. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, busy time is in ten minutes, and I’d like to squeeze in a bite.”

“Pro bono?” Robin sighed, following her out. She’s just trying to bribe me.

“Are you done?” Say’ri asked.

“Sure. Got the Shockstick, even.”

“Surely you don’t expect to use it tomorrow night?”

“No.” Robin said. “But you never know, you know?”

Chapter Text

-Cherche's Room-

“Good morning!” Ravena said cheerfully. “You’re doing much better today.”

“And how would you know?” It was true. Cherche, for the first time in a week since waking up, was feeling well. Her wound still hurt, but now she could sit up without retching in pain.

“Your – well, it’s a dark mage thing.” Ravena frowned. “I don’t know how to describe it. Uh, vitality essence? It’s the stuff that clings to your body, on the magic plane.”

“Oh, so you can see magic?”

“Mmm-hmm! It’s one of my abilities from being Darkgifted.” Ravena said. “Father and Dant were working with me to train it.”

“Robin has just adopted you to use your power, no doubt.”

“That isn’t true in the slightest.” Ravena’s eyes narrowed. “In fact, I had to run across the entirety of Valm, as an orphan, including from your own country of Rosanne when people found out I was Darkgifted. Robin gave me a home, because he didn’t want me to keep running for my life when he could stop it.”

Cherche wanted to argue, but the words somehow got caught in her throat.

“Why do you hate my father, anyway?” Ravena asked.

“Because he’s a backstabbing, treacherous snake.”

“Oh.” Ravena said. “I thought it was because he stabbed you.”

“No. I was trying to kill him as well.” Cherche said. “I do not blame him for that.”

“But wait.” Ravena frowned. “Robin never actually backstabbed you. You two never agreed to a treaty of any kind. He just used you to further his own ends.”

“That is bad as well.” Cherche frowned. How much did he tell this girl? “Treating people like pawns is despicable behavior.”

“Oh.” Ravena said. “But isn’t that what your liege did in the defense of Valm? Sacrifice the army, and the inhabitants of the city, in order to deal as pyrrhic of a blow to Valm as possible.”

“How do even know all these things!?”

“Dant told me.” Ravena said. “Don’t dodge the question.”

“What my liege did and Robin did are two entirely different things.”

“Right. Because Robin sacrificed used your troops, which weren’t his own, but your liege used his own troops.” Ravena frowned. “I wonder which one is worse?”

“My master and yours are entirely different things!” Cherche snapped.

“Are they? Are they really?” Ravena said. “I know this conversation is upsetting to you, but you need to be honest here.”

“If you think-”

“No, you think.” Ravena said, sternly. “Tell me, how different they are. Tell me.”

And, for the first time, Cherche found herself considering it. Virion was different in the externals, to be sure, an elegant dandy who couldn’t walk past a lady without flirting. Robin hadn’t even shown he was interested in her. Virion was gregarious, whereas Robin seemed contained. But, in essence, they were both master strategists, willing to play the long game. And, more importantly, willing to sacrifice in order to win the long game. It seemed, that despite the different motives, they were willing to use the same means. And their motives didn’t seem all that different. She couldn’t be sure of Robin’s purposes, but it seemed that a Virion born in Valm and not Rosanne might have the same goals as Robin. He didn’t care for Walhart’s injustices but cared more for Rosanne’s independence. Enough to sacrifice the whole country for a chance to spite Walhart, so he could rally a third country to defeat them.

It was a sobering thought.

“This doesn’t make me one of you.” Cherche said.

“That’s fine.” Ravena said. "Acknowledgement is only the first step. Acceptance comes later."

-Castle Ylisse-

“Welcome to Castle Ylisse.” The doorman invited the pair of them in.

Robin had opted for a similar style to the suit he’d worn during Valm’s celebratory ball, figuring that things which weren’t broken didn’t need fixing. He’d changed a few things, the suit was still charcoal with stylized lapels, but now he had a crimson handkerchief in his jacket pocket, as well as wearing a red shirt underneath his jacket. His domino mask had been swapped for the larger one that Zulas had given him, and he, for once, had parted his now-brown hair.

Say’ri, as an homage to her Chon’sin roots, wore a purple kimono. Fortunately, she had one on hand designed for her, designed for a blademistress needing easy movement, but a graceful appearance. Her hair had been set back to her normal loose hair and kept in place with a single strip of cloth. She was wearing her shoulder guards, and keeping appropriately close to Robin to indicate her role as his companion.

It became apparent to Robin, shortly after entering, that they’d severely overdressed. It was probably the shirtless blond man that did it, though it wasn't helped by the dark mage who's glance sent shivers down his spine. One of the Shepherds? I suppose so. Robin looked around, seeing, among other well-dressed guests and the soldiers providing security, a rag-tag assortment of warriors, mages, healers, and who-knows-what-else. And these are the rest. Chrom is quite the person to just have them all show up. Some of them actually did a decent job of fitting in, but others didn’t. Robin particularly enjoyed the sight of a foul-mouthed red-head who was busy guzzling alcohol.

“The Shepherds are not what I expected.” Say’ri said. “I had only heard a few stories, though.”

“I think those are true.” Robin said. “Don’t be deceived by their appearance. There’s a lot more to these soldiers than meet the eye. After all, they’re all part of Exalt Chrom’s elite personal unit. I wouldn’t want to cross them for anything.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yes.” Robin said. “Now, should we mingle apart, or together?”

“I am your blade, Robin.” Say’ri said. “Order me as you see fit.”

“Then I shall have you by my side for the time being.” Robin said. “I’ll want to speak to the Exalt in private, if I can manage it. And certainly that mysterious blue-haired tactician I’ve been hearing about. I shouldn’t think I’ll find all his secrets, but it’ll be a good start.”

“We’ve arrived too early, then. I think neither of them are here.”

“Of course we’ve arrived early.” Robin said. “They’ve chosen the battlefield, I’m not letting them choose the time of engagement as well. I’d prefer being here to watch everything begin, rather than walk about the city some more.”

“Not everything is a battle.”

“Indulge me.” Robin said. His eyes narrowed. Someone was approaching him. Someone in blue, and better dressed than he was. “I’m sorry, who do I have the pleasure of meeting?”

“My name is Virion, the archest of archers.” Virion said. Virion? Robin smiled internally. This should be fun. “And who might you be? I haven’t the pleasure of meeting you yet, and your mask prohibits me the pleasure of trying to puzzle out who you are.”

“I apologize for the mask, Viscount of Rosanne.” Robin said, as pleasantly as he could. “But you understand that disguises are a necessity, correct?”

Robin saw a flash in the man’s eyes. “I don’t believe I told you who I was.”

“You didn’t.” Robin said. “But don’t tell me a man of your tactical prowess did not figure out who I was? Even after running, you must have heard some rumors of the crimson tactician of Valm? If not – well, you strike me as a philanderer, and I’m afraid that I am a man beneath this mask so our conversation would be at an end.”

“I see.” Virion said. “So, we must bare our knives immediately?”

“Here and now? I don’t think it’s a good place.” Robin smiled. “I merely wished to confirm your identity to congratulate you on the wonderful plan of action in Parise. Truly, a work of art. A humble tactician like myself could learn much from you. We suffered many casualties that day. I wonder if the Exalt knows of it…? And what his reaction should be?”

“What do you want.” Virion asked. His face was impassive, but there had to be a turmoil of emotion beneath it.

“Nothing, of course. This is a wedding. An occasion of joy.” Robin said. “I think we can agree that this is neither the time or place to air the grievances between us. All I ask for is to simply leave me alone for the time being, as I do to you. Is that so much?”

“Very well.” Virion said. “But you’ve made an enemy today.”

“Come now. We’ve been enemies long before today.” Robin said. “Now, we’re just proclaiming it.”

“Was that necessary?” Say’ri asked, after Virion had left. “You didn’t need to threaten him like Excellus might.”

Wow. Robin winced. That was … harsh.

“I’ll try to tone it down.” Robin sighed. “It’s just – he honestly can ruin me right now. He’s got Chrom’s ear, which means he can shut me out. I wanted him to stay quiet.”

“I’m sure you have your reasons.” Say’ri said.

It’s not that she said I did something wrong, she just implied it. Robin sighed. She’s taking her role seriously, which, I have to say, she’s good at. How am I supposed to scheme with her around?

“I promise I’ll be straightforward with the Exalt, in the event I can talk to him.” Robin said. “Will that satisfy you?”

“I’ve already sworn to be your blade.”

“I’m not winning with you.” Robin sighed. “Let’s tour the castle. There's a lot of history here. Wonder if we'll find something interesting.”

 -Art Gallery - Mystery of the Emblem-

“Does that painting look familiar to you?” Robin asked. “Because it does.”

“Hmm. The mask bears a striking resemblance to the one you wear.” Say’ri said. “This is a portrait of a man named Sirius. I daresay his mask may be your own.”

“Based off of it, at any rate.” The pair turned around to see a bespectacled mage. “I did wonder when I saw you enter. Did you base your mask off of his?”

“Not at all. In fact, considering that I happen to be Valmese, I couldn't.” Robin said. “This may sound … funny, but this is a loan from a friend of mine, who told me it was an old ancestral mask worn by an ancestor of his.”

“Quite impossible that the masks are one and the same then.” The mage said. “Sirius had no descendants.”

“My apologies. Who are you, and can you tell me about Sirius?”

“My name is Miriel. The scholar of the Shepherds. Now, if you are from Valm, you must be Count Obsidian of Valm, along with Athena. I memorized the guest list.” Miriel adjusted her glasses, catching the torchlight on them. “Sirius. He is a man of mystery, joining the Hero-King Marth’s army when Hardan betrayed him. Aside from that … well, nothing is quite known about him. There is reason to believe that he was involved in the previous War of the Emblem, but no one knows what side he fought on, nor do they know precisely why he fought on Marth’s side. The princess, Nyna, supposedly knew his secret, but she took it to her grave.”

“Are there … any theories, as to who he was?”

“Countless.” Miriel said. “Most suspect that it was a knight named Frey, a name which shows up quite a bit in lore, yet no one can agree on whether or not he survived the War of the Emblem. Some suspect it was Jagen in disguise, though no one can give a reason why he would don the disguise. Wolf is also a favorite, though there are conclusive texts which place Sirus and Wolf in separate places, though possibly he was just an alias used by the whole Wolfguard, who kept swapping places.”

“Is the last one likely?”

“No, it’s a pet theory of mine.” Miriel admitted. “Of course, there are even those who claim it to be Michalis, and that is just … preposterous.”

“Is that the craziest?”

“No.” Miriel frowned. “Do you know, I came across a paper which suggested a man named Zelgius, which is a name I’ve never heard of! It’s very clear that Sirius was known to Marth, which is why the mask was a necessity. Zelgius? Pah!”

“Well, that’s of no help.” Robin frowned. You know what? Zulas complains about that ‘bloodline’ curse to no end. If Sirius is his ancestor, maybe Sirius had it as well.

“Is there, perhaps, a man during the War of the Emblem that fell in love with royalty?” Robin asked. “A tragic romance, one that could not be finished. Perhaps with the man on the wrong side of the war as well?”

“Of course. Have you never heard the Tragedy of Sir Camus the Noble?”

“I can’t say I have.”

“I thought now. It’s not a story the Valmese would tell you. It’s an Archaneian legend.” Miriel said. “Sir Camus was the leader of the Sable Order. It was said he was so noble, the princess Nyna fell instantly in love with him. Ironic, for though he returned that love, his nobility prevented him from acting upon it, and Nyna was wed to King Hardin instead. Unfortunately, that eventually led the the Second Emblem War, also known as the ‘Mystery of the Emblem’ War.”

“That’s an interesting story, but I kind of feel you went out of your way to tell it in a weird structure." Robin frowned. "It didn’t sound quite right.”

“Well, you should perhaps tell the author of the story that not everything can be wedded to a story structure copied from somewhere else.” Miriel said. “In any event, Camus disappeared shortly after the War of the Emblem, and was never seen on Archeneia instead.”

“Ah.” Robin said. “That makes perfect sense. So Camus was Sirius.”

“That’s a hasty conclusion.”

“Nonetheless, the right one.” Robin said. “Coming, Athena?”

“As you wish.”

“Wait!” Miriel called out as they left, but neither paid any notice. Miriel looked back at the picture. “Camus. Hmmm, yes that would make sense! A lot of sense indeed. I believe I’ll have a paper to write after this.”

 -Main Hall-

“He-e-ey! Who are you?” Now it was cheerful one in a bright yellow dress. After his tour, Robin had gone back to the main hall, only to find that, while the man and lady of the night had arrived, they were swarmed by well-wishers. He tried to make his way through, only to somehow run into conversations with at least half the Shepherds and having them consistently end the conversation with ‘Oh, look here’s another one of us!’. They lacked in tact, but made up for it with enthusiasm. Presumably, Robin wasn't one crazed about socializing, and only did it out of necessity.

“Count Obsidian.” Robin said. “I represent Valm.”

“Oh! The country over the sea.” The girl smiled. “How is it, there?”

“Well enough.” Robin said. What kind of a question is that? You're asking me how a country entrenched in a war spanning the entire continent is. How am I supposed to answer that question. “And who are you?”

“Lissa. I’m the healer of the Shepherds.” Lissa said. “And don’t you forget it!”

“I've no intention. You seem quite capable.” Robin said. “In fact, you remind me of my own healer.”

“Huh. How’s that?”

“I met her at a Valmese ball, and she told me how great she was as a healer and asked to join my unit.” Robin said, cracking a smile. “And when I refused, she blackmailed me.”

“Ha! I like her.” Lissa asked. “Is she here?”

“Sadly, no.” Robin said. Thank goodness for that. I mustn't let the two of them meet. “She was temporarily reassigned under General Pheros, if I recall. Most of my squad couldn’t make it.”

“Is that kind of like the Shepherds?” Lissa asked. “And is Miss Lon’qu behind you a member?”

“I mean, yes.” Robin smirked. “And her name isn’t Miss Lon’qu. Her name is Athena, and she’s actually the latest member of my group.”

“It is as he says.” Say’ri said. “My pleasure to meet you, Lissa. Though I am curious why you addressed me by a male’s name.”

“Oh, sorry.” Lissa snorted. “You just remind of Lon’qu. Same stance, same quietness.”

“A Chon’sin here?” Say’ri asked. “Where is he?”

“He’s … around.” Lissa waved her hand. “He gets kind of nervous around women, but he’s here, somewhere. It’s kind of annoying, actually. He’s kind of supposed to be my bodyguard. How is a lady supposed to have a bodyguard who won’t go near her?”

Robin blinked as he tried reading the situation. “Oh. I should have realized. You’re the princess, aren’t you?”

“Yup!” Lissa said. “And I need my bodyguard.”

“Athena, do you think you could find him?” Robin asked.

“Aye.” Say’ri said. “But I would prefer to remain by your side.”

“See this? THIS is how a bodyguard acts!” Lissa said. “Uh, you are just his bodyguard, right?”

“Yes.” Robin chuckled. “Though it sounds like you’d like this Lon’qu to be a bit more.”

“Oh, excuse me for crushing on tall, dark, and mysterious!” Lissa said. “I’m allowed to! I’m a cute princess, and he’s a dashing bodyguard. It's like a fairy tale. Or would be if he didn't keep disappearing every five seconds.”

“Not judging.” Robin had his hands up. “Athena, would you find this 'Lon'qu' for her? I’ll need to talk to Chrom alone, at any rate.”

“That could take a while.” Say’ri said.

“No, it won’t!” Lissa said. “Here, follow me.” With that, the plucky princess proceeded to drag Robin through the crowd, shoving them aside until she got to Chrom. “Chro-o-om!”

“Lissa.” Chrom said. “And, who’s this?”

Robin got a good look at the Ylissean Exalt for the first time. He was slightly taller than him, lean but muscular and left his right shoulder bare to proudly display his Brand of the Exalt. His sword, Falchion, was by his side, but worn in a ceremonial manner, rather than a practical one. I’ve seen him before too. Why have I seen him before?

“My name is Count Obsidian. I represent Valm.” Robin said. “I apologize for the intrusion on your wedding night, but might we speak alone?”

“…” Chrom blinked. “Of course. Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Overseas diplomacy calls me.”

-Training Field

“Thanks for that.” Chrom said, inhaling the cool night air. “I really needed to get away from them.”

“The training grounds, Exalt?” Robin asked. “This is your ‘private spot’?”

“Well, I feel comfortable here, and that’s kind of what matters.” Chrom said. “So, Count Obsidian, tell me, how can I help you this evening?”

“Please, Exalt.” Robin reached up and removed his mask. “Call me Robin.”

“Robin.” Chrom extended his hand. Robin took it and the two shook. Something passed between them. A primal bond, of some sort. “That sounds a lot better. And, please, call me Chrom.”

“All right, Chrom.” Robin said. “First, I wish to offer you congratulations on behalf of Valm.”

“Diplomacy, eh?” Chrom said. “But that’s not why you came out here, is it?”

“No.” Robin frowned. “I’m … sorry, for your recent losses. I hate to bring it up now, but I felt your sister’s death all the way in Valm.” He was being honest. Odd, he didn’t think it affected him much at the time. But now it did. “But I do think she’d be happy to see how things ended up. I wanted to see it firsthand for myself.”

“Thank you.” Chrom said. “It would mean a lot to her, you know. To know she made an impact all the way in Valm.”

“Yeah.” Robin chuckled. “I’m not much of a Battlemaster, you know? A Battlemaster who only wishes for peace one day.”

“That’ll be the day.” Chrom said. “Let’s try to build it together, Robin.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” Chrom said. “Call me crazy, but I’ve decided to continue Emmeryn’s legacy as well as I can. I can’t be a replacement for her – I know that. But I’ve decided to try as hard as I can to see a world full of her ideals. And part of that is believing in people. If you're willing to help, I'll willing to work with you.”

“How can you do that?” Robin asked. “The world just takes, and you’re ready to give?”

“Same way that Emmeryn could.” Chrom said. “Peace has to start somewhere, and if no one starts it, it will never happen. Someone needs to start, and there’s no reason why it can’t be me.”

“But what of people who aren’t willing to surrender?” Robin said. “There are always those who will fight and take, regardless of how much you’re willing to give them.”

“Well… that’s what Falchion and the Shepherds are for.” Chrom said. He smiled. “But I think that problem will go away once people see what happens when we stop fighting and work together for a change.”

Another idealist. But this one isn’t blind. He’s far from it. Robin thought. And that means, someday, there will be a reckoning between him and Walhart.

I wonder what side I'll be on?

“Anyway, that’s enough heavy thoughts for the night.” Chrom said. “Why the mask?”

“It's a silly reason, to be honest. Amnesia.” Robin said. “I suffered a bout of it, and I wouldn’t want an old enemy to recognize me.”

“You really think that’ll happen?” Chrom asked. “What are the odds?”

“While I do agree with your assessment of the odds, I just don’t think its worth the risk.” Robin said. “I’m a tactician, remember?”

“You trusted me.”

“It is odd.” Robin shrugged. “This sounds weird – but I know I can trust you. An ... instinct?”

“Well, that’s nice, certainly.” Chrom said. “Anything else to delay our inevitable return to politics?”

“I’m kind of curious how you can be so cordial with me.” Robin said.

“What do you mean?”

“I need to be cordial.” Robin said. “I’m a representative of Valm, and I’m a tactician as well. It’d be a very large problem if I wasn’t. But you don’t have to.”

“I don’t have to, but I have no problem doing so.”

“Exalt-“

“I told you. Call me Chrom.”

“Chrom.” Robin said. “It’s likely we’ll be at war with the decade.”

“And there’s nothing you can do to stop that?” Chrom asked.

“No.” Robin shook his head.

“Ah. Pity. Still, now is not the night to mourn that.” Chrom said. “For now, we are friends. And perhaps war isn’t as definitive as you might think.”

“But you must be expecting war.” Robin frowned.

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, you’re marrying the East-Khan’s family as a political alliance, aren’t you?” Robin asked. Chrom doubled over laughing. “Um, okay, I guess you aren’t?”

“No. I genuinely love her.” Chrom said. “But I get why you would think that.”

I am so lucky he took it as a joke. Robin breathed a sigh of relief. Love at first sight?”

“Like a fairy tale.” Chrom grinned like a fool. “I met her less than a month ago, and now I can’t imagine what it would be like without her by my side.”

“Huh.” Robin said. Makes sense for an idealist like him. “Well, congratulations again.”

“It’ll happen to you too, someday.” Chrom grinned. “The swordswoman following you around?”

“She’s just a-” Robin considered. Say’ri was the last princess of Chon’sin. “Actually, you might be on to something there. Of course, I’d have to cancel my current political fiancé, but I was intending to do that anyway.”

Chrom gave him a look.

“Don’t judge me! It’s a favor to a friend. He’s not important enough to marry her yet – which she wants, by the way – so I got engaged to her to stop the court politics from stepping in.” Robin sighed and massaged his temples. “My life is complicated. Way too complicated.”

“You sound like you’d be a good fit for the Shepherds.” Chrom said.

“Really? I’m the Valmese tactician. Your enemy.”

“We’ve got Ylisseans, Feroxians, and Plegians.” Chrom ticked them off his fingers. “Several members have tried killing me at some point or another. Our tactician included.”

“Right. I’ve been looking forward to meeting him.”

“Her.”

“What?” Robin blinked. I was pretty sure…

“Nevermind, forget I said that.” Chrom sighed. “I think I’ve spent enough time around here, though. More responsibilities.”

“I understand.” Robin said. “It was … better than I expected, meeting with you, Chrom. The trip here was worse it, just for that.”

“Same here.” Chrom extended his hand. “Just now – there’ll be a spot on the Shepherds for you at any time you want.”

“Thank you, Chrom.” Robin placed his mask back on. “I apologize in the event that I won’t be able to take you up on that offer.”

-Wedding Hall

Say’ri was waiting for him as he stepped back in. Chrom was whisked away by a delegation, and Robin had politely excused himself from the conversation. His mask concealed his identity, but also gave him an air of mystery that a lot of people felt the need to inquire within. Then promptly back away when Robin smiled and said, “I’m from Valm.”

“You have an invitation to a conversation. Actually, several, but only one I suspect you’d be interested in.” Say’ri said. “It seems people aren’t willing to approach you openly but would like to speak with you nonetheless.”

“Unsurprising.” Robin frowned. “Who is it?”

“Khan Basilio.” Say’ri said. “The East-Khan of Feroxi. He’s waiting for you in a lounge that’s been converted to his personal use.”

“Who were the others?”

“Two minor court officials, one duke who most likely wants to defect to Valm, and a woman I didn’t recognize.” Say’ri said. “I think she’s the tactician of the Shepherds.”

“So it is a girl.” Robin said. “That sounds like someone worth meeting. Am I allowed to bring you along with me to Khan Basilio’s meeting?”

“He did not expressly forbid it.”

“Fine.” Robin said. “I’ll meet him alone while you handle the others. See if you can give the duke the address of one of our agents in Valm. Tell the court officials I have diplomatic immunity and could care less about whatever it is they want to talk about. And, if you find the tactician, tell her I’ll meet her once the wedding ends.”

“Aye.” Say’ri frowned. “I am not doing much of serving as your blade tonight.”

“The pen is sometimes mightier than the sword.”

“That is a tactician’s perspective.” Say’ri said. “But I am a swordsmaster.”

“Interesting.” Robin considered. “Nevertheless, you're wrong about that.”

"Aye."

Why don't I feel like I won that argument?

-Lounge

“Count Obsidian!”

“Khan Basilio.” Robin grinned. “I’m feeling a bit overdressed.”

“Ha!” The East-Khan, true to his warrior nature, was wearing a short coat which exposed his massive pectoral and abdominal muscles. Armored greaves covered his legs and he wore arm guards, with a massive fur collar around his armored neck guard. Added to that was an eyepatch over his left eye. But he seemed completely relaxed in his armor. Robin’s wariness sense went off. “I like you, tactician. Willing to remove that mask of yours?”

“No, sad to say, Khan.” Robin sat down. Basilio was sitting on a couch with one leg on the table in front of him. A massive stein of foaming mead was in his hand. “But I will accept a drink.”

“Good. What can I offer? Tea? Coffee? Or do you mean a real drink?”

“I mean a real drink. I’ve never had Feroxi ale before.” Robin said. “That said, I foresee an inordinate number of toasts in my near future, so you must forgive me for only accepting a single glass.”

“Aye.” Basilio frowned and slammed his mug down. He got up and started pouring Robin one.

“No servants?”

“Don’t like ‘em.” Basilio said. “There’s always getting on my case for drinking or trying to stop me from ignoring my Khan duties and sneaking off.”

Wariness sense going down. Robin noted. Seriously, I mean, he was reminding me of Walhart thanks to his muscle mass, and now he isn't. Have I ever seen Walhart drink? Actually, on that note, have I ever seen him eat? I have not. Hmm.

“So, what did you want to talk to me about?” Robin asked.

“Heard you talked to the Exalt.” Basilio said. He set the mug before Robin. “Declare war?”

“No.” Robin took a glance at the mug. “I’m simply here to extend the goodwill of the Valmese Empire. To Ylisse, but also to you.”

“But you would have declared war if you were ordered.”

“That is how loyalty works.” Robin said absently. He took a drink from the mead. It wasn’t as fiery as he thought it would be, but still burned a little on the way down. Oddly, he seemed to have tolerance for the stuff. “Why do you ask?”

“I don’t trust you.”

“I wouldn’t trust me either, were I in your shoes.” Robin said pleasantly.

“You wouldn’t last five minutes in a fight against me.”

“Probably not.” Robin took another drink, as nonchalantly as possible.

“Ha! You’ve got spine, for someone who spends all his time behind the frontlines of the battle.” Basilio grinned. “I’ll enjoy fighting you when the time comes. But that’s not I called you in here.”

“May I guess?” Robin said.

“Go ahead.”

“This has something to do with the ‘Fire Emblem’.” Robin said. “More specifically, with the four missing gemstones.”

Basilio’s one eye narrowed. “You’re sharp.”

“I have to be in my line of work.” Robin said. He finished his mead in a single long pull. “A secret test of character, and you only talked to me after Chrom. I’m willing to bet you had someone ask Chrom about me, and delivered it to you, once our conversation finished.”

“Clever. You’ll do fine.” Basilio said. “So, what do you know about the gemstones?”

“I know there are five in total.” Robin said. “I also know that they must be kept separate, or they’ll be used in a terrible ritual to summon a dragon.”

“What did that Conqueror of yours put in your head – No!” Basilio snarled. “The Exalt needs them to summon Naga! Can’t perform the ritual without all five of them, and without the full Fire Emblem, the Awakening can’t be performed.”

“…You’re certain?”

“Darn right.” Basilio growled. “And if even one ends up in Plegian hands, we’ve lost for good. They were split to keep ‘em safe. My predecessor told me and gave me one of the gemstones. Not here, I’ve hidden it. Of course, I’m supposed to keep it a secret. Don’t want too many people knowing about the ritual.”

“I see.” That information contradicts the information given to me by Walhart, who told me the ritual was to summon the Fell Dragon. Robin thought furiously. However, I can only assume that information was given to them by Plegian turncoats. If what Basilio says is true, Plegia’s winning condition isn’t to get one of the gemstones, it’s to keep all five of them from Ylissean hands. So, in the event they can’t get a gemstone, Plegia spread a rumor that they want the gemstones for their ritual, so those possessing the gemstones would keep them separate. And since the Ylisseans keep the ritual a secret for themselves, no one learns enough to realize that their being tricked.

But if that is true, then why did Plegia stop their ritual? Robin frowned. There has to be something more to this … something I’m missing. Dant might be able to fill in the missing pieces once she gets high enough as her mole status, but that’s an if. I need a high-ranking Plegian to fill me in.

Aversa. Robin’s eyes narrowed. I’ll bet she knows some of the missing pieces. But I don’t think I’ll be able to torture it out of her – if I’ll even be able to torture her at all. You can’t win a game if you don’t know all the rules. But I know the currency.

“Lost in thought?”

“-and all alone.” Robin sighed. “Putting the pieces together with the information I already know. Cards are the table?"

"Thought we were already doing that." Basilio grunted.

"Please." Robin rolled his eyes. "Don't insult either of us. We're holding back information, both of us. But I assume this discussion means that we're forming a secret alliance for this purpose, and this purpose only."

"That was my intention."

"Fine. The information I’m about to tell you cannot be told to anyone, understand? I presume you expect the same of me. There are two accounted for in Valm. Right now, one is beyond my grasp to reach, but the other is held by the Voice of Naga, Tiki.” Robin said. "The one held by Tiki should be easily obtainable, by either myself or an agent of yours, but the one beyond my grasp can only be obtained by myself."

“Leaves one.” Basilio said. "Can you get your two to safekeeping, easily accessible?"

“Perhaps.” Robin nodded. He folded his hands. “You understand that just because we’ve joined forces together in this aspect, I can guarantee nothing else, correct? You also understand that I will perform by own independent checks – discretely – to confirm what you said?”

“Unfortunately, I’d expect no less from you.” Basilio said. “Good talk, tactician.”

“This has become quite the productive visit.” Robin said. “Perhaps I should do this more often.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” Basilio grumbled. A knock on the door interrupted him. Basilio frowned. “So help me if that’s the West-Khan, come to brag.”

“Allow me to get it. I’m on my way out anyway.” Robin stood up. “Thank you for the mead.” Robin turned to open the door, only for his jaw to drop, making a crack as it hit the ground. A blushing pink-haired maiden, in a white wedding dress stood there. Robin’s mind went blank.

“Oh-h, I’m so sorry!” The woman blushed even harder, turning her face the same color as Robin’s crimson hair. “I didn’t mean to interrupt!”

“Ignore him, Olivia!” Basilio said. “He’s on his way out, and you’re more important anyway.”

“Olivia? Oh, the queen” Robin’s mind finally clicked. Well, that was smooth. You idiot of a tactician. He quickly recovered, bowing. “My apologies, your majesty.”

“Please d-d-don’t, you’re making it more embarrassing!” Olivia kept her blush. “I’m just Olivia, okay?”

“Well, you should take the chance to meet.” Basilio stood up and put a hefty hand on Robin’s shoulder. “Olivia, meet one of Chrom’s new friends, the Valmese Tactician, Count Obsidian.”

“Call me Robin.” The words were out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Robin.” Olivia smiled, recovering from her blush. “Are you really friends with Chrom?”

“I would be.” Robin said. “Unfortunately, it seems I may not be able to be around that much, but it was lovely to meet with him. And you as well.”

“Well, it’s lovely to meet you to.” Olivia smiled. “I just wanted to check on you, Basilio.”

“I’m fine.” Basilio said. “Feroxi’s national treasure is about to become Ylisse’s, but that’s nothing to worry about.”

“It’s not like Chrom and I won’t be able to visit you.” Olivia said.

“Gah. I’m an old man. You don’t need to care about me.” Basilio said. Robin chuckled at that. Basilio glared at him. “Something funny, tactician?”

“It’s just…” Robin considered. “You kind of remind me of myself. You aren’t the only one with an adopted daughter, Basilio.”

“Oh, that’s so sweet.” Olivia said, as Basilio sputtered. “Kind, considerate, a friend of Chrom’s – I know it’s too late for Basilio, but are you married yet, Robin?”

“Let’s … not start with that.” Robin sighed. “I’m not sure it a good time for romance, for me.”

“It’s always a good time for romance!” Olivia said. “Half the Shepherds are couples, and the other half are going to be there, whether they like it or not. And, now that I’ve joined the ranks of couples, it’s my duty to help you get there!”

“Many thanks, Olivia.” Robin said. And now I have her helping me with my love life. Where did I screw up and end up deserving this? “But I would hate to keep you longer than I already have.”

“Oh, of course. I’ll send a letter.” Olivia waved as Robin beat a hasty retreat, while trying to look like he wasn’t making a hasty retreat. “See you!”

-Evening- 

“That was nice.” Robin said. “Do you think so, Athena?”

“Aye. That was a nice wedding, if ever I have seen one.” Say’ri said. “Though we did not get a good position to see it.”

Regret? Sorry, Say’ri, I’d like to stay out of the spotlight. “I don’t have much influence here, Athena.”

“Tis a pity.” Say’ri said. “Did you speak to everyone you wanted to?”

“Almost.” Robin said. “Did you meet the tactician?”

“Aye.” Say’ri frowned. “I met the masked one, who wasn’t the one I met earlier. She was not clear on who the tactician was, but she is going to meet you, tonight. Midnight, within the barracks of the castle.”

“Hardly neutral ground.” Robin frowned. “But I was the one who wanted the meeting.”

“She has guaranteed your safety.” Say’ri said. “Also, all of the guards tonight are by the newlywed Exalt. The barracks is nearby, but not so close to the castle to be on the grounds. There is only supposed to be a skeleton crew.”

“Indeed?” Robin said. “You wouldn’t know who, would it?”

“No. But I know it is apparently an auxiliary squad to the Shepherds.” Say’ri said. “Tonight, they number thirteen. They have acquired a new member.”

“An unlucky number by all counts.” Robin said. “But will it be an unlucky number by our counts? Ready your blade, Athena, and I shall ready mine. I fear this night will not end well.”

Chapter Text

-Cherche's Room-

“Good news!” Ravena said. “Clean bill of health!”

“Are you really so excited?” Cherche asked.

“Well, yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” Ravena asked.

“You’re out of excuses to keep me here.”

“Oh, right.” Ravena rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m not even going to pretend that those exist. Robin told me to look after you until you were better. Now that you’re better, I have no instructions, so … free to go. If you want.”

“If I want.” Cherche studied the small girl, determined not to underestimate her. “What conditions?”

“Three. None, none, and none.” Ravena laughed. “I told you – you’re safe and we just want you to get better. We’re no longer at war with Rosanne, so it’ll be simple to get you a Valmese citizenship, or should you prefer, a chartered boat across the seas.”

“Simple?” Cherche narrowed her eyes. “Is this some trick? Some test of loyalty?”

“Nope.” Ravena shook her head. “Promise on my heart, hope to cry. I mean, Father’s going to be upset that he didn’t get a chance to talk to you, but honestly, he shouldn’t have stabbed you through the chest if he really wanted to talk to you that much. I think we can both agree he doesn’t deserve any sympathy points.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“Fair enough.” Ravena sat on a stool. “So, what will make you trust me? This axe?” Ravena tossed a package that she had brought into the room to Cherche. “And, here, have some water.”

Cherche caught the package and unwrapped it. It was a set of short throwing axes, something she’d used often as a wyvern rider. The water was a vial of pure water, set to boost her innate magic resistances. Cherche looked at the girl. “And what if I killed you now?”

“I’d be dead, then you’d be dead shortly after.” Ravena said. “But that’s depressing. Anyway, you now have some weapons. Do you want anything else? A wyvern, maybe?”

“You can get me a wyvern?” Cherche asked, unsure how to feel. On the one hand, she missed flying. On the other hand it was also about who she missed flying with.

“Yes.” Ravena said. “I’ll just request one from supply. I am acting as my Father’s envoy while he’s in Ylisse, you know. All his powers are now mine.”

“Robin,” Cherche’s mind went blank. “made you his envoy. As in, he trusted you with literally all the power he wields.”

“Well, he had to give it to someone, and, as he put it, ‘I’d rather give it to someone who I know won’t make stupid mistakes, just inexperienced ones’.” Ravena sighed. “Zulas and Argeni got veto power though, so my private training arena stocked with every weapon ever made was thrown out the window. Killjoys.”

“And you hand me these.” Cherche held up the weapons. “Are you crazy?

“No. I’m a tactician.” Ravena said. “You wouldn’t kill me. Your honor doesn’t let you. And, in the event that you would kill me, that means you’ve finally acknowledged that the ends do justify the means, and you’d switch to our side of thinking. Any way you pick, I win. Among us tacticians, it’s known as a Xanatos Gambit. Father prefers them.”

Cherche’s mind spun. It appeared she’d seriously underestimated this one. “So, you told me this, why? Why would you tell me that you’re trying to play mind games with me? Doesn’t it defeat the point?”

“No.” Ravena started laughing. She looked up, giving Cherche a maniacal, all-knowing grin, something absolutely infuriating on the face of an eleven-year-old. “On the contrary. I’m baiting the hook. See, you want to disagree with me. You want to prove me wrong. It’s so tempting, isn’t it? To know I have all this power, and that you could end it in a heartbeat, but you just can’t bring yourself to kill an innocent? Because it defies your honor. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you can kill me, and still preserve your honor. Maybe you can kill me and not be one of us. Maybe…”

Something inside Cherche snapped. She’d been on edge, ever since she woke up, dealing with a strange mixture of truth and lies, her failure of a knight, and Minerva’s death.

“REST IN PIECES!”

 -Ylissotol, Abandoned Warehouse-

“Good evening.” ‘Marth’ said. “You wished to speak with me, Valmese tactician?”

“Something like that.” Robin was wearing his combat clothing now. The Sol blade rested by his left hip, and he had a cloth-wrapped lance against his back. His tome holsters had a Thoron in one, and a Rexcaliber in the other. ‘Marth’ wore only a single sword. A sign of arrogance, or surety. “You’re quite gifted for a tactician, from the reports I’ve seen.”

“You flatter me, sir.” ‘Marth’ said. “I’m nowhere near as capable as I may seem. But I am glad that you sought me out, because it saves me the time of seeking you out.”

“Oh?” Robin said. “Are we coming to blows? We’re certainly dressed for it.”

“Hmm.” ‘Marth’ said. “As I recall, you didn’t wear any blades in the Exalt’s presence.”

“Well, that’s because he didn’t guarantee my safety.” Robin said. “So I forgot about it. But once you remind me my life is in danger – well, I happen to be a paranoid man. It’s also why I brought Athena along.”

“Aye.” Say’ri stood back, twin sheathes by her side and Amatsu in a unique scabbard on her back. “But you brought a friend as well. Or does he think I cannot sense him?”

“He’ll be staying in the room behind me, for now.” ‘Marth’ said. “I’d hate to use up my insurance. But let’s stop beating around the bush – who are you?

“Count Obsidian.” Robin said, smirking behind his mask. “Battlemaster of Valm. But you might have known that.”

“You shouldn’t exist.” ‘Marth’ said.

“It’s a relatively new position, to be fair,” Robin said, scratching the back of his head. “I think I’m the first, but Walhart isn’t one for tradition.”

“I don’t mean as Battlemaster. I mean, at all.” ‘Marth’ frowned. “You aren’t supposed be a person, at all!”

“Well, that’s awfully blunt.” Robin said. Something's wrong. That wasn't a personal attack, but something else. An observation of some kind? “You’ll hurt my feelings.”

“I meant it as no insult.” ‘Marth’ said. “I have … gifted pieces of knowledge. I know how certain things happen or should happen. And none of them involve you. I have no knowledge of a brown-haired and masked tactician of Valm.”

“Prophecy? I don’t put much stock in that, and you shouldn’t either.”

“I will forgive your ignorance this time. But I know differently.” ‘Marth’ said. Robin heard bitterness in her voice. She failed – and no prizes for guessing at what. From my reports, the biggest failure of the Ylissean tactician was the death of Exalt Emmeryn. “But you should know that the future is not one to be easily changed, not at all. Laurent told me that the ‘Butterfly Effect’ may be responsible for your existence as opposed to Excellus, but that doesn’t sound right to me. And Morgan is finally with us now, so it can’t be her. So, you exist. An enigma wrapped up by a mystery.”

“Interesting.” Robin said. “You’re awfully loose with the names of your comrades. But are they even real?”

“I ask again – who are you?” ‘Marth’ said, ignoring him. “Because I have suspicions of my own, you see. The others call me crazy, but when a master tactician disappears from where he should be, and appears where he should not be, there’s a very clear explanation.”

She knows about my missing past. Robin blinked. I mean, alternatively, her friends are right and she’s actually full-on bonkers. But, if she knew me as a BEFORE my amnesia, this all makes sense. Were we tacticians together? Co-conspirators in some grand scheme? It’s very possible, and my amnesia isn’t making it any better.

“You know, if what you’re saying is correct, then it’s quite possible you’re right.” Robin said.

“Huh.” ‘Marth’s mask gave very few emotional clues, but it was quite clear she hadn’t expected that as an answer. “I thought you would deny it completely. So, perhaps you aren’t him.”

“Aren’t who?”

“It doesn’t matter.” ‘Marth’ waved her hand. “It only matters if you are him. But I can be sure if you take off that mask of yours.”

“You first.” Robin said. Crazy things are happening, and I need all the information I can get.

“Hmm.” ‘Marth’ considered. “Very well. But I want you to swear upon it.”

“You trust me?”

“No. But I do recognize a Chon’sin blademaster when I see one.” ‘Marth’ said. “Athena is such a blademaster and will thus hold you to your word.”

“Aye, if he swears upon it.” Say’ri agreed. “What say you, my lord?”

“Very well.” Robin said. For the sake of my own curiosity. And this can’t be that dangerous. ’Marth’ seems reasonable.

“I suppose I’ll give you my real name alongside my face. It can’t hurt, in any event.” ‘Marth’ took off her mask, and tossed her hair back, somehow tripling its length until it was shoulder length. Robin studied her face for a second. It was beautiful, but it reminded Robin of someone he met recently. Someone at that wedding. “My name is Lucina.”

“A traditional name from the word for Light.” Robin recognized the name. “Another pseudonym?”

“No, I would not lie to you. My father gave me the name. He had high expectations, you could say.” Lucina said. “Now, your turn. Who are you?”

“Count Robin Obsidian.” Robin removed his mask and bowed. “Pleasure to meet your acquaintance.” On his way up, Robin caught a shocked looked in the blue-haired woman’s eyes. She recognizes me! “Have we met before?”

“You are him. Your hair is the wrong color, but You. Are. Him.” Lucina said. “I don’t believe it. Something happened to you. Something did happen to you. I was right.”

“Right.” Robin said. “Look, I know it might be hard for you to believe, but I don’t have any memory of you. It’s because-”

“Of course you have no memory of me.” Lucina said.

“I’m … sorry?” Robin blinked. “You seem to know me.”

“I do.” Lucina closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. “I’m very sorry for this, Robin. I didn’t want to do this, but I have no choice right now. But you'd understand. Trust me.”

“What are you talking about?” Robin blinked. “Look, I have no idea because I can’t remember a thing about you! I’ve got-”

“Sorry, Robin.” Lucina drew her blade and somersaulted forward. “You have to die!”

Robin drew the Sol blade with a single motion, using it to block Lucina's overhead slash. They held there for a second, then Robin shoved, forcing them apart. “What?”

“I can’t talk to you anymore.” Lucina blinked. There were tears, of all things, in her eyes. Why? “Don’t make this harder than it has to be for either of us! But if I don’t stop you here, there’s no telling what could happen!”

“Sorry, but I’m not about to let you do that.” Robin thrust his left hand forward, firing a bolt of lightning. Lucina slashed her blade through it to deflect the lightning, sending it into the side of warehouse in an electric explosion. Robin’s eyes narrowed. That’s possible?

“Lucina!” The back of the warehouse burst open. A man with identical blue hair entered the warehouse from the far end. He dressed like a mercenary, carried a sword, and looked like Lucina.

“Stay back, Inigo!” Lucina warned. “We don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Say’ri, I want you to stay out of this as well.” Robin said. Whatever my relationship was to this woman can wait until I’m not fighting for my life. “This is the perfect trial-by-fire for me to test run my new abilities.”

Say’ri?” Lucina blinked. “You – how could you! You’re allies with him?”

Tongue slip. Robin realized too late. And Lucina had to know her somehow!

“You seem to know me.” Say’ri said. “I, unlike Robin, have not lost my memories. I have never met you before. Who are you to know of me, and who are you to judge me?”

“I am Lucina, Foreseer.” Lucina held the blade before her. “I know all. And I know that you must die. Your corruption can’t be allowed to spread any further. Say'ri, your time is not here and not now so I ask you to stay out of it, but I must end Robin's life.”

“Bold words, Foreseer.” Robin said. “But I’m not going to lay down my sword and die.”

“HRAAAAAH!” Azure flames lit up around Lucina. Robin felt the energy radiating off of them as waves. What power is this? Something like my own Ignis? “AETHER!”

“Chon’sin-style blademanship: Niten Ichi – off-hand only.” Robin passed the Sol blade to his left hand and reached for the purple flames deep within his soul. Fight fire with fire. “IGNIS!”

They clashed again, this time Robin’s purple flames exploding with force against Lucina’s azure ones. The blast sent them both spiraling backwards, Lucina was tossed like a ragdoll. Robin instinctively threw out his coat, stabilizing himself, and stabbed Sol in the ground to stabilize. Luckily, I’m heavier than her. He threw a low-level wind spell to clear the fog.

“HAAAAH!” The blue-haired mercenary, Inigo came charging out of the disappearing fog.

“Valmese-style spearcraft: Fangshu.” Robin drew the wrapped polearm off his back, revealing it to be the Shockstick. He thrust it forward, sending an electrical discharge into Inigo, forcing the young man back. “Thunder!”

“Gah!” Inigo stumbled back, only for Lucina to appear beside him, catching him.

“We cannot allow him to escape, brother!” Lucina said, as they set their stances opposite each other, facing Robin. “As one!”

“Unique Battlemaster-style combat-” Robin channeled the energy through the magical spear in his right hand and the physical weapon in his left hand. The energy connected through both and channeled into each other. Robin caught Lucina’s thrust with the Shockstick, and Inigo's slash with the Sol blade, then swapped the power within him. Inigo went stumbling backwards, electrocuted again while physical force drove Lucina back. Robin held the position for a moment, purple flames with red tips surrounding him. “Ignis Corona!”

“Impressive.” Say’ri said. “Where’d you pick that one from?”

“Ignis allows me to channel my physical might into my magical might, and vice versa.” Robin said. “But, by using a magical weapon and a physical one at the same time, I can overlap the abilities, and then channel them through each other.”

“I might be crazy…” Inigo was getting up, groaning. “But he never used to be able to do that – did he?”

“No.” Lucina was on her feet as well. “Fa- Ahem. I was never told about it, nor have I ever seen him use it. And Robin may be paranoid, but it’s too much to think he was holding back the entire time we knew him. Certainly if he was, he wouldn’t have used it now.”

“One puzzle is solved. These people certainly know you to be able to deduce as much about your abilities and your paranoia.” Say’ri commented. “That is for certain.”

“Since when were you sarcastic?” Robin turned to her.

“It is sarcasm to point out the obvious?” Say’ri said. “Hmm. You have such odd rules of etiquette.”

She’s mocking me. Robin sighed. I’ll have to deal with that later. He looked back to find the blue haired siblings set in combat stances, again. “Okay, are we doing this again? Sure, using the Corona ability drains me, but I’ve got enough to do it thrice more. And corpses leave an international incident.”

“Don’t insult us. You’re strong, sure but that won’t be enough to stop us.” Inigo laughed. “We came from a doomed world – you’ve got to have something more than a little lightning to stop us.”

“Likewise.” Lucina said. “You shall have to kill us to stop us – and we won’t make it easy. None of us will.”

“None of us will? You know that can technically mean just two people, but I don’t think the tone you used was the tone you’d use for just two people. And a doomed world? That’ll take a while to unpack, but let’s focus on the pressing issue.” Robin said. “Say’ri, there’s more of them. All thirteen must be out here, somewhere.”

“Shit!”

“Nice mouth, Lucy!”

“Oh, stuff it, Inigo! You told him about the doomed world!”

Say’ri's blade was out in a heartbeat. “Fight or flee?”

“Enemy turf, and we have no reason to remain here.” Robin sized up his options instantly. “We’re fleeing, Say’ri.”

“Stop him!” Lucina cried, charging forward, only to retreat when Say’ri appeared in front of her, slashing forward.

“Allow me to hold them off, Robin.” Say’ri said. She stood before Robin, sheathing her main Amatsu blade. “I am more skilled at fleeing then you are, so I shall grant you a head start.”

“There’s still just the two of them.”

“Not for long. Flare!” Lucina howled to the far end of the barracks. “Offensive flare!”

“Time grows short.” Say’ri repeated herself. “Fight or flee.”

“Aye.” Robin borrowed her catchphrase. “Second exit point.” That told her they were, in fact, using the main one. The stables where the pegasi where. He sheathed his red Sol blade and ran, kicking down the doors to the barracks. Behind him, an ice-blue flare shot up in the air over the barracks, exploding like a firecracker. Not good.

He managed it down the block, darting into the maze of side streets which formed the slums of Ylisstol. Then, after ducking through two randomly chosen intersections to throw off pursuers, he ran headlong into an armored knight.

“Why would someone be there?” Robin got to his feet and stared. Uh-oh.

“This is the crossroads of the slums. They say, sooner or later, everyone ends up here.” The knight leveled her spear at him. “Of course, you’d need to live in Ylisstol to know that, scum.”

“You don’t want to fight me.” Robin’s hand inched towards the tome he had. “I’m not your enemy.”

“Wrong. The flare is the emergency flare, which means you are. I am Kjelle.” Kjelle lowered her spear at him. “I’ll grace you with that much information before I kill you.”

“THORON!”

A barrier rose around the knight, absorbing the electricity. Robin blinked as a sour-faced priest stepped out the shadows. “Nice try. But Brady ain’t one to let his friends die.” Brady exchanged his barrier stave for one Robin recognized as a ranged healing one. “Ready to face yer doom, Robin?”

“Armored front, and a rear too far away to hit.” Robin sighed as he drew his Sol blade. “This is going to take a while. Hope Say’ri is faring better.”

 -Warehouse-

“This is definitely Say’ri, no question about it!” Inigo said as he dove out of the way of a sword slash. “Can you please use Aether already!?”

“I haven’t fully mastered it! The time with Robin was just good luck!” Lucina scowled as she engaged the Chon’sin blademaster. Say’ri brought her twin blades to bear on Lucina, forcing the young lord back. Inigo came up behind Say’ri, forcing her to shift her attention. “Since when did she use two blades?”

“It’s true I normally fight with just one blade.” Say’ri stood before them, holding them off with each of her blades locked with them. “My Astra technique is a single blade form, heavily reliant on setting my stance. However, Lord Robin felt the need to incorporate Niten Ichi-ryu into his ultimate technique. While he is not insufficient in it, and I do not specialize, I feel he did not do ‘Two Heavens As One’ technique justice as it deserves. So I shall use it on you.”

“Don’t you, uh, want to run?” Inigo said.

“Yes. But I believe Robin could use as much as possible.” Say’ri held a blade out. “Break my guard if you can.”

“When did we get on the defensive?” Inigo sighed. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever fought a swordsmaster using Niten Ichi-ryu before. Would explain why we’re getting thumped.”

“Shut up and fight!” Lucina snapped. “We’ve taken her before – when she was much stronger! We’ll just need to do it again! Now, remember what Mother taught us!”

“I don’t think dancing is going to help us here.” Inigo said. “Oh, wait you mean the combination move?

“Yes, that one!”

 -Ylisse Crossroads-

“Gah.” Robin panted. Kjelle was out for the count, and Brady was staring at him stunned. “Didn’t you know, punk? The Sol blade absorbs the health of its victims. Every time you healed Kjelle, I just stole that strength.”

“But – she’s invincible!”

“Not to someone with the ability to add their magic to their normal attacks.” And got lucky, but he doesn’t need to know that. Robin gestured with his sword. “Surrender?”

“Rah!” Brady hurled himself at Robin. The Battlemaster dodged the staff swing and felled the priest with a single right hook.

“What is with these people?” Robin sighed. That’s four – Lucina, Inigo, Brady, and Kjelle. Nine more. Assuming they keep it within the little corps of theirs. He sheathed Sol. This is really taking a beating. He drew the lance, spinning it. “Now, which direction…?”

He looked around, noting the castle in the distance. Direction, settled, he took off at a run. It was five minutes until he encountered his next pair. A pair of sword fighters, one with ginger hair and the other jet black stood in front of the market. Of course. It was a landmark, he should have predicted there’d be an ambush here.

“Halt, fiend.” The black one held a sharp katana directed at him. “Prepare to face the wrath of Owain Dark, sworn vanquisher of evil.”

“I’m not evil.” Robin said. He gestured with his hand. “The evil went that way.”

“Huh?” Owain blinked. “Okay, thanks. Sorry to bother you – wah!”

“I cannot believe Morgan told the two of us to pair up.” The girl shoved him, sending him toppling over. She drew her own sword, a broad length of steel. “For crying out loud, Owain, how could you not recognize Robin in the flesh?”

“More people who know me that I don’t know?” Robin sighed. “I mean, it makes sense it’s just getting really old. Next time, I’m not removing the mask, no matter what.” He set his feet and sent his magical energy into the Shockstick. “You’re lucky that I have no intention of killing you.”

“Out of curiosity, does Robin look a bit … off, to you?” Owain got up. “I mean, he was kind of dark before, but now’s he got a spear and is radiating killer intent.”

“This isn’t your make-believe, Owain.” The ginger rolled her eyes. “No one radiates evil intent. But yeah, I thought Robin used swords.”

“Are we sure that it’s him?” Owain said.

“Well, I do use swords from time to time, but this is a spear I’m using right now.” Robin said. “See? Spear. I’m not the man you’re looking for. Plus my hair is brown, not white.”

“I think he’s got a point. His hair is brown, not white.”

“YOU IDIOT HOW WOULD HE KNOW ROBIN’S HAIR WAS WHITE IF HE WASN’T ROBIN!”

“Oh, yeah.” Owain cringed. “You know, it’s a mistake anyone could make.”

“While this is amusing-” Robin darted forward. He spun the stick and fired its magic bolt at the ginger, then swept it for a strike at the black-haired swordsman. The magic caught the girl, but Owain leapt up, flipping over the sweep, landing behind Robin.

“Special move – Lunge of the Sixteen Tigers!”

“…” Robin deflected the thrust, blinking. “That wasn’t even a lunge.” He twirled the spear to give him breathing space, and back up two steps, setting his stance. He lunged forward, thrusting the spear at Owain. “THIS IS A LUNGE!”

“Move, you idiot!” The ginger tackled Owain out of the way.

“Special move - Dodgeroll of the Maiden!” Owain managed to get out, after getting sandwiched between the ground and the ginger’s tackle.

“My saving your sorry rear isn’t one of your special moves.” The girl got up, swinging her sword at Robin. “Sorry about this!”

“You wouldn’t have to apologize if you didn’t try to kill me.” Robin danced out the way of the girl’s attacks. She was strong and fast, and wielding a heavy weapon. But he already had her weakness - magic. Robin faked a quick thrust, sending her back into a guard position. Impossible to land a blow with his spear, but he wasn’t going to attack with his spear. “REXCALIBER!”

A full wave of wind crashed into the ginger. The girl was sent flying, only to be caught by Owain. “Severa!”

“Gawd. I’m fine.” Severa blinked, then realize that Owain had caught her in a bridal carry. Her face went deep crimson. “LET GO OF ME!”

“Aw, this is cute.” Robin chuckled. “You kids have fun.”

“We’re still going to kill you, no matter how much you make fun of us!” Severa said. “It doesn’t have be this hard, you know! It’s hard on us too.”

“Nope.” Robin shook his head. He held up his palm, crackling with lightning. “See, let’s say the ‘war’ is decided by whether or not I survive. The ‘battle’ here is whether or not you can stop me. And I’ve gotten past you. I won the moment I made it past the pair of you.”

Lightning flashed, blinding the pair of them for a second. When it faded, debris covered the square. Robin had collapsed the stands to buy him time, and they didn’t know where he went.

“Oh.” Owain sighed. “My fault.”

“Of course it is.” Severa said. “Who’s else could it be, you stupid idiot?”

“We failed.” Owain collapsed, falling to his knees.

“Stop blaming yourself, idiot!” Severa slapped him. “This is ROBIN, remember? Of course we weren’t a match. Lucy just told us to slow him down.”

“I thought he said he wasn’t a strong fighter in his youth.”

“Life in Valm toughened him up, I guess.” Severa helped him up. “Well, now we’ll be more prepared for next time. Now send up the flare.”

-Warehouse

“How’s it looking?” Lucina said, stepping on to the roof of the barracks. She had a limp and her right side was red with blood.

“Two flares so far.” Morgan said, using a pair of binoculars to view the city. “Both my ambushes were defeated. But I’ve got a good idea where he’s headed.”

“The east exit, right?”

“No.” Morgan shook her head. “At a guess – either the south, or some other means. Do you know how he got into the city?”

“No, I look through the records.” Lucina frowned. “Couldn’t find him.”

“Oh! Then he must have flown in! A pegasus escort.” Morgan said. “Yes, that makes sense. Easy entrance, easy exit. He must intend to be flying out of here.”

“The stables…!” Lucina winced as she tried moving fast. Morgan grabbed her before she could get somewhere.

“You’re staying here, fearless leader.” Morgan said. “Jeez, Say’ri did a number to you.”

“She got lucky, and I got unlucky.” Lucina winced. “Turns out we didn’t practice that move enough, and she managed to land a blow on me before Inigo knocked the swords from her hands. Inigo went after her, but she’s roof-jumping. He’ll get lost.”

“The flyers are already after her.” Morgan said. “I saw some wind magic earlier, so I’m not sending them after this Crimson Tactician.”

“They’re not going to succeed.”

“Yes, well, that’s what the other two groups are for.” Morgan said. “Tell the ranged squad to take up resident in the clock tower over the stables. And as for the last group – well, Yarne’s nose needs no help.”

“Good.” Lucina sighed. “What are out odds of stopping him?”

“No greater than twenty percent.” Morgan said, staring at her. “They COULD be higher, if you told me who it was. And let me fight.”

Morgan’s only memory is of Robin. Lucina internally cringed. I can’t let them meet! “Nope.” Lucina said. She grasped the Falchion in her hand. Energy flowed through it, restoring her vitality. “Ahhh. That feels much better.”

“You’re going to do something stupid.” Morgan stated.

“I’m going after him, and you’re not going to stop me.”

“Now, that is a good tactical plan, but I have one little suggestion to make it even better.” Morgan said in a lilting sing-song. “Ah, yes the part where I add “HELL NO”.”

“This is a direct order!”

“I’m your adopted older sister, Lucina! I may not remember it, but I didn’t follow you through time just to see you throw your life away!” Morgan said. “You WILL stay here.”

“Fine. But I don’t have to like it.”

 -Rooftops-

“Gah!” Cynthia dodged the slash. “Why does she have Amatsu!”

“That’s Say’ri.” Gerome was beside her. “It’s her ancestral blade, after all.”

“Are you sure?”

“My parents were her friend.” Gerome frowned. “This may just be the mockery of her, like everything else, but her skills are to be feared. But why is she against us?”

"I don't know! Lucy just told us to chase people if the flair went up, and she went running from the warehouse."

“Fie!” The two aerial fighters were forced to dodge another slash as Say’ri sent the blade after them. She was standing on the edge of building overlooking an alleyway. Say’ri shook her head. “Why does Robin have these kinds of enemies?”

“We aren’t enemies of him, you know!” Cynthia called out.

“We’re trying kill him.” Gerome reminded her. “That does make us enemies.”

"At least one of you has sense." Say'ri said.

“It’s complicated.” Cynthia yelled. “But we’re fighting for justice!”

“Indeed.” Say’ri said. “But I’m in no position to fight. So I shall not.” She stepped off the edge of the roof and dropped into the alleyway. The narrow alleyway. Too narrow for their wingtips.

Cynthia sighed. “Gerome, dive-bomb?”

“Minerva cannot pull out a dive with no room to stretch her wings.” Gerome said. “If this were Robin I wouldn’t hesitate.”

“You shouldn’t say things like that, you know.”

“We are already dead. Shadows in a land of shadows.”

“Oh, you big jerk! I know you don’t mean that. Think about how bad Minerva would feel if you died.” Cynthia sighed. “Anyway, fire the flare, and then let’s go back to the others.”

 -Ylisse Backroads-

“Another flare.” Robin looked up in the sky, from where he was running through the alleys. “Judging from the ones sent off after I won – that’s another team down. That brings the count up to eight. We’ve got five left.”

“He’s here!” A dark figure dropped in front of him, blocking his exit. “Nah!”

“What?” Robin blinked. A noise came from the other end, so Robin spun around. A small blond-haired girl had dropped from the roof as well. “Trapped. But you should know that trapped prey is the most dangerous kind.”

“You bully! Making fun of me!” Robin looked back at the dark figure, who dropped to his hands. “I’ll show you what happens when you MESS WITH A BUNNY!”

Earth shot up around him, then suddenly slammed back down. There was now a massive rabbit where he stood.

“Am I seeing things.” Robin blinked. “There’s a giant bunny blocking my way. I mean dragons are one thing, but that’s a GIANT BUNNY. Am I going mad?”

A flash of light interrupted his monologue. Robin looked around. “Oh, good. An actual dragon this time. So I’m not going mad. Or, if I am, at least I’m going mad enough for it to make sense.”

Robin ran down the mental inventory of his weapons. Okay, Robin. You’re trapped in an alleyway, between a giant bunny and a shapeshifting dragon-girl. You’re running low on wind spells. Your life-stealing blade is almost out of uses, and the magic spear has seen better days. It's time like this which really makes me contemplate what kind of life decisions I've been making which has led me to circumstances like this one.

“Die!” The bunny charged at him. Robin ran for the wall, making it two steps up it, and jumping off, landing on the bunny. He sat on its back, closing his feet around the bunny’s neck and grabbing the over large pair of ears. “AH!”

Let’s attempt to ride the giant bunny. At the very least, it can't get weirder than this.

“Okay, this isn’t so difference from horseback riding.” Robin pulled back, forcing the bunny up, and directed him out of the alleyway. A blue orb shot past him. Robin turned around to see the dragon going after him, firing blue spheres. “Except that I’m being chased by a dragon. Who’s shooting some kind of dragonbreath at me.”

“My ears are very sensitive! Bulllllllllly!”

“And the bunny talks. So not like horseback riding at all. Or, actually, this would probably also happen to me even if I was on horseback.” Robin sighed. “Shut up! You’re trying to kill me! All’s fair in love and war!”

“Yarne, turn back to human!” The dragon roared.

Robin blinked and the bunny beneath him turned back to a normal human shape. He promptly went flying, turning it into a roll, giving him only a few scrapes. He got to his feet, panting, to see the pair back in human form. “So, the bunny is Yarne? Who are you then?”

“Nah.” The blonde girl answered.

“I mean, it’s fine if you don’t want to tell me.”

“No, my NAME is Nah.” The girl sighed. Then turned into a dragon.

“THORON!” Robin blasted her his lightning. Nah-dragon took the blow, snarling as she did so. Robin blinked. It was a novel experience not seeing someone go flying from his tome. “Welp.”

“I’ll kill you!” Yarne was back in bunny-mode. Robin dove to the side, dodging a swipe from wicked-sharp bunny claws. I’m going to have nightmares from this. Horrible bunny-filled nightmares. What did I do to deserve bunny-filled nightmares?

“Eat lightning, too.” Robin blasted him with lightning, aiming for the ears. It worked. Yarne went back to human form, rolling over.

“HAH!” The dragon shot a blue orb at him again.

Robin caught the blast right the in middle of his chest. He went flying, slamming into the wooden walls of the stable, and slid to the floor. Right place, too late. The yellow tome he’d used for lightning spells went flying from his hands.

“Ow.” Robin tried to get his body to move. It wouldn’t listen to him. And, as it was he didn’t think he’d survive another blast. Not again. And Dant isn’t even here to pull some cheap stunt to save me. Robin braced himself. Fine. Come at me.

But nothing came.

Robin blinked. He got to his feet, looking down at his chest. The dragonfire – projectile – whatever it was, had managed to dissolve a good chunk of his enchanted cloak, and given him some mild burns.

Nah was standing before him in human form. “Robin?”

“That’s what they call me.” Robin got to his feet, using the wall behind him. “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

“I couldn’t.” Nah shook her head. “Maybe the others are right about me, and I’m just a child. But I’m a daughter of a divine dragon, and the daughter of a priest. I can’t kill someone for something they haven’t done.”

“For – what?”

“Robin!” Say’ri dropped in front of him, holding her sword. “Stay back!”

“It’s all right, Say’ri.” Robin said. “Get the pegasus.”

“But…”

“That’s an order.” Robin said. “She’s a priestess. She’s not going to hurt me. Any more, at least. Ow. Ribs.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Aye.” Say’ri sheathed her blade and disappeared. Robin wasn’t sure that her disappearing act was absolutely necessary but didn’t have the strength to question it when he had more pressing concerns.

“So, you’re a manakete? Makes sense.” Robin said, fishing into his robes for something to heal himself with. He found an old brown concoction bottle. “Why does Lucina want to kill me? For that matter, why do you all want to kill me?”

“Lucina … is conflicted.” Nah inhaled. “Most of the problems she’s dealt with involve direct solutions, so she sees them as the correct ones, even when they aren’t. She’s gone through a lot in the past ten years to even stand on her own two feet.”

“Ten years. That predates the current Ylisse-Plegian war, but it’s after the last one.” Robin blinked. “She was involved with something I don’t know about, right? And the blade she wields – that Chrom’s sword, Falchion. She must have royal blood to wield that and be fairly close to him to borrow it at a moment’s notice. So, what did I do that makes her want to kill me?”

“You’re very smart, but you’re thinking in the wrong direction.” Nah said. “It’s not something you did. It’s going to do. We want to stop you.”

“Oh.” Robin blinked. “Yeah, that makes a lot more sense. But why me specifically? Lucina didn’t go after me because I’m the Valme Battlemaster, she went after me because I’m Robin.”

“I… can’t answer that.” Nah said. She looked pain. “We swore not too. But if anyone can help you, the Voice can. Find Tiki. I’ll see if I can talk Lucina out of killing you.”

“Wait.” Robin said. “There should be more of you.” Robin briefly described his opponents. “Who else is there, and what can you do?”

“Cynthia and Gerome are flyers, Noire is an archer, and Laurent is a wind mage. There’s Morgan too, but Lucina banned her from interfering.” Nah said. “Lucina was kind of worried she’d do what I just did.”

“Robin.” Say’ri was on her pegasus. “Are we ready to leave?”

“Change of plans.” Robin swung on the pegasus behind her. “Just ride us north. On the roads. They’ve got archers and flyers. Thank you, Nah.”

“No problem.” Nah said. “Looks like I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

-Barracks of the Future Children

“You did WHAT?” Lucina fumed. “You let him get away!”

“I-” Nah looked like she was on the verge of tears. “I couldn’t, Lucina! I can’t kill an innocent man! He’s done nothing wrong.”

“Done nothing wrong?!” Lucina sputtered. “He’s not even an ally at this point in the timeline, when he should be!”

“Easy, sister.” Inigo was by Nah, offering her a handkerchief. “It’s not nice to make a lady cry. And she does have a point.”

“A point? My sword has a point. Nah has a-”

"Stop." Inigo said. "You don't want to finish that sentence."

"I don't want to finish that sentence?"

"You want to calm down," Inigo made a gesture with his hand, "and rethink your life."

Lucina considered Inigo's advice for an entire quarter of a second. "No, I want to slap you in the face, and then chew Nah out for what she deserves! What's wrong with you, Inigo? Why are you taking her side in all this? Do you want our parents to die?"

"It's not black and white, Lucy."

"It most certainly is." Lucina said. "Fine Robin. Kill Robin. Stop the bad future. That's all there is."

“Okay, sis. I didn’t want to this.” Inigo sighed. “Hands up, people! If you know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you could’ve killed him if you were in Nah’s shoes, raise your hand!”

Gerome and Kjelle both raised their hands. Severa wavered, then kept it down. Inigo gestured. “My point?”

“You’ve proven nothing!” Lucina said. “All you’ve shown is the rest of you are also too weak to do the job!”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah!”

Then why wasn’t your hand up?

Lucina froze. She felt blood rush to her face, and grabbed her mask, putting it on her face. She spun suddenly and walked up the stairs. She heard a set of footsteps falling after her.

“Stop, Severa.” Inigo said. “Your hot head isn’t going to help.”

“Let go of me, Inigo.” There was the sound of a fist hitting someone's face, but no one followed her.

Lucina walked up the stairs, opening the door to the roof and walking through, slamming it shut.

 -Warehouse, Thirty Seconds Later-

“So, do I have to ask why Severa has Inigo in a chokehold, or can I just assume that it was his usual antics?” Morgan asked. “And where’s Lucina?”

Inigo would have given a sigh of relief that Morgan stepped out while that exchange happened, if he could breath. But Severa was in no mood to let go. “Tap.” Inigo wheezed.

“It’s your fault Lucina got angry!”

“Easy.” Morgan pulled Severa off Inigo. “Now, tell me what happened.”

“It’s, ah, complicated.” Nah sighed. “It’s my fault.”

“Okay, I’m overriding Lucina.” Inigo said. “Morgan, we’ve got something to tell you about Robin.”

“The man we were chasing tonight.” Morgan said. “Robin has something to do with him, doesn’t he?”

"...Yeah." Inigo sighed. Of course she figures it out. "I guess you could say that..."

 -Rooftop-

“I’m a terrible leader.”

“If that were true, we wouldn’t follow you.”

“Gerome!” Lucina turned to see the black-masked wyvern rider sitting next to her. “Why are you here?”

“You needed the company.” Gerome said.

“If that were true, I wouldn’t be out here.”

“Not with them.” Gerome said. “You need someone who agreed with you. And that meant either myself or Kjelle.”

“Didn’t you see? My hand wasn’t raised.”

“That just means you’re conflicted.” Gerome said. “You know, I’ve worn my mask for a while, to hide behind it. But something happens when you wear a mask all day. You gain a perspective as an outsider might, as someone staring just over your shoulder, but not behind your eyes. That gave me perspective I wanted to share with you. The reason Kjelle and I raised our hand is because of the order you gave. Not because of the order, but because you gave it.”

“You agreed with the order?”

“No.” Gerome shook his head. “None of us agreed with that order. Least of all you. But you still gave it. You’re our leader, Lucina. I’ll follow you through the flames of hell itself, if you lead me through it.”

“Don’t tell me that. I don’t deserve your respect.”

“…” Gerome didn’t respond. “What do you want me to say? You do deserve my respects. You just made a mistake.”

“I can’t make mistakes!” Lucina said. Her mask covered her emotions, but it couldn’t hide the tears. “I can’t! Not another one!”

“You made no mistakes by Emmeryn.” Gerome said. “We did the best we could. We underestimated how strong history was.”

“But don’t you see?” Lucina said. “If that were true, Robin wouldn’t be were he is right now. His very existence in Valm is sending our history and his future in a spiral! That proves the future can be changed, and we're just not strong enough to do it.”

“I see.” Gerome nodded. “That’s what you’re scared of. That you could have done something, but you weren’t strong enough.”

“Killing Robin is the surest way to fix the timeline!” Lucina said, screaming grabbing Gerome's shoulders. “I don’t know if anything else will fix it. I can’t know. I had to make the call. Damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t.”

“Not yet. Not damned yet, Lucina.” Gerome said. He gently put one hand on her arm. “We haven’t failed yet. We’ve just made mistakes. But even your Father isn’t immune to it. Even Robin isn’t. Even Grima isn’t. And all we need to do is succeed once. So gather your resolve, leader. You've always had the most out of any of us.”

"Not 'fearless leader'?"

"I'd never follow a leader who's truly fearless." Gerome said. "That trait only belongs in someone who's perfect or foolish. And no one is perfect. It's alright to be afraid. But don't let your fears control you."

“Was I wrong, then?” Lucina asked.

“That's the question Emmeryn asked. But it's not what you should.” Gerome said. “Were you right?”

“I see.” Lucina said. She let go of Gerome's shoulders. “Please, leave me, Gerome. I’ll be fine.”

"Very well." Gerome said. "Good night, leader."

 -???-

“Interesting.” The dark, cloaked figure read the report, exercising the care over the paper that would shame even the most dedicated of caretakers. “A night-time disturbance in Ylisse on the day of the Exalt’s wedding. What a turn of events.”

“My lord.” Validar said. “Shouldn’t we be focused on the matter at hand, rather than on some drunken nobles in Ylisse?”

“Kneel.” The dark figure gestured. “I could use a footrest.”

“My lord?”

“I’m joking, of course.” The figure stood up, crumpling the paper. “Who would trust you to be a footrest, much less a King?”

Validar looked at him, unsure of how to respond.

“Oh, right!” The figure snapped his fingers. “I would. The King, that is. It’s unimportant enough to my plans that I suppose you could have it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You never do. Honestly, it’s a wonder you won the first time around.” The figure rolled his eyes. “It’s only because you knew what the others didn’t it. Information is power. Anyway, if you weren’t paying attention, Valm’s mysterious new tactician was seen at the ball. And, after that, a fracas erupts, with reports linking members to that mysterious group which is no doubt the future children.”

“I fail to see-”

“Keep quite or I’ll replace you with a coatrack.” The figure considered. “Hmm. I may do that anyways. It’s clear that, despite Aversa’s initial response to the contrary, Robin is the Valmese tactician. I should have guessed, but it seems I misremembered my time running around the world. Dratted time gaps in the bloody gate to the past. Trust Naga to not even manage to do that right.”

“So, we’ll simply capture him.” Validar said. “It seems trivial enough to do, with your power. If he’s already missing from his destiny, we’ll bring it to him.”

The cloaked figure considered. Then he snapped his fingers. Pain exploded within Validar, and the dark mage was forced to his knees. He snapped again, and the pain subsided. “Stand up. Good. Now put your arm out. Yes, like that. Now – just hold there.”

The figure took off his cloak, revealing purple clothes, white hair, and the mark of the Grimleal on the back of his left hand. “No, I’ll take a leaf from little Lucina’s book. If she’s going to screw with time, I suppose the only appropriate thing is that I do the same.”

“But Fate!”

“Hold my coat.” Grima placed it on Validar’s hand. “And stay there. Eating the entirety of Plegia at the Dragon’s Feast to regain my power would certainly be a treat. But eating the entirety of the world – now that sounds like a meal fit for a dragon. And Fate can be my dessert. But to do that... Yes, I think the board needs a few more pawns. And perhaps just one more turncoat.”

Chapter Text

Ravena went crashing through the door and into the hallway beyond with an axe embedded in the breastplate she had under her dress. I’ll have to thank Dant for that. Ravena thought. And maybe get Father to do it to? Ravena pulled the axe out and tossed it aside. “Ow.”

“You’re still alive?”

“Please.” Ravena stood up and felt the dark gifts flowing through her bloodstream spark to life as she prepared to call upon them. “You think a demon child like me could be killed so easily?”

“I’ll find out!” Cherche spat, going for another throwing axe.

The axe flew the door after her, but Ravena managed to dive to one side, avoiding it, and running down the hall. The door, already on one hinge, was bashed aside as Cherche came out of it, dressed in her recovery gown and holding a throwing axe in each hand. An empty bottle of pure water rolled behind her.

“Don’t bother.” Cherche aimed and hurled an axe.

Ravena skidded and fell to the floor, allowing it to sail over her head. She rolled so her chest was to the floor and pushed herself up. “Glad to see losing your wyvern hasn’t drained the fight from you.”

“I have strength yet.” Cherche hurled another axe.

“I can see that.” Ravena focused, calling forth the darkness within her soul, conjuring it into a dark pool of energy, and tapping into it. She formed it in front of her, creating a dark barrier, deflecting the axe of it. “Then I suppose it’s time we stopped this. The exercise was just to get you to attack me, and I have no interest in dying.”

“Grr.” Cherche pulled off the axe stuck in wall, and gripped it two handed.

Cherche is a wyvern rider, so she judges distances different from a soldier on foot. In other words, she’ll feel like she can engage at distances she actually can’t – especially if she’s enraged. Ravena reviewed the mental notes she had made for the fight. Also, she doesn’t have her armor – which means that her normally great defense is now terrible. She’ll be conscious of this, and be relieved to have drunken a pure water to counter my magic.

Pity for her that was just normal water in a mislabeled bottle.

“Die!” Cherche ran down the hallway, moving almost inhumanly fast.

Oh. She doesn’t have armor on. No time – just go for broke! Ravena dropped the shield and instantly reformed it into a projectile. “Flux!”

“Guh!” Cherche took the dark energy, sending her reeling back.

“Flux! Flux! Flux!” Ravena cried, hurling the energy. Keep driving her back! “THIS ENDS HERE!” Dark energy surrounded her, covering her arms as Ravena raised them, forming a shadowy image behind her. “Nosferatu!”

The last bolt of energy sent Cherche flying, crashing to the ground as he life force was pulled into Ravena. Ravena breathed a sigh of relief. “That was closer than I would have liked. If you weren’t injured, you might have gotten me.”

“Kill me.” Cherche staggered to her knees.

“Why would I do that?” Ravena sat down, cross-legged.

“I … tried killing you.”

“I would have done it if I were in your shoes. Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you at all.” Ravena said. “But it’s good. Now we know what you’re really capable of. Who you are in the dark, so to speak.”

“Haha.” Cherche found herself laughing. “HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA! I guess we do, don’t we?”

“Are you alright?” Ravena sighed. “No, that’s a stupid question, of course you aren’t.”

“What was your plan, here, girl?” Cherche asked, tears streaming down her face as she laughed. “You just wanted to make me crack?”

“I mean … kind of.” Ravena sighed. I guess this is kind of what Father feels like when he screws up. “It’s just … you seemed a but too focused on Virion, so I wanted to help you get a better look at yourself. You’re nobody’s pawn. Being born a vassal and expected to serve for your entire life is no difference from slavery. Not to mention that it was blinding you to his flaws.”

“Well, it worked. I’m a hypocrite. Congratulations.”

“We’re all hypocrites, one way or the other.” Ravena said. “If you know something is wrong, you can accept that what you’re doing is wrong, or you can deny it. Robin knows that Walhart is wrong. He doesn’t agree with his ‘Survival of the Strong!’ mentality – and neither do I. I’ve seen what happens when the strong bullies the weak – and it’s not pretty. But we’ve got to bide our time. That’s our hypocrisy. Here’s what I think. You can either choose to stand your ground and die. Or, you can choose to sacrifice some of your values so that your more important ones have a chance to exist.”

“And I have no other choices?”

“You used to.” Ravena shrugged. “But now that you’ve attacked me? You’ve played your hand and opened your eyes. You’re an idealist, Cherche, but you’re the kind who’s willing to play the long game, like us. You can deny that. Or you can join us.”

-North of Ylissotol

“Is this necessary?” Say’ri asked. “I do not think you should be here.”

“They’ll never think to look here.” Robin said. “But we’re here because I want to be here. Besides, we’re in no rush. It’ll take the ship a while to meet us by the Plegian coast.”

Robin had sent a message hawk as soon as he could once they got outside the city, instructing his crew to push off and head to Plegian waters. Annoying, but he was unsure if the Ylissean tactician had sent a hawk of her own ordering his ship destroyed, or something. At his estimate, the hawk would take a day or two to get there, and another two days for the ship to get to position. It would only take three days to get there by pegasus. They had spare time.

Robin had decided to stop by the monument that had been put up for Exalt Emmeryn. Say’ri held back as he slowly approached it.

It wasn’t a planned monument, not exactly. The body, if the Ylisseans had gotten it back, would be interred within Castle Ylisse, since she was one of their Exalts. But a massive white pillar had been carved with the Mark of the Exalt, with a small cairn of stones at the base. A carved statue of Emmeryn overlooked the cairn. No one was really sure who did it.

It wasn’t technically a holy site of Naga, but it was fairly close to it. Robin had felt compelled to go there. He never met Emmeryn – not that he recalled, anyway – but he felt a closeness to Chrom, and a closeness to Chrom’s sister by comparison. And, from what he had read from the Plegian-Ylissean war, she was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to live up to her ideals. And it worked. Incredibly.

“I’m not sure why I’m here.” Robin said. “I mean … well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I kind of wish I were you. Maybe not the sacrifice part, but your dedication was incredible. I see why Lady Pheros was such a disciple of yours, if your act could inspire such a radical change in an entire country.”

“Initially, I thought Exalt Chrom was a fool. Two massive civil wars fought within thirty years of each other. Between countries with an ancestral hatred of each other, and cultures with an ancestral hatred. That’s just a recipe for never ending war. From a sense, Exalt Chrom could be said to be worse than his father. True, he won the war and didn’t kill off his own people. But at what cost?”

“If the previous Exalt had won like Exalt Chrom did, I have no doubt that Plegia would not be capable of launching a second war. I don’t know what he would have done under those circumstances – and frankly, it fills even me with dread. But he would have forcibly stopped the cycle of violence, by bringing it to a single shuddering halt. There would be no war. Emmeryn would not have died, nor would all the Ylisseans and even Plegians that have died this cycle. Chrom may have won today, but he might just have set a cost on his victory that would have taken it’s due on his descendants.”

“But the death of Emmeryn, it introduces a new variable.” Robin clenched his hand. “The will of men are weak, and it takes acts of great magnitude to move them from the path they are taking. The cycle of violence has been, for all intents and purposes, brought to a halt, but not by the power of violence. Rather, through the single selfless act of Exalt Emmeryn. And it seems like a legacy that Exalt Chrom is willing to continue.”

“Though, I wonder. Was your sacrifice in vain, Emmeryn? True, the majority of the Plegians chose to drop their weapons, but the Mad King still took the battlefield. Will the Plegians stop, or shall it continue next generation, for the sons and daughters of the current one to take up old struggles. And, perhaps that can be said for the halting of all conflicts – there is simply nothing that can be done to stop it.”

“And if that’s the case, is there really anything I can do?” Robin wondered. “What would be accomplished by painting the most beautiful work of art on a canvas that would be covered with black paint the next moment?”

“Would it not be a single most glorious moment?” A voice asked him, behind him. “Could you not say that while no painting can last, it will shine all the brighter because of it? Perhaps fragility itself is what gives meaning to art.”

“How do you mean?” Robin asked. If that’s who I think it is, why did Say’ri let her approach me?

“Consider the butterfly. Its life is ephemeral, nothing more than a few weeks. They must travel great distances between the summer and winter to stay in the right climate, but their lives are in fact shorter than the time it takes to make such a journey. Generations of butterflies do nothing but steadfastly fly on the course their parents have tread before them and the course their parents have tread before them. A single butterfly is a mere flicker of flame before the roaring inferno of its surrounding, yet if not for every flickering flame trying it’s hardest, we would have no butterflies. And without the flicker of the flames, we would learn nothing from it.”

“I see.” Robin said. A simple lesson, but not one to be disregarded. Sometimes, a journey is not something that can be accomplished with a single generation, or a single action, but it most certainly cannot be accomplished without those actions. “But you would know about butterflies – wouldn’t you, Lucina?”

“Yes. Though I must ask you to refrain from using that name, if you so could.” The blue-haired swordswoman walked so she was standing beside him. “I see that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to come here today. Dueling with unpleasant thoughts as well?”

“Odd expression. But I suppose I am indeed. And they seem to be getting the better of me, despite by best efforts.” Robin said. “Are you not trying to kill me today?”

“No. I left my sword with Say’ri.” Lucina said. “I was … hasty, yesterday. My apologies. I reacted without thinking, and I just wanted to reach a solution which satisfied me. I shall not attempt to kill you, not today at the very least. Possibly, and hopefully, never. Though I do not expect you to forgive me.”

“If that was your problem, then I forgive you.” Robin said. “For this attempt, anyway.”

“Hmm.” Lucina blinked in shock. “That was generous.”

“It would be hypocritical of me to lay blame at your feet when I might do the exact same thing in your shoes. Clearly, you know something I do not.” Robin said. “I have amnesia, so I don’t know the exact reason. Can I ask you why? Nah said you wish to prevent me from doing something. Did I used to be in your group, and split off?”

“You have amnesia?” Lucina said.

“Yes.” Robin nodded. “I woke up around six months ago in Valm, without a clue as to who I was. I was recruited into the Conqueror’s army and fought my way up the ranks rather quickly.”

“Six months… so that would mean…” Lucina blinked, counting off her fingers. “You were in Valm then! Oh, that makes so much sense! You must have gotten it as a side effect of… I see. But why would you when the rest… Ah, that’ll be something Laurent figures out. But things make sense again. Or at least starting to. You don’t know how much that relieves me.”

“That’s good, I guess.” Robin said. “Mind telling me any of it?”

“I …” Lucina sighed. “I hate to say this again – but I’m sorry. I truly am. There isn’t much I can tell you. I have an idea as to what gave you amnesia, but nothing concrete. And if it is what I think it is, I can't tell you that either. I can tell you your past – what I know of it, anyway, but the rest of what I know is as my role as Foreseer – and that is not something I can tell you. Nor is in relevant to your past.”

“Fine.” Robin said. “Tell me what you can, and I’ll consider us even.”

“I see.” Lucina said. “Well, first and foremost, your nationality is Plegian. You are a member of the royal house, as in happens, though I do not know anything more than that. As a child, your mother ran away with you, and raised you for a while, teaching you the blade and tactics, while honing your natural gift for magic. However, she died when you were in your late teens.”

“How?”

“I don’t know.” Lucina admitted. “It could be a Plegian curse, poison, or simply illness. Whatever the reason, at that point you decided to wander the land. You were deep in Valm when the memory loss hit you. And that’s really all I know about your past.”

"And my future? What do you know that made you want to kill me?" If she's truly the Foreseer, than there might be something that happens to me. Robin said. "At the least, can you give me a warning?"

"..." Lucina shook her head. "Every time I interfere, my knowledge of the future grows less. There is something I want to tell you, but I shall save it for a better time."

“I see.” Robin said. “Thank you. You might not have known much, but I now know at least I have no outstanding loyalty or debts to pay for. And that relieves me greatly. I shall be on my way.”

“Wait.” Lucina called.

“Yes?” Robin asked, turning around.

“We are no longer enemies. But – I still cannot be friends with you.” Lucina said. “I hope you understand.”

“I do.” Robin nodded. “I can’t pretend to know what secrets you possess, Foreseer, but I understand if you hold secrets that prevent you from forming closer bonds with the people around you.”

“Very well.” Lucina asked. “I overhead your conversation to yourself. Where you serious? About – about Emmeryn’s sacrifice, and ending the cycle?”

“Possibly.” Robin said. “But I do know one thing. There are always those who are willing to take advantage of the weak, no matter what happens to the cycle. Gangrel was forcibly slain by Chrom’s hand, after all. In Valm, that one is Walhart. And someone must defeat him.”

“So you shall defeat him?”

“I shall crush him.” Robin said. “And after that? We shall see. I am not Exalt Emmeryn, after all. I am Count Robin Obsidian, Battlemaster of Valm. If the duty of the strong is to protect the weak, then no doubt the duty of the strong is also to be able to protect the weak.”

“So you will conquer the world?” Lucina asked.

“If I said yes, we would be enemies again. And while we aren’t friends, I do hope we aren’t enemies either.” Robin shrugged. “So I will say nothing. Fare thy well, Foreseer. May your blade stay ever-sharp. I hope we meet again under better circumstances.”

“Fare thy well, Battlemaster.” Lucina nodded. “It’s good to see you again. And, remember the butterfly. Do not fall to despair, fall to hope instead.”

 -Raven's Pledge, Off the coast of Ferox-

“…” Robin blinked. “Captain Dan?”

“Aye.”

“Why is there a witch tied up on my mast?”

“It wasn’t by choice, I assure you.” Aversa said. “I don’t mind attracting the eyes of men, but I prefer doing it on my terms.”

Robin’s eyes narrowed. “The only thing keeping you alive right now is the fact that you’re tied to my mast, so burning you would light my own ship on fire.”

Aversa closed her mouth.

“Wise choice.” Robin crossed his arms and tapped his fingers. “Captain Dan?”

“She, uh, offered to surrender to us.” Captain Dan said. “So we took it.”

“Okay.” Robin rolled his eyes. “Aversa, why are you here?”

“I’m switching sides, alright?” Aversa said. “He’s insane.

“Who is?”

“The new king of Plegia.” Aversa winced. “Validar. Suffice to say, I’m at your disposal for the time being. Honestly, I have no intention of helping him.”

“Well, this is surprising. I mean, I know you swore loyalty to me.” Robin frowned. “I just never thought you meant it.”

“Trust me, I’m surprised to.” Aversa laughed bitterly. “Master Validar raised me as a pitiful orphan. Harshly, but still raised me nonetheless. I thought my loyalty to him was strong beyond compare. I blindly followed his orders.”

“Oh?” Robin raised an eyebrow. “What changed?”

“I discovered the truth.” Aversa spat. “The new hierophant of the Grimleal. He told me everything. Validar found me as a child, alright – and slaughtered my village. My parents included. All for my gift, so desperate Validar was to have a shadowgifted child, especially when his own child was spirited away by his wife. The hierophant thought it was funny to tell me that and said that while I was needed at one point, I was no longer needed. Do you understand? They pulled my strings like a puppet on a stage, and now they’ve decided that it’s a different play. And they couldn’t even be bothered to kill me!”

Wow. Robin blinked as his internal monologue switched on. That … is considerably worse than what happened to Ravena. If it weren’t for Plegia surrendering en masse at the end of the last war, I’d burn the country to the ground. Well … maybe just the capitol and everyone with a position of power. I mean, I'd leave the common people, but I'd move them somewhere else, where that kind of think wouldn't go unchallenged.

“And you want a way to get back at them?” Robin asked, careful to keep the anger out of his words. It’s best if she doesn’t know I’m sympathetic to her. For now.

“In my experience, revenge isn’t best served cold, it’s best served often and in large, heaping quantities.” Aversa’s eyes flashed. “And you seem like someone who’d be willing to help me.”

“I see. You’re shadowgifted?” Robin said.

“Yes.” Aversa said. “Though gift isn’t exactly the word I would use. I’ve always considered a blessing to help Master Validar, but now it’s nothing more than a curse. Unless you help me.”

“Help you do what?” Robin asked. “Why would I even help you to begin with?”

“Don’t give me that! I’m no fool.” Aversa said. “You didn’t get where you are by playing nice, and you aren’t one to be content with what you are now. One day, you’ll crush Plegia and the Grimleal, and I want to be there for it.”

“I see.” Robin paused. “Why would the hierophant tell you this? Even with no use for you, to discard you like that seems like just a waste, or the hierophant being evil for the sake of being evil. And neither one sufficiently explains it.”

“I don’t know.” Aversa said, truthfully. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You expect me to trust you?” Robin asked. “Under these circumstances-”

“No. I expect you to torture me.” Aversa said. “Go ahead. I don’t care how – as long as you wreak vengeance on Validar. He took everything from me and raised me as his puppet! If there’s one thing I can do with this wretched life, it’ll be to kill him!”

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Robin noted. If what she’s saying is true, then she’ll make a fine lieutenant. Devious, and perfectly loyal, so long as I eliminate this ‘Validar’. And, if what she’s saying is true, I’ll have reason to kill Validar anyways.

“Very well.” Robin said. “Captain. Confine her to quarters. Allow her the bare minimum of water but no food. And be a gentleman about it, please.”

“Aye.” Captain Dan said, gesturing to the sailors.

“And see what you can do about providing her suitable clothing.” Robin said, calling after him. “We have spare cloaks, right? One of those should do it.”

“Are you actually going through with this?” Say’ri asked. "Torturing her, I mean."

“I don’t know.” Robin sighed. “She did give permission, and I have no other way.”

“You are willing to torture someone in cold blood.”

“I’m willing to kill someone in cold blood.” Robin countered. “Is that so different?”

“Aye. Killing is necessary.”

“The same could be said for anything, really.” Robin said. “But I see your point. Yes, torture just for the sake of sadism is nothing short of a war crime, but it may be necessary here. Can you really disagree with it?”

“I cannot disagree with the point you have raised, but my lack of sophistry does not turn an evil into a good.” Say’ri replied.

In other words, just because she can’t argue with me doesn’t make me right. Robin translated mentally. “That argument can be applied to any necessary evil. If you believe that, you might as well believe in platonic ideals and that things are either good or evil, with no gray in between.” Robin said. “And I am far beyond that. If the evil is necessary, that makes it different from any other evil.”

“How difficult would it be to argue that any evil is necessary?” Say’ri asked.

“Nope. Not going down that line of thought.” Robin scowled. “You do realize that what you’re saying is that I can argue anything to be necessary, but only certain things within that set are actually necessary, but no one can figure out what those are?”

“Aye.”

“Then who am I supposed to be accountable to?”

“Yourself?” Say’ri said. “An intrinsic component to mastering the blade is the knowledge of when to draw it, or when not to draw it. I cannot imagine a tactician of your caliber would not know when to employ such tactics or not.”

“Unless I lost them to amnesia.”

“Ah.” Say’ri sighed. “Then I am at a lost as well.”

“Great.” Robin sighed too. “I genuinely thought we’d get somewhere. Serves me right for trying to figure out something.” Wait – figure out something. That’s right, I thought Aversa might know about the Fire Emblem. “Actually, I have an idea...”

 -Raven's Pledge, Guest Cabin-

“Come to visit me alone~?” Aversa said. “Rumors will spread...”

“Please. I have a fiancé.” Robin waved his hand. “Nobody will suspect anything of the honorable Count Obsidian.”

“Ah. So who is my rival?”

“Is the flirtatious nature just part of you?”

“Why not?” Aversa shrugged. “Some people are sarcastic, some are angry. Some are quiet, some are loud. I just like talking like this, I suppose.”

“You mean talking in a way which has men falling over themselves to please you?”

“Well, that is how I prefer them.” Aversa said. “It’s really no different from how you like messing with people’s minds.”

“Well, I suppose that’s true.” Robin laughed. “Although apparently we aren’t supposed to do that in normal conversations.”

“Bah.” Aversa chuckled. “When do people like us have normal conversations?”

“Fair point.” Robin said. “Alright. So, I came to give you an ultimatum. The first option is we continue as planned. I deprive you of sustenance until we get to Valm, at which point I let the experts take over and torture you until we know for sure what side you’re on. Needless to say, this is the non-pleasant option, and one we’d really like to avoid.”

“We, being you and the cute Chon’sin?”

“We, being me and my barely-used conscious.” Robin said. “The second option is that we accept you as a defector, cite a few obscure laws, and you get rapidly promoted to one of my aides.”

“Well, that sounds substantially better.”

“There’s one caveat.” Robin said. “I need to you tell me everything, and I mean everything about the Fire Emblem. One lie, one omission, anything, and we will go directly back to option one. And I’m the judge of the whether or not you lied.”

“Understood.” Aversa said. “My, you just don’t waste time, do you? Very well, the Fire Emblem. How much do you know?”

“For the purpose of this conversation, absolutely nothing. But I assure you, I know enough to know if you’re giving me nothing but cattle dung.” Robin said, folding his arm and sat down. “Give it to me, straight. What’s the Fire Emblem?”

“It is known by many names, but the two most popular are the Shield of Seals, or the Fire Emblem.” Aversa said. “I’ve gone through both the Grimleal and Ylisseans lore on this matter. It was created by Naga for the sole purpose of sealing the dragon Medeus.”

“Medeus?” Robin frowned. “Now there’s a name I’m unfamiliar with.”

“The progenitor to Grima.” Aversa frowned. “There’s some legends about a necromancer named Thabes and I’m not sure he knew what he was doing, but just consider Medeus and Grima the same, for the sake of this conversation. In addition, a terrible curse was also placed on the Fire Emblem, though I’m not quite sure how. The act of giving it inflicts the giver with a terrible curse. Emmeryn likely sealed her own fate when she gave it to Chrom – and she knew it.”

“I haven’t heard that.” Robin frowned. “A curse?”

“Remarkably few have.” Aversa said. “Also, while it is a key factor in both Awakening rituals, few also realize that it’s not just a conversation piece to wave about during the ritual. It’s the alternate title, the Shield of Seals, which reveals its true purpose. It can create and undo magical binding locks. It can undo the locks which prevent the true power of Naga entering the Exalts, or the true power of Grima entering the Fellblood. In fact, the Fire Emblem can unlock just about anything.”

“I had an odd reaction to the red gemstone.” Robin frowned. Might as well ask her. “It released memories and gave me access to skills I didn’t have. I also suffer from amnesia. Do you think they’re related?”

“What?” Aversa blinked. “I mean … maybe. I’m really not sure, I’ve never heard of that, obviously, but I supposed if someone magically locked your memories, then the power of the Fire Emblem would override it, at least to some extent. But who would do something like that?”

“…I would.” Robin said. It makes sense, not from a logical perspective, but honestly, who else would have the motive or ability to do that? I don’t know the motive, and I can only guess how, but for some reason, I wanted to have that happen. “I mean, there really aren’t any other possibilities. Anyway, what do you mean by ‘both Awakenings’?”

“Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Exalt Chrom can summon the power of Naga within him, giving him the power to seal Grima away. However, someone with the blood of Grima can summon the Fell Dragon back to the world, not merely the ability to seal Naga.” Aversa said. “And, yes, that is because the Fellblood lineage literally contains the blood of Grima within it. Thabes was … overenthusiastic … with his experiments. Much to the Grimleal’s delight.”

“So, Validar is going to summon Grima into him.”

“Of course not.” Aversa said. “Validar doesn’t have just the right blood for it. That responsibility is the Fellborn’s, and the Fellborn’s alone.”

“The ‘Fellborn’?”

“A messiah of the Grimleal. The downside to the Plegian’s version of the ritual is that the additional power comes with an additional cost. The cost of perfect blood. The Fellborn is the perfect Fellblood, the only one able to actually accomplish the ritual.” Aversa said. “His presence would mean the coming of Grima. The entirety of the Fell Dragon. And, not twenty-five years ago, he was born.”

What.” Robin stared. His mind started racing. A threat of this magnitude means that any time the Plegians get the Fire Emblem gives them assured and total victory. It’s a game where Plegia only needs to win once and we only win when we keep them from winning. Forever. All priorities shifted towards preventing this. “Where. Is. The. Fellborn.”

“He’s dead.” Aversa said, bluntly. “Killed by the last Exalt at the end of his crusade. An innocent babe murdered in cold blood. Why do you think the Plegians wanted to go to war against Ylisse? And why do you think Emmeryn’s death had so much impact? A life for a life, Count.”

“Why haven’t I heard about this?”

“Do you have any loyal followers of the Grimleal? Oh, you don’t?” Aversa said. “No wonder. We don’t readily share out secrets with outsiders. But, yes, the tale of murdered messiah is a large part of Plegian resentment to Ylisse, though, like I said, the death of Emmeryn helped quell the need for vengeance.”

That will be easy enough to check with my agents in Plegia. Robin inhaled deeply to regain control of himself. “And the Fellborn’s parents?”

“His father was Validar.” Aversa said. “I was told his mother was dead before I joined the Grimleal. I do not know how she died, but it was either of natural causes or Ylissean assassins. Validar would have wanted her alive, of course, for reason I care not to enumerate. He was never a gentleman.”

Of course. I’m sure they viewed the mother as nothing more than breeding stock. Validar will die. Robin shook his head. And Ylisse probably was the cause of her death as well. I do not envy the position of the previous Exalt. As it stands, with the Fellborn and his mother dead, we do not have to worry about the world being destroyed in a dragon armageddon. And all it costed was two innocent lives. It’s quite easy now to castigate blame over the actions, but I suspect most of those doing so would rather an evil man perform those actions and criticize him, rather than the evil man not exist and be forced to deal with the outcome.

In other words, would even those who frown at necessary evil, and call it ‘unnecessary’ prefer it not exist at all? Then we would be facing a catastrophic event threatening to annihilate humanity as we know it. Robin frowned. These aren’t nice questions to contemplate, but certainly necessary. But for another time.

“Thank you for telling me that.” Robin asked. “Regardless. The Fire Emblem can only work with all six gemstones, correct?”

“There are five.” Aversa smiled. “You think you have gotten me with a trick like that? Shame on you. Unless you do actually know about a secret, sixth one.”

“No, I only know five. That was a trick.” Robin said. If I believed in six, gathering five together wouldn’t have been a problem. “Continue.”

“They are called Gules, Sable, Vert, Argent, Azure.” Aversa rolled her eyes. “Or just Red, Black, Green, Silver, Blue, if you don’t feel like using fancy names. Anyway, Silver is with the actual Fire Emblem itself. I think Red, Green, and Blue are with the Valmese Empire, but you’d know better than I.”

“I would, yes.” Robin nodded. Slightly wrong about that one, but I won't tell her that.

“Black is with Validar.” Aversa said. “Hidden within a vault.”

“You couldn’t steal it with you?”

“Me?” Aversa shook her head. “Validar and the Hierophant are the only two allowed in."

“Mmm.” Dant won’t be able to get it, then. Not without help. Robin considered. “That’s … beyond my reach. But maybe I can get to the rest of them. I’ll be able to get some of my memories back, at any rate. I see. Is there anything else you want to tell you?”

“Nothing.” Aversa shook her head. “Nothing related to the Fire Emblem, at any rate. I can give you troop strengths, economy, intelligence, all sorts of information regarding Plegia itself.”

“Why did Gangrel seek the Fire Emblem?”

“Mistaken belief.” Aversa shrugged. “The legend says that it fulfills the wishes of whoever possesses it. Gangrel just wanted it to protect Plegia against Valm. The irony of course being that if he’d just said that in the first place, Emmeryn would have helped him, at least to some degree. Of course, Gangrel inherited the paranoia of his predecessors. Such a pity.”

"Oh. One last thing." Robin said. "Can't believe I almost forgot. This, ah, crystal I've been using to communicate with you? Can you make more of them?"

"Certainly. But they only work if a shadowgifted is at the end of it." Aversa shrugged. "Sorry about that. And while I will help you, I have no desire to be an overglorified messenger."

"You will do what I ask, if you are to join me. I have no patience for those without discipline." Robin said, slowly. “In any event, I’ve come to a decision.”

Chapter Text

-Port Valm-

“Father!” Ravena greeted Robin with a cheerful wave. Robin waved back from the deck of his ship. His mask was off and stowed in his cloak and he once again felt comfortable in his tactician’s cloak. His hair's color was restored to his natural pristine white. Ravena was standing at the end of the pier, waving at him while the Raven’s Pledge slowly docked back at the port. “You came back early! You should’ve told me.”

“Not that I needed to! How’d you know?” Robin shouted back. “No one on my ship sent a message to you.”

“Fisherman.” Ravena smirked. The ship finally pulled close to the dock. “I hired one to send me a message.”

Robin gauged the distance and leapt across before the ropes and gangplank could be set. He landed hard on the dock, wooden planks rattling beneath his feet. He patted Ravena’s head. “Clever. So, do anything productive with all that power I gave you?”

“Kind of. Zulas wouldn’t let me build a private training room, but I only asked for that ‘cause I wanted to see what I could get away with.” Ravena said. “Also, I had a few adults try getting meetings with me to take advantage of my childish naivety, but Argeni just handled them and gave me their requests. I agreed to what I thought was reasonable and had Zulas look it over. There’s also a second copy on your desk if you want to double-check. But you won't need to. I'm that good.”

“Wow.” Robin blinked. “Sounds like I should just have you as my full-on secretary.”

“Eh, that sounds kind of boring.” Ravena said. “Hello, Say’ri. It’s good to see you.”

“Hai.” Say’ri nodded. “You are well, small Robin?”

“Ravena. That's my name.” Ravena rolled her eyes. “How did my father behave himself?”

“He is Robin.” Say’ri shrugged. “We survived a few political scenarios, talked to a few important people, and fought off some assassins.”

“Huh.” Ravena said. “Sounds kind of like what happened on my end, too.”

Assassins?” Robin blinked. He could feel his paternal anger welling up. I will kill anyone who touched her.

“Well, that’s makes it sound a bit grand. It was more of less just a straightforward attempted murder.” Ravena said. “Don’t worry, I had the situation under control the entire time.”

“Why do I feel worse when you say those words?” Robin sighed. He glanced back at the ship. “Excellent. Everyone’s disembarked.”

“Everyone?” Say’ri asked. “Where’s the new one? I didn’t see her.”

“Well, I gave orders for everyone to get off immediately.” Robin said. “Everyone except her. So you wouldn’t have seen her.”

“New one?” Ravena asked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, we got a Plegian turncoat on our way back.” Robin said. “Trouble is she’s only useful if she’s loyal to me, and the sailors knows about her existence. That means it’s only a matter of time until Walhart does, and she turns into an asset against me. And, seeing as we’ve already got all the information I could use out of her, it’s only minimal collateral damage to me if she dies.”

“What?” Say’ri turned to him. “You said-”

“That I wouldn’t torture her.” Robin pulled a red tome from a holster in his coat. “Don’t worry, I asphyxiated her beforehand. She’s dead, and I just need to terminate the evidence.”

“You killed her.”

“I'm not really sure why you're acting surprise. I told you on the journey back that I had no problem killing people in cold blood. And, between that or burning to death while being locked in a cabin, it seemed like the humane thing to do.” Robin hurled a fireball at the ship, lighting the rigging on fire. He threw a few more, setting fire to various portions of the ship. “Why do you think I requested to dock on the far dock? Don’t want the fire spreading to the rest of the ships in the harbor. Speaking of, we should move before our dock catches on fire. I mean, it probably will, but hopefully after we leave it.”

Say’ri kept pace beside Robin, with a displeased look on her face. Robin was whistling cheerfully with a mask of innocence as he strode off. Ravena was slightly ahead, reading a book of dark magic as she walked. Say’ri scowled. “What barbaric custom is this, anyway?”

“It’s known as the Traitor’s Dock.” Ravena said, absently. “Somewhat analogous to Plegia’s Carrion Isle. There’s an old custom of having ambassadors or men of questionable integrity dock there. That way, if something goes wrong, you can simply eliminate the problem.”

“Eliminate the problem? Must you sanitize your language like that.” Say’ri scowled. “You’re just as bad as him!”

“Say’ri.” Ravena sighed. “I’m disappointed in you. I thought Robin would have better minions than that. Do you really think that’s what happened?”

“Hm?” Say'ri frowned. She was Robin's sworn sword, but the term minion rattled her a bit. 

“Robin has a plan.” Ravena said. “Robin always has a plan.”

“I was expecting you to pick up on something.” Robin frowned. “Am I that transparent?”

“I couldn’t help but notice the waterline on the ship.”

"Ah, that would be a dead giveaway, wouldn't it? Well, good for you."

“What waterline on the ship?” Say’ri frowned. “I don’t remember seeing one when we got off.”

Exactly.” Ravena said. “There wasn’t one. Now isn’t that odd?”

“When there are two of you, you talk in twice the riddles. It's enough to give me a headache" Say’ri frowned. “What are you trying to tell me?”

“I’ll help clear the riddles, I suppose.” Robin said. “Say’ri, would you mind reserving your judgement until we get back to the manor, so I can explain my decision properly?”

“Aye.” Say’ri did not sound happy.

“Anyway, I’m hungry.” Robin said. “Ravena, have you performed sufficient intelligence gathering regarding the nourishment providing services that this area contains?”

“You mean, ‘Have I tried the food’?” Ravena laughed. “There’s a good fish’n’chips by one of the docks.”

“Excellent.” Robin’s eyes lit up. “Say’ri had me try her way of eating fish, so I only thought it fair to return the favor. It’s time for a good fixing of fish and chips. The proper way to eat fish.”

“Chips?” Say’ri frowned. “I do not remember you saying that, unless it’s another name for those potatoes you were discussing.”

 -Docks-

“Wow.” Say’ri looked up. “These are fantastic.

“She’s impressed.” Ravena giggled.

“The fish is nothing special.” Say’ri was, for some reason unknown to Robin, eating them with chopsticks. He supposed he must look as odd to her when he ate her food with knife and fork. “It is merely oily, and the bread coating helps, but not nearly enough. Fresh fish is flavorful enough without the need to fry it and the loss in taste is not offset by the gain given by breading. These chips, on the other hand, are a substance I have never eaten before. Light, fluffy, crisp outside and perfectly salted with a lovely golden shell.”

“You know, if I knew chips would merit this kind of reaction, I’d have just used them from the start.” Robin said, rolling his eyes. Despite Say’ri’s assessment that the fish was ‘oily’, he enjoyed it, especially considering he hadn’t had anything remotely greasy while in Ylisse. It wasn't that they didn't have greasy food, it was that Robin had to behave himself as a foreign dignitary.  “Would that have worked, out of curiosity?”

“No.” Say’ri said. “I am a trained Chon’sin warrior. I cannot be bribed by food.”

“That sounds like it should be tested.” Ravena said. Robin noticed her eyes light up in a manner he suspected his own did whenever he had a clever idea. “So, Say’ri, what would you do for me if I ensured that chips would be a staple side dish at our manor? Because I’m thinking I could use sword fighting lessons.”

“What’s wrong with the spear?” Robin frowned. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like swords and I definitely appreciate having the ability to use master level swordsmanship, but you’re already in spear training and magic training. You’d cut your training in both, and I don’t think the gain would be worth it.”

“I want to learn how to use a spear like a sword.” Ravena said, simply.

“What?” Robin frowned. “Can you even do that?”

“Well, Dant does, kind of. She said she incorporates axe techniques into her dagger fighting.” Ravena frowned. “Apparently the stances they use are a lot better for strong blows than most dagger stances, so she trained under an axe wielder for a while.”

“I can give you swordfighting lesson.” Say’ri said. “Of course, as a sworn sword to Robin, I am honor-bound to give them to you, upon request, even without you bribing me with delicious food that I would very well appreciate regardless of outcome. Though it should also be noted that there is not much the sword can offer the spear. Certainly not stances. But I shall accede to your request, even if you do not bribe me.”

“Well, that won't be so useful, but I'll still try a few anyway…” Ravena trailed off, staring into the distance. “Are those assassins?”

Robin looked forward. Rapidly approaching their table was a group of seamen, all which bore concealed weapons to Robin’s experienced eye. “Say’ri?”

“Aye?”

“I don't expect a good answer to this, seeing as you got off a ship from across the ocean, but you did use to be involved with a similar brand of revolutionaries. So, would you happen to know why assassins are waiting for me?” Robin asked.

“Any number of reasons.” Say’ri said. “Assassination is common play within Valm. In fact, it might just be an attempt out of simple courtesy for your new position.”

“That’s not why. It’s because of your engagement to Argeni.” Ravena sighed. “I got a report but … well, I didn’t take it seriously.”

“Report?” Robin sighed.

“Well, it was more of a threatening letter that said, ‘If you don’t call off your marriage to Argenita di Cratez, you will pay!’ or something of that nature. I just tracked the sender to a group of thugs someone was puppeting. But, you know, seeing as they were just two-bit pawns, I kind of ignored them.” Ravena said. “And these are them. Anyway, I asked Argeni about it, and she said that she’s been getting pressured by a group to call off the marriage. They say that allowing you to marry into nobility will give you too much influence, especially since it can give you a child of noble descent, letting you claim powers as his regent.”

“Of-freakin’-course.” Robin sighed. And I have no interest in that marriage. “Because these people view marriage as a political tool.”

“So do you.” Say’ri reminded him.

“Yes, but…” Robin sighed. “Okay, no, you do have a point. Well, let’s just kill these assassins. I suppose we can call for the guards, but this was a consequence of my actions, so I can deal with it.”

“Good.”

“Not you, Ravena.” Robin drew his Shockstick. “I’m your father. It’s my obligation to keep you safe from harm, and that includes from assassins. I know you can handle them, but please let me indulge myself.”

“Fine.” Ravena rolled her eyes. “Do you have any more instructions?”

“Stay alive. That’s all.” Robin ran forward and slashed with his spear, sending a bolt of lightning forward, electrocuting one of the assassins. Say’ri disappeared from her seat and reappearing charging the assassins with a curved Chon’sin blade. Robin skidded and drew a tome to support her with casting magic.

Say’ri spun around, cutting two of them as Robin’s blasts found a mark in the last one. Bystanders were panicking, shouting and running. Robin smirked. Oh, a distraction. That’s a useful side effect. Say’ri turned around and froze, looking at something past him. “Robin-!”

Robin spun around, seeing a new one coming from behind them, running up to Ravena. Of course there’d be one from behind. Robin readied, drawing on his spell matrix only to see Ravena catch his eye. The girl was calmly eating chips and winked at him.

The thug drew a sword and raised in over his head. “This is what you deserve, Battlemaster!”

Then he stopped and dropped, a red spray of blood rising around him. Behind him stood a cheerful maid with bright pink hair. “Poor you…”

“Is that…” Robin trailed off. This is how it feels like in to be a pawn in someone else’s plan. How did Ravena get Cherche to be her maid? I mean, I’m fine with it I guess, but… HOW? “Ah – who are you?”

“My name is Chantage.” Cherche smiled at him. “Lady Ravena has hired me as her maid, and as such, I’m more than capable of cleaning up the trash.”

“…You’ve been busy.” Robin said.

“Just a little.” Ravena giggled. “It’s not often I can surprise you.”

-Robin's Study

“And welcome back to your study. Nothing’s been changed.” Ravena said. “Oh, looks like we have a new one here. Huh. Who would have thought?”

Say’ri blinked. “Ah. That’s what you two where referring to back at the dock.”

“Yes, of course.” Aversa said from her position sitting in one of the chairs, drinking amber liquid from a glass cup. An opened bottle was on Robin’s desk. “Why, did you think I was dead?”

“Robin torched the ship you were on.” Say'ri said. "It certainly appeared that he was willing to go to great lengths to ensure it."

“That was the idea, yes. Hard to fake my death otherwise.” Aversa said. “The water was a bit colder than I expected.”

“Get it?” Ravena asked Say’ri. “Robin cut a hole into the bottom of the ship, and all Aversa had to do was swim out and under the dock. She used her magic to dry herself, and just threw on a cloak. That’s why there was no waterline – because the boat was sinking! It’s also why Robin had to burn it – to eliminate the evidence.”

“It was a bit more complicated than that.” Aversa shivered. “Ugh. The rushing water almost threw me out of the room and was frightfully cold. Thank goodness for your alcohol cabinet, Count. I'll need it for the shock.”

“Most of it was inherited from people I killed and I’m no drinker myself, so I won't begrudge you drinking it dry.” Robin’s eyes narrowed. “But would you please get the bottle off my desk before my papers get ruined?”

“I’m not going to knock it over.”

“Tell me one I haven’t heard before.” Robin took the bottle, capped it, and placed it within the drawer as he sat behind the desk, holding his hands together in his best ‘evil mastermind’ pose. It was always good to set the mood before one of his meetings. “Anyway, I require your mind to be sharp. We’re missing Dant, but she’s in deep cover on a Plegian infiltration assignment, so we’ve got everyone else.”

“We aren’t going to have Zulas, Argeni, or Vermil here?” Ravena asked.

“Not now, no.” Robin frowned. “Maybe never. This group is going to act beyond the purview of normal operations within Valm, some of them against the Conqueror. Zulas is too loyal and Argeni’s going to be married to him. Vermil’s a good mage, but he’s just a tad too simplistic for this group. Just us for now.”

“Harsh.” Ravena noted. “But true. Anyway, aren’t you curious as to how Cherche’s on our side now?”

“Yes.” Robin chuckled. “But that’s a story for another time. Anyway, Cherche, are you on our side, now?”

“For the present, yes." Cherche said. “Ravena convinced me that you were worth following, for the time being. As long as you seek to destroy Walhart, our goals are aligned.”

“Yes.” Robin nodded. “But not necessarily for the same reasons.”

“I’m fine with that.” Cherche said sweetly.

“Okay. So this isn't going to be a fun meeting where we plot the downfall of the Valm Empire and my gradual ascension to dictator of the known world.” Robin started. "It's just going to be establishing everyone in positions now that the war's over."

"Aww." That was Ravena.

"What a pity." That was Aversa.

"Please tell me that you aren't serious. I don't begrudge your wish to succeed Valm, but becoming what Walhart is seems like a bad idea." Say'ri massaged her temples. "I wouldn't ask, but it seems half the room prefers you to be serious."

"I'm joking, of course." Robin said. About the dictator part, anyway. “Cherche, the first thing I need you to do is to contact Virion and have him join us. We had a run-in when I was in Ylisse, and well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. So, if you could just tell him that I had to do it because I had tabs on me in Ylisse, and I’d like him to join me, that would be good.”

“What business do you have with Virion?” Cherche said. “Do you want him to join us?”

“No.” Robin shook his head. “Honestly, the less people involved the better. I want Virion to know of me, but I’d like it if we never met in person. I need him to raise an army in Rosanne.”

“Why? So you can crush it?” Cherche asked.

Robin winced. “Kind of…?”

“Well, at least you admit it.” Cherche muttered. “I doubt Virion would listen to you in that case.”

“I'm not to kill them.” Robin said. Don’t lie, but don’t tell her the full truth. “I want to try starting a populist movement from all the scattered countries that Walhart built Valm from. The problem is, it probably also going to start violent movements … and I’m going to need to put those down. But I think I can make Virion listen to me. In any event, a meeting won't hurt.”

“Going for a ‘will of the people’?” Ravena frowned. “That’s not going to work, is it?”

“It might if I play my cards right.” Robin muttered. “Say’ri, I’ll need you to do something similar, but you aren’t going to like it.”

“What do you mean?” Say’ri frowned.

“I’ll need you to start a loyalist faction with the Chon’sin.” Robin winced. “As in, loyal Valm and loyal to you. I’ll have some information people work with you to get the message that you can be Chon’sin and Valmese, and we’ll use you as the textbook case.”

“Is this necessary?” Say’ri frowned.

“Absolutely.”

“Then I will.” Say’ri said. “But you are right – I shall not like it.”

“Good.” Robin said. “Aversa, you’re my spymaster. I’ll give you the information later, but I’m woefully underprepared, and you seem to have experience from Plegia. It’s also why I faked your death, you can think of a suitable false identity.”

“Putting me to work already?” Aversa shrugged. “Very well, but I should disguise myself, yes? Wouldn’t want to look like a Plegian.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Robin said. “I mean, I’m a Plegian, and no one’s noticed.”

“What?” Aversa looked at him. “Now that you mentioned it… Ah. You’re half-Plegian. Must inherit most of your characteristics from the other half. But it’s visible now that I know to look for it.”

“I … see.” Robin frowned, digesting the information. “Regardless. Ravena, you’ve got the hardest assignment.”

“Oh, how lovely.” Ravena said. “Is it a challenge?”

“Yes.” Robin said. “I need to you find Walhart’s spymaster. I don’t know who it is, I just know there is one. The reason I gave you the assignment is because I know everyone’s been looking for this spymaster, but no one’s been successful.”

“I see.” Ravena smiled. “So, you think that my unconventional child thinking might find him?”

“I think you might not have some of the preconceptions that the rest of us have.” Robin said. “As for myself, I have the worse job of the lot.”

“Oh? Do tell.” Aversa said.

“Civil planning.” Robin said, wincing. “I let my duties as the number two in the Valm Empire get to me. I think it’s time I expanded the capitol city, you know? Make it more hospitable and drive the economy closer to where our main army is. Boring, tedious, and necessary. Well, you’ve got your assignment, people.”

 -Training Room-

“Say’ri, I’d like to talk to you.”

“Aye.” Say’ri said, grinding an edge into her blade with a whetstone. She had begun her first lesson with Ravena once the meeting ended, and Robin had caught up on paperwork in the meantime.

“You’re uncomfortable with your assignment.”

“I am a princess of Chon’sin.” Say’ri said. “I am not in direct line for the throne, but I am the current head of my clan. What you are asking me to do goes beyond my simple duties as your sword and against my desires, however, I swore an oath to obey you. I will not lie, Robin - you have placed me in a horrible choice.”

“Fine. I rescind my order.” Robin said.

“Thank you.” Say'ri said. "Though I suspect that your intentions have not changed."

“Yes, I still want you to do it.” Robin sighed. “Look – why don’t you want to help Chon’sin integrate within Valm?”

“Why would I? Chon’sin has a proud historic culture, and you ask me to help submit ourselves to the will of the people who have forcefully stripped it from us.” Say’ri said. She finished one blade and moved on to her other one. “It is repulsive to me to have to do that. Much the same as it would be to cut off my sword hand.”

“Okay.” Robin said. “So what would you be capable of doing?”

“I wish to remain by your side as your sword.” Say’ri frowned. “I do not trust you alone with that Aversa woman. She strikes me as devious.”

“It’s not like that.” Robin raised his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh. It’s that you’re worried that she’s going to corrupt me, aren’t you?”

“Aye.”

“…Fair point. Then I guess it is like that.” Robin admitted. “But I need someone to lead the Chon’sin.”

“Why?”

“There are two reasons.” Robin said. “The first is that is does no one good for animosity between us right now. I have no particular desire to fall into the sunk cost fallacy.”

“I am not familiar with that.” Say’ri said. “Could you elaborate?”

“It means that a smart tactician knows when to cut his losses.” Robin explained. “Let’s say you’ve been ambushed and have lost half your army. Do you choose to counter the ambush in retaliation, or do you withdraw, and survive to fight another day?”

“Withdraw. It is a lesson I learned many times during my time in the rebellion.” Say’ri said.

“Exactly.” Robin gestured. “So now that Chon’sin has lost the war to Valm, they can choose to work within the nation, or they can resist and be treated by the Empire as second-class citizens until their spirit breaks and they loose their heritage. Which is better?”

“Of the two, the former rather than the latter.” Say’ri frowned. “But surely they cannot be the only two options?”

Robin inhaled and shook his head slowly. “I’m afraid they are, Say’ri. I would like to undo what Valm has done, but that’s no longer an option. Even if I would become Emperor of Valm, I wouldn’t be able to free Chon’sin – not without consequences.”

“What?” Say’ri frowned. “How do you mean?”

“I could go on a long explanation about the nature of humans, mob rule, and socioeconomic consequences, but it's far easier to explain it like this. Imagine a katana.” Robin said. “When you forge the blade, you take metal rods and beat them together into one single rod. But, if you shatter the katana into pieces, are those pieces as strong as the rods they were forged from?”

“No.” Say’ri shook her head. “If a sword breaks, it must be cast anew from its components, smelted together again.”

“Such is the Valm Empire.” Robin said. “If I split it into its parts, it will fall to chaos and anarchy. Once the center collapses, everything falls, and this continent will be plagued by war for decades, until new kingdoms rise again.”

“You are not lying?”

“No.” Robin shook his head. “And that’s why I’m not going to the tell you the second reason for wanting to do this. Because I’d have to lie to you about that. Rest assure, my intentions are noble, and no innocents will be hurt. But it’s part of a plan that I’d like to keep to myself for a while.”

“If those are the only outcomes, and these are the only options…” Say’ri said slowly. “I may be able to help you without betraying either you or my country. I shall travel Chon’sin and tell tales of the Valm I know from following you, and the Valm you believe in. Perhaps one day Valm may even appreciate Chon’sin culture.”

“Certainly.” Robin said, relieved. “Thank you, Say’ri. That means a lot to me.”

“How soon do you want me to leave?”

“As soon as you can.” Robin said. “I’ll be leaving shortly, myself, but if you need a few days to get your affairs in order to prepare, then I understand.”

“I may need even longer.” Say’ri said. “Though I am curious – are you capable of teleporting like Excellus was rumored to be able to?”

“No.” Robin said. “To clarify, Excellus was capable of teleporting, and I – well, Dant, really – managed to steal his notes and spellbooks on the subject when he was trying to frame me. I took a look at the spell. It’s possible, but, ah… how do I put it. Nasty.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the old version of the spell was short range, and it literally required you to sell your soul to a demon dragon.” Robin said grimly. “This one? Which can range across half the continent? It’s worse. Much worse. Take however bad you think it is, add a few human sacrifices, some major soul corruption, and a few bits of unrepentable evil. Then double it. The only plus side is that you get to keep your free will.”

“I see. Even you wouldn’t go to such extremes.”

“Not really a point of acting ‘for the greater good’ when you become something that has to be eliminated to get ‘the greater good’.” Robin said. “So. No teleporting for me, thank you. My feet will suffice. Well, my convoy. But it’s the same principle.”

 -Vermilion Capitol, Training Fields-

“Next pattern is a bit tricky, so I’ll have you do the standard drills twice to get this in.” Zulas called, amidst a hail of groans. “Left foot forward, check the thrust, then left foot forward again, this time with the real thrust. This is a feint, so the signal call will be distributed by your commander right before the battle starts.”

“Nice discipline.” Robin complemented.

“Battlemaster!” Zulas called. “Salutes!”

A sea of salutes greeted Robin as the trainees all saluted him. Robin enjoyed the adulations for a few moments, then returned the salutes. “At ease! And back to training. Lieutenant Colonel Albert, might I have a moment of your time?”

“Yessir.” Zulas said. “My office is this way.”

Zulas walked away from the training field with Robin walking behind him, taking note of the barracks. Soldiers trained en masse, forming the large groups that were the backbone of Valm’s army. There were a few sparring pits that the higher ranks or the elites used for training individual combat, something the rank-and-file didn’t have to worry about. A few ranges were set, with casters or archers training. Valm’s own rookery wasn’t in the capitol – the wyverns didn’t like it. Zulas approached one the officer’s barracks, opening it. “My castle.”

“Nice place.” Robin said. “What, is that two entire rooms?”

“Of course, doesn’t hold a candle to yours.” Zulas said. “My room’s there, and my office is here. I get two, one because of my rank, and one because of yours. So, yes, I have two entire rooms.”

“Has anyone tried assassinating you, incidentally?” Robin asked.

“Well, that was random. I’m guessing you just had one. Nah. I’m not important enough.” Zulas said. “So, what brings you here? Or is this just a social visit? I’m guessing not, because you aren’t that type.”

“Sorry.” Robin sighed. “Work keeps me away. Anyway, I’m here for two reasons. One is expanding the Vermillion Capitol. Because Battlemaster is also a political rank as well as a military one, I’m also responsible for other stuff. So I’m working on an expansion to build more parts to the city.”

“Oh? What are the plans?”

“Finally, someone asks.” Robin inhaled. “So, we’re just going to add another ring to the city. Minus the harbor to the east, of course, but another ring, ten miles’ worth around the city. Custom built, as it happens, catering to the Empire’s diverse citizens.”

“You think that’s a good idea?” Zulas asked.

“For the time being, why not?” Robin said. “If we can get representatives of all the people within the Empire to Valm, each in their own setting, then … well, even I can’t guess, but the city should flourish like no other on the continent.”

“That’s ambitious.” Zulas said. “Alright, what’s the second reason you’re here?

“To deliver this.” Robin said, pulling a scroll from within his coat. “I had to pull a few strings to get this done and had a nice bout of blind dumb luck, for once, to kickstart it, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate it.”

“What is it?”

“Read it.” Robin said.

“Alright.” Zulas took note of the seal. “The Conqueror’s seal. Very nice. And the scroll says … Zulas Albert – yada, yada – in recognition of your efforts for the Conqueror, and – Wait, that can’t be right.”

Robin smirked.

“In long overdue recognition of your ancestor’s aid to the Duma Empire, we award you the rightful status due to the scion of House Camus of the Grust Empire – what is this, Robin?” Zulas demanded. “A Lord? I’m now a lord?”

“At a guess of what it is, it’s a recognition of your noble title, lost to history.” Robin removed the mask from his robes and slid it across the table. “I found a match in Ylisse. The noble masked knight Sirius, or otherwise known as Camus. Now, as far as nobility goes, knighthood is pretty low, but it’s foreign and Sirius was recognized as a night of Duma under the name Ezekiel.”

“My ancestor.” Zulas muttered. “So he was a knight in Grust. How does that help me?”

“Well, very simple.” Robin said. “Since Rudolf recognized Ezekiel, that means Ezekiel retains his title from Grust. Now, Camus also held a different title – the Captain of the Order of the Sable Knights. The conversion between titles is inexact, but he got to bring that title too. There was some confusion, about how that should transfer.”

“And you put in your two coppers.” Zulas guessed.

“I put in my two coppers.” Robin confirmed. “I sent a memo to Walhart. Not about you specifically, of course. I just put in a suggestion to treat any incoming foreign commanders of sufficient military rank as the equivalent of nobility. Walhart liked the idea, seeing as it might help replace the nobility with functional people.”

“So … I’m a lord now.” Zulas considered. “Am I supposed to feel different?”

“I’d hope not or I’d have to smack some sense into you.” Robin said. “Anyway, I’ve got someone else to visit in the capitol.”

“Who?”

“Your lovely lady friend.” Robin said, grinning. “I’ve an engagement to break.”

 -di Cratez Manor-

“You’re breaking our engagement? That’s awful.” Argeni asked, as a maid styled her hair. Her monotone indicated that her statement was less than genuine. “How tragic. You can’t just dump this on a girl, you know. These things should be broken gently.”

“You seemed traumatized.” Robin noted at Argeni’s deadpan tone.

“Oh, I am.” Argeni said. “A girl like me just can’t afford to wear her emotions on her sleeve. Right, Sarissa?”

“Mm-hmm.” The maid nodded.

“Why do you have a maid styling your hair?” Robin sighed. “I’m not letting you having one when you rejoin my squad, you know. And I can’t imagine General Pheros having one, either.”

“All the more reason to have one now.” Argeni said. “Besides, Sarissa has been training to accompany me in battle.”

“…Really?” Robin said.

“Mm-hmm.” The maid nodded.

“Are you conditioned to just say that to everything?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Right.” Robin sighed. “So, what’d you do to her, Argeni?”

Me?” Argeni asked. “Absolutely nothing. Secret maids are trained to ignore everything but their lady. Helps for dalliances, and the such, you understand. They’re very in-fashion among the nobility. My father hired her in preparation of our marriage.”

Does that mean that Duke Cratez expected her to cheat on me? Robin thought. Actually, considering the amount of arranged marriages around the nobility, this does make a scary amount of sense. I mean, still horrible, but at least I know the reason for it. Just another reason to hate nobles, I guess.

“Anyway, Lady Cratez, I apologize for this abrupt cancellation.” Robin said. “It’s for a good cause. I need to retain my bachelor status for diplomacy reason. I was hasty in accepting your proposition, so you have my apologies.”

“That hardly seems sufficient.” Argeni sniffed.

In addition, I extend the offer of marriage from a good friend of mine, someone of a similar status.” Robin said, smiling with just a touch of evil behind it. “My friend, Lord Zulas Albert.”

“Whaaaaaaaaaa…” Argeni blinked. “Zulas is a lord?”

“As of …” Robin pulled out his pocket watch. “Oh, just about an hour and a half ago.”

“You- you-!” Argeni stammered. “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME!”

“Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?” Robin said innocently.

“How’d you even manage to do it?” Argeni said. “Oh, you are evil!”

Robin grinned. “I’ll assume the answer is yes.”

“Of course it’s yes!” Argeni stood up and kissed him on the cheek. “Robin, you’re the best, we’ll name our first kid after you. Actually, second. You know what, it’ll be one of them, it doesn’t really matter. Thank you, thank you.” Argeni dashed out of the room. “Need to do things!”

Robin and the maid, Sarissa looked at each other, exchanging glances. Then Argeni’s voice came around the corner. “Sarissa, I need your help too!”

One last stop. Robin thought to himself.

 -Bolt, Cloth, & Bespoke-

“A tailor?” Aversa asked. “Seems a bit lacking for the legendary crimson tactician.”

“Ah, but this isn’t an ordinary wardrobe change.” Robin said. “And this is no ordinary tailor. Bolt, Cloth, & Bespoke may look ordinary, but the clientele they service is anything but. I believe Walhart has a few suits made from them. He’s the one who recommended it.”

“Patronized by the Conqueror. I wonder why they don’t advertise it.” Aversa said. “Probably because it’d attract people. They seem like the kind who just prefer word of mouth.”

“Precisely.” Robin knocked gently on the door. He was wearing civilian clothes, alongside Aversa, who he managed to convince to wear a dress that covered the majority of her skin. “This is Robin.”

A few seconds passed before the door opened and a young woman ushered the two of them in, leading them to a fitting room. She left, and a master tailor walked in.

“Ah, Count Robin. Here for your Battlemaster armor?”

“Yes, and I’d also like to place an order for her.” Robin said, gesturing to Aversa. “You have the armor ready, Miss…?”

“Elizabeth. Just one final fitting.” The tailor said. “We have someone getting it now.”

“What’s wrong with your current armor?” Aversa said. “A spell-cloak isn’t good enough?”

“Nope.” Robin said. “I’d hoped to get this before I went to Ylisse, but these things take time. Also, you need new armor as well, now that you’re fighting on foot alongside me, so think about what you’re ordering. I’ll leave the details up to you.”

“Count.” Robin turned his attention back to Elizabeth. “Let me show you the armor. The armor components come from our standard half-plate armor, giving you armored greaves and a chest plate to protect from frontal assaults. You asked to minimize weight, so we’re not giving you anymore armor pieces.”

“Very nice. What about my arms?”

“We’ve made some leather gauntlets to wear underneath your coat.” Elizabeth said. “The coat is dark red, as you requested, too short to be closed, so you’ll have to use the belts on it’s inside to keep it close to your body. We’ve added exterior loops to the armor  that the belts can go through to help, if need be. There’s also plenty of pockets, as you requested.”

“And the hood?” Robin grinned. “Please tell me…”

“For whatever reason, we’ve included a hood. The hood can be thrown over your head and contains a mask within it that can be slid over your face.” Elizabeth nodded. “Of course, the hood is a bit awkward at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.”

“Excellent. Holsters?”

“A sword scabbard on the left side, tome holster on the right. Similarly, we have spots for a reserve sword and tome on the right and left side respectively to balance the weight. There are two sets of spear loops to hold in an X pattern across your back.” Elizabeth said. “The coat is enchanted spell cloth and the armor is made by master craftsmen.”

“Perfect.” Robin said. “Let me try it out, please.”

“Do I get to watch?” Aversa asked.

Robin rolled his eyes. “This is meant to be worn on top on my normal clothes, so sure, why not? Assuming you don’t have better things to do, like design your own armor.”

Aversa considered it and walked out of the room with another tailor as Robin started getting in on. For the first time, it only took ten minutes, less than Robin expected. Probably because of the lack of armor pieces. Robin stood in the mirror, admiring himself. “Nice.”

“Well, it does cut a gallant figure.” Aversa said. She'd made in back surprisingly fast.

“Thank you.”

“For a simpleton boor.”

“And there it is.” Robin rolled his eyes. “So what did you go with?”

“Nothing complicated.” Aversa said. “A large black cloak, some quality riding armor underneath. I’d thought I’d relive my dark knight days. Ah, those were some fun years of pillaging and raiding. Since I’m not going to be on something that can’t take the weight of armor, that is, I'll ride a horse and not a pegasus, I’d thought I’d use it for once.”

“Full body armor?” Robin smirked. “Isn’t that a bit outside your usual range of clothing.”

“If you want to see me exposed, just say so~.”

“I’ll consider it.” Robin sighed. Why do I bother. "In any event, what is your honest assessment?"

"Well, it's not the armor of a frontline general, that's for sure." Aversa considered. "Custom made, so experience with combat, made for your strengths, and gives you ready access to a number of strategies - yet, at the same time, it's not made for prolonged combat. Overall, I'd say it's the perfect look for a Battlemaster."

Robin winced at the title.

"Oh? Do you not like it?" Aversa asked. "You don't seem to have a problem with it until now."

"It's a fine title, I suppose. The greatest of tacticians are known as Grandmasters, and Valm always must have the best of everything, hence I am not just a Grandmaster, but also a Battlemaster." Robin frowned. "Honestly, it's a good title for the masses to rally behind and looks good on recruitment posters, but at heart? I'm just a simple tactician. The only extraordinary thing about me is, like Ravena said earlier, that I have a plan. I always have a plan."

Chapter Text

-The Great Mila Tree-

“To what pleasure do I owe the Battlemaster visiting my humble personage?” Cervantes asked him. “Perhaps you'd like advice on growing a magnificent mustache such as myself? I’ve never lost a battle with whiskers like mine, and you’ll never lose one either, if you grow them. It’s science!”

That is not what science is. Not in the slightest.

“Thank you, General Cervantes.” Robin said. “But I’m actually interested in the tree itself.”

“Brie chiseled?” Cervantes frowned. “I do like a good Rossanean cheese, but I think Brie is the soft kind, and you can’t chisel it. Not that it’s what food you would need to grow a mustache. You have white hair, so I’d recommend drinking milk. Or possibly Feta. But not Brie.”

I’m fairly certain that Bree is actually a foreign country populated by small creatures of legend, short of stature but brave of heart. Robin blinked. Wait, hold on a second. What?  “I’m not interested in cheese right now.”

“Yes, I suppose we must be on the lookout for the blight, but I can’t see how crows would go about transferring it.” Cervantes rumbled. “But thank you for the warning.”

“What.” Robin narrowed his eyes. No one's hearing is that bad. No one. He's doing this on purpose. “Do you want to tell me how you misheard ‘now’ as ‘crow’?”

“I may not have good hearing, but I would never mix up ‘bow’ and ‘throw’.” Cervantes said. “Now, what was it you wanted?"

“I give up. The tree.” Robin gestured to the gigantic Mila tree that Cervantes had a post guarding. “I want to go up the tree. TREE.”

“And what a tree it is!” Cervantes chuckled. “Of course, climbing it is forbidden without express authorization of the Conqueror. Regardless, it’s nice to see that you’ve stopped by to check on my garrison. And who is the lovely lady accompanying you?”

“My name is Morgaine.” Aversa said, wearing dark cloaks in a manner reminiscent of the shamans of the days of old. She'd selected it as her new moniker, given that Aversa was supposed to be dead, after a crafty witch of ages past. “I’m the Black Witch to the Crimson Tactician. With the beautiful Say’ri gone from his side, helping to unify Chon’sin within the Valm empire, he needed someone like me to watch him. And to take care of the lesser threats that don’t meet his standards.”

“Mmm.” Cervantes said. “I hold a similar position myself, being a general in the grand army of Valm. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Morgaine.”

“Wha…” Robin stared, looking back and forth. “You understood all of that, but nothing of what I say?”

“It’s been nice seeing you, but if you need to go away, I understand.” Cervantes nodded. “I’m sure the Battlemaster has things to do.”

He’s definitely screwing with me. Robin frowned. I have officially decided that I don’t like it when people do that. Still going to do it to others, though.

Here.” Robin thrust a bound paper scroll forward, complete with the Conqueror’s seal on it.

“Ah! The seal of Walhart itself.” Cervantes took it and unwrapped it. The seal was legitimate, even if the orders weren’t quite as legitimate.

An old spymaster trick was to write in invisible ink and have the recipient heat it up to make the letters appear, thought Robin went a bit more crafty. In his case, he wrote a request to allow him to inspect the defenses of the Mila tree in invisible ink, then heated the paper to reveal the message. Then he added a sentence at the end of the paragraph, amending the orders by adding “You will also allow him to inspect the interior, and climb to the top as well, unaccompanied” in invisible ink as well. He showed the request to Walhart, got it sealed, and then lightly heated the paper using magic for precision. Now he had a full set of orders, all in the same ink.

“These are … unique orders.” Cervantes said. He might have been frowning, Robin couldn’t tell behind the beard. And he wasn’t going to give the blasted man more words to mishear. “So, you wish access to the tree?”

Robin nodded. He was done talking to this one.

“Unaccompanied?”

Robin nodded and gestured to Aversa.

“Mmm, sorry, m’boy.” Cervantes squinted at the paper. “It clearly says ‘unaccompanied’. It appears that Walhart would like the secrets of this place to only be seen by your eyes, and your eyes alone. I can guarantee that there’s nothing up there that would hurt you, but you will have to go alone.”

“I’ll go it alone, then.” Robin sighed. Next time, I won't write something that can be misunderstood like that, but it's not a bad trade off if I have no one monitoring me up on top of the tree. “Morgaine, I’ll have to leave you here. Do a garrison check for me. And figure out why you can talk with him while I can’t.”

“As you wish.” Aversa smiled. “Have a good time.”

 -Mila Tree, Branches' Apex-

The top of the tree yielded Robin a sight he’d never seen before, one so lovely he almost didn’t believe it would be possible. Sunlight danced between the leaves of the tree’s topmost leaves, giving the impression of forest glade, but the path underfoot was smooth bark, curled into a large spiral pattern where the stairwell let off, creating an enormous platform high up in the sky. The air smell faintly of the spices Robin associated with tree - nutmeg, cinnamon, and a hint of clove.

The platform was laid out like a room, furniture (all wooden) set in the far corner, but the entryway was clear of such clutter. And, at the far end was flower petal, twice the height of Robin. The petal itself was closed, despite the sunlight streaming on it. But there was no one else there. Robin looked around, confused.

“Isn’t she supposed to be here?” Robin walked, looking around. There were no signs that anyone had lived here recently from the furniture, though it was stocked with food. Robin remembered reading from a report on Cervantes garrison that they kept Tiki supplied with food, so he supposed that was why it was there. They probably throw it out when it goes bad, too. Literally throw it out, off the side, probably, considering how thick the branches are at this height.

Robin checked everything before he approached the flower petal. When he was a few steps away from it, it reacted to his presence. The flower petal abruptly dissolved, sliding in on itself in a flash of silver and green light. Robin blinked.

When he opened his eyes, the flower was gone, and a gorgeous woman was standing in its place, yawning. She had a red dress with boots to match, and pale green hair and pointed ears. But Robin recognized the brooch she wore on her head as the Mark of Naga almost immediately. Lady Tiki.

“Visitors?” The pale figure yawned. “It’s been so long, since I’ve had them.”

“Visitor. Singular. Unfortunately.” Robin introduced himself. “I am Robin, Lady Tiki. The Battlemaster of Valm. And I’ve humbly come to request an audience with you.”

“Oh?” Tiki stretched her arms and sat down on one of the chairs nearby. It looked very comfortable. “Perhaps … after I nap. I am tired, after all.”

“You just woke up.” Robin blinked. “Didn’t you?”

“Deep sleep exhausts me.” Tiki said, yawning again. “But there’s not much else to do now that Walhart’s decide to guard my tree. But you should know that, shouldn’t you?”

“…Is this your way of saying you don’t want to speak with me?”

“Hmmm.” Tiki studied him as her eyes opened. Robin felt her emerald eyes shoot through his body as she overlooked him. Robin was intelligent, but he knew there was a wisdom which was only obtained by living. And now someone with two thousand years of that wisdom was applying it to him. “Curious. You have power… like mine.”

“What?” Robin blinked, startled by the statement. “What do you mean…”

“Pay it no mind. Maybe I’m wrong, and my mind is a bit dusty.” Tiki shook her head. “But I can see you are unique, even among Valm. You even remind me of an old friend. Very well. I suppose that I can have a brief chat with you before I take another nap. What does the second-highest ranked Valmese want with the Voice of Naga?”

“I have one request in that capacity.” Robin said. “But I’d rather save that for last. Right now, all I want is guidance. Of the spiritual kind.”

“Just a simple pilgrim?” Tiki smiled. “Well, I haven’t had one of those in a while. This should be fun. How can I help you?”

“I visited the cairn for Emmeryn on the outskirts of Ylissotol when I visited there.” Robin said. “You accompanied her ancestor, right?”

“Marth Lowell.” Tiki smiled fondly. “Dear Mar-Mar.”

“Can you tell me about him?” Robin asked.

“Why do you want to know?” Tiki asked. “Is it because you wish to learn about the legacy of a woman who you have the utmost respect for? Or is it because you want to know what your enemies are thinking?”

“More of the former than the latter, I hope.” Robin said politely, unsure how to react to the sudden barb. It seemed that the manakete had teeth behind her nonthreatening exterior. He also wasn't sure how she knew about Emmeryn's legacy, seeing as Valm felt no need to keep her informed of the going-ons of the world. Though it was probably for a good cause that she had a moniker of 'The Voice of Naga'. Robin shelved further thoughts about that subject.

“Very well.” Tiki said. “It doesn’t hurt to tell you, at any rate. Marth was a man of dedication and belief. He wasn’t particularly strong, but he had a strength of his own in his conviction. It’s very notable that most of his army was his enemy at one point or another before he recruited them to his vision. But he carried his own weight as well – burdened by choices he was forced to make, and people he failed to save.”

“I see.” Robin said.

“Overall, I’d say you and him-” Tiki trailed off, considering. “-have nothing alike, not even in the slightest. You seemed confused in your beliefs because you’ve let yourself be ruled by your pragmatism. And all you care about are the results you can achieve. You aren’t bad, especially considering that the results you want are good for everyone, or at the least what you consider to be the best for everyone involved. But you are no Marth either.”

“I don’t understand.” Robin frowned. “How else would you act, if not by seeing what you can achieve?”

“Simple.” Tiki smiled. “Start with what you believe your perfect world should be and move as close to it as possible. Instead of being pragmatism guided by ideals, act with ideal guided by pragmatism. The difference is subtle but exists nonetheless. You can likely realize it by simply adjusting how you act.”

“Very wise, Lady.” Robin said. “Thank you, for the advice.”

“In that sense, you remind me of Katarina. That was the old friend I spoke of.” Tiki said, absently. “She was very kind at heart, but even I could see the sadness in her eyes after she joined us.”

“Katarina?” Robin frowned. “I’ve never heard that name.”

“Hmm?” Tiki frowned. “Ah, yes. Kris had all the records of her erased from the pages of history. I’m not sure why, but that’s what he did. You do remind me of Kris too, but it’s more of an echo. Katarina was the tactician of Marth’s army. And Kris was a good friend of Marth's, but you won't find him in any history either.”

“I see.” Robin said. “A tactician? That does sound like me.”

“It’s not the tactician part which remind me of her.” Tiki said. “It’s the fact that you still aren’t sure what to do, or what you’re doing is right. Katarina also had a few problems.”

“It’s not so easy for me to just wake up tomorrow morning as an idealist.” Robin frowned.

“No. If it was, then heroes like Mar-Mar wouldn’t need to exist. It wasn’t easy for Katarina either.” Tiki agreed. “But she eventually came around. Do you wish to know anything else?”

“Yes.” Robin said. “Would you mind showing me Verdant?”

“You know I have it?” Tiki frowned. “But why would you want it?”

“I had an odd reaction to one of them. The one Walhart has.” Robin said. “I’m curious as to what another one would do.”

“Nothing more than the first. And don’t ask me why.” Tiki said, yawning. “Dragon magic is complicated. And I don't feel like explaining it all to you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, if the reaction was even caused by the stone in the first place.” Tiki said. She considered, then shook her head. “No, I shall not show you the gemstone. The gem was given to me to safeguard for the Lowell bloodline, so that it may be put on the Fire Emblem. Not so that the tactician of Valm could satiate his own curiosity. Even for Katarina.”

“Gah. I suppose my curiosity will have to remain unsatiated.” Robin said. “So, for a second request. Would you, and hear me out before you reflexively shoot me down, consider joining the Valm Empire?”

“Absolutely not.” Tiki shook her head. “My status as a Divine Dragon and my mother’s emissary is not to help your swollen and corrupt Empire. I know you mean well, so I shall spare you from my wrath, but understand this. As it stands, I cannot help you. I’m sure you have good reasons, but I shall remain impartial when the Lowell family is not involved.”

“Understood.” Robin said, swallowing. “I expected nothing less. I suppose that I shall take my leave now.”

“Wait.” Tiki said. She walked to the cupboard and removed an old, dusty tome. Tiki blew the dust off, frowned at the cover, and removed a different one. “Ah, I knew I had it in here somewhere. Katarina left it with me.”

“A lightning tome?” Robin asked, examining the book. “Seems unique.”

“Supposedly, it is.” Tiki yawned. “Of course, I haven’t used magic in a few hundred years, so I can’t try it out right now, but seeing as though you remind me of her, I suppose it’s only right that you have it. I’ve no use for it at any rate.”

“Well, thank you.” Robin said, genuinely surprised. “Thank you very much.”

"Now, let me sleep."

 -Parise, Rosanne-

“Tea? It is only natural that I offer, as the rightful host?”

“I prefer coffee.” Robin said. “Black as night. And you aren’t the rightful host, I am, now that this land is mine.”

“I see. I suppose a tactician would do well to be used to the taste of bitterness.”

“Fresh milk is hard to come by and sugar is a luxury, when you’re out on the battlefield.” Robin raised an eyebrow. “Also, honestly, I have no taste for sweet things. But why would you read so much into how I take my coffee, Viscount Virion?”

“Ah, but you must call me Virion! Since the loss of my homeland, I am noble no longer, and I would be remiss to pretend otherwise.” Virion said. “And you may be the legal owner of this land, but I am certainly still the rightful owner. Unless you wish to claim morality?”

“Still harping on that, eh?” Robin smirked. “Why don’t you make my coffee, then?”

“I must confess, you’ve confused me. The first impression I had of you was that you were just a nastier version of Excellus, yet you’ve persuaded Cherche to your side.” Virion said as he got up and headed to cart on the side that seemed to have been prepared for such a purpose. “I see we are running low on coffee. I apologize, your cup may be a bit weak.”

“That’s my fault, I apologize.” Robin said.

“Are you also accepting responsibilities on the world’s evil, or perhaps you are just acting on reflex?”

“No, as it happens, it’s actually my fault.” Robin rolled his eyes. “I was kind of worried about coffee shortages, since it’s the main drink of my army and it’s slightly addictive. So I made sure that no one would be able to cause any by buying coffee.”

“When you say that, you seem to be implying that no one would be able to buy coffee.” Virion frowned.

“Yes.” Robin said. “That was the idea.”

“That would mean you…” Virion trailed off. “You… you… actually did it, didn’t you?”

“I bought all the coffee. Literally, ALL THE COFFEE.” Robin nodded. “And the fields. And the workers. And have standing orders on every single import currently available on all the docks, with agents shipping me coffee from across the ocean. ALL OF IT. You get the idea. Or maybe not, I’m not sure you’re used to thinking on a scale like that. But I have to, now that I'm the Battlemaster. Unfortunately, civilian drinking of it has been hit somewhat hard, but that's why tea exists. And alcohol.”

“You are truly a depraved individual.” Virion shuddered. “To rob an entire nation of coffee like that, just to satiate your army’s desire for stimulation?”

“What can I say? I’m a man of culture.” Robin said. “It also drove recruitment up. We estimate that at least fifty thousand soldiers joined for that guaranteed cup of java. Which definetly was part of my plan as well.”

“I’m sure it was.” Virion’s eyes narrowed.

“Come now. It doesn’t behoove a tactician to only play on one level, you know. I always have plans beneath my plans. And one of those is a plan with the means to thwart Walhart.” Robin said. “Which is why I wanted to meet with you. Though I could have done without the face-to-face.”

“Indeed?” Virion raised an eyebrow. “You’ll have to forgive my skepticism, especially when I’m certain that you aren’t going to tell me what it is.”

“It’s a task of immense difficulty.” Robin explained. “You surely didn’t expect that I could just tell you upfront about it, did you? No, Virion, we both know that to defeat the Conqueror requires plans subtler and a bit more long-form than just open rebellion. And those plans can’t see the light of day, even after they’re successful.”

“And you’d like me as an ally?” Virion raised an eyebrow.

“Pawn.” Robin corrected. “If we’re having this conversation, I might as well be frank about it. It's also why I'm being frank about my desire to dethrone Walhart - you'd never be believed about it if you spread rumors.”

“Could you not be so frank then? My ego is a fragile thing.” Virion said. “What do you have to offer me?”

“Three things. The first is vengeance. The second is money. The third is the safety of Rosanne.”

“I’m intrigued by the first, unaffected by the second, and the third is what I really care about.” Virion frowned. “Shall we talk about this over a game?”

“You’d play me in chess?” Robin asked.

“Not at all.” Virion said. “Are you familiar with Wargames, by any chance? By which I mean the game, not the tactical exercise.”

“Familiar, yes, but it can’t quite replicate the pure chaos of battle.” Robin said. “Nevertheless, shall we?”

Virion withdrew a large wooden box and offered the selection of fields to Robin. Robin closed his eyes and selected one at random. It was the lake field, a map with the terrain split on either side of a single gigantic lake. Robin took the pieces to represent a standard Valm unit, considered, and decided to keep them. Virion took a Rosanne unit makeup himself. Virion closed the box and set in lengthwise across the board so their view was blocked from each other and they could set up their armies in peace.

The lake map was interesting in Wargames, mostly because it represented a battlefield that few would ever willing fight on. Because of that, it wasn’t as analyzed as the traditional boards, meaning that both Robin and Virion would be performing strategies on-the-fly, rather than by-the-book. The lake mechanic was also interesting, as it provided the rare chance for auxiliary units to be helpful.

Now, how to do this?  As if I don't already have a plan. Robin considered. His Valm force was made of cavalry for the heavy hitting, and knights to serve as walls. He had a few flyers for harrying, and he’d made sure to take a helping of archers and mages to keep Virion’s wyverns from smashing through his lines. It’s obvious that I’m not going to use the lake, unless… Robin grinned. Well, I did say that I have a certain plan in mind from the outset. Not much of a point unless I perform it.

“Ready.” Robin said.

“Ready.” Virion replied, carefully lifting the box.

As Robin expected, Virion used a very simple counter formation. His main army of wyverns were spread on the front edge of his side of the lake. Infantry had assembled at the sides, forming barriers, with mages and archers ready to provide ranged assistance. The main body of his camp was placed on the edge of the shore, with his auxiliary units set on the edge as well. His handful of elites were still in the encampment. Virion’s play would be to hold the sides and scatter his wyverns across the lake, forcing Robin to spread his archers too thin. Then he’d build ships and use his elites to attack the weak point, trying to crumble Robin’s line. It was a decent plan. Robin gave it four out of five.

“My word…” Virion trailed off. “What are you thinking?

Robin’s archers were clustered by the edge, guarding his auxiliary forces as well. The sides were composed of knights backed by cavalry on either side, but Robin hadn’t bothered to give them adequate amounts, instead keeping the main body by his encampment, on his side of the lake as well. Robin was ready to play Virion’s game and was willing to reinforce the sides and force the conflict over the lake, forcing the conflict into clearly non-advantageous territory.

“Shall we play?” Robin asked.

“As you wish.” Virion started moving his wyverns over the lake, moving to raid Robin’s troops while keeping his lines steady. “As for your offer, I cannot deny I seek vengeance, but money holds little appeal to me, particularly when it’s tainted with blood. I am curious, however, what you meant when you said, ‘the safety of Rosanne’.”

“I have no plan, nor will ever have a plan to destroy the Valmese Empire.” Robin said, starting to make counter-moves. He clustered his flyers and prepared a light screen of them while his auxiliary forces got to work on his secret plan. “The consequence would be too great. However, I believe it may be possible to subvert the will of Walhart and makes steps to accept the rest of Empire into more than just Valm, if you take my meaning.”

“A grand Republic, hmmm?” Virion kept his plan. Robin’s flyers didn’t outnumber his own, so he kept the pressure mounting. “Is that your idea of a compromise?”

“Hardly, it’s my idea of reality. Walhart cannot be killed, not by me, at any rate, so I must turn his Empire to my own favor.” Robin said. “Incidentally, my fire mages scorch the surface of the lake and my wind mages blow wind across the smoke. The entirety of my side of the lake now is considered misted, and consequently, cannot be seen.”

“Clever.” Virion said. Robin’s move now allowed him to write his moves instead of playing them on the board, and then reveal his moves to Virion. On the flip side, Virion was also allowed to do it. They would now track unit positions by stabbing markers on the underside of the table on their turn. If their markers overlapped, combat would occur. “Sadly, I cannot agree with you. It is my utmost desire to see Rosanne returned to its pristine glory, and your Empire is one of conquest. Even a Republic would be unsatisfactory, as I don’t mean to hold myself sway to others.”

“Then you are either a fool or merely shortsighted.” Robin moved his fliers in a tight group and charged into where the largest cluster of Virion’s wyverns had been. “Contact. I’m engaging your main wyvern squadron with mine.”

“Why would you- mutually assured destruction!?” Virion said. “Have you no need for your fliers?”

“I only need my fliers to kill yours.” Robin replied. “My army will win in direct confrontation – you’re the one who needs them to win.”

“But this early in the conflict, to just sacrifice all the fliers you have?” Virion said. “And you will not destroy my fliers, just deal equal losses among us.”

“My archers can deal with the rest.”

“I think not, my ships won’t be ready for another four turns, and neither will yours.” Virion said. Robin could see the wheels turning in his head, as Virion tried to figure out if Robin was willing to chance using skiffs. While skiffs could be made fast and carry multiple troops, a single wyvern could just rake claws through the wood and tip it over. Virion growled and moved in the rest of his wyverns to deal with Robin’s fliers. “Your reputation did not make you out to be willing to perform these kinds of stratagems.”

“My reputation is a lot of things. Yours, my friend, just makes you out to be a philanderer. A clever ruse to disguise your true self.” Robin said, continuing his flier assault, as well as working with his auxiliary forces. “And if you truly were clever, you’d accede to my request. Or have you been spending too much time with idealists?”

“None of your business.” Virion frowned. “And I see no reason to work with you.”

“Then you believe Ylisse can defeat me when war comes?” Robin asked. “Even with Feroxi muscle, their army pales in comparison. And I have met your tactician. She cannot defeat me. Viscount Virion, you’ve two options. The first is to work with me and help me achieve most of your goals. The second is to oppose me and lose all you hold dear. I will crush your holdings and salt your fields, should you decide to cross me.”

“Pride before the fall.” Virion said, moving his infantry forward on the side of the lake. “No one’s that good. You can be defeated, you know.”

He’s mad at me. Good. Robin smirked. “I’m not going to say I cannot be defeated. But I will say I cannot be defeated by the likes of you. My wind mages cast once more to dispel the fog.”

“Wait…” Virion frowned. “They can only do that if they’re in the fog.”

“They are.” Robin smirked. He slid the notebook of moves to Virion as he casually started setting up the bridge pieces necessary to his plan.

Pontoon bridges?” Virion’s already pale face went paler as he read Robin’s moves. “You can’t mean!”

“I do.” Robin said. He had his engineers build three parallel pontoon bridges into the lake, forming a mock land bridge that his archers had run onto while Virion’s fliers were focused on his own. The rules for Wargame were incredibly large and complicated, but certain aspects were, as Robin had discovered when Ravena started playing against him, completely overpowered compared to their real-life counterparts. “Well within the rules.”

“Are you kidding me!” Virion said. “You can’t do that in real life! You’re just supposed to use those rules for river crossings!”

“Yes, but we’re playing a game. And, unlike real life which is nasty when you try to do things, games have well defined rules for what happens which can be easily exploited to achieve victory. Real life, of course, isn’t like that. There are no shortcuts, no cheats, no way to just whip up the victory you’d like as opposed to the victory you’d get.” Robin shrugged. “My archers cut your wyverns to ribbons, by the way.”

I noticed.” Virion scowled. “Are you satisfied?”

“I’ll be more satisfied when I extend the bridge across the lake and capture your command center in a cavalry charge.” Robin said. “Unless you want to pull back and defend – in which case my knights will just encroach while I move my range units to back them. Either way, I box you in and slaughter you.”

“You’re good at this.” Virion scowled. He shoved the board. “I see playing anything against you is futile?”

“Want to know the trick?” Robin asked. He drew another board from the box. “Lake. Huh, what do you know? What are the odds of drawing two Lake maps in a row? Especially since there’s only supposed to one of each kind.”

“They’re all Lakes, aren’t they?”

“They are all Lakes, yes. I had them replaced. Your love of the game is well known, and Cherche was thrilled for a chance to lower your ego a few notches. You lost the moment you challenged me to a game.” Robin said, sporting a grin. “So, fancy another round?”

“You’re a bastard.”

“That part is probably true.” Robin agreed. Well, given that Aversas says I’m half-Plegian, and Lucina says that I was Plegian nobility. “Regardless, what does that have to do with this?”

“My help.” Virion narrowed his eyes. “What do you want with me?”

“I want you to publicly support the Valm Empire.”

“Oh, is that all?” Virion said sarcastically. “Why don’t you just ask for my castle while you’re at it?”

“Because I already have it.” Robin said. “I’ve also got your loyal maid as one of my sworn vassals too. And before you ask, that was my adopted daughter entirely, not me. All I did was save her life. Ravena is the one who convinced her to switch sides.”

“After you stabbed her.” Virion said. “Cherche told me the full story. Regardless – NO! I will not have you turn me into some kind of puppet for the Valm Empire. I do believe you are in fact genuine about that, but I have standards, and they will not be lowered.”

“Some kind of puppet. Funny choice of words.” Robin slid a document across the table. “So, if you don’t want to be a puppet, then how about one of our governors?”

“Seriously?” Virion asked. He looked at the document. “Indeed. It seems you are serious.”

“I would have had Say’ri be one too, but she refused, as she’s already my sworn sword.” Robin frowned. “I feel like she uses that excuse far too much. Anyway, just sign on the dotted line, and you’ll be able to take care of your people once again. Tell you what, I’ll even throw in some free mansions in the new Rosanne quarter in the capitol. You can send your trusted men there, and help set them up, for Rosannean prosperity.”

“My people will hate me and think I’m a traitor.”

“So? They already think that. And don’t pretend like you care about the means to the end. You and I are similar in that regard - except I happen to be a great deal better than you at this game.” Robin said. “And, honestly, I don’t care if you back to the Shepherds when or if war breaks out. Right now, I need help and allies, and I can count on you not betraying me to Walhart. For the time being, we’ve got each other’s best interest in mind. So … we have a deal?”

"..." Virion stared at Robin with blank eyes. "For now, yes."

I guess this is what Walhart felt like when he promoted me. Robin grinned. "Welcome to the plan, Viscount."

 -Rosannean Countryside-

“Well, that went well.” Robin said, sitting in his carriage. “Wouldn’t you say?”

“It seems, from your smile, that you’ve gotten the results you wanted.” Aversa said. “I know that at the very least, though I can’t speak for the rest, as I wasn’t there.”

“If you’d been there, it just would have been awkward.” Robin said. “You were responsible for Exalt Emmeryn’s death, after all. And while I know enough to not hold it against you – she was the enemy leader during a time of war – we can’t expect others to see it that way.”

“Well, I do thank you for your understanding.” Aversa said. “But I wonder, what exactly are you planning? I imagine you told Virion you seek to bring down Walhart, but how would you go about that? What are you really planning?”

Robin laughed at that. “My dearest Morgaine, what makes you think I’m going to tell you just what I’m planning? There’s dozens of plans going on beneath my head right now.”

“And you can’t share any? How selfish.”

“Tell you what…” Robin trailed off as the cart slowed down. He frowned. “What was that?”

“We’re stopping.” Aversa looked out the window. “Oh. Them. Well, it was only a matter of time, really.”

“Them?” Robin said. “Who are you…” A loud shout interrupted his sentence as his driver howled for his life. Seconds later, the sounds of combat could be heard outside. “Assassins?”

“Hardly. They form unruly mobs and attack targets of opportunity.” Aversa sniffed. “Just bad luck they went for us. Well, I’m going to help your guards. I haven’t killed anyone in at least a week, and I'm getting withdrawal. Would you care to join me?”

“We’re going to have to work on your bloodlust.” Robin said. “And, sure, why not? I could use the exercise. On three?”

“Three.” Aversa kicked open one of the carriage doors and walked out, blasting away with her darkgifted dark magic at targets in the distance.

Robin kicked open the door on the other side, drawing a silver lance and charging forward with it. His guard had formed a line in front of the carriage where they were fighting the assailants. They were humans, but something seemed inherently off about them. The gait they used wasn’t any Robin had ever seen used on human legs, they swapped between lumbering slowly or moving inhumanly fast. They favored steel and iron weapons as a whole and didn’t even seem to pay attention to wounds or their comrades.

Robin charged through his own line, ignoring the faint cries of protests from his guards. His lance caught one in the throat, felling him instantly. They die from normal wounds. Robin spun the spear around, slicing the attackers that where within range to open up a gap. He noticed a magic explosion where Aversa blew through their lines. Robin set his feet and thrust, running through to connect his gap to the one Aversa caused. With a gap cut within the mob, that gave the soldiers at the front more room to shove the monsters back.

Robin held his ground as his guard pushed forward, clearing through the monsters. And in seconds it was almost entirely over, with the monsters falling on droves to superior tactics, numbers, and teamwork. Healers were already moving onto the battlefield to help the injured. Robin turned to look around the battlefield when he saw the leader standing alone at the back. Easily a head taller than the rest of them, he started moving toward Robin’s forces. Robin raised his spear and pointed in at monster, invoking one of the sacred cries of warriors and champions, passed down throughout the generations. “THAT ONE’S MINE!”

Evidently the creature agreed with him, because no sooner had Robin made his challenge it turned to him and bellowed at the top of its lungs, sending the foul odor of rotten flesh across the battlefield. Then it charged Robin. Robin spun his spear and prepared, gauging the distance and the speed. Their eyes locked as the monstrous being rose up and prepared to slice down with a massive axe to cut Robin in two.

Heh.

Robin ran a step forward and stabbed the butt of the lance in the ground as he might against a cavalry charge and darted backwards. The being impaled himself on Robin’s spear, held firm by the ground and ran himself along half its length.

It’s not dead! Robin blinked as the creature roared, trying to get at him. Having absolutely none of it, Robin drew his sword and lopped the creature’s right arm off, then his left for good measure. But the thing didn’t bleed. Instead, black smoke drifted from the holes. Robin stared, then got a look at the creature’s face and recoiled in horror. That’s even worse than Excellus!

A face-mask had been sown onto the thing, which, upon closer examination seemed to be an already-dead human corpse. The face-mask than proceeded to roar at him. Not quite dead. Robin blinked.

“You know, I don’t normally do this. But I’m going to take a leaf from Vermil’s book.” Robin withdrew Bolganone and summon forth a cone of the most intense heat he could manage with it to burn the monster to charcoal. “DIE, YOU UNHOLY ABOMINATION! KILL IT WITH FIRE!”

“Well, I don’t like them either, but that’s seems excessive, even by my standards.” Aversa commented.

“They’re already dead!” Robin said. “What if killing them a second time isn’t enough? I will burn them to cinders, and scatter those cinders to the four winds, then take those winds and-”

“It is.” Aversa said, interrupting Robin’s tirade. “We have them in Plegia. And Ylisse. And Feroxi. It was only a matter of time until they came here, really.”

“WHAT ARE THEY?” Robin said. “And I was in Ylisse! I didn’t see them at all.”

“You flew around Ylisse on a pegasus, and they routinely patrol the inhabited areas to keep them dead.” Aversa rolled her eyes. “Of course you didn’t see them. Would’ve thought your spy might have mentioned it, you know?”

“I will be sending her a letter inquiring about them.” Robin grit his teeth. “Now, again. WHAT ARE THEY?”

“Remember Thabes? The necromancer?” Aversa said. “Well, he discovered an interesting type of bug which would attach themselves to the faces of corpse and reanimate them.”

“So the mask-thing was a bug?” Robin said, suddenly intrigued, despite himself.

“Don’t be silly.” Aversa said. “We distilled the magic necessary years ago, and now it’s just a dark magic ritual you can use to reanimate dead corpse to use to kill people as mindless brutes. Very useful, under the right circumstances.”.

“…” Robin blinked once, mulling the information over. “Zombies?”

“They aren’t zombies.”

“They are reanimated corpses which try to kill living beings.” Robin said. “They are, in fact, zombies. You may try to convince me otherwise. But it’s not going to work. Because they’re zombies. Wretched abominations that must die. With fire. Lots of fire.”

“You seem fixated on this.” Aversa commented.

“I’m sorry, how would you react if you had undead abominations attempting to kill you on top of literally everything else.” Robin scowled. It was only then he noticed that he was still burning the corpse of the monster. He shut off the flame, and to his great relief, the monster was now just black ash, falling off a hopelessly melted spear. “That’s all I need. Undead assassins.”

“Oh, they aren’t assassins, nor are they after you in particular.” Aversa clarified, seeming remarkably calm for someone explaining the undead plague they had a hand in creating. “No, that’s just the result of our spell going haywire and running about, burning excessive magic. They’re just everywhere and killing everything now.”

“…Your spell?” Robin turned to her. “YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE THINGS?”

“Well, I didn’t know it was going to become this at the time.” Aversa frowned. “It was just supposed to plague Ylisse, but it kept on going, far longer than I expected. It must have found some naturally occurring source of dark magic to fuel itself, but it’ll burn out.”

“So.” Robin blinked. “So, it’ll just keep generating these things, all over Valm.”

“The long and short of it, yes.” Aversa inhaled sharply. “Ah, it’s not my fault. And, even if it hypothetically was, there were other people who were willing to perform the ritual, so I really can’t be blamed.”

Robin was silent in response. Aversa looked at him, only for Robin to start chuckling. The laughter grew until his whole body was shaking and he was laughing like Plegia’s own Mad King.

“Robin? Are you okay?” Aversa said. “Ah, you aren’t mad at me, right?”

“No, I’m not mad. Bygones be bygones, no one can change the past, etcetera. Not going to help to blame you.” Robin’s eyes grew wide. “But this gives me an idea. An awful idea. I have a wonderful awful idea.”

“Tremble, world.” Aversa commented.

“Tremble, indeed.” Robin’s eyes gleamed. “I now have the perfect excuse to begin the Wolfguard Initiative. Take notes, Aversa. This marks the start of the fall of Walhart.”

 

“Did he actually take me seriously? I mean, he looked like he did, but you can never tell with those tactician types. I mean, I think some of the advice I gave was good, but I can’t make head or tails of half of it. But I suppose if he’s worth his salt he’ll be able to get information.” - Tiki.

Chapter Text

-Training Room-

“Robin asked me to teach you how to use your gift. And, seeing as you’re one of us, and likely to use it on people trying to exploit us, it’s a request I can happily comply with.” Aversa asked. “So, the legendary shadowgift. What do you know about it?”

“Not much.” Ravena frowned. “It lets me cast dark magic with no training in it, but I had to train to use high level dark magic. I’ve also learned to cast with it instinctually, but I can’t pull off anything stronger than just a flux spell.”

“Very good~.” Aversa smiled. “So, the first major difference between shadowgifted users is that we can use spells on an instinctual level, which means we can skip the learning process. And you aren’t casting flux. Not exactly. Let’s start from there.”

“I’m not?” Ravena looked confused.

“Most of modern magic comes from the school of Gotoh the Archsage.” Aversa said. “He had two disciples, the Dark Pontifex Gharnef and the Light Pontifex Miloah, who between them created the schools of Anima, Light, and Dark magic. These magics require tomes which have been magically created by forging power together within them and are gradually used up. That is known as Archeaneian Sorcery.”

“Wait, Light Magic?” Ravena scratched her head. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“That’s because their users were hunted to near extinction by the Grimleal.” Aversa said, shrugging. “Their leaders eventually decided that it wasn’t worth the human cost to pass on the knowledge and instead focused on stronger healing magic. So no light magic this century.”

“Wow, the Grimleal sucks.”

“More or less.” Aversa said. “There are some aspects of good in them, I suppose. They’ve kept Plegia from falling apart on itself with its framework, and there are decent people within it. That said, we’d be better off if they never existed, but that’s not our discussion right now. Across the ocean, no such magic academy existed, so the magically gifted people learned a different way of casting. This is known as Valentian Sorcery and was eventually replaced by it’s over-the-seas cousin. What you are casting is the Valentian Flux, not the Archeaneian Flux.”

“Now I’m just confused.” Ravena sighed.

“Where did you learn magic?”

“On the streets…” Ravena began.

“Oh, dear. Not really a good place to learn anything.” Aversa smiled. “Well, looks like we’re going to start from the basics. What type of magic to you use?”

“Dark!”

“Wrong!” Aversa said. “You’re trained as an Anima user, aren’t you? You can just use dark magic because of your shadowgift. What is anima magic?”

“I suppose, but I don’t really use it.” Ravena said. “Okay. So Anima magic is when you bond the spirit of power within a tome, and gradually use the power therein.”

“Right. Light magic uses the faith within people as the source the binding agent for the tome.” Aversa said. “And Dark magic uses the laws to be bound within their tomes.”

“Laws?” Ravena frowned. “What do you mean, laws?”

“Hmm. It depends on whether you’ve kept up your studies but seeing as you do pretty much whatever you feel like, I suppose you haven’t touched higher levels of math, or studied the natural world.”

“I read a few books?” Ravena offered. “I kind of get bored by things which aren’t tactics or games.”

“Useless.” Aversa said. “Fine, I’ll explain this once and then you’ll have to read a book the size of your head if you want to understand it further. Laws. Things like the universal force that pulls all objects together. The entropic decay of all transactions of energy. The passage of time, relentless of all other dimensions. Those form the fundamentals of dark magic.”

“…Nope. I don’t get it.” Ravena frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Ugh, I’m no teacher.” Aversa sighed. “Have you read any of the spell books you use?”

“I can't read.” Ravena said with an innocent look on her face. When Aversa was about to howl in frustration, Ravena smirked. “Kidding. So, you mean the constants.”

“Yes, that’s another name for them. So you do know them.”

“I know the names and formulas.” Ravena looked a bit crestfallen. “I don’t get them, though.”

“This from a girl who can count on one hand the number of times she’s lost mock strategy games.”

“Well, we all have our strong points.” Ravena laughed. “Anyway, yeah, I know the laws. I just wanted to see if you would explain them a bit differently.”

“So… getting back on topic.” Aversa said. “Darkgifted individuals like ourselves have a natural tendency to manipulate the universe to use dark magic, which lets us use it without training. The funny thing is that you seemed to have picked up on a variant of Flux. The Valentian variant, a spell just called Miasma. It’s why you can use dark magic with no spell books.”

“And, is that good?”

“Maybe. I have two Valentian spells of my own, a reconstructed version of their Nosferatu that I just call Night. The other one is – well, I’ll tell you when you’re advanced enough to try it. Goetia is an A-rank spell.” Aversa said. “That’s the funny thing. The reason Valentia ended up switching was because of the high casualties amongst their mages, and they thought that Archeneia system would help.”

“Huh?” Ravena blinked. “Not following… How different can Valentia be if I never noticed I was casting a different spell?”

“That’s why we’re us.” Aversa said. “For the shadowgifted, there’s really little difference between the two, except we don’t require spell books for Valentian spells.”

“That’s great!”

“For us. For everyone else, Valentian spells slowly drain their health.” Aversa said. “Apparently, the body has some sense of self-preservation, because you can’t off yourself with a powerful spell if you don’t have the stamina, but there’s nothing stopping a mage casting to the point of near death.”

“That’s not as good.” Ravena frowned. “But we’re immune?”

“Not … exactly.” Aversa said. “Like the real source of anima is the spirit bound within the book, the real source of power for Valentian magic is something else, in this case it’s similar to dark magic, the laws of energy. And they aren’t scared of stealing Anima’s territory, so they also have a few fire spells. But I’m getting off track. Anyway, two additional things other than a source of energy are required. The first is a catalyst, which people refer to as ‘magic power’, or your ability to multiply the force of the source. The second is some form of a cost.”

“Nothing’s free in this world, huh?” Ravena sighed. “Yeah, Robin told me about that. The second form is a raw cost, which makes casting certain kinds of spells really costly, like why he can’t teleport. But on the other hand, the cost for spells are the pages in the book, which gradually are wiped as they’re used up. So, the Valentian cost would be life force?”

“Good.” Aversa smiled. “And we shadowgifted are blessed by the universe. We’re an exception. We can catalyze without a cost. That’s why Validar wanted me.”

“So, we’re a shortcut?” Ravena blinked. “There’s no cost.”

“Not quite.” Aversa laughed. “There’s a cost. We just don’t pay it in blood. The laws dictate we must pay a cost, but from what I’ve read, generations of shadowgifted have tried to find it. And trust me, if it was something like lifespan, or your soul, we would have figured it out. We are dark mages, after all. But there’s nothing stopping you from being the first.”

“Hmm.” Ravena frowned. “Blessed by the universe? Well, I don’t get that, but being able to cast ancient magic with no repercussions sound pretty sweet.”

“Now, conjure your magic, if you would.” Aversa snapped her fingers, conjuring a ball of dark magic within. Across, Ravena mirrored her, summoning her own magical energy. “Ready for a fight, little raven?”

Ravena blasted her spell at Aversa. Aversa didn’t even bother throwing her spell at Ravena, instead subverting the magic and whipping it to the side. Ravena’s mouth dropped open. Aversa smiled, her genuine one, not the one she used on men. “I’ll take that as a yes. So here’s the thing, little raven. I believe in learning through action. Now, let’s try it out. I’ll make a mistress of the dark arts out of you, yet.”

-Parise, Rosanne

“Cherche, dear, why did you join Robin?”

“Oh, I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken, Virion.” The pink-haired retainer chuckled. “I’m at the service of his lovely adopted daughter. But I will warn you that I no longer serve you.”

“Mhm. So the prospect of appointing you in charge of my rebel forces is not an option. How unfortunate.” Virion said. “I suppose that I’ll have to make other provisions.”

“Didn’t you promise to not do that?”

“Trust is a two-way street, dearest Cherche.” Virion said. “I can hardly be expected to trust a man who double crosses like that Crimson Tactician, can I? The fact of the matter is, Cherche, that recruitment towards Valm has been stepping up. Walhart’s simply charismatic.”

“Is that so?” Cherche asked. “You’re jealous, aren’t you.”

“Mhm.” Virion shook his head. “Not quite. I’ve long since learned my own limitations, you see. Charisma isn’t what I can do. But it’s what other can do for me. I have no problem being labeled a coward if that is what it takes to keep Rosanne safe. But what Robin doesn’t realize is that while a large part of Rosanne accepts Walhart, there are elements which don’t, and only grow stronger in retaliation.”

“It seems that underestimating Robin cost you dearly last time.”

“So be it.” Virion said. “I’ll be a legal governor, and drive Rosanne to Walhart. While that happens, that will of course drive resentment towards me, and create the underground.”

“But what can a simple underground do?”

“Nothing, except for bide it’s time.” Virion said. “Something I assume you’re doing by joining forces with Robin. Or am I incorrect?”

“You are correct that I’m biding my time.” Cherche said. “But I’m not doing so with the intent of destroying Walhart’s empire. I’ve always been a vassal, Virion. And now I’m in service to Ravena. Of all those living today, it seems like she has the greatest potential, building off of what Robin himself can do.”

“Is that so?” Virion asked, smiling. “Well, Cherche, would you like to perform a small wager on that? We’ll see what ends up happening.”

 -Chon'sin-

“I confess that I’ve been more comfortable.” Say’ri said, sitting on her knees, in front of a low table. Two representatives from the dynasts sat at either side of the table. “But how are we progressing?”

“We have had dozens of merchants moving to the new sections of the Vermillion City.” The first representative said, smiling. “Our army is growing as well, now that you have the blessing of Valm, and have given it to us. The people no longer fear that joining our armies is rebellion.”

“That is good to hear, Hikaru.” Say’ri said. “Of course, I assume that your oath of loyalty will hold to Walhart.”

“Why would it not?” Hikaru gave a broad grin. “Our people our prosperous under this new order. What reason would we ever have to rebel?”

“We all know that your clan switches sides at the drop of the hat.” The second representative retorted. “Lady Say’ri, it is as Hikaru has described by us as well. We are prosperous and shall help serve the Empire that both you and your brother Yen’fay swore an oath to.”

“There’s no need to be so formal with me, Ryu.” Say’ri said. “I have lost my title. And I must correct you, I have not sworn an oath to Walhart or to Valm. Rather my oath is to Count Robin Obsidian.”

“Ah, the legendary Crimson Tactician.” Hikaru said. “If it’s not too much to ask, would it be possible for such a humble servant like myself to meet him?”

“I understand that there are official channels for such a meeting to occur.”

“Yes, but I was hoping you could expediate the process. For a fellow countryman.” Hikaru smiled again. Say’ri shook her head. Hikaru believed himself to be a great deal cleverer than he really was. No doubt he was trying to worm his way into Robin’s graces. And she had little doubt that he’d only be working for his own gain.

“My apologies, but my oaths are to serve Robin and to act as his sword.” Say’ri said. “They do not include acting as his diplomat.”

“Ah, but it seems that you could do a fine job with that, Lady Say’ri!” Ryu said, laughing. “Your presence here has greatly increased the prosperity in both Chon’sin and Valm as a whole. In fact, there are a few quiet whispers I’ve been hearing among the workers that perhaps we’re better off under Valm.”

“What foolishness.” Hikaru snorted. “The peasants can believe what they want.”

“But aren’t you working under Valm yourself, Hikaru?” Ryu asked.

“Of course, but only because that’s the most prudent course of action.”

Analyze. Robin said I’d be needing to do this. Say’ri inhaled. Imagine the two of them as duelists and translate what they’ve said into moves. Ryu seems reserved, and he indicated that he seems to be in favor of supporting me. A conservative duelist, then. I’m not sure if he’s on our side, but I am sure he won’t backstab us unless it’s clear that such a strategy will win.

Hikaru is the opposite. He’s clumsily overextending himself with feints. I don’t know what he’s trying, but I do know that the acts would be comparably to a flailing newborn. I do not believe that there’s anything he can that Robin cannot counter.

“Was it really wise to say that aloud, Hikaru?” Say’ri said. She took a sip of her tea. “Regardless, I am glad to hear that both of you are recruiting forces. Though, from what Robin has told me, you may lose a good percentage of them soon.”

“Oh?” Hikaru blinked. “A war, perhaps?”

“No. I do not know all the details, but his last letter indicated that he was working on a military program known as Wolfguard. It’s likely he’ll be using part of your forces to create it.” Say’ri said, eyeing the reactions. I don’t know what Robin is up to, but he seems to be playing with a nest of vipers.

 -Northwestern Valm, the 'Wastes of Duma'-

“Why are you here, Battlemaster?” Farber asked from atop his horse.

“Why shouldn’t I be here?” Robin shrugged, walking alongside him, as Farber’s army marched on. “I heard there was a campaign occurring here, and I decided to stop by and help.”

“Stop by and claim all the credit it more like it.” Farber snorted. “I’m familiar with Excellus. Take you and your entire stupid army and go help someone else. We prefer to fight actual battles here, not win by outnumbering our opponent and just using sheer numbers.”

“Excellus really used to do that, huh?” Robin grinned. That did sound like something Excellus would do. In the short run, it would let you claim prestige and honor. In the long run, it ended with all the generals hating you, and the army not used to fighting its way out of tough spots. Exactly the sort of thing that Excellus would do and Robin wouldn’t.

“Yeah, and it was annoying.” Farber said. “Look, I don’t care even if you do have some master plan to kill these fools like stomping on roaches, but I’d rather not answer to someone like you.”

“Because I’m just a tactician, and not a warrior?” Robin asked. Farber’s silence answered him. “Thought so. So, when I said I would help, I just meant as allies. Aside from my guards and Morgaine, I’ve brought no one. In fact, I was intending on fighting alongside you, under your command.”

“Hah. Good joke.”

“A commander should never ask his soldier anything he wouldn’t do himself.” Robin said. “I need a better perspective, so I decided to travel Valm.”

“There’s that ulterior motive.” Farber shrugged. “But I guess I can pick up your slack if you really want to help me. So, welcome to the wastes, Battlemaster. The Wastes of Duma.”

“I have to ask, why the name? This isn’t exactly a waste, you know.” Robin said. “So, why the name?”

“It harkens back to the old days.” Farber said. “This country was named Valm after King Alm I, by merging its name with the old continent name of Valentia. However, the unified country couldn’t  hold, and during the reign of King Rudolf III, it eventually fractured. A loyalist movement, composed entirely of those who were originally from Duma, founded a nation on their own.”

“I see.” Robin said. “So, in other words, you are the literal waste of Duma, the nation. That … doesn’t sound like a compliment.”

“Many nations are known by the name given by their enemies.” Farber said. “Our name proper is the Holy Duma Empire, but as we are neither holy, nor empire, nor even Duma, as I told you earlier. I have no problem with the name.”

“Interesting.” Robin said. “If I recall, your people fought the least with Walhart.”

“Well, Valm, the nation, composes the other half of Valm, so our people have always been looking for a reason to bring us together.” Farber coughed. “The fights were just to decide who would be in control. It didn’t take long for us to surrender to Walhart. That’s also when Excellus joined.”

“Ah, yes.” Robin shuffled through his internal memory. “Excellus was born in the wastes of Duma, correct? He started as a choir boy.”

“And the world would’ve been better off if he stayed. Even if his voice was that bad.” Farber chuckled. “Yes, I’ve known the treacherous bastard longer than Walhart has. And I know that officially you were just targeted by him, but he’s not that stupid. I’m guessing there was more to the picture involving his treachery.”

“Who knows?” Robin shrugged his shoulders and put on a blank face. “I was just following orders.”

“Following orders?” Farber raised an eyebrow.

Creatively.” Robin smirked. “Walhart told us to determine between us which one was the superior tactician. And it’s clear that he was me.” Robin whistled innocently.

“Ha!” Farber laughed. “I like you, tactician. It’s not quite like you remind me of myself, but I can tell that you’re on our side, unlike that old toad. And not a lot of people would walk while a man who they outrank rides alongside them.”

“Then they’ve never deployed cavalry.” Robin said. “At any rate, what’s on the menu today?”

“A small fry, named Sima Yi.” Farber frowned. “My would-be archnemesis. A Chon’sin tactician, who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is. He jumped sides when Chon’sin surrendered, and immediately took his army into the Wastes, figuring that it was a good place to be annoying.”

“Well, my tactical advice is at your disposal.”

“Won’t need it.” Farber grunted. “Figured that bastard out a while back. Like I said, he’s smarter than he thinks he is, and he’s got a habit of pulling these complex plans. I’ve stopped trying to think through them, and just decided to fight at a basic level, ignoring all his ploys. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but lately I’ve been giving him more than he can take.”

“Ah.” Robin nodded. “One of those. Probably won’t shut up about the Thirty-Six.”

“So that number does have significance.” Farber frowned. “Yes, one of his usual taunts when he’s done is that I can’t beat him as long as he has his Thirty-Six. What are those?”

“The Thirty-Six Stratagems is the basic textbook of military strategy that Chon’sin uses. Of course, it’s markedly inferior to our Art of War. No bias, honest.” Robin said. His brow furrowed as he recalled the texts. “Still read it, of course. Now, if I recall, there are six stratagems each for six situations. What kind of situation are we finding him in this time?”

“Apparently, he’s taken command of old fort.” Farber frowned. “We caught a deserter. Didn’t even need to torture the man, he’s tired of the inevitable. Told us. ‘Course, if he lied, we’ll torture him slowly until he tells us where it is.”

“Perfectly reasonable.” Robin shrugged. They’d do the same to us. Mercy to the enemy that costs you lives of your own soldiers is false and misplaced. It’s a basic tenant of war. “An old fort? Hmmm, so maybe a Proximate Stratagem? But which one?”

“Keep your muttering down, Battlemaster.” Farber said. “Like I said, I won’t need your tactical advice. I’ve got no problem with just murdering him the old fashion way. Feel free to figure out the right counter, or whatever, but just be ready to follow my orders.”

“If you’re sure.”

-Old Fort

“I change my mind.” Farber sighed. “It’s a trap.”

“Clearly.”

The abandoned fortress that they’d been directed to had clearly seen better days, but someone’d been hard at work fixing it up. The walls had been reworked with new stones, and the rotted wood was mostly replaced. There were crenellations all over the walls, and Farber would be in for a fight if he wanted to storm the gates.

That said, the gates were wide open, and not a soul seemed to be present, save for a single old man sitting on top of the battlements, wearing a wide conical hat and smoking a pipe almost as long as the man was tall. He noticed the army in the distance and gave a cheerful wave.

“I have no idea what’s going on, I just have a horrible feeling in my stomach.”

“Well, of course.” Robin started ticking the cases on his fingers. “There was that time when a retreating force from Pheros’s army got ambushed when they took cover in a supposedly-abandoned fortress. There was that time when a castle surrendered to Excellus, only for them to ambush the army once they entered the fortress, and slaughter them except for Excellus who teleported away. There was that time they tried it on Walhart, except, you know, Walhart. Almost makes you want to pity the poor bastards who ambushed him. Then there was also that time when I snuck my entire army as traitors within a fort and took it from within.”

“I don’t see what that last one has to do with this situation.”

“That’s because it doesn’t, I just like bragging.” Robin said. “Anyway, I agree with you wholeheartedly. This is undoubtedly a trap. In fact, it’s a textbook situation from the Thirty-Six. Number Thirty-Two, if memory serves correct. I’ve never had the pleasure of using it, but I suppose I’ve never had to. Anyway, like I said earlier. Text. Book.”

“So… you have a way to counter this.” Farber said.

“I do, but I’d like to hear your plan first.”

“Are you mocking me, tactician?” Farber said. “Ordinarily, I’d just charge in, but I haven’t a clue of how to proceed here. There’s obviously a trap, but I have no idea what it is. Are they going to lock us in a set it on fire? Are they going to ambush us? Are they not even there anymore, and that’s just a lunatic with a pipe? What’s going on?”

“Lock them all in and set on fire.” Robin blinked. “That is a good idea. I’ll have to remember it and send it to Vermil. He’ll figure out a way to optimize it. Anyway, no, it’s not going to be any of that. I do think we should charge. But not with all our men.”

“How many?”

“Hmmm.” Robin considered. “I think two should be sufficient. Just the two of us. Maybe a cavalry division if we need the help, to stand by.”

“Just the two of us! You’re crazy.”

“It's the two of us against the crazy man with the pipe. We'll outnumber him two to one! Well, anyway, I’ll put my money where my mouth is.” Robin walked forward. “Follow if you will.”

“Oh, come on.” Farber scowled as he sent his horse after the tactician, after waving for most of his men to stay, and having a cavalry unit come with him. Thankfully, his discipline got his men to follow him. Farber caught up to the tactician just as he got within a few hundred feet of the gate. “What is your plan?”

“I thought I’d ask him politely to surrender, then electrocute him if he refuses.” Robin said. “I might miss, though.”

“Aren’t you worried?” Farber asked. “We haven’t seen a hint of his men yet.”

“Exactly.” Robin said. “Put yourself in his shoes. He’s in enemy territory, and you just told me that you’ve beaten him soundly the last few times. Morale is at an all-time low, and you’ve picked up a deserter. I’m guessing that he wasn’t the only one. In fact, I’m guessing that most of his force is either dead or deserted, and he’s got nowhere to resupply from. What does your intelligence put him at?”

“No more than around 5,000.” Farber said, frowning. “But that’s only because he’s never committed all his forces to battle. Seems to have an endless supply of reinforcements. Now, if he did commit all his men the last time we fought, he’d really have no more than 500. In any event, I took a force of around 15,000, just to make sure.”

“Okay. But what if his ragged remnant abandoned him. This hypothesis is further backed because you picked up a deserter who freely shared information. Pity he didn't give you troop strength, though.” Robin said. “This fort was recently repaired, but even to my amateur eyes, it’s too well done and too old to be the work of just a week. I’m guessing he had a unit here for emergencies and that unit was used up in the last clash. I’m guessing he’s now using it as a place of last refuge. I’m also guessing that he’s all but alone.”

“So why would he leave the door open- Oh.” Farber blinked when he remembered what he was going to do until Robin had marched up to the front door. “This was a trap, but the trap wasn’t when I charged, it was when I left! He wanted to make it look like a trap so I left.”

“One way to put it.” Robin said. “Stratagem Number Thirty-Two: The second Desperation Stratagem: The Empty Fort! When you’re outnumbered, bare yourself to the enemy, and create a scenario that’s simply too good to be believed. That way, he’ll think there’s a trap that simply isn’t there. Isn’t that right, Sima Yi?” Robin bellowed the last point to the pipe-smoking man atop the gate, raising his left arm. Fast as a lizard, the man flipped over the gate and ducked below it as a lightning bolt soared over.

“Missed.” Robin chuckled. “Farber, can I leave you the honors? I came with just the two of us to prove that we aren’t scared of his trick, but there’s no need to risk just the two of us, if he’s got five hundred soldiers.”

“With pleasure.” Farber raised his hand and prepared a battle-cry as his army prepared to storm the castle. “FOR VALM!”

-A brief battle later

“Well, that was overkill.” Robin sighed contently as he bit into a wonderful piece of smoked meat. There’d been around two hundred loyalists, but outnumbered seventy-five to one, there hadn’t been much of a fight. Farber had brought in the cavalry regiment, but it was a complete rout. Fortunately for Robin, they’d tracked Suma’s elite guards, and he and Farber took out the cluster of eight, proving himself a competent warrior in Farber’s eyes.

Now, Robin and Farber were sitting in the fort’s reconstructed throne room, enjoying the spoils of their victory. Turns out that Sima Yi was a man of comforts and had a large stash of smoked meat, as well as an excessive amount of alcohol. And this he was intending to keep these stores for a good-sized army for at least a year, there turned out to be enough to firmly bolster the nightly rations of Farber’s army. But that was only the good stuff.

There wasn’t enough of the best stuff for the entire army, of course. So Robin, Farber, and several of Farber’s lieutenants had taken it upon themselves to nobly sacrifice and dine upon those, so the rest of the army wouldn’t have to face the challenge of dividing it up. Truly, the work of those in power were difficult.

It should also be noted that several bottles of the high-quality sake had already been safely stashed. Robin recalled Say’ri’s taste for the substance and had acted accordingly. He wasn’t getting Aversa anything, because while he never touched his alcohol collection, at least Say’ri didn’t act like she owned it. Aversa did.

“All thanks to you, Battlemaster.” Farber said, raising a glass.

“You’re too kind, Farber.” Robin said, raising his own. He wasn’t drinking wine, but in fact a deep red tea. “I simply made an observation. Your training and soldiers won the day. Not to mention the fact that Sima Yi was only back into a corner because of your persistence.”

“I said it before, and I’ll say it again.” Farber nodded. “I like you, tactician. A lot better than that old toad, anyway.”

Something that Farber himself doesn’t seem to know is that he’s actually on the most respected of the Duma generals. Not overall, of course, but the most important among the Duma. Having him as an ally is an important step. Robin grinned. “Thank you, Farber. It’s been my pleasure. Now, have you heard the latest from the Vermillion City?”

“You mean all those expansions?” Farber said, yawning. “I’m a fighter, not a bureaucrat. These things bore me.”

“Perhaps I could change your mind.” Robin said. “After all, the next generation of soldiers will come from the foundation of today. Anyway, just keep the idea in your mind. I’ll be discussing it with Walhart, and I’ve got something else to discuss.”

“Heading back to capitol?” Farber asked.

“A tactician’s work is never done.” Robin said. “I’ll leave tomorrow.”

 -Vermillion City, Throne-

“What is thy bidding, Conqueror?” Robin asked with a smirk hidden on his face as he knelt.

“Explain your actions.” Walhart said.

“You’ll have to be more specific.” Robin said. “Are you referring to my aid in the campaign in the wastes of Duma, or perhaps my appointing of Virion as the regional governor of Rosanne?”

“You are intelligent enough to wield the double-edged blade you placed on Rosanne. As for your conquests, that’s merely your business.” Walhart said. “Why have you taken upon yourself to tax the treasury to build the capitol up in a non-military fashion? And what is the Wolfguard I keep hearing mentioned?”

The Wolfguard Initiative is part of a greater plan in place, and is the cornerstone of a great many steps involved. It may merely be one step among many, but perhaps the most important one of them. Robin hid his smile. Your spymaster is good to have heard of that, but as it happens, I was going to tell you anyway. Knowledge won't let you know what I'm planning, not without being able to track all my actions. And, I may be wrong about this, but I believe that leak came from Chon'sin. Interesting. But let's deflect for a bit. “You question my improvements to the capitol?”

“I see you have decided to move your talents from something beneficial to simply furthering the aims of those with gold.” Walhart said. “I would understand your actions if they increased the funds for my army but they aren’t. While you aren’t losing, you seem to be drawing even. Why spend all the time and energy?”

He just likes questioning my actions, doesn’t he? Robin got up and nodded. “It’s simply a long-term plan. While gold moving through the citizens of Valm does not go directly into our war chest, it does buy us goodwill with the people, and lets our next generation of soldiers grow up viewing us in positive light. Aside from the taxes we collect on the increase of money, which is not insubstantial.”

“It is better to be feared than loved, tactician.” Walhart responded.

“Only if you can’t do both.” Robin said. He raised his fist and clenched it. “With the new Vermillion City, we will show what happens to citizens in our Empire, and we will crush those outside it without mercy. As part of that, I’ve wish to start what I’ve taken to calling ‘the Wolfguard Initiative’. This is what you’ve been hearing about. It’s a military branch, of a sort.”

“As a counter to the Shepherds?” Walhart ask. “Are you that scared of Ylisse’s elite guards?”

He saw that fast. “No, not at all.” Robin lied as smoothly as possible. “The Shepherds are an elite force made up of a single group. The Wolfguard is the opposite, a vast organization with small groups located all over Valm. It’s due to the Risen threat. Mostly.”

“Pah. They are no threat. Either my forces can kill them, or they will be culled.” Walhart smiled. “Really, I should thank whatever dark mage came up with that spell.”

“I’ll pass it along.” Robin said.

“Ah, yes.” Walhart smiled. “You would know who did it, wouldn’t you? Regardless, why would you try to fight them when they serve a perfectly valid test?”

“With all due respect, Conqueror, I believe that these Risen serve as more than simply a test to weed the weak out. I believe that they also serve the perfect opportunity for training soldiers.” Robin said, clenching his fist. “If we armor garrisons and raise militia to fight these across Valm, it will serve to recruit new soldiers, train them, solidify loyalty to Valm, and raise the average standard of strength for Valm as a whole.

As you said, Ylisse has the Shepherds, which serve to protect the people, the sheep. But we aren’t sheep. We are the proud people of Valm. We are wolves, to the point that even our guards are made from wolves! The Wolfguard Initiative will compose of two components. The first are the rank-and-file members. We’ll start chapters, complete with weapons and training in a scattered web around the Empire, based on distance from each other, and population density, recruiting people for a part-time local militia.

The second will be the leaders of the Wolfguard, full-time employees. These will be soldiers selected for their training and leadership abilities, chosen to lead over their skills on the battlefield. As opposed to the temporary rank-and-file, these will be the leaders, known as the Dire Wolves, who will form the core of the Wolfguard.”

“You mean, form the core of your own personal army.” Walhart corrected.

Why do you keep noticing these things!? Robin’s inner monologue wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

“I suppose it could be looked at that from one perspective.” Robin admitted. “Seeing that I’m currently the one overseeing the whole initiative. However, I would also remind you that I happen to the Battlemaster of Valm, and as such I can countermand the orders of anything except for yourself.”

“I see.” Walhart considered. “It does seem that the positives outweigh the negatives under these circumstances. Very well, you may proceed with this Wolfguard Initiative. I presume you mean to make your friend Lord Zulas Albert one of the main members?”

“Now that you mention it, that’s an excellent suggestion.” Robin said. “His ancestor was the leader of the Sable Order, so I suppose that’s natural.”

“Vermillion Rojo Rubrum, as well?”

“The most effective method of killing these Risen abominations is with fire. Lots and lots of fire. Like enough to fill a volcano and then some.” Robin said. “In fact, I’m thinking of working on ways to transport lava from the Cracks of Doom.”

“You mean the Demon’s Ingle.”

“That’s what I said.” Robin replied, completely straight-faced. “I intend to have Vermil join as well.”

“You really hate these things, don’t you?” Walhart frowned. “It’s unbecoming of a tactician to have such biases.”

“I do not regret hating undead zombie abominations. They do not get a pass because they’ve been raised by dark magic and are called Risen.”

“I see.” Walhart shook his head. Robin could feel the disapproval radiating off him and ignored it. “Well, will your assassin Dant be joining the Wolfguard Initiative as well?”

“Regrettably, she’s away on a deep cover assignment in Plegia.” Robin said. “And to forestall your question, I also intend to include Argenita di Cratez as well.”

“As I suspected.” Walhart nodded. “I can’t say I disapprove of Valm gaining strength, so I shall allow your obvious nepotism. Do you wish to include Virion and Say’ri as well?”

“No, I think those two are useful where they are.” Robin said. Say’ri and Virion are both former rebels working for Valm. It’s exactly what I wanted. A few more such turncoats on my side would be useful, but I can’t really think of any. Aversa isn't from Valm, so she doesn't count towards my objective. “Your leave, Conqueror? Unless you have more tasks for me.”

“No tasks, merely a message to pass on to you.”

“Oh?”

“My spymaster complements you on your invisible ink trick that you used to trick your way pass Cervantes.” Walhart smiled. “He says that he’ll be passing the trick on to his own foreign agents. That is all.”

Well… Robin sighed. Ah, that's just bad luck. I suppose there’s only one thing to do now, if I consider myself a player at this game.

“I cannot ask one such as yourself to pass a message back, but your spymaster undoubtably only needs the words spoken aloud to know them.” Robin bowed. “My complements to your spymaster. He seems to have gotten the best of me once again.” But I only need to win once.

 

Report: Am I doing this right? Really hope I actually got that crypt memorized, otherwise this is just going to be a bunch of gobbledygook. Well, now that that’s out of the way, I’ve got some news. Plegia’s focusing all their efforts on rebuilding, which is a thing, I guess. (I remember you saying that most of my early reports would say as much. I don’t like it when you’re right.) Oh, and there’s a new tactician in the Shepherds, apparently. Not Marth. Can’t quite recall the name, but something like ‘The Tactician Magician!’ Seriously, that’s a lame name. If I had something like ‘The Mysterious Mercenary!’, I’d kill the man who gave me that – Dant.

Chapter Text

-Fort Steiger-

“Well met, Battlemaster.” Pheros said. “I believe this is our first time meeting, correct? I can't recall us meeting before, but it seems hard to believe that we've never interacted at any Imperial function.”

“Surprisingly, yes. At least, as far as I can recall, and I've amnesia.” Robin said. Unfortunately, his bout of amnesia was common knowledge, as he'd made no effort to keep it concealed before getting conscripted into Valm. Thus, rumors were flying, so Robin found it better to embrace them than fight it. “I believe one of my subordinates trained under you, though, after transferring out of my force. Argenita di Cratez? She mentioned she had a frosty relationship with you.”

“Ah, yes, that one. We had a disagreement, but it all worked out in the end.” Pheros gave a rare smile. “You may not wish to mention this to the rest of the fort. She’s very well liked, despite the fact that I was going to throw her into the Damsel’s Brigade. A good amount of us like her.”

“So, what’s the problem… oh, right.” Robin swallowed. “I remember. I broke up my engagement with her, didn’t I? They hate me for that, don’t they?”

“No, that got celebrated.” Pheros corrected with a slight smile. “You aren’t very well liked among the ladies of military. Or the Empire, for that matter.”

“What?” Robin frowned. That would throw a wrench in my plans. “Wait, no hold on that doesn't make sense. I didn’t think I was hated.

“Sorry, I meant in the romantic sense.” Pheros snickered. “You aren’t exactly, shall we say, Valm’s most eligible bachelor, despite every major house trying to force you into a political marriage with them. You’re viewed as excessively competent, but to a scary point where you aren’t to be crossed, and we’re glad to have you on our side. Not a bad person, but definitely not deserving of Argenita.”

“Yeah, I’ll agree with that.” Robin said. Well, maybe not for the same reasons as Pheros, though. “So, why the anger if I broke it off?”

“Because you’re the one who got her engaged to Zulas.” Pheros said. “Which means that she’ll be leaving the fortress between soon.”

“They do know that she’s still going to be a battlefield healer, and that she isn’t going to become a housewife, right?” Robin raised an eyebrow. “Honestly, can you imagine trying to keep her from fighting? Or, well, healing on the battlefield, but I don’t think I could reign her in if she wanted to fight.”

“Something I also happen to be aware of.” Pheros said. “She’s told me stories.”

“Great.” Robin sighed. I wonder which ones. But I don’t think Argeni knows any truly problematic ones about me. Unless Dant told her, but I don’t think – it’s Dant, of course she did. Not enough to get me in serious trouble, but enough so I can get snickered at. “So … you aren’t mad at me, right?”

“On the contrary, I’m quite happy. Argeni deserves the happiness.” Pheros smiled. “I think it’s a bit late for me, but it’s quite good for her. I’m also quite happy to meet you, you aren’t exactly what I expected, even after hearing Argeni’s stories.”

“I will they that few things are what you expect them to be.” Robin said. “Take yourself, for instance. You’re not from Valm, correct?”

“No.” Pheros shook her head. “I’m from the State of Mila.”

“And how did you become one the three Generals of Valm?” Robin asked. “I would imagine there’s a tale within that which more than meets the eye.” Especially considering that you used to be a devout of Naga.

“Ah, well, that’s a long story.” Pheros said. “The short answer is that something happened when I was younger, so I went on a pilgrimage to reaffirm my faith. That … didn’t end up happening. I even traveled to Ylisse to hear the guidance of the Exalt, which inspired me for a while, but that faded. Then I met him on a battlefield.”

“Walhart.” Robin said. “So, you worship him now?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I worship no man. Or woman, for that matter.” Pheros shook her head. “It was very nice for all of the Naga Devout to preach for peace, but I was their honor guard. I was forced to defend them, day in and day out while they preached that goodwill would save them. That’s why I lost my faith in the first place.”

“You don’t have to say any more.” Robin said. “I can guess the rest. You wanted results. You wanted to start working from the world that existed, rather than the world that should. So, you joined Walhart.”

“A succinct way of putting it, yes.” Pheros responded. “What’s your reason for joining Walhart?”

“… Curiosity, I suppose.” Robin replied. “Walhart was curious about my abilities, which is why he gave me a chance to join him, and I was hardly in a position to refuse. In any event, he posed me a question, which I’ve sought to obtain the answer to.”

“The question?”

“What is ‘strength’?”

“Walhart.” Pheros answered instantly. Okay, I knew she wasn’t going to help with that, but that is extraordinary levels of unhelpfulness. Robin sighed internally. Pheros continued. “But where did you come from?”

“Plegia.” Robin said. “One half of me, anyway. The other half, well I’m not sure. I’d rather not talk about it, you understand.”

“Pardon me for asking, then.” Pheros said. “I’m glad we had this conversation. I’ve wanted to get to know you ever since you replaced Yen’fay.”

“Ah-h-h-h.” Robin stammered. “How much do you know about that?”

“No more than the basics, but I presume you were involved a bit more, considering you replaced him as a general, and his sister, formerly our sworn enemy, is now your sworn sword.” Pheros met him with a level gaze. “I can guess quite a few more parts. Would you like me too?”

“No. No I would not.” Robin shook his head. “Those are my sins to deal with, and I would ask you leave them to me.”

“Good.” Pheros said pleasantly. “Now, how about this Wolfguard Initiative of yours? I know you aren’t exactly normal, but why make your army in such a manner?”

“A lot of reasons. You can read one of the posters if you want to know them.” Robin said pleasantly. “But I’d like to discuss something else right now?”

What is that?”

“I apologize for the abrupt change of subject, but I don’t know when the next time we’ll meet is, so I figured I might as well talk to you about it once you requested a meeting.”

“A new subject? What of?”

“The invasion of Archanaiea.” Robin said, like it was the most natural thing in the world. He started unrolling a map of the world onto the desk between them, dropping paperweights.

“Pardon?” Pheros frowned. “But are we so far along our unification of the Valm continent that we can afford to be discussing something like this right now? I was under the impression that you were hard at work with both the Wolfguard Initiative and the expansion of the Vermillion City to house the greater economy Walhart’s empire has. In fact, you wrote a very strongly worded letter against sending a raiding force to assess their defenses.”

“Well, yes, but…” Robin scratched the back of his head. “Honestly, I’ve never had a problem looking far into the future. Now is not the time to invade, but that just means that the time to invade will come later. And, besides, we’ll be setting the infrastructure for our production capacities, so now’s the perfect time to start planning. I don’t expect these to take effect for at least five – no, make that ten – years.”

“Looking a decade into the future? Is that how far you needed to defeat Excellus?” Pheros asked. "And please don't tell me you had nothing to do with Excellus's betrayal."

“Hardly. I only needed to think one move ahead of him. About a month. Give or take.” Robin said. Give or take twenty-nine days. But it behooves me to inflate Excellus's reputation. “Ylisse’s tactician is reputed to have the gift of prophecy – not something I believe in, given that I met her. But she’s incredibly dangerous all the same.”

“The new one or the old one?”

“…Come again?” Robin fixed her with a stare,

Pheros blinked. “You do know that there’s a new tactician among the Shepherds, right? One that took over for the Foreseer. She’s known as the Tactician Magician.”

“…What? No, that can’t be right.” Robin blinked. Dant…! Why would you do this to me? I thought you were being sarcastic! “I thought that was just a hoax! Are you seriously saying that the Tactician Magician is real?”

“If you have evidence to the contrary, then I won’t dispute it, but my reports indicated as such.”

“If your reports corroborate, then I’ll believe them.” Robin sighed. Dant, why!? “One of my sources delivered a report which, well … never mind. And, unfortunately, my other source has been quite on the matter. Anyway, it’s all moot, because I have no intention of attacking Ylisse. Not at first.”

“Oh? Would you go after Plegia, then?” Pheros asked. “Bearing a grudge?”

“Well, yes, for a lot of reasons, but it’s not why I want to go after Plegia.” Robin said. “They’ve got ships. A lot of ships. My intelligence is reporting that they’ve been channeling a good amount of resources into building ships even before the Plegian-Ylissean war, and they’ve got a hefty stockpile already. Seems like they wanted to go after us once they beat Ylisse.”

“Now that is some unparalleled hubris.” Pheros noted.

“Well, Plegia, so yes, of course. Aside from the fact that they’re currently alienated from their neighbors, who have, at the minimum, a mutual defense alliance with each other, they’re also the only force capable of launching a counter offensive. In the, ah, technical sense. Not that it would work, of course.” Robin said. “If we strike them first, we can take their ports, and stop them from being able to launch a counterattack.”

“Are we really that worried about reprisals?” Pheros asked. “We’ve never once lost ground during any invasion, and never been forced to retreat.”

“Ordinarily, I would say no to reprisals. The logistics for naval lines are dynamically different than the land line counterparts, to the point that I’d be worried.” Robin held up a hand in defense. “However, I know we’ll have the Conqueror leading us, so I’m not worried about that. The problem is that he can’t be in two places at once. Once he lands on the shores of Archaneia, then they can send armies around to engage our rear. And that’ll be a mess. A horrible mess. So, while we’ll conquer Archaneia, we’ll have to deal with guerilla strikes all over Valm.”

Pheros considered, looking on the map. Valm had dozens of entry points for a naval invasion, considering that it spanned the whole continent, and not all the harbors were well defended, or even capable of being well defended. “I see what you mean. But aren’t you the tactician? Don’t you have a plan for dealing with something like that?”

“I do.” Robin said. “The plan is like emergency amputation – it’s incredibly painful, and if you need to do it, it means that someone, somewhere, has either screwed up badly, or has been screwed up badly. I’d really like avoid that kind of scenario. If we don’t cripple their ability to strike back, then we’ll need to reinforce the militia and docks just about everywhere, triple the out-land scouts, and have large armies ready to move at a moments’ notice. It’d be like the Wolfguard I'm trying to put together right now, if we increased the size and resources intake threefold. Fighting against guerilla warfare sucks.

“So, the plan?”

“We’ll build our fleet and burn the Plegian fleet when we get there. Capture their docks.” Robin said. “We’ll divert a small warfleet to just west of Feroxi’s docks, not engaging them, but forming a quasi-blockade should they attempt to launch a pre-emptive fleet. Then, land invasion until we conquer Plegia, all without giving Ylisse a reason to attack us.”

“And Ylisse and Feroxi? When do we take those?”

“We’ll need to reinforce our beachhead before taking the fight to them.” Robin said. “Even the best estimates I have don’t give us enough soldiers to conquer both. So, as we’re taking Plegia, we have an eye towards taking and holding. But we don’t antagonize them, because a three-front war is asking for trouble. The most we’ve ever done currently is two.”

“Wouldn’t a warfleet outside their harbor antagonize them?” Pheros asked dryly.

“Well, scratch that aspect of the plan.” Robin muttered. “Ah, do you have experience with naval combat?”

“No one does.” Pheros said. “Naval combat? Why would that ever be taken seriously?”

“Fine. We’ll need to find some other way to know whether or not a warfleet is leaving Feroxi harbor.” Robin said. “I suppose non-aggressive. Maybe used a network of dock-working informants?”

“Well, we could just use the Icebergs if all you need are scouts.” Pheros said.

“Icebergs?” Robin blinked. “The image that comes to mind is a giant floating block of ice. Tell me that’s not what you mean by that.”

“No, silly.” Pheros laughed. “The Icebergs are our long-range cold-weather pegasus knights. They got the nickname because they’ve been known to camp out on icebergs during long ranges mission if they can’t find anything else to sleep on. Feroxi is north enough to have a constant flow of ice, so I think it could work.”

“Seriously.” Robin blinked. “Wow, your people are nuts. I’m impressed. Would you mind if I lend you Say’ri so you can train her to work with them?”

“The Chon’sin princess? Sure, I don’t see why not.” Pheros said. “So, sound good?”

“It’s a good start. Thank you for the advice, Pheros.” Robin said. “It’s been my pleasure meeting with you.”

“Mine as well.” Pheros said. “Where are you off to?”

“One last area of Valm to meet with.” Robin said, yawning. “Then I’ll have met just about every major official that I might end up commanding. Sounds fun.”

-Ram City

“More traveling. And that means more waiting.” Robin sighed. “And without any companions to annoy.”

While he liked the company, traveling between two points took time, and time was a valuable commodity for anyone, especially tacticians. Aversa detoured to return to the Vermillion City, working to create her spy network. Say’ri has done good work rallying Chon’sin to his side. Virion was trying desperately to grab support in Rosanne, but Cherche was helping, alongside Ravena, who claimed to have a lead on Valm’s spymaster. Zulas was doing training on recruits, or something of that nature, Argeni was busy trying to seduce Zulas (which Robin considered odd, because they were already engaged but Argeni claimed it was a necessity to prevent ‘gold-digging harlots’ from snatching him up). Vermil was on-assignment, and Dant was, as usual, on her top-secret mission. That left him with no company while waiting in the barracks in at the absolute southern edge of Valm.

“My apologies, Battlemaster.” Ignatius, the famed Sea Wolf of the Valm army was finally ready to see him. “What brings you this far south?”

“Your wargames.” Robin said. “I was working with General Pheros a month prior on prospective invasion plans for Archaneia. It was then I noticed that while my knowledge of naval combat is excellent from a theoretical standpoint, I’ve never really witnessed one done.”

“Yes. It is true that Valm has never fought an extended naval campaign.” Ignatius agreed. “You’ve come to participate in my wargames?”

“Just to observe, really.” Robin said. “I would love the hands-on experience, don’t get me wrong, but I believe I’d gain just as much watching you.”

“You fear losing?” Ignatius chuckled.

Yes. “No, of course, not.” Robin said. “My mind is honed for battle like a well-sharpened blade, waiting to be drawn. If the blade is used in sparring, it grows dull to accommodate the sparring, whereas if only drawn to take human blood, the blade can see more use. You see?”

“I do.” Ignatius sighed. “You are a man of many words, and little action. Battlemaster, indeed.”

“May I observe your wargames, then?”

“By all means.”

 -Ram Bay-

Wood crashed against wood. A terrific spray of white ocean foam roared up as the bow of one ship slammed into the stern of another. Wood creaked and shuddered, but thankfully for the men on both ships, the wood held firm. Rope with grapples were hurled between ships as soldiers from both sides worked to bring the ships together. Then boards were hastily thrown, and an all-our brawl between Valms wearing red and the Valms wearing black began fighting.

Naval warfare? Robin blinked. Ignatius had offered the crow’s nest on his flagship as a vantage point, which Robin did not trust, so he elected to view the battle from a nearby hill, using a large spyglass. This looks more like hand to hand combat.

Across the bay, the black and red fleets slammed into each other, as a similar scenario repeated itself. Occasionally, one ship would get flanked by two, and the crew of the one would almost immediately fall to the flank, but by and large, such events did not happen, and the combat mostly stemmed from solo boarding actions between ships. The red fleet was winning. This made complete sense. They’d had started with more men.

“Like what you see, tactician?” Ignatius asked. He usually commanded from his flagship (easily the largest ship there, and thus the one with the most men) but he elected to join Robin watching from the hill.

“Actually, I’m a bit uncertain about what I’m seeing.” Robin muttered. “You, ah, seem to be focused primarily on the combat that occurs when two ships collide.”

“Of course. You see, the advantage to this approach is that it favors our strongest element – the cavalry and infantry.” Ignatius said. “We’ll always outnumber our opponents, so we charge their boats, and then seize their ships. Strategically, of course – the frontline are weak, and only serve to disrupt the ships so that the soldiers can get to the middle of the formation.”

He’s treating naval warfare like land warfare. Robin internally sighed. He’s turning the ships into just larger troop measures, like squadrons, and applying from there. The only problem being that it’s NOT naval warfare. A ship which is sunk means that all men aboard are lost, regardless of how strong the men are. Mages should be able to light other ships on fire, wind to cut sails and render ships immobile. And what of the current? And what of saboteurs? Not even that, I saw what happened when ships get flanked, because reinforcing is all but impossible, but neither the reds nor the black seem to be doing that deliberately.

“Out of curiosity…” Robin said. “I notice that some ships seem to be fighting against two enemy ships.”

“Eh. That’s Double-up at work again. Sorry, I mean Captain Archie Pike.” Ignatius frowned. “He was a ship captain before he signed on, so he kept his rank, but he doesn’t seem to get the point of these exercises. Keeps trying to convince his side to do that, which of course defeats the purpose of a drill. I’m not interested in the squadrons learning how to fight enemies, which that can’t do if they’re horribly outnumbered. Good captain, so I can't demote him, but he frustrates me.”

He doesn’t understand how it works? Robin internally sighed. I think, Ignatius, you don’t understand how wargames work. Two against one is horrible training, true, but the training here should be focused on teaching the captains how to achieve a two on one, not how to win a one on one. The point of wargames is to test new strategies and ideas.

“So, what do you think?”

“I was going to take you up on your offer.” Robin said, removing the spyglass. Note to self: Have this Archie Pike reassigned to my division. I could defeat Ignatius by capitalizing on his mistakes, but I don’t think he’d learn a thing from it, and this Captain Pike could be taught ground up to replace Ignatius by the Archaneia campaign. “However, I fear that I have nothing useful that I would be able to teach you, and I've learned all I needed here.”

“High praise.” Ignatius said, smiling. Robin hid a smirk as he watched the insult fly clean over the Valmese admiral’s head. “I am pleased that you’re satisfied.”

“Oh, I am indeed.” Robin raised the spyglass. “I never knew I wanted one of there.” Robin walked off, chuckling at Ignatius’ confused face.

 -Robin's Estate-

It was late, and Robin was at home, attempting to relax. Endless days and nights of scheming were pretty bad, and Robin felt like he could use the very rare breaks he got. And now he had one, with his massive circuitous Valm trip over, and the Wolfguard picking up steam in recruitment. Which is why Robin expected something was going to go horrifically wrong that night.

“Father!” Ravena noticed him and her eyes lit up. And there it is… Robin internally sighed. Ravena continued. “I thought you weren’t going to be home until tomorrow.”

“Got a ride back early.” Robin said. “My plans were ahead of schedule, so I decided to leave early.”

“Oh, good!”

“Why do I have a terrible feeling right now…” Robin sighed.

“I just finished building a new Einherjar deck!”

“Yup. There it is.” Robin sighed. His hand went to one of his pockets, feeling for his own deck. The advantage to a coat like his was that Robin simply didn't run out of pockets. No matter how many things he had, he could always find a pocket that was both empty and the right size. So the same deck he had when he first started playing the game with Ravena and had absently stashed into his coat was now readily available. “You burn through games like a wildfire, you know that? What happened to chess?”

“No one’s willing to play with me anymore.” Ravena sighed. “I beat them too much. And Wargames is fun, but the rules are really complicated, and the only people who know all of them are crusty tacticians twice my age.”

“My ego…” Robin moaned.

“Sorry, Father! I meant everyone aside from you.” Ravena hastily backtracked, to no avail. Robin’s ego was still bruised. “Anyway, everyone’s willing to play Einherjar, especially now that they’ve made a Walhart Mastercard! And people tend to think that they can beat me, so they’re willing to play with me more.”

“You’re playing a Walhart deck?” Robin raised an eyebrow.

“No, of course not.” Ravena shook her head. “The card’s the most OP thing I’ve ever seen. It makes beating people no fun at all. But it does give people a good handicap against me, so I like it.”

Robin withdrew his deck and shuffled through it. The last time Ravena had challenged to his game was when they both had first discovered it. They split the first few games, then Robin got a handle on the techniques that you could use. But once he started, Ravena figured out the ways to counter it, and they ended with her on a three-game winning streak.

“All right.” Robin said. “I select Celica as my Mastercard.”

“Still using Valentian decks? They went out of the meta weeks ago.” Ravena snorted. “I’ll use Lyon.”

Robin had to give the Einherjar makers credit, they were highly imaginative with their character designs and names and had even released them in sets with storylines tying together the cards and the deckmasters. Robin’s Valentian deck was historical based, but using Lyon meant that Ravena was using a Magvel deck. Lyon was the tragic antagonist of the Magvel plotline, from what Robin understood. The lore had to be cobbled together from flavor text and snippets on the back of the card packs.

Robin drew his hand, Ravena mulliganed to draw again, and Robin saw her eyes light up in a horrible way, despite her best efforts to hide it. Robin went first. “I summon ‘Lukas, Deliverance Solider’, and since Celica is my Mastercard, I’m also allowed to summon ‘Celica, Young Girl’ to my side of the field. Now, I play one spell card facedown, and I end my turn.”

“An interesting start. Not like it’s going to help you.” Ravena looked at her cards. “Well, I summon ‘Knoll, Watcher of Darkness’! And, with Knoll on the field and Lyon as my deckmaster, I can freely cast any dark Magvel spell, which I do now, called Time Shear! This spell card reverses cause and effect, allowing me to summon a promoted unit, so long as I sacrifice a unit to power it on my next turn. And, since I have ‘Knoll, Watcher of Darkness’ on the field, I can summon his promoted form, ‘Knoll, Summoner’, which I also have in my hand.”

Robin just sighed. “I can see where this is going.”

“Now, using both Lyon and Knoll’s special effects, I can summon two Magvel creatures at random using their special Necromancy abilities, one for each.” Ravena continued, riffling through her deck. “And I summon … a wight and a bael.”

“Can I have a turn now?” Robin asked, internally groaning. He didn’t enjoy being outnumbered.

“Now, using Lyon as my deckmaster, I summon ‘Lyon, Young Scholar’. And since I have Lyon, Young Scholar and two Magvel creatures, I’m able to perform this.” Ravena held up a card with a dark demon on it. “The Unsealing of the Dark Stone ritual card. I sacrifice all three, which allows me to summon ‘Possessed Lyon’ from anywhere in my Deck, which is lucky because I don’t have it in my hand. And now that I have ‘Possessed Lyon’, I can sacrifice the promoted Knoll as a Dark Magic Sacrifice to power the inherit ability of ‘Possessed Lyon’ to sacrifice ‘Possessed Lyon’ as well, and summon ‘Formotiis, the Demon King’. Which also happens to be the most powerful card in my deck. Now, I can’t attack with Formotiis the first turn I summon it, but summoning Formotiis also lets me summon an army of lesser monsters. Eight to be precise. And I can attack with all of them.”

“Well, this was fun.” Robin said. And now I know how Virion felt when I ruthlessly exploited Wargames against him. “I lost, I take it?”

Ravena looked up for the first time. “Well, unless that magic card is the spell ‘Celica, Self-Sacrificing Princess’, which allows you to sacrifice any card with ‘Celica’ in the name to stop the summoning of any draconic or demonic creature and summon ‘Celica, Imprisoned Soul’ on your side of the field. The downside is that I get to control ‘Celica, Imprisoned Soul’ on your turn instead of you, but you won’t lose.”

Robin lifted the card. It was Fireball. Which could only be played on his own turn.

“Okay, I attack with all my creatures and win.” Ravena pumped her fist. “First Turn Kill For The Win!”

“…and people want to play this game again with you?” Robin headdesked. The lore was very involved and apparently there was a lot to discover. The balance of the gameplay, on the other hand, was absolutely terrible, if it let players pull cheap stunts like that.

“To be fair, it usually takes like five turns to get that combination going.” Ravena said. “It’s known as the Formotiis Rush, and this is the first time I managed to get all the components into my opening hand. I’ve never been that lucky.”

“More like I was just unlucky.” Robin muttered.

“Let me see your deck.” Ravena snatched it and started looking through it. “Wow, this is terrible. You did nothing to your deck since last time, did you? You can’t just do that! Power creep came around a month back when they got bought out and the entire meta got thrown on its head because the new owners didn’t get how the game works. I mean, it’s been really fun breaking the game, but it’s only a matter of time before they put out another series and break it even harder.”

“Right.” Robin scowled. “I’m buying the new owners out.”

“You can’t just do that! …can you?” Ravena asked. “I don’t think they’re military, and they have no interest in selling. Besides, you don’t understand the game either, so it’s not like you’d be a better owner.”

“No, but you know the game.”

“That’s right, I do.” Ravena said, trailing off. Suddenly, father and adopted daughter manifested identical evil grins. “So, how are we going about doing this?”

“We have near unlimited funds, influence, and are master tacticians.” Robin said. “So long as we end this with myself possessing a secret deck that can beat anyone, I’m happy with whatever you have in mind.”

“Heh heh heh heh.” Ravena smiled. “I love it when we spend quality father-daughter time together.”

They were interrupted when Cherche entered the room. “Young Mistress. And Robin. I hope I’m not interrupting any scheming.”

“Hello, Chantage.” Robin sighed. “We were about too. Is something wrong?”

“You have an urgent visitor.” Cherche said. “General Cervantes.”

“Send him in.” Robin sighed. “Sorry, Rave-rave. Father-daughter time will have to wait.”

“Ah, Battlemaster! It harkens me to see you well.” Cervantes said. “And your lovely daughter as well.”

“Sir Vantes!” Ravena cried.

“Ha ha! Your daughter has quite the streak of humor.”

“Of course he understands you.” Robin sighed. “So, what’s the news? More Risen?”

“They aren’t hidden. Not at all.” Cervantes said. “We have confirmed reports. At least three rebellions have sprung up, almost overnight. Independent, striking separate parts of the country. We’ve no idea what caused this, or even who's behind this.”

"A rebellion?" Robin blinked.

"Yes. They shall be crushed like ants, of course, but I thought I would drop off the message to you, should you feel the need to participate."

Ravena shot him an inquisitive look. Robin shook his head, surreptitiously. They weren’t his. This is bad. Robin smiled. Or would be, if it didn’t represent an opportunity. As it happens, the Wolfguard was made precisely for this. “I understand.” Robin said. “I shall assemble the Wolfguard.”

"Sounds fun." Ravena said. "Can I join?"

"Ravena, send for my friends." Robin said. "With the exception of Dant, they're all within half a day's journey. I think it's time to form the old fellowship again, even if this quest isn't exactly suited for it."

 

Report: I’ve been working on the assignment you gave me. So, the deal is that it IS possible to create tomes stronger than what we’ve been working on so far – we’ve taken to calling these S-rank tomes. The problem is that they have a highly unstable spell matrix and… well, it’s technical. I’ve got a theory as to how we can make one, but the downside is that it’s not going to be the fire element. Vermil out.

Chapter Text

-East of the Holy State of Mila, the Flatlands of Mila-

I must admit that I’m a bit envious of soldiers. You see, a strategist’s job is usually over before the battle even starts, and while a tactician has plenty to do during actual combat, it’s more or less rote work, and barring an exceptional flash of brilliance, the battle’s outcome is clear from the start. After all, that’s one of the principles in ‘Art of War’. However, once all the pieces have been set on the board, Robin internally sighed, it’s a chore and half to actually implement them. It'd be nice to have a job which doesn't have chores at the end of it.

The crimson tactician spun on the battlefield, wielding his spear so that it flashed it a wide arc. A few rebels who had tried getting in close to him to avoid his lightning went down with blood wounds. Robin didn’t bother trying to kill them. When it came to rebels, he preferred them gravely wounded to dead. Dead rebels were martyrs. Scarred and living made them into warnings.

“Thoron! Arcfire! Elwind!” Robin fired the magic off in jolts, blasting away at the ragged forces arrayed in front of him. His cloak flapped around him from the breeze. Fires raged in the background, and the battlefield felt the effects from the Valm mage teams that were trying to put them out. Robin took command of the nearest Wolfguard unit once he heard of the rebellion and luckily Aversa had managed to secure a juicy bit of information that one of her informers squeezed out of a drunk rebel officer. The rebels were attempting to take a position to harry the convoys that moved through the flatlands. Unfortunately for them, the flatlands were good for transporting goods because they were flat, and didn't have cover. Which meant that Valm could take the advantage that came with immensely overpowering guerrilla forces.

“Valm infantry, advance!” Robin thrust his hand forward. Not that Robin was using the numbers he had. He was interested in complete annihilation of the enemy, which meant he was forgoing his numerical advantage for the time being. Well, to an extent. His forces still outnumbered the enemies by almost two to one. “Break their ranks!”

“Kill him!” Robin’s opposite number, the commander of the haggard group of rebels pointed his notched heavy blade at Robin. “That’s the Crimson Devil himself! Kill him, and Valm’s strategy falls with him!”

Zealot rebels. Robin internally sighed. His cavalry and fliers were sent around, forming a loose ring to hunt and kill the running rebels, when Robin’s heavy infantry smashed into their formation and scattered them to the winds. Problem is, we’ve taken out half their number, and they ain’t running. We’ll take more infantry losses than I want, if I don’t take out this leader and panic them.

“Have it your way!” Robin howled and charged forward, drawing Katarina’s tome in his left hand, keeping his lance in his right.

“Die, demon!” The rebel commander rushed at him, dragging a thick furrow in the earth from his heavy blade as he dragged it through the ground.

 The commander set his feet and brought his massive blade around to try to slice Robin in half. The tactician dodged with half a second to spare, a short time off the battlefield but a life time on it. Robin dashed to the side, lunging with his spear, only for the commander to leap back, bringing his massive blade with him.

“Clever. And fast.” Robin readied to use an Elthunder spell. “So, how well does that sword conduct electricity?”

“Not well.” The commander parried the electric bolt, taking the shock, and only mildly wincing. Robin stared in amazement and raised an eyebrow. The commander clarified. “The rust helps.”

“Yeah…” Robin sighed. The blade the commander was using was in terrible condition, rusted over, notched, and seemed to creak whenever it was moved. “So, how does it all stay together?”

“Magic.”

“Of course.” Robin said. A lull had emerged to let the leaders talk to each other. Robin couldn’t see them, but he noted the presence of a few people slowly walking up beside him. “You know I’m glad that you didn’t die immediately.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because we could use the practice.” Robin gestured. Beside him, a spear and a curved sword were extended alongside his own lance. A nexus of magic spread out as a mage began preparing a fire spell, and a similar nexus for a wind spell. “Robin squad, go! Magic!”

Robin thrust his hand and electricity crackled from it, spreading in a wave, mixing in with Vermillion’s powerful fire magic and Argeni’s enthusiastic wind magic. It didn’t have the effect that military-scale mage bombardments had, namely the enemy’s front ranks weren’t a smoldering pile of ash, but it knocked them off balance.

“Two-stage attack it is, then.” Robin said. “Glad we now know that spreading magic that thinly is a no-go, even for us.” Okay, it’s actually because this is one of the few times Vermil’s lack of power makes a difference, and Argeni just isn’t skilled enough at wind magic yet. Also, wind magic sucks.

“Point is mine.” Say’ri moved in a flash.

“Leave the commander to me!” Robin called after her as he and Zulas hurried after her.

“Aye.” Say’ri nimbly dodged the man’s large greatsword, stopping to observe it. She stood there and casually reversed her blade to stab the rebel moving up beside her. “That … is the most unique sword I’ve ever seen. It’s a guide unto itself of poor maintenance.”

“Kill them!” Robin leapt forward, stabbing his spear into the ground and using it as leverage to land a kick into the flat side of the blade, sending the commander back. Robin grinned as the gap was filled by ordinary soldiers. Perfect testing grounds. “Zulas, maneuver three!”

“Bladestorm, it is!” Zulas went back to back with Robin. They took their spears in their right hands and thrust it back through the space between their arms and side so that a third of the length of the spears was sticking out the other’s left side. Then Robin grasped Zulas’s spear and Zulas did likewise, cementing the status. “Can I say this feels stupid?”

“It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work! Go!” The pair spun around, scything through the soldiers in front of them, rapidly spinning to form a blade whirlwind. With the support they offered, the pair of them had rigid enough grip to cut gashes and cuts through the enemies. Robin grinned. Hah! I was right! This is crazy enough to work!

Then his foot caught a rock, and he tripped and fell.

Normally, he could pay better attention to his environment and had means to recover. That wasn’t available to him, so he went down, crashing in a pile. Zulas fared a bit better, as Robin let go of everything to brace himself, so Zulas was able to maneuver a bit and stand on his own two feet.

Robin sighed and got up slowly as the rest of his squad assembled around him. “Vermil?”

“Had a nice trip, Robin?” The fire mage smirked.

“Kill everyone who saw that.” Robin said. “Maximum prejudice.”

“I’ll make ashes of their ashes.” Vermil grinned. “O magnificent flames from beyond the veil of mortal comprehension, lend me your power this once so that this pale realm may experience your divine and majestic destruction. Now, with thy arcane power, red arteries of the earth, I lend thee my strength so that you may prove to the mortals the everlasting power of the scarlet annihilation! BOLGANONE!”

The ground erupted beneath the center of the rebel forces, spewing forth a magma plume over a dozen feet in the air. Bodies went flying from the force, and lava rained downed, melting through the nearby soldiers. Panic broke out in the ranks, scattering the forces. Then as fast as it appeared, the plume stopped.

Robin glanced over to see Vermil panting from exhaustion. “Nice job. But I did say all of them.”

“Does that include us?” Vermil asked.

“No.” Robin considered, reaching for his spear as he got to his feet, gesturing to his remaining forces to support his spearhead and take advantage of the chaos that Vermil has caused. He tossed an elixir to Vermil. “Take thirty. Seconds. Actually, make the destruction include Argeni.”

“Hey!”

“You’re going to blackmail me with it.” Robin said. “The rest of army didn’t get a clear enough look, so they don’t know I tripped over my own two feet, but you do.”

“True. But I seem to recall someone saying, ‘If it’s stupid and it works, it’s still stupid’.” Argeni fired a blast of wind magic atop her horse, causing a group to stumble. To a casual observer, it seemed that she wasn’t doing any actual damage. But Robin wasn’t a casual observer. Argeni was directing her wind to keep the enemy’s formation in a constant state of disarray. It allowed the small numbers of the Robin Squad to keep their spearhead while the remaining Valm forces crashed into the ranks.

“Vermil, Argeni, keep up the pressure. And for the record, the quote’s the opposite.” Robin said. “Zulas, Say’ri, with me. Maneuver seven.”

“That only takes two of us.” Zulas pointed out.

“So if it’s smart and doesn’t work, it’s still smart?”

“Argeni, please stop talking while we have more important things to deal with. If seven is out…” Robin licked his lips. “Maneuver eleven, then.”

“Ah. The dumb one.” Say’ri said. “Well, the other dumb one now that you’ve already done the first.”

“I’m the tactician here, the rest of you aren’t paid to think! Now, go!” Robin charged at the rebel commander, with Zulas charging behind him and Say’ri a bit ahead. The commander eyed them as the three approached. Robin watched as he raised his blade to slice the team in pieces. He gestured for the move to start.

Say’ri made the first move, blurring as she hit her maximum speed. She disappeared off to the side, as Robin howled and thrust his spear into the ground, using it to vault high into the air and hurled himself with his arms to throw himself high over the rebel commander. Zulas kept his charge steady and set his lance in a thrust, as Robin summoned lightning in the sky, as Say’ri appeared behind the commander, with her hand on her sheathed blade.

Kenjutsu-style blademanship: Iajitutsu!”

“Fangshu-style spearcraft: Straight thrust!”

“Archeanian-style Magecraft: Arcthunder!”

Lightning forked from the sky, electrocuting the commander as Say’ri slashed through him and Zulas impaled him through the chest. The commander was dead three ways, with his sword still held back for a swing. The man would have still died even if not for his indecision, but he might have managed to land a hit on one of them.

Robin gathered a nexus of lightning around him as he prepared to land. He drew his right hand back and slammed it into the ground as he landed. A nexus of lightning blazed around him, striking rebels as it did so. Robin stood up, laughing as he faced against the rest of the assembled rebel forces. Zulas walked up next to him, a spear over his shoulder, while Say’ri appeared by his other side, hand on her hilt. Valm forces in crimson uniforms rushed the rebel army.

“KILL THEM ALL!” Robin roared.

The spectacular death of their commander had done what a plume of lava couldn’t, and finally unnerved the seemingly unnervable army. The rebels broke and ran from Robin’s heavy infantry. Robin gestured and Vermil fired a flare in the sky, signaling the infantry.

“Run them down and kill them all!” Argeni cried.

“No, Argeni, wait.” Robin sighed. “Hammer and anvil, remember? Let the cavalry clean up the stragglers, the heavy infantry has done enough fighting for the day.”

“I-I-I knew that.” Argeni stammered. “I did. I may have gotten caught up in the heat of the moment.”

“Perfectly understandable.” Zulas said. “That was one of the first good scraps we’ve had in a while. When did you learn wind magic, Argeni?”

“I’ve had a busy six months.”

“Yes, but you’ve spent most of it in my company.” Zulas said.

“I know. It’s been excellent practice in keeping secrets.” Argeni smiled at Zulas. “I need practice, you understand.”

“I know you’re entertained by trying to get a rise out of me, but I’m not certain you’ll ever manage it.” Zulas said, gazing at her. “I trust you implicitly.”

“And that just one of the things I love about you.”

“Alright, cut the doe eyes.” Robin sighed. “Say’ri, how are you holding up? This is your first time in group combat, isn’t it?”

“I am fine.” Say’ri said. She had finished wiping her blade clean and was looking over the edge. “So this is your group. It is nice to meet them. If they aren’t a bit odd.”

“First time meeting you too.” Zulas said, offering his hand. “I assume you know who we are, but I’m Zulas Albert, Robin most trusted lieutenant.”

“Vermillion Rojo Rubrum, fire mage extraordinaire.” Vermil said. “You sight it, I’ll light it.”

“Argenita di Cratez, pompous and overbearing aristocrat.” Argeni said. “It’s really a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Chon’sin Princess.”

“I am Say’ri, sworn sword to Robin.” Say’ri took Zulas’s hand. “It is good to meet you all.”

Zulas gave Robin a good look and mouthed ‘sworn sword?’. Robin shrugged and gave what he considered a mildly apologetic smile and mouthed ‘I’ll explain later’ back at him.

“Missing one, though.” Argeni said. “Robin, where’s Dant?”

“Asking me again won’t change my answer.” Robin sighed. “Deep cover assignment. Plegia. Can’t be more specific. But as it happens, Say’ri and Dant have met.”

“Oh, have we?” Say’ri asked.

“She was the one hiding under my desk when you came to visit me that night.”

“Ah. I was wondering who that was.”

I-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g.” Argeni dragged the word out far longer than Robin would have considered possible. “A midnight visit with Dant listening in beneath your desk? Now I’m curious. Say’ri what happened?”

“I’m afraid that I can’t answer your question.” Say’ri frowned. “It’s of a personal nature to Robin, and as his sworn sword, I cannot reveal anything about him without his permission.”

“Sworn sword.” Argeni said the words and proceeded to repeat them a few times as if tasting the phrase. “Sworn sword. Sworn sword. Sworn sword. Is that a Chon’sin expression for something?”

“Yes.”

I knew it.

“It means that I’ve sworn my blade to his services.” Say’ri explained. “It’s really just another way to say that I’m one of his samurai.”

“Oh.” Argeni blinked as her mind went from fantasy to realizing what was the actual relationship between the two. “Ah. And that’s just it?”

“Yes, Argeni.” Robin sighed. “That’s all there is. We aren’t romantically involved. And if you’re so curious, the meeting was back when Say’ri was part of the rebellion, so I had Dant hide in case I needed the backup.”

“Not that you needed her.” Say’ri said. “You defeated me quite handily when we actually fought.”

“I did need the backup at that point.” Robin said. “Regardless, Zulas. What did you think of maneuver three?”

“Hmm. The bladestorm technique.” Zulas frowned. “Well, it was pretty effective at wounding, but there was no actual death caused by it. Incredibly susceptible to range attacks, but we knew that beforehand.”

“Which is why we deployed it once we got within the infantry.”

“Right. We got the spin pretty fast, which was decent enough at wounding, but we ran into kind of a catch, because it’s only effective when we charge into massed infantry, but moving fast means-”

“-I tripped and fell.” Robin looked up. “This is not getting out, incidentally. The story is that one of them landed a blow against my well-armored boot. Is this understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Zulas said, saluting.

“I said, is this understood!?” Robin singled out one member in particular.

“Yes, Robin.” Argeni sighed.

“Overall, a decent plan for disrupting enemy massed infantry.” Robin mused. “A few weeks of training over rough terrain should help. And you know what else? If we’re dedicating infantry to it, we might as well turn the spears to basically giant blades to the point where we actually have giant bladed wheels.”

“That doesn’t seem to be practical.” Say’ri frowned. “Do you really think that you can use those to slice through shield walls?”

“Maybe if the rebels were good enough to form shield walls.” Robin said. “But most of these forces are hastily armed guerillas armed with sharp pointed sticks. Their cores seemed to be impressive, though.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.” Zulas said. “Those were trained soldiers around that commander. And I could have sworn I heard about that blade from somewhere.”

“Mmm. I kind of wish I had a man like that fighting alongside my army. It’s a pity he was working for the rebels. Vermil.” Robin said. “The archives are a week’s ride from here, right?”

“The Royal Archives?” Vermil frowned. “Yeah.”

“Send a messenger. Search the archives for any mention of that man, or any like him.” Robin said, snapping his fingers. “As for maneuver eleven, it’s completely useless.”

“Killed him pretty well.” Zulas noted. “Also, you don’t have to check the archives on my say-so.”

“I can check the Archives on a whim if I want, it’s a privilege of my station, and I will abuse it if I so feel inclined. Which I do.” Robin said. “As for maneuver eleven, it was designed to kill someone that the three of us could do individually without much of a risk. Problem is, I’m not sure that can be done.”

“Makes sense.” Zulas said. He thrust his spear into the ground and stood straight. “You know that sometimes there can be no victory without sacrifice.”

“Sometimes…” Robin’s eyes turned hard. This rebellion means that the die is cast. Regardless of the fact that I didn’t cause it, I can’t turn a blind eye, because it’s the very catalyst that I was looking for. That means that my schedule has been accelerated. Which it turns means that my abilities must grow. “Sometimes there are victories that can only be accomplished without sacrifice.”

“Huh. I know better than to argue with you when you have that look.” Zulas said. “Planning something long term, aren’t you?”

“Planning something long term, which requires a victory without loss.” Say’ri said. “One that is related to maneuver eleven, perhaps? What are you planning, Robin?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Robin smiled. Time to feed a half-truth. “Well, I suppose not. The truth is, that maneuver was being developed to give our soldiers a better chance of dealing with the Shepherds. They’re strong – very strong, given that they’ve never lost a man, and I’d rather if our elite squads not fall to pieces. If we can defeat them without our side losing men… well, that would send a rather clear message, wouldn’t it?”

“I thought you were friends with Chrom.” Say’ri frowned.

“Wait, you’re friends with the Ylissean Exalt?” Zulas demanded.

“Yes I am.” Robin looked at Zulas. “Don’t worry, I’ll fight him should the need ever come up, especially if Valm should require it. But the Ylissean Exalt is one of a kind, I wager. Besides, duty as Battlemaster dictates that I am cordial with anyone we aren’t at war with.”

“Makes sense.”

“Right.” Robin turned his attention back to the battlefield. “It seems that our work here is done. Say’ri, Zulas, head to the command tent. I’ll join you in a bit. I have different jobs for the other two.”

“Sexist.” Argeni muttered.

“What?” Robin blinked. “How- I’m having Say’ri join me!”

“Nepotist.”

“We’re not related!”

“Huh, you’re right.” Argeni said. “I’m disappointed with you, Robin. Most nepotists promote people related to them, but you’ve gone and done it to someone you aren’t related to. You’re a failure at being a nepotist.”

“Are you just doing this because you’ve realized what I’m going to assign for you and you’re trying to get out of it?”

“Obviously.” Argeni sighed. “Political fallout?”

“I’m only asking you because you’re the best one in my entire army to deal with it.” Robin said. “Honestly, you’re just as crafty as I am, and have political savvy and knowledge to boot.”

“The best at politics in the greatest army on the continent.” Argeni sighed. “Which means more work for me.”

“The rest of us will be working too.” Zulas coughed.

“Right, right.” Argeni directed her horse and started off for the scribe’s tent, which Robin knew from experience she would hijack and run it like a boot camp sergeant, minus the salty language but with a number of equally sharp barbs and backhanded insults instead.

“So, I’m off the hook…?”

Flare tome.” Robin said, in a tone that suggested disagreeing with him was a choice only the most foolish would make.

“Noooooooooooo.” Vermil collapsed with a pained expression on his face. “My free time…”

“Stop whining, you know you what that tome more than I do.” Robin said.

 -Command Tent-

“There have been granary strikes in the northwest and southwest. The fires should be under control by now, assuming there haven’t been more attacks.” Aversa’s voice came clean through his comm crystal. “We’re seeing attacks on a few lightly defended towns, but by and large citizens seemed to have been left out of the fight. Also, two rivers have been dammed, the Yangtze and the Longfallow.”

“I see.” Robin added a few darts to the board. “And do we know we’re they’re based?”

“Not a clue.”

“I’m alone here.” Robin sighed. It was a lie. Say’ri and Zulas were present as well, but Say’ri protested kicking them out of the meeting once he already invited them into the strategy tent. Besides, nothing Aversa could dig up could incriminate him, given he was innocent (for once), so Robin didn’t mind giving the illusion he wasn’t planning on betraying the Empire. “In your capacity as Avarice, what do you know?”

“Recruitment.” Aversa said after a pause. “Even as a dark market information dealer, I don’t know everything. Most of these rebellions seem to be localized, and formed from internal loyalist groups – zealots, basically. And those are hard to penetrate. I received hardly any warning – the signs are obvious in retrospect, but nothing that raised too many flags. Now, they’re recruiting. Recruiting hard. There are men at every major city who’ll send you to a rebel force if you know where to look.”

“What signs are you talking about?”

“Weapon shipments. Food supplies. Information about trade routes and where soldiers are stationed.” Aversa said. “Nothing out of the ordinary, I assure you. And they weren’t all to one source. But a lot of what changed hands in the last three months were used in the attacks this past week.”

“Past three months?” Robin frowned. “Aversa, are you serious?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“What percent?” Robin said.

“Maybe ten? I can’t get that good of a handle on all the transactions within the market.” Aversa paused. “Yet, that is. My reach is slowly, but steadily growing.”

“No, how much of the attacks used information found on the black market?” Robin asked.

“Oh. Um, eighty percent, I think?” Aversa said. “I’m curious as to what you make of it.”

“Right.” Robin bit his lip. “Your orders are simple. Infiltrate the rebel forces. Not run-of-the-mill infiltrators. You know the stash of sealed orders I gave you?”

“Yes.

“The one marked Shadow Puppets.” Robin said. Sealed orders were magically sealed, they were enchanted ink that would only be revealed once the reader said the code word. Normally Aversa could crack the enchantment with her Darkgift, which is why Robin had Ravena seal the orders. He hadn’t told Aversa, who promptly cursed Robin out for having her train Ravena the first time she got locked out the orders. “Code phrase is ‘the giant keeps growing’. Robin out.”

“I understand.” The comm crystal flashed twice.

Robin pocketed the device and turned to Say’ri and Zulas. “Impressions?”

“I thought Aversa was your spymaster.” Say’ri frowned. “What is Avarice?”

“She is.” Robin said. “Avarice is a dark market broker, willing and able to supply just about anything, if the price is right.”

“Seriously? You’ve got someone actively working the black market?” Zulas looked at exasperated. He looked over at Say’ri, who was just standing still with a look of disinterest on her face. “Hey, Say’ri! Are you okay with this?”

“If Robin is doing it, it means that he considers it needed to be done.” Say’ri replied. “I suspect if we do ask him, he will give us an answer along the lines that the black market will exist anyway, so he might all well be the one in control of it.”

“Heh.” Robin grinned.

“Having a predictable excuse does not justify your actions.”

“And there it is. Say’ri’s signature reverse cut.” Robin sighed. “Yes. I have Aversa working in the underworld, because much as I would like it to the contrary, it exists. And I’ll squeeze every bit of usefulness I can from it.”

“Well, that’s fun enough.” Zulas said. “Sketchy morals aside, what’s the plan?”

“Depends.” Robin studied the map of Valm. “What do you think the threat is? Say’ri, Zulas, I need both of you to run your thoughts past me.”

“Finally learned humility?” Zulas cocked an eyebrow.

“No. It’s just refusing to take other people’s advice is a such a common flaw that my pride won’t let me make it.” Robin said. “Regardless of the chance. Zulas, you first.”

“The attacks began in three places.” Zulas pointed. “Chon’sin. Rosanne. Nova. They all have one pretty obvious thing in common – they were, in order, the three last parts of Valm that were conquered by Walhart.”

“Yes, I noticed that as well.” Robin said.

“The rebellions all started within a week of each other.” Zulas noted. “They also have a similar pattern of attacks which suggests that they were all caused by a central person, or persons. However, therein lies the problem. The attacks are, for lack of a better description, wild flails at Valm. Sure, they’re attacking targets and succeeding more often than not. But the fact of the matter remains that they just don’t have the manpower or strength to be effective. Valm’s just too big.”

“I concur.” Say’ri frowned. “Though Zulas is wrong about one thing. They are attacking with exceptional skill. The Empire is built upon mass redundancies, to the point that entire units of soldiers going missing is occasionally treated as a rounding error. However, they are causing an amount of trouble disproportionate to the attacks themselves.”

“Explain.” Robin said.

“Here.” Say’ri pointed. “The Yangtze river is used as one of the major travel routes for Valm. Everyone knows that. But in the event the Yangtze is blocked, the supplies are diverted through this area here – the flatlands of Mila, on the land. Slower, yes, but it’s the only way to handle those kinds of logistics.”

“I know that.” Zulas frowned. “But it hasn’t stopped supplies, has it?”

“Take a look at this garrison.” Say’ri said, indicating a position located near a mountain pass. “It was one of the first places attacked. There are supplies meant to travel through the mountain range, but the mountains are infested by bandits. The garrison exists to escort them, but without the garrison, the supplies must take another route.”

“You noticed.” Robin felt a smile creep on his face. “Very clever. Yes, that’s a maneuver which is reminiscent of me. The supplies are diverted, except they’re also diverted through the flatlands as well.”

“Oh.” Zulas stared. Then he began looking over the board, noticing similar patterns. “Wait, are they doing that everywhere? I mean, is that why they attacked us here?”

“Imagine throwing a stone in a lake.” Robin said. “If you toss a stone, it causes small ripples. But if you throw two near each other, the ripples interact. And that is what we’re seeing here. These rebels are being led by someone crafty. Someone brilliant. These actions are being performed by those who are looking to cause mass disruptions towards Valm. Oh, and they didn't mean for us to win here. In fact, I think they just showed up here so our supply lines would have to go through the flatlands as well.”

I’ll keep this to myself, but I can’t shake the feeling that whoever started this rebellion wants it to be noticed. And by ‘noticed’, I mean awaken the full military might of Valm. Why else would they all start within a week of each other? The smart move is to stagger them, and make it looked like news of one triggered the other two. Robin mulled over the information. Of course, if they don’t realize it, I would rather they not know.

“So you think this is all caused by a single leader?” Say’ri said.

“Do I think that three separate rebel forces are being caused by a single unified force?” Robin asked. “Yes. I do. The only reason against it is just sheer implausibility, and let’s be honest about it. The world has never been kind enough to me that I can ignore something just because it makes no sense. So. One force it is.”

“A puppetmaster.” Say’ri grit her teeth. “I will be honest, Robin. One of you was enough. If what you are saying is correct, there is an evil version of you. Well, eviler. You do happen to already be quite evil.” Zulas hid his mouth, chuckling, while Robin rolled his eyes. “I suppose this person had had agents throughout Valm, acting as his cat’s paw within these rebellions, and timed them to act simultaneously.” Say’ri said. “As for motives, I cannot ascertain them.”

“Yes, I definitely think that there’s one person behind it.” Robin nodded. “As for who it is, seeing as it’s an eviler version of me, let’s refer to this person as the ‘Gray Tactician’. And he’s quite the skilled mage, too.”

“Why are you sure he’s a mage?” Zulas asked.

“Well, not a typical mage.” Robin amended. “Are you familiar with illusionists? It’s an interesting type of magic which can do things normal magic cannot.”

“I’ve never heard of it.” Say’ri confessed. “Illusions, you say? I thought magic cannot create those.”

“Exactly.” Robin looked up, grinning. “Illusionists specialize in using trickery to pretend that magic is being done, but in actuality doing things that you don’t notice. For instance, suppose I showed a coin and placed in in my hand.” Robin flipped a gold piece and neatly placed it in his right hand. “Which hand is it in?”

“Your right hand?” Say’ri cocked an eyebrow.

Robin opened his right hand to show no coin. Then he closed it and opened his left hand. The coin was in it. He held up the coin, holding it so that Say’ri could see it. “Want to try again?”

“I see.” Say’ri’s eyes narrowed. “You managed to retain the coin while falsely placing it in your left hand. Try it again.”

Robin nodded and brought his hands together, so his left was under his right, dipping a bit into his right sleeve while his right hand held the coin, set to flip it. Robin then flipped the coin high into the air. Say’ri’s eyes moved, tracking the gold coin as it spun end over end, reaching the apex and then falling. As it fell, Robin set his arms in a X with his palms outward and whipped both hands past the coin.

“Now which hand?” Robin asked, hands spread wide apart.

“You have decided to change how the trick worked, I assume, because you’re afraid that I will actually see your move. Unfortunately for you, I saw it clearly that time.” Say’ri said. “It’s in your right hand. This time for sure.”

“Now, before I open my hand, let me just tell you something. There are two components to a good illusion.” Robin said. “The first is the distraction. The second is the reveal. Let’s take the trick I just used. The distraction is when I tossed the coin into the air. The problem is that you were looking at the coin.”

“Why wouldn’t I look at the coin?”

“Because of the second part of a good illusion.” Robin opened his left hand to show the gold coin, again. “The reveal. A master illusionist always has you looking were he wants you to, and not where you should. You deduced that I swapped because I didn’t want you to see my move. In fact, I started with the false pass just because I wanted you to look at my hands.”

“So, where was the trick?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Robin mused, focusing on the pin-strewn map. “In this case, we were supposed to look for a connection between the attacks. But as Say’ri observed, it’s not the connection between the attacks we need to look for, but the connection between the results.

“You’re saying that there’s even more damage going on than we assumed.” Zulas said.

“Yes. But that’s not even the worse part.” Robin said. “You see, with enough ripples, you can cause what a massive rock can cause. These attacks – some of them are haphazard, to conceal the true goal. And right now, not even I can guess what it is.”

“So, back to old standard?” Zulas said. “Just kill all the enemies?”

“Yes, but we’re going to do it very specifically.” Robin grinned. “Tai tai no sen.”

Attack and forestall.” Say’ri translated. “A way of attacking at the same time as your opponent, such that you are both countering the attack and launching one of your own with the same strike. One of the more esoteric concepts in Niten. How do you mean to do this?”

“The Wolfguard.” Robin replied. “You see, Say’ri, if you wanted to stop me from doing the trick, you should have simply snatched the coin from midair. The Valm army is large, but it was meant for large scale conflicts. The Wolfguard, on the other hand, was made to deal with a small threat that could occur anywhere. And they shall. Just based on the targets that have already occurred, it’s simple to see what kind of strikes they’re going for. All we have to do is mobilize the Wolfguard to respond in kind.”

“Stop them from gaining any more victories…” Zulas trailed off.

“Stop them from making any headway.” Robin finished. He withdrew a piece of parchment from his cloak and began drafting the orders. “I’ll take it from here. Get some rest, both of you. I’m going to be spending more time in a command tent for this fight, so you’ll have to pick up my slack.”

Say’ri bowed and excused herself. Zulas lingered. “Robin. Mind if I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“So, I was thinking.” Zulas said. “That trick you did – well, I assume you got it from Ravena, right? I think Dant taught her some sleight of hand, because she wanted to practice it on me.”

“Yes.” Robin nodded.

“So, the first trick actually was slight of hand.” Zulas said. “But the second trick wasn’t. When you flipped the coin up, you simply took a second coin and put it in your left hand while Say’ri wasn’t looking.”

“Removed it from my right sleeve before I even started the trick, as it happens.” Robin nodded. “I caught the coin with my right hand. So what are you worried about?”

“Even if Say’ri snatched the coin, you still could reveal the coin to have been in your left hand the entire time.” Zulas said. “In other words, you still could have asked her which hand you had the coin in, and she would have been wrong if she said you didn’t have one.”

“I know all that.” Robin frowned. “What’s your point?”

“How do you know that your opponent is playing the sort of game where you win by stopping all his moves. Maybe just by letting him take the first move, he’s already won.”

“Don’t be ridiculou-” Robin almost finished the sentence before his brain caught up to his mouth. “Wait. No, that doesn’t make sense. No, hold on. Just because there doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean there isn’t, in fact, a sense to it. Yes, I see. Or rather, I don’t, but someone could.”

“Um, Robin?” Zulas raised an eyebrow. “Mind translating?”

“Simple.” Robin exhaled. “You might be right that our Gray Tactician has already won with this opening move of rebellions, but I, for one, can’t think of a reason why that is. But just because I can’t think of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We might all be getting played for fools.”

“That would be bad.”

“Yes.” Robin nodded. “However, the possibly is remote – and even if it was the case, there’s nothing we can do now. The best option is to just to attack.”

And even if Zulas is right, within months, the Shadow Puppet plan will put the rebels under my control. Robin thought. The thing with rebellions is that the leadership tends to be rather sporadic, outside of the one in charge. And if I have the ear of the one in charge because I control the information they’re getting, then the rebellion is a ship adrift where I control the wind. And my Wolfguard will be empowered to deal with them, and the CDO plan will be furthered by at least one stage. Overall, in the long term, this rebellion may prove to be rather useful to me.

I suppose the old adage is true. There’s really no sense in letting a crisis go to waste.

 

Report: I don't know how useful this will be for you know, but Risen! Yeah, I know those things, but I have no idea how they crossed the ocean to Valm, so I figured it wasn’t worth telling you about, and no one really seems to care at all on this side of the ocean. Heck, they fought a full-scale war and no one seemed to care. Honestly, they’re a nuisance, but if you really want I could dig up some more information - Anna.

Chapter Text

-Robin's Warcamp-

“Where is he? Where’s Robin?”

“General Pheros! I am sorry to tell you that the Battlemaster is out.” The soldier snap saluted her. “I wasn’t expecting you here. Weren’t you at the Ft. Steiger garrison?”

“I was.” Pheros pursed her lips. “Unfortunately, it seems the rebels are too cowardly to strike near my forces, and my army hasn’t been put into service, because it seems that the Wolfguard are receiving the brunt of the work. Despite the fact that the rebels have spread into the Holy State of Mila.”

“Yes, how tragic.” A voice interrupted her monologue. Pheros spun around to the familiar figure in a crimson coat approach her. Robin continued. “Sometimes large armies aren’t as capable as the smaller counterparts. But that hasn’t stopped you from coming to the frontlines, has it General Pheros?”

“Battlemaster.” Pheros gave him a brief dip of her head out of respect. “What is the status of the war right now?”

“We’ve run into a problem.” Robin said. “A small one, relatively speaking. But a problem nevertheless. Your presence here is a curiosity, though.”

“Curiosity?” Pheros said.

“Indeed.” Robin drew his sword. Pheros knew he only recently started wielding one, but he seemed quite competent for it. The blade still had blood on it, which Robin was starting to clean. “I’ve just come back from a scouting position. Encountered a few rebels, and we dealt with them. Now, I’ll be honest. Killing in person doesn’t bother me, especially once I’ve made a decision which literally will cost thousands of lives. But I don’t see the need to involve myself personally, unless the circumstance require it.”

“As opposed to…?”

“You’re the third.” Robin said. “Farber is leading a massive wave of cavalry against the Chon’sin rebels, and Cervantes headed a force to hunt down a Rosannean cell, personally. I would count Ignatius, but he’s deep in Nova Islands where the fighting is thick, so he needed to fight, Wolfguard or no Wolfguard. You’re the third to personally come into the fight. Something, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have done in your shoes.”

“Never order a soldier to do anything that you aren’t willing to do yourself.” Pheros replied. “I would never pass a chance to show my dedication for Walhart.”

“A noble sentiment.” Robin sighed, making a face. Pheros could tell he was hiding something. Then his expression changed. “Very well. I dislike circumstances that I failed to predict. You may come with me if you wish, however I must ask that the guard you took with you remain here.”

“Certainly.”

“Your personal guard as well.” Robin’s eyes narrowed. “You must come alone with my army. The mission we are about to go one promises to be one of a delicate nature, and I haven’t the time to brief your guard. There’s a lot that could go wrong.”

“You don’t seem to have that concern for me.”

“Actually, I do.” Robin said. “Unfortunately, I can’t demand that you remain here, as you personally happen to hold a rank such that I can’t give you direct orders. I can, however, countermand and overrule any orders you give.”

“Robin.” Pheros looked at his hard eyes. “What’s going on? You didn’t seem like this much of a control freak when you visited me. Or is this a manifestation of the battlefield commander?”

“Neither.” Robin closed his eyes and inhaled. “General Pheros, I apologize for my rashness and rude words. As it happens, my spies recently located a hub of rebel activity in this area, and if we raze it to the ground, we’ll effectively cut off all rebel activities by the Holy State. And stop their recruitment as well – that’s irritating me. So this is somewhat important.”

“Recruitment, you say?” Irritating him? We’re talking about a widespread rebellion, and Robin seems to treat it like a mild cold.

“Yes.” Robin ground his teeth. “I expected this to be over in a month and have the Wolfguard sweep up the stragglers in the next six. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. There are more rebels today than when they first started. A drop in the bucket to Walhart’s million-man army. But still annoying.”

“And recruitment is the only thing annoying you?” Pheros frowned. Robin seemed to be on the edge of insanity. It was a state that Pheros had seen in dozens, if not hundreds of soldiers. From her judgement, Robin wasn’t in danger of snapping, but he could end up there if things kept coming up wrong for him. “It sounds like there’s something else.”

“Yes.” Robin cocked his head. “There’s a Wolfguard garrison two hours away. I set up my camp here because it wasn’t suited to holding my forces, but it’s the first stop for my patrol to destroy the rebel hub.”

“Reinforcements for you?”

“Hardly.” Robin shook his head. “All in all, I’m taking a patrol of nearly twenty thousand men, and the garrison’s only five thousand. Fairly large for a Wolfguard post, but their numbers have swelled, thanks to recruiting. I can’t answer questions on the way there, but I’ll be able to answer all of them after we get there. Is that okay?”

“Seems like it will have to be.” Pheros nodded. “When do you leave?”

“Now.” Robin turned to head away. “I’ll be joining the patrol.”

“Not so fast.”

“What now?”

“We’re heading to the same place, aren’t we?” Pheros patted the saddle beside her. I think I’ll monopolize his time on the way there. He said he won’t answer my questions, but I’ll see if I can’t get something anyway. “I know you don’t have a horse. Why don’t you ride alongside me? Or do you not know how to ride doubleback?”

“I…” Robin sighed. “If it’s going to be one of those days, I suppose I might as well play along. Fine.”

 -En Route-

“This really can’t be comfortable.” Robin said. He was sitting behind Pheros as the pair rode alongside Robin’s assembled force. Most of the force was infantry, so the horse was progressing at a slow trot. That was the main reason Robin told her he never cared to ride, because it didn’t get you anywhere faster.

“If you want to get off, feel free.” Pheros said, knowing full well he’d refuse. “But I’ve been riding since I was a small lass of eight, and I’ve ridden dawn until dusk.”

“Normally I’d have some kind of pithy quip at my disposal.” Robin sighed. “Alright, let’s get down to brass tacks. What do you want?”

“Are you willing to tell me without fear of being overheard?” Pheros teased.

“Is my paranoia really that bad?”

“It’s legendary.” Pheros smiled, which Robin couldn’t see, sitting behind her. “Though I will admit that it’s saved you from at least three assassination attempts that I know about.”

“It’s like people in this Empire have nothing better to do.” Robin sighed. “I mean, seriously? I get my food poisoned constantly, I’ll get attacked when I’m having lunch at a food stall, and I once went three days straight with someone trying to dig a pit trap in front of my door. Three days!”

Haven’t heard that one. “Same person?”

“Eh heh.” Robin shuddered. “It, ah, was, actually. My daughter. She likes playing pranks on people and showing how smart she is.”

“Sounds like you.” Pheros said. “Didn’t you say she was adopted? Have you been corrupting her, or did she come that way?”

“Birds of a feather, and all that, you know.” Robin said. “A bit of both, I think.”

“Robin and raven.” Pheros laughed. Something twitched in her memory. “That reminds me. Did you know there’s an old legend about a man who wanted to learn all the knowledge in the world?”

“Can’t say I knew that.” Robin frowned. “Of course, I can’t say I didn’t. Amnesia is annoying.”

“I forget the name of the man, but he wasn’t one to let anyone or anything stop him.” Pheros dredged up the memory. “Legend says he traded his eye to a giant as payment. Anyway, he had two ravens, who he sent out to gather information for him. Their names were ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Memory’.”

“…And what reminded you about that?”

“The two birds, even if only one of them is a raven.” Pheros laughed. “And you serve the Empire, do you not?”

“Yes, but Walhart doesn’t seem like the type of man to merely stop at all the world’s knowledge. Or possibly even want it, if it has no bearing on conquest.” Robin hissed. “Unlike that dratted spymaster of his.”

“Spymaster? Why would you be annoyed at him? It’s not like he’s sabotaging you, or…” Pheros trailed off as Robin started laughing bitterly. “Apparently not. It’s that bad?”

Yes.” Robin said, with a trace of bitterness. “Let me sidetrack you with a completely unrelated question. Who do you think is behind the current rash of rebellions?”

“Hard to say.” Pheros frowned as she pulled up the train of thoughts she’d composed on the subject. Ft. Steiger wasn’t home to any Valm analysts, and her own network of informants was little better than a glorified grapevine of gossip. “At best, I’d say you’re the primary cause.”

“Me?”

Was that a – Pheros frowned again, glad that Robin couldn’t see her this time. The Crimson Tactician of Valm wears many masks, and most of them are invisible. But I thought I just heard him slip. Surely he can’t discount his own involvement with causing the rebellion? Or perhaps…? “I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”

“No, I just can’t see how you would think that.”

“It’s unlikely that the three rebellions have a single leader organizing everything.” Pheros said. “Ultimately, I’m willing to concede that the timing was, in fact, a coincidence. So I asked myself, if the timing is a coincidence, are the fact that the rebellions are more than one a coincidence? Obviously not. It makes sense that the rebellions all have a common cause. And that common cause is you, Robin.”

“…You noticed.” Robin said flatly. Pheros could have sworn she heard him say something afterwards, but she couldn’t make it out. “And I had thought I could escape without blame, too.”

“You’ve made great strides in unifying the diverse cultures that the Empire has conquered, and you’ve made dozens of the new citizens rich and successful. You also personally converted Viscount Virion and Chon’sin Princess Say’ri to our side.” Pheros said. “However, those actions have had ramifications. For starters, you’ve angered the loyalists and on top of that made them feel isolated as their friends and neighbors started joining Valm. These rebellions are really just a natural outgrowth of your actions.”

“Can’t deny that.”

“And, as an added irony, I’m sure you’ve also managed to get the Valm elitists absolutely furious out you, thanks to the fact that you’re including the conquered territories as our equals.” Pheros laughed. “It’s almost comical. You’ve got bitter enemies teaming up to kill you, even if they don’t realize it.”

“You’re not mad about it?”

“Why would I be mad about it?” Pheros said. She was genuinely surprised by the question. “Do you think I would blame you for not predicting that the rebellion would happen?”

“The, ah, opposite, actually.” Robin said. “Actually, I think you’d blame me because I knew the rebellions were going to happen.”

Oh. Robin thought I’d blame him because Robin always assumes the worse in people and that everyone’s going to backstab him. He probably should work on that. “Did you?”

“Yes.” Robin sighed. “Yes, I did. I was convinced that we’d see multiple rebellions break out in defiance of what I did. I mean, on top of the normal resistance we usually face.”

“And you did nothing about it.” Pheros noted. Ah. Maybe it was his fault.

“No. That part isn’t true.” There was anger in Robin’s voice. “If Excellus were alive right now, he’d have me as the laughingstock of the entire Valmese court! I’m glad he isn’t, but I slipped up. As it happens, I knew the rebellions would occur, but every projection I had, and all the intel suggested that they wouldn’t strike for another year and a half! A year and a half.”

“You’d have defense ready than?”

“Of a sort.” Robin replied. “Honestly, I ran the scenario a few times in my head and a preemptive strike doesn’t work against a grassroots rebellion. The real best option was to just let them exist, and respond by defeating them as they show up.”

“So, to clarify…” Pheros said, dryly. “When I told you did nothing about it, and you disagreed with me, you were lying. The rebellion may have happened before you expected, but you were going to do nothing anyway.”

Robin inhaled deeply behind her. Pheros raised her eyebrow as she prepared for a tirade. But that wasn;t what she received.

“Sometimes the best way to fight is by choosing not to fight.”

“Well spoken.” Pheros said. He’s seriously on the brink of snapping if that’s how he’s reacting, overly measuring all his actions. “Is that your final answer?”

“Yes.” Robin said. “But, like I said, I have no idea how to convey that to people. I made a judgement. I knew unifying the Empire would cause rebellions to break out, but I judged it to create less strife. Unfortunately – well, actually I think my luck has nothing to do with it, for once – all the rebellions broke out simultaneously. And that’s not all.”

“What’s not all?”

“It’s not a coincidence.” Robin said. “The rebellions are affecting things. Like ripples in a pond. Their repercussions are building off each other. Someone is influencing all three of them.”

“You’re certain?” Pheros felt a sharp jolt run through her. The actions affecting each other – she’d never looked into that, just judging each rebellion separately. She couldn’t see the pattern if she didn’t have the information in front of her, but Robin wouldn’t lie, especially when she could double-check back at Ft. Steiger.

“Yes.” Robin said grimly.

“Then who do you think it is?”

“Well, previously, I thought it was some dark mastermind.” Robin chuckled. “Say’ri just said it was another me, except evil. I called them the Gray Tactician. But recently I’ve had another suspicion.”

“Oh?”

“You remember when I said that this is changing the subject when the previous discussion was about the spymaster of Valm?” Robin said. “I lied about changing the subject. I think it’s him. Basically Excellus, except a lot sneakier. He doesn’t like me. And I don’t like him. I think he’s doing this deliberately, to make me look bad.”

“That is a serious accusation.”

“Yeah.” Robin agreed. “Dastard’s got a good shield. It’s going to take a mountain of evidence that doesn’t exist to get him. Or just track him down and kill him, but that’s just as hard. Don’t even know who he is, and he’s eluding two of my best agents.”

“If this is a joke, it’s no longer funny.” Pheros said. “Because treason rarely is.”

“Tell you what.” Robin said. “Right now, I want to bet on every shred of trust you have with me. After what I show you, I think you’ll agree with me.”

“I thought you said the mountain of evidence didn’t exist.”

“It’s right in front of you.” Robin said. Pheros looked up to see they had arrived at the Wolfguard garrison. “The information’s in there, I promise. Just accompany me while I go see the man in charge.”

“Very well.” Pheros considered. “I’ll follow you. This once.”

“Thanks.” Robin said. “I’m not expecting trouble. But bring your tomes with you.”

-Wolfguard Fort-

I hate walking into traps. Robin grimaced. But I hate setting them more. Hit metals greaves echoed in the stone hall of the keep. The Wolfguard base for this stretch of land took over an old fort, reconstructing the place. They hadn’t finished yet, but the full fort was for at least fifty thousand troops, and the five thousand Wolfguard members only needed part of it, so the whole fort hadn’t been reconstructed yet. As Robin walked through, his forces would be working to restore parts of the garrison so that his twenty thousand could stay.

At least, that’s what he told the Wolfguard garrison commander. That wouldn’t be what his garrison would be doing at all.

Pheros’s boots made an odd clip-clop sound as she walked behind him, reminiscent of the horse she rode. Some of the modern fortresses were actually designed to accommodate riders everywhere, but not this one. It was just too old. Pheros seemed fine on foot, though, keeping a watchful eye around her. She had taken a Class B fire tome, and a Fortify stave. It was just the two of them, Robin politely, but firmly, declined the escort.

“We’re meeting with the Wolfguard commander.” Pheros said. “You personally selected them, didn’t you? So which one is this?”

“Rumors of my involvement in the Wolfguard is … yeah, I guess it’s not exaggerated.” Robin said. “This one is named Erik. He’s a skilled cavalier, a noble, and supposedly a gifted commander and highly charismatic.”

“Supposedly?”

“There were a lot of candidates, and I couldn’t do a thorough check into everyone. So sometimes, I went with people who had flaws, because it was either them, or picking someone who had a 50/50 shot of being worse.” Robin sighed. “Eric’s one of those. He’s definitely that good on paper, but he suffers from lack of confidence, and has a habit of getting unlucky with who his peers are, which only reinforces his lack of confidence.”

“Valm should never make do with anything less than the best of the best.”

“Agreed.” Robin stopped before the door to the room. “But everyone, even the two of us, has flaws. Ours just happen to be smaller than most. Similar to a battlefield, where an army is made of different troop compositions, each with strengths and weaknesses. The job of a tactician is to decide where to put people to maximize their potential. After all, there’s only a handful of our types. The Wolfguard organization was designed to handle the mindless Risen, which fall pretty fast to proper tactics, and usually don’t exceed an average soldier.”

“So, you picked him, hoping to compensate for his flaws.”

“Yes.” Robin nodded. I really should have told her. It’s also kind of dangerous if she doesn’t know. But I can’t help myself. There’s always something so inherently satisfying when a plan comes together. And I kind of need this. Robin opened the door.

“I’m busy!” Eric wasn’t. He was sitting back, with his feet on the desk. An iced drink was on his desk, a luxury considering that ice elemental magic went out of fashion a few hundred years back, meaning that it had to come from a storeroom beneath the castle specifically made for that purpose. There were supposed to be papers Eric was looking over. But there was no actual sign of them.

“Noted.” Robin said. He closed the door and set the deadbolt behind him. “But I decree that you aren’t. By order of the Battlemaster.”

Eric looked up for a moment. His face became one of the most satisfying shades of white Robin had the pleasure of seeing. He swung his legs around and temporarily lost control, so they fell to the floor with a thud. Robin smirked as Eric scrambled to make himself presentable.

“No, please.” Robin said. “No need to make yourself look presentable on my behalf. And I’m sure Pheros had seen worse.”

“Yes, but it’s usually on brigands that I’m about to kill.”

“Ooh. Low bar to clear.” Robin winced. “So, Erik, how are you? Let’s talk about why I’m here. You do know why I’m here, right? Or do I have to tell you that to?”

“Resupply.” Erik said. “You said you were running low on projectiles? You, ah, said that you were stopping here for supplies because of rebel activity to the north. I didn’t expect you for another few hours.”

“That’s what I told you, yes.” Robin said. “However, I’m afraid to tell you that the reason I’m here is actually for something entirely different. And I see your eyes moving – don’t worry, Pheros isn’t aware of the real reason I’m here.”

“Real reason?”

“Yes, real reason.” A massive clang echoed as the fort’s bell started tolling. Erik’s forces were raising the alarm. The fort was under attack. Robin turned his head, grinning at Pheros. “And so it begins.”

Erik made his move faster than Robin would have guessed he would. The both of the cavalier’s hands went down below the desk, out of Robin’s sight and Robin wasn’t even looking to begin with. Erik swung his feet up and set both of feet against the desk he was sitting behind. Then he kicked.

“Robin!” Pheros cried.

Please. Like something like that would do me in.

Robin drew his blade in one clean motion, a magnificent Chon’sin samurai sword, slicing the table in half. The two parts bounced off his armor, crashing into the floor. Two open drawers slid out, clattering to the floor. Erik got up, charging at Robin with a pair of daggers in his hands.

Robin sheathed his blade and kicked the man in the head with the full force of his armored foot. He didn’t even need to do anything else. The charge was too clumsy.

“Hopeless.” Robin sighed at he stared at the scene. Erik had lost one of his daggers, and his hand was pressed where Robin’s heel had made contact with his face, whimpering. “Really? Pick to a plan and stick to it. If you wanted to feign ignorance, go and do that. If you wanted my life, a halfhearted last-ditch effort wasn’t going to cut it! You aren’t even a knife fighter. At minimum, minimum, you should have had your sword.”

“Erik is a traitor. And judging from the alarms, the garrison as well.” Pheros stated. Robin nodded. He was glad that Pheros was capable of making snap judgements and reading the situation. Pheros looked at him. “How long have you known? And, more importantly, why didn’t you tell me on the way here?”

“Not as long as I should have.” Robin dodged the question. In truth, Aversa had only managed to get him the information the previous morning. Robin knew there was a traitor within the Wolfguard. But unfortunately… “Talk, Erik. I know you aren’t the only Wolfguard traitor. Who are the others?”

“Never, crimson devil!” Erik spat at him, personality now flipped. “You’ll drive Valm to the ground, with your unification programs. We didn’t conquer all these foreigners just so they could get rich off us.”

“Listen.” Robin shook his head. “I don’t have the time – and I’ll be honest, the inclination – to correct your painfully shallow perception of reality and your elitist urges which are skewing it. Not that you’d listen to me anyway. So instead we’re skipping to the universal language of pain.”

Robin drew his spear and rammed it through Erik, stabbing the spear into the wall. “I’ve left the spear in your gut. It’s not lethal – at least, not yet. You’ve got two options. Right now, my forces are killing yours. I’m going to join them. When I get back, we’re carting you off, then I’m leaving you to the tender ministrations of my spymaster to find all you know. That’s the first option. The second is you remove that spear and run like a coward. That’s the best outcome for you, since you don’t die and you keep the information. But I’m betting you’re too much of a coward to do that.”

A loud crash came from the door.

“Robin, there are men by the door.” Pheros noted. “Are they his men, or yours?”

“His forces.” Robin drew his Chon’sin blade again and tossed a red tome to Pheros. He drew one for himself. “Bolganone isn’t good for cramped quarters. On three, we open the door and roast the hall.”

-Rebel Fort

“Bo-o-o-o-ored.” Vermil yawned. He was resting on top of a mostly-destroyed tower, leaning against a destroyed outcropping. Cries of battle rang out below him, from the courtyard which had dissolved into chaos. Vermil slipped the orders out of his sleeves and read them again. “Yup. Just to take out this fort. And nothing more than that.”

“Multiple operations are critical to success. I’m led to believe that the rebellions are connected, which means that there must be cells whose sole task is to pass messages without being discovered.” Vermil read. “I had a look in sections without any rebel activity, and we’ve only located this one. They’re holed up with a derelict fortress. Luckily, they couldn’t repair it without exposing themselves. Not that it helped them. Take a patrol and kill them.”

“Yup. Boring ol’ routine missions.” Vermil said. “Bet Zulas and Argeni are doing something fun.”

 -Vermillion Capital-

Argeni sneezed. It set a tower of paperwork she’d already finished collapsing to the ground. She groaned as she retrieved it, shuffling through the papers to try to get the back into order. “That’s definitely that little mage’s fault. I’m going to kill Vermil if I get my hands on him.”

 -Rebel Fort-

Vermil folded the orders into a paper glider, something he’d learned back in the magic academies. He considered the glider for a moment, wondering if there was some way of militarizing it. “Eh. If there is, that’s someone else’s job.”

Below, some of the rebels had managed to rally. Vermil wasn’t a good tactician, in fact, he was sure that if he tried to use tactics, it would end horribly. On the other hand, he did know that his soldiers were better and that he outnumbered the enemies. So he just had his troops attack from all the directions they were capable of, with special focus on splintering enemy groups. A few units, including his own, had taken the towers and started blasting the enemy with fire.

That’d been fun, until they gotten tired of getting barbecued, so the enemy stopped using formation and the free-for-all melee that was currently happening had broken out. Vermil was sure that if Robin was the one commanding, he’d have done something clever, like set up walls of infantry to keep the enemy in groups or something. Vermil tried doing that, but it seemed a lot more difficult than it looked.

His side was still winning. Vermil knew that Robin couldn’t be everywhere at once, and therefore meant higher casualties among everywhere he wasn’t. When he served under Yen’fay, same thing happened, not because of tactics, but because Yen’fay was just that good. That’s why soldiers tried getting into Yen’fay’s personal army. On the other hand, soldiers were trying to get into Robin’s army, but not his personal group. Vermil had no idea why.

“There you are.” Vermil smiled. The rallying soldiers had formed a cohesive group. That was working to fend off the scrabbling Valm soldiers. They looked kind of like ants to Vermil. Vermil tossed the glider with a practice flick of his wrist, sending it into a spiral. When it was it between him and the group, Vermil raised his hands.

“In brightest day, in blackest night, beware the sun’s harsh light. Let those who dare oppose my might, burn like my power,” Vermil chanted as he focused the power from his tome’s energy matrixes, mixing it with his mental state and focusing the power into a raw beam of heat. “VERMILLION’S MIGHT!”

 -Wolfguard Fort-

It took a few minutes for the passage to sufficiently cool to let the two of them walk through it. Charred corpses were everywhere, and the smell was horrible. Robin, acting as a gentleman, tore off two stripes of cloth from his clothes and wet them so he and Pheros could wear them as impromptu face masks. The two of them passed through in silence, reaching the end of the passageway.

There were no soldiers waiting to jump them at the end. Instead, one of Robin’s squadrons was there, guarding the entrance. The man there saluted him. “At your orders, Battlemaster.”

“Save me any?” Robin asked, removing the cloth and tossing it aside.

“It’s a massacre, sir.” The man bowed. “They have no chance. We outnumber them four to one and caught them mostly off guard.”

“Odd.” Robin frowned. “I thought they would have been planning a trap against us. Really, off guard?”

“We found a large amount of poisoned food supplies.” The man saluted. “We think he intended to give them to us.”

“Of course. Poison.” Robin nodded. “Actually, that’s pretty smart for someone like him. I approve. Next question – any surrender?”

“A fair amount, but mostly individuals. There’s a large group resisting in the main courtyard.” The man said. “We have our archers and mages moving to flank them as we speak.”

“Excellent.” Robin said. “Pheros, I apologize for not telling you earlier. I just required a bit of… well, I’m not even sure. I kind of just wanted to push off my own forces betraying me as long as possible.”

“I understand.” Pheros said. “Shall we clean up?”

 -Traitorous Scum's Fort-

A spear whirled around, slicing through the bodies of traitorous Valm soldiers. Soldiers fell, as the dead increased. The spear’s owner held his ground, letting the ranks of enemies break upon him and his men as he held the position. He slammed the haft upwards, sending the enemy soldier he was fighting staggering back, then setting into a thrust.

“Mercy. I surrender.” The Valm traitor held his hand up as he tried to shake up the blow.

“No mercy for traitors.” Zulas ran him through.

No need to make an example out of them. Robin had told him. Zulas, I know if anyone’s angrier than me, it’s you. But try to hold back, alright? Because the last thing we need right now is a martyr or a rallying point.

“Sorry, Robin. But I can’t hold back on your account.” Zulas said. Rage burned within him, fierce and hot. It wasn’t the kind of debilitating rage that would send a man frothing, it was a cold and calculated rage that replaced his normal self with an alternate version that had a single goal. “Destroy them all.”

Zulas plunged into the fray again. In the capitol, he’d been put in charge of training, specifically integrating Robin’s new methods within the Valm army at large. He’d earned the respect of hundreds of well-placed soldiers, giving him tens of thousands of recruits who knew of his name from legend. And, given that, when he gave commands, they obeyed.

Robin told him to also set a trap for the Wolfguard, getting his army in and slaughtering them from the inside. Zulas ignored those orders, instead taking all the entrances and systematically moving within, killing them man by man. His authority let him do that, something he was grateful for. Because now, there wasn’t a single member of the traitorous guard that was escaping punishment.

His spear struck outward, piercing the heart of one of the rank-and-file members. Zulas withdrew and stabbed again, cutting another one. They hissed at him and his men. Zulas watched as one charged at him, swinging an axe. He dodged easily and swung the spear around. But instead of dodging, the man took the lethal wound and struck at Zulas, drawing a line of red across his arm.

“Tch!” Zulas hissed at the pain. He stepped back and gestured. Soldiers flooded the gap and one of the healers stepped up, healing him.

“They’re fighting with recklessness.” One of his younger sergeants was addressing him.

“No.” Zulas shook his head. “We’ve cornered them, and now we’re just killing them. Even if they surrendered, we wouldn’t accept it. Ever been on a hunt, boy?”

“A few times, with my father.”

“He ever warn you against attacking an animal in their lair?”

“Once. Why?”

“This is why.” Zulas gestured. “When you’ve got nothing to lose, you fight even stronger. That’s why you never fight a trapped animal. And that’s what we’re doing. So we’re going to get a few more injuries.”

“So, why are we doing this?”

“Son.” Zulas stared at him. “It is an honor to die for Valm. And there exists no greater honor than dying to cleanse the Empire for the worse evil there is. Traitors. These … filth … must be cleansed, so the rot cannot grow. And we are obligated to sacrifice our lives for it.”

Zulas turned to the healer. “Enough!” The healer scampered back. Zulas spun his spear. “It’s time to keep this fight going.”

 -Wolfguard Fort-

“Red life blood of the earth, heed my call and open your mouth to envelope all those underneath…”

“Crackling ozone of the sky, heed my orders and form a lance to obliterate those in my path…”

“BOLGANONE!” “THORON!”

Robin’s and Pheros’s spells blew through the last of the traitors holding out. A few stragglers were left standing upright, some of them drinking blue or brown tinted bottles. Around the courtyard, the rest were either dead or being rounded up by the rest of Robin’s troops. Archers and mages kept watch from the walls and the roof of the keep.

“We’ll never surrender!”

“I didn’t expect you to.” Robin walked forward, motioning for Pheros to stay back. He made sweeping motions with his arms, giving commands to the other soldiers to stay back. Then, Robin drew his spear, keeping it in guard position. Seven of them, Robin noted with satisfaction. I think they can give me a good exercise. “There are those who won’t surrender. So, let me offer you a chance. You hate me, right? Well, here I am. We’ll have a fight the seven of you, against me.”

“And if we win, you’ll let us go?”

“No, don’t be ridiculous. My men will kill you.” Robin said, eyeing the man who had spoken. He wielded a heavy axe and seemed to be the leader. “I just offer you a chance at my life. Want to take it?”

“Take it… and your head! Take him down!”

The lead man rushed him, pushing his body to move despite the wounds. He swung the heavy axe at Robin. Robin dropped the spear, sidestepped the swing, and drew his sword through the man once he within the guard. One.

Two more came at him. Robin ducked the swing of the first one, who was wielding a sword, and let the second one, a mage, hit him with a blast of electricity. Robin swung his left hand to the mage, and summoned his own nexus of lightning, blasting the mage, while casually blocking the sword wielder’s swipe with a behind-the-back block using his right sword-wielding hand. Robin turned his head and gave him a cocky grin. Two One behind me and four in front.

Robin set his foot under the dropped spear and kicked it high up in the air. Then he set his left hand on his sword hilt and swung it, using his shoulder as leverage, sending the man behind him staggering back. Two of the four reached him, lunging with spears. Robin sidestepped as fast as he could, tossing the sword to his left hand, and then blasted the pair with a lance of lightning. Neither died from it, unfortunately.

The next one went after him with an axe, while a jet of flame roared by him. Robin deflected the axe to the side and spun back to where he was a moment ago, catching the spear with his right hand. He now stood in the middle of five of them, all wounded. One sword, two lances, an axe, and the last was a fire mage.

Robin spun like a dervish, slashing with his spear and using his sword to guard again his undefended side. He dropped low and extended the lance, slicing through legs. The axe user went for him, forcing him to roll out of the way. He used the spear to prop him up, and then stabbed the axe user, killing him. Three.

That was when one of the lances hit him, deflecting off his plate to cut along his side. Robin took it well, slicing the man who did it apart with his sword and then going on to blast the sword user with lightning, frying the man to a crisp. The second lancer went for him, which Robin deflected with a gauntlet, then buried the gauntlet within the man’s stomach. Now at close quarters, he kneed the man in the groin, and then grabbed his head in a two-handed grip and twisting his head to violently break the man’s spine. Four, five, six.

The fire mage was last. Robin tossed aside his sword, and then dropped the tomes from their holsters, walking towards the mage and slamming his fists into each other, grinning. The mage panicked, and summoned the most powerful flame he had, blasting Robin at point blank with his fire.

Robin dove to one side, dashing to the mage before he could adjust his aim. Robin leapt up and slammed his right hand into the mage’s face, and lifted him in the air, before landing himself. Then Robin slammed the mage into the ground, shattering the mage’s skull.

“Dead.” Robin stood up, looking at the gore and blood he was now covered with. “War is … messy, it seems.”

“Was that necessary?” Pheros asked him, raising an eyebrow.

“I needed the workout.” Robin said, working to remove his gauntlets. “I don’t have many opportunities to fight alone, to the death.”

“Stress relief?”

“I guess a bit, why?” Robin blinked as Pheros looked him up and down. “Hey, stop that. I’m completely sane.”

“You told me you don’t relish killing people.” Pheros gestured to the corpse. “You just cracked a man’s skull like an egg.”

“Fine. I’m a bit tense, I suppose.”

“You aren’t tense. The Wolfguard are traitors.” Pheros said. “You’re furious.”

“I am the Wolfguard.” Robin scowled. “This was my project, my oversight, my people. And now I have multiple Wolfguard commanders who took the opportunity to recruit men loyal to them. It’s a flaw in the system that was exploited. Aside from the commanders, who are handpicked, and officers, who are drawn from the army, the rest are rank and file militia. So, if the command is rotten, they can fill their Wolfguard unit with dissidents.”

“What makes you suspect the spymaster, then?”

“Because he’s the only one who could do it.” Robin sighed. “Honestly, if I had to guess, he didn’t predict the rebellion either. He just slipped in a few commanders who were loyal to him, or that he had some kind of control over, intending to use them against me when the time was right. And now, apparently, was that time.”

“I see.” Pheros nodded. “So, you’re saying the spymaster decided to use your own hubris against you and fill your supposedly infallible Wolfguard full of holes to prove you aren’t as capable as you think you are.”

“That’s not what I’m saying at – actually, yes.” Robin grit his teeth. “I just didn’t expect him to go this low. He’s put me in a rough spot.”

“He’s sabotaged you, in other words.” Pheros said. “Is this normal or am I strange for thinking we should be infighting right now!?

“He started it.”

Stop acting like a child.” Pheros snapped. "You're throwing a tantrum."

“So, what am I supposed to do, then?” Robin narrowed his eyes. “You don’t play the hand you wished you had, you play the hand you get dealt. And right now, both myself and that spymaster of Walhart’s are in a situation that only one of us walks away from.”

“You can’t end the rebellions without implicating him?”

“I can, especially with no proof.” Robin scowled. “I’m not referring to this rebellion per se, honestly. I’m referring to the situation. He knows – well, he knows I’ve done a few things that might be considered traitorous by those without a long view, and he doesn’t like me. Formerly, I just wanted to keep tabs on him back, but now that he’s caused these rebellions, I’ve pretty much had it.”

“Fine. So end the rebellions. Now, one that happens, if I attempt to mediate, will you cooperate?”

“Yes. I’m irritated, not irrational.” Robin reconsidered his position. “Yet.”

“Then I will attempt to bridge the gap. And should that fail, I expect you to be a pragmatist about it.” Pheros’s eyes met his. “You are the Battlemaster, and the second in command of the Empire. You cannot be seen infighting, and a protracted stealth war will just harm the people of Valm. Understand?”

“Yes, Pheros.” I understand what you want, anyw-

“Similar to how you dealt with Excellus.”

Wait, what? “Did – did you just condone the murder of a Valm Imperial officer?”

“No, of course not. I am merely saying that your solution must be surefire and swift, with no chance for repercussions or a fallout.” Pheros shrugged. “I’m afraid that I’m not a strategist, so I may not be able to imagine what that might entail, but as long as you meet those qualifications, I can support you.”

Translation: I’m not happy about traitors either, so if you’re sure, than make the move, and make it clean. I won’t oppose you. Robin nodded. “Thank you, General Pheros. For the advice.”

“My pleasure, Battlemaster.” Pheros nodded and turned to walk away. “Remember. I’m the nice one. Not the naïve one. Oh, and take a vacation. You seriously need it.”

I need an excuse to go to Ylisse, anyway. “Once all this is done, fine.”

Chapter Text

-Robin's Study-

“Damn them, and damn them all!” Zulas howled at the letter he has just opened, addressed to Robin.

“Language!” Robin snapped. “I will not have you using those kinds of words within earshot of Ravena.”

“Dad, I think you’re taking the whole ‘protective father’ thing too far here.” Ravena managed to talk while she had a pin in her mouth. One full side of Robin’s office was devoted to being a giant stringboard, and Ravena was updating the information on it. Currently, she was rearraigning the nest of strings, notes, and pins, so it resembled more of a giant nest of webbing rather than somethings a crazed Grimleal would use to summon Grima. “Besides, you left me in private lessons with Morgaine. Kind of screwed up there.”

“So, what kind of things did she teach you?”

“Don’t encourage her, Vermil.” Robin addressed the fire mage.

“I don’t like you right now.” Vermil scowled at him. “You gave everyone else fun assignments.”

“Except me!” Argeni piped up. “My poor, delicate, lady fingers. They weren’t made for things like writing documents. They were made for writing love letters! And now they’re too tired to do that.”

“Except Argeni. What gives?”

“What gives is that Zulas is more senior than you and has experience commanding troops. So he got the job taking out the Wolfguard, and you were assign to reduce a fortress to a smoldering crater.” Robin said. Actually, I wanted them to know it was personal. Vermil just burns everything to the ground, but Zulas is pretty reasonable so it’s a big deal when he gets annoyed like that. I still wished he’d shown a little restraint, and maybe not murdered everyone there.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t explain Argeni, or why you locked us out of the loop.”

“Argeni has no more seniority or command experience than Zulas does.” Robin explained. “And I didn’t tell you because that’s standard operating procedures in the event of a major breach of security. No one gets told anything unless it’s absolutely necessary. And if I had my way, none of you would know about the Wolfguard traitors.”

“Yup.” Ravena said. “Kind of sucks that you can’t trust an army of twenty thousand people not to blab, you know?”

“I have a sneaking suspicion that you’d have assigned me to paperwork even if I was more experienced.”

“That’s just pure conjecture.” Robin clapped his hands. “Anyway, Ravena, how goes the search?”

“Working on it.” Ravena spat out the dart to her hand and impaled Dalton’s face with it. “Dalton’s clear, finally. Wasn’t him.”

“You thought it was Dalton?” Argeni asked.

“Someone highly placed in the Valm military.” Robin said. “We’ve also found no traces of any offices, or any cash flow, so we think the spymaster has a legitimate position that he uses to cover for his real job.”

“Huh.” Zulas thought about it. “Yeah, I guess that’s possible. Honestly, once you go Colonel, you wind up with more space than you need, and up to a certain point, you can just request treasury gold without it showing up on any records.”

“I like the sound of that. So, how much space and money do colonels get, exactly?” Argeni asked. “And does it go up when they get married?”

“I’m not a colonel, Argeni.”

“Yet, dear.”

“Actually, your quarters will be your family’s mansion in Valm.” Robin said. “I took a look at the regs, and when nobility get married, they’re allowed leniency to rest at their house when not deployed. Of course, that’s only for lieutenant and above, but Zulas made that long ago.”

“Why not Zulas’s mansion?”

“Because Zulas has a title in name only, and nothing behind it.” Robin said. “Anyway, regs aside, we need to get back on topic.”

“Okay.” Argeni nodded. “Have you tried following the trail of Imperial spies?”

“Yes. Most of his agents just report to higher agents. He does have a cabal of about half a dozen spies that know the spymaster personally.” Robin winced. “Used to, anyway. Ravena?”

“Two killed, one in hiding, and we don’t know the two others.” Ravena sighed. “Morgaine did manage to get her hands on one, and he committed suicide by overcasting Valentian magic. Wasn’t pretty, apparently.”

“We’ve had some tricky progress on that front.” Robin nodded.

“Anyway, we know that the spymaster was involved within all three Wolfguard traitors.” Ravena said. “And, if you’re wondering who took out the third one, it was a patrol led by Cervantes. Now, whoever’s the spymaster needed to know these three people in detail.”

“You can’t just eliminate them on that kind of a basis.” Argeni said. “Secret relationships happen all the time, you know. Or well, perhaps you don’t, but I certainly do. Not that I’ve had them, of course.”

“Because you’re unlikable?” Vermil offered.

“How could you be so rude?” Argeni sniffed. “No, it’s because I’m simply a good girl with good breeding who actually has manners and taste.”

“Those novels in your room say otherwise.” Ravena snorted. “Ribald Tales of a Faith War? Seriously? That series is trash, and you know it.”

“Argeni, so help me if you’ve been corrupting her…” Robin began.

“Cut it out, the lot of you.” Zulas sighed. “Robin, ignore the girls, they’re just trying to get a rise out of us. But Argeni does have a point. There’s no shortage of fools trying to seduce her. And defeating them in duels hasn’t helped.”

Trying to seduce her, yes?” Robin said. “Are any successful?”

“No.” Zulas snorted.

“Exactly.”

“Spycraft isn’t as simple as some shallow romantic liaison.” Ravena explained. “Recruiting for a top-secret double agent job isn’t a few winks at a party and a meeting in the shadows.”

“In this case, they’d need a stable recruitment platform. Every one of the traitors has people who he knows well, and people who backed up the recommendation. Then all those have a circle of confidants themselves. The spymaster, at most, has a two-degree separation, so luckily we don’t need to check deeper.” Robin said. “These people were recruited because the recruiter knew ahead of time they were the type to be able to be turned against me.”

“You sure it’s got to be that close?” Zulas asked Robin. “I mean, I don’t remember you pulling off plans using people that far away as cat’s paws. Pretty sure you used Excellus, though.”

“Yes, we’re including notable enemies.” Robin said. “Luckily, we already have most of this information from the original set of background checks, and Morgaine delivered the last set of information earlier this morning. So, all that’s left is to cross reference all the information and take a note of the few dozen who cross over, then run that over our list of suspects.”

“Not that appearing or not appearing is enough to have you confirmed or denied, of course.” Ravena said. “When I eliminated Dalton, I mean he’s clear from this rubric. We’ve got a master list, under heavy lock and key, which contains the final tally of evidence against people. So someone connected to all three of these just gets a check mark, if you’re not connected to any, that’s an X.”

“Isn’t intelligence work supposed to be more, um, cloak and dagger?” Argeni asked, blinking. “I have this image of dark figures in the night, slipping in to crack open safes and reading documents.”

“Yeah that happens too. Guess how much.”

“About half of it?” Argeni ventured, trying to go low.

“One percent.” Ravena sighed. “One percent of intelligence is active fieldwork, or as you put it, cloak and dagger. A further twenty-five is passive fieldwork or listening in on people. Everything else is this! So the next time you complain about filing paperwork, remember I’m doing this.

“Want a hand?” Vermil offered, shooting Robin a dirty look. “I’ve got a lot of experience archiving thanks to someone making me research spells.”

“Answer’s the same as last time.” Robin sighed. “You know you want larger destructive capacity more than I do.”

“I’ll take help, sure.” Ravena gestured to a stack of papers by her that was taller than her. “Those files contain links. Find the names and connect them with thread. If they don’t have a name, scrawl one down and pin it up. Connect them with string and see if you can try to make it so we get a nice set of webs, rather than a massive sprawl, because that gets annoying.”

“What do we do afterwards?”

“Ask me when we’re done.” Ravena said. “Might take a few weeks.”

“…Oh.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not like you have better things to do.” Zulas tossed the missive he’d gotten to Robin. “Take a look at this.”

“That can’t be right.” Robin frowned. Well, a spot of good news for a change. And also explains why Zulas was cursing. No rebel activity? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Yup.” Zulas moodily kicked the table. An inkwell was upset, spilling over a set of opened letters. Robin snatched the inkwell up and used the ruin letters to funnel the remaining ink to the side, leading to a black puddle on the floor. “We’ve hit ‘em too hard, and the rest are now hiding.”

“I mean, that was the fate to begin with.” Robin said, shuffling the letters together, taking care not to get ink flecks on his sleeves. His hands were already loss. “Even though the Gray Tactician and/or the spymaster was the one behind it all, they just controlling groups of scattered rebels, with no logistics, no support, and a recruitment which only fed off a hostile population, i.e. the one they’re fighting. They feed off each other, so when a decisive string of victories crop up against them, they’ve got no support. Most rebellions can only take one or two decisive losses. Between the variousValm general and the Wolfguard, we hit them with six.

“I was expecting a long campaign.” Zulas muttered. “Kind of disappointing. Especially with those traitors.”

“These were rebels, not insurgents.” Robin said. “And thank goodness for that. Insurgents give me nightmares. Bad nightmares.”

“What’s the difference?”

“As far as I’m concerned, whether or not they’re supported by the population. The Chon’sin dynasts, for instance, would support a rebellion if they thought it profitable, so if someone like Say’ri was leading it, it’d last a while.” Robin said. “I didn’t give them enough times. So, yes, we just had to crush some dissidents and the traitors. And then the rest wise up and run back into cover.”

“I thought rebels where supposed to be ‘We’ll fight till the last man draws breath! Argh!’ and so on, spouting meaningless drivel as you impale them, and they die a slow horrific death.” Zulas said, gesturing with his hand.

“Not all rebels are the evil version of you, dear.” Argeni said. “I mean, how many of you are there in service to Walhart?”

“Not as many as I’d like, you’re right.” Zulas said. “Speaking of impaling, I heard about what you did to Eric. That was pretty hardcore.”

“Ooh, what’s this?” Ravena perked up. “I didn’t hear about this.”

“There’s a reason for that.” Robin sighed. The ink now safely contained, he walked to the room’s fireplace and tossed the inked letters into it.

“He impaled the traitorous Wolfguard commander on his spear and stuck him into the wall.” Zulas explained. “Then dared him to pull himself off and escape or commit suicide to prove he wasn’t a spineless coward.”

“That is pretty hardcore.” Ravena smirked. “So which did he chose?”

“He went with the third option, passing out.” Robin sighed. “He was something like half an inch forward against the wall, so he might have made an attempt to escape, or I might have not shoved him against the wall hard enough. We had to cut the blasted thing off him, and he’s still unconscious. I seem to have overdone it. On the one hand, the story got out, so now everyone thinks I’m even worse than they already though, and the name ‘Crimson Demon Battlemaster’ seems to be going around. On the other hand-”

“-no information from an unconscious man.” Ravena finished. “Oh, take a look at this. Cervantes is out, too. He’s got notable connections to the ones that you and Zulas took out, but none whatsoever to the ones his men killed.”

“Still, all things considered, good run.” Robin said. “Rebellion flattened in the space of two months, and a good amount of notable information on the spymaster. We even came out ahead, reputation-wise, thanks to the methods we used for dealing with our own traitors. And that’s that. Ink-stained letters aside.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Nah, it was just some reports from Anna.” Robin said. “Risen, of all things.”

 -???-

“It’s not over yet.” The Valmese spymaster sighed, reading through a stack of papers. “A rebellion ending that quickly?”

“The Battlemaster believes that to the case. He even put out his own notice, saying that all formal rebel activity has disbanded, but that the Wolfguard is now back to engaging the Risen and bandit attacks.”

“That last bit is just for propaganda, of course, there’s still a few stragglers, but the rebels seem to have disappeared.” The spymaster frowned. “By my counts, that’s at least 30,000 missing rebels, judging from recruiting reports. Can we assume they’re accurate?”

“Avarice supplied them.”

Avarice, the spymaster knew, was the codename for a new dealer on the information market. While honesty was a virtue no one ever accused anyone in her line of work of, Avarice tended to be reliable on such matters. Still, the both of them knew better than to completely trust her. “Good enough, then. That number is worrisome. There’s a lot of ill that could be done with a number that great.”

“Spymaster, do you think he started the rebellions?”

“No.” The spymaster shook his head and tapped a letter on his desk. “This is an internal memo, supplied to the generals of Valm, marked for their eyes only. Robin outlines the basic pushes, and a plan to deal with the remainder of the rebels. In it, he identifies an individual as the ‘Gray Tactician’ that may be responsible for some of the organization. And he asks for any information, if we could send it up. Oh. And a note that says not to let anyone else see it.”

“Ah.” The agent licked his lips. “So, shall we send in misinformation?”

“No. We’ve only got one route to send that in, and if Robin identifies that as ours, it would only be a short while until he tracks me down.” The spymaster frowned. “As it stands, I believe he’s coming too close to the truth.”

“Our stunt with the Wolfguard?”

“No, I don’t think so.” The spymaster grinned. “If he tries tracking us through that – well, let’s just say I left a nasty little trap. And now that I’ve been able to put that long-standing plan into effect, I’ve a few other methods as well. A few of our nobles will push for more control over the Wolfguard, because as it stands, the Battlemaster has complete control of it.”

“Then what could have you suspicious?”

“That’s just it.” The spymaster frowned. “I don’t know what he’s planning. He’s got something concealed.”

“Could it have anything to do with the Fire Emblem?”

That is just a tale for Ylissean royalty to make themselves feel special.” The spymaster scowled. “Don’t make me regret telling it to you. Walhart may consider it important, but I don’t. But the gems wouldn’t do Robin any good.”

“Even though he’s the Fellblood?” The agent enjoyed the look of shock on the spymaster’s face. “Oh, you didn’t know that, did you?”

“No.” The spymaster slid his chair back and withdrew a large crimson file, flipping through it. “Feigning amnesia, the dates, his age. Yes, that would make sense. But the Fellblood was killed, years ago. That was confirmed.”

“The chaos following Gangrel’s death left a few secrets looser than usual.” The agent rolled up his sleeve to reveal a fresh Grimleal tattoo. “It took a bit of infiltration, but I confirmed that while the child personally murdered by the previous Exalt was indeed the Fellblood, there’s just a single missing detail. The child was one of fraternal twins, as it happens. The other? Well, he got away safely.”

“That would explain it.” The spymaster remembered. “The reports were that the Fellborn was male, yet the Exalt clearly said ‘I killed her’, on his deathbed. The speculation was that he was referring to the country of Plegia, or Ylisse, but he was referring to the Fellblood, who was female.”

“Yes, that was my conclusion too, though it’s hard to say conclusively. And honestly, that doesn’t matter.” The agent cocked his head. “Do you think he knew it? The previous Exalt. Imagine being haunted by that knowledge. Well, that’s water under the bridge too, I guess.”

“Are you now a Grimleal initiate?” A note of humor was in the spymaster’s voice.

“High priest, don’t be ridiculous. I killed off a chapter whose leader was only personally known to people killed during the battle. Like I said, chaos around Gangrel’s death. Pretty high-ranking member too, I was invited to the new Hierophant’s speech, where he told us the secret. Probably to keep faith in the Grimleal.” The agent shrugged. “So, do you think he’s after the gems?”

“Are you sure this Hierophant wasn’t lying?”

“Swore a blood oath.” The agent said. “Grimleal may be fanatics, but they aren’t gullible or stupid. The Hierophant set a curse on himself which forced him to tell the truth. Yeah, information’s on the level. So, gems?”

“No. Tiki is still in possession of hers.” The spymaster said. “I checked after Robin visited her. If I had to guess, he’s probably the opposite. Harbors a secret hatred to Plegia and wants them wiped out. Probably Ylisse too. Now that I think about it, he was discussing invasion plans the other day with Pheros. Yes, that would make sense.”

“Unlimited power is a pretty sweet offer.” The agent countered.

“I suppose a closer eye couldn’t hurt.” The spymaster said. “If that’s even possible.”

“Now what?”

“Can you join Robin’s personal forces?” The spymaster asked.

“No.” The agent’s tone left little room for discussion.

“It’d be easy for you to join, given the fact you’re related to-”

“Look, I share my half-brother’s loyalty. Something that you’re grateful for, given that the people you can personally trust are steadily being killed by Robin. But that comes with conditions.” Balt Albert blinked once. “Zulas is not allowed to know I exist. That was part of the deal. He’d be crushed if he found out his father had an indiscretion. The man’s black-and-white nature makes him an ideal soldier, but I don’t want him to know about me.”

“That was part of the deal.” The spymaster nodded. “Alright. I’ll post you deep. Robin’s assassin Dant is deep undercover somewhere in Plegia.”

“Yeah, I know. What’s the mission?”

“Given your new status, it shouldn’t be that hard of a task. He is, as you have said, killing my confidants. But I’m not going after his soldiers, that would hardly be sporting of me. Track down Dant and kill her. When you’re done, send her head to Robin.” The spymaster said. “Meanwhile, I’ll deal with the rebellion here.”

 -???-

“Excellent work, Ruger. Everything is proceeding exactly how I wanted it. I think we’re done here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course, you don’t.” Beneath his hooded cloak, Grima sighed. It seemed like he was saying that more and more these days, and the line grew stale. “Ruger, you’re only competent as a messenger in the dark. That’s why I hired you to serve as the ‘Gray Tactician’.”

“Gray Tactician?”

“It’s just my term for it.” Grima sighed. “The opposite to the Crimson Tactician. Your role was to rally the unified dissidents into a rebellion, while keeping it to look like it was scattered. Or, well, to clarify, to run legwork while I gave the orders.”

“Right.” Ruger said. “So, uh, why’d ya decide to put everything on halt?”

“A better question, I think, is why did you lose track of your soldiers?” Grima asked, though he personally knew the answer to the question. “I put everything to a halt because the rebellion is simply out of soldiers. We recruited thousands of people from across the continent. It took me the better part of two years to set up the network necessary for it. And now, they’re dead.”

“The Crimson Demon Tactician.”

“Not yet.” Grima smiled. “No, just the Crimson Tactician for now. Curious, though. I put aside a legion of veterans, and it seems that when I shipped them to classified location, they’ve somehow vanished without a trace.”

“I thought you were behind that.”

Grima considered. Given his duplicitous, double-dealing nature, this was actually a perfectly valid excuse as for why Ruger hadn’t realized the missing army. However, Grima was evil and enjoyed bullying people. And Ruger no longer had any use for him, and thus became a liability.

“No, you fool!” Grima snapped. “Worthless piece of gutter trash. Those soldiers were moved elsewhere, and I suspect reinforced. No, perhaps reinforced isn’t the right word. Absorbed, yes. There are signs, if you know where to look, of an army gathering and hiding undercover. And not only that but planning to remain there for quite a while. A large army.”

“Signs?”

“Several food warehouses were raided in the early days of the rebellion.” Grima explained. “Those weren’t our men doing it. Enough for fifty thousand soldiers to eat for at least four years.”

“I thought-”

“Yes, we’ve established your relative intellect and that you think I’m behind everything.” Grima said. Well, I suppose that I am, if you consider Robin a part of me. “However, none of that was part of my plans. I suppose if you consider the rebellion my plan, it would seem I failed. However, I am happy that my plans went perfectly. The rebellions were only a means.”

“I thought you wanted to overthrow Valm.”

Idiot.” Grima sent the assassin flying with a wave of his hand, sending his spasming into a wall. “One does not defeat an Empire a million soldiers strong with a paltry rebellion of a mere fifty thousand collective people, of which the majority are nothing more than untrained peasants armed with rusty farming equipment. No, the true purpose was to … accelerate. The Valmese Battlemaster gained quite a bit from this rebellion, I think. At least two plans I know of were helped by the rebellion. And, from my perspective, it is vital that his plans be carried out before Valm declares war with Ylisse. A war of that magnitude would honestly ruin anyone’s plan. Really, he should be thanking me.”

“You wanted to help the Crimson Demon Battlemaster?”

“Tell me.” Grima smiled. “Have you, perchance, seen the Battlemaster you’re so keen to vilify? His face?”

“Not in person, but I know how he looks.” Ruger nodded. “He’s got his face all over recruitment posters.”

“Does it look something like this?” Grima flipped his hood off and enjoyed the shock that Ruger displayed. “We are similar, you could say. The Battlemaster’s gains are my gains … or, more accurately, they will become mine. Now, Ruger, unfortunately I’ve shared a secret with you that you aren’t supposed to know. I’m afraid I’ll have to eat your soul.”

“Soul?”

Apparently, that was the only thing Ruger could say in response to the information overload, or perhaps he was going to say something else, had Grima not killed him with dark magic, and then consumed the man’s soul. After thinking it over, Grima elected against turning the man’s corpse into a Risen assassin. Getting it out of Valm was going to be difficult, and inside Valm, he’d tip his hand and reveal that he could control Risen if it was discovered. “I can’t help you anymore than this, Robin. I leave the rest to you. Let’s see what you can do without that pitiful Exalt holding you back. Show me the true power of Grima’s chosen vessel!”

-Robin's Study-

Robin took a sip of tea, trying to relax unsuccessfully. He’d been trying blends from all over Valm, and this week’s source came from the Firelands. Unsurprisingly, it tasted a bit charred, but there was a richness that Robin wouldn’t have known to associate with volcanos. “Delicious.”

“Is it?” Say’ri asked. It was late at night, and she’d just arrived. Robin insisted that she tell him about Chon’sin, so they’d both had a bit of liquid stimulation to help them. “I introduced you to Chon’sin blends, which are far superior to that sharp, bitter mess.”

“The people of Chon’sin already like me.” Robin said. “I’ve discovered that small talk resembles bribery in the sense that it’s universally accepted but only in the right currency. So I’ve decided to become a tea connoisseur. Surprisingly neutral topic. How was Chon’sin, by the way.”

“Chon’sin was nice this time of year. Unfortunately, the cherry trees weren’t in blossom.” Say’ri said, raising an eyebrow. “I also had my hands full, corralling the dynasts. The rebellion did not help, and you fought a great many battles without me by your side.”

“Seem to manage it.” Robin said. “And I already told you, a tactician’s sword is not wielded like a normal one. I have greater need of you away from my side than by it.”

“Evidently.” Say’ri withdrew her blade and gazed at her reflection. “This sword was drawn thrice, you should know. Once in battle, once in threat, and once to kill a friend.”

“Hikaru Yoshimoto?”

“Nay.” Say’ri shook her head. “Him I threatened, but he backed down before blows were forced. It was one of Ryu Shingen’s servants, a man known as Oda Shingen, that I slew.”

“Related to him?” Robin blinked. “And isn’t Ryu supposed to be on our side?”

“Brother, I believe, though I do not know if it is by full blood or even half. Ryu does not speak of these things, and the Shingen clan does not talk to outsiders. Oda was the foolish one, and Ryu allowed him to challenge me. I believe it was to dissuade the rest from joining the rebels. That seems like something Ryu Shingen would do.” Say’ri sighed. “He may have been my enemy, but I studied under the same master as Oda once did. Perhaps that is why he thought he might have beaten me.”

“Ah.” Robin nodded. Ryu seems to be on my side, then, willing to sacrifice his own blood. Perhaps that was also a show of favor. “I owe Ryu a debt, then.”

“Not a large one. Oda was not in favor within the Shingen clan.” Say’ri frowned. “Ryu is a bit colder than I am. I still grieve Yen’fay in my heart of hearts, but I do not believe that Ryu does. Still, it would raise your standing amongst the Chon’sin if you acknowledged the debt, in a way proper amongst the Chon’sin, of course.”

“I’ll have to think of something which is suitable to both Chon’sin tastes and my own.” Robin said, taking another sip of tea. “Can’t let your people get a swelled head and think that I exclusively cater to their culture.”

“Yes, that would no doubt be catastrophic, though I cannot determine the reason, but if you say so it must exist.” Say’ri said. She poured herself a cup of Robin’s tea and took a sip. Then immediately spat it out. “Pah. This is tea? It’s nothing more than burnt leaf juice.”

“Pretty sure that’s what all tea is.”

“And you call yourself a tea connoisseur.”

“I told you, it’s for the small talk, not the tea.” Robin said. “It takes more effort to actually learn to properly enjoy tea. Though I suspect Vermil would enjoy this without any training.”

“Are you that incapable of enjoying things in life that you must always twist them to an ulterior motive?”

“No, I’m perfectly find of enjoying things that don’t have to be twisted to an ulterior motive and just have them innately built in.” Robin replied, much to Say’ri’s scowl. “Besides, you aren’t even eating Chon’sin food either!”

“Yes, but I am doing it because I enjoy this food, not because I hope to twist it to my advantage. If you do not approve, perhaps you shouldn’t allow me to order food from your chefs before you call your meetings.” Say’ri ate one of her potato chips with her chopsticks. “And I am drinking Chon’sin tea.”

Who drinks tea and eats fried chips in the same meal? Robin internally sighed. Say’ri, apparently. I suppose she hasn’t quite grasped the concept that greasy food is supposed to be informally eaten. And definitely not with the best tea. Though at least her fingers don’t get greasy, because chopsticks.

An explosion interrupted his train of thought. Robin started a silent countdown. Say’ri was on her feet, hand on hilt, in a flash, looking out the window. “Are we under attack?”

“No, that’s just a diversion.” Another explosion rocked the building. “That one’s a diversion too. It has to do with the Wolfguard Initiative.” Robin said. “See, a lot of people are annoyed at me that I used them to handle the rebellion. Not that it helped because of traitors.”

“Aye.” Say’ri nodded, turning back to the door. “But what these diversions about?”

“I’m getting to that.” Robin said. “See, a lot of people think I’ve got too much power now that I’m the lead Wolf of the Wolfguard, in addition to my Battlemaster, and when I say people think that, I’m more referring to the dissidents. They’ve even gotten to calling me the Crimson Demon Battlemaster, which is just overkill. Walhart, well, he’s too powerful. But me? I’m just a tactician. Easy enough to kill once you get in close. The rebellions are over, but there’s one last attempt. A desperate attack of the few remaining loyalists. A suicide mission. Noble. Misguided, but noble.”

“An assassination.” Say’ri sighed. “And they’re targeting you. Why are you not worried? If I recall, last time you weren’t this calm.”

“Last time I didn’t know the reason why.” Robin said. “This time, thought, I’m well prepared. Hence my knowledge of the diversions. I alerted the guards. They know enough to prepare for this.”

“That’s good.” Say’ri said, relaxing her grip. She turned around and scowled. “What are you doing!? I thought you said that tea and chips were an unsuitable combination!”

“Did I?” Robin paused, with yet another one of Say’ri’s chips moving towards his mouth. I should lay off fire magic now that I have greasy fingers. He shrugged and ate it, washing it down with the last of his tea. “Well, I definitely thought it loudly enough. I take it back, these are tasty together.”

“I half suspect you arranged this to steal my snacks.” Say’ri frowned. “But that would be unbelievably petty, even for you. So, you’ve taken care of everything already?”

“Not quite.” Robin said. “My count is down to fourteen, so you may want to have your hand on your blade again.”

“Count?”

“From when the explosions started. I started at thirty.” Robin said. He aimed his hand at the door to the room. “They were a diversion, I told you. THORON!”

The door exploded as Robin fired a massive lightning burst into it. Say’ri drew her blade in a flash and dashed past the explosion, running through the smoke. Robin fired a burst of Rexcaliber next, clearing the smoke. Three would-be assassins lay dead, with Say’ri whirling among the other three, clashing blades with them. Robin drew his own spear and joined the fight.

It lasted less than thirty seconds, ending with Robin holding Say’ri back with his spear to stop her from killing the last one. It was the leader, a man with mixed blood, half Valm and half Rosanne. “Hold on, Say’ri. I’d like to talk to this one.”

“He tried to kill you.”

“So did you.” Robin reminded her. “I don’t think he’ll be amendable to joining me, but I’d like to talk to him anyway.”

“I have nothing to say to you.” The man spat at him.

“Believe me, that isn’t necessary.” Robin raised an eyebrow. “Your name is Jean-Luc, and you claim to be the bastard son of Viscount Virion – a lie, by the way. Not that I believe that he doesn’t have them, you just happen to be too old. I’m taking that personally, Virion’s a pawn of mine, and I won’t have you used him. He’s mine to use. Now, you head a certain organization – Clipped Wings, I believe? – and have been plotting to assassinate me for the last two weeks. A very nice plot, too.”

“I see you don’t try to disguise your actions.” Jean-Luc spat. “Why don’t you go kill yourself?”

“You’re curious as to how I know all that, aren’t you? You are, I can see it in your ideals.” Robin said. “They tell me ‘How could we have failed? We’re the good guys, and you’re evil.’ Well, you were betrayed. And it wasn’t by one of your own, well, not in the strict sense. It was by your own sense of idealism.”

“Can you stop speaking in riddles?” Say’ri sighed.

“Traitor!” The man spat at Say’ri. “I see you’ve decided to take your brother’s place.”

“What would a cowardly toad like yourself hope to understand?” Say’ri met him with a gaze that froze the man instantly.  “You, who have attempted assassination for no other reason than your fanatical hatred! That is what my liege means when he says your idealism has betrayed you. When I lead the resistance, we did not perform assassinations. It is only worth it to kill the head of the demon when the rest can be dealt with. Otherwise, you lead to nothing other than greater than calamity with your petty retribution!”

“Can you not refer to me as a demon’s head?” Robin shook his head. “I’m not even immortal and I certainly can’t resurrect myself. But anyway, what was your plan, Jean-Luc? What would happen when you killed me?”

“The Empire would fall!” Jean-Luc spat. “The factions would have cleaned you out, and we would have the opportunity to reclaim our homelands!”

“You mean the ones that Walhart, not me, conquered in the first place?” Robin raised an eye. “You’ve got raw belief, and there’s a certain power in that. Certainly enough to lead the rest of your friends to your death. But it’s not what I respect, not without at least some intelligence to back it up.”

Jean-Luc’s eyes darted back and forth, like a trapped rat. Robin could see that the man was only beginning to grasp how outmatched he was, and that he had charged into a trap. “What do you want from me?”

“Oh, I already got what I came for.” Robin said. “I was wondering how skilled my puppet master was.”

“Puppet master?” Jean-Luc blinked.

“My spy network doesn’t work like a traditional one.” Robin explained. “I decided to eschew that a while ago. I’ve got a few contacts in foreign lands, but half my agents are implanted in the personal networks of other Valm generals, feeding me the information they have. The other half are employed by Morgaine. Is that a name you’re familiar with? No?”

“I believe she goes by Avarice, in the circle she’s be in.” Say’ri interrupted.

“The information merchant?” Jean-Luc blinked.

“The various undergrounds and resistances are in constant need of three things, Jean-Luc.” Robin said. “Information, supplies, and hope. And I can supply all three. You see, I don’t mind the underground existing, so long as I know about it. And the rebellion gave me the perfect in.”

“You’re a monster.”

“Don’t insult monsters.” Robin said, his eyes turning fierce. “I’m human. Just like you. Let’s not forget that I’ve only killed people on the field of battle, where they’ve meant me harm, whereas you’ve invaded my home, and tried to kill me in cold blood. When it comes down to it, you lack vision. This entire rebellion, which you happen to be the last desperate sparks of? Made by shortsighted men. I’m not saying that killing me would do nothing. I’m saying that you lack a plan beyond that.”

“Our plan is simple.” Jean-Luc stared malevolently at him. “Kill evil!”

“Kill … evil?”

“Of course you wouldn’t understand! It’s what an ideal is! If all I do is kill evil, than the world will have been made a better place by it.”

“So would you kill yourself as well?” Robin chuckled. “You’re trying to kill one of the rightful rulers of this land and create a state based of fear and anarchy. So, tell me Jean-Luc, who’s evil here? Is it me because – eh?”

Robin trailed off when he snapped out of the monologue to notice that Jean-Luc’s eyes had glazed over. To the side, Say’ri was calmly wiping her blade of blood, while the man lay on the floor, dead. His throat was slashed in a quick motion.

“You are.” Say’ri reminded him. “You are evil, Robin. You manipulated him into attacking you, and now you’ve told him too much, requiring his death. Not that you weren’t going to kill him anyway, you were, but he deserves death, so I shall not argue. But please refrain from giving those evil speeches.”

“It’s kind of hard to resist monologuing.” Robin sighed. “How am I supposed to be an evil mastermind without those?”

“You aren’t.” Say’ri sighed. “I leave you alone, and you’re immediately corrupted. Fie.”

“Dealing with these people always brings out the worse in me.” Robin said. “You do understand, don’t you? They’re assassins, acting for would-be noble reasons, and doing nothing but sowing chaos. And the rebellions. I guess I got carried away. Sorry.”

“I understand.” Say’ri sighed. “And now that you’ve drawn your attack, am I correct in assuming that you’ll be off again?”

“Correct.” Robin said, grinning. “Things in Valm are proceeding ahead of schedule, so I’ve decided to take a break. I’ve got a few old friends to visit. And maybe one or two people to recruit. General Pheros kindly suggested that I take a vacation, so I’m heading across the waves again.”

“You may want to consider actually resting while you are there, and not just using the good general’s advice as a pretext.”

Robin rolled his eyes. “As if.”

 

Report: Alright. So, Plegia's finally got a new king up on the throne. Couldn't do anything about that, sorry. Get this - it's ANOTHER Grimleal, by the name of Validar. Plegia just doesn't learn, eh? Supposedly, he's just a simple believer, and not one of their priests or anything, but that's not true either. He's got a close connection with the Hierophant, who basically skulks in the shadows to the point I can't even find anything about the man. Validar's kind of evil, and I'm pretty sure he's got one of those Gemstone things you told me to keep an eye out for. Obviously, I can't do anything without revealing my identity, so I haven't, but you probably want this guy gone. Though you've never needed any advice on what to do. - Dant.

Chapter Text

-Throne Room-

“You wish to go to Ylisse?” Walhart said. “Why?”

“I am not asking your permission, Conqueror.” Robin knelt before him. “I am merely informing you that I will be heading there, and thus I will be unavailable for the next few months. I feel it is safe to do so, given the recent defeat of rebel groups. If you have tasks for me, my assistant Morgaine will be able to help you. If there is something you need me to do within the next few months that might supersede it, I request that you tell me now.”

“Hmm.” Walhart frowned. It wasn’t that he objected to his tactician acting independently of him. Walhart approved of it, but the reason he kept a tactician around was so that Walhart didn’t have to worry about things like shadowy, multi-layered plans. Well, except for the one coming from Robin himself. But that’s why he had his own spymaster who kept tabs on him. “Nothing readily comes to mind. But I ask again, what do you seek in Ylisse?”

“Two reasons. If you wish to know, I shall tell you, though I thought you considered the finer points of logistics something only needed to be overlooked by myself.” Robin said. “My main goal is to get a good lay of the land for the preparation of our invasion. I’ve been consulting the generals on the invasion of Archaneia. The consensus seems to be an assault on Plegia first.”

“Why?” Walhart asked. “They do not have the Fire Emblem. They are inconsequential. Plegia is merely an afterthought, and they offer very little in strategic resources or manpower. That Grimleal religion of theirs is rooted in, so it’ll be hard to add to the Empire proper.”

“True. But they do serve a good staging ground.”

“So does Regna Ferox.” Walhart said. “It has the added advantage of being far more difficult. A campaign through an icy wasteland which the indigenous people are hardened warriors and accustomed too. That sounds … perfect.

“You do realize that every campaign in military history described like that ended in abysmal failure, right. Every. Single. One.” Robin sighed. “There’s not much of a point of having myself as a tactician if you’re going to ignore my advice.”

“I am not everyone else, tactician. And neither are you.” Walhart said. “I have no problem with you planning the assault, but there will not be a priority towards conquering Plegia. If you wish, there can be one for Regna Ferox, but not Plegia. Understood?”

“Yes, Conqueror.” Robin said through gritted teeth. “But can I at least cripple Plegia in our assault so they can’t harry our supply lines?”

“That sounds like logistics, and that is something you are in charge of.” Walhart said. “And the second?”

“…” Robin frowned. “Pheros thinks I’m stressing myself, and taking a normal break doesn’t work, because I just get drawn to the work. She thinks that even I can’t maintain my normal workload if I’m across an ocean.”

“Hmm.” Walhart tilted his head. “The optimal method of getting stronger is to face your shortcomings, not flee from them.”

“You’re going to deny the fact that you can work yourself to death? No one has infinite strength.”

“I suppose it is possible, even for me.” Walhart considered. It might take him an few days of nonstop fighting. “But I’ve seen that used more as an excuse for cowards, rather than an actual reason. See that it’s an actual reason for yourself.”

“As you command.” Robin said. “I’ll be taking my leaving.”

“As you wish, tactician.” Walhart said.  “Go forth and conquer. Prepare Ylisse for subjection.”

-Ylisse-

“…And that’s how I ended up here, believe it or not.” Robin finished explaining.

“Really?” Chrom said. “I mean, I would be perfectly fine with either Morgan or Marth leaving if they needed it, but I thought Valm was a lot more militaristic then Ylisse. I can’t believe that they let you go here just to visit old friends.”

“I did justify it by saying that I was going to learn about my Ignis ability. Also, General Pheros recommended it for health reasons.” Robin reminded. It’s definitely not because I was spying for invasion plans – but that’s not the real reason either. “I’ve also set a lot of long-term plans in place back in Valm. We’re doing a lot of shoring up these days now that the Risen have decided to pop their head on our territory.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. The Shepherds have out hands full as well.” Chrom said. The two were standing on the grand balcony of Castle Ylisse, looking over the city. Robin had traveled alone across the sea and through Regna Ferox, narrowly avoiding a meeting with Basilio. Robin didn’t feel like meeting him again until after he had the black gemstone. “Though most days I’m here. I don’t like leaving the palace.”

“And why not?” Robin asked. His question was almost immediately answered.

“Dear, where are you?” A voice rang out.

Chrom turned around. “I’m on the balcony, with a guest.”

“I see.” A few moments later they were joined by Olivia. Robin stared at the Ylissean queen for a moment, blinking as he took her in. Olivia smiled at him. “Oh, I remember you! You’re Robin, that Valmese tactician. It’s nice to meet you again.”

“My pleasure, Queen Olivia.” Robin bowed, catching a good look at her belly before he did so. It’s not my imagination, right…?

“Oh, any friend of Chrom’s is a friend of mine. Just call me Olivia, like any of the other Shepherds would.” Olivia said. “Are you still trying to figure out how to talk about the elephant in the room?”

“Dear, please don’t tease him.” Chrom said. “Yes, she’s pregnant, with my oldest.”

“I see.” Robin said. “Well, congratulations!”

“Do you get one as well?” Olivia asked. “I seem to remember seeing you keeping the company of a cute Chon’sin samurai last time you were here. And seeing as she’s not here…”

“No, Say’ri is back among the Chon’sin right now, helping them on their feet, not for any other reason.” Robin chuckled. “I’m also afraid that particular ship has also sailed. There’s very little chance that we’ll end up together. Well, have you decided on a name yet?”

“I think we’ll do Emmeryn if she’s a girl.” Chrom said. “If it’s a boy – well, I’ve been thinking about Anri.”

“That’s what he thinks.” Olivia chuckled, elbowing him. “I don’t think so.”

I know who’s winning that argument. Robin thought. “Why not? They’re both fine names.”

“It’s too much to ask a child. I don’t know about the name Anri, but I don’t mind that one too much. Emmeryn is too heavy.” Olivia shook her head. “Marth told us that she took the name because she wanted to be like the Hero-King. That’s find for an adult to choose, but Emmeryn’s legacy is far too much for any daughter of mine to bear. Maybe as a middle name, though. Chrom will come around to my way of thinking.”

“Probably.” Chrom admitted. “But I definitely want it as a middle name.

“So, what’s the name if it’s a girl, then?”

“Lucina.” Olivia said. “It’s an old word for-”

“-Light.” Robin finished. That’s Marth’s real name. Makes perfect sense. If Lucina is a name passed down throughout the royal family, then Lucina would probably want to hide that, seeing as she’s probably a bastard line of the royal throne. “An old name as well?”

“No, not at all.” Olivia laughed. “I came up with it. It’s new, as far as I could tell. It’s my way of honoring Exalt Emmeryn, who shown with an inner light. What do you think?”

…What? If it’s not bloodline based – then is it just a coincidence? It can’t just be a coincidence, Olivia said she came up with it, and both her and the newborn have royal blood. She’s certainly related to Chrom, and Chrom’s child. Robin’s mind raced. How- This is the universe laughing at me, isn’t it? Unless Lucina was lying about her name. Or it has something with her being a Foreseer. If that’s the case, maybe it was her way of telling me that she can see the future? Or am I overthinking this? I’m overthinking this! I HAVE NO IDEA!

“Dear, I think you broke him.” Chrom said.

“Wha- No, I’m okay.” Robin shook his head. “I was just-”

“Dueling with unpleasant thoughts?” Chrom offered.

“Sure, why not?” Robin took the lifeline like a drowning man. “Yes.”

“Well, in that case, how about a duel to get your mind off things?”

“Seriously?” The Exalt want to spar with me?

“Seriously.” Chrom said. “If you want to learn more about your Ignis, why not spar against my Aether?”

“Dear…”

“It’s fine, love, I haven’t had my exercise this morning.” Chrom grinned. “Besides, what could go wrong?”

“You really want to hand the universe a line like that…” Robin muttered under his breath. “Why…?”

-Ylisse, Training Grounds-

“Let’s just spar lightly. A bit of a warmup.” Chrom offered, throwing off his cloak. He drew Falchion, casually spinning it before settling into an aggressive two-handed stance. Robin considered using his spear, but that felt wrong. Instead, his hand drifted to the Chon’sin dueling blade he wore. Robin smiled as he felt the grip. He would just use his sword play for this fight.

He tossed off the anti-magic cloak component of his armor to give himself a greater range of motion and drew the Chon’sin tachi. He clutched it one handed, and brought his right arm up towards his chest, pointing the blade towards Chrom, using a variant of the traditional thrust stance. “Swords only, alright?” Robin asked.

“It’s like you read my mind.” Chrom said. “I’ve been training in spears, but judging from our stances, I think we can have a good fight using swords. I think you'd hold too much of a skill gap over me in spears, but I would say we're abut equal in swords.”

“Ready when you are.”

The two combatants faced each other, reading the atmosphere. Then Robin struck first, as he noticed Chrom sliding his foot back for extra purchase, a lightning-fast two-handed thrust. Chrom dropped his left hand instantly and slashed the thrust away with a one-handed sweep. Robin circled his wrist with a bit of dexterous handwork and went for a slash at Chrom’s right, shifting to one hand himself. Chrom shifted his grip to block the sword and brought his left hand to the hilt forcing Robin to copy him as Chrom held the clash with the two stared at each other.

“Nice moves.” Chrom complimented.

“I’ve barely started.” Robin retreated back and settled into the normal thrust form. I know we said sparring, but I want to go all-out for some reason. Can’t really explain it. Very well, let’s do this! “Chon’sin-style blademanship: Kenjutsu: Astra!”

His sword jutted out, stabbing at five places in quick succession. Chrom grit his teeth and swiped four stabs away in quick succession with a deft parrying series, particularly impressive considering he was using two-handed to hold the blade. Chrom ducked the last one and drove his shoulder into Robin’s gut, sending him backwards.

Not good. I remember Say’ri warning me about that if my form was off. Wonder who he’s faced that he’d know about, though. The tactician recovered slightly after the exalt, so Robin was forced on the defensive once Chrom started slashing at him with wide, sweeping blows. Incredibly powerful ones at that.

Seems like the Exalt is more than just the rumors say. Robin grit his teeth. He timed an overhead slash just right so he could leap backwards, giving himself breathing room. Robin set back and kept the blade there. Chrom came rushing at him, so Robin responded in kind, rushing at him and sweeping the blade into a powerful slash.

The two swords met as their wielders howled in unison, attempting to force the blades past each other. Robin’s Chon’sin blade was forged by a master blacksmith, perfectly capable of slicing through lesser blades. But if rumors were true, Chrom’s own Falchion was made form the tooth of a dragon, and indestructible. So it wouldn’t come down to the strength of their blades, but the strength of their wielders. And Robin was weaker than Chrom. Place your back to the wall and burn your bridges behind you! If you force yourself in a place with no retreat, you’ll have no choice but to win!

“Ignis!” Robin woke the strength within him, channeling the magic into his arms, and powering through the clash. Chrom was thrust back, a surprised look on his face as Robin stood, purple flames lit around him. Chrom grinned a performed a fancy flourish.

“So, you can hold your own, then?” Chrom grinned. “I’ve never seen that before.”

“Ignis.” Robin repeated. “It lets me-”

“Don’t bother. I’ll figure it out for myself.” Chrom dashed forward, now moving faster, and attacked. Robin shifted his second hand, his left one, to the far side of the hilt, he had strength from Ignis, and now he wanted control as well. He charged as well.

The two fighters met head on in the center of the arena, trading matched blows with each other. The air rang as the blades clashed with a repetitive sound of metal on metal. Robin focused, analyzing the Ylissean’s style. Chrom used Ylissean noble fencing, but modified to support the Exalt’s raw strength, letting the man take full advantage. At the end of the day, it’s not raw talent that makes him deadly. Robin frowned. He’s just taken his already significant natural talent and uses it to its fullest. A skilled technician like Say’ri could exploit that. But my Battlemaster-style is built to exploit weaknesses, which this man doesn’t have.

“Battlemaster-style combat: Kenjustu: Crescent Slash!” Robin brought the blade over his head and grip it with two hands, bringing it down in a powerful vertical slash. Chrom flipped his blade sideways and used his left hand to brace the far side when he took the blow, but it forced him back anyways.

“That was pretty strong. So that’s it.” Chrom said. “It’s not what Aether is, but that’s a powerful ability. It amplifies your strength, I take it? You weren’t any faster, and any improvement of control you had was because of your hand movement.”

“Not exactly. It focuses my magic through my strength, and my strength into magic.” Robin said. “In other words, it lets me channel energy into different forms. So, yes, my strength is boosted, but not because of my strength. What does Aether do?”

“Let me show you!” Blue flames lit around Chrom. Robin charged forward, slashing forward. Chrom leap over the slash and landed behind Robin, Robin spun to block, but failed as Chrom’s faster blade cut clean through his chestplate and scratching beneath it, drawing a thin line of blood. Robin stared as some of his purple flames were drawn into the blue ones surrounding Chrom’s blade.

“What was that?” Robin considered. “Also, ow. I thought we were sparring.”

“Sorry, got carried away.” Chrom sighed and sheathed his blade. “That is Aether. The blue flames of Ylissean nobility. Its effects are twofold. It allows me to cut through defenses, and it draws the energy of my opponent into myself.”

No         way. Robin’s mind went blank as he searched for an appropriate insertion. “So, you literally could cut through an army wielding that, couldn’t you? Just hacking clean through them, and never getting tired. Is that the power of the Ylissean Exalt?”

“You make it sound so grand.” Chrom chuckled. “I mean, maybe? They say Anri was able to conquer the trials of the Emblem by himself, where it took Marth an army. But Aether is not meant to be used like that. It’s given to protect. And it’s not like I can just keep it out, you know.”

“Yes, of course.” Robin nodded. “So, I guess we’d know who would win in a fight. There seems to be a very good reason why you're an Exalt who leads from the front, and I'm a Battlemaster who commands.”

“Ha!” Chrom laughed. “Don’t sell yourself short, I know you use magic and lances. It’d be a lot closer if we fought for real, all out. Anyway, let’s see if we can sneak you to Lissa before Olivia notices and goes for my head.”

“What for this scratch? I took an axe to the chest once. This is no problem.” Robin already had a concoction out that he was drinking from. “She’ll never notice.”

-Ylisse, Throne Room-

“He’s got a cut breastplate, Chrom.” Olivia wasn’t wearing an amused expression. “Honestly, did you think you could get away with it?”

“Forgot about that.” Chrom muttered. “I’m … sorry?”

“It’s fine.” Olivia blushed. “I’m just glad that you’re good friends with someone from Valm.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Exactly.” Olivia smiled. “That’s why I love you, dear. Now, will he be joining us for dinner?”

“I think so.” Chrom said. “He said he wanted to meet with Marth. Something about names?”

-Ylisse, Barracks-

“Okay, spill it.” Robin said, arms crossed.

“Spill what?” Lucina’s face was a mask of innocence.

“You haven’t told Chrom your real name. And be very glad that I listened to you and didn't tell him it either.” Robin said. “Lucina.

“Well, there’s a perfectly good explanation for that-”

“Shut up. I wasn’t finished. I was talking to the Exalt today and found out that Olivia is planning to name their child Lucina if she’s a girl.” Robin said. “I also found out that it isn’t a name passed through the royal family. So, why do you have the same name as the soon-to-be born daughter of Chrom, and why are you hiding it from him?”

“Calm down.” Lucina said. “Like I said, there’s a perfectly good explanation-”

“Waiting for it…” Robin tapped a pattern with his fingers.

“-it’s just a coincidence.” Lucina said. "And the reason I haven't told him is because I want to be known as Marth. That's it."

“Do I have ‘stupid’ written in big letters on my forehead?” Robin asked. “Want to try that again? And this time, maybe make it somewhat believable?”

“I’m sorry, do you have a better explanation?” Lucina snapped. “It’s just a coincidence! I’m not even a royal!”

“Okay, so that one is definitely wrong.” Robin said. “I saw you use Falchion. A sword only the Royal Family can wield. Look, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m also a royal bastard, as you so informed me. But don’t tell me you aren’t royalty. And even if you were, according to Olivia, she came up with the name on the spot.”

“Oh… right, you saw me use it that night of the wedding. That was actually a different sword. No, my sword isn’t Chrom’s.” Lucina said. “It just looks exactly like his. And glows occasionally, but no one can figure out why. And if I was royalty, I would have the Brand, wouldn’t I?”

“Do you?” Robin’s eyes narrowed. “It’s my understanding that the Brand shows up somewhere on the noble’s body. And I’m not asking it, but I am pointing out that there are a great many places a brand could be that would never appear in polite society. So, your lack of a Brand doesn’t convince me, and I’m not believing that your sword is just identical to Chrom’s! Have they ever been seen together?”

“Yes.” Lucina sighed. “And before you ask-”

“Being wielded at the same time?” Robin demanded.

“Yes, that too.” Lucina sighed. “And, I hate to break this to you, but you’re not the only one with this crazed theory that Chrom and I are somehow related thanks to the fact that we share the exact same hair color. Now, while you aren’t asking, privacy isn’t easy out on the campaign road, which certain people took advantage of and there are several female Shepherds that can attest to my lack of Brand anywhere on my skin.”

“…Wait, really?” Robin blinked. “Well, there goes that theory.”

“I keep telling you, it’s just a coincidence!” Lucina snapped. She drew her sword and stabbed it through the table. “Look! See, it’s real. And I know you just dueled Chrom, so we didn’t pull a switcheroo. Here’s my sword, and if you’ll hold it, you’ll notice that it’s not sharp for you. This is a bloodline sword, like Chrom’s Falchion, but it’s tied to my bloodline.”

“So, to clarify: You are of a different ancient bloodline, who possesses the same-looking ancestral sword that Chrom does, have access to the Aether-skill, and you just have the same name as pure coincidence?”

“It sounds kind of far-fetched when you put it like that, but there’s nothing untrue about what you just said.” Lucina said. “At least, according to Gerome.”

“Sorry, what was that last sentence?”

“Nothing.” Lucina said, coughing. “It’s just that some of my comrades have also made comments about the similarities, and the fact that they’re meaningless.”

“There’s still something you aren’t telling me.” Robin narrowed his eyes. "Did you pick the name Lucina because you knew Chrom would name his daughter that?"

“There are many things I’m not telling you.” Lucina corrected. “I am the Foreseer, you know. But, no. I was given the name Lucina at birth, even though I did know that Chrom would name his daughter that, which may be the reason I've been hiding it. But, I promise you that the tale of my name isn’t important.”

“Sorry about the table then.”

“What? Oh.” Lucina looked at her sword stuck clean through the table. “Never mind. Chrom’s broken more things than just a table. Honestly, the man can’t get up for a glass of water in the night without taking a few doors of the hinges. The castle staff is kind of just used to fixing things at this point.”

“Haha.” Robin laughed, trying to normalize the situation. “Walhart does that too, actually. They’ve just stopped closing the doors in Castle Valm because he has a tendency to walk through them when he isn’t paying attention.”

“I can picture that.” Lucina said. “So, why are you here?”

“Well, it’s kind of useless now that you’re not a member of the Ylissean bloodline.” Robin sighed. “I need Lady Tiki, and she’s not interested in helping anyone who doesn’t possess Marth’s bloodline. Chrom is completely unsuited because – well, you know why. I can’t very well ask the Exalt to be involved in a shadowy plot to overthrow Valm.”

“Did you say, ‘shadowy plot to overthrow Valm’?” Lucina blinked.

“Yes, but I’m obviously going to deny saying as such.” Robin blinked. Normally he wouldn’t have said anything to begin with. He had an unusually high level of trust for these Ylisseans. He wasn’t sure why. “Anyway, Lady Tiki is the Voice of Naga. She’s incredibly well respected, and I need her to control Valm. I was kind of hoping you had sway but if you don’t have Ylissean Royal Blood…”

“Well, this is awkward…” Lucina sighed. “Though I am happy to see that you do want to overthrow Valm. I’m glad to see that you’re still the same Robin as ever.”

“Did you know me before I had amnesia?” Robin demanded.

“No, we never met until Ylisse last year.” Lucina waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, I should be able to convince Tiki to help you.”

“Uh, how?”

“I didn’t just take the name Marth as a moniker because I respect him.” Lucina snapped. “I’ve also got another few tricks. Anyway, why would you need that?”

Okay. Maybe she’s part of some clan that swore to protect the Ylissean lineage. Robin considered. Yes, that would make sense. Naga gave another blade to them, and the Aether ability, and they serve as shadowy protectors. Like, what was her name, Katarina. And Tiki even said that they wiped their names history. So she must be descended from that bloodline. Yes, that makes sense. Glad I solved that. Well, except for the name, but it really might just be a coincidence. I mean, weirder things have happened.

“The Valm Empire, as it stands, is many nations under Walhart. That needs to change.” Robin said. “By raising the factions that compose of it to equal status, we’ll have changed the status quo that makes up the Empire. And doing that is one of three prerequisites to the CDO Plan.”

“The CDO Plan?”

“The Chromatic Designation Only Plan.” Robin said, gesturing to himself. “Robin Obsidian, Designation: Crimson Tactician. And a few other players.”

“…” Lucina sighed. “It’s like pulling teeth with you.”

“Much the same with you.” Robin said. “And I would actually like to include you.”

“The catch?” Lucina asked.

“You’d need to join with me.” Robin said. “And we’ve got some trust issues between us, not a lot, but some. And joining me means leaving Ylisse.”

“That’s a catch. And I don’t want to join Valm, even if I do feel that I’ve overstayed my leave here.” Lucina sighed. “But on the other hand, it’s hard to affect things right now.”

“You wouldn’t be joining Valm.” Robin said. “In effect, I’d make you the honor guard for Lady Tiki. I can’t tell you more right now.”

“Lady Tiki. Right.” Lucina inhaled. “I’ll have to discuss this with the others. I think Chrom wants you at dinner tonight, so I’ll have the answer after that.”

“Don’t keep me waiting, you hear?” Robin blinked. “Oh, um, one last question. Your middle name?”

“My middle name?” Lucina blinked. It seemed she was genuinely confused by the question, and Robin didn’t give her credit as a good enough actor to fake it. “Lazuli, why?”

“No reason.”

-Ylisse-

Robin stretched his arms and he sat outside in the royal gardens. Olivia had insisted that he make use of their hospitality, and Robin decided not to pass it up, especially when he compared the fair Ylissean air to the Valmese counterparts. It wasn’t that Valm was inherently bad, or anything like that, but Ylisse had something in the atmosphere that Valm didn’t have. Robin wasn’t sure what it was.

“Hello.”

Robin noticed the young blond girl that walked in front of him. “Hello, yourself. Nah, right?”

“That’s my name, yes.” Nah nodded.

“I didn’t get a chance to thank you for saving my life last time.” Robin said. “How old are you? I know you’re young for a manakete, but I read up on them.”

“I’m…” Nah considered. “Well, I guess it depends on how you count. But I’m guessing that you want how long I’ve lived, so that’s sixteen years old. In terms of physical age and growth, I’m around eight, I think.”

“That young?” Robin blinked. “So, that would put you around the age of the rest of them – younger, even.”

“I’m the youngest.” Nah nodded. “Well, we think I’m the youngest, anyway. Laurent’s gone a bit crazy trying to figure out everyone’s exact ages. It only matters to him, but we’ve all got out quirks.”

“Fascinating.” Robin murmured. “A team of trained soldiers, all the same age. I wonder what circumstances set this up? It must have been exceptional.”

“It was.” Nah nodded, sighing. “But you aren’t supposed to know that. I forgot how smart you are, always figuring things out.”

“Lucina likes denying things that are obviously the truth.” Robin frowned. “Admit it – you knew me, didn’t you? All thirteen of you.”

“I can’t contradict what Lucy says.” Nah said. “And I don’t want to tell you anymore, because you might figure things out. So I can’t answer that.”

“Seems fair.” Robin was slightly disappointed, but he couldn't expect anything else.

“Did you talk to Tiki?”

“I tried.” Robin grimaced. “She didn’t really want to deal with me, since I wasn’t Ylissean or from the royal line. She did give me a tome, though. Apparently, I reminded her of its original owner.”

“Tiki…” Nah sighed. “I thought she might help you.”

“Help me? How?”

“It’s – well, if you met her and she didn’t do anything, I guess there was nothing to be done.” Nah sighed. “I’d really like to talk to her myself, but it looks like I’m not going to be going with you, because apparently I’m too conspicuous.”

“Really?” Robin frowned. “I mean, you look pretty human aside from the ears.”

“Not that. I may have an addiction to rampant destruction.” Nah said, quickly. “As a manakete.”

What?

“Seriously.” The small blond-haired girl nodded. “May have destroyed the odd forest. Or two. Anyway, I want you to have this.”

Robin accepted the object. It was a clear glass stone, with a misty, swirling interior. Definitely magical in nature, but Robin couldn’t place where it was from. “What’s this?”

“A used up dragonstone.” Nah said. “My mother like collecting rocks as good luck charms. I, um, picked up the habit. So I thought you could use it for luck.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Nah said. “No, seriously, don’t. Ever. At all. I’d be mortified.”

“All right then. Thanks, Nah.” Robin said. “Hope we meet again, under circumstances at least this good. And that I’ll finally be able to turn the favor to your side.”

“No problem.” Nah said. “Remember – if you ever run into a problem you don’t know the solution too, ask the Voice.”

-Ylisse, Future Children Barracks-

“Sounds great to me.” Morgan said. “When did he say you leave?”

“Morgan! That’s a bit preemptive, don’t you think?” Lucina scowled. “Besides, you just want to join him because he’s you father.”

“Unfortunately, no.” Morgan shook her head. “At least one of us needs to be here. In the future you came from, Robin was the tactician for Ylisse. If we want history to stay as close as possible on this side of the ocean, we need to keep those conditions. And I may not be my father, but I’m still a capable tactician in my own right. And I’m the one best to answer, ‘What would Robin do’?”

“Why do we want to keep things the same here?” Lucina asked.

“Because all your knowledge is useless if this country changes too radically.” Morgan said. “As it is, we’re kind of hideously off track, because of Father not showing up, but you’ve managed to keep it reasonably on track. All Valm is supposed to do is invade in nine years. Besides, I’d rather you be by Father’s side than mine.”

“So he has more pawns? No, hold on I can figure this out.” Lucina frowned. “It’s to watch over him from the Grimleal, isn’t it? I mean, I do think that’s a good idea, but at the same time, I tried killing him once, remember? What makes you think I won’t do it again?”

“Well, you got better.” Morgan gave the younger woman a thumbs up. “You’re making big sis Morgan proud! Also, I trust your judgement.”

“Only you would say something like that.” Lucina sighed. “So, who else is staying with you?”

“Definitely Yarne.” Morgan said. “And I’m not just saying that because I get off by bullying him. Also I need Brady and Kjelle. Inigo too, I suppose. I hate to break up the magic leader duo, but I also think it’s best. You want the fliers, so you get Gerome and Cynthia. As for the rest…”

“Right.” Lucina considered. “I guess we’ll talk about it.”

“You go do that, I’m packing.”

“I thought you said you weren’t coming!”

“Not to Valm, silly.” Morgan sighed. “Jeez, I thought you were getting the hang of it. If the six of you leave, that’s kind of suspicious. So I’ll take the rest of the Future Children out as well, so they think that all thirteen of us are together on some operation. I won’t leave Archaneia, I promise.”

-Ylissotol-

“We’re coming.” Lucina said. “The six of us.”

“Ready for travel, I see.”

Lucina had her identical Falchion strapped to her belt, with a second, thin blade tied just beneath it. A black-haired swordsman with a Chon’sin blade stood beside her, grinning. Beside him stood a scowling ginger-haired girl with a large flat blade and clothing reminiscent of a hired mercenary. Robin had a faint memory of fighting that pair during the fracas in Ylisse. Aside that, there were two fliers and a scholar. The pegasus flier was an excited girl with twin pigtails, a shade of alabaster that rivaled Robin’s own. The other flier was on a wyvern that looked vaguely familiar to Robin, but he couldn’t figure out why. The blue hair reminded him of Virion, though the wyvern rider acted nothing like the Rosanne fop, and insisted on wearing a black mask. The scholar was the most normal of them, wearing robes and a conical hat atop his brown hair, with a spectacular pair of spectacles. Robin appreciated that and instantly felt a pang of sympathy for what would no doubt be the only sane and normal member of the group.

“Allow me to introduce my companions.” Lucina said. “Owain Dark, an excellent fighter in his own right, trained under a Chon’sin swordsmaster. He’s eccentric, talks about things that don’t exist, and won’t shut up about his sword hand. But don’t mistake him – he’ll never back down in a fight.”

“Aw, thanks Cuz.”

“He is also my cousin.” Lucina sighed and gave him a fierce glare. “Which I was trying to keep under wraps. Next is Severa the Shieldmaiden. She’s the most reliable of my soldiers. A good second-in-command, and she’s got a good tactical mind as well. She has a last name, but she doesn’t like using it.”

“Hmph. But don’t think I joined because of anything you did, got that?” Severa stared daggers at him. “I haven’t forgotten what you did last time. I’m only here because Lucy is. Got it?”

Ah, right. Robin recalled that he’d sent the girl into Owain’s arms. And then mocked them for it. “Would it help if I said I was sorry?”

“Maybe if I believed you.”

“Ah ha.” Lucina chuckled. “Severa takes a bit to warm up to people. Then we have Cynthia Whitewing.”

“Cynthia! A knight for justice, fighting for those who need it!”

“More explanations unneeded.” Lucina sighed. “Gerome Camus, our wyvern rider. And his wyvern Minerva. He’s our dark knight when we need it, you understand.”

“The word isn’t always in need of caped crusaders. I get it.” Robin said. Minerva. Don’t I know that name from somewhere – right, the Macedonian general. I wonder if he’s related to her. “I’m sure you’ll be a fine addition. And the last?”

“Laurent Inkstained. Our scholar.” Lucina said. “He’s the most well versed in magical theory on this side of the – well, this side of somewhere. I was going to say Archaneia, and then I remembered that we’ll be in Valm, so… Anyway, he’s our man for everything the rest of us can’t understand.”

“Know anything about Valentian magic?” Robin asked.

“Valentian?” Laurent frowned. “I have, in fact. Not a lot, unfortunately.”

“Well, you’re about to have the chance to learn a whole lot more.” Robin said. “I’ve got a subordinate working on fusing some of the old spells to the Archaneian method. He’ll send you his notes.”

“And that’s all six of us.” Lucina said. “The others are staying here.”

“This’ll be fine.” Robin clapped his hands. All those last names are, without a doubt, utterly fictional, which makes me question why Severa doesn’t use one. Could just be she really hates her last name, while the rest of them require it because their names identify them. “Well, we’re off to Valm.”

 

Report: I heard you were in Ylisse. WELL I DON’T CARE! Zulas is your best friend, and we’re having you as the best man, so you’d BETTER attend, or so help me, Robin, I will make your life as bearable of a living hell as I can make it. I don’t care what kind of wild scheme you’ve got cooking on the back burner, you have no excuse for not being able to find time. So come to our wedding. All our love – Lady Argeni & Lord Zulas.

Chapter Text

-Raven’s Pledge-

Robin was quite for the long voyage back. And that made Lucina nervous. He already wasn’t the same man that she remembered back in her doomed timeline. Sure, the man kept mostly to himself, friendly enough, but the Shepherds never really developed that close of bonds to him, Chrom excepted. And it was through Chrom’s exception that Lucina had grown to know Chrom, especially through his adopted daughter Ravena. And he was rarely quiet for long periods of time, even though it was usually him talking to himself in a low undertone. But he'd usually talk to Lucina whenever she talked to him.

“Dueling with unpleasant thoughts?” Lucina asked him.

“Hmm?” Robin was staring out, watching the ocean, resting on the guard rail. “Not particularly, no. I was keeping a lookout for the number of ice floes we passed.”

That’s odd. Lucina frowned. “You know, this is my first time on a ship.”

“Oh, is it?” Robin blinked. “Huh, I figured – Well, that clears something up by way of absolutely nothing. I figured your team were Ylissean black ops, but you don’t have any training for the water? It’s not like Ylisse is land-locked.”

“We only share hostile borders on land, though.” Lucina pointed out. She remembered too late that Robin assumed they were a special team put together as an off-the-books Shepherd. She wasn’t sure if she minded him thinking otherwise, so long as he didn’t know the truth, but it never hurt to keep him guessing.

“Right, forgot about that.” Robin laughed. “Yeah, ordinarily, I’d be hunting you down and shaking answers out of you or giving you long elaborate plans.”

“So, why aren’t you?” Lucina turned around and leaned against the guard rail, letting her blue hair fly free in the wind. She felt it was only right, keeping it cooped up while she was Marth.

“Because you don’t want to. I don't think you want to be deeply involved in my machinations, or that you'd appreciate an interrogation.” Robin said, shrugging. “Trust is a two-way street, after all. And I must admit, that Valm hasn’t really given me a good avenue for exercising trust, seeing as most people there are backstabbing roaches.”

“You’re going to honestly admit that?” Lucina asked. “What happened to national pride?”

“Sure, why not? It’s not like anyone would believe you if you said that, and everyone I’m currently planning to backstab is already working on the assumption that I’m already planning to do it.” Robin said. “I almost got assassinated a few weeks back because I was manipulating political marriages to my benefit. Also, it’s kind of a point of national pride that we’re like that.”

“You were manipulating a political marriage?” Lucina raised an eyebrow. “You know, for some reason, you seem like entirely the sort of person who would manipulate marriage for his own selfish benefit, but I’m going to assume there was a good reason behind it.”

“Your benefit of the doubt is appreciated.” Robin said. “I’m pretty sure even Walhart knows that I’ve got every intention of double-crossing him. Makes you kind of wonder if it’s betrayal when everyone knows you’re going to do it.”

“Pretty sure it’s still betrayal.” Lucina frowned. “What a depressing way to live.”

Robin shrugged. “So it is.”

“You’re going to double-cross Walhart?” Lucina said. Robin hadn't told her the full plans, and he was right that she didn't want to be involved in his machinations. She'd help him get Tiki involved, so long as the Voice of Naga wouldn't be involved too much skulduggery. Actually, any at all. But she was still curious as to what the basics of the plan was.

“Something to that effect.” Robin shrugged. “He assumes that I’m going to do it through the Wolfguard Initiative, and he’s used his spymaster to infiltrate it, to the effect that I can’t use them to do anything beyond what I publicly stated they’d be used for. Of course-”

-Lucina (Age Eight)-

“There’s nothing I enjoy more than an opponent who knows exactly what I’m thinking. It’s only when I don’t know what I’m thinking when I start getting nervous.” An image of Robin, clad in dark purple robes, lecturing Morgan, while young Lucina was sitting, restless, appeared in her mind. She’d been taking lessons while growing up.

“Why’s it good if they know what you’re planning?” Lucina blurted out.

“Good question.” Robin tapped his head. “It’s because under those circumstance, the enemy becomes predictable. And predictable, young Lucina, is a defeat condition in the field of tactics. In combat, your tutors will tell you that using set forms doesn’t matter, so long as you’re stronger or faster than your opponents, or simply know more forms, and have the capacity to do them better. And that’s true for them, to be sure, because combat is life of death balanced on a knife’s edge during a handful of seconds. But in the hours, days, months, years, however long a tactician has, you have all that time to formulate a counter strategy. Understand?”

“Huh?” Young Lucina blinked as she turned the idea over in her head a few times, trying to understand it. Ultimately, it was something she learned from fencing. “Oh, it’s like a feint. You’re tricking them!”

“Well, yes, and no.” Morgan corrected her. “You see, unlike a feint, what we’re talking about can only be done by committing enough of a force so your opponent is forced to respond. A feint is the illusion of a threat, but here is an actual threat. To be fair, obviously you’re going to employ other methods to counter, so I suppose it’s like a feint, but one where you actually thrust and have another sword waiting to perform another thrust. Which is where the fencing metaphor either breaks down or goes Chon’sin.”

“So, why is that good?” Young Lucina frowned. “I mean, just because you know what they’re going to do isn’t that good if you had to force them to do it.”

“It is, and it isn’t.” Robin said. “Honestly, a lot of tacticians would consider it wasteful, when you know that you’ll be countered. But, if you can make the first move effective, then it’s all worth it.”

“And that’s why Father’s the greatest tactician ever!” Morgan cheered. “But don’t worry, Little Sis Lucy. When you grow up and become Exalt, I’ll be there, like always, to bail you out with my cunning master plan. One day, I’ll be a better tactician than Father!”

“Keep believing that.” Robin said, sighing. “I know it’s the status quo for apprentices to want to surpass their masters, but you have a lot of work do it if you want to get there. And as for you, little Lucina. I know you’ll surpass Chrom one day, but no matter how far you get, remember that I’ll always have your back. And even if I don’t, Morgan will.”

“Absolutely!”

-Raven’s Pledge-

“You always planned it that way.” Lucina said, slowly. “You knew Walhart would respond like that, and the real thrust of your plan is through an entirely different set of actions, ones which come from an entirely different direction, but no doubt incorporate the Wolfguard somehow.”

“That was fast.” Robin blinked. “Glad you’re on my side. Because we already established that we aren’t killing each other, and that was the only other option once you knew that.”

“Valm doesn’t know?” Lucina blinked. “Of course they don’t, they aren’t familiar enough with you, and I doubt you mentored them in tactics. Or, at least the only ones you have are loyal to you.”

“You, on the other hand…” Robin trailed off. “Seriously, who the hell are you people?”

The last remnants of a dying world, sworn to save this one. I am the Ylissean princess Lucina Lowell, daughter of Chrom. Lucina shrugged. “I told you, I’m a foreseer. It’s my job.”

“And that answers nothing.” Robin sighed. “Might as well tell you the plan, if you know that much. Well, as much as concerns you obviously. But I’d like something in exchange.”

“There are some things I cannot tell you.”

“And I’d like to know the reason why.” Robin said. “The reason why you won’t tell me. That’s what I want. Now, I’m no fool. I know that if you told me the reasons why you won’t tell me, that’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from the reasons. But I want some explanation for why you won’t tell me all you know.”

Why don’t I tell him? Lucina thought about it. Honestly, I don’t think he’s a bad person, even though he’s allied with Valm. And the fact of the matter is that I really doubt he’d ally with the Grimleal to bring about Grima if I told him. In fact, he very well could bring the full might of Valm down on Plegia, and destroy the entire damn country, all without having to set a foot on Valm soil.

And even if he chooses to rule the world, is that really so bad? Lucina frowned. Robin caught it, but she was too lost in her thoughts. I mean, sure, a duplicitous and double-crossing Robin is bad, but not end-of-the-world calamity bad. But even the worse of Robins would have the rationality to not want to sacrifice his soul to a dragon. Hopefully. So why keep it from him? At the least, I should tell him about Plegia’s ritual.

“The reason I'm doing all this to prevent Plegia. They are planning a dark ritual-”

“-involving the Fire Emblem.” Robin finished. He waved his hand. “And, yes, I’m working on a way to stop that. And if you’re wondering how I know, keep doing so, I can’t reveal my sources on the matter. But I’m impressed, I didn’t expect you to know that. Though I suppose you didn't get the moniker 'Foreseer' for nothing. Even if you won't tell me how it works.”

What the-! Lucina blinked. He shouldn’t know that with amnesia, and he shouldn’t reveal it if he was faking! So I suppose Valm knew, but they never told us. Walhart is even more of a fool than I thought.

“When there is a larger threat, fighting amongst yourself is not only useless, it is counterproductive.” Lucina sighed, reciting. “So said my old mentor, anyway. So I suppose we’re on the same side.”

“Your mentor seems well read.” Robin gave a glance askance at her. “That’s not quite word-for-word, but it’s from an old tactical text. Sounds like you had schooling from an old-fashioned tactician.”

“I did, what of it?”

“Don’t suppose we studied under the same master? Because that would explain a lot.” Robin said. "A lot."

“No.” Lucina said. I studied under you directly. I know how your mind works better than anyone, except for Morgan.

“Just adds to the mystery, I suppose.” Robin said. “Regardless, I hate to be this way, but you haven’t answered my question. You didn’t tell me anything new, and even if you did, I would only learn more of your ‘Foreseer’ knowledge, and right now I trust you to be holding back information if you deem fit. I want to know why you can’t say all you know.”

“Oh. I misunderstood.” Lucina blinked. Why don’t I tell him I’m from the future where he’s an evil dragon? That’s obvious. “It’s because you either won’t believe me or you will.”

“Come again? That wasn’t really an answer there, you just stated a binary outcome.”

“It’s because you either won’t believe me or you will.” Lucina said. If Robin thinks I’m lying about all this, then there’s no telling what conclusion he’ll reach. And if believes me, well, I’m not sure how any sane man would react to being told they’ll cause the apocalypse that will destroy humanity. I’d certainly have gone mad from what I just experienced, if not for my friends, and Naga’s guidance. “And I cannot say any more. I apologize.”

“So you can’t tell me more than that. Fair enough.” Robin sighed. “So, your story is fantastic in some nature, possibly more so than even what happened with Alm and Celica in Valentia, or even Chrom’s ancestor Marth.”

“…” Lucina blinked. In the sense that we failed when they succeeded. “I can’t say anymore. Now, what’s your plan?”

“How do you feel about assassination?”

-Lucina (Age Fourteen)-

“Assassination? Really? I thought we were better than that.” Lucina frowned. This memory took place six years later. Her rapier was loosely held in sheath by her waist, and she was arguing with Morgan. “Look, Morgan, nothing would justify something like that.”

“Well, we ruled it out, because most of the people worth assassinating in Valm are incredibly capable in their own right, and they’d be hard to kill.” Morgan coughed. “Excellus excepted, of course, but that stupid toad teleports everywhere.”

“It’s not right to kill people in cold blood.” Lucina protested. “What would Father say to such a thing?”

“The Exalt?” Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Gee, I don’t know, maybe… oh, wait, he’s the one who suggested it. So there’s that.

“Father suggested it?” Lucina shook her head. “Try again, Morgan.”

“Well, more precisely, he said, ‘Are there ways we can get this done without as many people dying?’ which, sure technically isn’t a suggestion, but since he has no qualms against it when my father brought it up, I’m considering it the same thing. How to put this gently…” Morgan sighed, clutching her temple. “Look, I get that you think assassination is immoral because it involves killing someone in cold blood, especially since Exalt Emmeryn suffered that kind of a fate, and Chrom got wounded during the attack.”

“So you admit it’s wrong.”

That was wrong, sure.” Morgan said. “But killing some in cold blood isn’t a universal wrong, you know.”

“Really.” Lucina adopted a belligerent pose. “Try me.”

“Let’s see.” Morgan adopted a pose in response, tapping her chin. “Oh yes, I remember. Last week, a man in Ylissotol was caught attempting to stab a woman to death for rejecting him. Thankfully, he was caught in time, and we executed him. Was that wrong?”

“I mean…” Lucina stammered. “We’re the authority, and someone needs to take charge.”

“And next I ask you why being in authority gives us the right to kill people if It’s wrong.” Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Go on…”

“I get it.” Lucina scowled. “You’re saying that when crimes are so heinous, it’s alright for the perpetrator to be killed in cold blood, and it falls to those who have power to make sure it’s done. And I suppose you’re right. But what they’re doing isn’t so wrong, is it?”

“In the grand scheme, no.” Morgan said. “If you want to get philosophical, then you could say all war is evil, because all the ones fighting have no cause to hate each other personality and have committed no injustice. The battlefield is just a circular loop of logic justifying the murder, as each side wants to kill the other to stop the other side from killing the other. Such could be said, I suppose. And is, by pacifists. But that’s not what I say.”

“What do you say?”

“We’re right.” Morgan gave the young lord a hard stare. “At the end of the day, we’re fighting them because we are good, and they are evil. And that justifies things. Not everything, mind you, but a lot of things. And without that belief, you won’t be able to function. Never forget that.”

“So assassination is allowed because we’re the good guys?”

“No, it’s allowed because they’re the bad guys. Once they stop being evil, we stop being good for trying to kill them.” Morgan said. “As long as they’re willing to unquestionably follow the orders of someone who is unquestionably, they are indistinguishable from that person, and deserve the punishment all the same.”

“I understand your point.” Lucina scowled. “But I don’t have to like it.”

“No, you don’t. That’s one of things I like about you.” Morgan agreed. “I’m really going to hate the day you become a jaded cynic.”

“Never going to happen.” Lucina said.

-Raven’s Pledge-

“I’m not a jaded cynic.” Lucina scowled. “But, yes, I’m fine with assassination, assuming the target deserves it. And before you ask, I’m not telling you how experienced we are. For obvious reasons.” Mostly because we don’t have any.

“I’m going to assume there was baggage behind that response.” Robin said. “Anyway, assassination is on the menu for your squad. Your target is going to be the spymaster of Valm. No witnesses, which means you’ll have to kill everyone. Understand?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.” Lucina said. “Who’s the spymaster?”

“I, uh, don’t know.”  Robin winced.

“Well, that’ll be a problem.” Lucina commented. “Why are we killing him? Aside from the obvious.”

“I did say I’d tell you the plan.” Robin began. “Well, it’s like this…”

-Robin’s Secret Base, Location: ???-

“Nothing!” Vermil scowled, staring at the board that he and Ravena had put together in the secure basement. Beside him, Robin’s adopted daughter was staring at the board with a thoughtful expression and the maid Chantage was preparing a pot of tea in the corner of the room, a Rosannean blend. “This whole thing’s a wild goose chase. And normally I like those because roast goose is delicious, but we’ve hit a dead end.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

This is the sum total of all the information you’ve gathered.”

The board wasn’t the one Ravena was using the two months prior to gauge the Wolfguard traitor. Instead, they’d taken the list of everyone suspected, and were charting them according to their reasons and motives. It turned out that a number of them were clearly cat’s paws. But no one was the spymaster. According to Ravena, she was sure that once the information was assembled, they’d be able to determine the spymaster, but now that wasn’t the case.

“This isn’t fair.” Ravena scowled. “I know we had enough information. We should have had him. No one’s good enough to not lead a trail. This can’t just be a dead end.”

“We found a few trails.” Vermil offered.

“Yeah, but those are just lackeys. There’s no way they know who the spymaster is.” Ravena said. “They were indirectly recruited. There’s got to be an answer here somewhere.”

“We’ve got suspects, just everyone’s got an alibi.”

“Alibi?”

“Yeah, alibi.” Vermil yawned. “Is that the wrong word? The thing in detective plays which is why the suspect can’t have done the crime.”

“An alibi, Vermil, refers to a reason why you couldn’t have done a crime.” Ravena sighed. “These people don’t have alibis, exactly, just … no, wait, that’s actually a good way of thinking about it. Tell me, Vermil, in these dramas, are there people who lie about their alibi?”

“Usually, the criminals do.”

“Of course.” Raven looked back. “That makes sense.”

“I believe you already took that into account, Miss Ravena.” Chantage smiled and offered the girl a cup of tea. “Didn’t you say that you looked deep into these incidents, and implicated those you thought may be hiding, even if you didn’t have proof.”

“There’s one thing I didn’t consider.” Ravena said. “Vermil, did anything seem out of place to you with regards to the Wolfguard traitors?”

“No, why?”

“There was that one thing.” Ravena said. “I suppose the real question is how far you’re willing to go to feign innocence. But that means – well, if that’s true, then…”

“Something in your mind?”

“Vermil, let’s take out all the incidents that fit a very specific criteria.” Ravena narrowed her eyes. “Every bit of evidence that was only confirmed by a single group of agents is going to be removed.”

“Will that prove anything?”

“I think if we do that, we’ll find that there is, in fact, one fat hairy spider in the center of this spiderweb.” Ravena set about, removing pieces of paper seemingly at random after giving them a brief read with Vermil coping her. It took them about half an hour, and then a pattern started emerging.

“Um…” Vermil stared. “That’s … not who I think it is, is it?”

“I knew it!”

“Liar!”

“Fine. But I knew there was something fishy going on.” Ravena huffed. “Jeez, believe me, why don’t you?”

“Have you solved it, then?” Chantage smiled at her.

“I think so, yes.” Ravena said. “At the very least, gotten us a target.”

“Your father instructed me to give you this. He gave it to me shortly before he left for Valm, in the event that you solved the spymaster puzzle.” The wyvern rider turned maid produced a small envelope. “Read it.”

Ravena took the envelope, cracked open the seal and read the short message. “Wow.

“Good news?”

“Light it up for me?” Ravena folded the note and held it out to Vermil, who obligatorily lit the paper on fire. Ravena dropped it, waited for it to turn to ash and then stomped out the flame before scattering them with a blast of wind magic. “It’s my first mission. Chantage, I’ll need the cravat dandy.”

“Is that a code name?” Vermil raised an eyebrow.

“No, just an insult. I’ll fetch him for you.” Chantage laughed. “Anyone else?”

“Say’ri, I think.” Ravena said. “Oh, and Vermil?”

“Yes?”

“Talk about any of this, and you’re dead.”

“Figured that out.” Vermil said. “Want me to lock myself in my room and don’t come out for the next year or two?”

“Weren’t you already supposed to be doing that to work on the Flare tome?”

“STOP REMINDING ME!”

-Valm Harbor-

“We seem to have a welcome.”

“Hope its better than last time.” Robin said. When Lucina looked at him, he grinned. “Assassination attempt. Well, Ravena’s there, so that’s starting the same as last time. And … oh, why him of all people? He’s supposed to be at the Mila Tree!”

“General Cervantes?”

“You know the rankings and positions of Valm?” Robin looked at her. Lucina just shrugged. “Of course you do. At some point, you’re going to say something and I won’t have this kind of reaction to it at all. He’s really good, and helped out during the rebellion. The man just never understands anything I say.”

“Does anyone?”

“Not in that sense.” Robin scowled. “He mishears me. Which is weird, because he’s got a thick mustache, not thick ear hairs. I think he does it deliberately.”

“You mean he’s mocking you?” Lucina hid a grin. “I can’t imagine why anyone would do that.”

“Hey. That was mean.”

The ship docked with the port.

“Battlemaster! So glad to have you in Valm!”

“It’s nice to see you too.” Robin sighed.

“Ice tea?” Cervantes stroked his magnificent mustache. “Actually, that sounds perfect for my bristles. Not sure why you’re discussing drinks of all things, but I’m glad to see you all the same. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here.”

“Yes.” Robin said flatly.

“No, no one needs to die today.” Cervantes said. “You should careful, saying ‘death’ in that kind of tone would startle most normal men. In fact, I’m here because your daughter asked me.”

“That I did.” Ravena said. “Remember last time? Assassins. So I asked for an escort. Anyway, you’ll want this. And this.”

“Will I?” Robin took hold of the envelope, and then the tome she gave him. “I suppose so. Does that mean you’re taking the ship?”

“It does.”

“Have fun with that, I guess.” Robin said, noting the glances he got as Lucina and her team got off. “Oh, let me introduce you. This is Marth, and some of her companions. Kind of a diplomatic exchange, if you will. Cervantes, can you do me a favor?”

“Savor?”

“I give up.” Robin threw his hands up.

“He’s asking you to keep quite about us.” Lucina said to him. “It would be best if no one learned of this, alright?”

“I see.” Cervantes nodded. ‘The Battlemaster’s plans are complex indeed. I won’t speak a word.”

And he can understand you, but not me.” Robin fumed. “Ravena, there better have been a good reason for this besides to just irritate me.”

“I think I’ll let you figure this out, for once.” Ravena winked. “But it’s definitely not to annoy you – I promise!”

“Alright.” Robin bent down and gave the girl a tight hug. “Stay safe, okay?”

“It’s only a scouting patrol, and you gave me some of your best soldiers.” Ravena laughed. “And in case you’re wondering, Say’ri stuffing her face with chips as fast as her chopsticks will allow.”

“Really?” Robin rolled his eyes.

“Nah, she’s getting some good oilskins to hold her swords in.”

“Yeah, thought so.” Robin walked to the waiting carriage, stepping inside and inviting the rest to join him. Lucina and her companions did so. Robin opened the letter and read it quickly, then rolling it up and swallowing it. “Ugh. I need better tasting ink. That was nasty. Does Laurent have any better ones?”

“What happened?” Lucina cocked her head. "Also, no. He was working on it but... how do I put this? He likes this no one else does, so his success just made it taste worse."

“It began.” Robin said, hefting the tome. “What else? I have to say, I’m glad Vermil finished this beforehand.”

“What’s that?”

“Seems for all his protesting, he’s finally finished.” Robin grinned. “My secret weapon. Hopefully, I won't need it. But, it's time to begin. You paid attention to what I told you, correct?”

"It's my job to kill the spymaster." Lucina nodded. "And make it look like normal assassins. I'll have my team ready at your command."

 

Report: This missive is sent. By the time we’re through, all of Valm will be at our knees, and power will be ours. You are each given your objectives, and they must ALL succeed for us to be successful. Good luck to you all. There is no fallback, that is not to say all is lost if we don’t succeed, except under these specific circumstances, if we plan for failure, we may not give it everything we have. So our back is against the wall. It is time to strike. And don’t worry. The hardest job is mine.

Chapter Text

-Southern Plegia-

The Mad King of Plegia didn’t like his life. That itself wasn’t unique. Gangrel didn’t like a lot of things and detested a great many things. His spectrum, in fact, started with things he didn’t like on the end people usually put their most treasured memories and ended with himself. He really hated himself. And, to make matters worse, after he had failed to die properly on the Plegian battlefield, the Exalt had walked off without seeing if he was dead. Not that Gangrel hated the Exalt for that, because he couldn’t blame him. He couldn’t even bring himself to off himself either, so he was stuck wandering until a band of pirates kidnapped him.

They didn’t recognize him. Gangrel didn’t know whether that was bad or good for him, so he assumed it was bad. His life was like that recently. Like the fact that he was lowest on the totem pole of the pirates and stuck with latrine duty. Despite the fact that he could easily kill any of them and he was the only one who could use a Levin sword properly. Not that he cared to do any of that, of course, because Gangrel didn’t feel like giving Fate the middle finger and try to get out of his punishment.

That was how he found himself stuck aboard the galley of the ship cleaning the results of a drinking binge when the rest of the pirates got ambushed. Gangrel heard the telltale signs of battle and considered charging into the fray. Judging from the sounds, his experienced ear quickly deduced that the pirates were not winning. Charging into the fray could get him killed – which was good – but Gangrel knew he wasn’t lucky enough for that to happen. Instead, he figured that he could stay and wait out the battle.

No such luck.

The door was kicked open and a Chon’sin warrior stepped through. Gangrel sighed, knowing the inevitable and raised his hands. “Look, I have no weapons.”

“Then that makes this easier.” The Chon’sin blurred as she struck him with the butt of her blade.

 -Ravena's Camp-

Gangrel woke up tied to a tree with a group of four staring at him. He recognized one as Virion, the archer of the Shepherds, who had his bow slung around his shoulders. A woman with pink hair, wearing war cleric’s armor stood beside him with a double-bladed axe slung over her shoulder. The Chon’sin woman who had struck him was standing behind the fourth member.

It was the fourth member who interested him the most. A young woman, barely a teen, with raven-black hair. She wore the robes of a traditional Plegia tactician, complete with the symbols of the Eyes of Grima upon the sleeves. The robes looked a bit worn and large on her, as if second-hand. Her eyes were fierce and determined. The group’s leader, then.

“And what would you want with a wretched creature like me?” Gangrel coughed.

“Your name is Gangrel, the Mad King of Plegia.” The girl laughed at him. “Or, I suppose, the former King, but still quite Mad. And alive. You did quite a job dodging death, you know. There are many people alive who want you dead.”

“Trust me, I know. I’m one of them, girl.” Gangrel said.

“Hmm? So why haven’t you…” The girl made a slicing motion across her neck. "Y'know."

“I’m a miserable, cowardly maggot.”

“Well, that was never going to be helped.” The girl said. She cocked her head. “So, kind of feel like I’m barking up the wrong tree here but… want some vengeance?”

“Depends on who’s offering – Valm! Don’t think I can’t guess who you are and why you’re here.” Gangrel said. “I knew you’d come for me someday. I didn’t throw away my Empire fighting Ylisse just so you could have it in my place. I shall tell you nothing, nothing whatsoever! Kill me, torture me, GO AHEAD! I DESERVE IT ALL AND WORSE!”

“My, my.” Virion frowned. “If I didn’t know better, I’d believe that the Mad King of Plegia is suffering from some sort of guilt complex. If I wasn’t aware of your complete and utter psychopathy, I might even believe that Emmeryn’s sacrifice affected you.”

“Oh, just twist the knife deeper, why don’t you!” Gangrel howled. “If you Shepherds had just given me that damned Fire Emblem, none of that would have happened! And now you’re helping Valm? The whole point was to stop the juggernaut from Valm from conquering everything!”

“Go ahead.” Ravena gestured.

A loud slap echoed. Gangrel’s face snapped to one side, and the Mad King spat out a bloody tooth, while the Rosannean archer stared at him with furious eyes.

“You will never have the right to question someone else’s choice. Not after what you’ve done. And never blame someone for the consequences of your actions.” Virion said, quietly. “And there we have it. You believed that since you were going to stop Valm, everything you did was justified.”

“I had noble intentions.” Gangrel protested.

“That’s no excuse.” The girl was standing in front of him, staring at him too, with fierce and now terrible eyes. “That’s never an excuse. I don’t give a damn about your intentions. I care about your actions! If you don’t understand that, why don’t you repeat yourself again. Go on and say that you were blameless.” A ball of dark energy appeared in the girl’s hand. She pointed in at Gangrel. “Because if you do truly want to die – well, I’ll happily oblige you. Scum like you don’t deserve to live.”

“Are there … alternatives?” Gangrel asked.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” The girl said. “You’re so filled with regret that you want to die in penance, but you can’t kill yourself. And if someone executes you for your sins, you’re fine with that, but you don’t want to die for something you haven’t repented yet. And you especially don’t want to die denying your sins. Well, fine. We’ve got an offer for you do that.”

“Oh?” Gangrel smiled, but it was hollow. “What could you possibly have to offer me?”

“The new Plegian king, Validar. He’s protecting one of the five Gems of the Fire Emblem. Sable, to be specific.” The girl smirked. “Judging from your expressions, I assume you know and dislike Validar, and you didn’t know he had the gem. We happen to be an elite strike team. It’s not Valm, I promise, we just happen to have a few recruits from there.”

“Ravena-” The Chon’sin warrior began. “You shouldn’t take after your father like that.”

 “And what to you want with me?” Gangrel asked.

“Two things.” The girl said. “The first thing we need your knowledge. We already have maps of the Plegian Castle – provided by our deep cover agent, but you’ll know the secret passageways and traps and such. The second thing we need is you.”

“Really? You've a purpose for this sorry mongrel.”

“Our objective is twofold.” The girl ignored him. “The first is to recover the Gem, and the second is to kill Validar. We have a formidable team. But we could always use more fodder. And your skills.”

“An inside man?” Gangrel smiled. “No, you want a lockpick. I suppose a little birdy told you about my previous training as the leader of a band of thieves. But you do realize this a suicide mission, right?”

“Well, if it is, you’ll die first. And isn’t that what you want?”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Gangrel considered. A wide grin broke onto his face as the Mad King laughed for real, the first time since he died. “You have a deal, Ravena!”

 -Plegia Castle-

“We’re in.” Gangrel said. Virion had shot a line up to the third floor, which the team had climbed up single file. Gangrel then picked the lock on the window, bringing them into a storeroom for the kitchen. “So, do you tell us the plan now?”

Ravena took out her map. “If our information about guard changes is accurate, then we have fifteen minutes until the change. Cherche, Say’ri, your job is going to be taking out the next shift pair. From there, we have seventeen minutes until you get close enough to Validar.”

“To kill him?” Say’ri asked.

“Not exactly.” Ravena said. “We’re going to cause several distractions. When they happen – and you’ll know it, trust me – you’ve got to get to his chambers and kill every guard who tries to enter, without him knowing. The smug dastard’s got an antechamber, so just wait in it and keep killing guards. The password is going to be ‘Chaos is upon us and the night draws short’. That’ll be me entering.”

As a safety, Ravena had arranged the password to actually be ‘the scion of winged darkness enters’. The display was just in case Gangrel decided not to play nice with them.

“Why us?” Cherche asked.

“Honestly?” Ravena smirked. “It’s ‘cause you got the most cleavage to show. Well, more you than Say’ri. But you’re still both women. We’re not guard regulars, so just replacing them might raise flags. But, most of the guards are men, and they like pretty women. So you’re going to distract them with your assets, and even if they noticed that you’re not the regulars, they ain’t gonna complain.”

“You’ve been spending too much time with Aversa, young lady.” Say’ri frowned. “Honestly, a girl your age shouldn’t be thinking of things like that. And to weaponize it, no less. Can you please not take after the worse aspects of the people trying to teach you?”

“Yeah, yeah…” Ravena waved her hand. “Besides, even without that, you two are the logical choice. I’m too small, Gangrel’s too noticeable, and Virion is… well…” Ravena trailed off as the four of them looked at him.

“Completely unsuitable.” Say’ri said, shaking her head.

“I’d be embarrassed to have him as one of my guards.” Gangrel added, sneering.

“Hee hee.” Cherche chuckled. “It’s cruel. But true.”

“Really…” Virion looked crestfallen. “That’s just horrible.”

“And what are your plans?” Say’ri asked Ravena.

“Read this when you have the chance.” Ravena passed her a note. “This contains two things, my plan, and my father’s order. Should something go wrong, my father’s orders are absolute.”

“Understood.” Say’ri stood up. “Cherche, how are your stealth skills?”

“I flew a wyvern for my entire life.” Cherche blushed. “I’m afraid I might be a bit behind you on that.”

“Understood.” Say’ri sighed. “Well, let’s try.”

Ravena waited for the two to leave before she turned to the other two. “We’ve got twenty-seven minutes. We need to create as large of a distraction as possible. Virion, you’re on flame duty. The dragon’s skull seems like a good spot to rain fire arrows. It also shouldn’t take you twenty-seven minutes for someone like you to get there, so see if you can set up some easily flammable targets beforehand.”

“You have my word.”

“And what of me, little tactician?”

Ravena frowned. “You know this better than I do. Is there anything you can do?”

“Actually, yes.” Gangrel dredged up an old memory and cackled. “Assuming they haven’t changed that particular emergency code. I can have it so that dark mages bombard everyone present with endless amounts of long-range dark magic.”

“Will it hit us?” Ravena frowned.

“Can’t guarantee it won’t. In fact, I can almost guarantee that it will! But they’ll be attacking haphazardly, and we might be able to avoid their fire lines entirely.” Gangrel said. “How are we getting out, again?”

“That part of the plan isn’t ready yet.” Ravena said. “It’s not worth attempting to plan when so many variables are present.”

“So, in other words, this is a suicide mission?” Virion checked.

“Only if we die.” Ravena said. “Now, we’ve got twenty-seven minutes.”

“And what are you doing during that time?” Gangrel asked.

“Oh, you know…” Ravena gave a smile she hoped was worthy of Dant. “Causing mischief.”

“Very well.” Virion said. “It’s time for our merry band of saboteurs to be off. Shall we?”

-Outside the Guard Room-

Two, through this door. The ones – Cherche frowned and made a series of gestures, indicating she wasn’t familiar enough to keep up with Say’ri’s hand motions. Say’ri gave no sign of impatience and quickly spelled out the word. Ah. Target. Right. Cherche’s hands moved, spelling out a message back of her own. I apologize for my slowness.

No problem. I have back or right. You have front of left. Say’ri gestured. On three… two… one…

Say’ri twisted open the door and both women hurtled through the door. Say’ri went for the first soldier, striking him upon the throat with the hilt of her blade to cut off his ability to call for help. Cherche opted for a straightforward approach, jamming her gauntleted fist into her guard’s mouth. Say’ri drew a small kunai and went for the kill, stabbing through the eye socket and keeping her other hand crushing the throat, aiming for a silent, bloodless kill.

A muted thud interrupted her. Say’ri looked over to see Cherche’s guard unconscious. “Oops.” Cherche smiled innocently. “Well, at least I didn’t kill him…”

“Fie.” Say’ri frowned as she realized something. “Yours is a woman and mine isn’t.”

“Yes…” Cherche trailed off.

“There are no spare uniforms in the guard room.”

“Well, I’m sure there are other spare ones around.” Cherche said. “Oh, but we don’t have the time, do we? Well, they’re around our size, so I’m sure they’ll fit us.”

“…” Say’ri sighed. “I’m wearing the man’s uniform, aren’t I?’

“Well…” Cherche trailed off as she examined the guards. The female’s uniform, as per Plegia’s very exacting standard, had significantly fewer clothing components than the man’s. Mostly in the usual places, but also the designer (for some reason Cherche couldn’t fathom) had decided to leave the upper inner thighs exposed. Her tailoring skills were good, but not good enough to radically alter the man’s uniform to look like a women’s within just a few minutes. That meant that whoever had the man’s uniform would have to pretend to be a man. “…Yes. You may wish to start with your hair…”

Say’ri muttered something under her breath that sounded Chon’sin, but words that Cherche never heard before. “Fine.” Say’ri’s black locks weren’t that long, but she drew her sword anyway. She drew her hair together and sliced it off, leaving her hair much shorter and a bit rough and jagged. “Will I have to do more than this?”

“I shouldn’t think so.” Cherche smiled. “If we changed fast, I might even be able to help adjust the uniform.”

 -Southern Wing-

“What are you doing with that?”

“Oh, don’t worry about me.” Virion gave (what he considered to be) a dazzling smile to the maid who had interrupted him while he was rolling a massive barrel of oil. “One of the chefs requested this.”

“Are you supposed to be one of the new butlers? That looks terrible on you.”

“…Yes.” Virion sighed. He had appropriated a uniform, of course, but he made his own touchups so that it might look better. It seems that people had no respect for his sense of fashion.

“What is that? A bib?”

“It’s a cravat.” A little piece of Virion died. Again. “I’m, ah, trying out a new style for our new king.”

“Wait.” The maid frowned. “If you’re taking the barrel that way… isn’t it away from the kitchens?”

“Precisely.” Virion said, giving a self-satisfied and smug grin. “The chef asked for oil earlier, because he’d thought he’d have to fry a great deal of fish, but it seems that one of the upcoming guests is allergic to it, so now he wants me to move it back to storage.”

“But isn’t storage that way?” The maid pointed in a different direction.

“Ah, but you see, I can’t take it to the storage either.” Virion said. “The space these barrels occupied was already allotted to new items arriving tomorrow, so I was instructed to move it to external storage.”

“…You do know it’s leaking, right?”

Indeed, the barrel was. Virion had spiked a hole in the barrel, letting a ragged trail of oil be absorbed into the carpet as he rolled it across the palace. This was actually the third such barrel, and he was running very close to the time he needed to get into position, when he got stopped by a maid.

“Oh, is it?” Virion blinked and pretended to look over the barrel for the first time. “Oh, dear! My word, how could that have possibly happened? I haven’t the faintest clue. Well, I suppose one shouldn’t cry over spilled milk – er, oil. I’ll just keep pushing this along like nothing happened.”

“You really think that’s a good idea?”

“Well, I wasn’t ordered not to.” Virion pointed out. “And unless you’re the head maid, you can’t give me orders to the contrary. Safest course of action.”

“We don’t have a head maid.” The maid blinked.

“Ah, yes, of course I meant head butler.” Virion attempted a smooth recovery.

“You think that’s going to work?” The maid raised an eyebrow. “No one would make a mistake like that. We’ve never had a head maid, and this place is far too sexist for one to even be considered. You’re obviously a spy or saboteur, and do you really expect me to believe that you just made a mistake like that?”

“…In my defense.” Virion said, sighing as his head dropped. “You bought my lies about the oil. All of them.”

“So you aren’t someone just infiltrating the guard, and you actually have a plan for the oil…” The maid trailed off as the wheels turned in her head. “Ohhhhhh. I get it now.”

“It’s kind of obvious.” Virion said. “Not so much a spy, I’m mostly a saboteur.”

“Yep.” The maid nodded. “So… what now?”

“Well, you can expose me and scream.” Virion said. “At which point I’ll be forced to light the oil on fire and kill you. You can run, in which case I’ll have to kill you. You can scream and run, in which case I’ll kill you. Or, alternatively, you can help me spread the oil, and escape with me. And after that, well, as they say, the night is still young.” Virion gave his best ‘dashing’ grin. “What do you say?”

“You really think that’s going to work?”

“It’s not my best pickup line, but why not?”

“Because I’m not stupid, for one. You’ve got money, or backers with money.” The maid said. “It’s going to take a lot more than your good looks to bribe me.”

“Ah. Is that where we stand?” Virion asked. “You’d like payment for your services?”

“Preferably. They do say the world’s second oldest profession bears a remarkable resemblance to the first.” The maid tapped her foot. “So what’s it going to be?”

Virion’s dagger caught her in the throat and the maid dropped without a chance to scream. Virion sighed. “Even the maids here are evil. What's wrong with Plegia?”

 -Dungeons / Basement-

The Plegian dropped with a spray of blood, joining the rest of his comrades. Ravena snorted, twirling her spear. “Little girl? Lost? Please.” Ravena sketched a symbol in the air, one that Aversa had taught her in secret. She concentrated her power into it. The corpses rose as dark magic brought them to life. She couldn’t control them, but an outbreak of Risen would serve fine as a distraction.

“Arise, foul servants of the undead. Feed upon my dark magic so that you make take a semblance of life. Bone, blood, and flesh of human may once again be sent forth. The only mind you may have is the instincts of the one you were created from, and the only soul you may have is the echo of the one that inhabited this body.” Ravena chanted. “I have created you as a force of ruin and destruction, to embody the destruction of mankind. For this purpose, you were created. I cannot ask for your loyalty, nor can I demand it beyond this. Now, once again, rise.

Like marionettes on the strings of puppets, the grim creatures rose up as dark magic gas forced its way through the body, seeping out of Ravena’s outstretched hands. The first one to get up looked at her and roared.

“No, you don’t.” Ravena snapped her fingers, conjuring a dark magic barrier. The monster could break through it, but it shielded her life energy, so the Risen would have no interest in her. Ravena checked her watch. “Five minutes. I suppose I could do another patrol.”

“Interesting…”

Ravena inhaled and spun around, a ball of dark magic on her fingertips. “Who’s there?” she demanded.

“Shouldn’t that be my question?” A figure stepped out from the shadows, unhooding his lantern. “But I know the answer to it – or close enough, at any rate. As for who I am – well, I am the hierophant of the Grimleal.”

“The religious leader?” Ravena said in shock.

“Now, you’re thinking two things right now.” The hierophant said. “The first is that I shouldn’t be here, I should be at my church. The second is that you’re wondering whether or not you could kill me. To answer both your questions, this is just an astral projection of myself, so I am in fact unkillable by you and at my church. I was just curious as to who was using Risen summoning magic deep within Plegian Castle.”

Ravena’s mind raced. If he sounded the alarm at his church, then reinforcements would be too late. But if his astral projection sounded the alarm here, Validar might escape. And that wouldn’t be good. Stall for time.

“And now you’ve decided to stall me for time.” The hierophant chuckled. “Don’t act so surprised, little one. Judging from those robes and that magic, you’re Aversa’s apprentice, sent to get revenge on Validar. Well, I can’t blame her, I suppose, and to tell you the truth, I never liked the man much anyways.”

“…What?”

“I’m letting you kill him.” The hierophant clarified. “He may have served his purpose, but honestly I want him dead as well. I prefer to play a far subtler game than he does, so I’ll allow it this once. But I must warn you – do not use that particular brand of magic again. I’ll think you’re trying to impersonate me.”

Father would know what to do. Ravena frowned. But it seems like the hierophant wants the king dead, so perhaps the best strategy is to simply to retreat – but I can’t do that so simply, the plan’s already in motion! I can’t call it off, but if I continue-

“Worried about playing into my plans?” The hierophant asked. “Don’t worry, little one. The Valm Battlemaster knows the repercussions for killing Plegia’s king. He’ll have taken my actions into account. It’s one of the things I like about him. Regardless, there’s absolutely no reason for you to back off now.”

“You’re out of my league, aren’t you?” Ravena said. “You’re reading me like an open book, and you’ve probably already deduced what we’re here for.”

“The King and the stone.” The hierophant grinned. “To be honest, I didn’t expect you for another year, though. Your Battlemaster moves faster than I anticipated. Though, I shall be honest - part of it may be my fault.”

If Robin were here, he’d know what to do. Ravena sighed internally. He’s a lot better with at dealing with unexpected elements – actually, that’s not true. He’s a lot better at implementing them. I’m pretty sure he’d have no idea how to get out of this situation either. Small comfort.

“You don’t mind us having the stone?” Ravena said. “Wait, no, that’s not it. You want us to have the stone. You want us to have it so bad you’re willing to let us kill Validar to get it. That’s what your game is!”

“Excellent!” The hierophant crowed. “Brilliant, indeed. But why would I want you to have the stone? Your deduction is flawless, but you can’t give me a reason, can you?”

“Just because I can’t figure it out doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

“No.” The hierophant agreed. “In any event, I think I shall take my leave now. It’s quite late at night, and I must get up early to lead my faithful zealots. I look forward to good news in the morning.” And the hierophant promptly vanished.

Do I keep at this – yes, I do. Ravena thought. Honestly, this game is over my head, but Robin might be aware of it. And even if he isn’t, there’s no way having the stone while he doesn’t would be bad. So, continue as planned. Ravena checked her watch. Which is now.

A colossal explosion blew in one of the doors near her. The Risen she had made turned to the door and started running out. Ravena inhaled and checked her weapons. A specially-forged naginata, coupled with her wind magic tomes, and her dark magic at nearly full. Hopefully, should be enough. But there are three of us. Ravena removed a container of pure water and drained it in a single swallow.

 -Throne Room, Antechamber-

“The scion of winged darkness enters!” Ravena announced. “Come out, you two.”

“As you command.” Cherche came out smiling, holding a bloodstained axe. Say’ri followed, with a sword dyed the same shade of red. There was a not insignificant pile of bodies behind them. Ravena also noticed that the Chon’sin woman was wearing a man’s uniform. She filed that away as blackmail for later. “What’s the plan?”

“Yes, please tell us.” Say’ri agreed. “I would like to be done with this.”

“Keep watch on this entrance.” Ravena said, throwing her cloak over her head. “When you hear me scream, ‘Checkmate!’, I’ll need you to come in and help me kill Validar. It should be a quick fight, from what Aversa’s told me. If you hear me scream 'This ends, here!', it means he hasn't told me what I want and you need to bust in and torture him. But that shouldn't happen because of how clever my plan is. ”

“Understood.”

Ravena walked through the doorway, and made her way through the antechamber, entering the sanctuary through it. By now, the fire had spread through several areas in the mansion and Risen were attacking all over. But it might as well have been a sunny day in spring for all the internal sanctuary cared. It was dimly lit, with purple flames in candles along the wall. The Plegia King, Validar was awake, reading a book of arcane lore. He looked up and frowned. “Who are you, and why are you here?”

“I am Ravena, an apprentice.” Ravena bowed. “Forgive me for my impertinence, but I was the weakest of those called in, so they sent me to go deliver a message.”

“A message?” Validar frowned. “Is this about the Risen? I sensed the aura earlier, but I assume that you lot should be able to take of it. If not…”

“Yes and no, milord.” Ravena said. “There’s also a fire as well. But that was obviously just a diversion. We believed it to be an assassination attempt, and we realized the truth too late.”

“The truth?” Validar raised an eyebrow. “Out with it.”

“Milord, forgive us!” Ravena cried out. “Please, we had no idea what was lost until we were taunted by the Mad King escaping! He’s got the Black Gemstone!”

“WHAT!?” Validar shot up. “That man is alive? And he’s got the Black Gemstone?”

“We apologize, milord! Please spare this humble messenger.” Ravena winced. “But we confirmed it with our own eyes! We saw it missing ourselves! Can there be no doubt? It seemed that Gangrel knew exactly where it was, and lost no time informing us of the fact.”

“Of course he would.” Validar clenched his teeth. “Trust a madman to figure out what no sane man would. He’s taken the Gemstone from atop the Dragon Skull?”

“Dragon’s Skull! Of course, no Ylissean would ever venture to go there!” Ravena stood up, grinning. Her trick had worked. “You’ve placed the Gemstone in one of the six eyes of Grima, haven’t you? Well, matter of elimination, then. Thank you, King Validar.”

“Who are you?”

“I told you, Ravena, an apprentice. Unfortunately for you, I’m just not a Plegian one.” Ravena shed her cloak, blasting out the candles in the room with a massive burst of wind magic, letting the darkness reign. “And this is CHECKMATE!”

A dark ball of energy appeared as Validar conjured it, casting an eerie purple light around him. “You’ll never leave this room alive.”

“Darkgift: Aversa’s Night!” The young tactician conjured her own spell and fired it back. The two beams collided with each other, shooting through. Ravena took the dark sorcerer’s blast, and then took his own energy as her beam collided in him. Ravena smiled as both casters prepared to fire magic again. “I’ll win the battle of endurance. But I don’t need to.”

Because I’m just the distraction. Dark mages have innate defenses against physical attacks because of their constitution. But that won’t stop an axe from cutting him in half. Once the lights went off and I gave the signal, my real plan will kick in.

“So overconfident!” Validar laughed. “But you can’t defeat me here! It’s not Fated to happen.”

“Pretty words, but your corrupt ideology will not save you.” Cherche came out of the darkness, swinging her axe. Validar raised in hands and used the raw magic to take the blow.

“You can’t fight Fate!” Validar cackled. “Did you think hiding in the shadows would stop a dark mage from sensing you? I am not Fated to fall here, and therefore I cannot!”

You may have blocked Cherche’s blow with a magic nexus. Ravena frowned. I know Father told me he could do that with lightning magic, but not even Aversa told me I could do it with dark magic. Unexpected. But ultimately futile.

“Unfortunately for you, King Validar-” Ravena started.

“-you are already dead.” Say'ri appeared behind Validar. "We're in position. On your command, Ravena."

"Maneuver Eleven!" Ravena cried.

Validar spun around as Say'ri flashed past him, drawing her blade to slash a furrow through him. As she did so, Cherche, now freed from his magic nexus, twirled her axe and brought it horizontally in a savaged chop. Ravena raised her hand, summoning lightning and blasting the Plegian sorcerer-turned-King with a barrage of eletrical bolts form above him.

"Kenjutsu-style blademanship: Iaijutsu!"

"Rosanne-style axecraft: Savage Blow!"

"Archanean-style magecraft: Arcthunder!"

Two lines of red appeared across Validar’s chest as a blade and axe slashed through him from two directions, then his body convulsed as it was struck by lightning bolts. The Plegian King dropped in a spray of blood as Say’ri twirled her blade and sheathed it. “Fie. So much for your Fate.”

“Impossible…” Validar struggled to get up.

“Oh, come now.” Ravena twirled her spear. “You should know this, Sorcerer. What goes around, comes around. You seek to start a war, and cause death. Now, why don’t you feel the pain of death yourself? Cherche, take his head.”

“Damn you!”

“Language!” Cherche’s axe fell. The Plegian King stopped talking. “Now, for the stone.”

“Right, the stone.” Ravena sighed. How to put this… “Say’ri, you’re the fastest. The stone is hidden in one of the eyes of the dragon. I’ll need you to go and get it.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll stay here with Cherche and keep causing mischief.” Ravena said. “We’ll buy you as long as we can, and then leave.”

“And you will escape? With the elites of Plegia on your tail, in enemy territory, exhausted? They will have wyverns scouring the lands within the hour.” Say’ri shook her head. “I know suicide when I hear it. I am the sword of Count Obsidian, and I would be a poor sword if I could not serve his daughter as well. I will stay with you.”

“You will be serving me.” Ravena said. “Follow my orders! Robin told us we need the Gemstone! If we leave it for another time, they’ll hide it again. You have the highest chance of making it with the stone, so you need to go get it. We’ll be fine, you just need to have faith in us.”

“We will be fine, Lady Say’ri.” Cherche smiled. “I shall not let the young mistress come to harm, so long as I am with her.”

“I have no wish for the two of you to die either.” Say’ri stated.

“We don’t have time for this!” Ravena howled in frustration. “It’s not like we’ve got a better option, so we’ll just have to make do for the time being. But we’ve got to leave right now. We’re probably not going to die, so just go already!”

“Agreed!” The three of them turned around as Gangrel walked into the room. “The three of you really must leave now. The elites are coming. If you are fast, you’ll be able to run in time.”

“Gangrel? I told you that we’d meet at the rendezvous.” Ravena frowned. “How’d you even know we’d be here?”

“Please, my dear, I’m mad, not stupid. It’s not hard to guess what your plan was, knowing what I did.” Gangrel said. “And speaking of knowing, we both know that we’ll be targeted once we get free and chased down. And you haven’t even gotten the Gemstone yet, do you?” Ravena’s refusal to answer gave him what he wanted. “So, tell me, how long? Ten minutes?”

“Probably more.”

“You don’t have ten minutes.” Gangrel said, laughing. “And even though you don’t seem to have a plan B, I’ve always got my plan A. You see, foreigners, I’ve never once entertained the thought of letting the rest of you get the claim for this assassination.”

“Oh.” Ravena’s eyes grew wide as she realized what Gangrel had in mind. “But I couldn’t ask you to do that from the outset!”

“Fortunately, little tactician, it’s not something you’ll need to ask me. And please don’t lie to yourself – you knew I’d do it without prompting, that’s why you recruited me.” Gangrel replied. “You’re going to leave me behind. Without a thorough investigation, they’ll think I acted alone, giving you enough time. They’ll discover me, laughing like a madman over Validar’s body and won’t think twice. Besides, we both know they’ll be hell to pay if Valm is discovered. Best to keep things internal within Plegia, don’t you agree?”

“Your arguments are all valid.” Ravena made a snap choice, as she threw her Plegian robe back on. “Fine. You two, Say’ri, Cherche, you’re my escort as we make out way to the stone’s location. Our story is that we’re a quick response team sent to ensure that vital information doesn’t perish during this confusion. Your uniforms and my secondhand cloak should pass during this confusion in case some double-checks.”

“Ravena!” Say’ri said. “We can’t just-”

“Do you want a comrade to sacrifice himself in vain?” Ravena snapped. “No? Good! I’m not happy either, I would have liked to use Gangrel a lot more, but you need to know when to make sacrifices! And now is that time. The fact of the matter is that we’re in the textbook definition of a rock and a hard place.”

“Don’t worry, Chon’sin Princess.” Gangrel cackled. “I’ve no intention of selling you out. And you, Valm. I know you lied to me, but as long as Validar’s vision doesn’t come to pass, maybe I’ve had a hand in making the world not as bad as it could be. And that’s really all I could ask for at this point. Well, tactician? Do I have your blessing?”

“Sell yourself for a high price, Mad King.” Ravena said, looking at him. “That is all.”

“Consider it done, tactician!” Gangrel bowed.

 -Dragon's Skull-

“Good to see you three.” Virion said as Ravena, Cherche, and Say’ri came running towards him. “What do we have to do?”

“No time to waste.” Ravena said. “The gemstone is hidden within one of the Six Eyes of the skull. We’ve got to find it fast, and make out way out of here.”

“Gangrel?”

“Not here.” Ravena shook her head. “Not that it matters to you, but he decided to sacrifice himself to take the blame.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t matter.”

“Lookout!” The cry came from Cherche. Ravena spun around, only to catch a glimpse of a Pelgian barbarian charging at her with an axe.

Ravena went for her magic, summoning dark orbs of power. Suddenly, a dark shadow dropped behind him and slashed the man, felling him like a puppet. Ravena blinked, holding her hand back to the rest. “No way…”

“Heya, kiddo.” Dant walked out of the shadows, spinning her knives. “Past your bedtime, ain’t it?”

“Hey! I could’ve taken him.” Ravena scowled. “And besides, he wasn’t supposed to be here!”

“He was on guard and left his post for, shall we say, unsavory purposes.” Dant nodded. “I know you had him, I just haven’t stretched in a while. And you kind of stole my chance, starting without me.”

"Well, I didn't know you were going to be here! You can't blame me for that."

"Robin wanted you to get field experience, so he just asked me to get here if I could and observe." Dant started cleaning her daggers. "Came as quick as I could. But you started without me, and managed to finish the job too. You're good, little one."

"Heehee. Thanks"

“Pardon me, do I know you?” Virion asked. “Who are you?”

“Nah, Ruffles.” Dant shook her head. “Heard you work for Robin now. My name is – actually, that’s classified. Anyway, Ravena, I need you to talk to me. Robin can’t send much, so he told me to check in with you for the full details after your op. Something about a plan too dangerous to put on paper. What’s going on?”

Ravena swallowed. “A lot. We need to find a safehouse if-”

“Already done.” Dant said. “Let’s move. It would be … awkward, if I was discovered here.”

-???

Validar found himself in a shadowy realm, with a pain across his check, and a splitting ache in his neck. Dying hurt even more the second time. Luckily his master was one who didn’t let his death be the end of him. Validar looked around to see Grima, standing in his usual shadowy guise. But he was laughing. Hard.

“Again?” Grima laughed. “What was it this time, a group of Ylisse trainnee scouts, armed with perhaps the most pointy of sticks?”

“Lord Grima, forgive me!”

“Forgive you? Ha! Maybe it was a group made of nothing but Feroxi knights wielding snowballs? Or maybe it was just an unlucky roll of the dice? Fate already decided that you were going to win so she overslept, and you just died because she wasn’t there?” Grima said, doubled over from the laughter. “Was it that?”

“Assassins.” Validar frowned. “But I don’t know who.”

“You couldn’t even learn that? Not that I need you, because I know very well who it is, but you disappoint me. I had a nice chat with one of them, even, and you couldn't even learn their names.” Grima sighed. “You really are ineffectual, aren’t you? Listen, you pasty sack of magic, I only keep you around because I’m interested in this little puppet show, but if you haven’t it gotten into your thick skull that Fate isn’t going to guarantee your survival this time around, I really have no use for you as a minion. The actors might all be the same, but this time the story has decided to go completely off-script. Not that I mind, especially now that the story is really just starting to get good. Mmmm.”

"You call this good, Lord?"

"Of course." Grima licked his lips. "Have you seen what's happening in Valm right now? It's going to - no, wait. I almost spoiled the surprise."

“Isn’t that bad?”

“Of course, you would think so. But myself? I can think of nothing more boring than a repeated story.” Grima said. “Maybe I would have been content watching this farce a second time as an outsider, but since the story’s already changed – well, why wouldn’t I wish to change it more? After all, what’s a puppet show without a master pulling the strings?”

“Are you sure that was wise?”

“My dear unimaginative and significantly unintelligent minion.” Grima laughed. “True, that may be myself out there, but I possess all the knowledge he does and more besides. Besides, what’s the point on my existence if I cannot prove I stand head and shoulders above the rest of you? I believe that I shall adjust the board a little.”

“Of course, Master Grima.”

“Ah, yes, one other thing.” Grima snapped his fingers. Validar disappeared, dropping back into the inky blackness as Grima took his soul and bound it to a black ring on his finger. “I’m not going to resurrect you just yet. It’s kind of cheap when actions don’t have consequences. I’ll need that blood of yours, so you can’t die yet, but I’m going to let Robin go ahead with sending Plegia into chaos. I liked my move last round, but this round it’s slightly different.”

 -Plegia, Throne Room-

The Mad King of Plegia didn’t like his life. He could do without the arrows in his left arm, or the hole in his chest. The blood wasn’t flowing out of it now like the waterfall that it had been when he first got it, but that just meant he didn’t have a lot to lose yet. His head was also not in the best of shape, seeing as his sense of balance was trying the utmost to convince him that the floor was actually on a slant. Or maybe it was, Gangrel couldn’t tell. But he was sure the situation was whichever one was worse for him. His life had kind been like that recently.

“Stand down, and we might have a chance to heal your wounds.” One of the few dozen guards had spoken, his rank indicated that the man was a lieutenant. “You’ll die if you keep this up.”

“Surrender?” Gangrel laughed or tried to. It came out more of a faint rasp. “Sorry… but I’m the Mad King of Plegia! I’ll never do something as simple as that! I’m the one true King of Plegia, and I won’t let upstarts replace me!”

The lieutenant gave a quick gesture to his men, who all charged in at once. Gangrel raised his Levin sword above his head, channeling all the magic he could muster from his body into it, sending a rain of lightning bolts around him, striking all the soldiers. Some fell. But not enough.

A spear pierced through his chest from behind. Gangrel coughed, and tried to move to stab the offender, only for another spear to impale him from the front. He took a few more, he couldn’t tell how much, and then fell to the ground.

“As the last will and testament of the Mad King of Plegia…” Gangrel coughed, as he felt the light leave him. He forced his anger, hatred, guilt, all the dark emotions he’d kept bottled up since his almost-death at the hands of the Ylissean prince to keep him alive. “I consign this world to eternal torment! Suffer at the hands of that peace-loving Ylissean Exalt, and forever deny your true nature as humanity. Live, all of you, in this torment of imprisoning your inner demons! Live, in this mad, crazy world of peace! Live! And forget the Mad King, and his kind!”

 

I’ve done some digging around the underground. Apparently, despite your belief to the contrary, there’s still quite a few rebels unaccounted for. They’ve gone to the ground somewhere, and I don’t know where. Last time I asked you, you said that the rebellion was finished, and nothing more would come from it. Fortunately for you, your Mistress of Secrets knows a lie when she hears it. I do hope you’ll trust me with the real reason at some point. – Aversa.

Chapter Text

-The di Cratez Royal Estates-

“Ah, a wedding. How nice.” Aversa smirked. "I sure hope the timing was convenient for you. Ah, who am I kidding? You'd pull strings if you wanted the wedding moved, wouldn't you? I'm sure that Argeni's father would be happy to accommodate you. He seemed like a bootlicker from his file."

"Political savvy is sometimes indistinguishable from that, yes." Robin shrugged. "Regardless. Even if I got him on my side, it'd be him against Argeni. Guaranteed to fail."

"Ah, yes. I forgot the silver-tongue that wench has."

"If you don''t like her, you don’t have to come, you know.” Robin said. "Half the team is in ... well, you know. Unspecified place performing Valm's national pastime. And Vermil just ducked it when Argeni dropped something like a two-hundred page guide to etiquette on his desk and demanded he followed it to the letter. Which Vermil followed up by stammering that he had an experiment that needed constant attention and wouldn't you know he couldn't make it, so sorry."

“Really?” Aversa smiled at Robin. “You ordered me to come when I tried ducking out of it, and when I told you I had more pressing concerns, you ignored it without even giving me a chance to explain, saying, and I quote, ‘Find someone to screw it up moderately enough so it’s fixable if it’s really that urgent’ . You want me to be with you. Want it badly.”

“I’m pretty comfortable with our current relationship, thank you.” Robin said. "By the way, take the hint."

“Not in that sense, Robin. You need the aid of loyal minion that can know a few dirty secrets. Stop dodging my questions. And I'm not pretending that I came here of my free will just because you want me to. At least, not without a better explanation.” Aversa narrowed her eyes. “What’s so important about this wedding?”

“Maybe I just wanted the company.” Robin tried deflecting again.

“See, the thing with lying is that it needs to be believable. That doesn’t make any sense coming out of your mouth.” Aversa said. “Is this connected to Shadow Puppets?”

“No." Robin had a puzzled look on his face. "Why would you think that?”

“I ran that operation for you.” Aversa said.

"And...?" Robin asked. "If you did, you'd know it has nothing to do with weddings."

“And I implanted a few sleepers to my cause. I know they've been on the move, gathering weapons, and where they are right now. More importantly, they're targets. You’re-”

“Damn. Thought I got all of those. I told you to take the hint." Robin blinked slowly. He met Aversa with a level gaze. “If you know, why bother asking me?”

“I’m just impressed, that’s all.” Aversa said. “Hiding secrets from me isn’t easy. But I figured out what happened to those missing soldiers, and who’s really in command of them. I even know where they are. The real question is, what are you planning on doing? How can … oh. Oh.

“That’s unfortunate.” Robin sighed, shaking his head. “You shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that, you know. If only because you might be right.”

“But am I?”

“Now, see, you’ve said nothing of substance about your ideas, so how can I know what you’re thinking much less confirm it?” Robin sighed. “But if I had to guess, you don’t know what’s going on. Not exactly. You just know enough to be dangerous.”

“Are you going to kill me now?” Aversa said, flashing a smiled. “It must be tempting, isn’t it? You could make me vanish without a trace. But if you don’t, you have to tell me. And I think you’re going to tell me, rather than lose what I could offer in killing me.”

“Cut the drama and stop it with the false binary. You were going to know it anyway in…” Robin withdrew a pocketwatch and frowned. “Four hours. Not very patient, are you?”

“Is that when your big plan happens?”

“I wouldn’t say that. It’s when I pulled back the curtains and reveal the strings.” Robin said. “To you only, of course, and only because, as you thought, I really need a good accomplice right now. If you’d waited, you could have let me have my fun.”

“Strings? Oh, Robin, what are you planning?”

“I'm having a puppet show, of course.” Robin tapped a string of symbols on the door, activating it, then closed the windows. I’m not telling her everything, but she needs to know enough to understand what a bad idea it would be to cut loose at this point. “Wind magic. Blocks our voices from everyone else. Now it’s safe to talk.”

“What’s happening?”

In a few terse sentences, Robin outlined what he planning and what he was going to do at the wedding. His voice was low and serious, and it ended with Aversa slack-jawed.

“Are you serious?”

“Completely.” Robin narrowed his eyes. “You realized why I told you, correct?”

“You need my help.” Aversa said. “And I can’t very well betray you at this stage in the game without repercussions, can I? But you wanted to wait until I really didn’t have a choice.”

“I would have preferred that, yes.” Robin agreed. “But now you know exactly what I’m planning, and exactly what the repercussions are. So you know what a fantastically stupid idea it would be to betray me.” Revealing the plan on her terms isn’t good. My negotiation position is shot, and if she decides to betray me now, there a slim chance she could genuinely ruin things even though I didn't tell her everything. Thing is, she'd go down with me. I don't think she's willing to die for Walhart, and this plan doesn't require her willing to die for me. Still, only a fool trusts a traitor.

I really hate being a fool.

“So are you going to betray me?”

“Me? Betray you? Of course not.” Aversa smiled at him. “How could I betray the man I love?”

What.

"Pause." Robin inhaled. "Ah. What?"

"I said 'How could I betray the man I love'?" Aversa kept the smile. "The man being you, of course, if you needed that specified."

"I really don't think this is the time or place for this..."

“Oh, you’re so much fun to tease. You really have no experience in this realm, do you?” Aversa smiled at Robin. “I’m not trying to make you feel uncomfortable, but I do want to tell you how I feel. Certainly if you misunderstand our relationship enough to think that I'd betray you. I am yours, Robin.”

“You love me?” Robin was trying to figure out how to process it. He wasn’t being successful.

“In a sense.” Aversa said. “Though probably not in the way that you’re thinking. There are many types of love, you know. The one you're thinking of, judging from your bewildered and misplaced expression, is lust. Not the safest of loves, or the most satisfying, but the quickest and some would argue the easiest. I do not lust for you, Robin. Nor is what I have for you the kind of love that Zulas and Argeni seem to be developing, the slowest, yet strongest of loves. The love I have for you is more … platonic. Philia, of the strongest kind. Validar's betrayal didn't break my heart, it exposed the hole in it that was there the entire time. You gave me a purpose when my life lost its meaning, and I’ve found that I want my purpose to serve yours.”

“I think that’s just friendship, Aversa.” Robin swallowed.

“Then it is a great tragedy you think so little of friendship.” Aversa said. “Maybe, in time, you’ll understand. But that’s the bond between us, Robin. Validar broke my heart when I found out that he betrayed me, and you’re helping put it back together. I couldn’t turn my back on you now. Know this, Robin. While I may be sultry and occasionally act downright seditionist, that's just a hobby. I am a bitch, a hunting hound that's loyal to a single master.”

"You're making me seem kind of evil now." Robin frowned. "Like some kind of malicious villain using human pets."

"Come now, don't shy away. Humility has never been one of your virtues." Aversa smiled. "One could make many apt comparisons between you and a huntsmanster, who uses animal to hunt his game. You have your birds of prey, your hounds of war, your pedigreed horses. There are many who are bound to you, which you use to your fullest. And not as equals, but as your subordinates, as pawns for you to command to your will, each for a specified task. And you used me to fight my own kind. That's fine."

"...That's true." Robin nodded. "But if it's alright with you, I'd like to be friends."

"I confess my love, and you just want to be friends?" Aversa sniffed. "Truly, fate is cruel. But to be serious, tactician, you should know the danger that poses."

"Oh, please. I'm the Battlemaster. You mean more than pieces to me, Aversa. You and the others. And I'm good enough that it won't matter to me." Robin said. "I hope I've earned that."

"O course you have. It's my pleasure to serve, Robin~."

“And now you're back to this. I'm not even going to pretend to understand it.” Robin laughed. “Dant turned out to be right. I’m terrible with women.”

“All men are, silly.” Aversa rolled her eyes. “Wouldn’t be much of a point if you understand us, could it?”

“Still, glad to have that cleared.” Robin coughed. “Would have made dancing awkward. Though, to clarify, your declaration of platonic love doesn’t get you out of being my date.”

“You should have asked Pheros.”

“No, she needs to be the subject of a rather unsuccessful assassination attempt.”

“Unsuccessful. I see. You’re saying you’re that bad of dancer, huh?” Aversa winced. "I pity your dance partner."

“We just established that was you!” Robin scowled at Aversa’s playful wink. “Stop that!”

 -di Cratez Estate, Entrance-

“Friend of the bride, or friend of the groom?”

“Hmm.” Aversa considered. “Can we just say ‘Battlemaster and his guest’?”

“I don’t think there’s much of a point in forming a binary choice if we decided to skip it completely.” Robin replied. “Shall we flip a coin?”

"And you told me you avoided false binaries on the ride over here." Aversa mused aloud. "I wonder if that make you a hypocrite?"

“I don’t think you understand.” The butler sighed. “This isn’t an introduction, I’m merely wondering where I should sit you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the best man?” Aversa reminded Robin.

“So, that would make me friend of the groom?” Robin considered.

“No, that means you aren’t sitting in the audience.” Aversa corrected. “You, uh, haven’t been to any weddings, have you?”

“Amnesia.”

“Convenient excuse.” Aversa sighed. “You’ve got a piece of paper that tells you what to do, don’t you? Written by Argeni? That you haven’t looked at once because you thought you wouldn’t need it but took with you any ‘just in case’?”

“…Maybe.”

“Go read it.” Aversa turned to the sweating usher. “How about you just ignore us, okay? We’ll be fine on our own.”

 -di Cratez Estate, Chapel-

“…And do you, Lord Zulas Albert, take this woman to be your wife?”

“I do.”

Robin listened absently. His mind wasn’t paying attention, but he was able to act like he was. Inside his head, a set of dominos was going off. The assassination attempt on Pheros was the riskiest, but he was out of expendable pawns so for that so he used a few of his pawns’ pawn. Hopefully, she would survive, but he needed to make it look real so there was always the chance that she wouldn’t. He had plans for that. Not good ones but he was prepared.

The Spymaster and the Plegian King were another matter. Those were dead for certain. He’d manage to slip a note to Dant so she’d provide backup to Ravena, but he was pretty sure Ravena could succeed, especially with the former Mad King as a sacrifice. Whether she’d be okay with it or not was another question. Robin suspected she’d need a debriefing.

Lucina’s group were directed after the Spymaster. She hadn’t reacted with surprise when Robin told her who the Spymaster was, she simply nodded and confidently stated that her team would be capable of permanently silencing that thorn in Robin’s side. Robin was interested in testing Lucina’s capacity, and the capacity of her eccentric teammates. But he was more interested in the Spymaster’s death.

His thoughts were broken off by a rancorous applause and Robin blinked to find himself back in reality. Robin looked to see Zulas and Argeni locked in a tight embrace and kissing each other. Guess I missed ‘You may now kiss the bride’. Or Argeni just got impatient. Robin brought his hands together, rising to his feet and clapping. He smiled. This is nice, actually. Maybe I should have payed attention the whole time. I should go to more of these. Of course, that means I need to get more friends, or get the friends I have to get married, but that doesn’t seem that hard.

Then the doors in the back of the room burst open. Robin spun around, striding purposefully to the back of the room as a crier stood there, panting slightly. He was wearing a bloodred-crimson tunic, indicating the urgency of the message he was bringing to the group.

Hmm. They’re early. Or the wedding's late.

Robin grimaced and held his hand up, indicating for the crier to not howl to the crowd. A panicked crowd helped no one. Unfortunately, it was to no avail.

“The Vermillion City has been attacked by an army a hundred thousand rebels strong!” The crier yelled.

Robin inhaled deeply, forcing air into his lungs as the crowd descended into a pregnant silence that would soon devolve into panic. If it wasn’t my fault, I’d kill the bastard who disrupted this wedding. “NOBODY PANIC!” Robin announced, keeping his voice loud.Unfortunately, since they were in the chapel, there wasn't a convenient table for Robin to jump onto. “That’s the last thing that will be helpful.”

Panic immediately rippled across the crowd. Robin sighed, chugged a vial of pure water, and snapped his fingers. A massive crack sounded as lightning flashed, striking his hand, drawing all eyes to him.. “I said, NO ONE PANIC! My name is Count Robin Obsidian, and I’m the Battlemaster! At the very least, none of us are dying. Now, CALM DOWN!”

“But the rebels!” One cry came out at him, followed by many just like it.

“Only have enough manpower to attack the Vermillion City, and they’re going to focus every jot of strength they have. We’ll be fine. I’ve been tracking their numbers, if not the location. And they aren't going to take it.” Robin said. “What we’re going to do is count on the guards and the militia in this council. As we speak, every Wolfguard unit is being put into action to lock down the major travel routes and strategic outposts. As well as the main garrison, located not twenty miles from the Vermillion City, which will be marching to the city itself.”

“Shouldn’t we evacuate?” Zulas called out to him. “I thought-”

“Only evacuate if we’re under attack from a stronger force and have no choice.” Robin said. “Our best option is just to shore up and wait for reinforcements. Well, the rest of you. I’ll be taking a small force out. Walhart, no doubt, is just going to find the whole thing amusing as he cuts through the crowd with superior numbers, but if I hurry I might be able to get to a few high-ranking members before the Conqueror just gets bored and kills them all.”

That calmed down the crowd. The Vermillion City’s garrison was at a standing of eighty thousand men strong, and it usually hosted Walhart’s army of two-hundred thousand. And the Conqueror was there as well. There was no way the Conqueror would fall to something like this. This would just become an exciting story to tell their friends. Or so assumed the crowd.

Robin was under the same assumption as well. Which is why he needed to act.

“I’m coming with you.” Zulas announced. “You’re going to the Wolfguard, aren’t you? Well, I’m the regional commander.”

Sorry. But you’re just too loyal to be involved in any of this. Robin considered his options. “Argeni, talk him out of it.”

“But-” Zulas’s protest was cut short as his new wife smiled at him and yanked him towards one of the doors.

“I’ll take care of the meathead, Robin.” Argeni announced. “The rest of you, follow me to the dance floor. I’m not letting this spoil my wedding dance.”

No, that won't work either. Robin grimaced as he strode up to the two to talk to them personally. Zulas would never forgive himself if he was dancing during what’s going to come. He needs to be involved in the fighting. Fortunately, this castle will come under assault, so he can defend it. It’s the smallest of mercies I can offer. Robin lowered his tone. “Sorry, Argeni. You’ll have to postpone it. I need you two as acting members of the Wolfguard. Castle di Cratez is the most defensible structure in the area. I’ll have a reception twice as grand in Vermillion City to make it up to you, but I need you two to organize and send riders to assemble a command here.”

“You said there was no trouble.” Zulas said. "Is there something you know that you aren't telling us?"

“Zulas, I have no idea what’s going on.” Robin said. Lying, of course. “I have to prepare for the worst. And you’re the Wolfguard commander for this region.”

“Fine.” Zulas nodded.

“Dear!”

“Argeni, love, nobility is nothing without the responsibility that comes with it. And the most basic is the responsibility to protect those you rule over.” Zulas said. “Now is the time to sacrifice, but rest assured, what comes around go around.”

“Very well. But this is coming cheap to you, Robin!” Argeni raised her voice. “Change of plans! The Battlemaster is sponsoring the party, so we’ll have it in the Vermillion City once the dust clears. For now, make yourselves safe. The new Lord and Lady of this castle are going to defend it!”

“Listen to her!” Robin turned, gesturing to the crowd. “Go! Follow the guards and stay safe.”

Robin watched as the wedding turned into a disorderly retreat as they ran off while the guards tried to corral them into some semblance of order. Aversa had somehow managed to slink behind him in the commotion. Robin turned to her. “I take it you’ve arranged things here?”

“As commanded, you've got your guards. Picked out some good ones. By which I mean ... well, you know. Gullible idiots.” Aversa frowned. “We can’t let the scheme-hating Chon’sin of yours find out, or she’ll kill us. Well, maybe just me.”

“Correction. If she finds out, others will. And at that point, Say’ri killing us will be the least of our worries.” Robin said, signaling to the guards at the entranceway. “Guards, let’s go.”

 -Valm Countryside-

“It’s an honor to escort you, Battlemaster!” The captain of the unit wouldn’t shut up. And, apparently, was somewhat obsessed with him. “I can’t believe my squad was chosen to help escort you to the Wolfguard base.”

“Luck of the draw.” Robin shouted back. They were riding horses, fast ones, Robin, Aversa, and six guards. “Some people have it, some don’t.”

“Battlemaster, do you believe in luck?” The captain’s tone clearly indicated he didn’t.

“I’d be a fool not to.” Robin responded. He shifted his reins. “This way.” Robin lead them off the path through the forest, heading to the open grassy plains.

“Why are we going here?” The captain yelled at him. “This is out of the way!”

“It’s because there’s nowhere to hide here, of course. Please don’t ask me any stupid questions.” Robin said. He stopped talking and waited until he was in the center of the field before stopping his horse. “Alright, everyone off.”

“Why, Battlemaster?” The captain frowned.

“Are you questioning my judgement?” Robin cocked an eyebrow. “Off the horse. And do me a favor and tie the reins to a lance and stab it in the ground. All of you. Don’t want the horses running away, do we?”

“Yessir!” The captain dismounted, along with his men. They quickly staked the ground and wrapped the reins around the stakes to keep the horse in place. Robin nodded in approval and motioned for them to line up.

“A question for you, Captain.” Robin asked. “Would you and your men give your life for Valm, should the situation demand it?”

“Without hesitation, Battlemaster! As would my men!” The captain nodded emphatically. “That was part of the oath we swore to Valm when we joined.”

"And did you do so knowing that it could one day happen to you, and that your life was essentially forfeit as far as Valm was concerned."

"It never really crossed my mind, sir." The man shrugged. "I mean, I suppose it never crosses anyone's mind. No one wants to think they'll die."

"You misunderstand." Robin said. "I wasn't asking if that's how you thought you'd die. I was asking if you gave any thought as to how Valm would require you sacrificing your life. Let's say, for instance, Valm was losing and required you and your men to hold a position and die to buy time. Would you do that?"

"I ... guess I would, though I don't think we'd ever lose a fight like that. To be honest, I never really gave it that much thought."

"I asked because ... well, I hoped you understood. It'd give me peace, anyway. But I think this gives me peace as well." Robin sighed, shaking his head. "You plead ignorance, then. But that's no excuse.” 

"Battlemaster?" The captain looked at him. Robin suspected the man knew, deep down, what was about happen. He just couldn't face reality. "What do you mean?"

"What I mean is simple. Your country requires your life. But know that I am sorry it had to be like this." Robin summoned lightning magic and impaled the man with a crackling spear of electricity. He drew his sword and cut down a second. Behind him, Aversa drew her tome and fired tendrils of dark magic, ensnaring two of them. A look of ecstasy appeared on her face as the tendrils sapped the energy from the two soldiers.

“Treachery!” One of the remaining soldiers lunged for him, trying to stab him. Robin slammed his left gauntlet to force the blade aside and ran him through. The last went for his horse, but got stuck on the reins, still wrapped around the stake in the ground. Robin raised in hand and pointed it at him. He felt a pang of regret shoot through him as he caught a look of his anguished face.

“Why are you doing this!?”

“For what it’s worth, you’ll be remembered among those who made the ultimate sacrifice for Valm.” Robin said, ignoring the question and raising his hand. A bolt of lightning later, he dropped from the horse, dead. “But I don’t think that’ll be much consolation. Sorry.”

Robin turned to Aversa, who was down to the one soldier, the other one dead. “Make sure not to kill him, alright?”

“I know the plan.” Aversa reminded him. “But I warn you – while I can alter his mind with dark magic, it’ll cause some lasting damage.”

“That’s fine, he can succumb to his wounds.” Robin said, checking the spell-bracelet on his wrist. “All we need from him is his testimony that we were attacked by assassins. Whether he survives or not is of little concern to me – just make sure that he’s able to corroborate our story.”

“That’s … cold, even for you.I was just referring to scrambling his brain.” Aversa said, frowning. “I mean, I’ve got no problem with it, but you…”

“If you have the choice to save him or not, with no consequence attached to that choice, then do that, I’m not cruel.” Robin said. “But the mission comes first. Aversa, I’m sacrificing too many lives right now to hold back. If this fails, all those sacrifices will be for nothing. I can’t put the life of someone sworn to die for Valm over the sacrifices of thousands. He must testify that we were attacked, and if you have to turn him a dark puppet to do it, then go ahead. I’ve already crossed far worse lines today. And I'm going to do far worse.”

“You never explained that part of the plan to me.” Aversa said. “Now, we feign being attacked by assassins. Plausible deniability. I get that. But nothing’s going to happen to Walhart.”

“Oh? What do you mean?”

“The plan only works if Walhart dies.” Aversa said. “Use the last of the rebellion to strike the leaders and make it seem like it was one last dying hurrah. Scapegoat a few idiots, and then, since you and your pick of leaders survived, you remake the Empire in your image. The assassination attempt on your life failed because they underestimated you – they were clever enough to bait you out, but they just didn’t have the men.”

“Not exactly.” Robin said. “We’ll be set upon by a host soon – at least a thousand men. We’ll need to get back to Castle di Cratez and have them hold out. We escaped death because one of them messed up and ambushed us early. That’s the story, remember?”

“Right. I need to keep this straight. How did you even-” Aversa shook her head. “I don’t even know how you pulled all this off without my knowing about it. I mean, without my knowing more about it. Did you really send Dant to Plegia?”

“She’s currently in Plegia, yes.” Robin confirmed. That wasn't a lie on his part. “Anyway, continuing where you left off. Why won’t the attack on Walhart work?”

“He’s got around 300,000 men, for starters. His army plus the garrison. And they're defending the city's walls.”

“No.” Robin corrected. “A set of orders were delivered last week instructing them to go out for military exercises. Walhart’s army isn’t there, only the defenders. But half of them are on extended leave, somehow. Seems like a quartermaster error. The poor paperwork. Of course, that’s all going to go up in flames during the commotion in the interim.”

“Only forty thousand men guarding the Vermillion City?” Aversa said, blinking. “Still, that's risky.”

“I suppose. The rebels only have about seventy thousand, so the defense is perfectly serviceable if they don’t charge. That is, of course, if.” Robin said. “But Walhart will hear about it, and he’ll charge. The rebels have been instructed to draw him as far from the city gates as possible, and retreat. The walls will be emptied, and the army will go out. Once the army goes out, the doors will be locked after they leave by the skeleton crew of guards remaining, as per protocol dictates, stopping reinforcements from the Vermillion City. I should know, I wrote that protocol myself. And there, on the vast plains before the Vermillion City, the Conqueror will meet his end.”

“…” Aversa stared at Robin, her eyes wide. “You … you’re … “

“Of course, the murderers can’t be allowed to get away. In fact, they're a great scapegoat for uniting the nation in hatred.” Robin said. “So the Wolfguard, as we speak, are heading towards those plains. But they’re meeting a different army – ten thousand rebels and twenty thousand conscripts, enough to seem like a large army. The Wolfguard will annihilate them, but they’ll keep the reinforcements from reaching Walhart. And, of course, the story will be that those are the remainder of the army that fought Walhart. The army that the noble Walhart rode to the defense of the Vermillion City, a  city which is both the heart of Valm, and houses the residents of some of the most important members of the Empire's various groups within it, all thanks to my restoration and unification projects.”

“It’s a vast tapestry of conspiracy.” Aversa whispered in awe. “One that you set up to play the hero to Walhart’s tragic demise.”

“Exactly.” Robin nodded. “You could say I was … inspired by events across the ocean, as it were. But I’m no actor, I’m a playwright so I chose to write the circumstances rather than just be present when they happened. And the tragic fall of Walhart will happen when he leads an army of forty thousand against seventy in open combat even if, perhaps, the numbers that will be told afterwards will be slightly adjusted. What no single hero could do, thousand and thousands of rebels will. It’s a sobering tale, I think. One that sends the message that no man is invincible, and that the power of many is stronger than any one. But that the one man can start a movement that carries on after his death. Walhart will fall, but I will rebuild the Valm Empire out of his ashes, stronger than even he could imagine! All things considered, a rather good play. Maybe they'll be able to have shows by the year's end.”

“And what if he doesn’t die?” Aversa asked.

“Hmm?”

“What if Walhart doesn’t die?” Aversa asked. “Those are his elites, Robin. Those that guard the gates of the Vermillion City are among the strongest in Valm, and they are led by Walhart. Outnumbered even two to one, they won’t lose to your rebels.”

“No, of course not.” Robin shook his head. “Sorry, I got carried away. The story, of course, is that he fell to the rebels. But, like the story I shall tell the Empire, it won’t be true. I trained several of the rebel’s tacticians. They were told to use an encirclement technique, and once that was done, focus on killing Walhart’s forces before trying to kill him with numbers. That way, even though Walhart does survive, he’ll be the only one standing. All alone.”

“That’s the reason for the second army to hold back the Wolfguard.” Aversa said. “You’re going to have an assassin kill Walhart, and you need it to look like an army did it. If there's no army, that's suspicious, but an army of that size, seemingly running from a battlefield? Believable. But why not just send them at Walhart...”

"Those? Please, they're more of a liability in a fight. Almost entirely untrained and no combat discipline. They'd break ranks and run as soon as the Valm elites started winning instead of willingly throwing themselves to the slaughter to kill more men. As soldiers, they're terrible. They are only useful as a sacrifice." Robin activated the spell-bracelet, creating a circle of runes beneath him. "And you're only partially correct about my sending an assassin. You know what they say. You want a job done right, do it yourself.”

“Warp magic?” Aversa stared. “You said you couldn’t do it!”

“I did, didn’t I? I suppose all that just means I can’t be caught doing it.” Robin said. “I thought better of you than to just take my blanket word at everything.”

“That … explains a lot. Like how you were organizing everything.” Aversa said. “Best of luck to you, Robin. I'd ask you to keep safe, but judging from the skill you had me teach you, I can guess what you're planning. Please. Just come back alive.”

“That is the plan.” Robin said grimly. “If I don't ... well, I will. Thank you for everything. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got regicide to commit.”

 

Well, Plegia is now done and screwed. The entire country is now descending into chaos thanks to the King dying before he got a decent chance to start consolidating all that power. I’d call it a civil war, but it doesn’t really seem all that civil to me, cuz it’s kind of a free for all. Two of my normal providers of information died trying and failing to double deal. Now, a suspicious person could blame Valm, I guess, but there are rumors flying that it’s a result of inside politics. And they could continue to fly, if certain palms are well greased, should you take my meaning – Anna.

Chapter Text

-The Great Mila Tree-

“Lady Lucina, do you believe this to be correct?”

“In what sense?” Lucina said. “Also, please don’t call me that. Just call me Lucina. You didn’t call Marth by his full name, did you?”

“Very well, Lucina.” Tiki continued. “You told me that you come from a timeline that Robin turns into a fell dragon. Why are you helping him? Aren’t you causing evil and destruction with this plan?”

“You know,” Lucina said, changing the subject. She'd told Tiki everything, trusting in her wisdom of the Voice of Naga. However, Tiki, contrary to her expections, declined to get personally involved in the conflict, claiming that Lucina seemed to have it under control already. She also had a tendency to ask uncomfortable questions.  “I’m really glad Robin wasn’t here when we met you. Because there’s not much of a chance you wouldn’t recognize my divine blood and let the knowledge slip.”

“Probably.” Tiki agreed. “I almost told him he was the Fellblood the first conversation we had, but I managed to change the subject when I realized he didn’t know it.”

“I’ve been masquerading as someone else.” Lucina said. “As far as Robin knows, Lucina has no blood relationship to Chrom, something I’ve barely managed to keep from him. If he found out I did have divine blood, I’d either have to tell him who I truly am, or I’d have to lie and tell him I’m Chrom’s bastard sister.”

“This … distresses you?” Tiki asked.

“Yes!” Lucina clenched her fist so hard her nails dug into her palm. “Where I come from, if anyone showed up and claimed to be Chrom’s bastard daughter, she'd be called a liar and no one would give her a second thought. Even if she showed herself to have the blood of the Exalt, they’d assume she actually was descended from a bastard line farther back. But here? Anyone wouldn’t even hesitate to assume that I’m a bastard sibling to Chrom.”

“Well, that’s because Chrom is Chrom.” Tiki said. “A man much like Anri, even as Emmeryn was much like Elise. He is strong, loyal, brave, and holds true to his ideals. No one would suspect such a man.”

“And his father? My grandfather, the Exalt of the first Ylissean-Plegian war?” Lucina said. “Do you know how hated he is? He’s so despised that his name was lost to history when I was born, and my father never told me it! It wasn’t until we came back here that I finally learned his name. People would believe in a heartbeat that he was unfaithful to his wife.”

Tiki was unsure of how to respond to that. “And do you believe otherwise?”

“He nearly destroyed both countries in a fanatical quest for some kind of storied vengeance.” Lucina said. “That’s what they want you to believe, anyway. From my point of view, Grandfather only made one mistake.”

“Oh?”

Lucina stared at Tiki with eyes that had seen horror and destruction and the end of a world. “He wasn’t extreme enough. Say what you want about everything he did. But I come from an Ylisse doomed to oblivion because he didn’t succeed. No one understands the kind of burden a ruler has to carry. I suppose that’s why I fought so hard against calling myself an Ylissean bastard. Because I hate it how my Grandfather was criminalized.”

“Do you really believe that?” Tiki asked. “But what of Emmeryn?”

“Maybe... No, I don’t believe that. Maybe it’s just the anger talking right now. But I come from a world where she was killed by assassins before she could sacrifice her life for peace.” Lucina slammed her fist into a thick branch of the Mila tree. “She’s – the truth is that Aunt Emmeryn is too good! She dreamed of a world where peace and kindness ruled, but she’s not someone who could take the measures necessary. The truth is that there always need to be people like my father and I. The blades who cut down those who won’t see reason. Robin may not be the same man I remember, but he’s still trying to do good. You’ve seen him transform the Empire. All he needs now is only final push. I’m fine with helping him. I’m fine with this so-called evil and destruction because I’ve seen what happens if I stay back and do nothing.”

“I see.” Tiki said. “Lucina, please remember. The Divine Blood within you was a present from my mother to let humans kill evil dragons. But it wasn't a gift given to kill evil humans. No gifts were given to kill evil humans.”

"What..."

"Just something to ponder." Tiki shrugged and yawned. "I don't think that I'll be able to get in a good nap for much longer, so I shall take one now. Good night, Lucina."

"Good night. Gerome!" Lucina nodded and dove off the tree. A dark blur dove after her.

 -Battlefield-

The air stank of blood. Corpses lay around, creating the rough approximation of a ferocious battle that had consumed over one hundred thousand human lives within the span of just a few hours. The Valm elite had fallen eventually, leaving Walhart to fight alone for the last hour, endlessly cutting through his foes, who kept attacking him in waves. Partially out of sheer zealotry, partially out of a desire for vengeance, and partially from a foolish and mistaken belief that they could kill him. Now, there were only corpses marking the battlefield. Corpses, and one Conqueror. Above, birds circled the battlefield. Carrion eaters, cowards who only came after the fighting had ended and sought to snap up the defeated. Walhart stood alone on the battlefield, exhausted but enthusiastic. His duties to the Empire kept him from joining his armies’ training exercises, but this skirmish was just the thing to rejuvenate him. He’d called all the soldiers that would ride with him and given chase to the rebels who dared to attack his Empire. The rebels were clever, almost too clever, and tried killing him by whittling down his men and then attacking him with numbers.

They weren’t clever enough to realize that very tactic had been tried before. Several times. It wasn’t the first time Walhart was the sole survivor of a battle. And Walhart suspected that it wouldn’t be the last.

Was Robin behind this? Walhart wasn’t sure, but if he was, Walhart felt like thanking him. The fight had been enjoyable, if not slightly monotonous. Walhart looked around. His battle instincts twitched. Something else was coming. And all he had to do was wait for it. He wasn’t disappointed when a warp circle appeared right before him.

 -Battlefield-

“It’s me, Conqueror.” Robin said. He'd warped to the top of a nearby hill and found the battlefield. After that it took a few warps through it to find Walhart, and once he did, Robin warped a short distance in front of him. He didn't feel the need for any deception. "I come alone."

“Are you here to help me, tactician? If so, this fight is over.” Walhart breathed heavily, blood pouring off his crimson armor. Robin assessed him. His horse was dead, so the Conqueror stood aloft, seven feet tall, on just his legs. Battered. Bruised. But very much alive. “Are you my reinforcements? If so, you are very late.”

“No. Those are later still, currently five miles north of us, engaging a second division of the rebels.”

“Yours?”

“Do you mean my reinforcements, or my rebels? Though I suppose the answer to both is the same. In a sense, they are mine, in a sense, they are not. The reinforcements are Wolfguard forces that I arranged to be guarding the capitol, though I’d consider them more to be Valm’s forces. Nonetheless, I think I'll gladly take the credit. As for the rebels, I believe they've been given faulty information, though obviously I won't take any credit for that. After all, that'd mean I knew about them beforehand, which isn't something I'll officially have known.” Robin said. “We are alone here. Right now, none are supposed to be alive here, and rumors will have been circulated by now that you are fighting in half a dozen other places. This is supposed to be a graveyard, waiting to be buried. A graveyard with a slight flaw.”

“A graveyard with two living men in it.” Walhart said. He was no fool. He had figured out what was happening as soon as Robin showed up, which Robin had no trouble with. It was only right, after all. But it seemed he wanted to play this out for as long as possible. “Does that not strike you as odd?”

“That’s hardly odd for a graveyard. I’ve seen the living in it. Though usually it’s to visit the dead.” Robin said. “Something that neither of us currently are. Have you ever seen that, Conqueror? A living man goes to the graveyard, without the intention to visit the dead?”

“I cannot say I have.” Walhart narrowed his eyes. “Tactician. I do not know how you are here, nor do I care, but I suspect that you have finally mastered Excellus’s warp spell, much to all your protests to the contrary and you have either lied about the cost or what morals you are willing to sacrifice. I am interested, however, as to why you are here.”

“Victory, Conqueror.” Robin said, slowly. “I’ve noticed something as I’ve fought across this land. If you fight a battle for the sake of itself, you don’t care for victory in the slightest. Or, rather, you care to win, but not if you know you’ll win from the onset. You wish for a challenge, for a game you know that perhaps you cannot win, but you do all the same.”

“An astute observation, tactician.” Walhart said. “I suppose you’ve learned that playing your games?”

“I have, among other methods.” Robin said. “But I’ve also learned other things. When you fight a battle for the sake of victory, because you’re interested in the spoils of conquest, you care not for the game in the slightest, nor for the challenge it poses.”

“And what have you made of this?”

“Which of the two reasons do you fight, Walhart? Does the Conqueror conquer for territory, or does the Conqueror conquer for opponents? The answer is obvious, but your answer is not mine.” Robin asked. “Because I made a mistake a while back. I learned the name of a pawn I was using. And since I learned the name, I learned a few other things about her as well.”

“This would be Cherche, then?”

“Indeed. And then Say'ri. And Yen'fay, perhaps. By now, it's spread to the rest of my lieutenants.” Robin said. “It’s very nice to talk philosophy in closed rooms, but I would think that those giving orders may appreciate them more if they knew of all the consequences. Consequences such as the graveyard we’re standing in. What do you seek, Conqueror?”

“Why do you ask questions you already know the answer to?” Walhart said. “I seek power, tactician.”

“And you’ve done a magnificent job unifying Valm under you in the process.” Robin said. “Conqueror, you’ve done well for yourself, and your Empire is magnificent. But you don’t seek battle for the sake of its victory. Rather, you seek battle for just the victory. Should all the world be handed to you, you would reject it, and seek to conquer it. That is who you are, Conqueror.”

“You understand.”

“All too well, I’m afraid.” Robin said. “There’s no one like a Battlemaster to know the thrill that comes from asserting your dominance over lesser and proving that you are the strongest. However… that’s wrong.”

“What do you mean, ‘wrong’, tactician?” Walhart turned to him. “Do you seek to challenge me? Are you responsible for this, then?”

“What I mean by wrong is quite simple - my philosophy opposes yours. I believe, truly, that the responsibility of the strong is to help the weak. Comes from being a tactician, I guess. The most efficient method of victory is maximizing your resources. Which means helping the weak ones. If you conquer without giving even the slightest thought to the consequences, I can't label you anything but evil. And to call me responsible for this? What an odd choice of words.” Robin laughed. “My existence doesn’t overwrite free will. Am I responsible for the actions of anyone but myself?”

“You, who manipulate the lives of many would ask such a thing?”

“That is why exactly why I would ask such a thing.” Robin snarled. “Sometimes, one life with a single act, can changes the actions of millions. But how can that be? Does that mean that free will only exist for those who choose to use it? Perhaps. But neither of us are philosophers, are we? We are men of actions. But there is always the time when those actions require the power of philosophy. The power of a martyr. Do you understand?”

“What is going through your mind, tactician?” Walhart growled. “For once, you are saying something that I truly cannot understand. Why do you speak in riddles?”

“More’s the pity. You see, belief is a strong force, and I mean to weaponize it, though not in the sense that you did.” Robin said. “That’s what Exalt Emmeryn did, you know, back in Plegia. She proved the conviction of her beliefs. Regardless of what that belief was, she proved her conviction. And that forced every Plegian to look deep down inside of themselves and consider that maybe they had that conviction too. They were strong, not strong enough as her, but strong enough to walk away from the fight.”

“And you seek to weaponize your own beliefs?”

“I can’t weaponize what doesn’t exist. What I have our principles, fundamentals, to be sure, but belief? No. I'm not strong-willed or charismatic enough to have something to convince the masses of. Unlike you.” Robin said. “So allow me to explain. The scattered remnants of hatred, pure hatred gather together, superseding nearly millennia old conflicts between them, driven by the power of pure hate, seeking vengeance by destroying the Vermillion City. Of course, to those not blinded by hate, they realize what a stupid idea this is. Because half of Valm knows someone or is related to someone there.”

“Somehow, this ragtag group of rebels has found the absolute perfect time to strike and unify.” Robin smirked. “And by somehow, I mean I orchestrated it, but that’s not important. Upon hearing of the rebels, the Conqueror of Valm goes out to do battle to protect his homeland. They are outnumbered ten to one, at the very least, and the Conqueror himself outnumbered over one thousand to one at the end. But, in the end, his sacrifice carries through the day. And, when it seems that the city may fall anyway, forces from all of Valm ride to his aid. A touching story of a brave Conqueror’s final stand defending his country, do you not think?”

“That is my plan, O Conqueror.” Robin said, mockingly. “On the surface, you are the greatest king to rule Valm since the coming of Alm. However, while your action upon the surface are noble, seeking to eliminate the corrupt monarchs, unifying the continent, and acting in self-defense against the evil, your intentions are anything but! You’re just as bad as the rest of them. There’s no innocent blood upon your hands, Conqueror, but it’s only a matter of time. I simply mean to give you a fitting end before you go from this tale’s hero to its villain.”

“Quite a tale. And how many have you sacrificed to tell it?”

“Hundreds of thousands.” Robin said. “Either rebels who chose to fight us, or those who swore an oath to give their life for Valm. But like I said, I don't overwrite free will. They made their decisions – perhaps ignorant of the true consequences. But ignorance, Conqueror, is no excuse. Anyone who draws a blade with the intent to end another can hardly be angry when he's killed by one using the same reason as himself. Right? Wrong? No, these army were fighting for power. The rebel leaders were just despots with intention to rule as you did.”

“And how long have you spent planning this?”

“Since I gained the title of Battlemaster.” Robin lied. In the event of his death, it’d be better not to implicate Ylisse. “My goal was to remove you from the throne, but how was I to do that without just replacing you with the equivalent? The Valm Empire needs reform, but it couldn’t be done by a simple coup, without the Empire shattering, or falling to corruption. The only conclusion was to turn you into a martyr.”

“I see!” Walhart laughed. “Clever, Battlemaster! And you would swoop him to take the reins, no doubt?”

“Weren’t you listening? Of course not.” Robin shook his head. “Honestly, I’m not one for control in the first place. I’m a planner, not a leader. I’m the perfect number two, and a terrible number one. And, when it comes down to it, I can’t say I’m much better person than you are. I have the same hubris that you have. My intentions may be slightly better, but I can’t say that I deserve rule.”

“Good, tactician. I would be disappointed if you did not follow your ideology throughout. However, there is still a single flaw in your plan.” Walhart said. “I am still here.”

“That is a flaw, isn’t it?” Robin said. “You see, you could’ve died here from your wounds, and that would have been good, but I didn’t think that would happen. I prepared for this scenario.”

“You mean to kill me, tactician?”

“Yes.” Robin said, softly. “My apologies, Conqueror. You have done much for me, and now I repay your kindness with venom. But there’s no other way for this to end now.”

“A fight to the death?” Walhart said. “But I am injured, and you are fresh.”

“So?” Robin asked. “You’re stronger and faster than others, while I’m smarter. No one’s equal, Conqueror. Are you complaining about your circumstances that you find yourself in?”

“Not at all.” Walhart said. “I just wonder what your definition of strength is, that lets you do it. I respected you, Robin. Of all the people who have challenged me, you have come the closest to grasping what true strength is. Now, are you going to throw it away?”

“Hah. True strength? Honestly, who cares about that?” Robin shook his head. “And, as you once said to me, the fact you can kill me means that you’re stronger than I am. If I can kill you, that makes me stronger than you are. According to your own beliefs, I’m stronger than you are.”

“Is that so?” Walhart said. “And what of your beliefs? Don’t you believe yourself to hold the moral high ground?”

“Maybe.” Robin shrugged. “Honestly, my hands are stained with too much blood and not enough results to claim it yet. But so what? I won’t violate it by killing a wounded opponent. I’ll still be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow. At the end of the day, I’m Count Robin Obsidian. Your definition of strength no longer interests me.”

“Good.” Walhart said. “You’ve taken another step in the right direction. You will need to continue, in the event that you do kill me, because your path has many more steps for you to take.”

“Pardon…?” Robin blinked.

“You have realized that your path is different from the one that I walk. You’ve never sought the path of strength, tactician. Your path, and the power alongside it, associates elsewhere.” Walhart said. “I have cultivated this Empire so that those most worthy of its power may take it. If you defeat and kill me here, you will be worthy.”

“I see.” Robin inhaled deeply. “We aren’t enemies, are we?”

“No.” Walhart shook his head. “We never were. Tactician, we both looked upon the world, and decided to change it, leaving our mark behind on it. I have determined that the path of strength is the best to do that. You walk the path of a Grandmaster, willing to sacrifice. You may think what I am willing to do is evil, but that is only because you believe that your way is a better way than mine. Or do you deny it?”

“No. No I don’t.” Robin said. “So. I suppose this is it. I would wish you luck, but you’ll understand if I don’t.”

“The same to you, Battlemaster. This isn’t a duel to the death between bitter enemies, but of two friends seeking the truth to power.” Walhart smiled. “That said, do not think that I will fall easily, tactician. After all, I am inexorable.”

“One more thing.” Robin said, inhaling and holding his hand up.

“You try my patience, tactician.” Walhart growled. “Did you come here to talk? Or to fight?”

“This isn’t going to be the kind of fight that leaves the opponent alive at the end. Or in one piece.” Robin said. “Now is the time for your last words, or requests.”

“You assume you would win? How arrogant of you.” Walhart snorted.

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” Robin said. “That said - it behooves a tactician to always have a backup plan. As for me … all I ask is that you give my successor the full story behind my death and hide the story from the rest of Valm. They can believe I died to assassins.”

“Very well. Though, obviously, I will have to kill all your pawns.” Walhart said. “But if you win I’ll tell your story to your successor. If you do prove yourself superior to me, tactician, I have one request.”

“Unexpected.” Robin licked his lips. I have no intention of losing, but I’m doing this out of a matter of pride – I’m simply too good of a tactician to not consider every outcome. I need to keep Valm stable in the event of my loss. Lying to the public and scaring my successor into submission should do that – after all, there’s no one my equal so how can they succeed where I fail? But I didn’t expect Walhart to want anything. "Name it."

“If you win, take off that cloak of yours and lead Valm as I did.” Walhart laughed. “I understand you reluctance, but you will need to, even if only temporarily. You see, the only way for you to defeat me is to actually have claim to my position. And if you don’t, your loss is already assured. My demand is that you take this seriously. Because if you aren’t prepared to step into my place, you aren’t prepared to win.”

“I already am the Battlemaster. You don’t ask much of me.” Robin nodded. “Very well. You have my word.”

“It won’t come to that, of course.” Walhart set his feet and gauged the distance between them.

“I thought about that.” Robin said, eyeing the distance between them. “Inexorable means unstoppable. But tell me, Conqueror. Do you know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Because – heh. Well, let’s just say that you’re about to…”

Walhart charged at Robin. He wasn’t the fastest opponent Robin faced, but he was faster than his size and armor would imply and used an absolutely gargantuan axe. Robin had spent weeks studying Walhart’s fighting style in preparation for this fight. Robin watched the axe come down on him. It wasn’t a serious attack meant to kill him. Instead, like two master tacticians, their battle would consist of the two engaging in feints and diversion, meant to gauge their opponents until they knew enough to commit through one plan of action.

Robin’s first thought was to fight like Say’ri. The Chon’sin princess could move so fast she was almost invisible to the naked eye. Dodging Walhart while gradually whittling him down was very appealing, especially when it seemed like there was almost no risk involved. Except that was almost for certain what Yen’fay tried. And Robin was no Yen’fay.

The second approach was to engage at distance, kiting Walhart while blasting him with magic. The Conqueror had incredible resistance to magic, but not unlimited, and a forged tome would have a tremendous impact. That worked until you remembered that Walhart’s axe had magical properties, and he’d just send it through your magic spells and slice your arm off.

Ignis CORONA!” Robin drew a Levin sword from his alternate holster and a forged lance from his other one, firing the magic deep within his blood, stoking it and calling it to life within him. The power redoubled through his body, boosting his physical and magical power. He brought the blade together to from an X and powered both energies through the weapons. “RAAAAAAAAAH!”

Walhart’s axe hit it. The shockwave shattered the ground around them, creating a gigantic spiderweb of cracks. Dust and small rocks flew up, forming a giant ring of debris around the two fighters as Robin’s custom-made steel-toed boots were driven into the hard rock. Robin could feel the magic igniting in his Battlemaster armor as it strengthened, protecting him.

Robin howled as he took the impact, feeling the force being driven though every inch of his body. Then, mercifully, most it was gone. Robin looked up to see a crimson giant standing over him, with pure white eyes that almost lit up with power and Walhart’s incredulous expression that he’d blocked the blow.

“Hmm.” Walhart said. “You’re the first since Yen’fay.”

The third option – do what he least expects. Which, for now, is fighting fire with fire.

 “To defeat you, I just need to do one simple thing.” Robin said, gritting through his teeth as he struggled to keep Walhart’s strength from pushing through his guard. His muscles howled in protest “All I have to do is stop you.”

“Yes, however-” Walhart smiled as his weapon was locked with Robin’s, who was gritting his teeth from the strain. “That is the same thing everyone else had to do as well! Do you think yourself that exceptional, tactician?”

Robin didn’t put any energy into a verbal reply and shoved back with every jot of energy he could muster. Walhart was sent back from the doubled force of Ignis Corona. Walhart fell into a guard stance, keeping his left arm forward and his right arm back ready to slash at him. Robin observed his stance as he let his Ignis dwindle within him, preparing to flare it up. "I don't know, Conqueror. Let's find out!"

-Ft. Steiger

“What in the name of all hells in happening?” Pheros fireballed another assassin, turning the man into a crisp husk. She controlled her horse, swinging the beast around to let her survey the main hall where fighting had broken out. A team of assassins infiltrated Ft. Steiger, completely undetected. They seemed to be trying to kill her, or at least a large portion of them had attacked her, but the rest scattered and were now causing havoc. Or trying to, at any rate, they had abysmal timing and attacked during training exercises when half the fort was holding a weapon and when Pheros’s honor guard was her veterans. It was a sickening combination of shockingly effective and hilariously inept. “Isn’t it the job of that Battlemaster to be assassinated? Why are they coming after me?”

“Fie.” The Chon’sin samurai of Robin sliced another one apart. “Being a target is not Robin’s job. Though he seems to think it is. He used them as a test for his intelligence network the other month.”

“Sounds like a story for another time. Red veins of the earth – Bolganone!” Pheros flicked her hand, creating a lava plume and sending the assassins flying. “Well, that’s the last of the ones here. So, Ft. Steiner gets attacked, and we don’t know why.”

“We know they’re coming to kill you.” Say’ri slid her sword in her sheath. “Mostly.”

“Not helpful. If those assassins hadn’t killed the messengers the messengers that were sent here, we would have gotten them.” Pheros sighed. “Obviously, there’s something they don’t want us knowing. But the list of that is … well, it’s high. Got any ideas, Say’ri?”

“I am the Battlemaster’s sword, not his mind.” Say’ri shook her head. “No. I am sure he would have an idea of what to do, but I wouldn’t guess that he suspected you would be attacked, even with my prescence here. I would not even be here now if not for the fact he sent me to train with your Icewings.”

“Icebergs.” Pheros corrected. “Seems like the kind of sneaky thing he would do, send you to keep an eye on me under the pretext of training.”

“Yes.” Say’ri agreed. “However, Argeni is more qualified and does not raise red flags, as a former member of this garrison. Robin is not one to select the wrong blade for a fight. Morgaine as well, considering how devious that woman is.”

“How do you think he’s taking this?” Pheros raised an eye. “Ah, with his luck, he’s probably fighting for his life right now.”

“That is most likely the case, yes.” The Chon’sin samurai nodded, betraying not a hint of fear.

“So, you aren’t worried about him?” Pheros raised her eyebrow. “Even with his sword missing?”

“Robin? No. He is at the wedding of Zulas and Argeni, taking place in Argeni’s family castle. He may be attacked, but he is not without the means to defend himself.” Say’ri smiled. “Besides, he is rather diffculy to kill. I couldn’t manage it.”

“You tired killing him?” Pheros blinked. And she’s his most loyal soldier now. Does this have to do with Yen’fay’s death. Probably. But how did Robin managed to swing that into Say’ri’s loyalty?

“It was a while back.” Say’ri shrugged. “He didn’t mind.”

“There’s something very wrong with that man.” Pheros murmured. “Well, I hope he’s alright.”

 -Battlefield-

To win this fight, I cannot allow him to take a single step forward. Furthermore, every foot I take forward is one I must keep. Robin said. Even in this state, he’s not going to be easy to kill – or even possible, though I’ve got plans for that situation as well. I’ve got to play the psychological game. If I can keep landing blows, I may be able to give myself the opening I need to finish him.

Ultimately, he’s mortal. There’s nothing he can do about it. He can be killed. It’s just going to be really, really hard.

“Hah!” Robin thrust his spear forward, baiting Walhart’s attack. Walhart swung down the axe to snap his weapon in half. Robin swept in back and danced in, slamming the Levin Sword into Walhart’s armor and firing all his magic, fire, lightning, and wind into it. He ducked under the retaliatory blow. Robin shied up his grip on the spear and crossed his arms so the weapons were on either side of his body, then crossed them again.

“Chon’sin-style blademanship: Niten Ichi: Double Cross Draw!” The drawn weapons connected on the center of Walhart’s plate armor, the thickest and heaviest part. Robin had no interest in attempting to cut through heavily enchanted magic armor, but instead wanted to just deal the blow.

Walhart was forced back from it. Robin spun the sword in his left hand and sheathed it, foregoing both weapons and Ignis Corona. He used the space to plant the butt of his spear and used it to propel himself upwards so he was above Walhart. Robin gripped the spear with two hands and drew it over his head. Robin slammed the spear down, lighting up Ignis within him again. Walhart attempted to bat the attack aside, only to have his own axe knocked aside as well. “Valmese-style spearmanship: Fangshu: Vaulting Slam!” Robin howled as his lance struck Walhart’s shoulder.

“Now, Chon’sin-style blademanship: Kenjutsu: Astra!” Robin spun the spear and stowed in his holster loops. He drew his Levin sword, lit up the blade with lightning and began the lightning-fast series of attacks that formed the five-hit combination attack, the last thing Say’ri had taught him of Kenjutsu. The first four didn’t inflict any meaningful damage, however, the last manage to inflict a cut on the Conqueror’s face.

“Good show, tactician! But you’ll need more powerful methods to break through my armor.”

“That’s the plan!”  Robin tossed the sword back to his left hand and drew his spear with his right hand. He stoked the flames of Ignis within him, flaring them as bright as he dared and threw the power into his arms.

Walhart has a singular bad habit, from the accounts I’ve read. If he’s pressured, he’ll NEVER retreat, instead, he’ll lash out with an attack. An overhead slash. Walhart looked at him, with a curious expression, setting his feet hard enough to shatter the ground and send clouds up. He grip the axe in a wide two-handed stance and swung overhead, and powerful half-circle of red steel.

Robin was ready. As Walhart set for the thrust, he crouched and backflipped. He’d judged the distance and spread his legs to let the axe pass through them, slicing the back of his coat into tails. He flipped, landing far closer than Walhart expected him to be able to, thanks to his risky dodge. Sword in left hand, spear in his right, Robin thrust both weapons forward. “IGNIS CORONA!”

Metal screamed as the two points pierced the Conqueror’s enchanted metal armor. Robin felt both blades enter Walhart’s body. He rapidly withdrew the blades and set them together as he set his feet together in a lunge stance. Walhart grunted as blood flowed and tried to jerk his axe clean of the ground. But he wasn’t fast enough.

The stab wounds did it! He’s open! Robin set his stance. “Battlemaster-style combat: Ignis Corona: Red Spear Thrust!”

The two weapons went straight through Walhart’s armor, straight through the ribs and into the heart. Robin relaxed as the two lengths of steel were set into the center of the man’s body. Cuts, trauma, even deep stab wounds couldn’t necessarily guarantee a kill, especially on the battlefield. But no man could survive having their heart torn to shreds by not once, but twice.

“And that’s done.” Robin exhaled and relaxed the hold of his weapons embedded within the Conqueror’s body. He stood there, catching his breath, as the Conqueror’s lifeless eyes stared at him. “Not even you can survive that. A lightning-fast combination of diverse attacks ending in a finishing move that can only be done after you’ve overpowered your opponent and knocked him off guard. Such a technique that can only be used because of my training, my mind, and the blood gift of Ignis. The penultimate move of the Battlemaster technique!”

 -The Great Mila Tree (Valm Encampment)-

“A word, General. And you can skip the usual pretense of mishearing.”

General Cervantes, Spymaster of Valm, looked up from his desk to see three masked figures approaching it. The first was the blue-haired woman who fit the exact description of Marth, from Ylisse. One was a ginger-haired swordmaiden, wearing a stylized wing mask, and the other was black-haired swordsman holding a Chon’sin blade and wearing a Chon’sin mask. Lon'qu, then. And the swordmaiden was ... someone else.

“So you work as mercenaries for Robin, do you?” Cervantes didn’t bother with the pretext. Obviously, he couldn't leave them alive once they said that. His guard would soon kill the assassins, assuming Cervantes couldn’t kill them himself, and he wanted to get all the information he could out of them. Playing dumb wouldn't help with that. “Why bother with the masks? I saw your faces when you came off the ship.”

“Shut up.” The ginger drew a thick sword and pointed it at him. “We aren’t here to answer your questions.”

“No, you are here to kill me.” Cervantes agreed. “And quite rude, too. I was just about to have tea, if you would care to join me first.”

“We won’t be deceived by your lies, spymaster!” The black-haired one was talking. He didn’t even bear a trace of a Chon’sin accent, or look like the sketch of Lon'qu. Was it not him? Apparently Marth had her own force that was rarely seen and kept to themselves. “You're not dealing with deadbeats. Know that you face the might of … shoot. Well, I’m not allowed to say out name, but know that we’re awesome.”

“You’re a dork, you know that?” The ginger sighed.

Cervantes blinked. “Who are you? Even mercenaries have more decor than that.”

“Snap out of it.” Marth seemed annoyed by the action as well. “I didn’t bring the two of you to fight, you know. Get your act together. Remember, this is Cervantes. Robin told us how they defeated him the first time. We know his strengths and weaknesses.”

“So you do work with the Battlemaster. Though I must correct you, he’s never fought me. Don’t believe his lies.” Cervantes said, standing up and drawing his tomahawks. “I will say this will be a pleasure. Finally, I’ll have proof that Robin’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Oh, I’ll say.” Marth nodded. “Full agreement there. Robin’s too much trouble.”

“Seconded.” The ginger nodded. "At least we can agree on something."

"Hey!" The Chon'sin(?) protested, wilting as the ginger somehow glared at him through her mask. "I don't ... I mean, maybe? No, yeah, you're right."

“I’ll triple whatever money offer Robin’s making you.” Cervantes said. “And if it’s not money, if it’s information, favors, whatever instead, I’ll fulfill those too. Triple them, even.”

“Sorry, but it’s not about the money. Or favors. Or even information.” Marth shook her head. “It’s about fate of the world. And you must die. Now, go for it!”

“Guards!” Cervantes hurled the axe at the ginger and drew a second one, going for the Chon’sin. He wasn’t going down, even though Robin had caught him flatfooted. Cervantes was a lot tougher than people would believe. And they hadn’t even brought mages.

“Can’t hear you.” The ginger ducked his tomahawk. “Our wind mage is blocking the sound out. Or the other two killed them.”

“Thought of everything.” The Chon’sin blocked him. He didn’t seem Chon’sin at all, with surprising strength for a swordsmaster. There were three more members of their group a mage, and two fliers. Hmm. I may actually be in for a fight. “You don’t stand a chance.”

“Strong, aren’t you?” Cervantes said. Shot in the dark. “But I know who you are, Lon’qu. Would Ylisse really go to such lengths to ally with Robin?”

“Hah!” Marth lunged for him with her blade. Cervantes blocked with his shield, knocking her back. “Owain, take it off!”

“As ordered.” The black-haired man removed it, revealing an Ylissean face. Definitely not Lon’qu, then. “I was indeed mentored by the Still Bladesman, Lon’qu, He of Few Words But Many Strikes. But I’m not him.”

"You were supposed to do that to disavow our connection." Marth sighed.

"Lucy, I love you like a sister, but you named yourself after Marth and were Chrom's tactician!" The ginger snapped. "Stop trying to be professional, and let's just kill him and be done with it."

“Solid enough advice, I'll take it. Die!” Cervantes grunted as the ginger mercenary engaged him. She met him with her heavy blade, trading blow for blow until his tomahawk was knocked away. Undaunted, Cervantes drew another one. I suppose I’ll just have to outlast them. “Who are you people? There aren’t many who could just trade blows with me.”

“Yeah, about that.” Owain smiled and held up his right hand, covered with cloth wrapping, tapping it with a knowing smile. “If you could see what’s under this, you’d be terrified. And I’m one of the weaker members. And while Sevara’s stronger than me, she’s not our powerhouses either.”

“Hmph.” The ginger tossed her head. “It’s not like I care about what you have to say, Owain.”

“But anyway. The strongest one here?” Owain gestured to Lucina as she stalked her way towards Cervantes, holding a single slim blade. “That’s be out fearless leader.”

“Not quite fearless.” Marth held up the blade. “But determined! I challenge my fate!”

“Go ahead!” Cervantes lunged forward, moving to take the blow and retaliate in kind with a stronger one. My defense is impenetrable. PAVISE!”

“I’ll see that and raise!” Marth howled. “AETHER!”

 -Battlefield-

The first drop of rain hit Robin like an ill omen. The second quickly followed. Soon, the skies opened up, showering the two locked in combat on the field of corpses below. Robin, weapons still within the Conqueror’s body, looked up at the massive man, now a legend. If only it didn’t have to end like this. I don’t believe that the skies would weep for a man like Walhart, nor would they weep for a man like me staining his hands.

“What innocent sin happened upon this battlefield that made these skies weep, do you think?” Robin asked. “Or perhaps they weep because all they see is one tyrant overthrowing another. Is that what will happen? Will I become you, Walhart? I don’t think I will, as you said, this was indeed a clash of ideals. I will mourn you, yes, but I believe I shall never become you. Fairwell, Walhart.”

“Do not be concerned with who the skies weep, tactician.” Robin stared in horror as the Conqueror’s eyes opened. Walhart continued. “After all, you have yourself to worry about yourself first.”

I think it's time to face reality on this one. Robin swallowed. My luck sucks. 

 

Report: Cervantes is the spymaster! He's framing people to keep the blame from him - that Wolfguard traitor cell he killed weren't actually traitors, he just said they were and killed them. He seems to have quite a few one-off favors that he uses to frame people he has no connection to, and then has them killed to stop anything from being tracked to him. He's definitely the one!

Chapter Text

-Battlefield-

Walhart’s taunt echoed in the air around him.

No. Nononononono. Robin moved almost on instinct, withdrawing the blades in a spray of red blood, swirling them around and thrusting them up to cut Walhart’s face. There was a horrible klang as the Wolf Berg intercepted his weapons. Robin looked up to see Walhart’s grinning face, then he felt a horrible pain in his stomach as he was launched airborne from a powerful kick.

He tried summoning wind magic, but his body wouldn’t listen. Robin crashed into the ground at least thirty feet away, feeling his body crumple. There were cracks as well, some of his ribs were broken. Robin reached into his cloak, only to feel dampness and a sting as his fingers encountered crushed glass. My elixir is gone… not good.

“You disappoint me, tactician.” Walhart was slowly walking towards him. The two wounds in his stomach were bleeding, but Robin hadn’t gotten high enough for lethal wounds, and had dealt gut wounds instead. The third wound, where his heart was supposed to be was bleeding as well, though Walhart seemed to ignore the fact that it should have killed him. There was blood over his eyes from the Levin sword cut as well, but Walhart kept coming, a demon straight from the depths of hell, with his blood red axe slung over his shoulder. “You’ve added to my collection of scars, but I didn’t feel remotely in danger during that attack of yours. Was that really all you had?”

“What in the name of all that is holy are you?” Robin stared. Ordinarily, I would have laughed this possibility off, but given his appearance, his eyes, and the fact that he DOESN’T SEEM TO DIE… “Are you the devil?”

“HA! Still amusing to your last? A devil?” Walhart said. “That’s what they say about you as well, tactician! Are you forgetting that? I am not just a man but rest assured that I’m as much a mortal as you are. Well. Maybe not as much.

Tell me something I don’t know. “How are you doing that?”

“Foolish tactician.” Walhart smiled. “You possess the power of Ignis. Did it not once occur to you that I may possess such a similar power, inherited from the bloodline of Alm? Mine is called Conquest.”

“So that was my mistake?” Robin winced. “That’s why I didn’t win?”

“No. It was your hubris. You truly think I’d fall to inferiors?” Walhart asked. “You aren’t the first to try using an army to kill me, or a clever trick. I do not tire, do not grow weak, and I do not fall.

He should be dead right now. He should be dead. What does Conquest do? Is this berserker rage, or is he just that strong? He may die from his wounds if I warp away now, or he may not. Fortunately, he’s still bleeding. That means he can’t regenerate his flesh.  If I manage to destroy enough of it, living or not, he’ll still be dead. Robin internally swallowed. Unfortunately, that particular plan needs a bit of a … sacrifice.

“I understand.” Robin said, lying. He’d lost grip on his sword, which was a dozen feet away. He stabbed his spear, which he thankfully still had, into the ground and thrust himself up. He checked his right and left gloves. They still had few charges in them, a page of Elfire and a Rexcaliber respectively. “So I suppose this is it. A simple fight to the death.”

“As I prefer it!” Walhart swung his massive axe around and set in on his shoulder with one hand. He curled his fingers in the other hand in the universal ‘Bring It!’ gesture. Robin swung the spear around and set in a two-handed thrust. He coughed once as his lungs gave him trouble, then focused his Ignis through himself to use magic to bolster his failing physique.

“Ready when you are.” Robin lied.

“Then have at thee!”

Let’s use this trick up! Robin dropped low, ducking a horizontal slash and followed up with a vertical slash of his own, two-handed. Walhart whacked the spear away. Robin let go with the spear with his left hand, spinning it around and spun, slamming his left hand on Walhart’s gauntlet. Walhart seized the opportunity to try to behead him with a single-handed chop, but Robin was first. “ELFIRE!”

Fire blasted into existence, engulfing the Conqueror in a conflagration. A half-second later, an axe swept through it, followed by a Conqueror looking no worse for wear. Robin got to his feet, twenty feet away. Didn’t expect a tome that weak to actually do damage him. But looks like the propulsion let me get away fast enough. Got a few more charges.

“Interesting. So you wear spellbook gloves.” Walhart said. “I remember fighting one like that in the second year of my conquest. Quite a capable axe fighter. He still fell by my hand.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Robin and Walhart met in a charge, trading blows. Robin’s speed was greater than Walhart’s, but Walhart’s heavy axe smashed his blow out of the way. Walhart’s injury seem to give him no pause, whereas Robin’s breathing came shallow, even using Ignis. The chest wound was slowing him down. Robin has sought to fight Walhart at his weakest, and then wear him down. But now the reverse was happening. Every injury made Robin weaker, but even though he managed to score a few more cuts on Walhart, none of them gave him any pause.

This is why a tactician always seeks to turn your opponent’s strength into a weakness – because then they lose access to that strength! Robin swallowed. And my strength was supposed to be the fact that I was fresh, whereas he was tired.

“Ah, this is it! This is it, tactician! I knew that you were interesting, and I do not regret any decision on my part, any at all!” Walhart howled as he drove Robin back, blow by desperate blow. “A fight with everything at stake, between two warriors, with the only cost of failure as death! That’s what the strong seek, and you’ve given it to me! I shall enjoy seeing as the hope finally drain from your eyes!”

Robin had no reply, fighting for his life. The Valmese tactician used every spear trick and skill he had, taking advantage of his longer reach and the agility and speed that came with his lighter armor. He avoiding exchanging blows and kept to rapid thrusts, hoping to eventually kill Walhart with the death of a thousand cuts, but to no avail against the Conqueror’s armor. He came close to dying several times, but his Elfire trick managed to get him clear.

However, in the end, it was something he saw coming with his eyes, but never predicted coming. A low sweep had forced him to respond, so Robin leapt, swinging his spear down in a vertical slash. Walhart deflected in to the side using his left hand, grabbing the tactician’s shoulder and yanking him in. Then the Conqueror lowered his head for a headbutt.

Robin had an instant to realize what would happen and tried jerking his head to the left. He managed to clear one of the Conqueror’s horns. Then the other sank into his right eye, stabbing through it. “AAAAAAAAAAHH!” Robin cried out. He felt his feet hit the ground and tried to get his bearing as his left eye sent him a blurry image overlaid with red and his right eye’s socket sent him pain. Robin leapt back on instinct, getting ready to use Elfire, but not in time. He caught a red moving shape before something hit him in the chest, slashing clean through his armor, ripping a gash opposite the one he already had from Cherche.

Didn’t die from that one. Guess I’ll die from this one. He didn’t fly through the air from the blow. Didn’t move. He just dropped, with a red line across his chest, one of his eyes red, and all his energy completely drained, his hand still on his spear.

“Ultimately, tactician, it seems that you were not strong enough. Perhaps you were too sure of your abilities, perhaps you had no on you could trust to help you in this fight. Perhaps you couldn’t muster up bandits enough to kill me, or perhaps you didn’t inspire enough hatred in your enemies.” Walhart mused over the tactician’s defeated body. “Or perhaps your strength could never defeat mine in the first place. In any event, I have won and you have lost. This was a good fight, tactician, and I am now more sure of myself than before.”

Walhart closed his eyes and inclined his head to his defeated opponent. He turned off and started walking back to the city. He had gotten less than fifty feet when a brilliant flare lit up behind him. Walhart turned to look around to see that Robin had gotten up. The tactician was standing hunched, with his right hand clutching his planted spear, lit up with an almost ghostly purple flame. The man’s eyes were still closed, almost as if it were just his body responding, and not his mind.

 -The Great Mila Tree (Valm Encampment)-

Lucina pierced the rapier clean through Cervantes’s shield, his forearm behind it and severed clean through the tendons in his left arm. His Pavise skill was countered easily by her superior Aether skill. She raised her left arm, catching the tomahawk blow on her butterfly-like buckler and going limp, letting herself get thrown clear.

Owain was by her in a flash, helping her to her feet while Sevara leapt forward, eyeing Cervantes but the Valmese general hung back, trying to use his left arm. Lucina took Owain’s hand and the myrmidon quickly checked her left arm.

“Arm alright, cuz?”

“I think so.” Lucina shook her arm once, letting the energy Aether stole enter her arm and speed up the healing. “Better than his, anyway.”

 “Ylissean … bastards…” Cervantes grunted. He had changed his stance, now fully aware that his left arm wasn’t going to work. The technique was figured out by Robin but perfected by her father and taught to her. It was how Chrom and Robin killed Cervantes from her time. “Why are you here?”

“I’ll assume you mean that as an insult, so I’ll take that as a compliment.” Lucina walked forward, Sevara taking a tandem formation with her. “And we’re here to kill you. I’d say it’s nothing personal, seeing as you’ve never met me, but I hate Valm. Personally.

“Amen to that.” Sevara muttered to herself as Owain cheered “Die, fiends!”

“But you have no problem working for Robin.”

“He’s a lot less evil than you.” Lucina said. “Heart is in the right place. Or will be.”

“Slim chance of that.” Cervantes scowled. “Don’t you see he’s using you? Robin is the Fellblood. He’ll dooms us all.”

“Really?” Lucina blinked. “The Fellblood, you say?”

“Yes.” Cervantes said, desperately. “You have to listen to me! The Fellblood is-”

“An ancient grim evil, the scion of Grima himself, sent down to this world to become one with the Fell Dragon and bring ruin to all the lands.” Owain sighed, finishing the sentence. “It’s an archenemy that only the most legendary and oft-sung heroes have the fortune to possess.”

“Unfortunately, much as I hate to say it, even though that insufferable know-it-all is the Fellblood, that doesn’t actually make him evil.” Sevara said. “He’s not trying to become Grima, and we already know about that. Lucy spilled the beans when she had us try killing him. So there’s no point of trying to tell of that.”

Lucina barely heard any of this. Her blood had started boiling once Cervantes told her that Robin was the Fellblood. “You knew. Walhart knew about the Fellblood ritual, and you knew Robin was a Fellblood. What were you thinking? Why wouldn’t you tell Chrom that!? What kind of idiot are you? The fate of the world is at stake, and all your stupid leader could think of was how to take control?”

“Lucina, calm down.” Sevara said. “We knew how evil Walhart was already.”

“My world was destroyed by fools like you.” Lucina drew Falchion and pointed in at Cervantes. Blue flame lit to life once more around her. “I know fate can be changed. Robin’s proved it. It just looks like a few major changes are needed.”

“You … know … too?” Cervantes grit his teeth. “In the Conqueror’s name, who are you people?”

“I suppose there’s not much of a point in hiding it if we’re just going to run our mouths. Sevara the Shieldmaiden.” Sevara sighed, taking off her mask. "Though you'd know me as the Genius's Daughter in about fifteen years. Not that you would know that as you'd be dead."

“Owain Dark!” Owain said. "A chosen warrior, blessed by noble blood and ancient Chon'sin samurai, destined to restore the future to the way it should be!"

“My name is Lucina Lazuli Lowell.” Lucina withdrew her rapier and pulled it back. “And my job is to make sure that screw-ups like you and Walhart won’t mess it up this time.”

Cervantes hurled his tomahawk as Lucina charged forward. Sevara leapt ahead, light and fast on her feet, and swatted the axe out of midair. Owain flashed forward as Cervantes went to block Lucina’s rapier, using an iaijutsu draw to bat Cervantes hand away. The way clear, Lucina’s thin Aether-driven rapier cut clean through Cervantes neck. Cervantes choked once on it as his airway was blocked. Then Lucina shifted her grip and swung the blade sideways.

“Poor bastard never stood a chance.” Sevara said, going for the lantern on the desk. “But we’ve got no reason to fight fair.”

“He was a worthy foe.” Owain sheathed his blade. “Now what?”

“This.” Lucina withdrew a pair of red tomes and placed them on top of the desk.

“We destroy the evidence.” Sevara glared at him as she smashed the lantern on the desk. “Blockhead.”

“But I thought we wanted everyone to know he was assassinated.”

“They will.” Lucina said. “Robin was worried he might have some kind of concealed letter or document. He said destroying the room would be a good way to put us ahead for a while.”

“I see.” Owain blinked. “Wait. The room’s on fire! Shouldn’t we …” Owain turned around to see that both girls were standing at the door, waiting for him. “Right. Following you.”

 -???-

Die. It’s the easiest path.

Robin lay in a lake of pain, just barely on the edge of the living. He wasn’t as far gone as he was when Cherche had hit him, he must have gotten out of the way in time to avoid the worse of the blow. Now he’d have a massive X-scar on his chest, assuming it wasn’t fatal.

He wasn’t kidding anyone. Of course it was fatal. But Robin was pretty sure it was the kind of wound that killed you slowly, leaving him to die of the course of a few hours. Which meant that if he felt like it, he could get back up for a few minutes, and use his powers.

The question was, did he want to? Letting the pain pull him down to the other side was the easiest path right now. He’d made a good try, possibly even a great one, but the enemy he was fighting was just one that couldn’t be beaten with his normal methods. And even if he won, there’d be hell to pay on the road to eventual victory and control of both continents.

Die. It’s the easiest path.

SHUT UP! Robin felt the spear in his right hand and let the pain enter him. “Sure, I could die now. But that isn’t how a tactician works. We fight to win. Guess I’m no different from Walhart in that sense. But I do have a reason beyond sampling winning. I’ll retreat if that gives me better odds of winning, and I won’t waste resources on fruitless endeavors.”

But you can’t win. Retreat, then.

“Retreat.” Robin clenched his teeth. This would be the flight part of his fight-or-flight response, then. “Retreat!?”

You can get up. Use magic to teleport back to Aversa, and she’ll take care of you. You’ve got a safe house to recover in that you could tell her about.

“That … is a good idea.” Robin admitted. “I’d probably survive. I might even be able to retain my status as Battlemaster, if Walhart’s willing to keep me. Man’s done stranger things. I even if I lose, I’m sure Chrom would be eager enough to take me as a defector, what with my knowledge and connection.”

Run to Ylisse! You don’t stand a chance.

Robin entertained the idea. It … it was glorious. He might get out of the skullduggery, he’d be friends with his leader instead of trying to assassinate him, and Valm was hard. They didn’t like him, kept trying to assassinate him, and most of the leaders were corrupt, incompetent, or just bloodthirsty. And he felt a kinship to Ylisse. To its leader, Chrom. Something tugged at him. An … invisible thread. Robin put no stock in such things, yet he felt it, clear as day. It was like the bond Aversa had told him about. Why would he have that with the Ylissean Exalt? And yet for all his curiosity, he did have it and he didn’t feel the slightest bit of concern.

It wouldn't be so bad. He could get there with Lucina's group. They'd vouch for him.

Do it! There’s no shame in retreating.

“And sacrifice my chance at victory?” Robin grunted. “If all I wanted was victory, that makes me no better than Walhart. I said, I’m better because of my reason. And if I run now, I abandon that reason. The fact is. Now is the best chance I’ll get to achieve that. Walhart’s death will let me rule the Empire. Sometimes, the most important part of being a tactician is knowing that there are risks you just have to take. And there's only one path to take right now-”

KILL HIM.

“Showing up late, eh?” Robin chuckled at his inner fight. The pleading voice of the flight was gone now that he’d decided to switch side. “But I’ll need you, alright? This isn’t the kind of thing that can be done by logic and intelligence alone.”

WALHART WILL DIE BY OUR HAND. WE STILL DRAW BREATH.

“That’s right, little buddy. Still alive. And that means we’ve still got one last trick. After all. What kind of tacticians set a trap but never springs it?” Robin clenched his fist. Ignis lit up within him. Robin howled as the energy ran in his body, artificially propping up and enabling his systems to let him fight again as his magic overran and took control of his body. “It’s time…”

 -Battlefield-

“…time to tip the scales!” With an audible snap, Robin’s eye whipped open, revealing a pale gray orb lit by fire. Keeping his right hand on his spear to prop him up, he lit up his left hand with fire and spread it across the cut on his chest to sear the wound shut. “I think that’s far enough, Conqueror. It’ll look like you’re running away from me. And we can’t have that, can we?”

“You’re still alive?” Walhart stared at him. Robin smiled at him, a grim one, and focused the flame into his two fingers, and jammed it into his eye socket to cauterize that wound as well, uttering not a single cry. Walhart blinked. “Your pain tolerance is more impressive than I gave you credit for.”

“It’s not tolerance, Conqueror. And don’t act surprise – you’ve also shrugged off a mortal wound this fight. Of course, I’m probably going to die from this, unlike you.” Robin said. Not to mention it took a lot training to use this particular brand of dark magic. And forcing myself to come back to even try this. But I'm not admitting that to you. “What I'm using right now is something a bit stronger than willpower. Though I’ll admit that it was touch and go for a few seconds. I really didn’t want to come back, but it turns out I hate leaving things unfinished even more. And I. Hate. Losing.”

Robin saw Walhart noticed the purple haze forming around the spear as Robin’s pain went into it. “That technique…” Walhart said. “What is it? What are you doing?”

“Something beyond your conception.” Robin said.

“Impossible.”

“Of course you would say that. You made a mistake, Conqueror. You left me alive.” Robin said. “You should have finished me off after that mortal wound. One swipe of the axe and my head’s clean off my shoulders. And you didn’t, so now you get to pay the price.”

“I wanted to see if you would get back up.”

This. This right here is why I’m killing you.” Purple flames lit up around the one-eyed tactician. “You wanted to see if I could win, didn’t you? You don’t care about my death, just my loss. I planned for that! I counted on it! Came a bit closer than I would have liked to, but that’s just the risk. It's my final trump card!”

“You can’t kill me, tactician.” Walhart howled, gripping his axe with two hands. “I AM INEXORABLE!”

“Repeating that won’t make it true!" Robin howled back. "You’ve lost because you refuse to acknowledge your own limits! You’re not inexorable! You’re not immortal! You’re not even that good of a Conqueror! All you do is win, but you’ve got no idea what to do once you’ve done that.”

“Jealousy does not become you, tactician!”

I seek not to right a wrong, nor do I ask for justice. I seek instead even payment, an eye exchanged for an eye.” The dark magic of Vengeance activated as Robin poured the pain into the spear, activating Ignis alongside it and the magic Rexcaliber glove he was wearing. The magic poured together, fusing dark, anima, and physical might. Robin set his feet, aiming the blast with his left eye by setting his shoulders in a line. That wasn't how you were supposed to throw spears. But now this wasn’t an ordinary spear. “You said a fight between equals, Walhart. But we aren’t equals. On my best day and your worse, I would still lose. I knew that coming into the fight. So, I decided on an insurance. One that would take my own weakness and turn it into an advantage!”

“You still seek to win!?” Walhart set his feet and drew back his axe to throw it. “Impressive, but even dark magic won’t close this gap!”

“Close the gap? Please. I’ve no intention of merely doing that.” Robin withdrew a red tome from his coat and threw it in front of him, the tome levitating before his eyes and opening itself up, the pages flipping. Arcane symbols lit up. “The pact unbidden, chains unforged, summons forgone, I command the magic pure! I cast thee, FLARE!”

Force exploded outwards, a side effect of the spell as Robin wrestled the energy into the building spear. The air almost ignited around him, and the ground caught fire. Robin grit his teeth and use every inch of his will to force the power to heel. Red spiraled outwards, mixing with the spear. Robin’s eye lit up red. Energy in Robin’s right hand grew, forming a bolt of raw power out of a mixture of steel, wind magic, fire magic, dark magic, and pain that would have seemed out of place in any other duel between mortals. Dark shadow wings crackled around it, twin red orbs lit up in front of it and the point sharpened to look like a beak. The air crackled as Robin aimed the jagged spear at his enemy. “What was asked is given, the price is paid. Nothing in this world can come without a cost. I don’t know what you gave for that strength of yours, but I know what I’ll give to end it. Forbidden Lance of the Ravens: ASHANDERI!”

The spear was launched like a bolt of lightning, flying straight and true, powered by the force of a hurricane. Walhart moved to avoid it but was too slow. The weapon moved far faster than a spear had ever moved before and impaled the Conqueror directly in his chest. The unstable magic forming it detonated as the spear itself was propelled through by the force of a hurricane. A conflagration of dark flames lit up around Walhart and Robin saw darkness flare from the impact, draining all the light around them. He caught a brief glimpse as Walhart tried to yell something at him. Then the shockwave detonated.

Robin braced himself as best he could, firing the remaining magic left in his gloves against the blast, still feeling the magical energy blast pass over him. He managed to keep upright, but clearly saw himself get driven nearly a dozen feet backwards, tearing a furrow in ground as light returned. The blast finally subsided, and it took almost a minute for the dust to settle and Robin to see what he had wrought. The Conqueror was no more. A hole the size of a large shield had been blasted through his chest, his armor was fused together from the intense heat, and his face was a charred wreck of ash. The large axe, Wolf Berg, lay embedded in the ground beside him, scoured clean.

One last step. Robin snapped his fingers, calling forth magic to use wind and fire to clear and then scour a large dark magic looking hexagram around Walhart, with all the spots scorched beyond recognition. To create a phantom enemy to kill Walhart was tempting, to be sure, but that would drive people into panic. So the Grimleal’s dark magic would take the blame, making it look like a massive grotesque ritual that they had to lure Walhart into.

Robin then summoned the last of his magic reserves to conjure a portal.

 -Valm Countryside-

“Robin!” Aversa was waiting for him, amidst the corpses of their guards. She caught him as he collapsed. “What happened to you?”

“I knew there’d be a sacrifice for victory, but I didn’t know what it would be.” Robin coughed blood, staining her cloak. Huh. Guess I missed some internal wounds. Or that could just be from my broken ribs. “I didn’t know it would have this high of a cost.”

“You’re missing parts of everything.” Aversa grimaced and fished inside her robes. “I’ve seen prettier corpses, to be honest. How are you even conscious?”

“Dark magic stripped the pain for a while. You know the spell.” Robin grunted. “By the way, now would be the best time to kill me, if you were ever going to. If not, I need medical help. A lot of it. Ignis can keep my soul going, but my body is going to fall apart on me.”

“I said I wasn’t going to kill you!” Aversa whistled, calling for her pegasus. Before Robin could respond to that, Aversa jammed a blue-tinted bottle into his mouth. Robin couldn’t resist, letting the elixir enter his system. He didn’t feel the normal warmth he got from drinking it. Probably vengeance. Robin shut it off and hissed as his body told him exactly what it thought of him. He tried moving, but Aversa held him firm and removed the bottle once he finished. “Don’t worry, Robin. My pegasus mare is trained to follow me, and she’ll be here soon. I’ll get you moved to the castle as fast as possible.”

“Thanks.” Robin felt energy leave him as his body started shutting down. “I’m …