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To War

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White Clouds

Student Dormitories

Lone Moon

Year 1180

Raine found Petra sitting on the staircase outside of her dorm, and she was both surprised, and relieved, to have found her student so easily when she had decided to go searching for her. In the aftermath of what had happened inside of the Holy Tomb, there was disarray everywhere inside of the monastery, and the students of the Black Eagle house were feeling the worst of it. Already had come the suspicion and fear after Edelgard's surprise assault and her attempt to rob the tomb of the crest stones that were buried there, and though she had been thwarted and chased away rather handily... It did not change the fact that she had returned to the Empire, had been crowned Emperor, and was now gathering her forces and those loyal to her for an all-out war on Garreg Mach, and perhaps the entirety of Fódlan itself.

Petra did not notice her professor's approach, and instead simply continued to gaze down at the open letter that she had been reading. Her eyes were still however, as if she had already read it over several times and was now ruminating on the contents, and Raine paused as she wondered if now was the appropriate time to interrupt. Already she had heard Manuela speaking to her students, urging them to look into their hearts and find the answer to what they wished to do there rather than blindly heed the orders of their former house leader, but Raine wasn't entirely sure if that speech had been convincing. It wasn't loyalty to Edelgard that would drive them to return to the Empire if they were called home. It would be loyalty to their country. To their friends and family. And that, at least, Raine could painfully understand even if she wished that circumstances could be different.

How had she missed something so painfully obvious? As she looked back on the past year, on Dimitri's behaviour, on Warin's cold observations, it seemed to have been clearly staring her in the face since the very beginning. Yet still she felt surprise, dull and painful, that the foe she had been chasing after had been closer than she ever could imagine. Edelgard was the Flame Emperor. Edelgard had been fighting alongside those who had killed her father, and those responsible for the Tragedy of Duscur and Remire. Dimitri's rage and bloodlust had scared her, and yet she had also understood it when he had snapped into a roar of laughter before claiming he would have her head, and she didn't doubt he would pledge every last ounce of life he had to ending his step-sister before this was all over.

If she had had longer to process, perhaps her reaction would have been the same. Warin's certainly had been a violent one, and she hadn't been surprised to hear her brother hiss that he should have killed her long ago if this is where she had been planning to go from the very beginning. And to her surprise, Edelgard had looked at him with such hatred that she had almost felt it like a physical blow. When had the white-haired heir apparent grown such ferocious emotion towards her brother? What had happened between them to make her hate, and possibly fear, him so much? They were questions that had been swirling helplessly in her head, and more than ever she mourned the loss of Sothis and her wisdom. She wanted help, wanted advice, but she had nowhere really to turn as Rhea had summoned the knights to begin fortifying their defences, and the teachers were left to their own devices now to rally the students for a battle they had no place participating in. Warin had left with them voluntarily, as there had been nothing else he could do, and to say she felt painfully alone was a grand understatement.

"Professor." Petra's voice snapped her from her dark thoughts, and she realized with both surprise and shame that she had been standing there in silence for perhaps a little too long. The young princess from Brigid however did not look at all surprised by her appearance, and she set the letter down in her lap as she turned herself slightly in her direction to face her head-on. Her reddish brown eyes were calm despite the chaos about her, and her hands rested lightly upon the letter in her lap before she spoke calmly to her teacher's questioning look, "This... is a letter Edelgard has been sending. It is... a request for the Empire and Brigid to be... friends."

"I see. I heard that she had sent out several letters to her allies, requesting their aid. It makes sense she would reach out to you, as well." Raine forced her voice to remain calm despite the momentary pulse of panic that filled her veins at her student's calm and matter-of-fact way of speaking. She didn't want to think of it, turning her blade on her own student because of something as foolish as politics, but she was sharply aware that was simply the worldview of a mercenary and now a professor. To Petra, it would never be foolish to cede to political wisdom over her emotions. That was her duty as a princess, and as the future ruler of Brigid. And with her country in such a precarious state with the Empire... Raine fought down a reflexive shiver even as her blood began to heat with anger once again. 'When I get my hands on her throat... I swear, I'll kill her before Dimitri ever gets a chance to...'

"Yes. She has been reaching out... but I have decided I will not be being friends with the Empire. Brigid will not go to war with Edelgard." Petra's voice remained calm, but her eyes narrowed as her hands clenched into fists to crumple the fragile parchment she had been holding. Her jaw tensed, and a flash of anger crossed her face as she shook her head and continued with a deep breath that failed completely to steady her, "I... am no longer of the Black Eagles. I am a Blue Lion. But I am also a friend to you, Professor. That friendship... is more important than friendship with the Empire. Brigid will be needing me, and Edelgard will not be taking kindly to my refusing, but... That is not of matter to me. I am to stay here, and to fight with you and my friends. That will be my reply."

"Petra... Are you certain that's wise?" Raine hated herself for questioning her student, especially when it brought her such relief to hear that Petra was so sternly denying any thoughts of allying herself with her former house leader, and possible classmates. She was well aware Petra's position in Garreg Mach was not one she had taken willingly, especially when she had become a hostage of the Empire to have control over Brigid in the first place. It had been those exact circumstances that had made Raine want to reach out to her in the first place by asking for her assistance in their missions so many moons ago, and to have her as a student now, and fully away from such influences... But that still did not change reality. "Brigid is at the Empire's mercy... Your enrolment here was further proof of that. Your country could suffer if you choose this path."

"We suffer already. And this... What Edelgard wishes... will only cause more suffering. Brigid will not take part in such things. I will not, either." Petra reiterated firmly, and she pushed herself easily to her feet before taking the letter into her hands and ripping it into two. Her eyes blazed as she locked gazes with her startled teacher, and her left hand crumpled the shreds of parchment still further as she continued fiercely, "It is the time of fighting now. I will be here, with my classmates, with my friends, until the ending of the fighting. With you, Professor. This is the action I have chosen for myself. And for Brigid."

"If that's what you've decided... I guess I can't stop you." Raine let out a breath, but there was no stopping the small smile that curled the corners of her mouth, or the smarting pain that had begun in the corners of her eyes. She hadn't known what to expect from her recruit, had been steeling herself for a refusal for aid, but this pledge of loyalty both touched her and broke her somewhere deep within. She was putting her life, the lives of her countrymen, on the line for her loyalty to the Blue Lions and Garreg Mach. It was not a move that she could see as wise, even if she appreciated it from the depths of her being, and it only made her eyes hurt all the more with tears of gratitude and pain and shame.

"Professor... I am having a question. Or... Er... I would be asking of a favour?" Petra paused as she stumbled over her words, and she pulled a face as she realized her error and made a quick attempt to try and correct it. Raine watched her calmly and without judgement, something that made her offer an awkward smile, and she was glad of her silent way of allowing her a moment or two to try and puzzle it out for herself before she would offer suggestions. She had found it a great way to learn without harming her pride or feeling as if she was failing in her learning of the language, and when Raine nodded her head in acceptance, Petra quickly continued, "I would be speaking to my former classmates, if I could be being allowed? I am of the understanding they have also had letters... I do not want them being friends with Edelgard. I am understanding it is their choice, but... I want to be stopping them. I do not want to hurt my friends in battle, even if we are classmates no longer. But..."

"You'd like me to come to try and convince them to stay here? I can do that, but... I can't promise my words will have any meaning to them." Raine agreed without any hesitation, and seeing the immediate relief on Petra's face only made her smile in a comforting fashion. She understood where Petra was coming from. She had spent the majority of the year with the Blue Lions now, and had left the Black Eagles far behind now in terms of time. But they were still the comrades she had begun her learning with, and she cared for them even if she had left their house to join another. Her concern was valid, and Raine was not about to say otherwise. However... and she added with a wry sort of sigh, "I can't promise I'll be much help, Petra, but I will do my best to speak to them, too. I do know Professor Manuela already spoke with them."

"You are not Professor Manuela. You are Professor Raine. Your words are different." Petra replied simply, and Raine looked at her in sharp confusion, which only made the princess of Brigid smile. She understood why she was incapable of understanding the difference, but it did not matter. Being a student of the Blue Lions after being in the house of the Black Eagles had taught her much of the differences between the two. In her time with Edelgard, it had been clear who was the leader, and what was expected of them all as classmates... or as underlings. That had not been the environment she had experienced underneath Raine. There, they were all equals, and did not see nobility, race, or anything else as a barrier. The only person they obeyed was their professor, and even then, she had always been open to their wants, their decisions, and their choices. Had she not told them expressly in the Battle of the Eagle and Lion that they were soldiers now, and they could choose how to fight without her direction? She trusted them. They all knew it and felt it. "They will listen if you speak, Professor. I have belief in that."

"I... don't know where you get your confidence, but if that's what you think, then all right. Where do you want to go? Who should we speak to first?"

"Dorothea, or Bernie. They will listen most intently." Petra's answer was immediate, and seeing that her professor was more than willing to follow along, she set off in the direction of their rooms without missing a beat. She was glad that Raine was so supportive, even if it was clear she was hesitant to involve herself in the politics of the other house. She was not their professor, and it was obvious that she felt she was overstepping boundaries... but boundaries had already been broken. The rules no longer applied to them, not to the students, or to the professors. War was coming, and it took all rules from the table without preamble or care. Action was needed. Immediate and surgical. Petra had lived through war already, and understood that intimately. It was what made her so at ease as she walked along the dorms with Raine following her closely behind.

Raine watched as Petra walked with complete and utter confidence to Bernadetta's dorm, and she knocked twice on the closed door without any hesitation. She still admitted she wasn't sure that this was wise to do, but if Petra insisted on it, then she couldn't just sit by and watch her try to do this by herself. She had made a promise to do all she could for her students, and even if Petra had been a former Imperial ally, she would always abide by her word. She watched at a respectful distance as the two conversed through the door for a moment or two, then blinked in surprise as it swung open.

Bernadetta burst from her dorm and almost immediately into Petra's arms, and Petra smiled as she took the plum-haired archer into a gentle, and comforting hug. The two held one another for almost a solid minute before Bernadetta drew away, her face pinking awkwardly, and then she caught sight of Raine standing below and watching them with surprise. Quickly her relieved expression turned into one of anxious embarrassment, and she almost left a vapour trail in her haste to flee back into her room. Only Petra's amazing reflexes stopped her from slamming the heavy door behind her, and Petra offered her professor an awkward smile as she called for her friend almost in a scolding tone of voice, "Bernie, do not be acting like prey. Professor is here to help. She is worried, as I am. You said we could talk, did you not?"

"Y-Yes, but... But...! Oh, all right...! But it has to be inside! Inside! So stop keeping the door open!" Bernadetta's voice was tight and almost squeaky, and Petra again offered Raine an apologetic grin before following the archer's orders and ducking into her dorm as quickly as she could allow. Raine didn't waste time wondering about how utterly ridiculous this all was and instead followed her lead, and she was mindful to shut the door behind her as she entered the archer's room to find her cowering in the corner, holding a pillow in front of her like a shield as she looked to her friend, and then to her rival house's professor with large, worried eyes. As soon as she was certain the door was shut, and Petra had taken a seat on the edge of her bed closest to her, Bernadetta burst out without warning as she looked straight at Raine, "Yes, I got a letter! Everyone here did, I'm sure of it! Even Professor Manuela got one!"

"I... I, er... Bernadetta, I didn't come here to interrogate you about the letters..." Raine began hesitantly, and she looked to Petra who could only shrug her shoulders at her friend's immediate attempts to defend herself and explain the situation without even begin asked why she was there in the first place. She had heard Professor Manuela had received a letter of invitation as well, but to her knowledge, the spirited former opera singer had burnt it to a crisp in front of her class before announcing sharply that she'd sooner stand alone against the Empire, Kingdom, and the Alliance armies before she ever left Garreg Mach undefended. It had been quite a grand statement, and a very theatrical one, but Raine really couldn't say she expected anything less from her colleague. It was just her way. "I mean, I understand that you all received them, but that isn't what I really care about..."

Bernadetta's face changed through several emotions rapidly, with distrust, concern, fear passing most frequently, but it ended with her eyeing Raine rather suspiciously over the edges of her frilly pillow. She hugged it tighter, glancing from Petra's easy and familiar smile and then to Raine's confused, but still earnest-looking expression as she wondered what it really was that had brought them there if she knew about the letters. Her voice was sharp, and she couldn't quite help it as she asked, "So, what is it that you want, then?"

"What I want...?" Raine hesitated, and she again looked to Petra as she tried to decide how best it was to answer such a question. She hadn't exactly thought about it in such terms. Why did her wants matter? War was coming, no matter how she felt about it, and there was no changing that. She had come for Petra, or at least, she had thought she did, and yet Bernadetta was now demanding to know what it was she wanted of all things? It made her pause, and she looked around the room as if she could find answers to her question there.

The archer's room wasn't sparse. It was full of plush sewing works of plants and flowers, and hanging from the ceiling was a plant of some kind that Raine hadn't ever seen before. Her desk was full of books of similar nature, with one or two about riding horses and improving lancing, but what caught Raine's eye most was the vase of flowers that had been set apart and clearly placed with great care on her bookshelf. She remembered those flowers. She had picked them out herself to send on to Bernadetta for her birthday. They should have withered, and likely had, and yet Bernadetta had replaced them with a mirror-like bouquet anyway. The thought made her chest tight, and she abruptly found her answer as she shook her head and looked back to the archer seated in the corner, "I want you to make a decision that you want to make. One that you'll be happy with, and won't regret. That's all."

Whatever Bernadetta had expected to hear, it was obvious that Raine's answer was not it, and her arms lowered as she looked up at the seafoam-haired professor with widened eyes. She glanced once to Petra, who was silent and observing them both carefully, and then back to the woman in front of her who was no longer making eye-contact with her. Her gaze had again returned to the student's desk, and it only took Bernadetta a moment for her to realize she was staring at the bouquet she had been taking great care to manage and replace since she had received it on her birthday. The thought made her lower her guard, and she repeated her words quietly, "A decision I want to make...?"

"I don't know how you feel about this entire... mess. I can't call it anything more polite. I know that you and Edelgard were friends, and I know the Empire is your home. If you wish to go back, to fight, then that's a choice I'll respect. Petra doesn't want you to do that, because it will mean one day that you two might be enemies, and I understand that feeling. You and I are different, as we're not exactly close, but... I feel the same way. I don't want to be fighting you, either." Raine felt her words pouring out of her in a long, tired breath, and she felt her shoulders sag as she reached unconsciously for the chair at Bernadetta's desk to steady herself. The weight on her shoulders seemed to be growing by the day. She was beginning to have trouble holding up underneath it. Still, she felt the need to soldier on as she felt both of the young women's eyes on her, and so she continued firmly, "You're a kindhearted young woman, Bernadetta. I still remember that day when you came to lay flowers on my father's grave. If I can avoid fighting you, I'll do anything to do it. But more than that... I just want to know that if you're going to make a choice to go to Edelgard's side that it's a choice you made in full confidence. That you wanted to do it, not that you felt like you had no other choice."

Bernadetta sat in silence for a long moment, her brow furrowed as she allowed Raine's words to sink in and to feel the weight of their meaning. Ever since word had spread of what Edelgard had done in the Holy Tomb, it had felt like she was in a blind panic. Then to receive that missive, personally for her eyes only... She hadn't known what to feel, or what to do. If the monastery was in a state of chaos, then she most certainly was in the same way. Professor Manuela's show of bravado and confidence hadn't done her any good. She simply was not like her professor, and now, to be approached with the concern of her own desires being paramount... It made her take pause, and forced her to try and think.

"My father... is a horrible man. I'm terrified of him. The things he did to make me into a "marriageable" woman... It's why I'm so scared of everything, and everybody." Bernadetta felt the words escaping her lips before she could think better of it, and she wasn't entirely sure why they were coming. Few knew the truth, the whole truth, and the two sitting inside of her room were not among that number. Only Dorothea really knew why she was the way she was, and she was so happy to have found a friend who understood, and who cared for her so ferociously. But something about what Raine had said had compelled her to speak, and she did so without reservation now as she wondered why it was, "Edelgard had him placed under house arrest. I can't say I feel bad about it. My mother supports her, though, so my house is likely safe enough from all of this in terms of politics. At least, that's what Edelgard said in her letter. I think she expects all of us to come back to the Empire. To help her. And to be honest... The thought of saying no didn't enter my head until now. Is that strange?"

"No. You are a Black Eagle. You are from the Empire. You returning home, even if it means participating in a war... It isn't anything unnatural. It's what you've been trained to do." Raine hated the way the words tasted in her mouth, but she knew the truth of them, and forced herself to speak them. The academy was not only about politics, but also warfare, and she had learned that lesson hard in her first few moons. It did not matter what country the students hailed from. All of them were drilled in both politics and warfare, and were expected to be able to kill as well as they could debate once it was time for them to leave and return to their duties in their own territories. "If you want to return to the Empire... Then I think you should."

"I don't know what it is I want. I didn't want to come here, but I was brought here anyway. I didn't want to marry, but Father forced me through all of his training because he said it was best, and I didn't have a choice. I don't think anyone's ever asked me what I wanted before." Bernadetta admitted with a hallow sort of laugh, and she drew her knees to her chest as she looked up to the ceiling with confusion and hesitation written all over her face. It was difficult to think of. How could she make a choice? Was there really a choice to be made? She had idolized Edelgard, but these actions... Could she go forward as her ally, knowing that the young woman she had looked up to as her hero had made such horrendous choices that led to deaths in Remire, in the monastery, and had almost led to deaths of people she considered friends?

"Caspar, wait a second, you can't just barge in like-"

The voice of Dorothea worriedly exclaiming outside was the only warning the trio of women inside the dorm had before the doors were being kicked open and nearly clean off of their strong hinges, and Bernadetta squealed in terror as she leapt clear from the floor and to the bed in a matter of seconds to get behind Petra for a better defensive position. Both Petra and Raine were on their feet almost immediately after, one hand reaching for a sword and another for an axe before an irate Caspar stormed in, his bright blue eyes alight with wrath as a face-palming Dorothea stood outside with a look of abject embarrassment all over her face.

Ignoring everything but what was in front of him, Caspar glared around the room to find Bernadetta hiding behind Petra, and his eyes narrowed almost even further at the sight of her and the professor of the Blue Lions in her dwellings. His hands were balled into tight fists, and though he was unarmed, Raine had seen him fight enough on the battlefield to know that the young man did not need his gauntlets or his axe to cause real damage if he wished to. He had almost knocked the door down with one kick, which was impressive enough on its own, and he was well aware of what kind of threat he looked as he stood at his tallest despite his lack of height when he demanded loudly, "What are the two of you doing in here, interrogating her like some prisoner?! Bernadetta hasn't done anything! And that letter she got doesn't mean anything, either! We all got them, and I'll tell you where she put hers, right in the wastebin like mine went! So you two can just leave her alone! She isn't about to go waltzing back to the Empire just because Edelgard summoned her!"

"Caspie..." Dorothea sighed in exasperation for her friend, and she looked apologetically to both Raine and Petra as they blinked in surprise and looked from him and then to her for some kind of explanation. The singer shook her head as she raised her hands in a gesture of peace, and she stepped inside, too, before closing the door behind her for some semblance of privacy. The plum-haired archer was staring ahead like a frozen deer, and she was quick to shoulder her way further in before reaching to carefully pull the shell-shocked girl into a supportive hug before casting a withering look at the indignant brawler, "I told you, Caspie, Petra was only going to check in on her, and the professor went with her for moral support! Nobody is interrogating anyone! You just took off like always, ready for a fight, and without listening to me! And now look at what you've done, you've scared poor Bernie senseless!"

That seemed to take the wind right out of the brawler's sails as he looked around the room for the first time, and almost at once he seemed to shrink as he looked at the trembling Bernadetta for the first time. Guilt and regret flashed immediately across his face, and he winced away from her and back to the startled looks of Petra and Raine for the first time. There was not an ounce of malice in their expressions or body language, and he closed his eyes as he momentarily took a breath and admitted that he had gone and made another massive mistake without waiting like he should have. It made him sick to his stomach, and he hung his head as he spoke to his feet in a much meeker tone of voice than any of the women around had ever heard, "I'm... sorry... I didn't... I got angry, and I stopped thinking, and... I'm real sorry. Professor. Petra. Bernadetta. I'm a real arse. Please, forgive me."

"It's all right, Caspie. You acted because you wanted to protect Bernie, and we all understand that. But you really need to learn to listen before you go charging off. One of these days, someone's not going to be as forgiving." Dorothea spoke up for all of them, shaking her head as she clucked her tongue in a chiding manner, and she squeezed Bernadetta a tad closer before glancing down at her to share a comforting smile. Bernadetta clutched to her arm like a child, but her trembling had stopped, and she looked up awkwardly to see Caspar staring down at his feet rather shamefully. She sat up a little straighter to whisper something in Dorothea's ear, and the brunette offered her another smile before she continued, "And Bernie forgives you, too, so it's fine. Just don't do it again. Or else you'll be replacing her door next time."

"O-Okay... I'm still real sorry, Bernadetta..." Caspar kept his head bowed, and he felt the shame threatening to shrink him down to the size of an ant as he felt the stares of the four women burning holes into him. Dorothea was right. He hadn't thought for a moment before he had gone off on his own, fuelled with self-righteous rage and a single-minded desire to protect Bernadetta, and he had swallowed his own foot in a rather spectacular fashion. However, he noticed as he looked up that Raine in particular was looking at him with a sharp glint in her seafoam-coloured eyes, and he awkwardly shifted his weight from one foot to another as he expected for a full-scale scathing diatribe about his behaviour, as Professor Manuela had done to him too many times to count as he asked her sheepishly, "Y-Yes, Professor?"

"Did you say you threw away your letter from Edelgard?"

"Of course I did. It was trash and it belonged there." Caspar's answer came immediately, and he wondered at why she was looking at him so sharply over such a question with such an obvious answer. He hadn't even bothered to read the thing when he had realized what it was, and along with Professor Manuela, he had made quick work of disposing of it. He had heard just what everyone else had and more, and his decision had been made long before anyone had tried to ask him about his thoughts on the matter. It was simple. Extremely so. And he showed that as he shook his head and his eyes again flashed with indignance, "What was she thinking, that I'd be happy to clap my hands and join up with her and the bastards responsible for what happened in Remire? Or at the monastery? No way. I'm not going to do anything like that, even if she had me at sword-point. I don't care what her excuses are, or if she thinks she's doing the right thing, because she isn't. There's no justifying killing innocent people to further your goals. Ever."

Raine bit the inside of her cheek to stop a smile from forming as she heard the self-righteous indignance pervading Caspar's voice, but she had to admit it felt so good to hear him ranting even if she hadn't expected to hear it. Of course he was angry, and of course he was so single-mindedly making a decision based on that anger. It was just like him. Simple, and pure. He had a strong sense of justice, and in his view, Edelgard had violated that sense beyond redemption. He would not participate in her conquest, regardless of the ties he had to the Empire. It simply was not in him to do. "So, what do you intend to do?"

"Leave, probably. My father is in her pocket. So is Linhardt's. We've both talked about getting out of the Empire if it comes down to it, otherwise we'd likely be put under house arrest, or worse, if we spoke out against her if we went home." Caspar's answer was blunt, and there not a flicker of indecision or regret in his eyes as he met Raine's inquisitive gaze head-on. He had had plenty of time to think of it, connecting the dots on his own and listening to his much wiser friend's ruminating, and he was certain that his decisions were for the best as he spoke again,"I'm not the first son in my house. I don't matter much in the long run, so it doesn't matter what I do. And Linhardt doesn't like fighting. He doesn't want to be a part of any sort of war, and I don't blame him. So why not get out while we can? Of course, that doesn't mean we're going now. Garreg Mach needs to be defended. And we'll protect it. If we can stop the Empire here... There won't be a war to worry about, right?"

"I suppose you've a point to be made there..." Raine agreed cautiously, though she wasn't entirely sure what to think about Caspar's optimism. Would cutting the Empire off in the monastery truly mean the end of the war? She didn't believe so. Edelgard was intelligent, even if she was taking daring risks, and if she had chosen to reveal herself... It only meant she was acting according to plan. They did not have all of the variables, and Raine was not about to underestimate her twice. It was very possible that she had more pieces in play on her chessboard, and those pieces could very well mean worse for the monastery than what they already knew was coming. And what they already knew of was enough to make even Seteth gravely concerned. She turned her attention to Dorothea, who had been conspicuously silent throughout the conversation, and she spoke quietly, gently, as she understood that Dorothea had been the closest thing Edelgard had to an actual friend inside of the monastery, "What about you, Dorothea? What do you think?"

"To be honest... I don't know what I think. I mean, who knew she had it in her, our little Edie? But, then again, what did we actually know about her, if she was capable of all of this?" Dorothea laughed quietly, but the sound had no mirth, and the light had left her eyes as she looked down at her feet with an emotionless face. It had been hard to believe, when word had come that it had truly been Edelgard behind the mask of the Flame Emperor... but there was no doubting the facts. She had tried to kill every single student in the Blue Lion house, had conspired with those responsible for the tragedy of Remire, and gone even further by declaring war on the Church of Seiros after making an attempt to ransack the monastery's Holy Tomb.

She had returned home in secret, removing Ferdinand's father from his position as Prime Minister, before going even further and stripping his entire family of their territory and power right after her coronation. Ferdinand was taking it terribly, torn between outrage for his family's treatment, and his loyalty to his home, and to the Emperor he was still sworn to serve. It was hard to see him like that, knowing that Edelgard, her friend, had done this to him. It was true that the two had never gotten along, that Ferdinand was little more than a pest to her even when he was trying his hardest to challenge her as an equal, but nobody had expected this kind of cruelty from her. And even Ferdinand had nothing to say other than it was her orders, and if she had deemed him unfit, it was her right to do as she pleased now from her position on the throne. That did not sit well with Dorothea at all, and her heart ached for him even if she wouldn't ever admit it aloud.

"I don't want to fight a war. I'll admit that much. This has been my home for awhile. I don't want to see it, or the people in it, come to harm. I can say that safely, and with conviction. Anything after that... It's... hard." Dorothea admitted after a long, painful pause, and she found it almost impossible to look up to see the expressions of the people around her. She felt Bernadetta sitting close to her, offering her comfort now in a bizarre but grateful turn, and even Petra had reached out to lay her hand over hers in an effort to likewise give her support. Only Raine and Caspar were keeping themselves apart, either out of respect or simply because they did not know what to do, but she didn't mind. It wasn't as if they were the only ones. And she sighed as she shook her head and murmured, "Edie was my friend. I thought I knew her. Obviously, I didn't. That alone is hard enough to deal with. All of this is just... extra hurt to sift through. I don't know her motives. Or her ideals. Or her."

Raine was quiet for a moment, drinking in the honesty and feeling herself aching for Dorothea's clear inability to make a choice, as well as her feeling of guilt for never really knowing the young woman she had called a friend. Still, she did admit some of what Dorothea said was confusing, as she wondered at the multitude of letters that had been sent out to all of the Black Eagles. She had even heard of manifestos that had been sent far and wide from the Kingdom to the Alliance, and so it made little sense that Dorothea didn't know as much as she was saying. She did not want to suspect the singer of lying, but she had to ask the nagging question, and she tried her best to be gentle and soft when she asked her quietly, "Did you not read her letter?"

"No. I haven't had the courage to open it." Dorothea laughed again as she answered the professor, and she shook her head in wonder at her cowardice. She had simply put it on her bed and stared at it, wondering at its contents and knowing she couldn't open it just yet. Not with the threat of the Empire marching on Garreg Mach. How could she? What if it what was inside was compelling enough for her to throw her sword behind Edelgard's advancing army? What if it wasn't? What was she supposed to do? It made her ache and wince and shudder all at once, and she was learning quickly that despite all her bravado, despite her willingness to learn to fight... She wasn't a soldier at heart. She didn't have the stomach for it. She never had, and never would. There was just too much hurt, too much devastation, for war to be something she could find justified. "I don't want to know what she has to say to me. Not... Not yet. It's too soon. It must sound pretty cowardly, huh?"

"No. You two were friends, Dorothea. It's natural to be conflicted about this. I think all of us are feeling the same way right now, at least on some level." Bernadetta spoke up to the surprise of almost everyone, but she didn't seem to mind the looks she got as she instead sat up straight and offered a small, somewhat awkward smile to her friend in response to her words. She squeezed her arm comfortingly, her eyes earnest as she continued as if the two of them were alone and there were no prying eyes to watch, or ears to overhear them, "It's okay to not be sure of things. At least... That's what I think now. Professor and Petra gave me some good advice. I think you could use it, too. When you make your decision... Make sure it's a decision you want to make. Not one you feel like you have to, for whatever reason there could be. Make it your choice. Not anybody else's, or for anybody's reasons. So long as you do that... I think you, and everyone else, will be okay."

"A decision I want to make...? That's interesting advice." Dorothea mused with a furrowed brow, and she turned to look at both Petra and Raine with slightly narrowed, but thoughtful eyes. It was not a concept she had really considered. It wasn't as if she had any real reason beyond fishing for a husband to have come to the monastery in the first place. She was not a noble, and though she was not exactly a commoner any longer, she still had to be looking out for her future prospects. There was nothing really tying her to the Empire in terms of familial, or even political loyalty, unlike her many friends. Her voice could be used anywhere. But the thought of a decision that she wished to make for her own sake made her take pause, and she spoke slowly as she again looked from Petra to Raine and back again, "I can already guess what you intend to do, Petra... You won't return to help the Empire, no matter what it is Edie says or does. But... What about you, Professor? You're going to stay and defend Garreg Mach... but what about after? If war spreads?"

"I was a mercenary for all of my life before I came here. Had you asked me before I came here, I would have told you I'd have fought for whichever side I was hired to fight for. Now... I'm a professor. It's true that my immediate loyalty is to my students, my house... but overall..." Raine cast a long look about her surroundings, seeing beyond Bernadetta's room and to the monastery as a whole without much need to imagine it. It was the closest thing she had had to a home in her whole lifetime. There was really no other way to explain it. She had always lived on the road, in tents, inns, or out in the woods themselves, and the monastery had been the first place, the only place, to offer her permanent shelter. It was true, that only several weeks ago, she had planned to flee from it... but circumstances had changed since then.

Raine's eyes hardened, and her hand instinctively reached for the handle of her blade to squeeze down on it for the feeling of security it gave to her with its weight. She felt no fear, despite the fact that she knew Imperial troops were marching as they spoke for Garreg Mach. No, she was not afraid at all for the battle that was to come. Her concern was only for the students, for the non-combatants of the monastery, and the threat they were under through absolutely no fault of their own. She would fight. There was no question to be had of that. And she spoke quietly, but clearly to answer Dorothea's question, "I intend to stay and fight for the monastery. For those who can't fight, and have no reason to be set upon. Should we lose, and war breaks out... I will continue to fight against the Empire with everything that I have. For myself, for those the Empire intends to trample on, and for those that have already been lost to cause us to come to this point."

Dorothea winced, and she had to look away as she thought of the dead who had been sacrificed only to further the ambitions of the Empire. Captain Jeralt. The citizens of Remire. The students in the monastery... How many more deaths would it take, before all was said and done? The mere thought made her sick to her stomach. It would be beyond count. Rivers of blood would flow before there was an end to it. She knew Edelgard's sense of ambition, if nothing else... She would not stop. Not until everything had been done to her complete satisfaction. That would mean not only tearing down the Church of Seiros, but the Alliance, and the Kingdom as well. The entirety of Fódlan would be razed to the ground if she wished for it, and that was something Dorothea was painfully aware of. "I... I see... I wish I was as capable of your conviction, Professor. I really do."

"As cold as it may sound, Dorothea, I wish you never have to be like me. I'm not motivated by any sort of ideal, or wish to be a hero. It's nothing at all that selfless." Raine replied with a shake of her head, and her smile was weak and bitter when Dorothea looked up at her in confusion at her words. But it was true, and she felt a dark, angry pulse somewhere deep within that had made her stand still and silent back inside of the Holy Tomb when she had watched Dimitri kill soldier after soldier with nothing but his bare hands in his rage to get to Edelgard. True, that anger had been paired with fear, with concern and pain, but it had been there all the same. She wanted vengeance. She wanted it so badly that she could almost taste it. Her anger at Solon and at Kronya almost felt like trifles compared to what she felt now... and she hated herself for it as she continued quietly, "I want revenge on the Empire for what they've taken from me, and from my students. That is what motivates me to fight. I don't want you to feel that kind of thing if I can prevent it. It isn't an emotion I want to feel. It isn't a way I want to live. Living for vengeance... It's ugly. It's cold. It's lonely. It won't bring back my father. It won't bring back the dead. Nor will it give me peace, when all is said and done. But it's something I can draw from... and I'll need that in the coming days."

"You say that you're not motivated by an ideal, or a wish to be a hero, but I don't think that's really true, Professor. You wouldn't think twice to check on any of us, to caution or guide us, if you didn't have our best interests in mind." Dorothea felt her lips quirking upwards without her consent at Raine's contradictory words and actions, and for a moment, she felt herself calm. It was true enough that the woman in front of her felt rage, felt bloodlust, but she was tempering it beneath wisdom, and acting out of compassion first and foremost despite her own emotions. She had come to them first, rather than hiding herself away, and it was only out of her own good will that she had done it. She had no loyalty to any of them. If anything, she should have been suspicious rather than kind, and Dorothea knew that well. "Perhaps you don't want to be a hero, but... You are certainly acting like one right now. I think I see why your house loves you so much... and why you were able to beat us so handily in the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. You're an inspiration. Like a pebble that starts a landslide. You're that kind of person."

"I... I don't think that's at all accurate..."

"No, I agree with Dorothea, Professor. Since you came here, things have changed a lot. Some for the better, some for the worse, but it's all changed... and we've all changed, too. If you weren't here, and this was all happening, maybe we would have made different choices. Maybe we'd be with Edelgard right now. But we aren't. I think that's because you're here." Caspar agreed with a nod, and he looked to Dorothea to trade a broad smile as he caught Raine's confused look and felt himself chuckle at it. She thought so little of herself. He didn't quite understand how it could be that way. She had done so much since coming to the monastery, and seemed intent on doing so much more. She truly was her fathers daughter, and it made him want to be more like her. He could understand more than ever why Petra had asked to join her house, and he laughed as he admitted aloud, "Y'know, I kind of wish I'd done what Petra had, and asked to be a Blue Lion now. You could have taught me a lot!"

"Professor has indeed taught me much. I am glad to be having of her guidance." Petra agreed with a nod, and Raine let out a tired breath as she realized she was readily outnumbered and very likely outmatched. They were not her students, at least three of four of them weren't, but they all certainly were stubborn in their own ways. They would have her beat if she chose to fought, and from the playful smiles playing around their faces at the sight of her uncertainty... She knew better than to try. Petra, sensing this, stood slowly from her perch on the edge of Bernadetta's cot and spoke gently, "I must go now. There is much to be doing. I still wish to speak to Ferdinand of his choices... but we shall fight together, as friends."

"As friends."

Dorothea agreed, and her words were echoed almost at once by both Caspar and Bernadetta the moment she spoke up. She smiled as she watched Petra and Raine take their leave with quiet goodbyes, and Caspar was quick to excuse himself as well once he realized that Dorothea had no intention of leaving with them. She wondered how he had known that, and reminded herself to remember that perhaps he was a bit more aware than she had previously thought... when it came to Bernadetta, at the very least. She hadn't been given a moment's chance to stop him or explain further once her name had left her lips before he had gone charging off, and his protectiveness made her smirk as the door closed behind him and left her and Bernadetta alone together. She sighed as she flopped back theatrically onto her friend's bed, and she closed her eyes as she mumbled, "Well, I guess that had to be enough social interaction for the whole year for you, huh, Bernie?"

"Uh-huh." Bernadetta agreed from somewhere below her, and Dorothea could well imagine the poor archer was sitting on the floor and again hugging her pillow to her chest for comfort. She felt her back against her knees, and she smiled despite herself at the physical contact that her classmate seemed to want despite being obviously exhausted by all that had happened, and in her own safe haven, no less. She let out a sigh of her own, and Dorothea felt the tickle of her plum-coloured hair on her legs as she shook her head, "Can you please tell Caspar never, ever to do that again? I know he just wanted to protect me or something, but... Yikes! That was almost worse than that time he lugged me over his shoulder to see the sunset!"

Those words succeeded in bringing Dorothea back into a sitting position within seconds, and she looked down at an unconcerned-looking Bernadetta despite the words that she had said that had instantly brought the singer to attention. This was the first she was hearing about such a thing, and she was both sorely disappointed, and sorely intrigued, by this news. It explained quite a bit, and made her want to know quite a bit more, and she practically bent herself in half to look down and over at the archer's face as she asked sharply, "Wait a second, Caspar did what?"

"Didn't I tell you? Caspar took me somewhere really pretty once to see the sunset, and when I asked him to take me there again because I couldn't find it on my own, he just picked me up like a piece of luggage and hauled me off! Again!" Bernadetta griped, and she shook her head as she wondered how in the world the young man had managed to do it twice to her without her being able to escape from him. The first time she could write off as it being so sudden, but the second was unforgivable, both for her and for him. It didn't matter that the view was absolutely spectacular, since the journey there had been anything but. "He has no tact! And no idea how to be gentle with a lady! I mean, I know I'm not much of a lady, and I'm definitely un-marriageable, but-"

"Bernie. I think you've missed a point. Or a dozen. You need to start over from the very beginning." Dorothea had to smother a laugh by pretending to cough, and she shook her head as she sunk down from the bed to join her friend on the floor. She felt good, better than she had almost the entire moon, and she chuckled to herself at her desperation for idle gossip. It made things feel normal again, even if it was anything but, but she needed that feeling if only to give her a break from the stress and the weight of what was coming. She playfully jostled her friend's shoulder with her own, a teasing smile crossing her face as she started, "I need to hear everything that happened between you and Caspar. From the very beginning. Don't leave a single detail out."

"Wh-Why? It's not important. He was just being... himself, I guess. He's loud and boisterous and totally unreasonable, but hasn't he always been that way?"

"Yes, Bernie. He has. But you still have a lot to learn about boys... I'll teach you. Sit down and listen carefully, okay? This might be long, but you obviously need to hear it..."

Chapter Text

White Clouds
Garreg Mach Outskirts (Empire Border)

Lone Moon

Year 1180

It was quiet, but Warin was aware that the silence was deceptive, and his eyes were narrowed and trained as he cast them about in a wary search. The outskirts of the monastery's territory, bordering on the Empire, had been declared the most dangerous area to scout, and it had not surprised him in the least that he and Shamir had been among the ones sent to investigate the movements of the Imperial Troops to the immediate south. If anything, he would have almost been offended had Seteth chosen anyone else, considering the fact that both stealth and brute strength were sorely needed in order to keep the border both watched and protected until the bulk of the amassing forces crossed over en masse.

Movement in the bushes caught his eyes, and he was quick to turn his eyes on it without moving from his own position nestled up high in the trees. This was one of his many advantages as a forward scout, knowing the terrain and being able to use it to his advantage, and he raised one finger for his partner who was hiding higher up, and farther back behind him as her own position demanded. Though he couldn't see her, he could well imagine her form as she tightened her bow-string and took aim, and Warin watched as a flash of red fabric poked through the bush as a soldier's head lifted above the foliage. He recognized the Empire's sigil emblazoned on the front of their uniform, and he smiled grimly as he raised a second finger almost immediately afterward.

The soldier fell heavily almost a second after his change of signal, an arrow deeply embedded in his throat, and his corpse disappeared into the bushes with a crackling of branches. There was a painful moment of waiting, for the now-dead scout to be discovered, but after almost a full minute with no reaction or following soldier, Warin allowed his breath to leave him in a heavy exhale. The hand that had been holding his spear loosened, and he settled back against the tree's trunk as he wondered if he was beginning to get too tense. He had been on this duty for two days straight with no break now, and it would be another two days before he was expected to be back to finish his rotation and return to the monastery... but still he felt spent.

'At least I'm not the only one...' Warin thought with a wry smile, and he was coldly reminded of that blond-haired prince and his unending fountain of rage that he had watched fuelling him shortly before he had been called to leave the monastery. To say what had happened in the Holy Tomb had changed the Kingdom's future king was a grand understatement. Only speed had allowed Dimitri to react before anyone else, and only two inches, two, tiny, so-significant inches, had stopped him from ending the future invasion right then and there when Edelgard had revealed herself as the Flame Emperor.

It would have been beautifully poetic if his lance had hit home, but Dimitri had been in no state to aim, even if his bloodlust had let him rip over half a dozen soldiers to shreds with little more than his bare hands. And Edelgard hadn't been foolish enough to stay to watch, and she and Hubert had been quick, too quick, to flee using magic before they could face real judgement. It made him chuckle, with cold, dark hate, but he knew whatever he was feeling was nothing compared to the man who had taken the truth the hardest. Dimitri had turned to stone after her disappearance, and now he travelled everywhere with his lance in hand, eyes cold and distant as he waited, eagerly, for the coming battle.

'He'll get himself killed at this rate. And with Raine unable to reign him in...' Warin let out another tired breath as his eyes continued to scan the forest ahead even as his thoughts spun wildly. His sister had tried, had tried to the best of her ability to make Dimitri speak to her, but the prince had withdrawn behind a wall, and she could pry nothing out of him but a promise that he would have Edelgard's head, come hell or high water. And it hadn't mattered that Raine shared those sentiments, that most of the Blue Lions wished for it now that they were aware of who had been pulling their strings for the majority of the year... because his behaviour had been far too disturbing for his sister to accept.

She was troubled by him, but Warin had been unable to offer her any real advice when she had admitted as much. Her only solution had been to find vengeance before Dimitri could, perhaps to spare him from killing his last remaining family with his own hands, but Warin hadn't had the heart to tell her that her student was far beyond thinking of such things. Edelgard was dead to him already, and it was only a matter of collecting the head now. He didn't see his step-sibling, nor did he see a human being anymore now that the mask had dropped. It didn't even matter that the logistics didn't make sense if one took time to pause and think of the simple mathematics, because Dimitri had put a face to his shadowed enemy, and now that he had... Nothing would stand in his way from ending them with his own two hands when push came to shove.

"The Tragedy of Duscur happened four years ago. She was too young to be playing warmonger behind a mask, then. Someone else is responsible for the regicide. That mage you spoke of claimed responsibility, Thales, and you said both you and him heard that from his own mouth... But there's no use trying to use logic to snap the prince out of whatever rage he's in now." Warin shook his head, leaning back on the wall as he watched his sister's face pinch even further with both pain and anger as she listened intently to his words. He knew it wasn't what she wanted to hear, but he also knew she had thought of it long before he had. She was intelligent, and she had access to more pieces of the puzzle than he. She had to have known all of this without needing him to say it aloud, but he did so anyway for her as he understood her need to speak of what was happening to someone, anyone, with a clear enough head, "He has a face to put his hatred towards. He isn't going to stop until he kills her, regardless of her actual level of involvement in the Tragedy. And truth be told, I imagine it was quite little. She was simply too young."

"And you really think telling him that won't help?" Raine asked painfully, but she already knew what the answer was. She had tried it already, in one of her dozens of attempts to speak to him, and it had been as effective as speaking to a wall. The Dimitri she knew simply was not there anymore to hear her. His eyes were cold, and focussed far, far away from the monastery. There was nothing to him but his rage and desire for vengeance, and hearing him say so, with a grim, dark smile on his face, had made her blood run cold.

This was what he had been hiding behind his polite smile and his gentle demeanour, and to say that she was disturbed by him was a grand understatement. She knew the want for vengeance. The bloodlust that clouded the mind and made everything else seem far away and dull, but this was something else entirely. She had spent only a moon stewing in those emotions. He had lived with it for four whole years. It had made him a whole different man, and she mourned for him, mourned and worried as she wondered if he had been far beyond her reach from the very beginning, or if she had simply failed to help him in the year she had spent as his teacher. "Then what can I say? What can I do to help him now?"

"Nothing you say will change anything, Raine. He doesn't care if she was actually responsible or not. Because in his mind, she is. He'll chase that rage to the ends of the world, heedless of anything and everything else, until he either has her head in his hands, or she puts an axe through his. That's the reality of vengeance." Warin watched her wince, gritting her teeth as she looked away from him painfully, but he knew there was nothing else he could do but provide her with the cold, hard facts. "The only thing we can do is keep her from her goals by any means necessary... Including putting her and those behind her in the ground. Will that help him? I can't say if it will or not. I honestly don't know. But I do know it will end this madness before it starts if we can, and that, unfortunately, is far more important than the state of mind of one noble man."

"Tch... I won't let it happen. If I have to kill her myself, I'll do it. I won't lose him to this damned cycle of blood." Raine's voice was harsh, but her eyes were sad, and Warin wasn't sure what hurt him most, that she was willing to bloody her hands herself for a man who clearly didn't care, or that she knew her goals wouldn't help, but she couldn't devise any other way to make use of herself. Still, he knew it didn't matter as she turned around, one hand tightly gripping the hilt of her blade as she muttered with cold disgust under her breath as she began for the door, "Politics. Ideals. Changing the world... None of it, absolutely none of it, is worth the lives it's claimed already. Can nobody see that, or am I just mad...?"

"You aren't mad, Raine... You simply value human life too much." Warin sighed to himself as he shook himself back rudely to the present, and he hoped that his sister was at least keeping herself busy so not to drown herself in her worry and fear for the students of Garreg Mach. Now her priorities had shifted, had widened to include all of the students that were being thrown head-first into this chaotic mess, and he was well aware that nothing he said or did would change her mind. She had already spoken of trying to get the remnants of the Black Eagles to try and change their minds in heeding Edelgard's summons, and he could only imagine how well that particular trial was going for her.

Perhaps her words would sway some, but he doubted she would be able to sway them all. Edelgard might have been a cold and distant leader, but that seemed to be the Empire's way. It wouldn't be loyalty to her that called her classmates back. It would be loyalty to their homeland, to their own people, that would have them raising swords under her banner when the time finally came for an all-out war. And Warin was not fool enough to believe that staving off the Imperial forces at the monastery would be the end of it. It would be impossible to do, even with the maximum amount of casualties, and he already was sharply aware of that. They had been caught off guard and unprepared. Edelgard had been planning this for far longer than they had known. She would win. All of his knowledge of history had already told him so.

Rustling in the trees behind him made him turn his head, and he watched as Shamir swung herself easily onto the branch that he had been using as his own little nest of sorts. He glanced upwards through the leaves, catching a glimpse of the rapidly setting sun, and he sighed as he understood their time was up. Without daylight they would be less than useless, and it was best for them to fall back to a more secure location rather than risk their necks hanging about too close to the Imperial border. He nodded in understanding as she tilted her head back towards the north, and in silence the two dropped back to the ground, before heading off in a dead sprint back towards no-man's-land.

It only took the minutes to reach the camp that had been set up far closer to Garreg Mach's territory at their breakneck pace, but Warin had to admit he didn't feel better at the sight of the monastery's soldiers as they slowed themselves to a brisk walk. Everyone looked tense and uneasy, which only made him wonder if the other forward scouts set up along the border had come back with the same news that he and Shamir likely had. There was a giant wall of soldiers massing in Imperial territory, and there was no doubt, no doubt whatsoever, that the sheer bulk of their numbers would be crashing onto the monastery and likely over it even with all of its defences and willing soldiers in the upcoming fight.

Warin sighed as he unbuckled his gauntlets, and he glanced over to his left as he watched Shamir hang her bow up on her quiver and stretch her aching arms as she did so. She looked as tired as he felt even if she was playing it off better, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from asking if she intended to go straight to her tent to rest, or off to find Catherine to deliver her report. He was aware that the wielder of Thunderbrand was patrolling this particular camp so she could be near her partner, but he had been doing his best to avoid her whenever feasibly possible.

His little... discussion with Rhea may not have reached anyone else's ears, but apparently Catherine had been watching Rhea closely ever since Raine's transformation, and she had connected the dots that her dear archbishop's behaviour had been negatively impacted by him, and she was not at all approving. He had no desire to be brought up for a fight over hurting Rhea's feelings, especially now of all times, and he didn't trust the blond swordmaster for a moment to not bring it up if she was already in a mood and felt the need to vent. He doubted he had the patience, or the will to keep quiet, and so he chose the better option of making himself scarce rather than risking getting caught for a lashing.

Still, when he noticed Shamir was making no moves to leave for either her tent or her partner, he couldn't quite help himself. He slid his gauntlets from his arms as they entered the busy camp and took pause at the nearest table to begin pulling loose their weapons and armour to lighten their burdens, and he set them down on the heavy wood as he asked in what he hoped was a conversational tone as he watched Shamir doing the same, "What do you figure our odds are?"

Shamir let out a breath, and she again lifted her arms above her head to stretch out her tense muscles before her bow and quiver landed on the table next to Warin's gauntlets. A simple glance to her left proved that he wasn't just making conversation, as his sharp navy eyes were watching her closely, and she had to admit that the fact that her opinion was something he wanted to know and obviously seemed to trust was somewhat flattering. He had seen the exact same things she had, but he was willing to hear her thoughts on it first before anyone else's and make his judgement according to hers rather than trust the words of the other scouts that were likely all pulling back for the night as they were. She answered him bluntly as she shook her head and reached for the nearest canteen of water for her parched throat, "Fifty percent. Likely less, if the other scouts have seen the same thing we have."

"That's optimistic of you. I was angling for twenty. Fifteen, at the lowest." Warin replied with a wry smile at her reply, and he didn't hesitate as she offered him her canteen after she finished taking a draught for herself. There was no point in being wrapped up in holding onto belongings for themselves in such a situation, and he took a long swig of water himself before glancing out to the other stragglers that were now making their way out of the forest after them. Ten teams had been set out along this particular stretch with himself and Shamir included, and he was quite sure they all had similar reports to make.

"And I'd say that's pessimistic of you." Shamir answered with a shake of her head, but she was intrigued all the same by his much lower odds than hers. He was a strong fighter, but he was also blessed with terrific instincts, and a sixth sense that had yet to be proven wrong in her entire time of fighting beside him. If he was betting so low, there was good reason for it, and she had fought alongside him enough to trust his words without much argument. That didn't mean however that she had to leave it all unchallenged, especially when she thought back to all of the soldiers, both student and knight who were gearing up for the assault as she questioned shrewdly, "You've that little faith in the defences at the monastery?"

"I don't doubt the monastery itself can withstand the assault... but I'm speaking only for the building, not the people inside. What I do have faith in is the princess having more cards up her sleeve than we do." Warin's response was blunt, and he shook his head as he wiped the sweat from his brow on the back of his forearm. A cursory glance at the map laid out on the table beside them told him all he needed to know. The numbers they had seen were confirmed by other scouts, and the noose being drawn about Garreg Mach was growing tighter and tighter with each forward push the Empire made. They were methodical, but pushing farther forward every day, and it would be soon, sooner than any of them liked, that they would be ready for their assault. "The Empire itself is vast... True, forcing it and everyone in it to work together probably is as monumental a task as the damned country itself is in size, but the princess has had plenty of time to put it under her heel. At present, we're only counting what we can see... We can't account for what we can't."

The thought made Shamir take pause, and she felt a chill go up her spine at the idea she had never actually considered before. It made sense. Edelgard was showing them a force that they couldn't possibly begin to comprehend defeating, let alone just driving off, and that was enough to send them running in all directions as they tried to find a way to defend against the indefensible. But that was a simple strategy, and all of them were well aware Edelgard was not a simple woman. It would make sense that she would show one hand while hiding the other. It was the most common military tactic in history. "Then... You think she has other forces in waiting?"

"I don't think. I know. She's not stupid, even if she is deluded. She thinks like a real commander. What commander would give their opponent a full view of all of their forces? She has more troops, and the monastery isn't prepared to take the full weight of her assault. She knows this. But that's not enough." Warin's answer was calm and steady, but the searing look in his eyes as he glanced back down towards the map was anything but. He had underestimated her once. He would not do so again, even if it meant playing the pessimist, or thinking only of the worst likely scenario. At best, he'd be pleasantly surprised. At worst... He'd be the best prepared. "She's been beaten before when she had the numbers advantage. Multiple times. And she's learned from those mistakes. Painful as it is to say it, she's been learning from Raine, and she's learned well. We're going to lose. And badly."

Shamir wasn't entirely sure what to say to such a fatalistic announcement, but somehow, she was aware that she felt absolutely no surprise. It was like him to say these things without preamble or care about how it would make others react, it was just his way, yet in all of his talking... Not once had he spoken of the most obvious route to take if defeat was to be inevitable. He was a mercenary, through and through, and all mercenaries knew the most valuable of lessons... To pick which battles to fight, and which battles to flee from. She leaned back against the table, watching him carefully as her arms folded across her chest as she remarked with a hint of a dark, almost bitter chuckle, "Hmph... Then I have to ask, if you know all of this... Why are you sticking around to fight it out, when you could be taking advantage of the chaos, grabbing your sister, and running?"

Warin almost smiled at the words that he likely should have felt insulted by, and yet only felt amusement to hear from her of all people. He knew, at least to her, that his behaviour and his desires had to be as clear as glass. She knew he hated where he was, why he was there, and what he was doing. He had never tried to keep it a secret, and even if he had, she had too sharp an eye to allow it. Her question made sense to ask, and he wasn't about to refuse to give an answer. They'd fought together for too long for him to ever dare to insult her by hiding the truth as he replied with an errant little shrug, "I'd have to knock Raine unconscious, tie her up, gag her, and then carry her off before she'd leave Garreg Mach, or her students. Especially now. That's really not a fight I'm interested in picking."

"And yourself?"

That question hit a little harder, but Warin admitted that at least she had the right to ask it, and he respected that she did without hesitation or any sort of gentleness. He deserved to be questioned. He knew that he did. He wanted to leave, and he had made that explicitly clear. Even if his sister would not go, that did not mean that he needed to stay... but that was not about to happen. The logic may have made sense, but he didn't care about that now. His sister would not be left to fight alone, under no circumstances, and that was never going to change no matter how he felt. And besides... His smile turned grim, and he shook his head slowly as he answered, "Where Raine goes, I go. If she stays, then I stay. It's that simple for me. And, brotherly duties aside... I have a score to settle with the princess and her little minions. I have no intention of running away from this fight. If I go down, I'll go down making every damned effort possible to bring her down with me. She'll answer for having a part in destroying Remire and taking my father from me. But, I suppose there's a line for her head. Also not a fight I'm interested in picking."

"So, instead you pick the fight with the worst odds you can imagine to stay in... I thought I knew you, but admittedly, you make me question that more and more these days." Shamir admitted with a wry smile of her own and a shake of her head as she watched her fellow mercenary shrug his shoulders with a little smile of his own gracing his face. He was exhausted and strained, but his eyes had cleared as he returned her gaze and made her stomach tense with unwanted memory. They hadn't spoken of that moment for moons, but to say it hadn't been on her mind would be a lie. She thought of it often. The man was becoming a thorn in her side, and worse, she was beginning to really enjoy it. It made her exasperated. How could she be professional when he kept making her mind wander at the most inopportune of times? "Are you going to include all of your speculations in your report?"

"I will, but whether or not I'm believed is another matter entirely." Warin admitted with an idle shrug, and he sighed as he wondered if his word would mean much when he spoke up. It could easily go either way, considering his reputation now, and the thought made him wince a little. The one person who seemed to believe him at face value besides Shamir was Seteth, and he wasn't sure if that impressed or worried him nowadays. But there was just too much to do to linger on it, and he had to accept an ally, even if it was one he had no reason to expect to be in his corner. "I'm not a popular man here these days."

"No, you're not. Angering Rhea isn't seen to be a smart move. Catherine wants your neck." Shamir agreed with a low chuckle, and she wondered at her partner's rage. It wasn't just at Warin that she was casting her ire, and she had been victim to it during a rather tense conversation not too long ago when his behaviour had been brought up. Shamir had always known her views on the archbishop would end up leaving her and Catherine at a crossroads, but it didn't make it any less irksome, or painful, to hear it. Knowing she and her partner would clash because of their differing priorities... It wasn't a pleasant feeling. "Truth be told, though, she also wants mine right now. It turns out she wasn't happy to hear I'd save her before I'd save Rhea, if the chips were down. Who knew?"

Warin bit his tongue on the insult he wanted to throw almost at once to hear such a thing, but he knew better than to do so even if it was Shamir he was speaking with. It didn't matter if the two were at a crossroads, as they were still partners, and they had been for far longer than he had known either of the women. It wasn't his place to get involved or to share his opinion, even if Shamir had been the one to bring it up. His father had taught him well to never get in between two women, especially if they were fighting, and having seen the way female mercenaries could and often did fight in the heat of the moment with one another... That was a lesson he planned on obeying until he was well and buried. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"That's all you have to say? I half expected you to call her a fanatic." Shamir mused with a hint of a laugh at the rather banal response. It was not like him to have so little to say when it came to such topics. While it was true they were sharing more and more throughout the moons, he had never been very shy in expressing his honest opinion even if it was going to earn him ire. And it was that blunt frankness that had earned him her admiration in the first place. Hearing him now speaking so cautiously was strange, and somewhat amusing. She wondered what it was that made him step so awkwardly, and she chuckled a little bit more as she remarked, "You wouldn't be wrong, you know. And I wouldn't be offended. I said the same, if not so much in as many words."

"And have you shoot me? Please. I may be unpopular, and I know for a fact that I'm bull-headed, but I don't actually have any desire to be buried just yet." Warin snorted in reply, and he waved a hand as if the entire matter was absolutely ridiculous. He knew better, from both experience and instinct, and he had absolutely no desire to get himself into an even worse mess by speaking his mind. There was nothing to gain but injuries, and he wasn't that masochistic, or outspoken. He knew when to shut his mouth, even if it didn't look it. "If my father taught me one lesson that I'll take to the grave, it's to never interfere in a fight between women. I don't care what stakes there are to be had. I know my place, and it's far away from that kind of mess. War looks downright delightful in comparison to that."

"You are almost more strange than your sister. And I mean that in every sense of the word "strange", you know that?" Shamir wasn't entirely sure how she managed to get the words out without succumbing to a fit of entirely inappropriate laughter, but she considered it a triumph when she did. The look he gave her immediately afterwards, as if he wasn't sure if she was flattering or insulting him only made it worse, but she swallowed it down and hid her smirk behind her glove as best as she was able. It felt good to want to laugh even if now was the most inappropriate time to do so, but she knew that was the strain of the mission talking. And it gave her solid grounding underneath her feet again, and she shook her head and waved her hand to stop him from changing the subject or trying to argue with her words, "All right, then... So we report that you're suspicious of the Imperial troops movements, as well as their numbers... Anything else?"

"Five forward scouts killed before they breached the border, and no recoveries as of yet. They'll be found by tomorrow morning, though, with the speed the troops are marching behind them." Warin added as he decided to allow Shamir to dictate the flow of conversation. It was a far easier and safer path to tread, and that was sorely needed in the moment. He lifted his head, glancing at the darkening sky above, as well as the way his breath misted the moment it left his mouth. The cold was sweeping in harshly from the north, but it would not slow down the advancing troops from the south. By the time the snow would blanket the monastery and its surrounding area, the Empire would have long since had their victory. He let out another long exhale, watching the mist swirl with the breeze before idly continuing, "If any of the night watch want to risk pulling the corpses out, we possibly could execute an ambush on the first forward troop that approaches, but that's too much risk for too little reward. It'd be wiser to pull back with the time we have."

"Agreed on that front. This camp should be abandoned by tomorrow afternoon, and we should fall farther back up the mountain by nightfall..." Shamir agreed with a nod, and she raised a hand to her mouth as she narrowed her eyes and quickly calculated the speed of the troops she had been watching from higher up from her vantage point in the trees. It was true that they needed to rest, eat, and suit up just as any other army did, and that would hamper their forward marching, but it wouldn't be by much. They were running like the eternal flames were burning at their heels, and she almost sighed when she mused, "At the rate they're moving, within a fortnight, they'll be breaching the monastery grounds from all sides. I hate to admit it, but that princess is good. Or, at the very least, her tacticians are."

"If I wanted to attack the monastery, surrounding it and crushing it in a pincer would be my strategy as well. You can't defend on four fronts. It's just simply not done. Especially considering the extreme lack of manpower Garreg Mach actually has." Warin pointed out with a grim sigh, but as he again checked the map, he admitted he had to amend the statement slightly. He did so slowly, pointing along the approaching frontline that was rapidly falling farther and farther back towards the monastery, "But they aren't attacking from four fronts, are they...? No, they can't. They'd have been spotted if they moved in from the north, and we'd have heard about it already if troops were moving through Kingdom territory..."

"We can't hope for reinforcements from the Kingdom, not with this little forewarning, but we can certainly count on intelligence... You're right." Shamir turned her gaze to the map, noting the mountain ranges that protected the monastery from the north, as well as providing the heavy border that protected the Kingdom in return. Any such crossing over the range could simply not be done in secret, and it was well known that the Kingdom territories took their duties of protecting their borders seriously. If even one watchman saw something of note, they would have sent word long ago, even if it was the most inconsequential detail they could think to report.

Shamir had to bite the inside of her cheek, musing again with dull amusement that the man beside her continued to surprise her with his knowledge and foresight. He was being wasted as a mere knight, just as his father had been. As much as she trusted and respected Alois for his skill and personality, she couldn't help but feel that the knights had made a mistake in their choice for their new knight-captain. It was clear that Jeralt had trained his successor well. Very well. It was a small wonder that Rhea didn't trust him, and that the men who had served with him back in his mercenary days did without hesitation. "They won't attack from the direction of the Kingdom... but they will from the Alliance. We haven't heard a whisper from their spies since those manifestos were spread. And considering the speed of that happening, we can only assume she already has pieces set up wherever the blasted things popped up..."

"Traitors? Or bad timing?"

The question was purely rhetorical, as they both were well aware of what was truly happening without it needing to be said. The Alliance had never been a true "alliance". Not even from its very conception. The noble houses who held the most power were only interested in keeping the status quo, or expanding their influence, so that their voices at the round table conferences could be all the more powerful. But the Kingdom had been in a similar state of disarray four years ago after the death of their king, and it was still flagging heavily as it waited for its new king to take the throne and guide it properly. The fractures from its own civil war were still readily apparent, and easy to take advantage of... Shamir had to shake her head as she answered him bluntly, "Traitors. Or very well hidden plants. After everything we've seen, and with what we know... This plan has been carefully put into place over a long number of years. I know full well the princess is an intelligent young woman, but this is not her doing. Not wholly. Even if she is currently the figurehead being used to lead it."

"Every good war needs a figurehead... and an eventual scapegoat for when it ends. Edelgard's a pawn. Admittedly a high-ranking one, and not one we should take lightly, but she's not really the puppetmaster she wants to look. My bet is Thales is the one pulling all of the strings here." Warin mused, and he wished he had been there for a chance at the sorcerer Raine had described after seeing him twice. He had committed all of what Raine had told him to memory, and he spoke quietly, thoughtfully as he reached for his gauntlets on instinct as he felt that terrible tightening about his neck again. The pieces were falling rapidly now, and he wasn't sure if that scared, or reassured him as he strained to see the full picture through the smoke and mirrors. "This goes beyond the Empire... I'm certain of it. But how far beyond... I can't begin to guess. The things they did, and the things they wanted, then the things they'd need... It doesn't make sense. And there's no damned time to try and puzzle it all out."

"The best thing you can do is focus on what's in front of you while it's there, and once it's behind you, you can take your time looking backwards." Shamir advised with a shake of her head, but she sympathized with the irked look he was wearing all the same. Not having all the answers was also making her anxious, as well, and she had always considered herself someone who wasn't easily rattled. She had seen more than enough of war, and blood, and death. She had saved her own life by hiding amongst the corpses of her comrades, and had spent long months dragging her battered, beaten body out of Dagda, and far across Brigid. She was no stranger to the realities of what was coming... and yet Warin's words struck an unfamiliar chord in her. It wasn't as simple as it looked. She could feel it, too, but there was no time for that to be the priority for either of them.

"You're right. There's really no point pulling my hair out over this just yet... There's too much coming at us all at once for that." Warin agreed tiredly, and he ran a hand through his hair before pulling his gaze away from the darkened sky and the coming of the moon. The sight should have been beautiful amidst the cool of the coming winter. The sky was a dark, alluring shade of navy-and-black, peppered with the bright pinpricks of stars, and there wasn't a single cloud in sight above them. It was a perfect night for stargazing, for calm, but Warin felt nothing as he sighed, "I'm not sure about you, but I think I'll be delivering my report, and then taking a long rest until they dump me out of my cot for the next move."

"That sounds like a plan." Shamir agreed wryly, and she picked her bow and quiver back up as she watched Warin do the same to his gauntlets. He carefully stored them in his pack before shouldering it, and she watched him roll his shoulders back in the same movement with a grimace he could barely hide. She wondered how much discomfort he was really in if he was already showing his pain, even to her sharp eyes, but it wasn't a thought she wished to linger on. He wasn't the type to allow for her help, after all. Not now. And even if he would admit to it, what was there that she could do? They all were struggling. They would be struggling well into the foreseeable future, as far as she could tell, and that thought brought a foreboding shiver up her spine.

"If you're cold, take my spare blanket for the night. I won't need it."

The sudden offer broke through her thoughts, and she turned in surprise to see that as she had been watching him prepare to settle in for the night, he had been doing the exact same. There was a look of quiet concern on his face, and that wasn't something she saw often. It made his normally so sharp navy eyes gentle, softer, as if they were melted-down chips of the ocean, rather than the frozen depths like she had once seen during her travels in the deep north. It was honestly a little bit mesmerizing, and she had to shake her head roughly from side to side, cursing both her wariness, and that damned burning heat somewhere in her stomach as she managed a rather ungraceful, "Huh?"

"You shivered. It's cold." Warin's answer was brusque and to the point, and she appreciated it, as well as his complete inability to read her on this particular occasion. She had been in colder climates before, and she didn't at all mind the wind or the coming threat of more snow. Still, he didn't seem to want to wait for her answer, and instead moved back to his bag before pulling the tightly rolled up piece of fabric out and tossing it idly into her open hands. When she opened her mouth to protest, he merely shrugged before cutting her off idly, "I've been in the Kingdom before. I know it doesn't get as cold down here, but we need to rest as best as we possibly can for what's coming. No point in suffering needlessly if you can prevent it. Take it, and try to get a good night's sleep. You can pay me back with a drink at the tavern when we get back to the monastery."

"Are you asking me out on a date?" The moment the words left her lips, Shamir felt herself grow both extremely cold, and very hot. She hadn't meant to say it aloud, and she certainly wasn't sure what kind of answer she wanted to hear, especially now that it had been spoken. It should have just been a jest, common and unremarkable, but she couldn't quite get herself to believe it. Her reaction was more than enough for him to see that, but she fought regardless to keep her face placid, and her body in place rather than sprinting from where she stood in a blind panic. Why had she said that? What was she trying to do? She blamed her exhaustion, and her anxiety. It loosened her tongue, made her stop thinking, and she wanted to figure out if it was possible to shoot an arrow high enough for it to come back down into her own skull for saying anything at all. She had thought on this already, hadn't she? It wasn't like that.

The moment of silence that followed her words felt like an eternity, and the way his eyes focussed on her suddenly, with an abrupt, piercing intensity was no more comforting. Then he was shrugging his shoulders again dismissively, adjusting his pack again as his expression turned back into neutrality in a blink of an eye. She wondered how he managed to do it so smoothly, and she hated him simultaneously for it, too. He could look so unbothered at the drop of a hat, while she felt more exposed than she ever had in her entire life. It wasn't very fair of him to be so mercurial. His following words surprised him however as he shrugged his shoulders again and turned off in the direction of the captain's tent for his report, "If we come out of this mess unscathed... I'll consider it one if you will. Does that sound fair?"

Shamir closed her mouth before she could let slip an answer of any sort, and left Warin to continue his trek to the centre of the camp with nothing but silence to follow him. She couldn't in any sort of fairness actually give him an answer. It was impossible. He made it impossible. He was too easy to work with, to fight alongside, and she was already teetering along a very unsteady rope as it was. Giving him a response meant making up her mind, and she still was in no real place to do that. Especially now of all times. Yet, once again he had left her behind and floundering, and she suddenly didn't feel that chill of the northern wind anymore. Too much heat had migrated its way up into her face, lighting her up like a torch, and she gripped down hard on the edge of the table as she let out a curse underneath her breath.

"I think I might just end up shooting him after all..."

Chapter Text

White Clouds

Garreg Mach (Knights Barracks)

Lone Moon

Year 1181

The order had been given. The bells were tolling in warning, and every which way, panicked students, priests, nuns, refugees and children were running for any available exit that they had for an escape. Warin admittedly wasn't sure how many of them would make it out of the range of the fighting, nor did he have any way of predicting if the Imperial army would cast a wide net to capture anyone and everyone who were making a flight from the monastery. It would be prudent of them, if they were to behave like an army intent on capturing an enemy stronghold, but he couldn't accurately say that the advancing army was following any traditional rule of war. Their captain, their Emperor, was at the fore of the fleet, her banner held high in defiance as she marched ahead of her troops for the monastery in all of her warrior finery, and that had been more than enough to scare every single non-combatant out of their utter wits. The mere sight of her, and the fleet of men following at her heels, had to terrify anyone incapable of fighting, and the evacuation had begun in earnest once the soldiers had pushed past the panicked crowd to reach the bells to sound the warning.

Already they were streaming past him and to the exits, the secret passageways he had known in his youth now wide open, in a desperate bid for freedom and life, and he watched them go without an ounce of wanting to follow. He felt strangely calm, despite the utter chaos that he was surrounded by. In every direction there was yelling and movement, as the last of the civilians fled and knights hastily armed themselves, but Warin was slow and methodical as he buckled his gauntlets to his arms, and checked his chainmail vest to ensure it was properly slung across his chest underneath his leather jacket. The advancing army would not hurry. They were not so foolish. They were slow and methodical now that they were on the monastery grounds, funnelling into the gates in a bottleneck, but that had been the prudence of the knights, and not the foolishness of a young and newly-crowned Emperor.

Their goal was Rhea, after all, and not the evacuating civilians who were fleeing from the only exits the monastery had beyond its well-fortified gates. At least, for now, all of their focus was as straight and true as a lance, and that was the only thing that had made Warin pause when he had received his orders to prepare for battle, and meet his sister on the field. It was not a wise move, to direct their forces for the gates rather than surround the monastery in a chokehold, and it discomforted him to know that this was still what the Imperial army was intent on doing. Their Emperor was smarter than that. She would not leap immediately on the hanging bait without complete belief that she could take it and secure a safe escape for herself, but here she was, doing exactly that for all to see.

It was a trap, and not a very well hidden one, but there were no more options for the defenders of Garreg Mach. They had no allies from the Kingdom or Alliance to bolster their forces, only the knights that had managed to make it back from their missions, and the capable and willing students who had chosen to stand and fight rather than flee. Anyone else incapable or unwilling had been sent either east or west to flee, their routes guarded by as many knights as could be spared for them, but the bulk of their forces stood now at the gates in wait for the Emperor's arrival. Rhea herself stood tall with her men, sword at her side and wrath in her eyes, but he doubted even she could stem the tide that had turned so wildly against her.

Yet, she didn't stand alone. Raine and the Blue Lions had joined her at once for the bulk of the first defensive line, and behind them were the Golden Deer, also ready and willing to fight to the last for the monastery and fellow students. A handful of the Black Eagles had chosen likewise to take up arms, but others had chosen to flee, and he could not really say he blamed any of the ones who had chosen to leave. To face their countrymen, their former house leader and now Emperor, in the first strike of war... It could not be easy to do. They were wise for fleeing if they doubted their courage, and he did not resent a single one of them for choosing to abandon the monastery with those who could not fight... Though, he had already decided that should he see them again on the field of battle in the future, standing opposite of him and those who still were willing to stand against the Empire... He would cut them down without remorse.

Warin wondered idly as he checked the clasps of his gauntlets why he felt absolutely no fear. The past handful of moons had been full of anxiety, full of an ill feeling that danger was coming, and now that it was here, all he felt was calm. Perhaps it was because the danger had arrived and he knew what it was he was facing, or perhaps it was because he simply had no room left in him for concern. There was a battle to be fought, and he was a warrior at heart. He always had been. This was the life he had cut his teeth on, and it was all he knew. If there was a home for him, it was on the battlefield, and perhaps it was that knowledge that gave him grounding, and the inability to be rattled as so many of his comrades were now.

'What had she written in her manifesto...? To take the world back from the church, that had separated the Empire so unjustly? Dividing up the continent for their own will, and hoarding gold and resources...? I hardly remember...' He almost wanted to chuckle. He wasn't sure what had happened to the poor fool who had brought the manifesto into the monastery a handful of days before it had all erupted, but he did know that it had been seen by too many eyes before Seteth had put a stop to it. By then it had been too late, and whispers had begun to be spread in the corners of the halls, but it was too late for them, too. The Empire was marching upon them... and any that left the monastery to claim kinship with the advancing army would likely be skewered through before they were welcomed with open arms.

Idly he rolled one shoulder back, and then the other to loosen whatever tension was left in his limbs before he reached for his lance. Freshly sharpened, sturdy and weighted just right for his hand... and he smiled despite himself as he gripped it in his fist and wondered at himself. Here he was, a man who never made his hatred of Rhea a secret, who held distaste for the corruption of religion and politics alike, ready to fight and die at the foot of Garreg Mach Monastery itself without so much as a twinge of regret, or fear. It seemed ludicrous. If he had known where he would be now, only a year prior, he would have sooner tried to leap off of the nearest cliff before believing it to be the truth. And his father likely wouldn't have tried to stop him, either. He may have even joined him, and the thought brought a chuckle to him despite it all.

'Strange times, indeed...' He supposed he could logic it away, that he was not fighting for Rhea, or even for the monastery. He had very little attachment left for his birthplace, and absolutely none for the archbishop and her religion. The church was as corrupt as every noble he had ever had dealings with, and he was not blind to their failures as an institution, even if the religion itself did not deserve to be besmirched by its human mouthpieces. The followers did not deserve to be punished for the sins of those who held the power of the church in their hands. And those who had come to worship, to study, or to find safe haven from war or starvation or persecution were likewise as innocent as the true believers. Fighting to protect them was a worthy goal... but he had to admit it would be a lie to say he stayed for them, either.

It was only his sister, and his want to fight the Empire himself, that kept him where he was, and he knew he was selfish to admit it. He wished no ill on any of those who did not or could not fight, and he hoped they could find safety, somehow, but they were not his priority. No, he wanted to test his lance and gauntlets on the flesh of the Imperial soldiers who were so willing to follow a tyrant already stained with the blood of innocents despite her youth, and he felt not an ounce of shame for it. His desire for vengeance for his father, for Remire, and his need to protect his sister and what she cared for were his only drives now, and if death were to find him in his quest to do any of those things... He supposed he could at least go knowing he had done his damnedest.

"You're here. Good. Rhea was asking after you."

Shamir's voice interrupted his thoughts, bringing him back to the present and the noise, and he turned to see her standing in the doorway in full battle attire and with a look of quiet, simmering wrath on her face. He wondered if she had already had a taste of blood, being one of the last to return from scouting when the alarm had been raised, but he decided it was best not to ask such a thing. She wouldn't want to ruminate on it, and there was little time for speech anyway. He raised an eyebrow however at her message as he finished checking his gauntlets over and began to follow her into the hall, and he questioned as they smoothly cut their way through the slowly thinning crowd of escapees, "Rhea was asking after me?"

"For your sister. She wanted to go looking for you, but Rhea commanded she keep her post at the gates. She nearly started the war right then and there over that." Shamir replied easily, and she noted with an odd, detached sort of amusement that Warin was smiling at the thought as if he could clearly picture his sister reacting with violent rage at being told that she wasn't "permitted" to find him when she likely was wanting him most. It was strange, that they both could find amusement amidst the weight of what was pressing down on them, but she supposed that was something they had learned to live with as mercenaries. To take their joys when and where they could find them, knowing death was always lurking about the corner, even if it meant chuckling at a morbid joke as an advancing army stood little more than a stone's throw from their base's walls. "Thankfully, Rhea saw reason and sent me to find you. I don't think she wanted to test your sister's temper."

"One of her smartest decisions yet." Warin mused with a low chuckle, and Shamir shared it as they cut their way at a brisk jog through the barracks and towards the winding halls that would eventually lead them to the main forward gates. He caught a glimpse of another retinue of men heading in the opposite direction, running towards the students' dormitories, and he furrowed his brow before turning to look at Shamir. He had not expected the second gateway to have been opened, but he mused it was not the worst decision that could have been made. Having both passageways open meant doubling the chances for surviving refugees from the battle, and that was the most important thing if those higher in the monastery were hoping to minimize casualties. Still, he didn't underestimate the shrewdness of anyone here, especially now, and he asked as they hurried along the halls, "Splitting up the forces, or defenders for the students who are fleeing? Did both of the passages get opened for the evacuation?"

"Defenders. I'll be leaving with them shortly myself." Shamir answered, and she took pause at the branching of the paths that would lead them towards the main gates, and for the passageway that she had been ordered to attend to. It wasn't a good feeling, knowing she was being sent from the fighting in order to help with the flight of those unable to fight for themselves, but she knew why she had been the one chosen for such a mission. She knew the terrain. She could guide them better than anyone really could, and her bow would be more useful there than in the thick of the combat at the fore. It was not a mission given lightly, it wasn't one just anyone could do, and she supposed she should be proud on some level that she was being entrusted with the care of others... but she didn't want to do it. She wanted to be fighting, alongside the knights she knew, rather than turning her back and running... again.

Though she knew time was of the essence... She still hesitated as she watched the steady flow of students trying to cram their way through the passage and to what had to be their only hope of freedom and safety. The knights were doing their best to quell the panic, talking loudly and clearly to be heard over the clamouring, but it still was a mess that she knew she would need to dive headlong into. Her one and only solace was knowing that Gilbert had been tasked with handling the evacuation to the east, behind the knight's barracks, while she handled the west, and she knew his experience and knowledge with the routes through mountains and the Alliance for the Kingdom was exactly why he had been one of the best knights to be removed from the frontlines. It was cold comfort, but it was comfort nonetheless as she muttered quietly, "I guess this is where we part ways for the time being."

"Seems so." Warin agreed as he watched her sharp, violet eyes close for a long moment and then open again with a fierce burst of determination lending them a dark shine. Whoever had given her the order had made the smartest decision, though he knew to say so would only upset her. She didn't want to leave her comrades, her friends, behind, even if it meant protecting those who needed to be protected... but it was the nature of a mercenary to follow orders. Her moment of hesitation was the only weakness she would show or allow before committing to the task she had been assigned, and he had to smile at her bravery, and her willingness. His first and immediate judgement of her had been right. She was absolutely exquisite.

"Hey, I-" Shamir wasn't entirely sure what it was she was going to say, but abruptly she found it not mattering as she felt Warin's hand grasping her left arm and turning her back in his direction. He pushed her backwards with one fluid motion, hiding the two of them in the nearest alcove of the sprawling walls, and before she could question him, his free hand was on her chin and lifting her head while his ducked down in one smooth movement. His mouth covered hers an instant later, leaving her with no time for thought or response, and all she could do was stand completely still, startled, frozen, and incapable of any sort of reaction as she felt his lips moving with soft, gentle purpose on her own.

How long had it been since she'd felt another warm, soft body pressed up against her own so intimately? She couldn't really remember, even if she did know it had been long, long ages. Yet nothing exactly felt wrong about what he was doing to her without her consent. In the confusion, in the panic, it wasn't as if anyone would see, and she almost didn't care if anyone did. The hand on her chin was gentle, caressing, like she was made of the most fragile of glass, but he couldn't resist touching her all the same. It felt warm. He felt warm. And unbidden her eyes slid closed, her tense body relaxing for a brief, wild second as she reached for his jacket, holding him in place as instinct overrode better sense, and her lips pushed back into his kiss.

It only lasted a heartbeat before he was pulling back, and his eyes were on fire, twin pools of navy darkness that melted her stomach and made her ache even as it brought her a surprising moment of calm. His gaze was exactly like his touch, yearning, soft, tender, and all other sorts of words she hadn't ever thought to associate with the man who had just kissed her, but she really couldn't think of any other way to describe it, or him. He offered a small smile, crooked, almost regretful and yet not really wholly apologetic, and his thumb brushed across her lower lip before he muttered quietly, "Good luck... and be safe."

Warin pulled back before she could reply, letting her go even though she was burning in his hands, and he turned on his heel and broke into a sprint so he wouldn't need to see her reaction to what he had done. If she wanted to put an arrow between his eyes, he would be all the happier to let her when all was said and done... but when he had seen her hesitate, looking out over her duties with a furrow etching into her brow... He hadn't been able to help it. He didn't know if he was going to come back, nor did he know if she would. It was the nature of their work. And he didn't plan on leaving the world with one regret to ache over if his time was to come on the battlefield ahead.

'I think I'll be getting that arrow in me after all...' Warin mused to himself with a half-smile as he leapt clear of the stairs leading downwards in one easy bound before continuing his run ahead. His skin was buzzing as if he had been electrocuted, and his lips still felt hot from where hers had touched them. The drop in his stomach had little to do with his leap, but he did admit that the surge of adrenaline currently fuelling his body wasn't at all from the thought of the battle ahead. If she did decide to finally shoot him for this, he would admit she had every right to do so, and he wouldn't at all be disappointed. Too much time had been wasted dancing about what they had both deemed unspeakable. But war had an uncanny way of making the things they deemed important and untouchable become small and easy to dismiss. When reality came back and settled in, perhaps he would pay for his lapse in judgement... but he did not feel an ounce of regret or remorse now.

Warin shouldered open one of the many doors to the great hall without pausing in his stride, and he turned on his heel to the left as he caught a glimpse of the massive force that had chosen this place, as well as the opening marketplace and grounds to make their stand to drive away the Imperial forces. He could glimpse their banners just over the hill as they came close, and he mused idly that his timing could not be any better. The archers at the fore would soon be launching their first salvo, and he did not want to miss the chaos that would surely follow. Edelgard would be leading, and it was doubtful she would take injury, but she would not take being robbed of having the first move lightly, either. She wished for this to all go exactly according to her plans... And though their defiance was likely well placed on her chessboard, it still would not be what she expected, he imagined.

'Playing out a fantasy with soldiers and weapons and blood... Quite a figurehead you chose, Thales. It makes me wonder if you're also a fan of the theatrics. Are you here, too, on this battlefield? Will I get a chance to sink my lance into your chest? I dearly hope so...' Warin scanned quickly through the faces of the assembled soldiers, and he felt a pulse of surprise in seeing two of the Black Eagles in place with the Blue Lions, flanking his sister's forces with grim expressions, and yet without a hint of regret or hesitation in their clear eyes. His sister's words had gotten through to them, at least to two of them, and they had chosen to stand with her and her house at the last. It made him bite the inside of his cheek, and he sighed as he continued to look about for her, 'I suppose I owe you an apology, then... Even if it was the hotheaded brawler and his mage friend that you convinced in the end to come join you, that's two more than I ever expected to see on the battlefield today.'

He found her at the top of the staircase, her sword unsheathed and glinting softly with red as she spoke to Rhea, and he couldn't hide his smile at the sight of her. Her eyes were narrowed and her voice was obviously heated as they argued, and he admitted he was somewhat surprised to see that Seteth was standing back and allowing for it to happen. He didn't seem interested in the least in breaking either of them apart, and his eyes were cool, almost too cool, as he viewed the archbishop without an expression on his face. It was the same behaviour he had noticed ever since word of the ritual that previous moon, and he still wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Yet, Seteth had given him the time of day when he had come forward with his reports, had expressly given him his trust when he took note of his suspicions in all seriousness, and Warin was glad to count him as an ally even if he did not know what had prompted the sudden change.

To Raine's side stood Alois and Petra, clearly having taken up guard of her while the rest of her students stood in position at the fore and centre, and he wondered idly if that had been on her insistence, or the archbishop's. Yet, as he singled out the Golden Deer, likewise taking up positions of equal risk, he knew better. All of them were united now, fighting as students of Garreg Mach and not their individual houses, and he had to admit seeing their bravery hurt him. It would be no good, in the end, even if this was a choice of their own making to stand and fight. They were just children, in the end. Nobles or no, and there were handfuls upon handfuls who were not attached to any bloodline at all, and none of them deserved to be entangled in this war.

Warin met the eyes of Ashe as he looked back towards her students, and the archer helpfully glanced upwards as if he wasn't sure that his professor's brother was aware of where she was. He gave the youth a nod, noting again that she had taught her students far too well, before he took the stairs that led him up to the retinue of soldiers who were guarding the gates. The one and last physical guard that would prevent the Imperial Army from entering the monastery walls, and he had to admit, seeing Rhea with sword and shield in hand and standing there with her best on each flank... At least she seemed just as willing as everyone else there to fight to the last.

He took the stairs two at a time, and he caught bits and pieces of the argument overhead with a wry smile. Raine was insisting still on leaving to find him, and Rhea was not permitting her to leave the field. It made him glad that he had taken a side entrance, to hear his sister finally giving vent to frustration over Rhea's control of her, but he knew better than to let it continue on. They needed unity now, even if was unity made by gritting their teeth, and he called up as he crested the top and came into view to the two women, "I heard I was called for?"

"Warin! Good to see you!" Raine's demeanour changed almost instantly at the sight of her brother, and the unease and discomfort she had been feeling mere moments ago all melted away as he returned her smile with a slight, crooked one of his own. He was fully outfitted for battle, just as they all were, and the sight was a comfort as he joined Alois and Petra at her side. She grasped his hand for a moment, the only gesture of affection she knew he would allow in such a moment and with so many people watching, and she fully ignored Rhea as she spoke to him quickly, "Can you please get down there with the others? Ashe will inform you of the general plan when you take your place with them."

Warin blinked, both mildly taken off guard by the request, as well as the fact that Rhea did not object to it aloud, even if her eyes were fiery with defiance and displeasure. Yet again, Seteth was saying nothing, as if he was permitting Raine to stretch her influence and test her boundaries with the archbishop, and emboldened by what was happening, Raine was doing so with wild abandon even if she was not aware of it. He glanced back down to the block the Blue Lions had formed, providing a wide bulk of the frontline forces expected to take the brunt of the initial assault, and he asked mostly out of courtesy and curiosity rather than dislike or confusion when he looked back up to his sister, "You want me with your students?"

"Yes, for the time being. You and I won't be fighting separately until the wave breaks with the first assault. From there, the field will change, and you can do as you like, then. We're expecting their forces to fracture into a pincer, with their main fighters going up the east and west sides to gain access, while the rest of their men are entangled in the fighting." Raine explained with a quick glance back to the battlefield, and her eyes narrowed at the strategy she had easily been able to pin down once she had caught a glimpse of the forces that were approaching. Their lines of attack were easy to read, their formation familiar, almost insultingly so, but she knew better than to discount it. All would change once the first weapon struck another, and she knew that better than anyone. "From there, I want you to take the Deer west, while I move east with the Lions."

"You want to counter a pincer with another pincer... Interesting. Refusing a repeat of the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. Smart choice." Warin noted with a nod, and he wondered errantly if Edelgard had chosen such a formation in order to anger his sister out of thinking clearly, or because of the damage it had done to her own ego. She had not been the same after the loss, and he had noticed that just as Raine had, if his conversation with his father afterward had been of any indication. When she lost control, she became something to fear for an entirely different reason, and Raine's plan of countering her was playing upon this very flaw. Still, he noted the plan was not accounting for the forces that would be split away from the coming pincer, and he nodded to them as he questioned, "And the forces in the centre?"

"Seteth has a plan for that."

"The monastery's defences are vast... and there is much the advancing forces do not know of us, and our capabilities. The ballistae will be covering for the exposed Imperial soldiers outside of the pincer formation... as will I for our own men." Seteth explained when Warin looked to him curiously, and the younger man had to pause as he realized Seteth was wearing full armour, and a wyvern was seated behind him and watching his rider with wise, alert eyes. He stood with a silver lance in hand and a grim, but fierce look in his eye, and the archbishop's aide continued as Warin looked to him with surprise clear on his face, "I may be older than I once was when I last took the field... but I am still more then capable of defending my home. However, your sister is right in that after the initial assault, the formations will be lost in the fighting. Therefore, our goals are simple. Their generals, how ever many there may be, must be cut off from their men, and defeated. If we've any hope of victory, it lies in that strategy."

"I've seen Hubert, along with the Death Knight flanking Edelgard on their approach. Those three will be our main targets." Raine explained as she cast a quick glance back towards the approaching army that very soon would leave no time for discussion. She was glad her brother had appeared when he did. It made things easier, though she knew, somewhere in the back of her mind, that he would have known her orders without needing her to give them even if he had been late. She shifted her weight from foot to foot, her eyes narrowing as they returned back to the unflinching gaze of her brother's before she continued on, "I'm sure we can expect more men than we can handle... Which also makes me assume there may be more generals we'll need to defeat as we move. But the most important thing is that they don't breach the gate. If we can keep them out of the monastery... We have a chance of victory, however slim it might be."

"It will be extremely slim. I know you've read my reports. These aren't the only men we'll see." Warin's answer was quiet, but he did not intend for his words to break any will. And from the returning stares of Raine and Seteth, as well as Alois and Petra, he knew that they did not truly care of the size of the army before them. They had made their choices to stand tall and fight... Even if the odds were insurmountable, they would never falter. It made him smile despite himself. They held themselves to the standards of Garreg Mach well. It almost made him proud. Still, he tilted his head somewhat to the side as he watched Raine's fingers brush along the hilt of her sword, and he asked with no preamble even though he knew the answer, "I assume you'll be taking Edelgard."

"I will. I want you on the other hand to take Hubert. The Death Knight we've beaten back before... It's Edelgard and Hubert that concern me most now." Raine's answer was swift, but her expression had turned completely neutral. It was a familiar mask to him, the one that had earned her the nickname of the Ashen Demon so many years ago, and seeing it return made him wonder how deeply she had buried her emotions in order to resurrect it. It had been far too long since he had seen her in such a state, but he knew why she was returning to her old ways. It was the only way to do her duty now without allowing her emotions to cloud her judgement. Her eyes flickered over him momentarily, gauging his reaction as she knew he had just as much of a reason to want to meet the new Emperor on the field himself before she asked in return, "Do you object?"

"I'd prefer to have the princess, but I know it's a long line for her head. I'll take the mage." Warin answered after a moment, and he admitted he felt a small pulse of disappointment for being deprived of a chance of locking blades with the white-haired Emperor. Still, he had long since come to terms that it was just not his battle to pick, even if he dearly wished for it. He could settle for her lackey, who he was very aware considered him a threat to be dealt with. He could take some pleasure in that fight, if that was to be his orders. The thought however did make him pause, and he turned to look at both Raine and Seteth as he began shortly, bluntly, "However, if things grow ugly, don't expect me to dally there. Claude can have him, as well as the entire corridor, if the situation shifts for the worst for you. If you're leaving me in command of the Deer, I expect my orders to be followed, even if it means leaving him to his own devices. The Deer aren't my priority. You are. He is aware of that, yes?"

Raine bit the inside of her cheek at his words, and she had to admit that even now, hearing him say he cared not a whit for anything but her safety... It made her chest ache and warm simultaneously. He truly didn't care if the world burnt down about him, so long as she was safe. She didn't know what to do with that knowledge, that she was his highest and only priority on the battlefield, but she accepted it as it was nonetheless. There had never been an arguing with her brother. And from the silence over her shoulder from Seteth, she was aware that he had come to the same conclusion, and had also chosen not to fight in order to make things flow more easily. Raine chose not to address it entirely, knowing it was not the time or place, and instead she only answered her brother's last question simply, "He is aware you shall be taking charge."

"Good. Then let's waste no more time with chatter. They're cresting." Warin answered, and his eyes slid to the south where he could see them all cresting over the hill, the sun on their backs and their expressions now clearly in view for all of the defenders to see. She stood at the fore, axe in hand and head held high like some conquering hero, and Warin felt his hands clench against his will as more than ever he wished he could sink his lance into her throat. It was appropriate that she chose a bright, bloody red for her livery... She had spilt so much of it already that she was permanently stained with the colour. He dearly hoped his sister's sword would pierce her heart, but he turned his gaze away from her and back to Raine as he began for the stairs, "Let's move into position."

"Agreed... Let's go."


The sounds of battle were far away in her ears, though whether it was because of her distance from it, or from her failing senses, Raine couldn't accurately say. She knew it was still raging, somewhere far above her, because the melee had been wild and ferocious when she had been knocked clear of it. She wasn't entirely sure how long she had been laying where she fell, but she knew it hadn't been long enough for the fighting to have ended. The monastery was still under siege, the Imperial forces now attacking in full earnest and with their full force, and Garreg Mach's defeat was surely imminent... and she could do nothing more now, nothing but lay where she was, her sword laying useless in her cold hand as the world about her dimmed.

She had failed. It was over. To the very last, she had tried her best, but it hadn't mattered in the end. Once more she had been rendered useless, thrown aside again with careless ease, and this time there was no more miracles left to pull her out of the abyss that was coming to claim her again. Her body lay broken on the ground, bones shattered, blood spilling from a myriad of wounds, both from the battle and the fall, and she was numbly aware that death was intimately close now. Her senses were beginning to slip away, leaving her cold and detached, and even the rushing sound of the river just out of arm's reach was beginning to fade in her ears.

'I... couldn't do a thing... Again...'

Regret and remorse seemed to be the only things she felt, as even the pain was fading as she felt blood slipping past her open lips to trickle down her cheek. It was strange, feeling her body failing her, and yet not feeling an ounce of fear despite knowing what was coming. She supposed it was what she deserved, after so many years of swinging her sword without emotion, and leaving countless bodies in her wake as a mercenary. It didn't matter that she had taken no pleasure in it. That survival had always been her only goal. It still left her a killer, and now, death was simply making her wait before she would join the mountain of corpses she had piled up in her work.

'I hadn't even... managed to take Edelgard down...'

"Had you been the type of person to be swayed by my words and deeds... I would have done anything to make you my ally, Professor. I truly regret that we must fight like this." Her eyes were earnest even as their weapons locked and groaned as they sought for purchase against each other. It was surprising she had chosen to speak at all, but Raine was far beyond caring about her words. Her sword was heavy and familiar in her hand, giving her confidence and peace as she engaged the Flame Emperor with no one at her back but the wind and the sound of battle all around her. This, however, was where she was most at home. Battle was nothing new to her, and it allowed her to knock aside the weight of Edelgard's axe with an easy swing of her blade to find room as she sprang back for a moment to breathe and collect herself again.

"Your words and deeds are exactly why I am here standing as your enemy, Edelgard. I don't know what you imagine yourself to be, perhaps some sort of twisted, tragic hero... but that isn't what you are." Raine adjusted her stance, her blade pulsing faintly with that familiar crimson light as it hung loose but prepared in her hands. She didn't know why she was bothering to respond. It was a waste of time, and she knew it... yet, her anger wouldn't allow her to hold her tongue. Too long. She had been fooled for too long, and she wanted to speak, wanted to let it all out, if this was to be the battle that mattered the most. Her eyes blazed even as her face remained neutral, invoking that old name she had once rejected but now embraced wholly as she spoke with cold ferocity, "You're a monster, just as Kronya, Solon, and Thales are."

The words were answered with rage, and Raine easily dropped to her knees and rolled as Edelgard leapt for her with death in her eyes and her axe screeching through the air for vengeance on its wielder's behalf. Raine was faster, even if Edelgard's Crests gave her more raw power, and the older of the two women was not about to waste any advantage she had as she moved smoothly back to her feet. Her sword sang out, taking advantage of Edelgard's miss, and she was satisfied as it pierced through, slashing down and slamming bluntly against the younger soldier's shoulder. Edelgard staggered back, snarling in pain as blood flowed freely underneath her crumpled armour, and she painfully switched her axe to her other hand even as her face twisted into a grimace of hate as she spat out, "Do not compare me to them! I am nothing like those creatures!"

"Yes, you are. And the fact that you can't see it only proves it all the more." Raine's answer was cold and biting, and her sword punctuated her words as it extended once more in her hands, warding off Edelgard's incoming attack and shoving her bluntly aside. Raine ran forward as the blade retracted, and she slammed her shoulder directly into Edelgard's chest before she leapt upwards, and her left foot swept for her head. Only a split second duck stopped her boot from connecting with the Emperor's temple and knocking her clean out, but Raine didn't hesitate to keep up her assault as her sword whipped about once more to ward off another incoming swing of her axe. She knew her style, and she knew it well. Edelgard would not pierce her defences. She would not permit it.

Edelgard was panting, her eyes narrowed and her teeth grit down hard in a grimace of sheer hatred. Raine was surprised by how little she felt to be on the receiving end of such emotion, but little was able to penetrate the veil of the Ashen Demon when she called upon it. It was the name's very purpose... and knowing she had struck at a nerve only made her all the more eager to continue to do damage. An upset opponent was a dead one, and she was well aware of her advantage as she continued coldly as she adjusted her stance once more, "My father told me once that when you take an ally, you share not only in their strength and victories, but their losses and weakness. And their sins. You are every bit responsible for their crimes as they are. Refusing to acknowledge that makes you both a coward and hypocrite. You may as well have sank the blade into my father's back yourself, for all of your involvement in their schemes."

"You know nothing!" Each word was punctuated with a swing of her axe, but none could land a hit, let alone even seem to touch the woman before her as she ducked and wove like she was made of silk in the wind. She was too fast, her movements too smooth and practised, and that detached, emotionless look on her face... Edelgard only felt her anger growing at this woman she had hoped could be an ally, and yet had turned out to be one of her deadliest enemies. How could she have been so deluded to believe she was what she needed in order to complete her revolution? It was obvious she and her pathetic excuse for a brother had no idea what the true world was like. They knew nothing, and were proud of their ignorance and what it led them to. She hated them. Hated them both with an all-consuming rage as she roared, "Absolutely nothing!"

"I know you're willing to commit mass murder for your ideals, and pave the way to your so-called utopia with the blood and bones of the innocent! What else do I need to know?!" Raine's responding roar was a shock, both to her and the woman clad in red that she was fighting, but for one, brief, mad moment, Raine was too far gone to care that she had lost a hold of her temper. Her sword sang for her wrath, each blow cutting into skin as Edelgard desperately tried to parry, only for the blade's edges to slice through armour and into unprotected skin as it retracted back for its wielder. It was a part of her now, acting on her unspoken desires without needing her direction, and she was glad for it as she stood proud and furious, her body trembling, her eyes alight with wrath as she snarled for her opponent that was too far outclassed to ever hope for victory.

"You won't change my mind, and you won't escape the truth no matter how far you run, even if you should win! Your throne is built of bones, and piled atop of corpses! You are a monster, and I swear, if I have to spend the rest of my life chasing you to put you down, I'll do so! You started this war, but I will end it!" Strike after strike hit home, knocking Edelgard farther and father back no matter how desperately she tried to block with her axe. It was taking too many blows and her hands were growing weak and shaky, but still Raine did not let up as she saw the weakness beginning to take hold of her opponent. She could not afford to... and she did not want to. She pushed forward, harder and faster, and her hands tightened to the point of numbness on the handle of her blade as she spoke through tightly gritted teeth, "My father... Remire... Flayn... Even Duscur... You've bloodied your hands, took advantage of tragedies that could have brought the world together in order to gain power, and lied and cheated and stole at every opportunity for your own gain. If this world needs a liberator, if this world needs someone to change it, you are the last person qualified to do so!"

Still, she had been outwitted, and outmanoeuvred. It did not matter that the battle had been going her way. That her victory had been certain in that moment... because Edelgard had known that her defeat had been a possibility, and had planned for it accordingly. Knowing her loss was close, and before a killing blow could be struck, Edelgard had roared the order for the remaining forces in hiding to make themselves known. She knew she was losing, that Raine was ready to take her life the moment she had a chance to do so, and she had ceded to better sense rather than rage. It had been the perfect distraction, allowing for her to use the last of her strength to flee the battlefield, and leaving her enemy, and the rest of Garreg Mach, at the mercy of her soldiers. And they knew nothing of mercy as they roared in unison and stormed through the open gates, slaughtering anyone who stood in their way with wild, furious abandon. Demonic Beasts had been unleashed along with the soldiers, creating more death and destruction as they surged up and through the melee, leaving Raine helpless to do anything but try to guide the frightened, beaten and battered students from the battlefield and to safety. They had lost. It was over.

Rhea's intervention had given a momentary pause to the chaos even as she added more to it, but in the end, it had proven to be just as futile as all of their other attempts to defend their home. Even in her new, strange form... She could not end an entire army single-handedly. She had struck fear into the oncoming attackers, had eliminated a whole retinue with her breath and claws alone, but she was still flesh and blood even if she looked as if she had come straight from the stories of legend as a huge, roaring white dragon. It was simply beyond her, especially as the Demonic Beasts turned as one, like a pack of wolves, to knock her down and hold her still so she could do no more damage to the oncoming troops.

And Raine had turned, seeing her in distress and knowing that she would likely be ripped to shreds underneath the claws of the Demonic Beasts, and instinct had forced her back to the fray even if her lagging body and better sense had told her not to intervene. Her sword had sang through the air with her rage, skewering a beast's head clean into two, and another stroke had left a second one screeching with pain as its front legs were cleaved from its body to free Rhea's claws from the earth. She had been quick to take advantage, swiping at her remaining captors and tossing them through nearby walls and off of the cliff, and yet she had hesitated, in the middle of all of the fighting, to turn to look at her rescuer with confusion clear even if she was no longer human enough to wear the expression on her draconic maw.

"Why... did you come...?"

'Why indeed...?' Raine wasn't sure she had an answer to that question, and she hadn't been given time to even think upon it. She had seen Thales as soon as he had seen her, and she had reacted too late to save herself. The spell had caught her guard, sending her flying even as she tried to deflect it with her blade, and then... She had simply started to fall. She had been knocked clear to the cliff-side and then off of it with one simple burst of magic, with nothing but her thoughts and her fear to accompany her when she plummeted down for the ground. She still wasn't sure why she had run back, why she had disobeyed her newly-given duty to care for everyone within the monastery, but it was too late now. Perhaps she had done so because she wanted no one else to die, even if it was Rhea of all people. She held no love for the archbishop, even now... but she did not want to see her die, and know she had let it happen, either.

'And even in that... I failed...'

Her last glimpse of Rhea had been the same as her first, buried beneath Demonic Beasts and screeching as she struggled in vain to get free, and she knew that if the Empire got their hands on the archbishop, it would surely be the end of her. Hadn't Edelgard explicitly blamed her and the Church of Seiros for all of the madness in Fódlan? For the corruption and separation of the continent, for the wars and poverty and all other failures to be laid at the feet of humanity as a whole, and not simply one institution in a world of many? Raine now understood why Warin called Edelgard deluded. She couldn't see the whole of the world's flaws, and instead sought to treat the symptoms of it, rather than search for the root cause. It was humanity that had failed, not simply the church, and to retaliate with war rather than education, or compassion... would only continue the cycle of corruption, greed, and death that she so desperately seemed to want to end.

Raine's hand grasped for her blade unconsciously, sending a bolt of pain up her shattered arm as her fingers failed to respond to her commands, and she groaned through tightly gritted teeth at her foolish movement. Her tongue tasted iron and rust, and she turned her head slightly to the side to spit out the blood that was filling her mouth faster than she wanted to admit. She still wanted to fight, but she could not rise no matter how much she wished she could. Her body was broken. Even trying to hold her blade was too much. There was nothing she could do but lie quietly, waiting for death to come, and hopefully take away the pain.

'Here... It ends... here...? Is this what Father felt, then...? With so much... left to do... and not being able... to do anything about it...?' Raine wondered as she realized with an abrupt suddenness that she could not feel the handle of her blade in her hand anymore. She could see it, that it was laying as always in her hand, faithful to the last, but her skin had grown too cold to feel it there. It almost made her laugh at the absurdity, even though she knew what it was a sign of.

Numb. Detached. Unfeeling. Expressionless. Cold as ice. The walking dead. Hadn't those been the words that had been thrown her way ever since she had been old enough to understand them? It hadn't been entirely false then, even if she flinched inwardly each time she realized she scared her comrades far more than she had their loyalty, or even their trust. But hadn't she deserved it? She had been detached. She had been unfeeling. Their lives were of no importance to her. All she cared for was her father and brother, and every other living being meant nothing to her. At least... That was how it had been before she had come to Garreg Mach.

'Too late... This is what I deserve, I suppose, then... I'd just been... too late...' The thought made her throat tight, and a broken, wounded noise escaped her that had nothing to do with the horrid condition her body was in. Her eyes burned. She hadn't asked to be born tied to Sothis. She hadn't asked to be so stunted that she had doubted that her father had known she loved him when he had died. She hadn't wanted to not know herself, or be born without a heartbeat. But none of that mattered, as she was as she was, and was now paying the price for it. She had failed, had been failing all of her life, and this was now her punishment for it all. She could reason that out well enough. She could understand... but the tears rolled hot down her bruised and cut cheeks, stinging for more reasons than one, as she stared up at the clear skies above with helpless anguish.

There was so much she hadn't done. So much she still wanted to do. She hadn't taught her students enough. Not for this world they were now being dragged kicking and screaming into. She hadn't finished protecting them. Were they still up there, fighting for their lives, without her there to watch over them? Had they escaped along with the others, fleeing for their homes as the battle proved lost? She hoped it was the latter, even if she knew it would damage them irreparably. It was better they live, better they survive, than die fighting a useless fight. But she wouldn't know. She would never get a chance to know. It was too far beyond her, and it broke her heart to think this was how it ended, useless to the last as a professor, protector, and friend.

And then her brother. She had sworn to go to the ends of the world with him. What would Warin do without her? He would be alone now. Well and truly alone. She knew he had worried that it would always be the other way around, that it would be her who would be left without him, but now the reverse was coming true. He was not as strong as he looked. He would suffer without her there to keep him steady... and he had no one there to help him pick up the pieces of his shattered world. He had talked so constantly of her house, of her newfound "family" but what had he gained in his year at Garreg Mach besides bitterness and more resentment? She was leaving him with nothing, and she could not stop it.

Finally, her chief regret, one that made her chest tighten and the tears flow faster as she closed her eyes against the brightness of the sky. It hurt too much to even picture his face, but it was all that she could see even with her eyes closed. Warin had called him filled with vengeance, mindless with rage, but that was not how she saw the crown prince at all. Dimitri was broken and grieving, raging against the heavens and the world for what he now had to do in order to enact "justice" for his fallen family and friends. Now she would be just one more painful failure to add to the weight on his shoulders, one more reason to lose himself to his quest for vengeance, and she would never get the chance to try and change his course.

Had she failed him from the beginning? She hadn't had the answer when she had finally realized what was happening to her precious student, but now, she was certain that she had. If she had been wiser, had been more attentive, she would have seen underneath his mask without needing Edelgard to tear it off so cruelly for her. She had never been ready to help him, had never had the intelligence to know he needed it, and now there was no time left. He was going to be left behind again, abandoned, and she wondered if she had a heart, if the pain she felt now would be what it would be like to have it break.

It was cold. She felt frozen. Though her eyes had opened again, she could see nothing, nor could she hear the river anymore. Time had finally caught up with her. Her breaths were shallow, initially from broken ribs and the pain they caused whenever her lungs tried to expand, but now even that was gone. There was no more pain... At least not physically. All she felt now was the sting of regret, the crushing weight of remorse, and the cold of the tears that were beginning to ebb in the corners of her eyes. It was over... She had nothing left to give. Her body had given up.

"I'm... sorry... Dimitri..."

One last exhale, one last full-body shudder... and then the body of the daughter of Jeralt Reus Eisner fell still amongst the stony edges of the river. It flowed on, unbothered by the corpse that lay with one hand just out of reach of it's flow, and the sound of nearby birds chirping loudly further proved she was not noticed by the world at large. She was one of many, one of thousands, that passed within this forest alone, and she was of no consequence, just as any other living being there was. The world would continue to move, time continue to pass, because that was the natural way of things... and she was a human being.

Then the world grew still. The river stopped its flow, and the birds grew silent. Nothing moved. The wind had died, and the water lay frozen in its path, as if it had never run at all and had turned to ice without warning or reason. Slow footsteps were the only sound that echoed in the expanse, and they were soft, almost silent, as they came close to the unmoving figure who had died without anyone to see, or give her comfort, at the edge of the river. Slowly, painfully slowly, she knelt down next to the body, and one small, gentle hand reached out to brush away one of the last tears that had not been able to fall down her cut and bruised cheek before time had swept in to take her, as it took away everyone in the end.

"You have done so much already... and yet, it is not your time to leave, my friend. This world still has great need of you, even if it does not know so, yet." Sothis' voice was quiet, pained, as she knelt down to the still form of the woman who had shared her soul with her ever since her birth. The woman who had called her a friend, and never once wished for her to be gone despite having never asked her to be there with her. She had done this to her, had crippled her heart and delayed her growth, but still this no-name mercenary had found the strength of soul to call her a friend, and mourn her, despite the fact that she had never really even existed in the first place.

Sothis closed her eyes as she summoned her powers, or what little she still had left to use. Even this body was not real, but she did not need it to be. She had only wanted one last chance, one moment to mourn, before she sprang into action with what little time she had stolen before her powers had faded away completely. It was good that their souls were bound, that she had felt it, as small and distant as she was now that the majority of herself and her powers now rested in the woman who lay before her. She could intervene, could give what little she had left to give again, because it was not to be yet. She knew it in the deepest parts of herself, and it was that knowledge, that determination, that gave her what she needed as she pulled both herself, and the body of her dear friend back into the depths of what they now knew was the Holy Tomb where Sothis' soul did indeed sleep.

"Here you will rest... Rest until you are capable again of returning to the world. It will take long... Longer than I know you will like... but it is all I can do for you now." Sothis murmured quietly as she ran a tender, gentle hand over her friend's face to close her eyes, and wipe the blood and tears away from her skin. Soft, gentle sparks of green followed where their skin touched, putting warmth into the rapidly cooling flesh, and Sothis watched with both fear and hope as Raine's chest suddenly lifted as she took in a deep breath before once more falling still on the floor at the foot of the throne. Her breathing came slow and deep, as if she was now wrapped safely in the cocoon of sleep rather than death's cold embrace, and Sothis could not help but smile as she watched that pinched expression of pain and regret smooth out into relief and peace.

"You will live, Raine. Live to see your regrets rectified, and your goals fulfilled. This world has so much need of you... These people have so much need of you. You cannot leave them yet." Sothis spoke gently as she knelt down at Raine's side and watched her sleep with a small, tender smile. She ran her hand over her hair, smoothing back the mussed curls in a tender gesture before she let out a long, tired breath. Even this one small action had taken so much out of her, when it had been the easiest thing in the world to do when she had first truly awoken to her ego. But she was no longer truly there anymore, was she? Already she was fading, returning... but she did not mind the pull, nor did she fight it.

She had no need. Her beliefs that they would be one, that she and her dear friend would never be truly apart had been proven true. Despite everything, they would always be connected... and no matter how many times it took, she would wake from her sleep, from Raine's soul, to pull her up should she stumble on her path forward. It was the least she could do for all the harm she had caused, for all they had been through together, and it gave her peace as she allowed her body to shimmer, to fade into those green and gold sparks of power as she murmured one last time, "Rest, Raine. My friend. My sister. When you wake to a new world... Have no fear. We will forge it together, and you will never be alone. I swear it."