Chapter 47: By Sword
Around them the flames surged their way up trees, leaping between trunks and threatening to trap them in a circle. Sweat trickled down Robin's neck and between her shoulder blades as the heat bit at her skin and lashed her across the face. And all the while it felt like a gallon of adrenaline was pumped into her blood, which was ALSO trying to burn its way free from her flesh.
She was beginning to understand this may have just SLIGHTLY been a bad idea. At least for her and Chrom.
'You wouldn't have to stay down here and endure this-' She stamped out the thought before it could continue, and before her eyes could drift to the sky. They'd already played with that particular fire once, and were lucky to have only gotten some bruises out of it.
From how Chrom staggered through the flames, the same fire fever was getting a claw hold in his brain as well. Robin's hand clasped at his wrist as he strained his head towards the sky; his cloak was half crisped away, and she could see how the muscles in his back were trying to coil up and stretch out. He almost stumbling for a second when he felt her fingers squeeze at his skin. And when he looked over to her, his pupils still held a slitted shape.
"I'm alright-" he choked out. Robin's hand slipped on the sheet of sweat over his skin. "But we need to find a way out."
Robin wiped her own drenched bangs out of her face as she murmured an agreement. When her fingers got clear of her face, she found herself staring at a path. A faint path, half choked by flames...
'But I can fix that at least.' Her spell book snapped open at the thought, and Robin let the breezes ruffle and turn from the hot air. The temperature spiked that little bit more as a bolt of lightning leaped free of her fingers, blasting its way through the trees. The wood exploded into more flames from the contact, but was also thrown free, clearing their way a little bit more.
"That did it! Come on!" Robin grabbed Chrom by the hand and pulled him forward. It was easier to run than she wanted to admit it; her heart wanted to do MUCH more, and not limit herself to just the ground. Robin clenched her teeth and just focused on running faster-
"Look out!" Chrom planted his feet and like a strange game of crack the whip, Robin got yanked back when she would have run forward.
The flames lashed in from either side, a hairsbreadth from her face. They burned so hot it left her brain a smoldering blank; it would have done far worse to her skin, if she hand't been pulled back just in time.
"...You are both an accursed nuisance. It seems you can't even burn properly." A voice snaked into Robin's ears, as the flames swirled around them before dispelling. There was a strange, acrid scent to the smoke now. Her eyes watered, forcing her to blink. When her vision cleared, someone was standing in their path.
His robes, formerly ornate, were now singed. He glared down at them, with his broad face twisted up into a sneer.
"The famed strategist and her keeper. You just cost me a victory and all too much standing for Walhart."
"Robin, have a care... that's Walhart's tactician." Chrom gave a warning, as his hand left hers and rested on Falchion.
"Ex..." She struggled for a name, trying to grasp it through the haze taking root in her brain. This was NOT the place for a battle, with how her focus was slipping.
"EXCELLUS, you wretch." He cut her off, taking a step forward. A spell book was in his hand, ornately set with gold leaf over a red leather cover. Why did that look so familiar to her? Robin shook her head, trying to clear it; her thoughts were darting all over her brain like a startled bird trying to fight its way into the sky.
She dug her feet into the ground, standing her ground as Excellus advanced.
"Keep behind me, Chrom." She managed. She had just a little more advantage than he did at the moment, the spell book still in her hands. A wild plan settled into her brain; but she needed wild just then, if she was going to have any hope of winning the battle quickly.
The forest blazed all the brighter around them, one of the trees splitting in half and sending burning branches showering down with a crackle. As the embers fell around and onto them like a sharp, biting rain, Excellus lifted his hand. The flecks of fire raced towards him and sparked into a circuit of lines around him, spelling out spell words. Robin tensed, waiting for the attack-
The ground under her shifted; her only warning before it exploded. Behind her she heard Chrom scrambling back away from an explosive burst of flames. The spell scalded her back, driving Robin forward. Excellus was already trying to prepare another spell, eyes on the book in her hands.
'Too bad I'm not going to use a spell. But it worked well for a bluff.' She thought, letting the book drop from her hands and dangle by its straps. It bounced against her side as Robin's hands went to the last blade she had. The dagger lashed out in a wicked curved arc. She aimed for Excellus throat, but instead of finding flesh the blade bounced off of something hard and metallic. She caught a glimpse of a gold band under his collar, and cursed as she sprung back and rolled away. The dagger fell from her fingers, gone numb from the impact.
A second later, a chunk of tree fell between them, blazing bright and blocking the chance for another fast, physical rush.
"So much for a quick fight." Robin growled out as she came to a stop against Chrom. She readied her own hands for a counter spell, hoping she could chase the pins and needles out of her fingers in time.
The spell didn't come as she expected. Instead, Excellus was glancing at the ground where the dagger fell. He stooped down for a moment, picking it up and examining it as he held it in his fingers. The red leather of the hilt looked richer than usual, thanks to the flames around them, and the gold glittered just as brightly as the bindings on his spell book. There was something flickering across his face that Robin didn't like.
"Ah, how considerate of you to bring this back to me. Though you needn't have bothered. I DO have dozens like it, after all."
The flames around her dimmed, the world going strangely dark as the words echoed around her head. All at once, what he said clicked into place with a horrible wrenching sensation.
"You... you killed her." She rasped out.
"Who? I order plenty of assassinations for the sake of the empire-"
"MAELA!" Robin's voice shrieked out. Behind her she felt Chrom flinch, and her blood began to throb in her ears. She tasted iron in the back of her throat, as a metallic ringing pounded in her head.
"...Ahhh, yes. Her. The Plegian traitor. Though no, I didn't directly kill her; just put blade and gold in the hands of those who COULD carry out the deed, as per the request."
"WHO!? Who told you to do that!?" Her voice was turned into a raw scream, and her throat stung from the smoky air. Her eyes were stinging as well, as heat rushed into her face.
"That would be telling, little tactician. And I *DO* value the secrets and privacy of my patrons. Particularly when they whisper such sweet and pretty promises to me... though I see this has all touched a nerve on you. A particularly raw one at that!" His voice squeaked in amusement. Robin wanted to tear his throat out with her bare hands if she had to- but instead she collapsed to her knees.
Choking smoke did its best to turn them away from their search. Morgan's answer was to duck his head a little lower, and stick close to Lucina. She still held onto the Emblem, and it still extended its protection to her. She took the lead in their search, her steps sure… though he could see the white knuckled grip her free hand had on the Emblem. Not that Morgan was all that exempt from needing the Emblem. He had a hand resting on Lucina's arm, the edge of the Emblem bumping his fingers with each step. Each brush of contact sharpened his thoughts for a breath.
And with each touch, he swore the heat of the flames was dimmed, just a little. And his senses went from muggy to sharp.
Which cleared his ears just enough. A high pitched cry that was almost like wind shivering the bark of the trees.
"I heard something!" He whispered out, motioning for Lucina to pause, to still the sound of her footsteps.
There it was again, faint through the crackling flames and just audible. Morgan froze for a moment as he picked out Robin's voice; he'd never heard her sound like THAT before. Lucina had gone rigid as well... but only for a moment. Then her body tightened like a spring, before lunging forward. Her feet kicked up ash, marking her trail as she darted down straight into the blaze.
Morgan followed close behind.
Chrom stood rooted to the spot, not believing what his ears heard. Robin shook too much to find her feet, and Excellus gave a tittering laugh over the state he'd reduced her to. His sword arm still ached, but Chrom found himself drawing Falchion as Excellus moved closer, pausing at the fallen tree. He had a hand outstretched, and was already gathering power for another spell.
"Ah, speaking of patrons... I'll be taking the Emblem from you as well, please. Another deal struck, and to fulfill."
"You'll have to look elsewhere, then. Robin took the precaution of sending it well away from your grasp." His own voice was curt as he growled the words out... but for an instant Excellus lost that amused grin on his face.
"Then I clearly must look elsewhere, once I finish burning you. Don't worry, I'm sure I can find a spell harsh enough to reduce even YOU to charred bones." He was already drawing a purple tinted tome from his robes, which Chrom didn't like the looks of. "I wonder, is it one of your time thrown brats carrying the Emblem? I'll enjoy taking it from them-"
A wordless howl cut him off, followed by a shadow of movement blurred between Excellus and Chrom. A second later a long rent opened up along Excellus' face, and he a scream peeled out between his lips. He clutched at his bloody face, staggering back. Between Chrom and Excellus, something perched on the burning tree, ignoring the heat from the flames. Chrom caught a familiar flash of hair drifting from the heat, and the updraft from the flames made a gold lined cloak billow out. Robin didn't move from where she crouched, or moved her hand from where it hung out from her side. The sleeve was thrown back to her elbow, showing off the purple scales now coating her arm. Red dripped off the claws her fingers had morphed into, hissing as it fell into the tongues of flame.
"My... my face..." Excellus gasped out. His eyes had shrunk to pinpricks, and his feet couldn't carry him away fast enough. Any thoughts of losing spells on them had been chased from his mind, as Robin lifted her head and leveled a look on him. From how his face went pale, Chrom could easily guess it was a murderous one. Her other hand was growing scales as well, the fingers blackening and hardening into cruel hooks that dug into the bark of the wood.
"You-" her word was more a growl than anything else. And Chrom swore that it wasn't just the fire making her glow. A thin ribbon of purple outlined her form, pulsing and drawing in strength from the flames, gradually growing brighter and brighter.
"This isn't over, you half blooded witch. I'll kill you myself for what you did to my face." The flames began to wrap around Excellus as he spoke, attempting to provide a cover for his escape route. His free hand wove a dark spell around it-
Robin ignored it with how she tensed, preparing to lunge forward. Chrom stared between her and Excellus' spell, seeing how the dark magic crackled and withered the remaining plant life.
"ROBIN, NO!" He found his balance and clapped his hands around her shoulders as Robin tried to rush Excellus.
"Let go, let me go let me go LET ME GO HE KILLED HER-"
Her words ran together, turning desperate. Robin either didn't notice Excellus readying the spell, or didn't care. She strained against Chrom as Excellus retreated, the flames swallowing and obscuring the man. Her body shook from rage as he vanished from sight.
"I'll kill him, LET ME GO DAMN YOU!" Likewise, Chrom was shaking as he wrapped his grip closer and hauled her away from Excellus' spells.
"You'll die too! Robin, please-" The fire surged, obscuring their vision. Excellus vanished from view, spitting out one last curse at them.
Robin threw back her head and let a wordless howl escape from her throat, choked with rage and pain. It sent a stab through Chrom's heart, equal parts sorrow... and terror. He'd heard a cry like that once before, from his own throat.
The purple glow on Robin burst into flames, and he flinched away from her as Robin fell forward, back onto her hands and knees. The fire swept over her, and one of her eyes rolled in a frenzy, turning her glare to him. Her eyes had gone completely to slits, and blazed with a red light that stained her irises crimson. Her teeth showed in a snarl before the flames washed over her completely.
A pair of wings shot out from the heart of the violet inferno, glowing so bright that it put the forest fire around them to shame. An inhuman screech echoed out from the fire's center, and a baleful pair of red eyes glared out at him. The wings beat once, snuffing the flames out as a dragon uncoiled from them.
Her scales were a purple so dark it was almost black. They were veined with red, more pronounced on the leather of the wings, which shifted to feather like ends. Several sets of horns crowned the dragon's head, and it showed a vicious set of fangs as it opened its jaws. The eyes were lost to a red glow, completely clouded by hate.
The monstrous head swung around, lips rippling up to show teeth as it searched for Excellus. Chrom thought he saw a ripple of robes and fabric, and a glow of spell sigils as her readied a teleport spell. The beast Robin had turned into shrieked, charging Excellus. But the Valmese tactician's robes were already fading at the edges, the teleportation spell taking hold. But he had just enough time to ignite a parting gift of black magic.
The Valmese tactician called up his trapped spell from the ground, and the black magic erupted into a blaze of black and violet power that stripped bark from the few standing trees, leaving them withered husks. It kept whirling between them and Excellus, a vortex that threatened to maul anything that came too close.
It would have shredded human flesh, but merely bounced and sparked off the dragon scales. The dragon's head lashed out, snapping in fury… but closed on empty air. The head angrily thrashed back and forth, the extended neck getting slashed with the dissipating spell. The magic finally drew threads of blood, biting her flesh and making her eyes blaze in fury.
And all of it was focused on him, now that there was nothing else left.
Chrom barely rolled to the side as the head lashed out to try and close its teeth around him.
"Robin? Robin!" He shouted her name, for all the good it did. His only answer was a berserk roar. When the claws flashed out to skewer him, Chrom had to draw Falchion to parry them. They clashed together, and he almost lost his balanced completely from the force of the blow.
But he couldn't bring the blade up against her, couldn't bear to strike back, and he uselessly tried to call out to her again.
"That's Father-" Lucina lifted her head, trying to find a way through the smoke. She dearly wished Morgan had Gules, now; maybe then she wouldn't be feeling a headache building in her temples. "I swore I heard him just now."
"I thought I heard his voice, too..." Morgan trailed off, trying to look through the sheets of flame, as though that would help-
Then they heard SOMETHING tear through the forest and bury itself into their ears. A vicious, blood curdling howl that morphed into a roar. Morgan clapped his hands over his, Lucina ducked her head in a wince. She almost dropped the Emblem thanks to the muscle spasm that ripped through her hand, only the shield straps keeping it in place. Morgan almost lost his balance and bumped against her side with a shudder.
But through that, or maybe because of it... she felt something stir inside of her.
'There.' A simple word, followed by a tugging sensation that yanked her head up to look. Morgan raised his head as well... and she swore that under their combined gaze, the fire parted for a moment. Or perhaps it was just the wind.
Either way, through the flames she saw it for just an instant. The remains of a familiar white cloak, tattered as it was. It still stirred in the charred air, snapping back and forth as the person it was attached to dodged. The glare of the fire made it look almost as if he was fighting a mass of shadow.
"Father!" Morgan just managed to rasp out. The word prompted Lucina to move, the white cloak like a flag, waving her over. Lucina gathered her breath and charged as best as she could, awkwardly barreling through the gap in the flames. Tiny tongues of red tried to latch onto her cape, singing the edges. Morgan fared no better, his robe charred in places.
The half mad roar continued to tear through the air, and the more she listened to it the more Lucina felt... distant from everything. Like something else was pushing her out of her own body, into the back of her brain and putting her on auto-pilot. Even the fire didn't tear at her very much, compared to that sound.
She stumbled into the clearing more than anything else, Morgan doing the same. The area was scoured, shredded by flames what had to have been magic. Red and orange light drenched the area-
Save for the massive, almost shadow-scaled dragon that loomed over them. The flames seemed to fade, compared to the monster that took up the clearing; the wings beat once, and almost knocked Lucina to the ground, alternately fanning and smothering the fires. Its violet scales almost seemed to drink the light. A pair of crimson eyes locked on them for a moment, and Lucina felt a sudden pang of confusion there weren't more eyes-
'No no no noNO!' She screamed as the memory tried to surface. She flinched back from the red gaze, and she heard Morgan give a pained noise, doing the same. Something turned her foot; a loose rock or an exposed root, or just loose gravel. Either way it sent her crashing to the side. She caught Morgan across the side, and gravity conspired to yank them both to the ground.
But even through the pain, Morgan stayed staring up at the dragon. And Lucina couldn't pull her eyes from it for long, either. Nor get her limbs to move.
Chrom turned when she and Morgan hit the ground with a pained gasp. She realized just then her father was standing between them and the dragon. Alternating between trying to fight it, and shielding them. The monstrous head gave a baleful hiss, and Chrom brought his sword up with a pained look in his eyes.
'Robin?' Lucina stared up at the creature.
"That's... mother?" Morgan pushed the words out in a strained whisper. The dragon sprung at them, flames building up in its mouth-
The fire cut out as Chrom struck out with the blade, half by reflex. The point of Falchion cut the scales and drove into the dragon's chest. Chrom's eyes went wide when he saw what he'd done, and he gave an anguished yell before wrenching hard to the side... turning his blow just in time.
Falchion cut a deep path along the scales, but didn't fatally pierce through them. Lucina felt her breath rush back out of her lungs as she watched. She didn't even know she'd been holding it. The dragon thrashed to the side in pain, its scales and muscles locking around the blade and pushing it into a hard angle. A clawed hand smashed down on the hilt, as the rest of the dragon twisted and forced the blade into an impossible angle.
Falchion gave a strange, shrill ringing noise as the steel was strained... and then broke apart like ice under too much pressure.
Lucina stared as the fragments fell to the ground. She brought a hand up to cover her mouth, the other clasping at her chest like SHE'D been the one struck. She felt the weight of the Emblem on her arm, and something in it, some glimmer caught the dragon's eye. The red gaze lingered on the treasure for a moment, blood welling in the gash along the creature's side.
And yet it was Lucina and Morgan that the eyes lingered on the most.
"Mother-" the word slipped out of Lucina's mouth, but something about it seemed to click into place in the creature's eyes. The fury died in those red eyes, the lids sliding shut as the dragon dipped its head.
The dragon pitched forward with a strange groan that slowly morphed into something more human. A woman's voice, giving a strange, broken and pained sob. When Lucina looked again, Robin had taken the dragon's place. One of her hands was near the shards of Falchion, and she gazed down at the shattered blade with a horrified look.
"What... what did I-?" she rasped out, before her hand drew away and went to a new tear along her collarbone. Blood ran from the gash in threads and ribbons, staining her skin. But Robin barely seemed to feel the cut, instead staring at her family. She forced her hand up, a pained look of concentration twisting across her face.
The air hummed with all the residual magic washing the area, gathering along Robin's arm. She sent out a spell bolt from her hand, clear into the sky to act as a signal. The flare took the last of Robin's strength with it, as she collapsed forward, Chrom just managing to catch her, though his arms shook from the effort. The Emblem dropped from Lucina's hands, the impact of it on the dirt curiously muted. Instead of focusing on the treasure gathering dust, Lucina took Chrom's shoulder to help hold him up, Morgan the other; but any words and questions were chased from their minds, their focus as shattered as Falchion.
The rescue party found them like that; huddled together in the scorched clearing, the artifacts of kings scattered around them. And all of them either pushed to their breaking point, or already broken.
(A/N: This seems as good a spot as any to pause for National Novel Writing Month. I promise I didn't intend to leave on such a cliff hanger, but that's the way things fall sometimes. I just wanted to note that as we head into November that there will be a delay in the next chapters, but they'll be posted eventually. As always thank you for reading!)