"They are drawing closer, my lord." Niles's voice was unworried, even flippant, but the fact that he was speaking at all was a bad sign. He could see the tide of the battle even now, and he wasn't wrong: the Hoshidans were pushing hard up all three lanes, with the Hoshidan princes and Corrin leading the charge up the center, protecting the healers from the Faceless that surrounded them.
"I can see them," Leo said.
"Send us out, m'lord!" Leo closed his eyes, as he found himself doing more often when Odin took on this tone of voice. "None can withstand the eldritch art of Odin Dark, and fewer still the labyrinthine machinations of the Benighted One as backed up by Niles, the one-eyed devil!"
"Show you a one-eyed devil," Niles said under his breath, low enough that Odin couldn't hear it but Leo still could.
"Silence, both of you." The power flowed in this place, and Leo could feel it pooling in the ground as intimately as if it were his own body; he pulled the reins of his horse and it cantered over to the nearest nexus. He drew his strength together and breathed out and sent his power into the earth, and there was a flash and a roar and all along the Hoshidan front more Faceless rose from the ground, corpses given a new and terrible life by Leo's power. He could not control them past that, so his ability as a tactician had relatively little effect on this battle. The Hoshidans were even now scrambling to shore up their defenses, and he could see eruptions of magic near the edge of the battlefield as their rear guard unleashed hell on the Faceless that were supposed to have flanked the main force. Corrin really had gotten better.
"That's not going to do it," Niles said, and now he was tense. "The corpses here are too old and too frail; none of these are a match for the Hoshidans. You could animate all of them simultaneously and it might not be enough."
"He speaks truly, m'lord. Send us where they are harried and we will bring eternal rest to your enemies! Fail to do so, and they might bring eternal rest to us, the invincible and indefatigable."
"I see that silence is too much to ask of you." Leo ground his teeth. "Listen to me, both of you. How well do you trust me?"
Together, at once: "With my life, lord." The weight of their surety made him close his eyes again. He was silent. He breathed deeply. He would not let them see.
"Good. That is as it should be. If that is the case, then you must listen to me. I do not believe the Hoshidans will get this far. If they do, we will fight them together, and we will kill them all. But," and here he raised his hand, and pointed to each of them in turn, "if we engage with them, and you know that we will not win, you are to retreat. You will retreat if it means that you cannot protect me. You will retreat if it means that I have to face the Hoshidans alone. Do you understand?"
"Oh I understand," Niles said, and his voice was a purr like a great cat's when it had found some amusement, some new torment to inflict upon its lessers. "I understand perfectly, my lord, and trust you will understand why I cannot obey."
"Nor shall Odin Dark abandon his dread lord in his hour of greatest need."
"This is not about my needs!" They recoiled as if he had lashed them with a whip. "This is about Nohr. Do you understand? This is about a kingdom. I am Nohr's prince, and all loyalty to me must be subservient to loyalty to my land. Do you see the logic? If we engage with them, and you are defeated, you will retreat from this place. You will run and you will not look back. You will flee to the capital, and you will warn Camilla of what is coming. You will warn my father. You will warn Xander, and attach yourselves to him either until I return to you or until I am found." He held up Brynhildr, and he could feel the fire in his head, making him giddy, unsure of the words he was using. Who could ever listen to him when he felt like this? But they had to. For Nohr. "Swear here that you will obey me. Swear on Brynhildr, the mother book, holder of the secrets of life and death and the world."
His retainers looked at each other, and he saw their fear for him and he loved them fiercely and he saw the message that passed between them without their voices being raised. They stepped toward him, and they did not bow but they lowered their heads, and they placed their hands on Brynhildr.
"Swear now," he said, "on the kingdom of Nohr, and on the darkness which has nourished us. Swear on your loyalties. Niles, Odin, swear on my life, for if you do not keep this then you will be killing my soul."
"I swear," Niles said, and his voice was a whisper.
"I swear," Odin said, and he might have been weeping but he would not let Leo see him.
"Good," Leo said, and they stepped away from him and Odin still would not look at him but Niles did and his expression was unreadable. "That is good. But it will not come to that. We will win this, together, and we will bring justice to my traitorous sister, and we will have our vengeance on those who took her from us and would see us starve in darkness. Stay with me, and we will be victorious."
They said nothing, but nodded, and stood by him and watched the battle rage.
There was another book in Leo's pack, and he touched its spine carefully as he watched the Hoshidans cut through the reinforcements he had summoned. He had to gather his strength to pull up the next wave, which would take time, and there were only so many places of power remaining. At the rate they were cutting through them, the Hoshidans might reach him before he finished the final summoning, but otherwise they would simply kill all the Faceless and then he and his retainers would be fighting alone. They had grown so bold under Corrin's command that they were charging through the swamp now, fighting even as it drained the life from them.
He could grab hold of victory here, if he summoned one last wave and charged together with his retainers. It would be a suicide charge, they would surely die, but he knew that he could reach Corrin and that would cut the head off of the beast of the Hoshidan force. All he had to do was reach out, call upon Brynhildr, and kill his sister.
Yes, that was all.
The Faceless screamed in some strange analog of pain as they fell, their last breaths escaping them like gusts of wind roaring from caves, and Leo could see how it would all happen. The line of the Faceless would be breached, and the two Hoshidan princes would defeat his retainers, and they would flee. He would face Corrin alone, and even as he thought of that he could feel the pain gnawing at the inside of his guts, his sister's face so near to him, so much anguish wrapped up in someone who he had loved for so long and it was like poison in his mouth, in his mind, he spat on the ground and the feeling did not leave him. She would reach him, and he would kill her or else be defeated. If he was defeated, she would execute him. He wouldn't leave her any choice; his life would be forfeit, and she would run him through and carry the weight of his death all the way to the capital, where Xander would be waiting for his lost sister to come home. Yes, he would kill her, or she would kill him. It was clear.
But then, there was a chance... He could not stop stroking the book, thinking, hoping.
"Be ready," he said to his retainers. "The moment draws near. We will stop them here." That was a lie. "We will—"
Leo was a tactician, and though he would not use the term himself he had been called a prodigy, had even been called wise. In his heart he knew how this battle would go, could see every moment of it from the present to its end.
He also knew, in the foundation of his thoughts, more powerful than his heart, that anything could change the course of a battle, that the smallest chance could shift the fate of nations.
There was a roar from behind him, a clattering of hooves, and he looked back and saw the hands of fate descending on massive wings.
"Things have changed," he said to Leo and Niles, who were standing with mouths agape. "I have a new plan. Listen and then carry my commands to our new arrivals, quickly!"
Hana rushed past and cut through the Faceless from hip to shoulder in a rising slash that saw great gouts of smoke rising from the rift in its torso. She sheathed her sword in one smooth motion, not bothering to look back as it fell with a crash.
"One more that won't be reaching Lady Sakura," she said to herself, feeling very pleased with her performance. She had personally killed more Faceless today than some entire battalions in previous battles, and hadn't received so much as a scratch in return! At first she had been furious when Lady Corrin had ordered her to guard this swamp, and even now the fumes from the muck made her head hurt, but so long as she didn't stand directly in it she had no problem being a one-woman chokepoint protecting an entire flank. She had never felt more vital than at this moment!
There was a sound, then, wings beating against the air. But the pegasus knights were all protecting the right flank, and she was holding the left, which meant—
She looked up, and the wyvern was cutting through the air above her. Not far, not far enough to be out of her reach, and she responded instantly, running with all speed, her sandals barely touching the marsh. There was a tree before her and she grasped hold of her blade and her feet pounded against its massive trunk, and she ran up, one step, three, five, then she turned and she leaped into the path of the wyvern. Her sword sang as she drew it, she held it over her head for a slash that would cut through mount and rider both.
In the heartbeat she spent in the air she saw the rider, a blue-haired girl wearing a dark headband, holding a spear in the swordbreaker stance. Not just a wyvern rider, a wyvern lord, and one that had been anticipating her.
"Got you." The girl said, and her voice was as lifeless and without intonation as leaves on the ground.
The heartbeat ended and Hana screamed her fury and brought down her sword in a fight she couldn't win.
Rinkah looked up at the sounds of battle in the distance, the scream of a wyvern and someone shouting at a level just below that.
"Hana," she said, and stepped over the bludgeoned corpses of the Faceless, scrambling toward a stone to have a better vantage point. She hauled herself up in one motion, and looked north to where Hana was holding the line, and felt her stomach drop.
A wyvern rider wielding a spear thrust at Hana, who turned the blow aside but took the tip in her shoulder. The wyvern lashed out with its teeth and Hana swung for its eyes and the beast pulled back, hissing, its rider sawing the reins so that it kept retreating, just out of reach of Hana's blade.
"Damnation. Whoever that woman Hana's fighting is, she's a swordbreaker. She's going to get herself killed if she doesn't retreat." As soon as the words left her mouth she knew Hana was going to die without help; Hana wouldn't have backed down from any fight, no matter with whom or how big their advantage was. But if the woman was a swordbreaker and fighting with a spear, then Rinkah had what she needed. She hefted her club up to her shoulder and leaped down from the stone. She would have to run, but she would make it.
"Where do you think you're going?" Rinkah lowered her club into a fighting stance as a woman astride a horse rode slowly out of the gloom. Her hair was as red as Rinkah's mask's, and much longer, and the look of haughty surety on her face was so complete that Rinkah felt her blood boil just looking at her. She came to a stop directly in front of Rinkah, cutting off her route to Hana. "If you need someone to play with, I'm more than enough for someone like you."
"Girl," she said, grinding her teeth, "if you don't get out of my way then I'm going to break you in half, so let's save our barbs for another time. Give me just a minute and I'll come back, then we can play all you want. How's that sound?"
"Oh, I see," the other woman said, drawing a sword that glinted in the thin light. "I'm supposed to just wait for her royal highness the bandage queen to open up her very busy schedule so she'll have time for me? I don't think so, you knock-off bandit thug. You're not going anywhere unless you can get through me first. And you can't."
Rinkah set her iron club back in her pack, and in its place drew out a club with a studded head on each end. The weight of it was different, the use of it was different, which was enough to throw any swordswoman for a loop. She gripped it in her hand and breathed deep the smell of the woods. She was bleeding from where the Faceless had struck her before, and the feel of the wounds was like fire on her skin, rage and power all at once. She was sinking down onto her haunches, preparing to leap on the other woman and drag her down from her horse, when she saw two shadows flit between the trees out of the corner of her eye.
She rounded on them, club up, and then the horse was before her and the woman's sword came down. "Eyes on me, bandage queen!" Rinkah brought up her club to block but the blade slipped past, cutting her shallowly across the forearm.
"Tsss! Damn it!" She leaped back and away from her adversary, shifting her club to her other hand, and that is when she saw how the other woman was holding her sword and her shield. "Oh, that is perfect. You're an axebreaker, aren't you?"
"Right in one. Guess even someone like you can recognize true talent." The other woman tossed her hair lightly, completely unconcerned. "Thought you'd have me with your little toy there, didn't you? Well, sorry to disappoint, but this isn't going to be that easy."
Rinkah did not answer; she screamed, the fire filling her, and charged.
Something was wrong; Corrin could feel it in the air, without news being relayed by scout troops. They had been moving up slowly, avoiding the swamps where necessary, but now she, Sakura, Takumi, and Ryoma were pushing north, intending to take out Leo as early as possible. She didn't know why Leo wasn't pushing south; he was strong enough to defeat anyone in the Hoshidan force except for Ryoma. Still, his hesitation would be their salvation. She would speak to him, she would make him see, but before that something was pushing in on the edges of the battlefield.
"Hold on a moment," she said, and her siblings came to a stop around her.
"What is it, Corrin? I-is someone nearby?" Sakura tried not to show her fear but this place was new to her, actively hostile in the very air, and even Takumi was starting to let the pressure on him begin to tell.
"No. No one's here yet, I don't think. But something's wrong. Something is... hmmm. I'm not sure." She knew where the wrongness was; to the west and to the northwest, where Hana and Rinkah were beating down the Faceless as they rose. But that didn't make sense; there was nothing present there that should pose a real threat to them, and even if they ran into trouble she had made sure both were equipped with enough healing items to allow them a hasty retreat. So what was it that could be going wrong?
"Whatever feeling you're having, Corrin, you need to trust it." Ryoma was calm, always calm, perfectly in control even in this place. "If you feel the offensive has been compromised, we can pull back until you are more sure."
"What? We can't pull back now!" Takumi's bravado was a shield between himself and his own nervousness, as protective as anything could be. "Those Nohrian bastards are within reach. One more push and we can end this and them!"
"I'm not sure, Takumi, but something is wrong." She pushed the bloodlust he was espousing out of her thoughts, tried to grab onto the calm she knew that Leo would be using to assess the situation from the other side. "I agree that it's premature to pull back now, but we might be better off trying to shore up here until our scouts carry word from Hana and Rinkah."
Ryoma nodded, and with that nod Takumi acquiesced and Sakura sighed in relief. "Fine. We'll form up on you and make sure that Sakura is protected from—" The sound of the arrow plunging into his shoulder was quiet; breaking lacquer, the thud of meat being hit with a hammer. He barely even grunted with the pain. Sakura shrieked in shock, and Takumi nocked an arrow.
"Where is that coming from?" Corrin said, and Ryoma drew his sword to the sound of thunder.
"There," Ryoma said, gesturing to a tree past the clearing. "I cannot see the shooter, but based on the angle and the distance he's in the boughs. He's out of reach of Raijinto's magic."
"He's using a longbow! Takumi, can you-?"
"On it," Takumi said, putting away the Fujin Yumi and drawing out his own longbow. "Give me one second and that shooter won't be a problem anymore."
"My hand," and at this fifth voice Corrin turned, alone, and so she was the only one to see the dark mage emerging from the shadows, fire in his hands, a malefic aura engulfing both him and Takumi, "thirsts for blood!" Fire erupted between the mage and the prince, and Takumi roared in shock and pain and was sent sprawling into the dirt and wet. Sakura shrieked again but through the din she was already summoning up her healing magic, already pouring her light onto Takumi.
Ryoma turned with the Raijinto raised, prepared to cut his brother's attacker down, and then another arrow took him in the bicep. He grunted, lowering his sword, and Corrin dashed past him.
"Stop!" The mage leaped back, just out of range of the Yato, and Corrin came to a defensive stance between him and her siblings. "We don't have to fight like this! I know that I can talk this out with Leo, we just need a chance!"
"A chance is exactly what Odin Dark, scion of the abyss, cannot give you!" The mage flourished dramatically with his hands, and she thought there would be some attack but there was none.
"Scion of the abyss? What on earth does that mean?"
No answer was forthcoming, and if there was she did not hear it: at once she was engulfed in light and crushed to the ground as if her body was coated in iron, strong roots of healthy trees reaching up and grabbing hold of her limbs and twisting, squeezing, with force enough that she could feel her bones creak. She screamed, and heard Ryoma swear as he cut a third arrow out of the air but could not ascribe any meaning to that. The pain of this was enormous, more than she could have imagined, but the light and the roots meant Leo was on the move. Why was he on the move? He had been holding back for so long!
Time slipped from her for a moment, she felt her vision fading, and then she shook her head and bit down on her tongue and the pain was sharp and hot in her mouth. The vines and roots were gone, the light was gone, and she pulled herself up to her feet. She faced the mage, and could not muster any surprise to see Leo there, astride his horse, Brynhildr in hand.
"Leo, please. Please, brother, we don't have to fight. We can still end this peacefully."
"No." Leo's voice was distant. Not cold, but distant, as if he was removed from the act of combat. "No, we cannot. You could have, if you retained the upper hand, but you lost that option from the moment Beruka and Selena compromised your left flank for Odin and Niles to slip through."
Beruka and Selena? She felt cold, then. Suddenly she understood what had been keeping Rinkah and Hana occupied, and why things had felt wrong. Corrin had planned for Leo, for the forces that he had had arrayed in those moments and for all the bodies that he might be able to pull up from the soft places of the earth to fight for him. She hadn't been ready for those two, or for...
"Run!" She turned back to her siblings, waving for them to flee, but it was clear in their eyes that it was too late, in Takumi's stance as he drew taut the Fujin Yumi and Ryoma's as he leveled the Raijinto, even in the determined set of Sakura's jaw. "We have to run! She's here!"
They did not hear the wyvern until it was amidst them, did not see the rider's axe until it smote the firmament. The earth and muck exploded at the point of impact, sending jets of soil and water into the air, and Ryoma and Sakura and Takumi were sent flying but Corrin never saw it, all she could see was the rider, Camilla was looking into her eyes and reaching for her, her big sister looked so wild and determined and the earth rose up in front of Corrin's face and she hit the ground and knew no more.