Camilla immediately put herself between Xander and his mother, drawing her axe in one smooth motion. The Key Dragons were shaking off their shock, getting into pairs and charging across the meadow toward these creatures they could barely see, and had come all this way to destroy.
All around them, the Uzai were everywhere and nowhere, popping into the visible plane one moment, and disappearing the next. Faint gleams of purple gave away their positioning—if one were lucky enough to catch such a thing—as did the crushed or oddly bent ghost flowers at their feet.
Xander willed his hand to move, to draw Siegfried, but the treacherous thing refused to listen. Queen Katerina drew an elegant axe from her side, falling naturally into an attack position. Völva, the sister axe to Garon's Bölverk, had not seen battle in almost two decades, but it gleamed in the pearlescent dawn as if it had been laid to rest only yesterday.
"And your wyvern?" Camilla asked, glancing about the meadow.
"Child," said the dead Queen reproachfully, "do not mistake me for a Malig Knight."
She drove forward with explosive speed, smashing Völva into Camilla's steel axe with enough force to push the younger woman back. Camilla gritted her teeth and dug her heels into the soft earth, refusing to give ground. Once upon a time, she had looked up to the elegant first Queen as the epitome of style, grace, and deadly fighting prowess—and, Camilla supposed, she still did—but that was nothing compared to what Xander must be feeling.
"Xander!" Camilla hissed. "Move!"
Her brother forcefully shook his head a few times, his curls flying every which way, and he finally managed to draw Siegfried properly. His entire being shook, but the black blade did not. The Crown Prince took several halting steps forward, coming to rest in a defensive position beside his half-sister.
"Dear children." Queen Katerina's voice held genuine remorse as she disengaged with Camilla's axe. The sudden lack of force nearly toppled the princess, who caught herself in the nick of time. "You should have stayed in Nohr."
Queen Katerina turned on heel, and disappeared without so much as a flourish, reappearing on the other side of the battlefield a moment later. Xander and Camilla exchanged a horrified look before they smashed into the fray, together.
Ryoma and Orochi had taken up position across the clearing from Queen Katerina. Lighting crackled from his katana every time he swung that legendary blade, and coupled with ox and snake of the diviner's magic, they made short work of every Uzai they could sink their metaphorical claws into.
Beruka came alive in the melee, smashing her axe into everything within her deadly reach. And if an Uzai pulled the axe from her hands, well, she wasted no time launching herself at him and squeezing the breath from his lungs or snapping his neck. The bodies she didn't strangle were riddled with arrows from a tense, one-eyed man keeping watch from the treetops.
Oboro and Hinata had taken up their usual job of keeping enemies off their Lord Takumi long enough for the archer to put an arrow through an Uzai's eyes. The knot of dead bodies around the threesome steadily grew, not that there was any visible evidence beyond their seemingly random stumbles.
Odin and Selena shoved their way through the invisible assailants with considerably less tact than one might expect, even from the two of them. Arcs of lightning were going wide, smashing into trees and ghost flowers with little regard for flammability. Sword strokes were slashing through limbs and swatches of fabric, but few things fatal.
"Owain," Selena whispered, horrified.
"I know," he whispered back. "But we're in this together."
Azama took calculated risks in darting between clashes to heal the injured and fatigued. The monk had never looked so serious, weaving between Uzai and Key Dragon alike, festal held high and eyes yet to open. Setsuna provided cover fire, firmly planted in a rabbit warren beside a tree that had eaten her foot early on. She, too, had never seemed so focused, her arrows slicing through the air with deadly accuracy. Hinoka had never been more proud, keeping an eye on the two of them as she smashed into opponent after opponent, Akatsuki occasionally swooping up to blot out the sun.
The Yato sliced through the air in controlled, elegant arcs, often accompanied by shuriken thrown from the shadows. Corrin would occasionally augment her attacks with her dragon-blooded abilities—a claw here, a tooth there—and Kaze was behind her to clean up anything left standing.
Kagero and Saizo, however, were nowhere to be seen—but then, neither was Shiro. The beggar had apparently disappeared from the melee, and like good ninja, not only had Kagero and Saizo noticed, but followed. The resultant fight slid in and out of the shadows, invisible to everyone except themselves.
Peri and Laslow were in the thick of it all, slashing and stabbing with their usual fervor. She looked right as rain in a fight, as she always did, but he looked like he was rapidly becoming ill. Sweat gleamed on his brow where grey hair hadn't already stuck to it, and his movements were far more erratic and aggressive than was his usual.
They pushed forward through the melee until nothing remained before them but Queen Katerina herself. She looked frighteningly like Xander, Laslow thought, what with her face like stone and axe raised high. He rushed forward to meet her before Peri could get caught by the axe-woman. Better to have the cavalier avoid the axebreaker stance, if the could.
The first clash of sword-on-axe was jarringly like fighting Cervantes, all those years ago. Though the mustachioed general could hardly look less like Xander's mother, the Wyvern Lord, Laslow couldn't shake the feeling that this fight would end much the same way if allowed to linger. He gripped his sword all the more tightly and pressed forward, smashing into Queen Katerina (or whoever this was) with all the force in his dancer's body.
For some absurd reason, Azura's favorite song began to weave its way through Xander's mind as he slashed through Uzai on the way to his mother:
You are the ocean's grey waves—destined to seek,
life beyond the shore, just out of reach.
What did it mean, his mother showing up here? Xander supposed to some degree, it didn't matter. She was an enemy and needed to be taken out, just like all the rest had been. It wasn't a pleasant thought, going up against his own mother in a duel, but for the good of Nohr, his siblings, his loyal retainers, and this mission, it had to be done.
Though he still wondered if she were a ghost, an undead, or something in-between.
Yet the waters ever change, flowing like time.
The path is yours to climb.
"LASLOW! PERI! FALL BACK!"
As ever, they did as ordered, concern in their eyes as they went. Queen Katerina whirled to meet her son, Völva raised high. The first clash of steel-on-steel set Xander's teeth on edge, but he pressed on. He knew he held the advantage in this fight—swords had a superior range to axes, after all, to say nothing of Siegfried itself being legendary and Völva simply being custom-forged—but he took no pride in it. There was no glory to be had in this duel, and if it lasted much longer, the tears that had been threatening to break through his iron grip for most of this encounter would finally free themselves.
It was as though his mother had never died. Her movements were as crisp and clean as Xander remembered. He had spent many an afternoon "studying" in the garden, watching his parents practice their martial skills in the pale Nohrian sun. It was one of the few times outside of court Xander ever saw them together.
He shook his head violently to clear it. This does you no good.
Embrace the dark you call a home,
Gaze upon an empty white throne.
A legacy of lies,
a familiar disguise.
A particularly well-executed strike sent his mother shooting backwards. A haphazard retreat, perhaps, or was it a trap? Xander wasn't certain, but before he could press forward, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
He turned sharply, expecting Camilla (whose help he had shaken off only minutes ago), only to find Takumi looking at him with such understanding in his eyes that Xander was, for a moment, at a loss. Takumi was hardly a pillar of maturity and understanding—and beyond that, the Hoshidan royal family wasn't nearly so messy as the Nohrian. What was there for the younger prince to understand?
Sing with me a song of conquest and fate.
The black pillar cracks beneath its weight.
Then Xander heard the unmistakable crunch of broken bones behind him, and just as before, he whipped his head around toward the source of the noise.
He was just in time to see Hinoka yank her spear—her naginata, Xander reminded himself—out of Queen Katerina's ribcage, and Ryoma follow up his sister's attack with a perfectly-placed bolt of lightning from Raijinto. Xander couldn't help but wince as Völva fell from his mother's hand, and the queen shortly followed. The elder royals glanced back to their younger brother, wincing when they discovered Xander watching, wide-eyed.
"That wasn't necessary of you," Xander managed around the lump in his throat.
"It's okay, Xander." Hinoka patted his shoulder with a sad sort of smile. "The least we can do is make sure you don't have to kill your own mother."
A single tear finally rolled down Xander's cheek, and both Ryoma and Hinoka did him the courtesy of ignoring it. Instead, Ryoma turned to Takumi and said, almost disapprovingly, "You were supposed to distract him."
"I tried!" Takumi protested. "He's too observant."
Night breaks through the day—hard a stone.
Lost in thoughts all alone
Without Queen Katerina to fight, Laslow and Peri had been cast adrift, searching for more Uzai to root out or allies to assist. Just as both were beginning to suspect either was a useless endeavor, Peri caught sight of a flash of red amidst the luminescence of the ghost flowers. She glanced to Laslow to make sure he would follow, and then took off running.
The flash of red turned out to be Saizo, who was crumpled on the ground and turning a ghastly shade of white not unlike the flowers. "What happened?" Laslow demanded.
Saizo's good eye was bleary and unfocused as he pressed against a wound in his side. "Damn beggar," he rasped, hocking a globule of blood into the dirt.
Laslow's gaze immediately snapped up to scan for threats. He found various Key Dragons locked in combat with various, barely-visible Uzai, but he saw nothing of the beggar-turned-ninja.
Peri was also looking around, albeit for a different reason. "Where's Kagero?"
"She's…" Saizo coughed up another blood bubble. "…still fighting him."
Peri's brow furrowed in an almost comic parallel of her Lord's. "Where?"
"Forest." Saizo gestured vaguely forward.
Laslow and Peri didn't need telling twice.
They took off running in the direction Saizo had indicated, Laslow keeping ever-alert for any sign of a threat, and Peri bouncing along and twirling her spear. This forest felt too familiar to Laslow; this conflict, too familiar. He half expected to turn and find his father fighting nearby, or Lucina whipping her Falchion through Risen after Risen.
They found Kagero faring little better than Saizo. Shiro had somehow gotten the drop on both of Ryoma's ninja, and although Kagero wasn't doubled over and coughing up blood, she was still dragging—her shuriken flying a hair's breadth off target, her arm guards not quite catching the brunt of Shiro's attacks.
Peri slid between Kagero and Shiro first, the butt of her spear catching Shiro's latest feint and follow-up. With a sharp jab to shake him off, Peri then twisted the weapon around, and the spearhead shot forward with all the force in her body.
It only just missed Shiro, who had disappeared into the shadows at the last moment. Peri harrumphed in frustration and brought her weapon back around to a defensive stance. Kagero nodded in thanks, her breathing heavy and uneven.
"Mind if we cut in?" Laslow said to her.
Kagero loosed a shaky laugh and tightened her grip on her shuriken. "By all means."
Shiro was in his element. The gloomy woods hid his movements perfectly, and without ghost flowers to bend beneath his feet, he was perfectly hidden amongst the darkness. Gone was the emaciated beggar from the bar, and in his place was a seasoned killer.
It had been a long time since Laslow had been genuinely afraid in a battle. Certainly, there were always moments of fear—close calls, friends' injuries, and the like—but never, in his entire time in Nohr, had Laslow been genuinely afraid of his opponent.
Not like that day at the Dragon's Table.
Robin was shouting that her friends were far more important to her than any fell blood she may carry, but the Plegian Mage hadn't listened. She had said she would kill him or die trying, and Validar had only laughed.
Grima's altar rose high behind him, like some nightmare straight from hell.
"Laslow?" Peri's voice snapped him sharply out of his memory.
The horseless cavalier had taken up her usual defensive stance at his side, spear poised to block or attack with equal ease. Laslow fell into his own defensive stance and tried to smile at his assailant. "Shall we dance?"
Validar's magic had been dark and powerful, like Henry and Tharja's. His narrow face had lit up in triumph whenever he landed a blow. Laslow remembered watching Gerome fall right off his wyvern, remembered the sickening crunch when he had hit the ground below. He remembered watching Lucina slash her way through Grimleal, more savage than her father yet more graceful, too. He remembered watching his father charge through opponents, magic crashing off his armor and undoubtedly hurting far more than the stoic knight would ever let on.
The shuriken slashed through Laslow's mercenary armor, echoing the wound he'd sustained against the Crescent Butchers. He hissed in pain, and shot forward. He pivoted behind the shuriken thrown his way, ducked under the arm guard and thrust forward with his beloved sword.
Kjelle took the brunt of the Grimleal's attacks, and Laurent had some nasty magic to throw back their way. The duo made an unlikely pair, but an honest one. Not unlike Owain and Severa had been.
Laslow lost his grip on his sword when Shiro caught it between his arm guards and yanked. Laslow heard Peri's quiet gasp and the blade fell to the dirt, coming to rest too far away to be of any real use. The last thing he needed was to lose Peri, like he'd lost Frederick that day, and Gerome, and Yarne, and Chrom, and…
Shiro's narrow face and shitty goatee were suddenly all too familiar. The air was both too hot and too cold all at once, like a fever. Sweat beaded on Laslow's brow as he stepped in front of Peri and brought his fists up to his chin, the way Kjelle had taught him.
What was he doing? He was a dancer's son and a bad one, at that. He had no business going toe-to-toe with anyone, let alone alone an armed aggressor. But what would Lucina have said, if he'd simply just called it quits in the middle of a fight?
Everything Frederick says about you will be true.
Something snapped in Laslow's chest, and he forgot Peri's fear, forgot Xander and his mother's ghost, forgot that he was supposed to be protecting Corrin, forgot that he was currently called Laslow. He forget everything except how to curl his fingers into a fist, and how to lodge that fist in another man's face.
"This is for Gerome!"
The narrow-faced figure staggered back, blood pouring from its now-broken nose.
A second fist followed the first, and Inigo felt blood pool around his bruised knuckles. A strangled cry came from the face behind said knuckles, but Inigo wasn't finished, and maybe never would be.
He slammed his fist into his assailant's solar plexus, now. The Taguel had been so timid and so scared of everything. But he had been a terror in a fight, especially to protect those he cared about. The day they'd lost him had set the whole camp back for weeks, they'd been so strangled with grief.
The Lord of Ylisse had been surprisingly down-to-earth, Inigo'd thought. He was kind and he was clumsy, and he struggled to live up to his sister Emmeryn's legacy as much as he doted on little Lissa. He'd tried to be the hero his countrymen needed, and wary old Frederick always said that his big heart would be the death of him.
Inigo supposed that were true, given that Chrom's lover had been the one to blast lightning into his side.
Inigo lost track of how many times he slammed fist after fist into anything that squished beneath his knuckles. Bones cracked and skin bruised; blood poured over his fists and wrists and Inigo wasn't even sure to whom it belonged.
It was Robin who had caused him so much heartache. It was Robin who had brought Grima back from whatever hell the dragon had slumbered in, and brought upon them all the end of the world. It was Robin whose soldiers killed his mother and father, and it was Robin who took up the mantle her damn father had laid out for her.
But it was also Robin who had been so kind to him in camp, who had found him outside the Great Gate and helped save his stupid hide when he'd metaphorically bitten off more than he could chew trying to impress that one village girl. Robin had been awfully fond of poking fun at his philandering ways (such as they were), but had never turned down tea when she knew what Inigo had really been looking for was a friend.
The grey-haired man appeared not hear, so engrossed was he in clobbering his opponent until the aching in his chest finally stopped.
He would not be swayed by cool voices with kind words. He would not be stopped by anyone ever again. Not if it meant losing someone else he cared about it. Unbidden, images of a blonde-haired man with a legendary sword through his chest and blue-and-pink-haired cavalier impaled on her own spear flashed through his mind. Remnants of a nightmare from long, long ago—and yet not far enough.
The grey-haired man froze in place, one fist still cocked back.
"Let him go." Peri wrapped her long, delicate fingers around her partner's bleeding, bruised ones. "He's already dead."
He blinked—once, twice, thrice—and slowly Validar's face melted away from the figure before him, and he began to just be able to make out Shiro's face, nearly smashed beyond recognition. With a sickening feeling pooling in his gut, the man between two worlds let him go, and Shiro's body slumped to the dirt floor.
It did not stir.
Something hot began pouring down the grey-haired man's face, and when he put a hand up to it, he was confused at first as to why it hadn't come away red. It took him another moment to realize they were tears, and suddenly the dancer-turned-mercenary didn't know what to do with himself.
He needn't have worried, though, because that was the exact moment Peri pulled him into a fierce hug. She didn't say anything when he broke in her arms, or when he pressed his forehead against hers and squeezed his eyes shut. She didn't say anything when he murmured prayers to a deity she'd never heard of, and apologies to people she'd never met. And she didn't say anything when he held her so tightly he almost cracked her ribs, either.
"How do you know what to call me?" the man asked softly at one point, his voice hoarse.
"You told me," Peri said, finally pulling away from him—although just enough to look him in those deeply sad, wintery-grey eyes. "In the forest, remember?"
Something unspoken passed between them—a memory, perhaps—and that was the exact moment that he closed the distance between them and kissed her.
She tasted of metal and blood—something not wholly unfamiliar to him, and yet he still found it jarring. He held onto her as though she were all that kept him anchored to the physical realm. He was surprised when she squeezed back just as tightly, pressing herself against him in every conceivable way their armor would allow.
When they broke apart a moment later, it suddenly struck him what he'd done.
"Shit, I'm sorry." His eyes widened, and his stomach dropped out from beneath him. "I don't know what came over me."
"It's okay." Peri smiled, and though it was fatigued and a little battle-crazy, it was there. "Really, it is."
He glanced over to the corpse behind them, to the ruined face that had so reminded him of Validar. "You aren't disgusted by me?"
She sidestepped the question. "Those names you said—were they your friends?"
He nodded vigorously, tears beginning to form again. He felt so incredibly hollow, and yet, so incredibly alive.
"I understand," Peri said, tucking herself into his chest again. "When I lost my mommy, I wanted to pummel something, too."
The grey-haired man snorted softly into her hair. "I'm sorry. I've gone and ruined our first kiss, haven't I?"
"I don't mind," Peri said. "Long as it's with you, Laslow."
Laslow. That was his name. The one she called him, anyway. It would do.
Without Queen Katerina to direct them, the Uzai seemed aimless. They fell out of their formations and were easy prey to axe and spell. Before long, the entire clearing was silent once more, and the ghost flowers had stilled.
A broad-shouldered figure knelt before a blonde-haired woman taking her last, ragged breaths. "Xander, my son." She reached out one bloodied hand, and against his better judgement, the broad-shouldered man took it.
"I'm here, mother." The words barely made their way past his choked throat.
"Tell… your sister…" The blonde woman coughed up several blood bubbles that dribbled out of the side of her mouth. "No… warn her… they're coming."
Xander squeezed her hand harder. "Who?"
Xander physically recoiled. "Anankos? The dragon father worships?"
There was no response.
A hoarse voice cut broke in, "She's gone, Xander."
Xander chanced a glance sideways, and found not Corrin, and not Camilla, not even Laslow or Peri, but Hinoka folding herself into seiza beside him.
"Let her go," Hinoka added, just as softly.
The Crown Prince of Nohr shut his eyes, breathed in deeply, and then set his mother's cooling hand on her abdomen, just below where the Hoshidan woman sitting beside him had run her through with her naginata.
Behind them, specks of ruby-red blood gleamed on pearly white ghost flowers in the early morning light.
On account of the extra wait, I made this chapter extra long. Hopefully things will get easier in the new year, and you'll all be hearing from me a lot more.
And as always, thank you so much to everyone who took the time to review. It always means a lot to me to hear your thoughts.
Anonymous: Glad to help you through finals week :) and it wasn't a month this time, I'm happy to report
good job: oh trust me, the fact that Corrin's naiveté isn't really ever punished bothers the shit out of me, in-game.
Guest: One can only hope.