Somewhere Around Nothing
Part seven of a fanfiction by Velkyn Karma
Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, the Fire Emblem game series or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs solely to Nintendo and Intelligent Systems. The only thing here that's mine is the idea for the story, and a few minor characters in the Black Fang outfit.
A Note: Apologies for the lateness of this final chapter. I'd like to say I did it intentionally for added suspense and all that jazz, but this would most unfortunately be lying. A combination of obscene amounts of homework and a lot of family problems delayed this, but here you are now! Enjoy the final installment.
"When I do things without any explanation, but just with spontaneity...I can be sure that I am right."
-Henri Frederic Amiel
"I don't understand," Eliwood murmured softly, looking out through the arches of their protective cavern at the morning dawn, spread crisp and undisturbed before them. His eyes searched the sky for traces of clouds, but there was not a one in sight. "What happened?"
Pent, standing wearily beside him, had been trying to decipher the answer to that question himself for some time now. He wished he had an answer to offer, a logical remark that would explain the situation away and make them safe once again. But the Mage-General had nothing, and something about their current situation struck him as highly unusual.
It had begun close to three o'clock in the morning, he had estimated. He and the other magic-users of Eliwood's army had been combining their forces for close to half an hour, pooling what remained of their exhausted resources to defend the members of their company. They were weary, and several looked ready to pass out once more under the strain; each shattering bolt that cracked close to their shields caused every one of them to flinch in tandem from the pressure.
But as the storm's strength began to mount, as its merciless power reigned down on the weakening children of magic, it suddenly withdrew. Just as abruptly as it had come, it pulled back on itself, collapsing under its own terrible power and leaving the bewildered spellcasters to slump tiredly to the ground.
Pent could not explain it. From what he had seen, it looked as though the Bolting had been halted in mid-cast, cut off abruptly by its owner. The effects would have been devastating, causing a spell of that caliber to collapse on itself. No mage in his or her right mind would ever commit so foolish an action, which meant there was only one explanation: the spellcaster had died suddenly. But that was impossible; there was no reason for the man to simply keel over and die, and if he had allies in the storm it was doubtful they would attack him.
His thoughts twisted in full circle, his intelligent mind examining and reevaluating every piece of magical information he could recall, only to come to the same conclusion time and time again. There was something missing from the equation, and that lack of knowledge unsettled the Etrurian.
"Do you think it's a trap?" Eliwood continued, unaware of his companion's spinning thoughts. "Or is it safe to go out there?"
"I am not sure," Pent finally answered, speaking slowly. Louise stepped a little closer to give quiet support in his fatigue, and he gave her a soft smile before continuing. "I suppose it is entirely probable that it could be a trap," the magic user finally admitted, "but if so, it was just as dangerous for our enemies as it is for us now."
"What do you mean?" the young Pheraean asked, eyes narrowed in a light frown.
"To collapse a powerful spell like that is exceedingly dangerous," the Etrurian answered simply. "The caster would risk the spell backfiring and targeting himself and his allies instead."
"But you can't tell for sure from here? Whether or not it's a trap or just...finished."
Pent shook his head. "I cannot sense any flows of magic near us, especially in the storm's former direction. The caster could be dead, and unable to create spells, or he could be concealing his magic. I can still break such concealments, but only if I'm close enough, and his is too far a distance."
The new marquess gave a soft sigh, running one hand through his red hair as he did so. "Then no matter how much guessing and speculating we do, the only way we're going to get any answers is to send out a reconnaissance party."
The Mage-General nodded in agreement. "That would be my suggestion. Just be careful—even with the storm's collapse, it is still very possible that enemies could be out there, waiting. Take caution when deciding who to send." Eliwood nodded in agreement and turned to convene with Hector and Lyndis before making his decision.
In the end, it was agreed to send only a small party, as inconspicuous as possible, and both Heath and Pent were selected for the journey. Heath would be able to travel the air currents of Bern without being immediately attacked, and should the absence of the storm indeed be a trap, Pent would hopefully be able to protect both rider and wyvern until they could return to the safety of the caves.
Besides, Pent thought to himself, as he watched Heath guide the lumbering Hyperion free from the small cavern it had managed to cram itself into, the wyvern knight had reported his mount's growing restlessness in its cramped and unmoving shelter. And the last thing any of the army members wanted on top of their current collection of troubles was an increasingly agitated wyvern that needed dealing with.
Preparing for the scouting expedition would take a little time, Heath explained. The specially made saddle for the wyvern mounts was not designed for two human riders. While it did the job well enough in quick rescue missions, it was better to adjust it for two people in a long expedition.
So it was that Heath spent the next twenty minutes manipulating the complicated mass of straps and buckles that acted as a wyvern saddle, altering it for dual use. Pent watched in interest, having only a little experience with the great flying lizards and the technology related to them. But by the time Heath had declared the contraption perfected and began strapping the harness to his mount, the Mage-General could still make only the barest sense of it.
The wyvern knight noticed his interest and confusion, and explained as he attached the saddle to the patiently waiting Hyperion. "This is where I sit," he said, pointing to one section of the mass of leather while tightening a buckle carefully over the scaly gray skin. "And you'll sit here, just behind me. These straps--" he indicated a smaller collection of buckles, "--are used to bind your legs to the saddle. I've got them too. We use them for long flights and areas with very high turbulence, or in battles. The last thing you want is to lose your seat in an aerial maneuver when you're dodging an attack. And you can hold on to these straps to keep your balance when we move..." The lecture continued, Pent avidly keeping his attention trained on the new information, out of both interest and his own safety.
At last they were ready to depart, and Heath clambered up his mount's massive thigh like a sailor on a mast, perfectly and with ease. He extended his hand to help Pent up on top of the huge reptile as well, and the Etrurian managed fairly gracefully for his first wyvern flight, though he slipped somewhat clumsily on a few of Hyperion's scales. The creature hardly seemed to notice him.
"You may want to take off that cloak, sir," Heath suggested, as he began to help his passenger strap into the saddle. "The wind pressure once we're in the air will be very powerful." The magic user blinked in surprise, but nodded, unfastening the delicately enameled brooch at his throat and pulling his cloak free. He dropped both items into the arms of his wife, waiting patiently below next to the wyvern, and then returned to the involved process of getting into the saddle.
They finished up quickly, Heath slipping into his own saddle straps with the ease and routine of pulling on one's boots. Pent gave one last nod to Louise, who smiled back at him, and then with a sharp snap of the reins and a few precise clicks Hyperion stood and began moving forward.
The wyvern's gait was heavy and lumbering, and the Mage-General found it difficult to adjust to the swaying, thudding movement. He was far more used to horses, and much preferred them he decided, after several minutes of riding on wyvern-back through the sparse forest towards their destination (Hyperion needed a large enough clearing to take to the air). Heath, of course, seemed quite at home perched on the massive reptile's back, and swayed easily in a counter-movement to make the ride more comfortable. Pent did his best to imitate the knight and found that the wyvern's steps became a little more bearable.
They traveled for several minutes, until finally Hyperion poked his spine-frilled head from the trees, uttering a gentle growl that reverberated from beneath the riders and through their entire bodies. Heath seemed pleased however, and bent forward to pat the side of the creature's neck soothingly.
"We'll be taking off now, sir," he said to his passenger, turning his head to look at the magic user behind him as he spoke. "Since it's your first flight on wyvern-back, I suggest you hold on to something." Pent nodded, grabbing the straps that Heath had shown him earlier and wrapping them tightly around his hands.
"Ready?" the former soldier of Bern questioned. His fellow rider nodded, and he turned in his seat, gripping the reins strapped tightly around Hyperion's neck. "Then here we go!"
The leather reins snapped, gently but firmly, and the knight issued several sharp clicks in command. Almost at once Hyperion roared, his powerful call rolling over the scarred hilly plains and deep into the skies above, and his great leathery wings unfurled on either side of them, stretching to their limits. They were fantastic, absolutely massive, each bony finger-like digit ending in a wicked curved claw, and the muscles of the limbs rippled with barely contained energy beneath the gleaming scales that covered them.
Another firm snap of the reins and another series of clicking commands, and the wyvern was lumbering forward once more, but speedily now. Hyperion roared again, pleased to finally stretch his cramped muscles after days holed up in the string of caverns the army had sheltered in. His wings flapped now, powerful muscles straining as they built momentum, and his thundering gait sent his body swaying wildly in his sudden burst of speed. Pent found the entire thing extraordinarily uncomfortable, but hung on to the leather straps gamely; Heath was swaying with his mount's movement once more and seemed just as delighted as the unwinding beast.
And then, with a sudden jolt that sent the magic user's head nearly careening into the hard metal armor that Heath wore, the wyvern suddenly coiled its muscles and launched into the air with his powerful hind legs. Hyperion's wings flapped wildly, strained against the sudden pressure and weight they had been forced to support, and for one sickening moment they seemed to hover in midair, just waiting to collapse back to the ground below. But the wyvern knew the game of flight better than almost any other living creatures. With a sudden shift of wight and a powerful down thrust of his wings they rose completely into the air, and Hyperion made the sky his own.
The transition, Pent observed, was virtually instantaneous, as well as a surprise onto itself. The flying reptile had seemed so utterly clumsy on land, but as soon as it took to the air it gained a grace that the Mage-General would not have associated with the creature's size. While there was still a bouncing, swaying movement with each flap of the beast's wings, it seemed much more controlled and at home in the air than it ever had on the ground.
They were rising rapidly now, soaring up in lazy spirals over the pockmarked ground to gain altitude. Pent could see the ground falling away from him with an amazing amount of speed, and his hands dug almost unconsciously more firmly into the leather strap-holds he had been provided with.
Heath turned to
look over his shoulder again, grinning with excitement. He was
exhilarated to be in the air once more, to feel the wind whipping
through his multi-colored hair, even if he was once more on a
mission. "How are you doing back there, sir?" he asked politely,
yelling at the top of his lungs to be heard over the rush of the wind
and the powerful creaking flaps of Hyperion's leathery wings.
"Well enough," Pent shouted back, his words ripped away almost immediately. Heath seemed to understand him however, because he nodded, even as he made minuscule adjustments with the reins.
"We'll head up another few hundred feet," Heath called back once more. "Once we reach the right altitude, we'll start searching the area."
"Why so high?" the Etrurian asked, tucking his long silver ponytail beneath the neck of his tunic with one hand as he spoke. The winds were already spectacular, and even more powerful thrusts were added with the buffeting of Hyperion's wingbeats, blowing his hair everywhere within a matter of seconds unless he kept it hidden. He was exceedingly grateful Heath had warned him not to take his cloak.
"It helps avoid being seen," the wyvern knight shouted back. "If we see something of interest we can go lower to check it out later. But it's best to avoid any detection if we can."
"Right." Pent's voice was growing hoarse from the shouting, and so he fell silent. His companion ceased to talk as well, focusing on both directing his mount and keeping a wary eye out below for anything of interest.
An hour passed them by, and then two, near silently but for the creaking of wyvern wings and the whipping winds smashing past them. Pent was beginning to feel chilled from the rushing winds about them, though he said nothing for now; he could go a little longer before he would need a break. He did not understand how Heath could stand the chill winds with his metal armor—surely the material would hold in the cold, and make it worse—but he supposed that it largely had to do something with his training as a wyvern knight. Hyperion did not seem at all disturbed by the chilly winds, and would occasionally growl in satisfaction as he soared through the air, a noise that the Etrurian did not so much hear as feel deeply beneath him.
It was not the cold that made their mission discouraging, however. Their inability to discover any important information was far more agitating to the Mage-General. Both riders had kept their eyes peeled on the ground far below, soaring over the massive scarred valley that the storm had caught them in days ago. Pent would occasionally point out a landmark that he found curious, but Heath, who had much sharper eyes from scouting by wyvernback, would often identify these 'suspicious' areas as deep holes or felled trees, and nothing more. The spellcaster had kept his own innate magics sharply attuned for any hints of concealed magic as well, but while he felt the slight residual remains of the storm so close to its creation point, he could discern no hidden magics waiting to attack. It was as if their enemy had vanished into thin air, and Pent did not like it.
He was just about to shake his head in frustration and order them to return when he spotted an unusual area on the ground. It looked tiny from their high altitude, just a splotch of barren, ash black far below them, but it struck him as odd all the same.
"What's that?" he shouted to Heath, pointing down at the area in question with one chilled finger.
The wyvern knight glanced down at the indicated area on the hilly plains and blinked. Pent waited for the now-customary "It's just a hole," or "that looks like a snapped tree," but neither came.
Instead, the green-and-silver haired man's eyes narrowed in concentration, and he spoke hesitantly. "It looks like...scorch marks? That doesn't seem right..." There was a slight snap of the reins, and Hyperion obediently began to circle over the black spot, sweeping around for another pass.
"They're definitely scorch marks," the knight said with a nod, after another few minutes. "Something burned there. But that doesn't seem right at all." Pent had to agree. Judging from the pockmarked condition of the plains, the lightning bolts had never burned, only dug huge gashes into the soil.
"Should we check it out?" Heath asked, glancing over his shoulder at his passenger.
The Etrurian hesitated a moment, but then nodded. "Yes. It might give us a clue as to what went on, and it's the first unusual thing we've found out here. Besides," he added, voice growing hoarse once more from the shouting, "the residual magic around this area is very strong. The spellcaster must have been close by at one point."
"Yes, sir. Hold on tight, descending is a little rough for first-timers." And with another series of practiced maneuvers with the leather reins he gave his commands. Hyperion roared once more and began to spiral downward rapidly. Within a few minutes the ground had rushed up painfully close, and with a series of powerful backthrusts with its wings and one altogether agonizing jolt, the wyvern landed, coming to all fours once again.
It took him several seconds to reorient himself after the landing, but then Pent looked around, benefiting now from his high perch on the flying reptile's back. Every inch of the land around him for almost a quarter of a mile was solid, charred black. There were hardly any remains to indicate what had happened, but as the Mage-General's eyes continued to roam he spotted a few tell-tale pieces of evidence. A few posts and a metal wheel, probably the remains of a wagon, were flopped unceremoniously a few feet away, and a few broken steel weapons littered the ground here and there.
"This was a camp," Pent said slowly, after a little more observation. He looked this way and that, but could find little evidence of anyone living that had remained behind.
"It looks like that, sir," Heath said in agreement, also looking around carefully. His hand strayed almost involuntarily to the javelin strapped carefully to the saddle, though there did not appear to be any need to use it.
"Let's look around a little bit," the Etrurian suggested. He wished he could get down and stretch his legs in the process, but the complicated mess of straps keeping him firmly in the saddle would take too long to remove and replace, and so he did not suggest it. Hyperion walked for them instead, his clumsy swaying gait sweeping them back and forth, though this time Pent was more used to it.
They found little more of interest, other than a few remains of tent poles, other wagons, and some supplies that would not easily burn. Judging from the way they debris was scattered, Heath estimated that the camp, whomever it had belonged to, was roughly the size of theirs. Whoever they were, those that had not died had left in a hurry.
But the camp had not been there before the storm arrived—of that, Heath was certain. And it did not seem possible that the storm had caused the fire. Something strange was going on here, and Pent intended to find out what.
Yet for now, there was little else they could do. There was no more information to find out here, no magic to trace to an enemy. They had seen no signs of anyone or anything living out here apart from themselves, ally or enemy alike. The only option they had left was to return to the camp, deliver their results, and discuss their next step.
"We'll head back now," Pent said firmly, giving the burned camp one last look over. "There's nothing else we can do here."
Heath nodded. "Yes, sir." He clicked again for the wyvern, and Hyperion leaped into the sky once more, soaring high with his riders and the message they bore.
Close to two hours later, Nino could be found sitting just outside the largest of the caverns on a little stump, staring helplessly in the direction of the plains.
She was exhausted, and knew she should rest more. While the scouting expedition had been underway she had slept, regaining her strength after the draining process of creating the magical shields. But it really wasn't enough to restore her normal youthful, energetic nature, and she instinctively knew that more rest was absolutely necessary.
But Nino couldn't let herself sleep. Not now. Not after the scouting party had returned with that news...
Her mind flashed back almost immediately to the arrival of Heath and Pent two hours before. She had woken eagerly upon hearing the returning wyvern's call, anxious for news of Jaffar, and had trotted over to the Lords' cavern to hear the report. Pent had explained about an unusual discovery: a burned campsite out in the plains that had not been there before the storm. He suspected the spellcaster had been there at one point—perhaps the camp even consisted of his allies—but could not explain the destruction.
"If the camp belonged to whoever was attacking us," Nino remembered saying cheerfully, "then maybe Jaffar stopped them! And he's coming back now, right?"
But Pent had shaken his head and, with an understanding, saddened look in her direction, he reported finding no living humans out on the plains.
She was shocked. He had to be lying. Or just mistaken—maybe he missed seeing them. Jaffar certainly couldn't be dead. He was Jaffar. He couldn't die, not ever! He would be coming up the path in just a little while now, ready to come back to her side and be her closest friend once more. She was sure of it, and she would wait for him.
But after two hours had passed and the assassin still remained painfully absent from the path leading to their caverns, she was beginning to loose hope. Maybe he really hadn't...maybe he was...
No! Nino reprimanded herself sharply. I can't think like that...not now. Not now...but even as she tried to reassure herself, her strength began to give out, and she slumped more and more heavily on her tiny stump.
"Nino?" came a soft voice beside her, and the young spellcaster looked up into Lyn's dark teal eyes. The Lady looked concerned. "Are you okay?"
"He'll come back," Nino whispered softly. "Won't he?"
"Of course he will," Lyn answered confidently. "Jaffar is a survivor. You know that better than anyone." Her concerned look returned. "But Nino...you look exhausted. You should come into the cave and get some rest."
"No...I should stay here. I want to wait for Jaffar."
The Lady of Caelin shook her head. "You're loosing your strength with every moment you sit out here. You need to rest. Just think—Jaffar would be very upset if he found you wasting away on his account. He wants you to be safe."
Nino looked up at her tiredly. "Do you think so?"
Lyndis smiled. "Of course. He risked everything in that storm to make sure you were safe. I don't know him that well, but I'm sure that he wouldn't be happy if he tried hard to protect you, and you made yourself sick out here in return." The Sacaen was not entirely sure how true her words were—Jaffar was an amazingly difficult human to read after all—but from the way he constantly stayed by Nino's side she was sure she was close.
"R-right. I'll rest then." Nino nodded slowly in agreement and stood a little shakily, brushing off her trim white skirt. She glanced back once more at the pathways, but they still remained empty and unrevealing, and with a sorrowful look she walked slowly back to the caves, Lyndis at her side.
Another hour passed, and then another. Nino managed to fall into a fitful sleep, tossing and turning while Lyn stroked her green curls soothingly. Outside Eliwood and Hector were discussing their next move with the tactician, Marcus, Oswin, and Erk, who was presently acting as their magical advisor in lieu of the finally resting Pent. The camp was more active now, but an air of uncertainty hovered over them, dark as the clouds that had threatened them not a day previously.
Thus it was entirely possible that, with the distractions resting heavily in the air about them, the movements nearby went, at first, unnoticed.
In the end, it was Kent and Sain who noticed them first. Both Knights of Caelin were presently on guard duty, some ways down the path at the fringes of the mountain woods. Their horses were tethered to low-hanging branches and munched absently on what grass they could find, and the knights, currently dismounted, waited alongside the path. Or rather, Kent waited, and mostly for Sain to cease and desist his high spirited rambling about some woman or other (Kent never paid attention to the names anymore).
He was just beginning to wonder if it would be possible to conveniently 'lose' the emerald knight in the woods upon their return, when he spotted them—shadows, slipping quietly around the hills of the plains and the deep gorges carved into their sides by the unnatural magical lightning. Frowning slightly, he narrowed his eyes to focus his vision, trying to find the elusive movements once more in the late afternoon light.
There they were again! And closer this time, too. They were moving steadily forward towards the path that both he and Sain stood on. Was it a hint of enemy movement, come to attack them at a moment of weakness? Almost unconsciously Kent's hand tightened on the sword hilt at his hip; beside him, Sain's chattering ceased at his friend's movements, and the emerald knight's stance shifted to support the lance in his gloved hands better.
And then the shadows detached from the safety of the plains, beginning to move slowly up the path towards them, and the redheaded knight could not help but gasp in shock. There was no mistaking that red cloaked man, or the hooded figure beside him, though he wondered how they had possibly concealed themselves so well in the plains just moments before.
"Sain," he said slowly, his eyes never leaving the approaching figures.
"I see them," the other knight answered, sounding incredulous. "Where in the name of the goddess did they come from? That's like out of a story--"
"Forget the stories," Kent cut him off. "Ride back to camp and tell them to have the healers ready. I think they're injured." Sain nodded in response, and was thundering up the path on his energetic mount within seconds.
The redhead mounted his own horse and trotted forward to meet the pair, his sharp eyes observing them carefully. Both had wrapped themselves securely in their cloaks, but the knight could easily spot the fatigue on their faces, the blood on their clothing. And there was something else odd about the pair...but Kent could not quite place it.
And then, as they approached his horse, he realized exactly what was wrong. He had never seen the thief or assassin in such close proximity without feeling a tension between them, or seeing a gleam of hatred on Matthew's face. But there was no open hatred now, only fatigue and--what was it--a guarded acceptance, perhaps? Whatever it was, it seemed out of place, but not unfavorable.
"Are you both well?" Kent asked as they came closer, though even the knight could see that the answer was an obvious 'no.' Sure enough, Matthew only gave him an exhausted look in response, and Jaffar ignored him completely.
"The camp is not too far ahead," the knight continued, allowing his horse to walk beside them slowly as they went up the path. "The healers should be ready at any moment. Just a little further." He was concerned for them, now. That worn look that Matthew had given him made the knight question just how much longer the two could keep themselves going.
But Matthew only gave a tired nod in response, and showed no signs of stopping as the three continued up the path. Kent observed silently that the thief had distanced himself several paces from Jaffar as soon as the two met up with him, but the action seemed unconscious, bore no hostility. Still wondering what possibly could have happened to the two while out in that magical storm, Kent led the way quietly to the camp.
Eliwood's army was astir with activity when the three entered the cave-based encampment, and many of its members were waiting for the new arrivals. Matthew and Jaffar had barely stepped into camp when they were approached by Serra and Priscilla, staves raised and glowing with holy light as their prayers for healing were accepted. Both subdued quietly, but neither responded to the exclamations of surprise over their extensive injuries; Jaffar's right arm was practically immobile and hung limp, while Matthew's leg appeared to have suffered a deep stab wound so grim looking it was feat that he could walk on it at all.
But after an extensive healing session, in which none but the healers and magic-users were allowed close to either man, for fear of inhibiting the process, the two men of shadow were finally pronounced well enough to be released. "Although," Serra warned them, a scowl on her face and hands on her hips, "I'm keeping an eye on you until I say you're fully recovered!"
The two nodded, too weary to argue, and without a further glance at each other stumbled off in different directions. Jaffar moved forward slowly, eyes scanning the army members for a flash of green hair, a cheerful smile. He needed to see Nino again, to reassure himself that all his troubles had not been in vain, that she was safe...
There was a hint of movement among the watching army members as someone shoved through their mass, and then Nino leaped free of them in a whirlwind of speed, her short trim cloak flying out behind her as she darted forward. "Jaffar!" she all but squealed, throwing her arms around him without hesitation, a massive smile on her face that overpowered even the tears in her crystal-blue eyes. "I'm so glad to see you again! I was so worried, I thought maybe you got hurt or...but you're okay, you're okay!" She tightened her arms around his waist in a fierce hug, as though afraid of being separated from him again. Jaffar seemed surprised by the rushing physical contact, but after a few moments put his arm tentatively, quietly, around her.
Nino held on for a few more moments, but finally let go, pushing away slightly to look up at her best friend's face. "You have to tell me what happened!" she said excitedly. "What you did out there, and how you made it, and why you were with Mr. Matthew when you came back, and so many other things! But, oh," she murmured suddenly, staring up at his fatigued expression. "You look so tired...maybe you should rest first. We have a lot of caves here, you can rest in one of those!" Grabbing his gloved hand—another physical touch that surprised Jaffar, but did not really unsettle him—the young spellcaster turned and began to pull him in the direction of the largest cave.
And froze, for Hector was standing at the mouth of the cavern, speaking to an exhausted looking Matthew before him. The lord glanced up in her direction as he caught their movement, and while he gave Nino little more than a casual glance, the look of hatred in his eyes as he glared over her shoulder at Jaffar sent chills down her spine.
"...Nino?" came the soft voice behind her, cracking slightly from fatigue. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she answered hastily. "Actually, I know a smaller cave that we can go to, it's quieter so you can get more rest. I bet you're really tired after being out in that scary storm!" Grabbing Jaffar's wrist more firmly, she led him off in the desired direction, glancing over her shoulder one last time a little nervously in the direction of the Ostian lord.
Hector noticed the glance, and raised an eyebrow in confusion, but said nothing. He disliked the assassin's return—he had been hoping in part that the murderer would die out there, in the storm—but he had more pressing matters to deal with. Turning back to his agent, he questioned once more, "so you are absolutely sure there are no more enemies out there?"
"Positive," came the short reply. "There are no more mages. The bolting spell is finished."
Hector frowned. "What were you two doing out there? Pent and Heath brought us reports of a burned camp at least the size of ours, but there's no way--"
"If we could leave this interview for a few hours, milord," Matthew cut him off tiredly, and Hector became suddenly aware of his spy's weariness. Mat's muscles seemed to be trembling with the exertion of standing alone. The Ostian noble wondered for a moment when the last time the thief had slept was. Probably not recently.
"Right," he agreed, nodding. "You can give your report later, after you've rested. Take it easy for now—that's an order."
"Thank you, milord," the spy murmured under his breath, so softly it could barely be heard. There was not a trace of cheery sarcasm, and Hector frowned again. Even if Matthew's antics were annoying, without them Matthew just wasn't...Matthew.
He watched as the spy stumbled past him, noting the dark, rusty stains that covered his clothing, the numerous holes and slashes torn in his breeches and cloak. Whatever had happened out there, it had done a number on him...both of them, Hector admitted with a grimace.
Matthew was unaware of the observations being made of him. In fact, he was unaware of almost everything, beyond the dull throbbing in his head that screamed at him, over and over, for rest. The thief stumbled to the back of the cave—how he managed even that was a mystery—and curled up on the ground, wrapping his cloak around him without bothering to find a blanket. He was deeply asleep within a minute, his breathing quiet and even as the bustle of the camp passed him by, undisturbed.
And so the rest of the day passed in an eerie calm, with the camp members both elated and disturbed at the unexpected, but welcome return of their comrades.
The next afternoon found Eliwood's army still camped in their string of mountain caves, a day of rest declared for all. The bolting storm, while no longer in existence, still left traces of low spirits and tired bodies among them, and Eliwood had judged it best to allow his company an extra day to recover.
Already the day of rest was proving itself useful, and many of the army members were benefiting from the break. Their spirits had already risen considerably with the return of their missing companions, and by the next morning it seemed everyone would have recovered from the terrible stress of their ordeal once more.
Matthew, upon waking that morning, had dutifully given his report in full detail to the lords and lady. The three had been amazed with his story and questioned him extensively on the mission he and Jaffar had shared while the thief partook of the thickest, most hearty stew he could come across.
But Jaffar had not been needed since, and apart from being hunted down in mid-morning by an altogether cross Serra (checking up on his health, as she had warned him), no one had come looking for the assassin. Nino had cheerfully fetched both of their breakfasts in the morning, and had kept him company in the smaller cave they had rested in the night previously, asking about his adventures out in the storm. He had seen no one else.
He was glad, for it gave him time to think. In between Nino's cheerful talk (often one-sided, though he listened dutifully to everything she said) she would sit beside him quietly for hours, instinctively understanding his desire for peace and quiet. And in those seemingly vast stretches of silence, he found his thoughts searching, wandering, slipping back to the last moments of that fight...
They plunged into the nightmare blackness of the storm, dodging and weaving wildly on inner instinct and cunning alone to avoid being struck down by the terrifying might of the thunderbolts. He was only dimly aware of Matthew beside him, ducking and dodging as well. More than once he had felt his ally's hands reach out to grab his arm or shoulder or cloak, dragging him aside just in time to avoid being struck by the terrible lighting or off-flung shrapnel, and he instinctively returned the favor without thinking. Enmity mattered little now; all that mattered was survival.
But after what had felt like hours they finally freed themselves from the collapsed core of the bolting storm, leaping from that deadly blackness to the natural, star-encrusted night. It was a goddess-sent relief to pass into the world of true shadows once more; even the air felt different, cleaner, safer. They would not turn back for anything.
In silence they made their way towards the mountains, now visible in the soft moonlight and gleaming stars, with no screaming winds and thunderous bolts to block their view. They moved quietly, limping and stumbling over the scarred hilly plains, aware of each other's presence but saying nothing.
The sun began to rise, hours later, another blessed sight. Within the eye of the storm the sun had felt sickly, screened, as though being blocked by an invisible force. Now it was powerful, warm, exuding brilliance; a welcome sight, even if it did banish the cooling, sheltering shadows. Ever wary, the two men of shadow began to cluster close to the deep gashes that the bolts had left behind in the hilly ground, concealing themselves as much as possible from any eyes. It would not do to take chances now, especially with the both of them so vulnerable.
They traveled in such a way for another few hours, avoiding visibility as much as possible. At one point Matthew's keen eyes had spotted a tiny speck in the sky above them, and they crept into one of the deep gouges in the ground hastily, hoping they had not been spotted. If they were fortunate it would be only a bird, but both were perfectly aware that they were in wyvern country, and they knew they would die if they were attacked now.
But the spot flew on and vanished, and after a little while they dragged themselves from their tiny shelter and continued to stumble along, hiding as best as possible. This silence, too, had allowed Jaffar to think, and he had methodically contemplated their recent events, until finally he broke the silence with an observation. "...You killed him..."
Matthew paused, panting slightly as he rested from a particularly painful scramble over the last hill. "What?"
"You killed Arellen..."
"Yeah," Matthew agreed, scowling a little. "I did. Thank you for reminding me!"
Jaffar did not feel threatened by the scowl, and continued. "You attacked him from behind..."
Matthew narrowed his eyes. "What are you implying, Jaffar?"
There was silence for a moment as the assassin slid around a particularly large gouge in the earth, and then he spoke again. "The vitals that you targeted, with my dagger and yours...they were very precise...professional...no inexperienced man could have achieved that kill so perfectly..."
Matthew flinched, and treated the assassin to such a glare that the amber of his eyes seemed to boil with hatred. But Jaffar met his eyes evenly, and after an intense few moments, the thief dropped his gaze. The animosity seemed to melt from him, to be replaced only a sullen fatigue, and the spy muttered slowly, "Like you said before...I've done some unspeakable things in Ostia's name." And he turned away, not speaking again for the remainder of their journey.
The assassin's mind returned to the present, suddenly aware of Nino's head resting limply on his shoulder. The girl had fallen asleep sitting next to him, and she was now leaning against him. Keeping perfectly still so as not to wake her, he allowed his mind to drift back to those last few words from Matthew.
Was it possible that they were more alike than he thought? He was not sure what to think of it. while logically speaking, Matthew's station as a spy would put him in a similar line of work to his own (he supposed), he could not envision the hot-headed Ostian as similar to himself at all. The man hated him far too passionately, disliked his line of work far too much, and took every opportunity to scream at him for being a "murderer." If he hated such actions so much, how could he possibly accept having the skills of a professional assassin? Unless, perhaps, this was his reason for hating Jaffar's status as a man-killer? To the assassin, it was a revolutionary idea. Perhaps this was yet another aspect of feeling...one that he did not understand yet.
There was too much he did not understand.
There was a soft flutter of cloth above him, and Jaffar's free hand, not laden with the weight of Nino's body, flew to his dagger immediately as he raised his head.
Matthew was standing before him, one hand on his sheathed silver dagger, staring down at him with a dark expression on his face.
"Jaffar," he intoned, his voice cold and flat. The assassin said nothing, only stared up at him quietly, and the thief continued in a low hiss. "You know what I'm here for."
Jaffar nodded, again silently. His slight movement caused Nino to shift ever so slightly, and she blinked sleepily, raising her head. "Jaffar? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he answered simply, never taking his eyes from the thief standing in front of them.
She blinked again, and her gaze rested on the Ostian in surprise. "Mr. Matthew! What are you doing here? I thought..." her voice trailed off, and she looked between the two men of shadow in confusion.
Matthew ignored her. "Our alliance is finished," he said simply, still glaring down at Jaffar coldly. "Until we returned to camp...that was as long as it lasted."
"And you remember my promise, don't you?" Matthew's voice was threatening, bore a low growl, but remained chillingly cold.
Jaffar nodded again. "For the girl...Leila."
The thief twitched slightly, shocked that the assassin had remembered her name at all, but he concealed his surprise well. "Good. Then you really do know why I'm here." And without waiting further, the dagger in his hand began to slide from its sheath, silvery blade glinting in the afternoon light.
Nino yelped in surprise and looked between the two urgently. "Wh...what's going on? You're not going to fight, are you?!"
"Yes." Jaffar made to stand, but Nino gripped his arm fearfully.
"Y...you can't fight!"
"But why?" the young spellcaster looked frightened now, her eyes widened in fearful surprise as she clung still harder to the assassin's arm.
"...because he made a promise..."
"But his promise has nothing to do with you!" Nino said, trembling. "Please don't fight!"
"I thought..." The assassin paused, collecting his thoughts as he stood against Nino's will. "I thought it had little to do with me, at first..." he said slowly. "Merely an...order to kill, perhaps...I did not understand it...but I think I do understand, now..." His mind flashed back to the beginning of their latest ordeal, huddled in that miserable excuse for a cave with the Ostian who now stood before them. "Can't blame me very much then, can you, Jaffar? You would do the same thing in my position." And, Jaffar knew, he would. Matthew had been absolutely right.
"I cannot stop him from trying to fulfill his promise..." the assassin finished, his gloved hands dropping to rest calmly on the hilts of his blood-red daggers.
"B...but you can't fight him!" Nino trembled, throwing her arms around him in a weak hug, her last attempt to hold him back. "You c-can't...you'll get hurt, and you only just came back...and I don't want anyone to get hurt anymore...p-please don't fight him!" But Jaffar only began to quietly remove her arms from his waist. He seemed strangely calm, completely unconcerned for Nino's safety, as if he knew she would suffer no injury.
Matthew watched coldly, dispassionately, tapping the silver dagger against its sheath in impatience. His calculating amber eyes flicked back and forth between the two, observing the assassin's quiet, reserved manner in which he accepted the fight to the death, watching the girl's now-tearful pleas to avoid bloodshed and remain safe. The weapon tapped again, and again, the thief's utterly cold, utterly brutal stare passed over them once more, and with a firm grip to the dagger hilt he made his swift decision.
The sharp crack caused Nino to jump in horrified surprise, squeeze her eyes shut against the carnage she was sure to see. And then...
She opened her eyes slowly in confusion, glanced over at Matthew, and...stared. The thief had snapped his dagger back into its sheath so heavily it had created a resonating crack, and he was now looking Jaffar straight in the eye, his expression still flat but, she thought, not quite so tinged with ice as before.
Jaffar blinked, showing perhaps the most surprise she had ever seen in him before. "...What?"
"I said forget it. I'm calling it off...this time, anyway."
Jaffar's eyes narrowed slightly in what was possibly confusion, though the shadows cast by his cowl made it difficult to read him well. "...Your reasoning is well founded...you have every reason to attack me...I would do the same, just as you said..."
"I don't have to explain myself to you," Matthew snapped, his fingers tapping the dagger hilt in anger. "I said forget it, so forget it." His gaze swept over the two of them once again, and for the fraction of a second that their eyes met Nino thought she could see bitterness in them...but also understanding. And then the gaze was gone, glaring instead at Jaffar once more.
"...I do not understand this..."
"Not much to understand," Matthew snapped again. "I'm still not going to forgive you for what you've done. I will never forget that, Jaffar, as long as I live, and you had better never forget either, or I will kill you." His glare remained hard, but his voice softened. "But I'm not going to turn into you, either. No matter what." His amber eyes narrowed, flicking to Nino for the barest of seconds, and his fingers tapped the dagger hilt again. "So just forget it." And without warning the thief spun, slipping away from the cave in a ghostlike silence.
He was nearly out of view before he paused, turned, and stepped back towards them a few paces. "By the way," he muttered, his voice sounding grudging but somehow sincere, "thanks...for saving my life out there a few times. I've repaid my debt in full, of course. But even so...well, I wouldn't have expected it from you." The Ostian hesitated, fixed the assassin with a flat look, and then turned once more, departing completely.
Jaffar stared after the thief for some time in confusion, unable to decipher exactly what had happened. Matthew had every right to attack him, he supposed. He would have stopped at nothing to avenge Nino's death, halted at nothing to rip the murderer's life from him agonizingly slowly. What had changed the spy's mind? Why would he want to change his mind, especially with such an opportunity? Slowly he sat down at the mouth of the cave once more, staring into midair aimlessly as he tried to grasp this new concept of human actions, emotions.
Nino was silent for some time as well, but finally she sat down beside him again, leaning against his shoulder. After a few moments, she smiled in the direction the thief had taken, and said softly, "You know, Mr. Matthew made me a little nervous at first, but...he's really not such a bad man, is he?"
"..No," Jaffar said slowly in agreement. "He isn't..." Strange...this ability to feel thathis fellow man so desired, worshiped, that he in turn tried so desperately to understand, was ever changing, all the more confusing and complex...but somehow, all the more desirable for it.
Perhaps he was more than an Angel of Death after all, perhaps there was more to him than killing and darkness that people beyond even Nino's purity and light could see.
Perhaps he was human, too.
AND that's a wrap. It feels so strange, coming to the end, but at the same time it's kind of a neat feeling.
For those of you wishing that Jaffar and Matthew would become the bestest friends ever, sorry, but no go. While I can imagine them coming to terms with each other as wary allies, I cannot envision them being any more than that. So that's how I wrote it.
Again, major apologizes for the supreme lateness of this chapter. As I stated before, lots of classwork has been getting in my way (lesson learned: college is a bitch!) and it's been impossible to focus on writing. I have several other ideas set aside and jotted down as well, including another Rekka no Ken themed story, and a one-shot planned for Path of Radiance (We Like Ike! shot ) but for now it's all a matter of having the time to write it all down. Which, at present, there isn't much of. Never fear, I'll get to it during Thanksgiving and Winter breaks...so just hold on tight in the meantime!
A final pair of questions: How many of you are familiar with Apocalyptica, to know where the titles for this story and its chapters come from? And, how many of you actually read the quotes I put at the beginnings of each chapter?
And now, for our usual routine...if you leave a review, kindly leave some substance in it. Tell me what you liked about this fic, or what you didn't like. What worked for you, what could have been done better? I enjoy getting good feedback of all kinds!
I hope you enjoyed this fic, because I sure enjoyed writing it.