The Prince and the Slave

22 years before the events of Fire Emblem – Path of Radiance

The night was just the way Ashnard loved it: Bitterly cold as if it was deepest winter and not early fall, and as dark as his black armor, with not a single ray of moonlight piercing the thick, grey clouds. He and his small company of soldiers had crossed the border into Begnion just after dusk, eager to clash with the Imperial forces once again. They had fought multiple skirmishes over the last few days; sometimes on Daein soil, sometimes on Begnion territory; sometimes they had won, sometimes withdrawn. Though Ashnard preferred victory over defeat, he was not one to make a fuss about their earlier losses; instead, he preferred to continue on and face the enemy again and again, until the strong had triumphed and the weak put into their place.

As it should be. As the Goddess herself decreed when she created the world – and who are we to question the Goddess, eh?

Ashnard chuckled. The youngest Prince of Daein, who was as far down in the line of succession as one could possibly be while still being a son of the reigning king, never attended church – he could scarcely imagine a greater waste of time. But if his never-ceasing drive for war and combat could somehow be considered a sort of worship of Ashera, then surely, he was the most pious man in all of Tellius.

The self-styled servants of Ashera would beg to disagree, he thought, an evil grin on his face that no one could see (not that anybody would have been bothered by it; he was 'Mad Prince Ashnard', after all). The Holy Empire of Begnion. Ha! Their holiness doesn't harden their armor or sharpen their blades! They're nothing but a nation of monks and clerics and only their sheer size allows them to survive as a nation!

Ashnard knew that he was not going to change that; not now, not today. His operations in the border regions were tolerated by his father and his advisors as a good outlet for the young prince's insatiable hunger for violence, but he was only permitted to command a small force; nowhere near enough to win and hold more than a minuscule portion of the Empire's territory. But Ashnard was fine with that: He was not fighting to extend Daein's borders, or to fill its coffers: He was fighting only for himself, and the black-clad troops marching behind him were merely a means to an end for that. Even if they were routed to the last man, he would continue to fight until the life left his body, and enjoy every single moment of it.

But that won't happen tonight. The Empire's border guard is no match for us. And they won't expect us to cross the border tonight, not after the small victory they won yesterday.

The prince's company was moving along the edge of a forest toward the estate of the senator who ruled this border province. Ashnard's scouts had reported that after yesterday's battle, the Begnion troops had withdrawn to that estate even though they had been in a position to pursue the encroachers. A few days prior, the Daein troops had pillaged two Begnion border villages, and there could be little doubt that the senator was deadly afraid for his belongings now, and would rather use his forces to defend his villa rather than splitting them among the remaining settlements.

All the better. There can never be enough enemies, and I grow tired of this game of cat and mouse. Let there be a decisive battle tonight, with strong foes whose blood will grease my blade!

And so the encroachers marched for an hour, then two, then almost three, before they finally arrived at their destination. Though he was wearing heavy armor and his massive sword Gurgurant, Ashnard felt no weariness – on the contrary! When the silhouette of the senator's villa appeared upon a hill in the distance, surrounded by a number of campfires that indicated at least a thousand soldiers, he felt his blood run hot with anticipation; felt every muscle of his body scream at him to move and initiate the fighting. But Ashnard was not a mindless berserker; he had learned early that leading an army was much different from participating in a brutal pit fight.

"Spread out among the edge of the forest for as wide as you can without being spotted," he commanded his men, keeping his voice low. "It runs only half around this hill," he added, recalling the scouts' reports about the terrain, "so we won't be able to surround them. It'll be a frontal clash. At my command, charge up the hill and slay all you see."

With silent efficiency, Ashnard's men obeyed and took their positions. Not one of them questioned the idea of attacking an enemy that outnumbered them from an unfavourable position – not only was it unwise to show signs of fear in front of the prince; they also knew that under his leadership, they stood an excellent chance of overcoming their disadvantages.

Ashnard waited until he judged that enough time had passed for his forces to spread out – it was too dark to confirm it with his eyes – then he drew Gurgurant, raised it over his head and let one word thunder through the night's chill air, loud enough to wake every man within a mile's radius.

"Attack!"

Even as he yelled his command, Ashnard began to charge, and his strong legs carried him up the hill faster than many a man not weighed down with heavy plate armor. His soldiers were able to keep up with him – the most martial among Daein's princes had not chosen weaklings to accompany him into battle – though none of them made the mistake of overtaking him. After all, leadership had its privileges, and that of first blood was among them.

The first to fall before Ashnard's blade was a tall, lance-wielding soldier, clad in the red armor of the Empire, who must have been one of the sentinels patrolling the camp, seeing as he was fully-armed and awake. For his failure to notice the approaching troops until it was too late, Ashnard punished him with a quick, but painful death: Cutting his lance in two with his sword, he hurled himself against the sentinel, throwing him backwards into one of the large campfires. He was unable to get back to his feet and lay on his back amidst the embers, flailing his limbs wildly, as the flames consumed him. Enraptured by his agonized screams, Ashnard entered the closest tent and found a dozen Begnion soldiers, half-asleep, half-dressed and half-panicked, and proceeded to cut them down before even one of them could seize a weapon.

Those easy kills did not satisfy the prince's bloodlust, and so he left the tent eager to seek out opponents that would actually fight back. His wish was granted, for when he stepped back outside, his blade dripping with blood, he heard trumpets sounding the alarm. An instant later, the countless red tents spewed forth soldiers, many of them wearing little armor, but all carrying weapons. Orders were shouted as the Imperial troops flocked to each others, forming small groups around the campfires, and began to fight the attackers in earnest. As he threw himself at them without inhibitions, Ashnard saw in the corner of his eyes that the windows of the villa were lighting up one after the other, its inhabitants waking up from their dreams into a true-to-life nightmare.

For Ashnard, however, it was a celebration of strength, an orgy of power. He was completely absorbed in it, laying waste to all he saw with reckless abandon, rejoicing every time his blade cut flesh. The cries of his foes – no, his victims, for no one stood a chance against the prince of Daein – were music in his ears, and he had to harness all of his discipline so as not to lose himself in the slaughter. After all, he was the leader of this small army, and though his men knew what to do, he still had orders to give.

The defenders tried to slowly back towards the massive senatorial villa, hoping to mount a more effective defense there than among the ruined tents and hazardous campfires. A smile came over Ashnard's face when their efforts were hindered by a large throng of people coming out of the villa's main entrance – the senator's household trying to escape the slaughter. Soldiers and servants bumped into each other and blocked each others' way, and soon, the defenders' formation was all but falling apart. The angry shouts of those who would fight and the panicked cries of those who would flee swelled up to a disharmonious crescendo, and Ashnard could not help but laugh out loud at the pitiful spectacle unfolding before him.

How ironic! The weak are foiling the attempts of the strong to protect them! Those sentimental fools will pay with their lives for their misplaced kindness.

Of course this also meant that the battle would be short-lived: Already the attackers had spread out all over the hill, and would have been able to put even a well-coordinated escape effort to a stop. The fighting would end soon – too soon, which irked Ashnard considerably. But he consoled himself with the certain knowledge that there would be other hills to charge and other battles to fight.

Then he heard loud roaring coming from the villa's entrance, and was filled with renewed fervor.

Sub-humans! Such a rare opportunity!

They must be the household's slaves unleashed by their master as a last resort. He must be truly desperate... and rightly so.

"Fall back! Fall back a short distance!" Ashnard yelled. "Let's give the beasts room to show us what they're made of!"

His commands were obeyed immediately – they always were – and the wave of black armor that had flooded the hill subsided slightly. Perhaps believing that the battle roars of the sub-humans had frightened the attackers (a foolish hope if there had ever been one), the Begnion soldiers immediately gave pursuit, instead of using the opportunity to bring some order into their formation. A gap opened among their numbers, and through it charged dozens of sub-humans – mostly cats and tigers, Ashnard noticed, with only a few winged ones thrown in. Most of the latter were wise enough to take to the sky and escape immediately, but the members of the beast tribe did not have that option. Still roaring and hissing, they dashed down the hill toward the attackers who welcomed them with their weapons, eager to slay the hated sub-humans.

To Ashnard's disappointment, however, the beasts quickly proved to have much more bark than bite: When they realized that the attackers would not be scared away by their noise, their approach slowed down drastically, and the Begnion soldiers had to prod them from behind with their lances to keep them moving. Humans and sub-humans alike attacked the forces of Daein, and Ashnard heard his men jeer and mock the Imperials for relying on their slaves to defend themselves as the two sides clashed.

Once he engaged in actual battle with the sub-humans, Ashnard's disappointment grew: He slew two cats and a tiger almost effortlessly, and the latter even tried to get away from him! Where was the feral rage that was supposed to drive the members of the beast tribe?

What else could you expect from slaves, he accepted the sobering truth. This is probably the first time any of them ever fought for their lives! Worthless, the lot of them.

Ashnard's soldiers, too, had little difficulty fighting the untrained sub-humans, and they dispatched most of them easily, taking little damage from their feeble swipes. Very soon, the Begnion soldiers were on their own again; disappointment over their slaves' pathetic performance written all over their faces.

That will serve them right to rely on sub-humans!

Just as Ashnard was about to tell them as much (in situations such as these, he found the urge to gloat difficult to resist), however, the sound of one surviving sub-human roaring reached his ears – and it was very close by, somewhere in front of him.

"Well, well, well," Ashnard said to himself as he scanned the lines of the defenders with his eyes, "what do we have here?" As soon as he had spoken those words, a large, dark shape leapt through the air toward him, and he barely managed to bring his blade between himself and the attacker. The sub-humans sheer momentum sent even the massive prince of Daein staggering backwards, though he was never in danger of losing his balance.

Serves me right, he thought. Underestimating the enemy is never wise. The moon was still hidden behind the clouds, and the campfires that now lay behind the attackers were the only notable source of lighting, which made if difficult for Ashnard to get a good look at his foe. It was a tiger, that much was certain, and its hide seemed to be dark green instead of the more common gray. The sub-human, in turn, could probably only perceive Ashnard as a hulking, black mass wielding an oversized sword, but more was not required for him: He threw himself at the prince with the ferocity that the beast tribe was famous for.

"Yes! Finally!" Ashnard exclaimed as he took the full brunt of another leap. This time, he was expecting it, and did not budge an inch. "Show me how a real sub-human fights!"

The tiger roared again – perhaps in reply to Ashnard's taunts, or just for its own sake – and attacked again, this time throwing itself against its opponent's legs. Ashnard saw the danger in his move and sidestepped the attack, dragging his sword along the tiger's green hide in the same movement. Its roar took on a deeper, pained note, but its furor did not diminish.

At last, a fight that takes longer than five seconds! Ashnard grinned and went on the offensive. He wounded the sub-human several times, impressed by how thick its hide was. It took his full strength to cut through it into the flesh beneath, and even then, the large tiger proved its hardiness by counterattacking immediately, hitting Ashnard's right arm with its massive paws which almost caused him to let go of Gurgurant.

"Yes, yes, yes!" he screamed in elation. "Why couldn't the rest of your ilk be more like this? At last, a true child of strength!" The tiger only roared in return – Ashnard wondered whether there was any meaning in it or whether it was a mere animal noise – and continued its attacks with undiminished intensity. The two fought for several minutes without interference – no Daein soldier would dare to interrupt Ashnard in a duel. The prince did not need to be saved from anyone, and implying otherwise could be very dangerous. Instead, they applied themselves to decimating the remaining defenders, pushing them back to the villa's very doorstep, indiscriminately cutting down those of the servants who had not fled back inside. Victory was a certainty now.

"Bring me the master of this house," Ashnard yelled between absorbing two massive blows of the tiger's paws, "so I can tell him how badly he defended it! I don't care what you do to the rest!" Then he returned his attention to his opponent and made multiple counterattacks, while noting that his breastplate had taken several deep dents. His chest was hurting, too, but he was used to greater pain than this; as long as his heart kept beating and his lungs breathing, a fractured rib or two did not concern Ashnard.

"Time to end this," he said and pressed the attack. The tiger was showing signs of weariness now, and that was a weakness Ashnard knew to exploit. Drawing on his almost inexhaustible strength reserves, he pushed hard against his foe, moving Gurgurant with the same swiftness a lesser man would have handled a fencing saber. A deep cut in the shoulder – How he roared! That one must have hurt! – another in the foreleg, and a brutal, plate-booted kick in the head finally took the fight out of the sub-human. Holding its head with both paws, it slowly crawled backwards, wide open for a killing blow.

"You fought well, sub-human!" Ashnard praised his foe – something he did very, very rarely. "It's good to see at least one of your kind live up to your reputation!" He raised his sword above his head to end the tiger's life – and stopped in mid-swing when it transformed into human form, its growling turning into a deep, pained moaning.

"What's this supposed to mean?" he asked. "Do you think I'll hesitate striking you down in this form?" Ashnard noticed the irritation in his own voice; probably because he already had hesitated. "Are you going to use this fangless mouth to beg for mercy?" he demanded.

"Please..." The large, green-haired man's voice was as deep as Ashnard had expected, as was its pleading tone. "Don't hurt him! Please!"

"Him?" Ashnard looked around in momentary confusion, but there was no one nearby except corpses – his men had moved on into the villa, and only occasional horrified screams gave any indication of what they were doing inside. "Who are you talking about?"

"The... master. Master Ulrik..." The sub-human prostrated himself before Ashnard. "Please, don't hurt him!"

"Ulrik?" It took Ashnard a second to place the name. "You mean... Senator Ulrik? The man who owns this house, and this land?" He stared at his defeated opponent in disbelief. "The man who owns you?"

"Yes!" the sub-human said eagerly, though he dared not look up. "The master! Please..."

"Silence, halfbreed!" Ashnard snarled. "How can you plead for the man who made you a slave!"

"Muarim was born a slave," the sub-human replied meekly. "All of us were. But Master Ulrik... he always says he's treating us much better than we deserve. We even get food every day!"

"Food... every day?" Ashnard continued to stare, wondering whether this bleeding, beaten slave was making fun of him. "And you're grateful for something so basic?" He kicked the man who had called himself Muarim in the face, which effected only a silent groan. "You're pathetic!"

"I... I must defend the master!" he meekly protested. Ashnard only snorted in response. He had known about the enslavement of sub-humans in Begnion for a long time – the only reason they were not also enslaved in Daein was probably because they were usually killed on sight there – but he had not realized how far their submissiveness could go.

"And there I thought you fought for your life, or your freedom!" he spat. "But you were merely a slave defending his owner! I cannot think of anything more pathetic in the whole world!" On a whim and out of disgust, Ashnard kicked the sub-human in the face again.

"Yes, hurt Muarim," the slave said after whimpering in pain. "Better than hurting the master..." Ashnard could not even think of a proper reply to this, and stared open-mouthed at the begging sub-human. Not even the paupers in the slums of Nevassa abased themselves like this! Not knowing what to do with him, he decided to kick him again, effecting a painful cry.

"What are you doing to my property!" a nasal voice suddenly called out from somewhere near. Amazed at the speaker's insolent tone – nobody had ever addressed him like that after he had become a man! – Ashnard looked up and in the direction of the voice. What he saw rekindled his rage, but it was no longer directed at the worthless creature lying before him.

"You must be Senator Ulrik," he said to the fat, white-robed man who was being led toward him by four of his Daein soldiers. The man's bald head was red with fury, and thick, blue veins were protruding on his temples. With a fearlessness that could only be born from narcissism, he stomped toward Ashnard, his beringed hands trembling, until his captors seized his arms when he came to close. "Unhand me, you curs," he demanded, but was summarily ignored. "We brought him as you commanded," one of the soldiers said, and Ashnard acknowledged him with a short nod.

"You... you upstart colonials! How dare you do... this!" Ulrik's shaking arm pointed at his villa. "And this!" The other arm darted towards the fallen Begnion soldiers. "And this!" He lowered his first arm toward the slave still lying on the ground. "He is my prize possession, and you ruined him! He may never be able to lift–"

"Silence!" Ashnard barked at the impertinent senator. "You do not seem to realize the situation you're in!"

"But you are the one who does not realize your situation," Ulrik said defiantly. "You have just declared war on the Empire! Once the Senate learns of this, your entire miserable kingdom will be re–"

"I'm sure the Senate has more important things to do than worry about the property damage suffered by one of its minor members during a perfectly ordinary border skirmish," Ashnard interrupted him. "Now, if I were to kill you..." he pointed his sword at Ulrik's throat, and the Senator's fat body promptly stiffened, "that would be different. That would be declaring war." He smiled his most dangerous and psychotic-looking smile. "Do you want me to do that, Senator?"

"You... you wouldn't... d... dare!" Ulrik stuttered, unable to take his eyes off the gore-splattered blade that was so uncomfortably close to his throat. In truth, Ashnard would have liked nothing more than killing him, but he knew that there were limits to what he was allowed to do: His father, the king, a giant fool though he was, would never tolerate his youngest (and least liked) son undermining his authority by killing a Begnion senator without permission. And although he was steadily preparing himself for the day that he wrestled his throne from him – preferably after running him through with Gurgurant – that day had yet to arrive.

"I will not kill you," he said curtly and sheathed his sword, and a triumphant grin promptly appeared on the senator's face. Then he had a sudden idea.

Just because I won't kill him does not mean he will survive this night!.

"Sub-human!" Ashnard barked at the slave lying prone before him. "Look at this man!" But the slave merely shook his head slightly, his gaze still resting on the ground. "We may only look at the master when he speaks to us," he explained in his submissive tone, which only served to enrage Ashnard again.

"LOOK AT HIM!" he yelled and bent over, grabbed the slave by the collar and pulled him up to his feet; it was a testament to his strength that he managed to stand even after being beaten so badly. "Look at this creature," he said and forcefully turned the sub-human's head toward its master. "Look at his fat fingers that have never lifted a sword, his corpulent body that could not run a mile without collapsing! By all natural rights, you should be his master, yet you are not! Does this not make you angry?"

"Muarim... can't be angry... at the master," the slave whispered hoarsely. "I mustn't... or he'll punish me..."

Only now, Ashnard noted countless old scars on the exposed parts of the sub-human's body – whiplashes that had not been allowed to fully heal, he suspected. "So you have been broken, is that it?" he asked furiously. "Your body has all this strength, but it's useless, because your mind is weak!" He looked again at Ulrik who had assumed an unbearably smug expression, thinking himself safe from Ashnard's reach, and could barely restrain himself from wiping that grin off his face.

"Don't you get it, sub-human?" he asked. "There stands a creature that I despise even more than the strong one who has been broken... the weakling who has enslaved the strong! This goes against all natural order! It's only possible because the entire society of the Empire has been set up this way!"

"It has been like that for centuries," Ulrik explained smugly, "because it is the order the Goddess has given us." Ashnard decided to simply ignore him.

"This man is the master of your misery, sub-human!" he told the slave. "He has no weapons. He cannot defend himself. And all of his soldiers are dead." The sub-human stared at Ashnard with fearful and confused eyes, and with an exasperated sigh, the prince of Daein decided to spell it out for him. "You are free to kill him!"

Both master and slave recoiled at that suggestion. "How... dare you!" Ulrik protested. "You said you wouldn't..."

"And I won't," Ashnard replied with a wide grin. "But a slave murdering his master... things like these happen in a slave holding society, do they not? And with the wounds torn by a tiger's claw, nobody could possibly blame Daein."

"Muarim!" Ulrik snapped at his slave. "You will not touch me!"

"Of course not, master," the slave replied fearfully. "I would never–"

Ashnard quickly found his patience wearing thin. "Tell me, sub-human..." It took him a few moments to recall the creature's name. "Tell me, Muarim... do you want to die?"

"No!"

Well, at least he's still normal in that regard.

"Then I have something important to tell you," Ashnard said, his voice unnaturally kind by his standards. With a hand signal, he ordered two of Ulrik's captors to take position at Muarim's sides, while the two others dragged the senator directly in front of his slave, who was now closely surrounded by Ashnard, the Daein soldiers and his master.

"You are now in a prison of sorts, Muarim," Ashnard explained. "And there is only one way you can leave it." He pointed at Ulrik. "By stepping over the body of that man lying on the ground."

"Stop corrupting my property, you Daein brigand!" Ulrik barked nervously. Only now did Ashnard realize that the senator had never recognized him – and not only because of the darkness, but also because he did not know his face.

Telling him now would make no difference, he decided. Unless this slave is truly the most pathetic creature in all of Tellius, Ulrik will not live long enough to appreciate the revelation.

"You will not hurt your master!" Ulrik told Muarim. "So what if he threatens to kill you? Entire generations of you sub-humans lived and died in my service, and you will do the same!"

"Yes, master," Muarim meekly replied and hanged his head low.

"What?" Ashnard could barely believe it. I should just kill this idiot sub-human and be done with it – I should have done that ten minutes ago! And yet, something compelled the prince of Daein not to kill this creature yet. It was not mercy – he did not know the meaning of this word – nor was it his wish to see the repulsive Senator Ulrik dead. At least not only that...

I cannot accept this pathetic display, he realized. I wish for a world where the strong rule over the weak, not where they submit to them! This is all wrong! This goes against the natural order!

"How dare you throw your life away for this scum!" Ashnard yelled at Muarim, surprised by his own strong reaction. "Stand up and tear his throat out! Show me that you're a man, not a dog!"

"B... but... I... I can't!" the sub-human stuttered helplessly. "He is... my master!"

"He's standing between you and your life, you and your freedom! All it takes is the death of one who pained you for all your existence!" Ashnard realized that he was the one who almost sounded pleading now, and wondered whether he was not overstating the importance of this slave. He also noticed that his soldiers were exchanging strange looks – was their lord trying to save a sub-human's life? Certainly, the senator was a pathetic excuse for a human – but he was still a human!

But Ashnard decided that he did not give a damn about the soldiers' opinions. This had gone too far for him to simply leave it be – he was going to prove a point! There were so many people like this slave in this world... the strong who were enslaved by the unnatural order of society who awaited their deliverance at his hands! If he failed to free this one slave from his invisible chains, then how was he ever going to free the entire world?

"I will drag you back with me to Nevassa if you don't kill him!" Ashnard decided to raise the stakes for the weak-minded sub-human. "You will be beaten to death in the arena, your flesh eaten by dogs! Do you fear your freedom so much that you would rather suffer such a fate?"

"No... no..." Muarim's voice was agonized, which told Ashnard that he was finally getting somewhere. "I want to live!"

"To live means to kill," Ashnard said matter-of-factly. "To crush those that are weaker than you, and breathe the air that they would have stolen from you. You should know this better than anyone else here! You are half animal!"

"But the world shouldn't be that way," Muarim protested. Strangely enough, he sounded more forceful than he had ever before. "You shouldn't have to kill people to survive!"

"Do you like your old world better – his world?" Ashnard pointed at Ulrik, who watched the exchange between the prince and the slave with growing unease. "A world where you have to grovel and beg before your masters? A false peace enforced by constant degradation and humiliation? Is that the kind of world you want, slave?"

"No! I want another world..." Muarim peered fearfully at Ulrik, but retained his resolve. "A world where sub... where laguz and beorc can live as equals and in freedom."

"Preposterous!" Ulrik protested. "Your kind can never be our equals!" Meanwhile, Ashnard had to suppress a laugh. That slave had visions of a better world! How very touching!

"Tell me, then," he asked Muarim, "how can this better world of yours become reality? Do you think people like him will ever let you live in freedom?"

"No," Muarim said firmly. "He won't. Not ever."

"That's right!" Ashnard almost clapped. "And what does that mean for you?"

"I... I have to... fight?" Muarim looked at Ashnard, and even in the darkness, the prince of Daein could see the amazed expression on his hairy face. "I have to fight!" he repeated, much more confident this time.
"Marvelous!" Ashnard exclaimed. "The sub-human can be taught!" Muarim ignored his mockery and stared at his bloodied claws, then at the corpses of his fellow slaves littering the hill "Yes," he said and nodded. "I will fight for a future where all laguz can be free!"

Ashnard snorted in amusement at the sub-human's earnest idealism. "Freedom for all? Even the weak? I couldn't think of a worse cause to fight for!" He grinned. "But you know what? I don't care! As long as I know that you're out there... I mean, people like you... who fight for their cause, any cause, no matter how imbecilic... the world will be a step closer to the world I envision!"

"I don't know about your vision," Muarim said cautiously. "But I know about mine."

"Then make your first step now!" Ashnard urged him and pointed at Ulrik, who had started sweating profusely. "You must claim freedom for yourself before you can even think about freeing others."

Muarim slowly nodded and walked up to the senator, who was now trembling with fear and trying to move away from him, but Ashnard's soldiers did not give him an inch. With a deliberate motion, the sub-human put his hands around Ulrik's neck... and the senator fainted, collapsing into a heap on the muddy ground. Ashnard found himself exchanging surprised looks with Muarim and began to laugh.

"And so the weak judge themselves," he bellowed. "Ha! I don't even really care anymore whether you crush his fat throat or not! His time will come one day, I'm sure of it." He looked at the slave who seemed confused about what to do, and nodded to encourage him.

"Go ahead, step over his body and claim your freedom!" he said. "That's what I told you, isn't it? I have to be true to my own words!" Muarim gave him a questioning look, but did not hesitate any longer: With a small leap, he jumped over the unconscious senator and transformed in mid-air. The four soldiers drew their weapons, but he did not attack them: He dashed down the hill as fast as his injured state allowed it and did not look back. His green fur vanished somewhere near the forest, and Ashnard watched him disappear with a wide grin on his face.

"Go!" he shouted after him. "Go and don't let a day pass by without tearing into your enemies! Slash throats and rip off limbs! Ravage and maim and devour!" He laughed out loud, secure in his knowledge that his greatest victory tonight had been the escape of this slave, not his defeat of Ulrik's forces. "Fight for your better world, and I will fight for mine!" he continued when his laughter abated for a moment. "Whoever wins will be proven right – that is the law of nature!"

Of course the sub-human did not answer, but Ashnard knew that he had heard him. He continued to laugh into the night, ignoring the confused looks of his soldiers, rejoicing in his victory and the struggles yet to come.

22 years later

The supposedly beautiful palace gardens of Melior were running red with blood – the only beauty that Ashnard had ever acknowledged. Overlooking the battlefield on the back of Rajaion, he almost trembled in anticipation. Soon, Gawain's son and his Crimean Liberation Army would have hacked and slashed their way through Daein's remaining elite forces to him. Then, he would finally be testing the strength of the boy – no, the man – who had defeated the Black Knight, a man whose skill had almost – almost – matched Ashnard's.

He's quite a marvel, this son of Gawain. And what a motley band of fighters he has assembled! Troops from all over the continent, including traitors from Daein... and there's even a Goldoan dragon! He spotted the blue hide of a massive tiger bashing away at an armored knight. And the sub-humans of Gallia – how long has it been that I fought one of them outside of the arena?

Ashnard closed his eyes for a moment and recalled that day, more than two decades in the past. The tiger back then had been green, not blue. I wonder what became of him and his fight for a better world, he thought with an amused grin. Come to think of it, he would fit right in with this band of...

A moving glimpse of green in the hedges below him caught his eyes, and the King of Daein stared in utter surprise at the transformed sub-human prowling there, approaching a casting mage from behind. A green tiger... he had never heard about another of that color! Could it be?

"Let's find out," Ashnard said to himself and pulled on Rajaion's reins. Ever obedient, his black mount descended rapidly toward the sub-human, and he watched the tiger snap the neck of the mage with his powerful jaw; he had been caught completely unaware, lost in his spell book. Sub-humans often transformed right after a kill, Ashnard had observed, and so did this one – at the same moment as Rajaion landed right before him.

"Ashnard!" the sub-human exclaimed, utterly taken aback. "The mighty King of Daein, sneaking up on untransformed laguz?"

"I have no need for sneaking," Ashnard said and leapt off of Rajaion's back. That voice definitely sounds familiar... but I could be wrong. It has been a long time. "I merely wish to confirm something..." He walked toward the green-haired sub-human, holding Gurgurant before him. "Do you happen to remember this blade?"

"What kind of trick is this?" the sub-human asked nervously. Clearly, he was not quite ready yet to transform back into beast form, and the attack on the mage had led him for away from his comrades. "You seek to distract me!" he accused.

"Just answer the question."

"I've only ever met one other fool to use a sword as ridiculously huge as this," the beast warrior said contemptuously. "But that was long ago, and..." He blinked and stared stupidly at Ashnard, who grinned at him in return. That was what I wanted to hear!

"It's been a long time," he said casually. "So please forgive me for not recalling your name, sub-human. How is your better world coming along?"

"You mean to say... that beorc was you?" The sub-human stared in utter surprise. "Your voice... your size... yes, it fits!" He shook his head as if he was trying to exorcise his disbelief. "I never knew!"

"Would it have changed anything if you had known?" Ashnard asked. "Would you not have come here today?"

"It would have changed nothing," the beast warrior said firmly. "Though I may owe you my freedom, I knew even back then that you weren't a good man. I would still fight you. No, I will fight you!"

"Excellent!" For some reason, Ashnard felt as if he had been reunited with an old friend – or at least he thought that was what it felt, since he had never been able to call a man his 'friend'. "Then I will grant you a rematch!" He raised his head and peered across the battlefield. "Gawain's son can wait for a bit – in fact, he seems to be rather busy with Bryce at the moment." He readied Gurgurant and made a step toward his old acquaintance. "But we do not have much time – Rajaion here is easy to spot, and I can already see some your comrades approaching, seeking to ruin our duel."

"Then we had best hurry," the former slave agreed. "Oh, and as for your question – my better world is coming along quite nicely." With that he transformed, roared and dashed toward Ashnard. The King of Daein stood his ground and faced him, Gurgurant firm in hands, grinning like the madman he was said to be.

Mine as well, sub-human. Mine as well.