Calling Fort Steiger imposing was an understatement. Buildings of such style were intended to instill fear and permanence: rising from the surrounding forest like a monolith, the smooth, dark volcanic rock that formed its bricks made conquering Steiger an intimidating prospect. Nevertheless, the League rode onward, keeping under tree cover for their approach in order to prevent detection. That level of caution was imperative: their ambush hinged on ensuring that the army was not spotted until the attack was well under way.
The force made camp more than a mile from Steiger, with strict orders to light no fires and to maintain as little noise as possible. En route to the fortress, they'd received word that the remaining Resistance soldiers would meet them there in a few days, and the whole army group would then rise to over two hundred and fifty thousand. As a number, it was nearly inconceivable, absolutely unprecedented, and far beyond anything Pyrrhus had ever expected he'd command. It was difficult enough keeping the fifty thousand soldiers of the combined League organized, but five times that number seemed impossible. Certainly, he expected to rely even more heavily on delegation than the previous year. He had not yet worked out the logistics of communication, but he knew for certain that at least he would treat the Shepherds no differently than he had before. That, at least, he could afford, even if it might take a dozen intermediaries to carry his orders to any other particular soldier.
While the majority of the soldiers camped, the Shepherds broke off and made their way through the woods to the northern edge of the fort. It was there, just before dawn, that Pyrrhus laid proper eyes on the wall. It was thirty feet high with a wall walk on top; a guard passed by every fifteen minutes. As per their intelligence, there was no gatehouse at the northern door. It was a thick, oaken double door with cast iron settings, large enough for a man on horseback or a small cart to make it through one at a time. No lock or other means of access was visible from the outward side, as expected. It would be barred from the other side, requiring a battering ram to break it down. A battering ram, or an infiltrator. Pyrrhus readied for battle.
"Gaius, you're up the wall," Pyrrhus began. Gaius was wearing a solid black outfit over his normal clothes, designed to deaden any light or sound and make him as close to invisible as possible. Even his bright orange hair was covered. "Once you're over, dispatch the guard and open the door to let us in."
"And don't do anything stupid," Tharja cautioned.
"I'd think that would go without saying."
"Yes, well I'm saying it anyway," insisted Tharja.
Gaius smiled broadly. "Easy, now, Sunshine. This'll be no sweat. Like takin' candy from a babe!"
He took his hook and line, a small iron grapple attached to a thin, black, woven cord, all designed for maximum stealth. Ordinarily they'd be used for criminal purposes, but they'd found nobler goals this time. With a quick underhand throw, the hook went soaring skyward, landing with a faint clatter on the top of the wall and wedging into the crenellations. "Wish me luck!" he said, and began the climb.
Pyrrhus held this breath. This was by far the most vulnerable part of the plan. The risk of discovery was not high, but it left Gaius alone without backup and virtually guaranteed failure. They could chance sending a pegasus knight over the wall, and possibly retrieve him, but the large white beast would surely be noticed.
As Gaius reached the top of the wall, Pyrrhus began tapping his foot impatiently. They'd timed their approach so that the wall guard wouldn't be by for another few minutes, and he knew that Gaius was experienced enough not to linger unnecessarily, but it was frustrating to have to watch and not be able to contribute. It reminded him vaguely of his battle against Yen'fay last year. Now, just like then, Virion stood at his side, his bow drawn and trained on the wall, keeping an eye out for any unaccounted-for interlopers.
With a single silent move, Gaius whipped himself over the ledge and back to the far side of the wall. He had resecured the hook appropriately so that he could shimmy down the far side of the wall on the rope. Pyrrhus held his breath and began counting the seconds. Their thief was very skilled at these sorts of maneuvers, so Pyrrhus knew consciously that his fears were warrantless; nevertheless, some lingering sensations of doubt clawed at the edges of his mind like a grim specter.
"I should have sent another Shepherd with him," he muttered to nobody in particular. Ten seconds. He glanced up the black wall and made out a tiny glint from Gaius's hook. It was still there, hadn't come loose or fallen. Twenty seconds. It felt as though all the Shepherds were breathing in sync, except him of course. He still hadn't let out his breath. In the muted early morning, the sound of his heartbeat was amplified and threatened to consume his sense of hearing. Thirty seconds.
"This is taking too long," he whispered to Chrom, standing near him and staring wordlessly at the door. "It's been too long," he said again. "Something's wrong."
Forty seconds. They hadn't heard any noise on the far side of the wall, but that didn't mean anything. Pyrrhus turned to Cordelia. "Get ready," he ordered. "You're taking me over the wall if-"
The sound of a creaking hinge cut Pyrrhus off, and all eyes turned to the gate door swinging gently open to reveal Gaius. "Miss me?" the cheeky rogue asked.
"Like a toothache," Pyrrhus muttered, shoving the man aside as he made his way into the fort. "No trouble then?"
Gaius shook his head, indicating the single body lying on the ground by the door. "Nope, it was just the way you described. I spent a few extra seconds making certain the coast was clear; we're good." He absent-mindedly spun his knife.
"Right then, no more tom foolery, let's go," Pyrrhus replied, waving the Shepherds inwards.
"What do you mean, tom foolery?" asked Gaius indignantly. "I'll have you know I take my job very seriously. The thief that gets sloppy doesn't live long enough to enjoy the sweet rewards."
"Uh huh," Pyrrhus said, not really listening. Gaius had succeeded and they were inside the walls, but that feeling of doom remained. The Shepherds crept through an empty courtyard towards the keep. It was made from the same volcanic rock as the wall, an imposing fortification of four levels. He knew that the highest level was the pegasus aerie, where the messengers kept their mounts ready to fly at any time. They needed to get there quickly in order to maximize their chances of silencing the waystation. Before them, the keep had a trio of entrances, each alike in size. Unfortunately, there were no diagrams showing the interior design of the building that the Ylissean League spies could locate, so they were on their own in terms of getting to the aerie.
Pyrrhus allowed himself a moment to mull things over. It was risky, to spend time out in the relative open with the Shepherds, but it would have been more foolish to make a hasty decision. Although the appeal of trying to get lucky by putting all their forces on one entrance was there, ultimately he had only one option to maximize the chance of mission success. "Split into three teams," he decided. "Morgan, Lucina, Severa, Donnel, Brady: you're on the right entrance. Morgan, lead them well."
The young woman saluted proudly. "Yes, sir!"
Pyrrhus continued. "Kellam, Owain, Lissa, Gaius, Tharja, you're on the left. You won't have a tactician, so you'll have to use stealth to your advantage."
"A stealth mission!" Owain whispered excitedly. "Steady, sword hand! Holy blade, you shall taste blood today!"
Gaius frowned. "Is it a good idea to bring along Mr. Crazy Talk on a stealth mission?"
Pyrrhus smiled. "Relax, Gaius. Nobody's going to know you're there." He turned to the others. "Chrom, Vaike, Henry, Sully, you're with me." He could hardly restrain the smile on his face. It hadn't been his intention when putting the plan together, but he had a feeling this was going to be the most entertaining group of the three.
Sully hadn't brought her horse on Pyrrhus's request, and the four members of his team approached as the others dispersed to their positions. Cordelia gave a disapproving frown.
"I don't like this plan," she said adamantly.
"You and the other fliers have the most important part, Cordelia. I need people I can trust to reach the aerie and make sure none of the pegasus riders escape."
"It's not me I'm worried about," she replied. "I should be watching out for you."
"Honey, it's fine!" He said reassuringly. "Chrom and I have been watching each other's backs since before we met. We got some practice in on the way here."
She sighed aggravatedly. "I suppose there's no changing your mind, you stubborn man."
"You know the signal. If anything goes wrong, each group has someone to send up a signal to call for help."
"Just be careful," she warned. "I don't want to have to take care of Morgan and Severa alone."
He gave her a quick kiss. "Take command of your fliers, Knight-Captain!" he commanded.
Cordelia turned around to address her team. Sumia, Cynthia, Tiki, Nowi, Cherche, and Gerome had been placed under her command. An eclectic group, but Pyrrhus was confident that they would be enough to carry out the most crucial part of the plan.
That left only three more. The others had remained behind back at camp. "Virion, Frederick, Say'ri, watch our backs. Keep our escape route open if you can."
"Aye," Say'ri replied, and the three of them headed back towards the northern gate.
Having dispersed his orders, Pyrrhus turned to address his own group. "Okay, team, let's give these Valmese soldiers the shock of a lifetime!"
Pyrrhus pushed open the middle of the three doors, signaling the command to attack. Right away, a pair of drowsy guards sprang into action, far too late to do any good. Vaike hurtled forward past Pyrrhus and the others dispatching one, while a blast of fire from Henry's fist took down the other. Sully moved forward, which left Pyrrhus standing with Chrom.
"Just like old times, eh?" Chrom said. The uneasiness in his stomach disappeared as Pyrrhus looked at his first friend.
"Something like that," he replied, glancing down at his armor. He'd certainly not worn anything like this back then.
An alarm bell rang somewhere in the fort, and Pyrrhus returned to the present with a grimace. "That's our cue." The pair approached the inner door of the fort together, where an overzealous Vaike was hacking away at the wood with his axe.
"Nothing stands in the way of Teach!" Vaike proclaimed, taking a fresh swing at the aged lumber. With a resounding crack, the last of the door gave way, opening in the middle to reveal a central corridor. A corridor that was filled with enemies.
"Forward!" Pyrrhus bellowed, leveling his pike and charging.
"For Ylisse!" Chrom shouted, joining him in his headlong rush into the fray. The enemy attempted to close ranks and keep the Shepherds at bay, but their end-of-shift weariness made them just a bit too slow. One of Henry's fireballs formed an opening, and the four frontline fighters moved into the fray. Vaike and Sully hadn't fought together much recently, but they were both old hat, and their combat styles meshed much better than their personalities.
An ill-prepared guard met his fate at the end of Pyrrhus's pike, but there were plenty more. Chrom lunged forward with Falchion to take on a trio of foes at once. Pyrrhus drew one of his three javelins, waited for the right opening, and hurled one, making Chrom's job one third easier. Two more guards hurried forward to engage Pyrrhus, but he was ready with his pike once again, keeping them at a distance so that their swords would be useless. The room was large and held up by six stone pillars, each an arm's length in diameter. He maneuvered himself so as to anchor his left side on the pillar, making combat difficult for his right-handed attackers.
Vaike and Sully tore through guards like butter, and still more came into the fray. Though he brought low another two men, Pyrrhus was facing four by the time they finally outmaneuvered him and forced him to drop the pike. It was a superb weapon, but it wasn't what he needed at close range. He let the long weapon drop to the ground and drew a short spear, twirling it around as if to beckon his enemies forward. They attacked foolishly, assuming they had the upper hand when they'd forced Pyrrhus to change weapons, but Pyrrhus had been trained in the spear by Cordelia.
They didn't stand a chance.
The one behind him moved first. With a battle roar, Pyrrhus whipped himself around the pillar, spinning out of reach of the man's sword and stabbing him in the back as he lost his balance from striking air. Taking that as a signal to move in, the others swarmed at once, trying to overwhelm him as a group. One lashed out with a long sword and was shocked when the blade glanced off Pyrrhus's armor and cut deep into the arm of his own comrade. He didn't have long to consider his mistake, however, as an ironclad fist struck him in the head. Pyrrhus bull rushed the injured one, a man with a battleaxe, and slammed him against the far wall with enough force to knock him out. The last attacker came at Pyrrhus from behind, but Pyrrhus took the axe from his downed foe and spun around at the last moment, cutting a gash across the assailant's chest that knocked him to the ground.
Pyrrhus readied another javelin and looked around. Vaike was surrounded, but another javelin solved that problem. Sully was in trouble too, but Pyrrhus knew it was best to save his last javelin for an emergency. Instead, he charged back into the fray, coming to Sully's aid with a roar.
"'Bout time you showed up," Sully quipped. "I was starting to think I'd have to take this whole army myself!"
"Less blabbing, more stabbing," Pyrrhus retorted quickly, knocking an enemy soldier to the ground and finishing him with a kick to the head. He plucked the sword from the fallen man and hurled it at another before leveling his spear and charging.
"Is it just me, or are there a lot more soldiers here than we were planning?" Chrom asked over the fray as he brought down another man with Falchion.
"I guess our group's causing a bit more commotion than you figured, Pyrrhus," Sully replied. "At least that means the other teams will be having an easier time."
Pyrrhus paused to pull his spear free from his latest enemy. "I suppose so," he agreed reluctantly. Something still felt off, though. He turned to look back at Henry, who cackled gleefully as he hurled fireballs haphazardly. "At least there's one thing I can always count on."
"He certainly... enjoys his work," mused Sully.
"Indeed," Pyrrhus agreed. "I don't think Henry even understands that the rest of us Shepherds are getting paid."
Before they could talk any more, a fresh wave of new enemies charged into the room. "Boy, they just keep coming, huh?" Sully moaned.
"More students who need Teach to axe them a question!" Vaike called, hurling himself into the fray.
"He's been saving that one," Pyrrhus muttered to himself as he picked up his spear once more. Two men charged at him, and he met their charge with his own. His spear caught the first before he could close in with his sword, but Pyrrhus couldn't get the spear free before the second closed in. He swatted the man's sword away with his left arm as he continued trying to pull his weapon out, but it was well and truly stuck, caught on the man's armor. Instead, Pyrrhus grabbed the helmet from the body and swung it at his enemy, striking a solid hit on the shoulder with a loud reverberating clang. As his foe recoiled, Pyrrhus used his left hand and got the spear free in time to skewer the stunned man.
Another man charged him, and Pyrrhus sighed. This was getting tiresome! This one had a warhammer, however, which called for a tactical adjustment. This soldier had no lack of skill, and managed to knock the spear from Pyrrhus's grip to try and close in for the kill. Now disarmed and without time to draw javelin or sword, Pyrrhus backed away carefully, ensuring that each swipe of the hammer met with air, until he was against a wall. His enemy smiled in triumph, pulling back for a deadly overhead strike. At the last possible moment, Pyrrhus dropped to the ground, exhaling as the hammer struck the wall and shattered the stone brick. He used the chance that afforded to somersault away, coming to a stop just next to a fallen foe he'd previously dropped with a javelin. Pulling the weapon free, he stabbed upward into his enemy, hitting him just under the armpit.
The man fell to the ground, and Pyrrhus gasped for air as he stood up. He wasn't going to last much longer. "How many men can they possibly have in this keep?" he whined. Certainly Steiger was a large structure, and Walhart's army was absolutely massive, but even if the whole fort were nothing but barracks there was a hard limit on the number of soldiers that could be stationed there. He looked around the room to get a quick estimate. By his count, more than fifteen soldiers lay dead at his hands. Chrom had killed a few more, Sully and Vaike each a few less, and judging by the number of charred bodies, Henry's magic had accounted for another twenty. The battle had fallen to a lull as no new soldiers were forthcoming.
"Does this seem right to you?" Pyrrhus asked Chrom, indicating the number of bodies with his hands.
"It certainly seems like heavier resistance than we were expecting," he replied, wiping blood from Falchion. "But it's like Sully said, it means the others must be having an easier time, right?"
Pyrrhus glanced down at the last man he'd killed. "That's what I'd expect, of course. These can't be anybody but Steiger's soldiers. Yen'fay had been prepared for our attacks last year, it's why he was able to set up his first ambush so quickly. Even if he'd known about this attack, he couldn't have gotten fresh men here so quickly. In fact, the only people who could have possibly gotten here before us… are…." Pyrrhus closed his eyes as his stomach dropped out from beneath him. It would explain everything. "Search the bodies," he called, kneeling down to examine his enemy more closely.
"What're we looking for?" Vaike asked as he grabbed the nearest body.
"Anything unusual, anything you wouldn't expect to see on a guard stationed long-term in the middle of Valm territory."
Chrom held up a necklace. It was a simple iron chain bearing a wooden amulet with several carvings. "Well, this is definitely… something. I don't know if it's Valmese or not."
Sully turned up a dagger. "It's got some carvings in it that look like the ones in Say'ri's sword. I'd guess it's from Chon'sin. Could have been traded or taken as a trophy, though."
"No, no…" Pyrrhus muttered. He couldn't figure out what was bothering him about this body in particular. Then it hit him. "This armor… it's new." None of the armor worn by the Steiger soldiers was consistent or uniform. Soldiers on the front lines always had first pick of arms and armor, which meant that garrison troops typically made do with older materiel, weapons from previous wars and secondhand armor. But this was a freshly-forged hammer, and the man's armor had been well-fitted to him.
"This man isn't a guard," he said simply. "He couldn't have been stationed here long." Pyrrhus took a glance around the room. "Half these men aren't guards."
"Come on, Pyrrhus, that doesn't make sense. They must've just gotten a new shipment of armor in," Vaike supplied nervously. "Where could they be from?"
Pyrrhus thought for a moment. "They can't be Walhart's men; we know for a fact he's too far north to have gotten here so quickly. I suppose they could be Yen'fay's men, but their armor doesn't look like the kind we've seen Chon'sin soldiers wear, and this doesn't feel like him. He'd have been here to greet me personally by now. And if it's not Yen'fay and it's not Walhart, then… oh, gods." Pyrrhus slammed his fist against the wall. "It's the Resistance."
"Ah, Xiajo-jing fuo-qua!" Vaike shouted, kicking the nearest body in frustration.
"You speak Chon'sin?" Sully asked.
"Uhh… no," Vaike admitted. "I asked Say'ri to teach me a few of the swear words, though. Thought it might be intimidating."
"Yeah, well… you said it, I guess," Chrom agreed.
At that moment, a thundercrack tore through the night to their right. "That's the signal," Pyrrhus muttered. "Lucina's team is in trouble."
"So is everyone else!" Sully shouted. "What about the people we left at the camp?" she demanded. "Are those members of the Resistance with us or not?"
"I don't know!" Pyrrhus shouted back. "I need time to think!"
"We don't have time!"
"Everyone calm down!" Chrom interrupted. "We don't have time to spend the next ten minutes arguing about things we can't control, because we're just going to end up right back in the same situation, but with worse problems!"
Pyrrhus took a deep breath. "Chrom's right."
"So what's the plan?" Vaike asked.
Pyrrhus picked up his pike. "We go help Lucina's group. They gave the trouble signal, so the third team and one of the fliers should be on route there too. We'll meet up there and take stock, decide on the best course of action."
They encountered mercifully little resistance as they charged through the castle to rendezvous with Lucina's group, but the number of bodies they saw along the way (none of them Shepherds, fortunately) suggested that the stealth team had already been through the same way. And in fact, they caught up with the stealth team as it and Lucina's group sandwiched a dozen enemy soldiers in an armory.
Lissa sighed visibly as she saw Chrom approach. "You made it! I was beginning to get worried!"
"We have a problem!" Pyrrhus interrupted before Chrom could reply. "A lot of these men are Resistance soldiers, not Valmese!"
"We know," Lissa replied sadly. She jerked her thumb towards Tharja. "Spooky over there captured one alive and interrogated him. She was very… persuasive." She shuddered.
Tharja hurled a bolt of lightning into the enemy crowd. "Please, I just poked around in his mind. It's a trivial matter for any accomplished mage."
"Uncharacteristically modest, Tharja," Pyrrhus replied, unable to resist. He drew his pike and moved into the fray.
"Yes, well, we can't all be pompous blowhards like Gaius," She replied. Pyrrhus decided that it was probably in his best interest not to push any further.
A blast of fire cut a hole in the enemy formation, and Pyrrhus saw Morgan and Severa in real combat for the first time. He'd expected a lot from them, considering their lineage and the time he'd spent training with them, but even still he was most impressed. The two sisters were a whirling tornado of steel and flame. Morgan augmented precision sword strikes with blasts of fire from her left hand, while Severa put Pyrrhus's old shield to superb use, battering enemy heads and knocking away blades to create openings, constantly twisting around each other to present a fresh threat to their foes. It reminded him a bit of an old toy that Lissa had shown him years ago. It was a finely crafted figure of a man and woman dancing, with a curious mechanism underneath powered by a torsional spring. When the bottom was spun and then released, the pair would spin slowly and would sway on a pivot built into their waists. Lissa called it a whirligig, but Pyrrhus saw it as a beautiful piece of functional artwork. In contrast, the twirling sisters were considerably more dangerous than the toy.
The combined effort of the whole group of Shepherds was able to quickly dispatch the remaining enemy soldiers, and allowed them a chance to catch their breath and compare notes. Morgan had sent up the signal once her team had realized the truth about the enemy forces, deciding that it would necessitate a change of plan. As they discussed, Cordelia burst into the armory with lance in hand.
"The Resistance has turned against us!" she shouted, drawing heads towards her as she dashed towards the group. She came to a stop before Pyrrhus, gasping for air and looking with relief at the unharmed faces of her children. "The… Resistance has turned against us," she repeated breathlessly.
"We know," Pyrrhus replied grimly. "We're deciding on the best course of action now."
"How do you… know?" Cordelia asked. "I could only just make out the fleeing League Army from the top of the aerie, how did word get to you?"
"Fleeing army, what do you mean?" Chrom asked.
But Pyrrhus already knew. "She means that all the Resistance is against us, including the ones back at camp." He released an angry growl, and kicked a nearby body in frustration.
"I suppose that means we aren't escaping the way we came," Chrom muttered.
"So what's the plan, Father?" Morgan asked, looking at Pyrrhus with her characteristically blithe optimism.
Pyrrhus shut his eyes tight as the weight of all their lives fell upon his shoulder once more. He allowed himself three seconds of inwardly-expressed panic, and then forced his mind back into focus. They needed to get clear of the fortress and regroup with the rest of the army. With the army fleeing south, their exit would no longer be safe.
"Cordelia, how did you get to this room?" He asked.
She pointed out the door she'd entered. "There's a hallway out that door with a stairway at the end. The stair leads to a landing. There's a central tower to the aerie from there."
"How large is the landing? Can we all fit there?"
She nodded. "Yes, it's quite large. I left Diomedes there, there's plenty of room."
"Good. Cordelia, go get Diomedes and call a retreat to your fliers. Meet us there and start ferrying Shepherds over the wall to the army."
"What about the messenger pegasi?" Chrom asked. "We're letting Yen'fay know where we are?"
"I'm not certain, but I have the distinct feeling that he already knows," Pyrrhus said darkly. "Gaius, get the others waiting outside with Say'ri and bring them with you."
The group hurried out the door and up the stairway to the landing, where Cordelia took off at once and went to get her team. As he watched her soar up towards the aerie, Pyrrhus wondered who could have done this. As he said before, this betrayal didn't really feel much like Yen'fay. Perhaps there was another player involved? Regardless, if the army was to escape, he would need to do some sort of significant damage here. With the Resistance army right on top of them, the Ylissean League couldn't properly flee. But if the captain of this fort were removed, there might be enough disarray to buy an escape.
Cordelia returned with the six under her command, and as they began loading up Shepherds, Pyrrhus spied the first set of fleet, unarmored pegasi spring from the aerie and head due south. Probably towards Oakstead, he decided, remembering the map.
As Cordelia was about to take off with Vaike behind her, Pyrrhus beckoned her and Chrom over. "Cordelia, drop this load off and keep going. Chrom, take command of the Shepherds."
"What's going on?" Chrom asked, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.
"I'm going back in," Pyrrhus said resolutely. "I'm going to find the captain of the keep and end him. I think that'll keep the fort in disarray long enough for us to escape."
"Oh, so you're committing suicide then," Cordelia replied dryly. "Vaike, my husband's gone insane. Kindly dismount and put him up on this pegasus."
"Stay, Vaike," Pyrrhus insisted. "I'm certain I can handle whatever the captain's guard will be." After all, he'd survived this mission once before, hadn't he?
"I'm not certain," Chrom said angrily. "I won't have my tactician get himself killed."
"Say I do believe you, how will you escape once he's dead?" Cordelia demanded.
"Once he's dead, I'll head to the aerie," Pyrrhus explained. "When you've got everyone else to safety, Cordelia, you return and save my sorry ass."
Cordelia groaned. "Why do you keep throwing yourself into these sorts of dangerous situations?"
"I thought you'd be pleased, my love," Pyrrhus said simply. "Who better to save me than you?"
"I'm not sending you alone," Chrom said. "Take someone with you. One of your daughters, or Lucina perhaps. Heck, take Vaike! Just someone to watch your back!"
"Stop talking about Teach as though he isn't part of this conversation!" Vaike shouted.
"Fine, I'll take Henry!" Pyrrhus shouted. "You put me in charge, Chrom, now trust my judgment." He rested his hands on Chrom's shoulders. "You have my word, I'll be just fine."
Chrom clenched his fists. "All right, damn it, you'd better be!" He motioned for the fliers to take off. "Go, I'll make sure the Shepherds get to safety."
"Henry, you're with me," Pyrrhus commanded.
"Yippee!" he replied.
Pyrrhus lifted his pike and the pair took off towards the aerie tower. He went shoulder-first into the door, sending it crashing open and catching a man unprepared, laying him low with a single stab. A winding stairway led both up and down from that floor, and Pyrrhus reasoned that the most likely place for the commander to take charge would be the aerie itself. It was as good a place as any to start, at least. He made for the upward-spiraling stair, taking the black stone steps two at a time. The light of the rising sun had begun poking through the windows, and grew more prominent as he climbed ever higher.
At last, he came upon the door at the top of the stairs, the one that could only lead to the bottom level of the aerie. He took a few seconds to catch his breath, readied his weapon, and kicked the door open.
Three people stood waiting for him. The most prominent was a young woman dressed in combat robes and carrying a surprisingly large axe. The insignia over her heart indicated that she was the leader of Fort Steiger. She was flanked by two men, each wearing similar robes with tomes at the ready. This level of the aerie was the stable, but the fact that it was empty suggested that all the messenger pegasi had already launched. It was a large, wide open room, with the stalls arrayed around the outer edge. A large, wide, and gentle incline at the far end of the room led upwards to the top floor, where the steeds would launch.
Pyrrhus lowered his pike. "You are the commander of this fort?" he asked the woman. It didn't hurt to confirm.
"I am Commander Pheros of Fort Steiger," she replied. "And that would make you... you don't look much like an Exalt."
"I am High Commander Pyrrhus of the Ylissean League."
She sighed. "Hmm. I had expected someone a little more impressive for such a prestigious title. Taller, perhaps?"
"Sorry to disappoint. I would insist that you surrender, but for some reason I have a feeling you're not the type to do that."
"Curious. I was going to say the same thing," she remarked. She raised her axe and leveled it at him.
"Henry?" Pyrrhus asked. "Do the thing."
The young blonde chuckled. "You got it!" He waved his arms around and a fire grew between them. In a matter of seconds, it had grown to considerable size, and Henry clapped his hands together to launch the fireball directly at Pheros.
Henry was good at fire. Pyrrhus would even have gone so far as to say that Henry excelled at fire. There were few things that could survive within the blast radius of one of his fireballs. So when Pheros held up a single hand and the ball of bright red flame dissolved into nothing, Pyrrhus had little to say.
"Can't say I was expecting that." Pyrrhus charged.
The two enemy mages leaped into action, sending a pair of lightning bolts at him. He dodged the first with a sidestep, but the second caught him square in the chest, forcing him to a stop.
"Henry!" Pyrrhus shouted. "Crows!"
"I'm working on it!" Henry insisted, preparing the spell.
"Crows now, Henry!" Pyrrhus regained his footing and charged again.
Pheros was ready. She dodged his pike and caught the edge with the hook of her axe, twisting it away and spinning along the pike to bring the axe down on Pyrrhus's helmet. Only by dropping the pike could Pyrrhus manage to get the attack to glance off his pauldron instead. He twisted to move around her and draw his sword, but Pheros, standing back to back with him, pulled it from its scabbard before he could reach it and tossed it out of reach before spinning away.
Pyrrhus reached to draw his spear, only to get stopped again by another bolt of lightning. He shouted in pain and growled, drawing a javelin instead and aiming it at the source of the attack. He hurled the javelin, but the other mage used a burst of wind to deflect the weapon's trajectory and it impacted into the wood pillar of one of the pegasus stalls.
"Henry!" Pyrrhus shouted.
"I need a-" Henry stopped as Pheros bolted towards him, axe at the ready. Apparently recognizing that his attacks would do little to slow her down, he instead prepared a shield spell, creating a magical bubble several feet around him to prevent attacks. "Need help!" he shouted.
Pheros began beating on the bubble with her axe, wearing down the protective magic. Pyrrhus moved to intercept her only to be stopped by another bolt of lightning. He recoiled in pain once more as the electricity tore through his body, aided by the conductive nature of his armor.
Pyrrhus fell to his knees. This was very bad indeed. But he found temporary relief as a cloud of crows burst into the aerie from the windows and stairs, surrounding them all with a black feathery cloud of painful distraction.
"Henry, up the stairs!" Pyrrhus shouted, unable to see anyone through the black mass. With his helmet to protect his eyes, he made his way to the stair and climbed up to the launch platform.
It was wide open here, little more than a flat roof for the mounts to land and leap. There was ample room for fighting, at least. Pyrrhus, now free from the birds, stumbled to the opposite end of the stairway and readied a javelin to strike at the first enemy to show their head coming up the stairs. He waited several seconds, wondering what was taking Henry so long, when all at once the crows stopped their flocking and began to break off, fleeing in every direction from the tower.
"Henry?" Pyrrhus called. Had he stopped the spell?
Pheros strode up the stairs, flanked by her two guards once more. Pyrrhus hurled his javelin but Pheros blocked it with the broad side of her axe, so casually that it looked as though she weren't even really trying. The three of them reached the top of the stairs and turned to face Pyrrhus, who switched back to his spear.
"Tsk," Pheros admonished. "I am disappointed. You really should have brought some more help."
"You have not yet seen me fight," Pyrrhus blustered.
"No, I should say I haven't," she agreed. "Only a layman would call what you're doing 'fighting.'"
"You're brave surrounded by your two men," Pyrrhus said provokingly. "Not brave enough to fight me one on one?"
"It is not a matter of bravery," Pheros explained. "It is simply that I am not so arrogant as to stroke my pride and give up an absurdly strong advantage."
"Where's Henry?" Pyrrhus demanded.
"He's unconscious. Holding up a shield spell like that while also controlling an army of crows is a hefty mental burden, I expect. I'll finish him once we're done here. So... maybe two minutes?"
Pyrrhus charged, but the long fight combined with his injuries from the two mages meant that he didn't get more than a few steps before he was hit again. This time, the pair of mages kept the attack going, knocking him to the ground and leaving him writhing in pain.
Pheros approached him slowly with her axe at the ready. "This blow I strike in the name of my Lord will mark the beginning of the end for the last remaining threat to his reign."
He rolled over, eyes fixed upon hers. "Come then, if you think you can fell me," he goaded her. "You will find that axe a bit too slow to strike me down."
"I think you are the loudest dead man I have ever met." She lifted the axe and aimed for his neck. "Goodbye, High Commander Pyrrhus of the Ylissean League."
Before the axe could fall, a soft thunk reverberated through the air and a javelin embedded itself in the chest of one of the mages. Pheros and the second mage turned to look at the source, and Pyrrhus used the last of his strength to roll over, draw his final javelin, and hurl it into the neck of the other mage.
"You shall not touch my husband!" A voice proclaimed from the sky. Pheros took a step back from Pyrrhus, who was now utterly spent, and looked into the air.
Cordelia landed in a crouched position upon the roof, lance in hand. She looked first to Pyrrhus, then to Pheros. "You said you were going to be just fine, husband."
Pyrrhus managed a chuckle. "Sorry, dear." He glanced up to Pheros. "Oh, you are so dead now." He let his head fall back to the ground.
"Husband?" Pheros asked. "This man, he is yours?" She brandished her axe at the pegasus knight.
"Yes, yes he is very much mine," Cordelia replied. Ordinarily, Pyrrhus would have objected to her treating him like property, but he decided that he was better off saving his strength for more important matters. Also, Cordelia had never looked more terrifying than she did at this very moment.
"Hmph," scoffed Pheros. "In the name of the Conqueror, your lives are both forfeit! You shall not claim this fortress!"
Cordelia's eyes blazed with fury as she slowly stalked towards her victim. "In the name of the Exalt, I will end you." Cordelia charged.
If the fight between Pyrrhus and Pheros had been one-sided, this was another league entirely. Pheros tried to catch Cordelia's spear with her axe and deflect it away, but Cordelia spun around with the spear without stopping her forward movement, adding follow-through so that the haft of the spear slammed against the back of Pheros's head, turning her blonde hair red as she tumbled away.
She turned to face Cordelia, who now stood protectively over Pyrrhus's body. "You know, I once followed the former Exalt, Emmeryn. I made the pilgrimage to see her speak in Ylisstol. But I have found a greater purpose now. I serve a god among men, the true king!"
Cordelia sneered. "You sound as though you have more... direct feelings for him."
Pheros gasped. "How could you... I... do. He is... glorious. He will accomplish what the Exalt, for all her words of peace, could never do. He will unite all peoples."
"You mean unite them beneath him."
"Where all of you belong," Pheros corrected. "A great leader like he takes control of the heart. He inspires others much the way she did." She advanced forward, trying to get in range with her axe, but Cordelia would have none of it. She jabbed forward and swung left, disarming Pheros in one swift maneuver.
Pheros backed away from Cordelia, then turned and dashed for the nearest downed mage. She pulled the javelin from his corpse and brought it to bear against her foe.
Cordelia took a step forward, placing herself firmly between Pyrrhus and Pheros. "Don't you see, you fool? He'll never love you, never feel the way you do for him. Whatever fantasy you've cooked up for the two of you is just that: fantasy."
"That may be the case, but I can see it when I close my eyes. For now, that is enough."
"Surrender!" Cordelia commanded.
"If I did, he would never love me. And if he did love me anyway, then I never could." Pheros charged one more time, roaring out a battle cry in a tired rage. Cordelia remained calm, and skillfully thrust with her spear as she sidestepped, piercing Pheros's chest armor and stabbing deep into her breast.
She collapsed to her knees, defeated, spitting up blood. "I may not live... to see my love unite us all... but I have seen it in my dreams... That is enough..." She tried in vain to grasp the spear in her body, but could not summon sufficient strength. Her head slumped forward and she died.
Cordelia pulled her spear from the body and walked over to Pyrrhus. She rolled him over, drew a flask from her belt, and poured a vulnerary down his throat.
Pyrrhus coughed as a bit of the brew went into his windpipe, then sat up as new strength flowed through his body. "You saved my life, Cordelia."
"Of course I did," she replied. "Nobody hurts my husband." She poked him in his chestplate. "Just one of the perks of being married to me. Now, where's Henry?"
"Did you get everyone else to safety?" Pyrrhus asked.
"Ugh, of course that's your first question. Yes, everyone else is just fine, nobody but you is suffering from grievous bodily harm."
"Henry's downstairs, unconscious. Can Diomedes alone carry the three of us?"
"Not for very long," Cordelia answered. She stoppered the flask and took off downstairs. Pyrrhus gathered up the weapons that remained on the roof.
After getting his javelins and spear, he examined the tomes. "Pretty much toast," he remarked, giving them the once-over. Those long-duration lightning spells had all but completely burned out the magic therein. Last, he looked at the axe that Pheros had dropped. It was a pretty thing. One of the Shepherds would find a good use for it, especially considering that new weapons might be hard to come by in the near future.
Cordelia emerged from below, carrying a sleeping Henry and the rest of their weapons. She whistled, and a few seconds later Diomedes lighted upon the landing platform before them. With effort, Pyrrhus and Cordelia managed to get the body onto horseback, and then the two climbed on.
Diomedes sauntered over to the edge, and Cordelia turned back to speak to Pyrrhus. "The League Army is in retreat from the combined mass of Resistance forces. We didn't stop the pegasi from launching, so Walhart and Yen'fay are both on their way. Pyrrhus, what are we going to do?"
He sighed. The vulnerary was a stopgap solution, and he could still feel his insides on fire with electrical burns. "For now, there's only one thing we can do. We run."
Diomedes leaped off the aerie and Cordelia guided him southward, to meet with the retreating army as the sun finally shone out over the forest, heralding the new day.
A/N: I'm back, everyone! As always, thanks to all my readers and especially to my reviewers! I can't believe I've hit 300! That's incredible!
Sorry this took so long, but I really struggled with writing the middle part. The first and last thirds were both pretty quick, but getting everything in the middle right took some doing. This chapter is longer than usual though, so I hope that makes up for it a little.
I really hope I don't lose anyone for my changes to Pheros. I always felt like she had sort of a thing for Walhart, the way that he managed to turn her from her devotion to Emmeryn. And the idea to use her as a foil for Cordelia was just too promising of an idea to ignore. I also hope I don't lose anyone for having Cordelia's big solo battle be against another woman, as though implying that she's only tough "for a woman." I fully intend to give Cordelia her due in terms of time spent kicking mens' butts, and I've tried to portray her as the most outright skilled warrior amongst the Shepherds. I just couldn't live with myself as a writer if I didn't use every opportunity to have a pair of foils battle to the death. Plus I got to have Cordelia use that line. If you don't know which one I mean, go back and reread that section, and see if there's anything she says that might pertain to her own past.
I also use this chapter to show off Pyrrhus's new fighting style. It's this patchwork combination of landsknecht and roman legionnaire, plus a bit of "use whatever's nearby" that I imagine is how combat would really have worked in the time period. It's like how they say in WW1 the most useful weapon the trench soldiers had was the spade they used for digging latrines, because in the close quarters of the trench it was impossible to use the rifle or bayonet, and the spade was sharp enough to stab up under the chin and kill a man. In essence, he's a human pincushion clanking around in heavy armor. Three javelins, a pike, a spear, and a sword for emergencies. It's almost complete.
Since my last chapter, there's been a lot of news about the new Fire Emblem game. I've been avoiding most of the spoilers, but I'll just straight up say that I'm totally siding with Nohr. But then, I am after all fervently pro-western combat styles.
Next chapter, siblings will battle, and Pyrrhus will be in the dark about some things. We will also meet a new foe! Until then!