Chapter 31: A Traitor Emerges
By the time Azura, Bryan, and the rest of the army had managed to force a breach in the enemy's defenses and allow two of Eric's dracoknights to fly over the front walls of Fort Mercue to the inner gate, many of the soldiers who'd accompanied the prince were wounded and exhausted. It was no surprise, as it seemed that with every battle, both the Red Claw and Melora grew stronger. It was only the good fortune that the same held true for the Allied armies that kept Bryan and his company from being pulverized already. As he watched many soldiers break away from the combat, too often in retreat, while panting heavily and clutching bloody arms or legs, Bryan gritted his teeth. For much of the battle, momentum had swung against the would-be prince of Astryn, and he and Azura had only one option remaining to them.
"Azura, how much of the enemy force do you think is left?" the prince inquired, turning to the earl of Elhorhi, who knelt nearby while tending to a bloody gash on her left leg.
"Out here? Not much, if any at all," Azura replied. "I only see our soldiers right now. But that doesn't mean there aren't more Red Claw members holed up in the fort."
"I agree. I have a plan though. You, Ike, and I will charge into the fort once the dracoknights give the signal that the inner gate is open. There could still be more enemies hiding inside, and the three of us would have the best chance of fighting off any ambushes. Eric, Marc, and Leona will circle around to block the back gates. If there are any Red Claw members left inside, they'll probably attempt to escape through there. Everyone else is to pull back to the edge of the field. They're to treat their wounds, reequip as needed, and keep their eyes and ears peeled for anything or anyone untoward. And, if someone does see or hear something, they're to report it to us straight away."
"Sounds good to me. Let me heal up first and I'll go get Ike."
"And I'll relay the orders to everyone else. Meet me at the outer gate when you're done."
With that, Azura hurriedly applied some Vulnerary to her leg wound and, time pressing her too sharply to wait for the medicine to work, limped off in search of Ike. Bryan then headed for the outer gate in hopes that the dracoknights had finished unlocking its inward twin. Thankfully, two were already awaiting him and he raced to join them.
"Were you able to get the inner gates open?" he inquired.
"But, of course," one of the draconknights replied, a bit smugly. "The enemy had quite the reception waiting for us on the other side of the wall, but we cut them to ribbons. As far as we could see, there weren't any more bandits or Melorans on the inside, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're in there. Whoever's going through those gates should keep their wits about them."
"Excellent. And don't worry, I was planning on doing just that," Bryan replied. "For now, I want you two to pull back and find General Eric. Tell him that he is to take Marc and Leona and block the back gates so no enemies, if any are left, can escape. Once that's done, you are to follow the others back to the perimeter. Treat your injuries, reequip as needed, and then patrol the skies. If anyone sees anything out of the ordinary, they're to notify me or Azura immediately."
"And, what about you?"
"I'll scout the area inside the walls and the interior of the fort along with Azura and Ike. Even if the enemy is still in there, we can take them. If we need help, however, I'll have Ike signal you with an energy slash from Ragnell. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it. Two slashes means the fort is secure, and we want whoever's healed up to come in and help us search for the prisoners. "
Bryan had been about to dash off in search of Ike and Azura, but the dracoknight's surprising words had caused him to jerk to a halt. Much to the prince's surprise, he'd heard none of the bitter sarcasm or skepticism he'd come to expect from Eric or Tavon.
"I'm surprised to hear you say that," Bryan admitted.
"Well, I wasn't expecting to say it either," the dracoknight confessed in turn. "I was skeptical when I first heard about you. After all, there were plenty of charlatans trying to pass themselves off as the "Lost Prince of Astryn," but not one of them did a damned thing to prove their claim; much less leading our troops in a great battle and charging into a fort that's possibly filled with a battalion of reinforcements with only two allies at his back. Not even General Eric has the guts to do that. Don't tell him I said that though, he'll have me shoveling wyvern manure for months."
"My lips are sealed," Bryan replied with a smile.
"Well, all jests aside, Prince Bryan, I must say that you've convinced me at least," the first dracoknight complimented. "I admire your courage and skill. And, I rather doubt I'm alone in saying so."
"Indeed, he isn't," the second added. "General Eric is an admirable man, but it's been a long time since Astryn's had a leader of your caliber. A man like you should be on the throne, your highness."
"Ah… Thank you. You don't know how much that means to me," Bryan replied, his smile broadening. "Now let's finish this!"
"Yes, Sir!" the two dracoknights saluted in unison. They then took to the air and soared off to relay Bryan's orders.
While Bryan waited for Azura and Ike to join him, he could not suppress a sigh of relief, nor a sudden pulse of excitement. Though he tried not to let himself become overconfident, he could not help but suspect that many of the dracoknights shared the sentiments of the pair he'd just spoken with. And, even the possibility that he'd already won the loyalty of the dracoknights made him happier than he'd been in a long time, especially when he'd feared that Marion's death meant that his mission had already failed. If he could gain the trust of the imprisoned hawk mercenaries, and hopefully Eric as well, then the Astrynian nobles would have to let Bryan approach Eronite as they had promised. At long last, victory was so close that he could taste it.
Of course, there was still a great deal to do, even with that success. Shigo, who had brought Astryn to its knees twenty years ago and killed Bryan's mother, was still out there. And, he had gone unpunished for far too long. Still, the prince knew he would need to build up an army before he could and finally challenge Shigo to a final confrontation. And, he reminded himself, the support of the hawks would be crucial to that effort. Funny how everything depends on the opinions of a few hawk laguz… Bryan mused as he tried to force himself back to the present. Moments later, however, his thoughts were interrupted by a familiar feminine voice.
"Bryan!" Azura called as she rushed over, followed by Ike.
"Ah, there you two are. Good timing," Bryan replied with a smile. "Now, let's get in there. We'll draw out and clobber any enemies still inside and then signal whoever's able to come in and help us find those hawk mercenaries."
"Wait, just one question. How are we supposed to know how many to look for?" Ike inquired. "I don't want to rescue a few and then find out later that we accidentally left more behind. That would reflect pretty badly on all of us."
"Hm, good point," Bryan admitted. "We'll just have to cover the entire fort. The hawk laguz might be able to tell us how many of them are here. But for all we know, the Red Claw could be keeping more prisoners than the Astrynian nobles know about, so let's not take any chances. If Melora is using this place as a prison, they might have a manifest of the prisoners held here. So, keep an eye out for any documents."
"I like the sound of that," Azura commented. "And you think you aren't cut out to be a leader, Bryan. If anyone around here is a terrible leader, it's me."
"That's nonsense. I think you've done a fine job so far, Azura," Bryan countered. "I still don't know if I'm cut out to be a king though."
"I agree with Bryan, Azura," Ike added. "But I know how you both feel. When I first became the commander of the Greil Mercenaries, I was terrified. Oh, I'd been training for that day for years; but, it came a lot sooner than anybody expected. I wasn't even half the commander my father was; and, everybody knew it. Two of our members even deserted us when they heard the news that I was taking over. But, I took on the challenge; and look where it got me. I'll admit, I didn't exactly expect to become anywhere near as famous as I am, nor did I think that my future wife would end up being a princess, but even so. You both just have to keep going and never give up. It's never easy, but it can be done. I'm living proof."
"That's true, but that's a mercenary company. Ruling an earldom, or an entire nation, is on a completely different scale," Azura argued.
"Maybe, but what I'm saying still applies," Ike continued. "As King Wencelis said, only practice can make a good leader. Azura, you've led this company for a long time now, and Bryan's led his platoon even longer; and, both of you have done pretty well. Besides, I had Titania and Soren to advise me when I wasn't sure what to do. Bryan has Francois, and Azura, you have Bronwyn. You'll manage, I know you will."
"You know, you're right, Ike," Azura agreed. "I've never thought of it that way before."
"Yeah. Hold on, Elincia is royalty too?" Bryan gasped, his eyes widening.
At hearing the Emerald Sentinel's question, Ike's face screwed up in aggravation and he slapped a massive hand against his forehead hard enough to make Azura wince.
"Aw, crud! Well, yes, Elincia used to be a queen, actually. She was a princess when I first met her…how long ago was it? I'd say over three years, maybe close to four. She was crowned following the Mad King's War, but just before she came to Altarais, she stepped down. A while ago, I asked her about it, and she told me that she left to find me, but that she'd also been reexamining what she'd done during her reign and she believed that she was unfit to rule Crimea. I didn't agree, heck, as far as I can tell, nobody did, but, she felt it was in the best interest of the people that she abdicate. It is true that she wasn't raised to take the throne. Her uncle was originally named the heir by her father, the king, but he was thought to be dead after disappearing in the Mad King's War. We found him during the Goddess War, three years later, and Elincia tells me he's likely taken the throne by now. Don't tell her I brought this up to you though, she doesn't want to hear of it again."
"Huh. Okay, fair enough," Bryan replied.
"When I first met Elincia," Azura spoke up, after a contemplative silence, "she said she never wanted to speak of her royal blood again. By that, do you think that you and she will stay in Altarais when the war is over?"
"I'll be honest, I don't know," Ike admitted. "She and I have mulled over it a few times, but we haven't really decided."
Here, Ike paused and let a humorous grin tug at the corners of his lips.
"We were a little busy, you see. I think she would like to at least visit her uncle, and I wouldn't mind seeing my sister and the other mercenaries again. But, I really don't know if we could move back. I don't know a lot about how royal succession works, and I'd like it to stay that way, but I kinda doubt that an abdication is the sort of thing you could just take back. Still, at first, the only reason I left Tellius was because I thought I'd lost her; and, one of her main reasons for coming here was to find me. If we could go back, if she wanted to, and we could be together, I'd follow her there in a heartbeat. Or, we might decide to stay here in Altarais. All the pratfalls and brushes with death aside, this place does have its charms."
"Well, if you decide to stay here, I don't doubt for a minute that you'll be welcome," Azura affirmed.
"I agree," Bryan said. "Now, let's get going."
"Heh, no problem," Ike said. "And, of course."
With that, the trio proceeded through the open gates and towards the inner grounds of the fort. They hadn't taken more than a few steps inside, however, when another familiar voice called out to them.
"Hey, don't go in without me!" Kye shouted as he emerged from the shadows beneath the fort's ramparts and raced up to meet them.
"What the—? Kye! How did you get in here?" Bryan blurted confusedly.
"Oh, haha, I snuck in earlier after those dracoknights opened the gate," Kye explained. "I wanted to go inside with you. And don't worry, I already checked out the area. There aren't any more enemies, at least, not out here."
"What? Don't you know how dangerous that could've been? What if there had been more Red Claw members waiting?"
"Oh, don't worry, I'd have been fine. We thieves and rogues have to be quick, stealthy, and able to think on our feet, you know. I got through the battle and past the dracoknights without being noticed, didn't I?"
"True, but still. I think you should stay with the others."
"I agree," Azura seconded. "We don't even know what we might be facing."
"But this is a time where my skills would be useful!" Kye protested. "Remember how the Red Claw have been plundering villages? They might have stashed some of what they took here! Not to mention the supplies that the Red Claw brought with them from Melora! We could use them; and, it'd be great to give the Red Claw a taste of their own medicine. Besides, I have lock picks and knives! If there's any loot here, I'll find it. Plus, if the hawk laguz are locked up or shackled, I can bust them out too. You wouldn't need to search for keys."
"…He's got a point, Bryan," Ike replied, sensing that the Emerald Sentinel was still less-than-enamored with the idea.
"Hmm, yeah, I'll admit that you're right," Bryan conceded. "Alright, Kye, you can come with us, but you must promise to be very careful. You know how Skye is when you get in trouble."
"Yeah, I know. And I promise," Kye agreed.
"Good. Now since you already checked the inner grounds, let's go inside."
With that, the four began to explore the large main building of the fort. Although this Red Claw-occupied fort was not filthy, nor run down like Fort Hector, it hardly came into the Red Claw's hands unscathed. The main hall was opulent, so much so that it felt almost like the inside of a castle; but, here and there, the companions could see marble tiles that had cracked under the weight of armored knights or been gouged into by errant blows from Red Claw axes. Plush carpets spanned the floors of the main hall, though many of these had been knocked askew or torn during what must've been a pitched battle. Chandeliers, some of which were pierced by stray arrows, decorated the ceiling and pots of flowers sat on small side tables, though only half of these had escaped destruction. Bryan wasn't surprised at the fort's battered state but, as when he had seen the mausoleum-like Medann, he could not help a sigh of regret that this once magnificent edifice was so marred.
"Okay, Francois said that the prison cells are on the lowest floor, so we'll start down here," Bryan decided. "Everybody, stay alert."
"Sounds good to me," Azura replied.
The others agreed and with that, they proceeded through the various hallways and corridors in the fort. The place was eerily silent after the tumult of the battle, but appeared to be empty. Less-than-reassured by the seeming absence of any Red Claw members, the four warily focused on locating the hawk mercenaries. Bryan suddenly found himself regretting that he hadn't had Ike signal for other troops from the army to join the search, as the fort was huge. Though there was only one large building, whereas most forts had several, Bryan had gauged the structure as having at least five floors and, likely, several basement levels as well. In such an enormous structure, the Red Claw likely could've imprisoned the hawk laguz just about anywhere, especially given the bandit army's cunning and the time they'd had to familiarize themselves with all of Mercue's nooks and crannies. Bryan had been about to send Ike out to signal for more searchers but, before he could even open his mouth, a loud clanging sound rang out.
"What was that?" Ike whispered, easing Ragnell out of its sheath.
"Not sure," Bryan answered, pointing to a doorway whose door had been torn off its hinges. "It sounds like it came from down there. I think I can see a stairway from here."
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Kye asked rhetorically, sprinting to take the lead before several hands seized his scarf to snatch him back.
"All of you, be careful," Bryan warned, readying his shield. "If there are Red Claw down there, they could turn that stairway into a bottleneck and pick us off one by one. I'll take the lead. The rest of you, stay behind me. If there are Red Claw down there, you can throw projectiles at them from behind me while I skewer them as they come in close."
The others agreed and, half expecting a small army to greet them, descended the stairs to discover a hallway filled with prison cells. Strangely, the hallway seemed to be empty. But, just when they were about to turn back, the clanging rang out again. This time, it was much louder. They followed the sound to a cell near the end of the corridor, and behind the bars stood two hawk laguz. One was a somewhat bulky man with silver hair and large, sharp-feathered golden brown wings. The other was a much younger looking girl with burnt orange wings and yellow hair. The man was holding a gold coin, likely what had been struck against the metal bars to attract the attention of Bryan and company.
"Ah, thank goodness!" the man said with undisguised relief. "You heard my signal. Are you here to rescue us?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact, we are," Bryan replied. "I'm relieved we found you so soon."
"As am I, but… Who are you? You don't look at all like Astrynian soldiers," the man observed. "No offense, of course, but we were obviously expecting them, since they surely know this fort had fallen by now."
"Don't worry, I understand. I'd have thought no differently myself. But to answer your question, this is Azura, the Lady of Elhorhi in Talgria, Ike, a mercenary serving under her, and Kye, a skilled thief also serving under the two of us. And I am Bryan, prince of Astryn."
At this, the eyes of both hawk laguz shot wide open and the male hawk's coin fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers.
"Did…Did you say prince?" the girl uttered.
"I did. To be honest, I hadn't actually known of my bloodline until my father revealed it to me several days ago."
"Wow," the man commented as he bent to retrieve the bit of gold he'd dropped. "So the rumor about Astryn having a long lost prince is true."
"I'm really shocked. I had thought it was just a local legend that grew out of everyone's worries over Queen Marion," the girl added.
I'm a legend? Bryan mused, somewhat self-consciously. Faline, Skye and Cato will never let me hear the end of it.
"Well, the problem is, my father and I don't actually have any concrete proof of our claims," Bryan admitted. "We hoped that Queen Marion could confirm my identity, since she was my aunt, but she passed away before I could reach her. There might still be a way, however. In fact, we need your help if we are to have a chance at all. With Queen Marion dead, I only have one chance to claim the throne before certain other untrustworthy parties begin vying for the crown. The nobles sent me and my comrades to rescue you as a test of my abilities and trustworthiness. I'm hoping that retaking this fort will help me to make my case, and that you will aid me as well."
"I see. Then we will do what we can," the man agreed. "In fact, I may be able to help more than you think. My name is Josef and this girl is my student, Sheryl. But before we do anything, there is one favor I ask of you, your highness."
"And what would that be?" Bryan wondered, unable to keep his eagerness from his tone.
"I would like to speak with your father. I will explain everything then."
"…Uh, sure. I don't see why not. Do you know if there are there anymore prisoners here?"
"Sorry, no. But knowing the Red Claw, there could be, so it might be a good idea to do a search of the place."
"Then that's what we'll do. First, though, we have to get you two out of that cell. Kye, that's your cue."
"Right!" the young thief happily complied. "Just give me a second and I'll have you guys out of there in a jiffy!"
With that, Kye produced one of his lock picks and inserted it into the lock on the cell door. Within seconds, it clicked open and the less-than-effective lock clattered to the floor.
"And there you go!" Kye proclaimed proudly and opened the door.
"Thanks!" Sheryl replied as she and her teacher stepped out. "You're very skilled for one so young."
"I have to agree there," Josef seconded.
"Oh wow, thanks!" Kye replied happily.
"My pleasure. Now, let's get down to business," Josef continued and turned to Bryan. "Prince Bryan, while your comrades search this place, shall we go see your father?"
"Yes, of course. He's with us, so that should be no problem," Bryan agreed. "We're going to need more people to search a place this big though. Ike, the others are waiting for you to signal them. Head back outside and use Ragnell to send two energy slashes into the air. I told the others that when they see them, to send in everybody who's well enough to help."
"Gee, it's like I'm twelve and the company errand boy again," Ike snickered, somewhat nostalgically. "Seriously though, I'll take care of it."
"Thanks. And Azura, would you mind overseeing the search?"
"Not at all. I'll have Eric and his men patrol the perimeter while everyone else joins us in here," Azura agreed with a smile.
"Sounds good to me."
With that, Bryan led the two hawk laguz outside of the fort while Ike raced to the courtyard to send the signal. Meanwhile, Kye immediately began scavenging the remaining hallways and Azura went to find Eric and the others and relay their new orders. Bryan's journey to find his father, however, proved to be unexpectedly delayed. Not that Bryan had much cause for complaint, however. As the searchers poured into the fort, a number of Eric's dracoknights spotted the prince and a great clamor rose from their ranks.
Having grown up as a lonely outcast, it took Bryan nearly a minute to realize that they were cheering.
"Long live Prince Bryan! Long live Prince Bryan!" rang out from the aerial warriors, louder and louder until Bryan suspected the echoes could be heard all the way in Medann.
And, they weren't the only ones chanting. Bryan could hear the voices of Faline, Skye, Francois and the men of his platoon along with them. The Emerald Sentinel, blinking away joyful tears, felt himself flush right to the tops of his ears while the corners of his mouth drew upwards in pursuit. Several dozen hugs, handshakes and shoulder-pumps later, Bryan was still discreetly pinching himself to ensure that this was not some torturously delightful dream. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spied Josef and recalled his errand. With an apologetic grin, he led the hawk laguz to the army's camp.
Upon reaching the makeshift encampment, Bryan discovered that Owen had sought refuge inside Bronwyn's wagon during the battle. He immediately summoned his father outside once he approached it and explained that one of the newly rescued hawk laguz wished to speak with him. When Owen stepped down from the wagon and laid eyes on Josef, however, he froze where he stood and his eyeballs nearly popped out of his skull. Josef, by contrast, merely gave a large, friendly smile, as if encountering a longtime friend whom he hadn't seen in years. In fact, as Bryan's gaze darted back and forth between the two men, he found himself suspecting that may very well be the case.
"Master Owen," the hawk laguz greeted. "How good it is to finally see you again."
Bryan's eyebrow arched.
"…Josef?" Owen uttered, still in shock. "Is…is that really you?"
"It is. It warms my heart to know that you're alive. I almost didn't recognize you, you've changed so much."
"I can imagine. I never told anyone where I had gone. What had happened to you though? I didn't think you survived the last war."
"Indeed, I nearly didn't. And, I must admit, I'm curious about how you survived as well."
"Whoa, hold on a minute! You two know each other?" Bryan interrupted.
"We do," Owen replied with a smile. "In fact, Josef is my oldest friend, in more ways than one."
"It's true, your highness," Josef confirmed. "I've known your father practically from the cradle. When you first appeared to me, I could not help but notice how much your face resembled that of my old friend, Master Owen. Then, when you mentioned that it was your father who told you of your bloodline, I began to suspect that the resemblance was no coincidence. As for how I know your father, we hawk mercenaries are also hired to protect the children of Astrynian noble houses during troubled times. I was often hired by House Novat to guard your father. He was only a hatchling at the time, to coin a phrase, so I found myself disposing of soiled diapers almost as often as intruders."
"Josef!" Owen opined bashfully, noting the unmistakable snickering coming from his son.
"Hey, I only speak the truth," Josef chuckled. "Your family were good people and they paid me handsomely."
"Heh, that is true. But, what had happened to you during the war?"
"Well, as you might have guessed, I was hired to fight in the war. But, Shigo's forces overwhelmed our troops. All were slain, save for a few of us, and we only narrowly escaped death. We had no choice but to retreat back to Recathe when the war came to an end and, alas, we've not done much for Astryn since. There are more than a few who believe there is little we can do for Astryn these days, but today's events might just change that. I had thought you had perished with the rest of your family in the war. So, I returned home and took Sheryl here under my wing. I sincerely apologize, Master Owen. If I had known you were still alive, we would have found one another again much sooner."
"Ah… Don't worry, I understand. I'm just glad to know you're still alright after all these years."
"Huh," Bryan murmured, before sudden inspiration drove him to interject. "Josef, did you know about me or my mother? She was Princess Caline, Queen Marion's younger sister."
"…Actually, no," Josef continued and turned to Owen. "I didn't even know you had married at all, let alone that you had a son of your own."
"Ah, yes… I wanted to tell you, but my family had no reason to hire you again at that time," Owen explained. "I was planning to call upon you during the war, so that Bryan would be protected in case the worst should befall me, but Shigo overwhelmed Medann so quickly. I hadn't enough time to look for you. But… Josef. You don't know how happy I am to see you. I had believed I lost all my friends and family, aside from my son. I thought Bryan was all I had left…"
Owen sniffled, unable to prevent tears from forming in his eyes.
"I understand," Josef commented, clapping a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I'm happy to know you're alive as well and that your son is such a noble and good-hearted young man. I can see that you've raised him well, despite your grief. And, I have already vowed that Sheryl and I will support him with our very lives."
"Indeed we will," Sheryl agreed, more than a hint of girlish excitement in her tone. "I'm quite intrigued by this little tale."
"Ah… Thank you so much," Owen replied with another sniffle. "That means a lot to me."
"Me too. This also means that Father now has proof of his identity as a Grand Duke," Bryan added. "You can vouch for him when we return to Medann, Josef."
"That I can. We should depart for the palace as soon as your errands are done here, your highness," Josef agreed.
With that, Bryan returned to the fort to join his comrades in their search. Thankfully, by this time, the troops had responded to Ike's signal and Bryan could see Azura assigning several search parties to seek out whatever else might remain to be found within the fort. After several hours, however, no other prisoners were discovered. Thankfully, a search of the commander's office revealed what appeared to be the manifest of the prisoners the Red Claw had incarcerated, and the document confirmed that only Josef and Sheryl had been imprisoned at Mercue. Apparently, the two hawks were scheduled to be moved to Melora the next morning. The would-be prince of Astryn, it seemed, had come for them just in time.
However, the search did reveal a vast trove of other treasures which had been hidden away within the fort's walls. Kye managed to find thousands of gold pieces along with newly crafted weapons and fresh food. Some had originally belonged to the Red Claw, but ever every storage room in the fort had been crammed with additional supplies, likely plundered from Astrynian cities and villages. Bryan decided that most of the food and some of the gold pieces would go to nearby villages where they would be needed, and instructed Misty to ferry it to them. Bronwyn's wagon, meanwhile, would carry the extra weapons and Ryin volunteered to melt down whatever she didn't have enough space for so that the metal could be used to make new weapons in the future. Bryan and Azura were glad of this, as it turned out that they had discovered far more than even both wagons could possibly carry. Plus, the food Bryan had discovered would be more than enough to feed his hungry and impoverished people without running the risk of depleting the army's provisions.
When these many errands were finally completed, the army set out for the palace once again. Earning the trust of the hawk laguz had been easier than Bryan expected, thanks to his fortuitous meeting with Josef, and the dracoknights had already made it quite clear that they now had faith in him as well. Eric, obviously, was still resentful of the prince's newfound popularity, and his mood did not improve when Olivia playfully cuffed the Emerald Sentinel on the shoulder, but Bryan knew that the nobles could not possibly refuse him the right to approach Eronite now. As for Eric, perhaps the chance to win over the surly wyvern general would present itself along the way to the palace. In any case, Bryan's moment of truth was coming at last.
During the journey, Bryan could not help but notice that Owen and Josef spoke a great deal, laughing and smiling as they, most likely, reminisced about their years together in Astryn and exchanging stories about their lives after Shigo's invasion. Bryan knew very well that the two had a lot of catching up to do, but he knew as well that he hadn't seen his father so happy in a very long time. Perhaps not in years, perhaps not since he had lost his wife. Perhaps, at long last, this reunion had helped to heal some of the scars he had borne from all of the losses he'd suffered at the hands of Shigo. At this, Bryan couldn't help but smile himself. He had barely even met Josef but, after seeing how his appearance had helped his father, Bryan already liked the silver haired hawk. He had little chance to listen in, however; soon enough, the prince and his companions stood before the palace once more. It was finally time for Bryan to prove his bloodline and secure his throne. Owen would then be reinstated as Grand Duke and Tavon would never become king. And, very likely, Bryan would fulfill his mother's wishes at long last.
After Francois led the two men back into the palace and advised Josef to wait until he had permission to enter, they immediately sought out Laris, Canus, and Tavon. However, the trio of noblemen was no longer in the main hall where they had first met the prince. So Francois called over a patrolling guard and requested that they be summoned. The guard then left to seek the trio out and around half an hour later, the three nobles presented themselves to their guests once again. Tavon, as always, had a calculating expression on his face and looked at Bryan with scorn in his eyes.
"Ah, milord Laris, milord Canus, and milord Tavon," Francois greeted. "I'm glad all of you could answer my summons so quickly. We have much to tell you."
"Greetings, Count Francois, Master Owen, and our would-be prince Bryan. I suspected as much," Laris replied. "Now, was the mission a success?"
The count of Urae did not reply, but instead stepped aside and beckoned for the Emerald Sentinel to advance closer to the trio of noblemen.
"It was," Bryan confirmed. "And, the dracoknights have chosen to support me, as did the hawk laguz we rescued. In fact, one of the hawks is an old friend of my father's and he can vouch for his identity as the Grand Duke of House Novat."
"Oh? Is that so?" Laris replied, his eyebrows arching.
"It's true," Francois seconded. "They had explained it to me on the way here. The mercenary's name is Josef. He claims to have served House Novat many times in years gone by."
"I see… Canus, what do you think?"
"Well, the hawk laguz have been trusted allies to us, as well as Orenias and Talgria, for generations," Canus pointed out. "I see no reason why we shouldn't hear Josef out."
"And you, Tavon?" Laris inquired, a hint of severity creeping into his tone.
"Hmph. I suppose this might be amusing," the surly duke replied. "At least this charlatan spared us the trouble of tracking down his accomplices."
Bryan merely growled again, only barely suppressing his urge to un-sling his lance.
"Bryan, calm yourself," Owen ordered, snatching at his son's arm.
Tavon merely chuckled deviously. Yes, do listen to your father, you spineless fool. It won't matter if anything you say is true. I have waited far too long for my due to be cheated by some exile crept from the shadows.
"…Ahem, okay then," Laris acknowledged, his tone still hard. "We shall first speak with Josef. As for you, Bryan, you have kept your promise, and we have not forgotten ours. You have earned the right to approach Eronite. It will be presented to you once Josef had given his testimony."
"Thank you very much," Bryan replied with a smile.
With that, Francois went to fetch Josef while Bryan and Owen awaited their return. Bryan, by this time, felt ready to burst from anticipation, and Owen had to ask him to stop pacing and fidgeting quite a few times. Thankfully, it only took minutes for the count of Urae to bring the hawk laguz mercenary before the three Astrynian nobles. Josef quickly reiterated his story about having known Owen very nearly from the Grand Duke's birth and that he was, indeed, the son of a lost Astrynian noble house.
"And you are certain that this man is the same person you knew all those years ago?" Laris inquired. "By your own admission, many years have passes since then and, in a matter of such importance, we wish to be sure."
"Yes. I'm as certain of this as I am of my own name, your grace," Josef affirmed. "I would never dishonor the Novat family name by passing off a charlatan as one of their great progeny. They were honorable people and, as you should know, they had an extraordinary history."
"Indeed, that is very true," Laris agreed. "As such, we will believe your testimony. However, you also say that you had no knowledge of Grand Duke Owen's son, or even his marriage. This means that your story does not prove that Owen's wife was a princess or even a noble; much less that Bryan is royalty himself. Therefore, he still must approach Eronite to prove his claims."
"So do we," Bryan added. "And I am fully prepared."
"Good," Laris replied. "Josef, you may go. Canus, Tavon, and I will now go fetch Eronite. Considering the…stir your arrival caused, I would not be surprised if other nobles accompany us as we return. I will be blunt with you, many of them would be very happy to see you fail this test. But, I believe you would nonetheless be well advised to show them respect, Bryan."
With that, the three nobles took their leave once again to bring the sacred lance to Bryan. Josef, meanwhile, clapped an encouraging hand on Bryan's shoulder and departed the palace. However, as he waited, Bryan felt his anxiety from moments ago begin to return with a vengeance. He didn't doubt for a moment that the nobles Laris mentioned would, indeed, want to see him fail. After all, him proving to be their prince would spell the end of their ambitions to claim the throne. Yet, Bryan knew also that he would have to win them over in order to restore Astryn and help Allied Command. His mind became a tangle of questions. What would they think of him, even if he did prove that he was their prince? Would he be able to win them over and earn their respect? What would he do if, despite having proven himself, the nobles chose to take up arms against him in hopes of snatching back the throne? As these questions whirled in Bryan's mind, Owen laid a comforting hand on his son's shoulder.
"Bryan, relax," he insisted. "You'll be fine. Just stay calm and stay focused. You don't want the nobles to think you're a coward. Believe me, they'll seize on such an opportunity."
Bryan took a deep breath before replying.
"True, I'll do my best. Thanks, Dad."
"And, despite Laris's warning, I believe you need not worry about any of the others speaking out of turn or behaving in an…unbecoming fashion," Francois added. "Laris is correct that many of the nobles wish to see you fail, but I suspect few of them would dare to challenge both you and Laris's combined strength."
"Ah. That's good to know," Bryan replied, allowing relief to chase the anxiety from his face.
Within the next few minutes, the large doors ahead of the trio yawned once more. Laris, Canus, and Tavon emerged, carrying a large, ornate chest. It was very broad and, rather than having a lid, it was entirely open. Inside, resting upon a large velvet cushion, was Eronite itself. As the chest was set down, Bryan stared, almost entranced, at its long shaft, ablaze with red and gold, and its silver bolt-shaped blade, shining brilliantly, even in the wavering torch light. Two pairs of smaller blades protruded from the shaft, one below the blade and another at the pommel. It was even more magnificent than Bryan had imagined from reading his books as a child, and he couldn't wait to use the weapon in battle. Not for the first time, he found himself marveling at how his life had changed so much in only a few days. Even when he had fantasized as a child about using Eronite, he had never truly believed that he'd even lay eyes on such a famous and sacred lance outside of such dreams, let alone use one. His train of thought was broken, however, as several more men and women entered the hall, some wearing robes and others wearing armor and tunics. Laris then approached Bryan, but his words were for the assembly gathered to witness the would-be prince's moment of vindication…or failure.
"My fellow nobles," he announced. "This young man has come to us claiming that he is our long lost prince. He has fought hard and proven himself to be both trustworthy and stalwart in service to our nation. Now, we shall see if his claim is true. Bryan, you may approach Eronite."
Bryan took one last deep breath.
"Thank you, Grand Duke Laris," he replied.
"I would warn you that Eronite has been known to shock wrongful claimants into stupidity," Tavon jeered, "but, in light of what you plan, what's the point of such a warning?"
Somehow quashing the urge to knock Tavon's teeth down his throat, Bryan then walked up to the chest and gazed upon Eronite with reverence and trepidation. He then closed his eyes, reached out, and grasped it. However, as soon as his fingers touched the tough wood of Eronite's ensorcelled shaft, something went wrong. A terrible burning sensation flared against his palm, chaining up his arm nearly to the shoulder, while sparks sprayed the air. Tinted lightning violently erupted from the weapon, blasting into the astonished Bryan.
"AAAAUGH!" Bryan yelped as he was thrown backwards and crashed to the floor. He landed with the wind knocked out of him, clutching his throbbing arm while red stars flared before his eyes. Everyone else in the room seemed to have fallen into stunned silence, though some appeared less-than-alarmed at this display.
"Bryan!" Owen gasped and rushed to his son's side. "Are you alright?"
"…Damn…" Bryan uttered, gasping in pain. "That…hurt like hell…!"
"Your arm has been burned," Owen replied, noting the holes in Bryan's sleeve and the dark red blisters on his exposed skin. "Laris, I swear to you, this wasn't supposed to happen! Please, I don't know what went wrong here!"
Bryan's head spun, and from more than just Eronite's startling reaction. What had gone wrong? If he was the prince, then why had Eronite rejected him? He turned his gaze to Owen, and then Francois, but saw his own bewilderment and alarm reflected in both men's faces. The Emerald Sentinel sagged in his father's grip, stunned with sudden helplessness, and only dimly aware of whispered voices echoing to him from elsewhere in the room. All he could hear was his once soaring spirit crashing down at his feet.
"Actually, I must agree," Laris seconded. "This was, indeed, not supposed to happen. However, I think I know why it did."
"What do you mean?" Owen inquired, his anxious face furrowing in perplexity.
Laris didn't reply. The Grand Duke merely approached Eronite himself and reached out to grasp it. Many of the others in the room shook their heads at this seemingly insane act. But, when Laris's hand coiled around Eronite, nothing happened. The lance did not spit lightning and hurl him across the room, as it had with Bryan. Instead, he was able to pick up the lance like he would any ordinary weapon.
"I knew it," Laris uttered. "This is not the real Eronite. It is a fake!"
Once again, everyone gasped and began whispering amongst themselves…though not all seemed pleased with this relevation.
"Someone must have arranged this, in order to cast doubt on Bryan's story!" Canus added.
"Precisely," Laris confirmed. "I had suspected as much when Bryan reached for it."
"But…But how?" Owen wondered. Bryan still grimaced as he and his father tended to his burned arm, but Laris's words caused anger to crowd out his pain.
"You see, if this were the real Eronite, it would have glowed as Bryan approached it," Laris explained. "The glow signifies that the weapon is determining whether or not the person approaching it is of royal blood. But, no such glow appeared."
"Of course! I'd forgotten about that! Someone must have crafted that cheap imitation in an attempt to throw us off!" Owen angrily deduced.
"Exactly. The only question is who."
"Wait a minute, where's Tavon?" Canus inquired. "He's gone!"
"What?" Laris exclaimed, his gaze darting in all directions, but the duke of Dathyl was nowhere to be found.
"That…bastard," Bryan uttered, finally rising to his feet, though he still cradled his red, blistering arm. "I bet he's behind this! He must've fled when he realized the faults in his creation!"
"It's possible," Laris agreed, signaling the guards and instructing them to seal the palace and not allow anyone to enter or depart. "I will ensure that Tavon is found and questioned. In the meantime, Bryan, you and your companions are to search for the real Eronite. Because its magic will harm a wrongful claimant, it may very well be that Tavon could not take it from the palace. You should begin your search here. When you find it, bring it to me or Canus."
"Also, another favor. We've recently received troubling news about General Alec, the commander of our main army. He hasn't been seen in days, and I fear the worst. Please, look for him as well."
"Of course. Auggh…"
"We have to heal that arm first. Let's go see Raela," Owen suggested.
"Right," Bryan agreed.
With that, the two returned to their comrades outside. Faline, Azura, and Skye gasped in horror when they saw Bryan's arm, ablaze with blisters, and demanded to know what had happened. Bryan and Owen explained the entire incident and asked for Raela to treat the prince's arm. Luckily, the Valkyrie from Kolah was more than capable of the task, and Bryan looked on with profound relief as the redness and blisters on his arm vanished. Bryan then informed the group that they all were to begin searching the palace for Eronite, and the fugitive Tavon, immediately. Once the lance was in Bryan's hands, the group would depart to seek out the missing General Alec.
As the party split up into smaller groups and searched the palace, Bryan's still tumultuous thoughts turned in a new direction. Even before this latest incident, Bryan had known in his gut that Tavon was not to be trusted and, now, he was certain that the duke of Dathyl had to be behind the theft of Eronite. Although there was no shortage of contenders to the throne, his claim had been amongst the strongest before Bryan had arrived. This gave him a very clear and compelling motive, and he had disappeared after Bryan had been burned; no doubt realizing that the counterfeit Eronite had not proven convincing. In fact, the prince found himself wondering if the duke of Dathyl might be cut from the same cloth as Shigo; a power hungry madman bent on taking over Astryn for himself. Bryan also wondered if Tavon might have had something to do with Alec's disappearance as well. Whatever the case, Tavon was clearly a dangerous man; and hopefully, Laris and the other nobles would agree that the fugitive duke must never be allowed to occupy the throne.
During the search, Francois, Eric, Armelle, and Olivia served as guides for the search parties so that no one would get lost in the large palace. There were so many rooms and hallways that one unfamiliar with the place would lose their way in the blink of an eye. Despite that, every room was searched from top to bottom. The royal kitchen, the dining hall, the bedchambers, the supply rooms, the armory, the guard barracks, and even the throne room were searched. Despite the gravity of the situation, Bryan could not prevent his jaw from plummeting when he laid eyes on the throne room. It was the most magnificent chamber Bryan had ever seen. The brilliantly colored marble, the stained glass windows and tapestries that adorned the walls, the plush carpets and intricate mosaics set into the floor, the immense ceiling crowded with painted images, the vases of exotic flowers decorating the edges of the room and, of course, the immense thrones themselves almost made him forget the present crisis. Even after shaking himself back to the present, he could hardly imagine himself seated upon one of the ornate chairs that looked to be worth more than half the Cilaean treasury. In addition to their daunting size, they were crafted of a material like burnished gold, trimmed with a regal red and encrusted with jewels the size of his fists. Above them hung gold crystal chandeliers which fragmented the sunlight into shimmering beams of many colors. Suddenly feeling downright scruffy, Bryan shook himself back to the present and resumed the hunt.
Several hours of fruitless searching later, the various search parties had converged at the very back of the palace, where the palace granary was located.
"If the lance is still in the palace, it has to be here," Francois explained. "It would be discovered too easily anywhere else and no one has been in here for at least several hours. The palace was already stocked from these chambers this morning, and they are rarely guarded since they are so far behind the palace's outer defenses."
"Well, then let's get to work," Bryan replied.
Francois nodded and opened the door. However, they hadn't even taken a step inside when they discovered that their search was over. Another ornate, open chest, identical to the one which contained the fake Eronite, sat right in the middle of the room. Resting within was another Eronite, the real one. A quick glance revealed why the counterfeit had not been recognized sooner, the fake had been a near perfect replica.
"…Wow," Bryan uttered. "I've heard the old adage "the best place to hide something is in plain sight," but this is a little much."
"Indeed," Francois seconded. "Well, let's get this back to Laris. He might have returned to the main hall by now. If luck is with us, Tavon is already in chains for this affront."
"Hope so. Ike, would you carry it?"
"Sure," Ike replied. The hero then bent over the chest, wrapped his huge arms around it, inhaled deeply, counted to three, made a pointed remark when Bryan expressed some impatience, and then hoisted the chest over his head. With that, he then followed his comrades out of the granary and back to the main hall of the palace.
Upon arriving, it didn't take long for Bryan to see that Tavon had not been apprehended. Several guard captains conferred with their men, likely hearing their reports on the search, and there was no hiding the frustration in their voices. Ike quickly set the chest containing Eronite down while Bryan scrutinized the room for Laris or Canus. Several nobles had already returned, and were pleased to see the real Eronite returned safely, but neither Laris nor Canus were anywhere to be found. Fortunately, both of them had emerged through the doors only moments later. However, their expressions did not look encouraging.
"Ah, you found it!" Laris noticed and approached Bryan.
"We did. Tavon had stashed it in the granary," Bryan explained.
"…Clever, I'll admit," Laris commented. "But we have no time to lose. Our efforts to locate Tavon himself have failed, so I must conclude that he has already fled the palace. It is unclear what he may be plotting, now that his deception has been exposed, but I have no doubts that he must be stopped."
"I agree, he may even be planning to betray Astryn," Canus pointed out. "Bryan, did you have any luck in locating Alec?"
"…Argh! No, we didn't…" Bryan admitted. "I sincerely apologize. Tavon might've had a hand in that too."
"It's possible," Laris agreed. "But, don't despair. Now that you have found the real Eronite, I believe it is time for you to approach it and prove your claim. We'll continue searching for Tavon and Alec afterward."
With a long, indrawn breath, Bryan then walked up to Eronite, hoping to finally be able to prove his claim beyond all doubt. And this time, the lance was not a fake. When Bryan was mere inches away from the lance itself, a bright glow enveloped it; slowly flaring and dimming. Bryan closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and reached for the sacred weapon. As he felt his hand clasp the cool metal, the glow grew larger and brighter until it abruptly disappeared in a small explosion of light. When he'd blinked away enough lingering stars to see, the true prince of Astryn found that this Eronite had not blasted him with lightning nor blistered his arm, and that he could effortlessly remove it from its resting place. Bryan held the magnificent lance aloft, unable to keep a boyish grin from his features. Thrusting its blade into the air, he then twirled it once over his head and planted its pommel in the floor next to him. At first, the nobles eyed him with unabashed shock in their eyes. For a stretching second, Bryan found himself wondering just what they would do once they regained their wits. Would they pledge their loyalty to him, or would they seek his blood for foiling their shared ambition to rule Astryn? Within moments, however, he had his answer. One of their number, a young baron, approached the prince and, after a moment of perplexed hesitation, dropped to one knee.
"I acknowledge you, my liege lord and king," he affirmed, rather insistently grasping Bryan's free hand and kissing it.
"As do I," avowed a marquis, bowing to the Emerald Sentinel.
Within moments, the other assembled nobles, Laris and Canus included, knelt in homage before Bryan, their prince, and pledged their loyalty. Some did so eagerly, while others seemed reluctant, but all vowed to support this rediscovered heir to the throne.
"…The power of Eronite proves that your claims are true," Laris uttered, almost reverently. "You are, indeed, the heir to the Astrynian throne. As such, we pledge our loyalty to you…Prince Bryan, heir and champion of House Novat and House Astryn."
"And I thank you for your support," Bryan replied with a smile. "Now, let's find Tavon and make him answer for his crimes."
"Of course, your highness."
For a brief moment, Bryan was uncertain what to say; but, a moment later, he recalled Sally, and he suddenly had a great deal to say. He ordered that, with the matter of the succession having been resolved, the nobles were to cease their preparations to fight one another over the throne and, for now, dedicate their troops to rooting out and crushing the bandits that still ran rampant throughout Astryn. Meanwhile, the palace guard would defend the palace while Bryan and Azura, and everyone else would seek out Alec and Tavon. Though, Bryan had to admit, if Tavon had escaped the palace, then finding him would be a daunting task. Astryn was a very large nation, the largest in Altarais, in fact, and Bryan feared that Tavon could find any number of places to hide himself and his hostage. Still, he could only pray that they found both men soon. After all, Shigo was still at large as well, and there was still the matter of the beast laguz of Larame and their mysterious quarrel with the dracoknights. After the army was assembled outside of the palace grounds once again, Francois caught up with Bryan and spoke.
"Your highness, if I may make a suggestion?" the count of Urae inquired, and Bryan was only too eager to nod his approval. "Well, if you're right and Tavon did indeed kidnap Alec, it might be best that we find Alec first. With luck, we will find one with the other. And, if I wanted to imprison someone as important as General Alec, I'd ensure that he was kept somewhere that was both isolated and defensible. A likely place would be one of the old forts in the woods up north. They are rarely used anymore, if at all, because our more fortified forts, such as Fort Mercue, are better able to withstand an assault…usually. If I may say so, I also believe that Tavon has other reasons for abducting Alec. After all, his disappearance occurring so close to your arrival cannot be coincidental. There is more to Tavon's actions than we know, and I believe we must find out what."
"Alright, then that's what we'll do," Bryan agreed. "We move out now!"
The assembled warriors immediately began to march for the woods that Francois spoke of. Thankfully, it was not a long journey and the woods came into view within an hour. Though less appealing, and much more foreboding, than the Forest of Hope, Bryan could tell that any building within those sylvan folds would be well hidden. The woods were so dense that the trees and undergrowth could conceal just about anything from view…including, problematically, where the group was going. As he and the group continued traveling into the woods, Bryan approached Azura.
"Well, Az, I believe I can safely say that Astryn will be joining you," the prince announced. "Your army is growing."
"Aw, Bryan… Astryn's soldiers are yours to command, silly," Azura pointed out with a chuckle.
"Yes, but I'm still technically in your service. You were made the commander of this army, after all."
"Ah, that is true. I still don't feel it's proper for me to be giving you any orders, but if you don't mind, then I won't argue."
"And, I don't. So once Shigo is dealt with, you're taking the helm."
With that, they continued on through the woods. Bryan suspected that Tavon might've had time to arrange a reception, so he ordered the heavier combat units to the front of the column while the lighter units guarded the flanks. The ranged attackers and healers, meanwhile, moved to the inside. Kiel and Sara scouted ahead while Ranulf, Josef, and Sheryl watched for danger approaching from either side or to the rear. Strangely, the expected enemies did not make an appearance. All the group did find were a number of old wooden buildings, likely old fishing shacks and hunting lodges, dotting the trails. Though all looked abandoned, Bryan suspected that searching them would be pointless. Tavon would want to keep Alec somewhere fortified and defensible, and those shacks looked as though they'd topple over if someone knocked on the door too hard. Sometime later, however, they came upon a large stone building, which Francois identified as one of the old forts. It was known as Fort Betel. In bygone days, it had served as an isolated prison and staging area for woodland patrols, but it had been abandoned in favor of such palatial redoubts as Mercue. Before Bryan could suggest that they search it, however, he was interrupted by a clattering sound which rang out from further ahead.
"Did you guys hear that?" Bryan inquired.
"Better than that! I just saw something fly out of one of the windows!" Ike exclaimed. "It must've made that noise when it landed."
"What? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it came from the third floor. It was too fast for me to get a good look at it, but it was glinting in the sunlight. So, I think it was metal or glass. And, it sounds like it landed somewhere over that way."
Ike then pointed to the southwest side of the fort, barely a hundred paces from where the column had halted.
"I'll take a look," the prince of Astryn replied.
With that, Bryan rushed over to where Ike had directed him and peered into the scrub and dirt below. Sure enough, he discovered a glass bottle that had gauged a small canal into the forest floor. Inside it was a rolled up piece of parchment.
"Here it is," Bryan announced, removing the parchment. "And there's something inside!"
"Really?" Francois inquired. "Let me see it."
The count rushed to Bryan's side as the prince dumped the parchment onto his hand. The message was barely legible, clearly scrawled on the page in a great hurry. It took at least a few minutes to decipher the barely intelligible script, but the message soon became clear.
To whomever finds this note, please help me. My captors have abandoned me here and left me to starve. They are dangerous men, and Astryn may be in even greater peril than we thought! I'll explain everything when you find me! Please hurry!
"…Prince Bryan, this is Alec's handwriting, I'm sure of it!" Francois gasped. "No doubt he feared we'd pass him by without realizing he was here, which explains why it's even less legible than usual. We've got to get up there and help him!"
"And we will. Dad, you, Azura, Kye, and Francois come with me. Everyone else, wait out here!" Bryan ordered. "If Tavon changes his mind about leaving Alec and comes back here, I want you guys ready to greet him. Kye, I'm going to need you to free another prisoner."
"Sure thing!" Kye happily obliged.
With that, the five of them charged into the fort and raced up the closest staircase they could find. Bryan's instincts told him that, based on Alec's message, the general knew something about Tavon's plans and had likely been captured and imprisoned here in order to silence him. Still, Bryan had no time to praise his own deductive skills; if Alec had been imprisoned here for days without food or water, then he might not have much time left. As soon as the Emerald Sentinel and the others reached the third floor, a clanging noise, the same kind Bryan had heard when he was rescuing Josef and Sheryl, but louder, rang out from a nearby hall. The prince and his comrades, recalling all too well how such a sound had led them to Josef and Sheryl, quickly raced to follow and it led them a prison cell on the far side of the hall. However, as the group approached, the clattering sound grew fainter and was replaced with a hoarse gasping and wheezing. Once they reached the cell, they discovered a man with a fairly large build, crumpled to his knees and sagging against the bars of the cell. His captivity had clearly been a trying one. The pallor and dryness of his skin and the sunken appearance of his cheeks and eyes made it quite obvious that he had gone too long without nourishment. His gray tunic was riddled with tears and splotched with stains, more than a few of which looked like blood, while dirt caked his grayish red hair. His face and hands were blooded as well, no doubt from fighting with his captors. Heaped behind him was a suit of heavy armor colored a deep blue violet, which the man had likely discarded when he'd realized that the hot metal accoutrements were dehydrating him all the faster. Alec, for Bryan was certain this was the missing general, had attempted to say something, but all he could do was gasp out in pain before collapsing to the floor.
"Oh my goddess!" Azura gasped.
"General Alec!" Francois cried. "No! He must be near starvation!"
"Then let's get him out of here and fast," Bryan replied. "Kye!"
"I'm on it," Kye obeyed and quickly worked at the lock on the cell. Within seconds, he'd opened it and allowed Bryan and Francois to throw the cell door open.
"Alright, I'll grab his armor. The rest of you help him outside," Bryan ordered. "Give him some food and water as soon as you can and let me know when he's ready to talk."
The others nodded and the five got to work. Bryan quickly grabbed as many pieces of Alec's armor as he could carry and hauled it downstairs. The large size of the shoulder guards indicated that he was likely the same class as Morris, so Bryan found himself hoping the cumbersome load would not cause him to topple down the stairway. Thankfully, Ike and Skye offered to give the prince a hand. Meanwhile, Azura and Francois helped Alec to one of the wagons. Azura prepared a plate of food and a canteen of water as the weakened general, still barely conscious, sat down inside.
"General Alec! Come on, are you strong enough to drink some water, at least?" Francois desperately inquired as he tried to revive the half-starved general. Yet, Alec barely stirred, and count feared that Alec had used the last of his strength to alert his rescuers to his whereabouts.
"Unnh…" the general moaned. "I…think so."
"Then go ahead, drink as much as you need, but not all in one gulp. Please!"
Alec slowly nodded and took the canteen Azura had brought out.
"And take your time, you don't need to rush," Azura added as Alec raised the canteen to his lips and, no doubt suppressing the urge to dump it all down his throat, began to sip the life-giving liquid. As soon as the cool water touched his lips, his better judgment failed him and he began to gulp it down faster than a Swordmaster would wield his blade, nearly choking. He truly hadn't had a drink in days, and hardly seemed to care he'd make himself ill forcing so much into his shriveled stomach. Azura quickly tried to pull the canteen away and called Raela over to assess him.
"Yeah, he's definitely dehydrated and malnourished," the Valkyrie confirmed. "It looks pretty severe. In fact, I'd say that had we not gotten here as soon as we did, he would surely be dead by now."
"Well, it's fortunate that he managed to toss us that bottled message," Francois replied. "At least we saved him. General, are you well enough to talk to us? Your message implies that you know something about the dangers facing Astryn."
"Ah… Yes, of course," Alec agreed, though his voice was rather hoarse.
"Hey! Is he alright?" Bryan interrupted as he rushed over, followed by Owen. "Ike and Skye helped me with the armor, it's stowed in the wagons. I also brought my father so he could speak with Alec."
"Indeed. I'm curious about what he has to say," Owen added.
"Ah, I see. And yes, General Alec will be fine. Turns out, we got to him just in time," Francois confirmed. "It might be a while before he recovers, but he should be out of danger."
"Oh, thank the goddess."
Alec, still sagged from exhaustion, straightened and gaped when he laid eyes on Bryan.
"Hey! You…you must be Prince Bryan! I am honored to finally meet you, your highness," the general greeted, nibbling chicken to coax his wasted body back to life. Bryan and Owen merely exchanged shocked glances.
"Wait, how do you know who I am? And for that matter, how do you know of my heritage?" Bryan inquired.
"Where did you get this information? I told very few people after Shigo's attack," Owen pointed out.
"Ah… Forgive me, it's a long story," Alec replied, a hint of normal color returning to his cheeks. "I learned this from Grand Duke Luther, just before he died. He knew his time would come very soon, so he summoned me to his bedside and told me about you. See, I am his nephew."
Alec then went on to explain that Luther said he had information regarding the rumors about a long lost prince, which only he and the ailing Queen Marion knew. However, the queen's condition had deteriorated too much for her to properly relay it to someone else. Luther then revealed to Alec that the story was, in truth, no rumor at all and that his old friend, Grand Duke Owen, had married Marion's sister, Princess Caline. They later had a son, a baby boy named Bryan, whom Luther then described as best as he could. Luther had agreed to be the young Prince Bryan's guardian should anything happen to his parents; but shortly after, Shigo launched his attack and Caline's body was found in the fallows. Owen and their infant son had vanished, and Luther never saw them again. Alec finished by revealing that Luther had suspected that Tavon was up to something and could not be trusted.
"Why…why didn't you tell anyone?" Francois inquired. "This information would've changed everything. His highness wouldn't have had to go to such lengths to prove his claims. And Laris would've had Tavon investigated."
"I know. And I sincerely apologize. I was meaning to tell Grand Duke Laris after my uncle had passed," Alec continued. "But, as I was passing Duke Tavon's chambers, I overheard him speaking to someone. The other voice wasn't familiar to me, and my uncle's words had me suspicious, so I got as close as I could and listened in. What I heard shocked me and proved my uncle's words were true. Unfortunately, as I tried to leave and summon help, I accidentally bumped against the door handle. That gave away my position. Tavon found me, and knew I had overheard his plans. I think he used an Elsleep staff on me, as I passed out and woke up inside that prison cell later in the day. He must've also taken my axe, because it's missing. I called through the window for help, but no one came."
"I knew it," Bryan growled. "What's he planning? Is he the reason you said Astryn is in more danger than we think?"
"Yes," Alec confirmed. "That man I overheard him speaking to, turns out he was a Red Claw bandit disguised as a mercenary for hire. He helped subdue me, and I saw his brand during the struggle. From what I heard, Tavon had commissioned some smiths and Sages working for the Red Claw to forge a fake Eronite and to cast a spell on it that would make it reject your touch."
"And, when Tavon realized that we'd discovered the fake, he fled," Francois finished.
"…Oh no," Alec replied. "He's gone? This is bad. Very bad."
"And why is that?" Bryan wondered, more angered than nervous.
"He also said that just in case you managed to secure your throne after all, he had something else planned. He's going to meet with a Meloran delegation at the border to sign a non-aggression pact between Astryn and Melora!"
"Are you serious?" Francois and Owen exclaimed at the same time.
"Wait, what exactly is that?" Bryan inquired.
"A non-aggression pact is a treaty in which two nations pledge that no fighting will occur between them," Owen explained. "Neither of them would be allowed to attack the other. My guess is that Tavon will pledge that Astryn will remain neutral in exchange for the promise that Melora will not attack."
"WHAT?" Bryan exploded. "But, Tavon is a fugitive! How could him signing the treaty keep Astryn out of the war?"
"It's quite simple," Francois began, sounding as though frustrated that he hadn't thought of it sooner. "Tavon's powers as steward will not expire until you are crowned; or, in this case, if he is arrested. Granted, we know he replaced Eronite with the counterfeit, but the only evidence we have of his guilt is his hasty departure from the scene of the deception. Alec's testimony would be enough for him to, at least, be relieved of his post; but heading back to Medann and having Alec testify would take too long. No doubt Tavon had that in mind when he left Alec here, as a simple way to buy him the time he needed. If Tavon does sign the treaty, while his powers remain in effect, then it will be legally binding and will strip you of any chance of having Astryn join the war against Melora!"
Bryan clenched his fist until the chainmail about his hands groaned in protest.
"That conniving son of a dastard! I'll have his throat for this!"
"Then we have to head north immediately," Alec advised. "Every minute lost hastens his victory. If he can make that pact legally binding, then breaking it could turn the bluebloods against you."
"Agreed. We move out now!"
With that, the group set off once again. Francois explained that the shortest route to the border was to the north, snaking around the fringes of the woods and then straight along to the northwest. At this, Bryan and Azura led everyone out of the woods while the laguz amongst their allies tried to pick up Tavon's trail. Alec, once he had regained enough strength, donned his armor and armed himself with a new axe from the stockpile of weapons that had been recovered from Fort Mercue. Francois asked the general if he was sure he was able to do battle so soon after an incarceration that had left him near death, but Alec assured him that he would be fine. He wasn't a general of Astryn for nothing. Plus, he wanted as much as Bryan did to make Tavon pay for his actions. Alec had learned much of the history of House Astryn and House Novat from his late uncle, and did not take Tavon's slights against their progeny lightly at all.
Over the next hour, Bryan, Francois, and Alec held a hurried conference about how to deal with Tavon once he was found. Bryan and Alec, obviously, wanted to finish him on the spot; but Francois warned that doing so might damage their reputations and that it might be best if Tavon was arrested and sentenced, preferably to a lawful execution, later on. As such, the three decided to see what move Tavon would make. Unfortunately, Alec had no idea what escort, if any, Tavon might be traveling with. Still, even if the fugitive duke was well guarded, Bryan and Azura were confident they and their troops would win. Francois seemed quite insistent that it would be best if Tavon surrendered peacefully, which might very well happen if the fugitive duke was travelling alone when they caught up to him. Either way, death would be promised to the traitorous duke, and that was enough. If, however, Tavon had already met with the Meloran delegation, which would surely have its own escorts, then that might complicate matter. Isis had excellent reason to want this treaty signed, as Lartz later pointed out. At present, Allied Command was losing the war. But, if Astryn and the other nations of southern Altarais rallied in opposition to Melora, it might very well change everything.
One way or the other, the next few hours might very well decide the fate of the entire continent.
As the group traveled along the Astryn-Larame border, they kept a sharp eye out for any other armed parties. Bryan had not forgotten that Larame still blamed Astryn for looting their stores, and was only too aware that another attack by irate beast laguz was a delay they could not afford. What's more, supporters of Tavon's or even Shigo's men might be abroad as well. Bryan had not forgotten that the Meloran general was still hiding himself and his army somewhere, and was quite eager to contend with him once Tavon was dealt with. Again, Bryan found himself wondering why Shigo had not revealed himself by now. The rogue Meloran general had allowed several opportunities to kill the prince to slip through his fingers, and the Emerald Sentinel was still at a loss as to explain this oddity. But, he had no time to dwell on the matter. Soon enough, another group of people was spotted along the path; smaller than Bryan and Azura's, but clearly armed and on the alert. In their midst stood an all too familiar man garbed in silver robes: Tavon. Thankfully, the Meloran delegation did not appear to have arrived yet.
"Tavon!" Bryan shouted as he raced ahead of his group.
Tavon turned around, a devious smile on his face.
"Well, well…" he said, snickering. "If it isn't his highness. I see you managed to find the real Eronite."
"We did. We also know about all your plans, thanks to Alec!"
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you found that fool. I'll admit that I half expected you to take him in the opposite direction. But then again, you're already willing to sign all of our death warrants by having us take up arms against Melora. What's one more death against that?"
Bryan glowered, his gaze smoking with hatred. Alec, though no less incensed, merely growled.
"You snake! You're lucky I don't lop your head off right now!" the general threatened.
"Heh. You think your words scare me?" Tavon replied. "A Meloran delegation will be here any moment, and there will be nothing you can do once I have signed the non-aggression pact. The very laws you, Bryan, as a king, must uphold will compel you to honor Astryn's end of the bargain."
"You are as much a fool as you are a traitor, if you think signing a piece of paper with Melora will protect Astryn," Bryan spat. "And someone who wishes to rule Astryn would not be so blind! We're siding with Allied Command, and that will not change."
"You are persistent, Prince Bryan, that much I cannot deny," Tavon admitted, though his tone was far less than complimentary. "However, raw courage simply is not enough to change the reality of the situation. Time is, clearly, not on your side. Melora's manufactories and supply lines are operating at maximum capacity, whereas those of the Allies have been thrown into chaos by the loss of the raven messengers. Melora commands vast forces, both of their own army and the Red Claw, while Allied Command is currently experiencing a manpower shortage and cannot even account for the troops it has, due to the communications breakdown and the invasion of Cilae. Melora has repeatedly struck within the Allied Nations, in particular, the raid on Castle Eraghoa and the conquest of Cilae, whereas Allied Command has not been able to strike at Melora itself at all. And, most importantly, Melora is resolved to win the war, regardless of the time or the cost. I would be quite surprised if the Allied leadership has not already explored the option of negotiating their way out of the conflict, as I have already decided to do. So, candidly speaking, which side sounds like the wiser one to take?"
Bryan's answering glare was as hard and as sharp as Eronite's blade, and only a hairsbreadth short of openly hostile.
"The side most likely to leave Astryn in peace after the war is over," he answered simply.
The fugitive duke was clearly displeased with Bryan's answer. He scoffed, sneered and then spat contemptuously at Bryan's feet.
"You call me a fool and a traitor for seeking peace while you seek a war that can only spell our doom. Again, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; but, I am disappointed."
"Tavon, why are you doing this?" Francois inquired. "Prince Bryan is right, Melora will never honor any agreement they sign with us! You must be mad to believe they can be trusted!"
Mad? Indeed, I am. Mad of being cheated, mad of having what it rightfully mine snatched from my very fingertips," Tavon replied, a manic gleam entering his eyes. "I suppose you might say it is my lot in life, as it was for my fathers, and their fathers."
Here, Tavon paused and turned his gaze fully upon the prince. The blaze of hatred in Bryan's eyes was quickly matched by that of the fugitive duke.
"You, I suspect, know a great deal about snatching away others pride and glory. After all, it runs in the family, does it not?"
"What are you babbling about?" Bryan demanded, suddenly suspecting that Francois's rhetorical assertion that Tavon was mad might not be far from the truth.
"If you wish to know the truth, I guess there's no harm in telling you," Tavon replied. "My ancestors were of a great and noble house, far above the dreary province I rule today, until the machinations of a low born cur saw them disowned and their pride and glory stripped away. My family still lives with that pain, and has for generations, as we watched that cur turn our rightful lands and treasures into his own and become beloved by all who were fooled by that handsome face and that supple sword arm. He bewitched my ancestors' ancestor, bedded one of the women of their house and sired his own bloodline. In fact, I'm surprised that my ancestors even had the will to live after watching all of these indignities on top of being stripped of their rightful inheritance. House Novat cast us out and ruined us! Ruling Astryn myself would've assuaged that pain and repaid us a hundred times over. But, once again, the progeny of my most hated enemy, a man who died hundreds of years before I was even born, comes to snatch away my prize. Just as you, progeny of Xavier, destroyed my plans to claim the throne, I'll destroy any chance you have of victory in your war against Melora!"
"What?" Bryan exclaimed, his head suddenly abuzz with confusion and anger as he turned to Owen. "Dad, isn't Xavier your middle name?"
Owen could only nod in reply, his brow furrowed as he regarded the almost crazed Tavon. The fugitive duke regarded the pair almost expectantly for a moment but, after a time, he scoffed.
"I'm not certain if I should be amused or insulted that you are so ignorant of history. After all, Xavier was exceedingly famous. Though, admittedly, his true name is, these days, known only to me and mine, who hated him from the moment we drew our first breath. He is more commonly known, I believe, as "Iron Storm.""
The price's eyes pulsed wide at the mention of his famous ancestor and, suddenly, Tavon's almost delirious speech began to make sense. A quick glance at his father revealed that the former Grand Duke's face had turned grave as realization dawned.
"…Bryan," Owen interjected. "His words just made me realize something more. "Tavon" is "Novat" spelled backwards. And, I can think of only one explanation for these ramblings of his. He must be descended from that cowardly son, who was disinherited for abandoning his father on the battlefield."
"I guess there is some intelligence amongst your branch of the family after all," Tavon remarked, his face twisting with madness. "The day I learned that Shigo had wiped out your line was the happiest in my life. But, I suppose I should've realized that it was too good to be true."
"So that's it," Bryan replied, the barest hint of pity in his tone as he faced Tavon once more. "What a shame. Your ancestor had only himself to blame, for abandoning his father to his death. It's too bad that neither you nor he realized the good Iron Storm had done for House Novat by putting you and yours in their place. What you've done though is worse than cowardice, it is betrayal of this country; maybe of the whole continent. I guess that means we both have a score to settle. Only, I won't be as lenient as my ancestor was."
"Ha. Well, I may have been cheated out of the throne, but I will not go down so easy!" Tavon retorted and snapped his fingers.
Instantly, an army of both Melorans and Red Claw members emerged from the paths and underbrush, and Bryan and Azura's troops found themselves outnumbered.
"Damn it!" Bryan opined angrily and readied Eronite.
"You should feel honored," Tavon continued. "I'm generous enough to give you a last battle and a warrior's death! Unlike my ancestor, I'M NO COWARD!"