When approached by the Heroes of the Order, Felicia rarely expected a task more meaningful that administration or hospitality. Ensure this Hero attends that meeting. Help prepare the next room for a new arrival, so on and so forth.
Matthew's request, then, did not immediately register in her mind. Indeed, it took her a full ten seconds to realise that he was asking her directly. "I-I'm sorry? What was that?"
"I said, 'Fancy a trip to Embla?'"
She boggled at the copper-haired spy, who managed to make this offer with an easy smile and ready confidence. "Why?"
"Besides the fact that I hear the weather is gorgeous this time of year?" He quipped, "'Tis my next destination, and I'm not liable to make it on my own. Thus, my requirement for a companion versed in subtle arts."
"Subtle? M-me? Master Matthew, maybe you've been out of the barracks for a while, but I'm hardly the most dexterous attendant."
He rolled his eyes, smile unfailing. From the depths of his cloak, he flicked something into the air.
Steel glinted. Instincts took over. Felicia flicked her arm, swiping the item from the air. A dagger, she realised from the weight.
"You might struggle with balancing the crockery," he said, "But don't think I haven't seen your skill with a blade. You practise every evening, and you're as sharp as any other Hero here."
She turned the hilt of the blade towards Matthew, and he took the blade back. Her cheeks burned. "B-but I checked! Everyone was asleep! How could you possibly have seen me?"
"Felicia, please. I'd hardly be worth my weight in gold if I didn't know how to behave like a spy, now would I?
Panic began to set in. "B-but I have duties to attend here! Surely I'd need to clear this-"
"Commander Anna is already aware of our plans, and she's prepared to see you equipped and made ready for the journey." Matthew countered.
Felicia whimpered. "Then... then..."
He lowered his voice, stepping a little closer. The smile slipped a little. "Look. I'm not going to force you to come. If you really do want to stay here, then that's your choice, but I'm willing to bet you'll come with me for two reasons."
"For starters, you've been desperate for something to do that wasn't attending us idiots since you got here, otherwise you wouldn't spend every moment away from your role training. Second..." Dropping his voice even lower, Matthew whispered for only her to hear. "Embla is where Corrin is."
He took a step back. Felicia clasped her hands in front of her, keeping herself still and steady. "Well?" he prodded, "Should I give up on gambling?"
She closed her eyes, bowing her head. "When do we depart?"
Lykala had not spent enough time with Mikoto to know her properly. They walked in silence to a spare room in the Order's Barracks, asked only functional questions of each other whilst they'd moved tables and chairs in preparation for her study of the Orbs, and now he was relegated to a chair in the corner as she did her work.
He'd never seen anyone quite like her. For starters, he'd never seen someone with horns, scales, and a tail before. He'd seen Tiki's draconic form, of course, and the elongated ears of her humanoid form suggested something other than the humans he was used to, but never had the otherworldliness of his circumstances been made so apparent in one body. They covered her cheeks and hands, and no doubt the rest of her body. He couldn't see ears, so assumed that she heard him through the horns that seemed to replace them. She'd tucked her long, light golden blonde hair behind them, allowing her to lean forward without disturbance and focus on the subject of her study with bright blue eyes.
Pretty, his mind conjured in time for his gawping to be caught by her peripheral vision. "Is aught the matter?"
He jerked back to alertness. "S-sorry. I, uh... I didn't realise I was staring."
"It's quite alright." Mikoto smiled, refocussing her attention. They'd taken one of the Orbs from his collection and set it in the middle of the table.
"D'you need anything?" he asked lamely.
"Unless you can conjure or construct a set of tools for aetheric study, or a set of volumes from Essences and Permutations, I'm afraid not. No, my own abilities will have to suffice."
"Is this kind of practice common where you're from?"
"Indeed it is. Sharlayan is home to all manner of scholars from every specialist field. Magitek, somanoutics, thaumaturgy, arcane geometries to name but a few. Magic is not our only purview, of course, but it's where my interests lie."
"I've never heard of even half of those words," Lykala joked.
"Are there other schools of magic in your world?"
"Er... there are no schools of magic. It's not a thing where I'm from."
"Really?" She remarked. "Fascinating. Would you mind if I asked you some questions when we're done here?"
"Sure. I'm sorry I can't do more to help you."
"You can certainly help," she assured, "For starters, you can tell me how they function with your focus, Breidablik."
"I'm not sure I can explain. I can tell you the steps?"
"By all means." Leaving his chair, he walked her through the steps of summoning, from acquiring the orbs, to loading the relic, to focussing on the gate. Throughout his explanation, she said very little, except to confirm certain details. Who the weapon originally belonged to, where it was found, anything he knew about the gate itself. "And these Orbs," she asked, "Whence do they come?"
"Er... that's a very good question, actually." He faltered, looking down at the floor. "Around? The Order just seems to find them when they're out. Embla collected quite a few, too."
"Can you be more specific? Are they in containers, or sites of power?"
"No, no. Just... around." Then, feeling quite silly, he added. "Like on the floor. In the grass."
Mikoto touched a curled finger to her lips, thinking. "You're certain?"
"As I can be. Why? Is that significant?"
"It might be. I'd need to examine one more closely to know for sure. May I?"
"Go for it."
She took the Orb in the palm of her hand, closing her eyes. Lykala watched closely, seeing what kind of magic she might conjure to learn about these mysterious crystals. He was surprised when she just began mumbling to herself, furrowing her brow in concentration. "Is that...? But, no, it can't be. The required densities alone would..."
He began to speak, but thought better of it. Only when Mikoto opened her eyes again, a bead of sweat on her brow and her mutterings trailing off into confused silence, did he ask the question on his mind. "What did you learn?"
"It's... difficult to explain," she said, placing the Orb gingerly back on the table, as if it were suddenly made of fragile glass. "Crystals are commonplace on Hydaelyn. We use them in support of even our most basic tasks, from cooking to crafting. With some exceptions, these crystals are primarily aligned with one of six aetheric elements. Fire, Wind, Earth, Water, Lightning, Ice. There are other, more complicated aspects to this, of course, but for the purposes of my answer this will suffice. These crystals are not aligned to any one of those elements."
"Okay," Lykala ventured, "But that would make sense, right? Different world, different magical laws."
"Yes, but there is aether. And so far as I can tell, it behaves in largely the same manner as aether on our world." Mikoto folded her arms. "My magicks only work because this is true."
"Right. So what is it aligned to?"
"A kind of aether I've never seen before. Its existence was the subject of stringent debate, and had never been confirmed outside of scant few experiments, and even then..." She looked back to the crystal. "Yet its... dare I say its feel is unmistakeable. 'Tis a crystal of condensed mnemonic aether."
"Mnemonic?" he parrotted.
"Memories, Lykala, memories. That Orb contains aether upon which memories have left their irrevocable mark."
"If you've never seen it before, then how could you know that?"
Mikoto smiled, wry. "Astute of you. I'm sure Averill would be able to corroborate this finding, but for the moment I can say this with such certainty because, like he, I am Echo-blessed. Not to his extent - I've never been contacted by anything remotely resembling a divinity-but enough to know that this aether is suffused with the recollections of... someone. Something. I know not whom."
Lykala joined her in examining the Orb, its iridescent colours endlessly swirling. "What does that mean for Breidablik?"
"Only that the aether it draws upon to pull us from our worlds could well be the memories of those worlds. Perhaps every world. Elemental aether lends itself to the kind of stability that can form a crystal, from which that energy can then be drawn. To pack this kind of complex aether into crystal form, and then to harness that to rip through the space that separates our worlds, seize us, and bear us safely to Askr..." A giddy kind of exhilaration chased her words. "Such frightening magicks surely belong to the divine."
"Is it not?" she asked, regarding him frankly, "Have you stopped to consider the kind of magicks the Order employs to bolster its forces?"
Lykala's words stuck in his throat. Though she had worded it infinitely more gently than Averill, the last man to challenge Askr's-and by extension his-choices, it was nevertheless a challenge. Shame, borne of his naiveté, welled up. "I-no. I was told this was how it was done. I was chosen by Breidablik, and it's my responsibility as a summoner to support the Order through summoning."
"Forgive me, Lykala, but that does not sound very responsible."
"I'm learning that." He mumbled.
She exhaled. "Indeed. Might I offer some advice?"
"You are in an unenviable position, and for that you have my sympathy, but you are not powerless. At the Studium, where I was taught, a great many lessons were delivered to us not by tutors or by demonstrations, but through investigation and self-directed study." She reached for the Orb, and returned it to his care with her next words. "Question everything. Just because a thing has always been so, does not mean it must remain that way. The more we understand about this magick, the better we can control it and make it our own, the more effectively you will be able to perform your role."
"It sounds like you want me to keep summoning, same as all the others."
She smiled. "I will not deny the magick's efficacy. Think of it this way. Your current understanding of Breidablik allows you, through the use of Orbs, to open temporary portals to other worlds and bring people to you. Correct?"
"Perhaps when your mastery of the relic is more complete, and our understanding of Orbs is more thorough, you may be able to achieve the reverse."
"Sending people back?"
"'Tis a possibility. To say nothing of sending our own forces home when they are ready to depart, imagine the advantage that would carry in battle. Depriving Embla of its Heroes is an opportunity we can scarcely afford to ignore."
Revelatory excitement thrilled through him. Lykala placed his hand on the gun at his hip with renewed interest. "I'd never thought of it that way."
"Such is the power of investigation and critical thinking." Mikoto nodded, satisfied.
"Could you help me? With this, I mean."
"You needn't ask. My own curiosity about these containers of mnemonic aether are more than enough to keep me studying them. I could certainly use an extra pair of hands in acquiring the equipment necessary, too. For the moment, however, I believe you have your 'responsibilities' to attend?"
"Right." Lykala said, looking to the door. They'd put off summoning long enough. "Would you like to see the process first-hand?"
"I most certainly would."
Tiki took a deep breath. It was the first time in some days that she'd been able to enjoy fresh air, unfiltered by the odorous tinctures and lingering scent of blood in the infimary. Sickness and injury had a way of cloying the senses, and it was only now, free from their grasp, that she realised how much of her mind they'd consumed.
Her repose had taken her to the gardens just outside the Order's barracks, and she sat by a row of tended crimson flowers. She had seen them dotted around the kingdom, in soil or planters much like these, but also growing wild in the grasslands while on patrol, but had never thought to ask their name. Taking another long draw of the peaceful world that surrounded her, she mustered the mettle to examine her dragonstone. Before the battle at the garrison, she'd always kept it nearby in a pouch, or tucked into her garb, but since her injuries the crystal had never left her hand. She opened her palm, letting the clouded, murky crystal catch the light. Whenever she looked upon it, she wished that it would be clear. That this ordeal had been a frightful nightmare, its condition a trick of the light. Every time she was proven wrong.
Even in the tranquil sunlight bathing the Order, the dragonstone remained a solitary mote of darkness. The deep crack scarring its surface seemed to resist light, the rays losing out to the gloom contained within. Once upon a time, she had learned of degeneration, had fought against those poor, corroded souls who, for pride or fear, had lost themselves to madness. Never had she seen a dragon return to their senses, or even claim human form after losing the battle with the condition. Was she the first to do so? The condition of her dragonstone didn't lend her much confidence in that fact.
More than ever, the isolation she felt as the sole manakete in this world gnawed at her. She longed for an understanding voice, or a soul older than hers to impart its wisdom.
"Oh, Bantu..." The name whispered on her lips caused her eyes to sting. She blinked back the tears. Bantu would know what to do. He had resisted degeneration for longer than any other dragon. Surely he would know what to do.
She quashed the hope of seeing him, for that would mean pulling him into this world. Into this war. No matter how much she longed for his guidance, such a selfish wish should never come to pass.
Footsteps in the distance alerted her to another entering the garden. Tiki got to her feet, pressing the palm not occupied by her accursed crystal to pad her eyes dry and brush her dress free. She turned away from the flowers, stowed her troubles, and made ready to face whomever approached.
Two Heroes; Averill and Chrom. Tiki straightened her back and strode to meet them, wearing a smile. "Ah," exclaimed Chrom, spotting her, "Just the woman we were looking for. I'm told you're on the mend?"
"Well enough to be discharged, yes. What injuries remain will scar in time."
Averill said nothing, surveying her with narrowed eyes. She hid the hand holding her dragonstone behind her back, trying to make it seem like a natural stance. "'Tis well that you're healing." Chrom said. "Loath as I am to rely on the convalescent, I'm afraid we're pressed for hands. Fortunately this won't need you to fight. I hope."
"What is it?"
"Though Embla's retreat has afforded us a reprieve, no-one doubts that this is just the eye of the storm. Igeyorhm's arrival put the truth to that. We've set plans in motion to gather intelligence from Embla herself, but there is one thing we continue to lack, and that is strength."
"Lykala's already preparing to summon more Heroes," Averill added, his arms folded, "Alfonse and Sharena are petitioning for more troops to be allocated to the Order, but there's another angle we apparently haven't explored."
He gestured to Chrom, who continued, "Our current conflict is not the first time Askr and Embla have crossed swords, nor is it the first time both sides have acquired the strength of Heroes. When the first war concluded, and the kingdoms agreed to the uneasy peace that sustained them until now, there were some Heroes who, by the grace of King Gustav, were allowed to remain in Askr and live independent of the Order. They weren't summoned, and are no longer bound by Contracts, but they are Heroes nevertheless."
"We're to locate and make for their encampment, then petition them for aid."
"We?" Tiki asked.
"You and I." Averill nodded. "A two-person envoy. You'll handle the diplomacy, I'll take care of anything pointy that takes umbrage with our travelling."
She stared at him but, selling himself to stoicism, Averill gave nothing away. "'Twas Averill's recommendation that you travel together." Chrom said, "And the journey should not be an arduous one. If you're healed enough to travel, then one hopes you will be at full strength by the time you return."
Tiki pursed her lips, knowing that she could not raise an objection without tipping her hand as to the state of her soul. "When do we depart?"
"Soon as you're equipped." Averill answered. "Horses and supplies are ready to go. Just need to get you into gear for the road and we're fit."
Chrom agreed. "Time is not on our side. Do whatever you can to bring those Heroes around to defending Askr, and return as soon as you're able. We'll supply you with updates via linkpearl."
She made a desperate reach for her composure, inclining her head in a short nod. "Of course. We'll depart as soon as we can."
"Good luck. Both of you."
Chrom left the garden. His hands on his hips, Averill watched him depart before grunting. "No rest for the wicked."
"Indeed," Tiki concurred, "Is there a particular reason you recommended me for this mission?"
"I didn't fancy Robin's company or Lykala's whingeing." He barbed, throwing a smirk her way. She didn't reciprocate, staring stonily until he took the silent chastisement onboard. He sighed, scratching the back of his neck. "We need to figure out how you're going to fight without relying on your draconic form. Time away from the Order and its prying eyes, I thought, would give you the space you needed without the pressure to make any rash decisions."
"And it has nothing to do with keeping me away from any potential battlefields?"
Averill's eyebrow cocked upwards. "You heard our good Shepherd. We're short on hands. Besides, even if you were to succumb to madness, I reckon you'd lay waste to the Order, Embla and mayhaps a couple of villages before you exhausted your power. Why would I want to keep you out of the fight?"
"That isn't funny."
"Am I laughing?" He snapped. "If you'd rather stay here, awaiting the next battle that will force you to draw on that power, then by all means. I offered this mission because I thought it might be of aid to you, but if you disagree, I'll go without."
She made ready to bite back, but the very act of doing so gave her pause. She realised that her defiance sprang not from true resistance to the idea, but from the stewing rage left over from her degeneration. A look at her dragonstone confirmed it; the cloud swirled, agitated like billowing smoke. She shook her head. "Forgive me, Averill. I meant not to bicker over your offer of help."
He shrugged. "I know how much you want to avoid the circumstances I described. I do, as well. But we're not going to figure this out waiting for Embla to knock on Askr's gates. No, better we get away and shore up our strength, to strike true on Askr's terms."
"Yes." Tiki nodded. She dug deep, finding a heartened smile beneath the dark, and brought it his way. "Who knows how our diplomatic mission might go with your disposition at the van."
He grinned. "At least someone agrees with me. Come on. Let's get you ready."