A/N: Sorry I didn't have this up sooner, guys. I've basically had to have my main working computer rebuilt from scratch, which was a bummer, but the good news is that I've been able to work off of my laptop, and now I'm ready with a new chapter for you all!
Without further ado, let's see how the new Shepherds handle the ever-changing Outrealms! New foes and the unexpected return of old allies are afoot, and amidst it all, will we finally see the situation between Mako, Kiara, and Lilina resolved? Read now to find out!
Gate to All
"This is it?" Oliver asked in an undertone as he and his cousin crouched in the bushes that bordered a clearing in the forest that they and the other Shepherds had been traveling through. His gaze was focused on what looked like the crumbling remains of a castle, where oddly enough, the entrance appeared largely untouched.
"See the air where the doors should be?" Kiara replied in an equally quiet whisper. "That looks like a gateway to me."
Oliver nodded as he took her meaning- the area that she had mentioned seemed to shimmer, almost like how water ripples after being struck, except that this distortion was occurring on nothing but air. If the texts that his cousin had been studying were accurate, this was a gate to the Outrealms- a world between worlds, one might say. In it, heroes of the past could be encountered, as well as those that might be from times yet to come.
There was another gate that led to this strange reality located in Ferox, one which the older Shepherds had used many times to reach a favored vacation spot, often bringing along their children. While this did mean that it wouldn't be their first time using an Outrealm gate, this would be nothing like their childhood memories of playing on the beach and soaking in hot springs. They were in pursuit of a surviving sect of Grimleal cultists that had kidnapped what might be as many as several dozen children, and they doubted that they would go down without a fight.
"The four guards lolling about also seem to be a good indicator that we've found the right spot," Kiara said with a faint grin, causing Oliver's eyes to flick toward the open area in front of the ruins. Sure enough, there were four men, all dressed in the dark clothing of Plegia's former church, all of them more or less relaxing on the grass or under the shade of some rocks.
"Huh," he muttered. "Somehow I completely overlooked them." After a moment, he added, "I see two swords, one archer, and one mage. Shouldn't be a problem."
"Not unless they have friends in the trees or the ruins," Kiara countered softly.
"Gilbert would have noticed any archers in the trees when he did his flyover," Oliver replied with a negative shake of his head. "If these guys have been here for any length of time and bothered to deploy archers in the trees, they would have constructed watch posts in the branches. They'd be hard to find from the ground, sure, but no one thinks to disguise themselves from eyes that are looking down."
"We don't know that," Kiara argued. "If you really did see the Black Spirit, then the leader of this sect is a lot more cunning than your average bandits. He'd know to look out for sky troops."
Oliver considered this for a moment before he nodded reluctantly. "All right, so we proceed under the assumption that they will have backup in the trees. How do you want to play this?"
"Attack pattern: Sigma," his commanding officer replied without hesitation.
"Ah," Oliver grinned. "Scorching Storm or Dark Thunder variation?"
"The latter," Kiara replied as she made a motion to indicate that she wanted to move away and head back toward where their comrades were waiting for them. "I'd rather minimize the risk that we set fire to the forest."
"Now, let's head back and rally the troops before these guys decide to be more vigilant."
"Crap baskets!" Mako exclaimed as he clutched at his hair. "Again?!"
"You never were very good at chess," Gilbert said with a not-so-hidden smile as he leaned back from the game board that he and his cousin had been using. "Why the sudden interest?" The two of them had decided to play the classic game while waiting on Oliver and Kiara to come back from their scouting trip.
"I need something to distract me from the dung heap that has become my life," the raven-haired boy answered with a sigh. "I was hoping to use my brain for this, rather than raging impotently at myself and the circumstances."
"And how has that worked out for you?" Gilbert asked, dropping the smile.
"Well, I've found something else to direct my rage at, I suppose," Mako replied grimly. "I think that for the first time in my life, I'm starting to regret being a part of this group."
"Come now, you don't mean that," the Sylph Sage chided him. "Besides, I think that these problems can hardly be avoided- regardless of whether or not you joined us, these Grimleal dastards would have sprung up to cause trouble, and the rest of us would have to deal with it. Why the sudden conflict of interests?"
"Funny way to put it, actually," Mako grumbled as he glanced around to make sure that no one listening in one them. "Kiara and Lilina are making it… stressful, if you will, to maintain good relations with them."
"They are both in love with you," Gilbert said bluntly, causing Mako to flinch. "I can think of worse problems to have."
"You mean like having an evil twin who wants to kill all the old Shepherds and possibly bring back a demon-dragon?" his cousin replied wryly.
"Yet you seem more upset by the conundrum that the princess and our tactician have presented you with," Gilbert said gently. "Why is that?"
"I don't know, Gil," Mako sighed heavily as he looked up at the sky. "It's all just so confusing. I mean, I love the both of them, but I don't know that I can see myself as being in love with either of them. I've never been in love with anyone, really."
"And what about that makes it so frightening?" the young man with green wings inquired. "If a romantic love is to grow from within you, who better than one of your oldest friends to share in that?"
"Because one, I'm not certain that I reciprocate," Mako replied a little testily. "Two, it almost feels like if I chose one over the other, it would almost be like a betrayal to the one who was left out. And I don't know that I can bring myself to do that. I suppose a third point is that I dislike them putting me on the spot as they have."
"Have they, though?" Gilbert asked quietly. When Mako gave him a questioning look, he explained, "Based on my own observations, it is the actions of one that has brought on this particular series of events."
"If you say it's me, I'm casting a Nosferatu on you," Mako said warningly, causing his cousin to chuckle.
"No, no, not you," he answered. "To me, it seems as though, in her impatience with you and Kiara both, Lilina has sought to take matters in her own hands and thus created this rift between all of you. Kiara, on the other hand, has quietly harbored her affections for you for many years, yet never has she made any advances on you until Lilina more or less forced her hand."
Mako paused, thinking back on all that had happened between him and the two girls in the last few weeks, and quickly realized that his cousin was right. He wasn't saying that Lilina had meant to cause this tension, but it was indeed her impatience that had caused the girls' feelings to be made apparent, and in a way that had only caused strife. She was someone who hated being idle, or waiting for things to happen. As a princess raised by a strong father and mother, she was used to making things happen.
On the other hand, if Kiara felt so strongly about him, why remain silent? Why not act at all, instead of letting him continue on in ignorance, until everything came to a boil as it had?
He mentioned these last thought to Gilbert, who shrugged and replied, "If she had, who is to say you would have reacted any differently than you have to this whole mess? Think about it- she knows you well enough to know that you dislike major life changes like a romantic confrontation- for lack of a better term- would cause. I think that it was out of a respect for your feelings on such matters that caused her to remain quiet on the subject."
"Oh," was all that Mako could think to say. "I… hadn't thought of that."
"Honestly, why am I the one having to tell you these things?" Gilbert sighed as he leaned back against a fallen tree. "You're the older one. I should be asking you about these matters, not the other way around."
"I'm only two years older than you," Mako smirked. "Besides, you've never mentioned a girl before. Is she a Shepherd? Or someone in Ylisse?"
"Hmm," Gilbert grinned as he looked up at the sky. "No. There's no one. I do believe I'll simply be married to my books." In truth, he had harbored affections for Kiara for some time, but knowing that she only had eyes for his cousin, he had never let the fact become known. Besides, he wasn't being entirely dishonest- he was perfectly happy to devote himself to his magic and immersing himself in the knowledge of the world.
"Well, be glad with your lot in life, then," Mako sighed. "I'm sure your existence is far less complicated than mine is."
"I concur," his cousin smiled, keeping his eyes on the sky. However, he did add, "But I do believe that there is more opportunities for joy in your life than in mine."
"I hate you and your stupid logic sometimes," the Spriggan warrior muttered.
Kiara and her cousin returned a little bit after that. "Mount up, grab your weapons," Oliver announced once everyone had gathered. "We've found the gate about a kilometer from here. There's a token guard in front of it, but we suspect that there may be more of them in the trees."
"We're going in with formation Sigma," Kiara said while Oliver went to gather his things. "Dark Thunder variation." Looking over at Mako, she added, "It's going to be you and me in the air. Everyone else will be our rearguard while we flush out any would-be ambushers."
"Understood," he nodded sharply, causing her to breathe a quiet sigh of relief. She hadn't been certain that he would be amicable to taking orders, given how he had exploded at Lilina on account of their feud.
"Oliver will be leading the rest of you on foot, follow his orders as he gives them," she continued. "Liz, Gil, he'll need you as mid-range support, so stick to spellcasting unless he says otherwise. All of you, stay hidden until the fireworks start." Pounding her fist to her heart, she added, "For Ylisse."
"For Ylisse," her troops replied.
Mako and Kiara crept above the trees on silent wings, keeping an eye out for any ambush posts surrounding the clearing that she and Oliver had scouted. As soon as they reached the lip of the greenery, Mako turned to his leader and made a series of hand signs that read, 'Four guards. No tree posts. Change plan?'
She shook her head and signed back, 'Play safe. Knock down trees, distract ground forces.'
He nodded his understanding and moved closer to her, dark energy swirling in his hands as his brow bent downward in concentration. Hovering abreast to him, she reached out with her right hand toward the sky, even as he stretched out his left. In low voices, they chanted, "O might of the storm, O strength of the night, may your wrath smite those that stand against the light…"
Black-purple thunder clouds began to appear over the clearing, rumbling ominously as they began to obscure the sunlight. Down below, they thought they could hear the sounds of men shouting in surprise, but they ignored them.
Continuing their incantation, they intoned, "With the contradiction of nature do we send forth our will. With the power passed down through the blood in our veins we do enforce our will. Go, Akuma no Inazuma!"
The clouds swelled threateningly, then belched forth a rain of purple lightning, striking down the rings of trees that surrounded the clearing in a way that caused them to fall towards the men, crushing all of them as they tried to flee. The storm clouds quickly faded away once they ceased fueling the spell, satisfied that they had done their part.
"Seems there were no sentries after all," Mako commented as he began to float down into the now-crowded clearing.
"It never hurts to be cautious," Kiara commented. "At least this way we know that we won't be shot in the back as soon as we make for the portal."
"True," Mako nodded as they alighted on the ground, near one of the Grimleal men whose bottom half had been crushed by a tree. He was trying feebly to pull himself free when Mako's blade appeared at his neck, forcing him to remain still, save for his heavy breathing.
"Who…?" he croaked hoarsely before shaking his head. "Actually… it-it doesn't… matter… Please, kill me…"
"I'll have my comrade here grant you that wish, after you answer some questions," Kiara said as she knelt next to him. "The alternative is that we leave you to die of shock and blood loss, which I can guarantee will be much more painful than a stab through the heart." If Mako was disturbed by her cold assessment of the man's situation, he did not show it.
"Wh-What do you… want?" the man gasped, shuddering as a wave of agony wracked his body again.
"Are you Grimleal?" she inquired.
"I am," he panted. "I… lived to see the return… of my lord, Grima…"
"Why kidnap those children?" Kiara demanded a little more harshly this time. She was aware that the other Shepherds were now approaching through the wreckage, on guard for any surprise attacks. "Grima is dead. His spirit no longer even exists."
"W-Wrong…" the man gasped, his eyes wide as he stared into the sky. "My lord… he lives… But he is not living… as creation intended…"
"What do you mean?" Kiara asked, a chill running through her.
"He… needs life to live…" the dying man coughed, spitting up blood. "Born from death… he can only die… But… if another dies in his place… he may yet live…"
"You're a bloody lunatic," Kiara snorted. "Grima was slain with the Exalted and Fell Falchion both. He couldn't have survived both Naga's magic and his own."
"Hah…" the man exhaled slowly. "Couldn't… he…?"
"Kill him," the girl ordered, rising to her feet. "He's either mad or hallucinating in his death throes. He's no good to us, but I don't want to let him die slowly- send him to hell so he can meet his beloved dragon." Mako nodded without a word and ended the man's life with a quick stab to his heart, just as they had promised.
"They're sacrificing these kids so that somebody masquerading as Grima can gain more power from the lives that he takes," Mako said in disgust as he cleaned his blade on the man's clothes. "Repugnant."
"That does seem to be the most likely case," Kiara nodded as the others finally finished picking their way through the debris that she and Mako had made. "The real question then becomes, 'Why go to all the trouble to amass that kind of power?'"
"What power?" Oliver asked as he walked up to them. "Also, nice mess here."
Kiara explained what they had managed to glean from their conversation with the Grimleal before adding, "At least we don't have to worry about any more surprises from these people. At least, not until we get into the Outrealms…"
"About that…" Mako said quietly. "Once we go in, how do we find our way back out if we have to go far? It's not as though we have a map of the place, and according to the stories out parents told us, it constantly changes. We could get lost in there."
"From what I've been able to tell, the exit isn't ever really all that far from wherever we need to be, and Grandpa never mentioned any difficulty in getting out, even after spending six months of fighting and recruiting Einherjar," Kiara shrugged. "I see no reason why it should be any different for us. Besides, our enemies haven't seemed to have issues with getting in and out."
"I never took you for a devil-may-care planner," Mako said with a raised eyebrow.
"Normally I'm not, but Aunt Morgan says I need to be more flexible in my approach to tactics, not to mention I just don't have enough knowledge on the Outrealms to form a solid strategy," she replied grimly. Looking over at Oliver, she asked, "Are we all ready to go in?"
"Yeah, I had our fliers go back once I realized we were all clear, and they will be bringing the supply wagons along," he nodded. Glancing at the fallen trees, he added, "We might want to clear a path, though."
"Everyone ready?" Kiara asked the others as she stood before the shimmering gate to the worlds beyond. "Once we go in, it may be some time before we return. And to be honest, much of what we will encounter inside will be unknown. If any of you wish to depart our company now, I will not fault you for it."
"Hah!" Kerry snorted. "If we were gonna run off with our tails between our legs, we wouldn't be Shepherds in the first place! That, or we'd be Yinne, who's only staying because Minerva made him."
"Why am I always the example?!"
"Kerry's right," Elizabeth said with a fierce grin as she buzzed her crimson wings. "We don't fear the unknown, and we don't know the meaning of the word 'surrender'."
"But some of us might be willing to learn!" Yinne interjected again.
"This is why you're always the example," Altman said dryly.
"Hark, fellow heroes!" Odin crowed as he stepped up. "Mine sword hand beckons me toward the call of destiny! I shall follow its lead, to places where only the brave and the bold dare to venture!"
"…I refuse to fight to that," Ignacio muttered.
"We're all with you," Gilbert asserted. "Nonsensical monologues notwithstanding."
"Thank you," Kiara said with a smile as she turned around, Oliver following suit.
"This will be an epic of epic propor- ack!" The sound of Odin's windpipe being crushed by Elizabeth brought a smile to the faces of nearly everyone else in their company.
They emerged from the portal onto rolling plains of golden wheat stalks that stretched out under a clear noon sky. It was a beautiful sight to behold, especially given…
"I was expecting something along the lines of a labor camp," Mako commented. "I don't see anything that resembles a structure for miles- not even a camp."
"This place can play tricks on us, so don't believe everything you see at first glance," Kiara warned them. However, she did also say, "I suppose it's possible that things are a lot more peaceful in here with the Einherjar mostly under my Grandfather's control, instead of constantly fighting each other."
"Doesn't Lady Morgan control them now?" Gilbert inquired.
"No, they apparently made their contracts with Grandpa Robin, and refuse to follow orders from anyone but him," Kiara replied. "Otherwise I would have asked if I could borrow a few…"
"Eh, we don't need 'em," Brian shrugged. "Pretty sure that Mako, Ollie, and Odin could substitute for a small army on their own, not to mention that the rest of us ain't too bad, neither."
"It's a very good thing Grandma Maribelle didn't hear you just now," Altman said as they began wading into the plains. "Pretty sure she would have a heart attack."
"Pfft, my counterpart, your father?" Brian laughed. "He's a way tougher nut 'n I am, and she survived his brand a nonsense. 'Sides, I talk nice enough whenever I'm at the estate."
There was a deep sigh, followed by the sounds of coins clinking in a small bag. Everyone turned to see Ignacio tossing a pouch to Yinne, who was snickering quietly. "What was that all about?" Oliver asked.
"Lucky Rabbit Foot over there and I have a few bets going on concerning the rest of you," the Prince of Plegia grumbled, apparently sore about his loss. "I wagered that Brian is just as crass at home as he is with us. Yinne bet that his mother has him whipped."
"'Scuse me?!" Brian spat.
"You're gambling on our personal matters?!" Celica exclaimed. "Rude!"
"What?" Ignacio shrugged as Yinne nervously pocketed his ill-won money under the watchful glare of Minerva. "We've been bored. He doesn't like chess, and I don't like listening to him worry about everything. This seemed like a happy medium."
"Actually, this sounds like it could be a lot of fun," Oliver grinned, much to his cousin's disapproval. "I want some of this action. What else did you guys bet on?"
"I wagered that Altman would ride a pegasus bareback before he caught the attention of a lady," Ignacio volunteered. "Yinne has a little more confidence in him, I suppose."
"Oei!" the healer growled, red-faced. Turning to the half-taguel, he said, "Actually, thanks for that, but as for you…" Turning back to Ignacio, who was trying very hard not to laugh, he added," Next time a sword goes through your belly, don't come bleeding all over me! You're on your own!"
"I'm with Ignacio, actually," Oliver shrugged, prompting Altman to glare at him, too. "Sorry pal, I just don't see it happening with that mean face of yours, not to mention you have a habit of causing more wounds than healing them with your staves." Ducking the swipe that his friend aimed at him, he added, "See?"
"I b-bet that Oliver would rather eat Kerry's rhubarb p-pie than let Odin borrow his Falchion," Yinne managed to get out.
"Hey!" Kerry shouted, hefting her spear at the young man from atop her horse, Yinne paling rapidly.
"That's not fair!" Kiara's cousin added. "You're basically asking me to choose between food poisoning and an act that I would equate to cutting off my own arm!" His Falchion had been given to him by his uncle right before they had set off on their own, passing on the torch, as it were. It was the Fell Falchion, the blade that had ended Grima's life once the Exalted Falchion had bound his Avatar in place. Lilina actually had one similar to it- an uncorrupted and unblessed version of the legendary sword- having been bequeathed to her by her future counterpart.
"Somebody's about to get speared, and it's gonna be where the sun don't shine!" Kerry snarled, her eyes darting between Oliver and Yinne.
"But which one would you choose?" Ignacio grinned. "Current threats from our fair tomboy aside, which would you rather do?"
"I would rather jump off a cliff than make this decision," Oliver deadpanned.
"Not an option," Ignacio teased. "You have to choose. Odin gets the Falchion for a day, or you wind up on a cot being treated for gout."
"Hrgrh!" Kerry seethed.
"Blast it, I'd eat the pie," Oliver groaned.
"What?!" the prince shouted. "Odin having the sword is only for a day! Kerry's pie is- OW!" The man clutched at his head, where the girl's spear had hit him with the shaft.
"Exactly, it would be Odin with a sacred weapon," Oliver deadpanned. "Even for a few hours, can you imagine what damage he could do and/or tales he would spin?"
"That is a… good point," Ignacio grumbled as he reached into his bag again. "Fine, Yinne. You win this one, too."
"Stop betting on people!" Kiara snapped.
"Ha!" Ignacio grinned as he re-stuffed the small pouch back in his bag while Yinne looked disappointed. "I knew it!"
"What was that one for?!" Kiara demanded.
"I bet that you would try to stop our game as soon as you found out about it!" the Plegian youth laughed.
"Kerry, hit him again."
They spent some hours walking through the fields of golden plants, with the fairies among them (save for Kiara) even flying off in different directions for forty minutes, only to come back and report that they had seen nothing out of the ordinary. For all they knew, they could be in the same spot that they had started, except that they could no longer see the portal back to their world. This little fact worried some of them- especially Yinne- but most of them trusted Kiara. She had been trained by the best, and so she must have some sort of plan in mind, right?
Mako, however, was not so confident. He knew Kiara well, and despite his aggravation with her and Lilina at present, he did not want to see her maintaining a façade that would undoubtedly crack under the pressure if she did not have someone to confide in. But I told Lilina that I would have nothing special to do with either of them until they had things between them sorted, he thought with a frown as he trudged along behind Kiara and Oliver. Although now that I've talked to Gil, maybe punishing Kiara for Lilina's hastiness is unfair… But at the same time I don't want to give off the wrong impression to either of them… Gah! I hate this!
Deciding that he needed some space to clear his head, he announced, "I'm going up ahead for another recon."
"Mako, you were flying for nearly an hour nonstop earlier," Kiara cautioned as he spread his wings. "I would rather you conserve your strength."
"I have plenty of strength left," he replied shortly. "Sorry, but I need some time alone."
"All right," she nodded, though she looked a little sad. "Just say that next time, please. And if you don't mind, maybe just keep an orbit above us so we don't lose sight of each other."
He considered arguing back, but then caught himself, realizing that he was on the verge of being too harsh for the sake of injured feelings and pride. "Alright," he nodded before he took to the air, breathing in the fresh wind and enjoying the feeling of leaving his troubles behind on the ground again.
That's better, he thought to himself. Just me, the wind, the sun, and the smell of burning gra- He stopped dead in his tracks as he sniffed at the air more intensely than taking a casual breath. "Something is on fire around here," he scowled, looking in every direction, but seeing nothing of smoke.
Still, there was a breeze, which meant that the smell could be carried on it, even if the blaze was out of sight. Grumbling to himself, Mako realized that he might not be about to get his alone time. Collapsing his wings, he zoomed back toward the ground, opening them just in time to make a solid landing a few meters in front of his comrades, who looked startled at his sudden reappearance.
"I smelled smoke, coming from the north," he reported as he pointed toward the right of the setting sun. "It was faint, but I didn't catch a whiff of it when I was flying around earlier."
"So either it's a recent one, or just really far away," Oliver remarked as he peered in the indicated direction. "I don't see anything, though."
"Visual confirmation or not, it's the first thing we have to go on in the way of a destination," Kiara asserted. "I say we check it out- if we're lucky, we'll chance on those Grimleal dastards."
"I would count that as bad luck, finding people that wanna kill us," Yinne muttered, but like everyone else, he turned to follow Kiara as she led the way in the new direction.
Mako said, "Well then, if it's all the same to you, Kiara, I'll just be heading back up."
"May I join you?" He was surprised when Celica rode up on her Pegasus, a cheery smile on her face.
"Er, sure," Mako shrugged, uncertain if it was a genuine desire to keep him company that had her acting, or if it was some kind of ploy by Lilina to get him to talk to her again. He almost immediately discounted that idea, though. Impatient and a little entitled might be some of the princess' negative qualities, but subterfuge and guile were not among her faults.
With that in mind, he and the Pegasus Knight took to the air, high enough to keep their comrades in plain sight, but not so far that they would have difficulty breathing. The instant that they leveled out, Celica said in a casual tone, "So I heard that you and my sister got in a fight."
"Is nothing in my life private?!" he shouted, though not loud enough that his comrades on the ground would be able to make out his words. "Good Naga, I can't have five minutes without somebody asking, 'So have you bedded the princess yet?' Or, 'Have you tipped the scales with Kiara yet?' Enough already!" Done ranting, he settled for breathing heavily and glaring at Celica, whose face remained fixed in an impish grin as they floated along in the air.
"Touchy subject, huh?" she replied.
"No, what gave you that idea?" he asked, making no effort to hide his sarcasm.
"Well, Lily came and cried about it for like an hour to me, so there's that," Celica answered, unabashed. "But I gotta say, I'm actually kinda impressed by you."
"Bwuh?" Mako sputtered, looking askance at the blue-haired girl.
"I mean, I feel sorry for her, but more because she did it to herself than anything," the rider replied. "You, on the other hand, actually had a choice that a lot of people would envy, but you chose to do what you felt was right, and stood your ground when things got tense. That takes a lotta guts, Mako. I guess what I'm getting at is that I don't have any hard feelings toward you about the whole mess. If anything, I've grown to admire you more for it."
"Er… Thanks?" he said awkwardly, still not entirely sure that she wasn't baiting him into some kind of trap. "I honestly thought that you might try to impale me once we got up here."
"Nah," Celica giggled. "I just wanted to make sure that we were cool. I know this trip has been kind of a blow to Lily's pride, what with Daddy telling her that she wasn't gonna automatically be in charge, then you telling her off. She's not used to not getting her way."
"Is this supposed to make me feel better?" Mako deadpanned. "Because it's not."
"Like I said, I just wanted to let you know that I don't have any hard feelings about the whole thing," Celica shrugged. "And that I think you did the right thing."
"…Thank you," the boy said quietly after a moment.
"On the downside, I guess this means that I'll never get to have the coolest brother-in-law of all time," Celica laughed, causing Mako to introduce his face to his palm.
After they'd had their fill of flying, the pair returned to the ground, with Kiara ordering Elizabeth and Minerva to take their place. "Now that we more or less have a path to follow, I think it's imperative that we keep an eye out for what it is that we may be walking into," she explained. "Send one of you down if you get a visual on whatever is causing that smoke."
Both women gave her a sharp salute as they took to the air to follow their orders. Surprisingly, neither of them complained about it, but Kiara supposed that after nearly a full day's worth of monotonous marching, the two of them were glad to have something to break the cycle.
Mako fell into place near the rear of the column, his face still a little grim, but less so than before. Celica must have somehow cheered him up, or at least figured out some way of helping him to see things in a new light, she thought as she swung her gaze back around to the front. She wanted to go and talk to him, but she had decided to hold off on that until Lilina had her chance to apologize and explain what had gone on between them.
No sooner than Kiara had formed the thought than did the crown princess slow her pace to walk side-by-side with the Spriggan boy. "Can we talk?" she asked in a low tone.
"Did you two come to an understanding?" he replied in an equally lowered tone, his voice emotionless.
"Yes," she nodded glumly.
"Then yes," he replied as they slowed their pace to drop a few dozen yards behind the others, where as long as they kept their lowered tones, the mutterings of their comrades would cover any of their own words. Once they had done so, he asked, "What is it you wanted to discuss?"
"Kiara and I spoke before we made it to the Outrealm Gate," Lilina answered him. "About you, how we both feel about you, and how we feel about each of us being with you. Kiara made some things about myself that I oft ignore very clear to me, and illustrated to me just how selfish my pursuit of you has been. For that, and for the way that I have acted as of late, I ask your forgiveness, Mako. I have not been behaving as a princess- much less a friend- should. I am very sorry for it, and I do hope that with time, our friendship can be what it once was."
Mako looked over to her, the hard lines in his face softening as he recognized her apology as a sincere one. "You ask my forgiveness, and I say that there is nothing to forgive," he said gently, catching her by surprise. "I also cry your pardon for my harshness, Lilina. I have been under a great strain as of late, but that is no excuse for such wrath to be aimed at you."
"I needed it," she admitted as she cast her eyes back down to the ground. "I have been rash, and I cannot fault you for acting as you did. Nonetheless, since you ask it of me, I forgive you for your angry words."
"Thank you," he said softly, sounding much more like himself than he had been for the last few days. "I'm proud of you, Lilina. Unbending your pride enough to not only apologize, but to also ask for forgiveness takes a tremendous amount of humility. I believe that trait will serve you well when the time comes for you to be Exalt."
"Thank you," she murmured. Straightening her shoulders, she said, "Kiara also wants to speak with you in private, now that I've said my piece. She told me that she intends to continue pursuing you in her own way, but now I wonder if she might be a little more direct about it since my indiscretion has caused this whole mess."
"I really can't get a moment's peace around here, can I?" Mako grumbled, but unlike before, he did not seem genuinely angered by the prospect.
"Mako…" Lilina started, then shut her mouth.
Seeing this, the boy asked, "What is it?"
Casting her gaze down once more, she said in all but a whisper, "Give her a chance. I think that you two would be very happy together."
Mako frowned a little and asked, "Are you saying that to make the thought of giving up on me easier, or because you don't want me to think ill of her?"
"I say it because I believe it," she answered. "However painful it is for me to admit out loud, it is the truth as I see it." Tears fell from her eyes, but she quickly dashed them away. "Whoever you end up with, I wish you only the best."
To that, Mako could not find a suitable response in words. So he did the only thing he could think to do. Reaching out, he grasped her hand, still wet with tears from her eyes, and kissed it gently, causing Lilina to gasp and stop in her tracks along with him.
"You are loved, Lilina," he managed to say with a pained smile. "Though it is not the same love you hold, I want you to know that you are loved by your friend."
In that moment, the princess could not tell if she was crying from the agony of knowing that she would never have his heart, from the relief of knowing that he still cared for her, or if the tears were brought on by the sheer fury she directed at herself, having pushed things too fast. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. Whatever the source of her quiet cries, Mako stayed behind with her until she had poured out all of her grief and anguish, and though it was a small enough comfort, she was grateful for it.
The sun was beginning to set when Elizabeth shot down to land in front of the party, her face grim as she turned to her commanding officer. "Minerva and I can make out the glow of a large fire, about two hours away from here on foot," she reported. "On fairy wings going as fast as we can fly, I estimate that we could be there in less than fifteen minutes."
"What do you think, Kiara?" Oliver asked. "You two along with Gilbert and Mako could fly ahead and at least assess the situation, see if we've found our Grimleal friends."
"I know, but I feel uncomfortable stripping our aerial defenses so heavily," she replied, her brow bent in concentration as she weighed her options. "Not to mention that it's getting dark, and we could easily lose sight of you in the night."
"We can set up camp here," her cousin offered. "Clear the area and light some small fires so that you'll be able to find us again when you come back."
Now Kiara was shaking her head in the negative with certainty. "Too risky for both parties," she decided. "We'll break for the evening and send out three of us in the morning as an advance party. Hopefully we've found our kidnappers, but it could be another hostile force."
"What if they're friendly?" Oliver asked.
"Can't chance that," Kiara replied. "No, we'll camp here for the night. Tell everyone to unload, and have Teela clear the plant life out so that we can have a proper cook fire without worrying that we're going to light the fields ablaze." Addressing Elizabeth directly once more, she ordered, "Tell Minerva to get down here and have Pina assist with the clearing of the shrubs."
"Aye," she replied as she took to the sky once again.
"I'm on it," Oliver said as he moved back to signal to everyone that they could stop to unpack and rest. He paused when a particular figure in black walked up to him, but then they moved past each other without incident.
"Lilina said that you wanted to talk," Mako said as he approached his leader.
"Did you two work things out?" Kiara asked quietly.
"We did," he nodded. "Firstly, I would like to say that I am sorry for delivering such an ultimatum to her and you both. Will you forgive me for acting rashly?"
"Of course," she nodded with a small smile. "I'm glad that the two of you are all right."
"I don't know that we're 'all right' just yet, but we will get there eventually," Mako nodded. "Now, what did you want to talk to me about?"
"I mostly wanted to make sure that you were okay," she shrugged. "And to ask if you needed to talk about anything in confidence."
"Can we talk up in the air?" he requested. "I'd rather reduce the chances of us being overheard, as there are some things I want to clear up."
"Of course," she nodded as she walked off after Oliver. "Just let me notify Ollie, then I'll join you in the sky."
A few minutes later, they were floating on their black and azure wings, alone in the late afternoon sky. Elizabeth and Minerva had both returned to help set up the camp, so there was no chance that they would attempt to eavesdrop on the two of them.
"What is it that you wished to discuss in private?" Kiara asked the boy.
"I'm sure you have a fair idea," Mako replied with a slightly raised eyebrow. "But I'll speak of what I believe to be the most concerning thing at the moment. That is, our relationship."
"Our working relationship remains unchanged, no matter the outcome of any events between us, as I'm sure you know," Kiara said swiftly. "As for our relations as friends, I think that you will be surprised to find that I am likely just as confused as you are with regards on how to proceed with things between us."
"Well, at least I'm not alone in that regard, then," he said with a grim smile. "The way that I see it, my understanding is that you are in love with me- unless I'm mistaken?"
"You're not." She shrugged, feeling a little helpless as she added, "I have been in love with you for some time, but never did I imagine it coming to light as it has. I wanted the first time that I told you how I really felt to be a special moment, one that I would treasure for many years to come. Instead, it nearly cost me two of my closest friends, because I did not act with enough confidence."
"You acted as only you would, and there is no shame in that," Mako told her. "And you haven't lost Lilina or me. As I said before, I simply don't know how to move forward, knowing how you feel, without knowing my own heart."
"Which is precisely why I kept quiet for so long," Kiara replied. "But it doesn't matter now. What does matter is knowing where each of us stands, for your sake."
"What about you?" the boy asked.
"My feelings don't matter right now," she answered in a strong voice. "As with all things that I do for my comrades, my needs come second, only to be addressed when they have been cared for. Understand this, Mako; whether or not you come to love me back, I will always put your needs before my own. That is the duty of a true tactician, to care for their troops before themselves."
"Then would it change nothing between us?" Mako asked her with a slight frown. "Would me reciprocating your feelings merely be a change in how others view us?"
"No," Kiara said firmly. "I am not saying that at all. To start, being with you would make me very happy. But what I was trying to tell you is that my primary purpose would be to love you, and to see you be happy in a life shared with mine. Should you not reciprocate, I will still do my best to see you be happy, but in a different role- one of being your friend, nothing more."
"Do you truly think so little for yourself?" her friend asked, a new respect for her growing in him. "Is there nothing that you want for yourself?"
"I do," she nodded. "I want you to love me as I love you. With unconditional, ever-growing, undying love for the one that you desire to spend your life with, and to love them so that it does not matter how long you must wait for them. That is my dream, and I know that it may remain only that- a fantasy. Yet I lay it before you now, in the hopes that you will return my feelings, or at the very least not dismiss them out of hand."
Mako gulped nervously- Kiara was showing a side of herself that he had no idea existed before a few weeks ago, and she was doing so without reserve. She was making herself incredibly vulnerable to him, yet she was doing so with a will of iron. It spoke volumes of how much she trusted him- or how confident she was that he would reciprocate her affections. Either way, it painted her in an impressive light as far as he was concerned.
Now she waited for him to respond, her jaw set, and her eyes searching his. He saw fear in them, but also hope and trust. He had never seen such brave eyes, he thought.
It took him a few moments to answer her declaration, but he finally managed to say, "You certainly don't hold back, do you?" She continued to gaze up at him without wavering, so he said, "I can't deny that your words have touched me- deeply. Because of that, I will be fully honest with you." He gathered his thoughts amid the pounding in his ears that echoed his heartbeat, then took the plunge. "I love you also, Kiara, but it is not the same love that you hold for me- leastways, not yet. I never thought that I would feel anything for you but the love of comrades in arms, but now… You have been so kind to me, uncomplaining through the mess that Lilina and I created, so that I cannot see you as I once did. I do not yet know if my feelings toward you are changing into a romantic love, but I am willing to pursue these confusing thoughts of mine for your sake- only so long as you keep me company on the journey."
"I appreciate your honesty," she replied, her eyes alight with a new joy as a smile spread across her lips, her wings buzzing excitedly. "And I accept your offer to explore what lies in your heart- and I further promise to safeguard it, not only against my own selfish desires, but also the ploys of others that would seek to harm you."
"When we return to Ylisse, I will speak to your father about the matter of our courtship," Mako promised her, a small smile alighting his own face. "Until then, for as much the sake of our honor as my own need to carefully explore this new realm of unknowns, I ask that we proceed slowly."
"Of course," Kiara nodded somberly, though her eyes were still full of joy. "You know that I've never been one to rush things."
"True," he nodded, looking a little relieved. "And if I might ask that we not make a formal announcement to the others until I have spoken to Lord Marth? I don't feel the need to rub salt in Lilina's wounds."
"Again, I can agree to that," Kiara said as she hovered a little closer to him. "May I now make a request?"
"Yes," he answered, though she noticed him tense up with nervous anticipation.
Moving slowly, she slipped her arms underneath his and wrapped them around his torso, leaning into his chest, letting out a long sigh of relief as she breathed, "Please hold me, even if only for a moment. I think I've earned it."
She felt him hesitate, and for a moment, she wondered if she had pushed him too quickly. Then a pair of thin, strong arms wrapped themselves around her back, and she smiled again. Her heart felt lighter than it had in years, and she nearly giggled when she remembered that they were quite literally walking on air.
They returned to the camp not long after, and no matter how much any one person asked them what had happened, they refused to divulge the contents of their conversation. They acted as they had up until the Tournament of Power in Ferox, which now seemed like a lifetime ago. It seemed apparent to their colleagues and family members that something must have passed between them, but what exactly that was remained a secret shared only by the two of them for the time being.
They had just started cleaning up their dinners when the sound of something whistling through the air at high speed preceded an arrow slamming into Mako's right shoulder, his primary fighting arm.
He swore angrily as he gathered magic in his left hand, even as the Shepherds scrambled into a defensive formation. "How'd they get past you, Celica?!" Kiara demanded as she whipped out her wind tome.
"No one got past me, I swear it!" the princess answered vehemently. She had been on guard duty, and was now falling into formation with the other winged units on the ground, ready to take back into the air at Kiara's command. "Whoever shot at us did so from outside the range of my patrol!"
"In the night?!" Mako hissed angrily as Altman broke the shaft behind his back. As the healer swiftly drew out the missile, he grunted, "Not even Sir Virion could make that shot!"
"Maybe they were lucky!" Elizabeth replied, lighting up a flame in her hand to cast a better light on the area surrounding them.
"Ha!" a familiar voice crowed. "Luck has no part in our endeavors, foul villains! Mine sword hand will smite with might and skill alone!"
"Odin, shut up!" Ignacio ordered angrily.
"I didn't say that!" Odin protested.
"Yeah right," Kerry snorted. "Only you would threaten people with your stupid 'sword hand!'"
"You dare mock Odin Dark, the scion of legend?!" a girl's voice demanded from beyond the edge of the firelight. "You will face the wrath of his shadow for your blasphemous deeds!"
"What the hell is going on?!" Oliver demanded as he looked over at Odin, who seemed just as perplexed as everyone else. "Do you have a fan club out here that we don't know about?!"
"I don't think so?" Odin answered dumbly.
"Ophelia, cut it out!" A man's voice cut through the night now. "You'll give away our position!"
"Idiots, you've already done that!" Elizabeth called out.
"Not now, Severa!" answered a voice that sounded an awful lot like Ignacio's.
"Severa?" the salamander girl asked, bewildered. "I'm not Severa!"
By now, Altman had finished healing Mako's wound, so the boy got to his feet and drew his sword, dark magic still gathering in his left palm. "All right, whoever thought it was a good idea to shoot me, let's see you do it again!" he shouted into the night, interrupting their current exchange. "I'll wager you ca- Waugh!"
His challenge turned into a yelp of surprise as another arrow shot down from the sky to nearly pierce his body in the same spot as before. From further out in the fields, they heard a woman's voice call, "The next one will not miss, Black Spirit. Surrender yourself if you hold any fealty to your underlings, lest our company lay waste to them."
"Black Spirit?" Mako repeated, his eyes snapping up to search the darkness. "Isn't that-?"
"If you wish to harm one of the Shepherds, you will have to deal with us all!" Kiara shouted back into the night, wind swirling in her hands, ready to fly at the slightest provocation. "Do not underestimate the protectors of Ylisse!"
"You're not the Shepherds," asserted a female voice this time, the tone stern and commanding. "We know you're Grimleal, following that sycophant around as you are."
"Grim-?! How dare you!" Oliver roared, brandishing the Fell Falchion. "Would those devoted to Grima wield the weapon that killed him?!"
"I hold little doubt that you use it as a trophy after taking it from the man who used to wield it," the mystery woman answered. "Though I suppose commendations are in order for managing to best Marth in combat."
"Marth is my uncle, you dolt!" Oliver spat. "My mother is Lady Morgan, and my father Sir Laurent, both Shepherds of great renown."
"Hold on just a sec!" another young woman's voice piped up. "If that's true, how come you're walking around with Mataras?! Especially after the things he's been doing here in the Outrealms?!"
"What the-?!" Mako sputtered, now growing even more furious. "I'm not that BASTARD!" he bellowed. "I am Mako, son of Sir Kirito and Lady Asuna, champions of Ylisse! Identify yourselves before the might of Ylisse's newest Shepherds falls upon you!"
"So just because you're newer, you're automatically better, huh?" The second woman's voice answered, before there was a blur of yellow light that stopped in front of the young company, startling them. "Have to say, I'm not very impressed."
"Y-You're…" Kiara said, her eyes wide as they all took in the sight of the newcomer.
'She' happened to be a girl with short brown hair, eyes, and yellow wings that- from the descriptions of their parents and their comrades- the new Shepherds recognized as those of a Cait Sith fairy. She also carried a powerful-looking longbow. And the only Cait Sith that was known for being a crack shot with a bow was…
"Lady Sinon?!" Oliver all but shouted. "Is it really?!"
"Apparently my reputation precedes me," the woman replied dryly, her eyes not leaving Mako, who was feeling very uncomfortable now. "You," she added, "You're Mako? Kirito the Black Swordsman's son? I doubt that very much, especially given that it's only been two years since I left the Halidom."
"Actually, you've been gone from Ylisse for twenty years, my lady," Gilbert said smoothly, though he remained aware of the bow in her grip, plus the arrow that was resting on the bowstring. "It has often been theorized that time passes differently between the realms, especially those connected by the Outrealms. If memory serves, did you not originally herald from a realm in which time passed differently than that of my home?"
"And what would you know about that, Sylph?" she asked him levelly.
"My mother was once a friend of yours- Lady Suguha, or perhaps better known to you as Leafa," Gilbert answered swiftly. "Our parents told us the tales of the realms that they came from, Aincrad and Alfheim."
Sinon regarded them all curiously for a few moments, her lips moving without sound coming out. Then she drew back a little ways and said, "Yes, I recognize some of you- or rather, I recognize your future counterparts in you. Lucina, Cynthia, Severa, Owain, Inigo, Brady… The others I do not know."
"Hey!" Mako barked. "Why did you shoot me?!"
"We've been busy with your future double for a few weeks," the woman answered dryly. "He attacked us not long after we came here to make our way back to Ylisse, saying that he was looking for Kirito and Robin. He had some of those Grimleal freaks with him, nearly got us. We've been trying to find our way out of here ever since, but his goons keep finding us every few days and trying to kill us."
"Okay, hold on," Oliver interjected. "Who is 'we'?"
"Yeah, gimme a second," Sinon muttered. Raising her voice, she called over her shoulder. "They're not Grimleal! They're kid Shepherds!"
"Kid?!" Ignacio sputtered. "You can't be much older than we are!"
"Yes, well, when you've assisted in the destruction of two demon dragons, you can call yourselves adults," a voice identical to his said as the owner stepped into the light. "Until then, you're all just rookies to us."
"I take it that you're Sir Inigo, then?" Kiara asked a man that matched Ignacio in every way, save that his face was a little harder, and he had a relatively fresh scar under his right eye.
"At your service, milady," he said with a winning smile and a courtly bow. "Who be you?"
"Inigo…" another woman's voice said warningly. "What'd I tell you about hitting on other girls?!"
"I was honestly just asking!" he yelped as a young woman with long purple hair and red eyes stepped up beside him, Imp wings buzzing angrily.
"Uh-huh," she huffed. Turning to the others, she said, "Wassup, I'm Yuuki, one of the original Shepherds!"
"Actually, Mama, that title goes to people like Exalt Chrom and Grandmaster Robin," said a low-pitched girl's voice. A lady armed with a sword and Inigo's perfect smile came into the firelight next. "Hey there," she said in a candid manner. "I'm Soleil, daughter of Laslow and Yuuki. Though, you probably know my papa by his old name, Inigo."
"You're married?!" Ignacio all but shrieked at his future double. "With a kid?! How are you still that young?! Also, you're married?! What about my wild youthful years?! How could you do this to us?!"
"Pocket dimensions in which time passes much more rapidly than it does back home," another voice- this one a young man's- said by way of explanation. The owner was a blond archer who added, "I am Prince Takumi of Hoshido, Father of Kiragi, and Husband to Lady Sinon." As he spoke, he stood by the mentioned woman's side, while a boy with wavy brown hair and an irrepressible smile stepped out from behind him to wave happily at the dumbstruck Shepherds.
"Hoshido is real?!" Gilbert exclaimed. "I thought it was myth!"
"Nope, my Dad's the real-deal prince of the realm!" Kiragi laughed. "Hi there, everybody! Mom has told me all kinds of stories about your homeland! I'm excited to be going there, myself!"
"Hang on, this is a lot to take in," Kiara said before anyone could answer him. "Are there any more of you out there?"
"Just three," Sinon answered dryly. "Any second now…"
"Great, first we almost get killed by that jackass, now I've gotta be around his current time's self?" Elizabeth's voice grumbled, followed by a slightly older and more heavily armored version of her floating down to land beside Sinon. She fixed a particularly venomous glare on Mako before adding, "Hated him in my future, hate him even more now. I wish I would've stayed in Nohr."
"Aw, but think of how sad Grandfather would be if I went to see him, and you weren't there, Mother!" piped up a red-haired girl that had somehow popped up while Severa was talking. She wore a battle mage's outfit and vermillion cape, which caught the eye of more than one Shepherd present. "Hello everyone, I'm Ophelia," she said with cheery smile. "Sorry we almost had to light you on fire."
"T'would have been a grand flame, however tragic!" proclaimed a voice that made every other Shepherd but Odin stiffen with dread.
"Don't tell me…" Elizabeth groaned.
"Unfortunately," Severa grumbled.
"Alas, descendants of comrades old!" Owain declared as he leaped out of the wheat fields, resplendent in a golden cape and dark mage's outfit. "It is indeed fortuitous that we meet now, for mine sword hand has longed for its return to the place of its birth!"
"Hark!" cried Odin, his eyes alight with untamed glee as he and his counterpart saw each other clearly. "I understand your pain, Dark Hero, for the very same blood runs through my veins, scorching the very marrow of my existence, demanding that I return to my homeland, with each of my comrades safe by my actions!"
"At long last, a worthy rival approaches!" Owain laughed with a matching delight. "It is sealed in blood, the blood of heroes and heroines unmatched!"
"Oh gods, there's two of them!" Elizabeth screeched, echoing the thoughts of her comrades, who had all grown quite pale.
"Just when we thought he couldn't get any more obnoxious," Takumi said dryly, his tone much the same as Sinon's.
"Hey!" Ophelia pouted. "Daddy is the Scion of Legend, and a lot of us wouldn't be alive if it weren't for his bravery!"
"The sad part is, she's not wrong," Sinon muttered.
"Wait, Daddy?!" Elizabeth yelped, turning crimson as she looked at her counterpart, who had hidden her face behind her right hand. "Does that mean-?!"
"I do not want to discuss it, especially with myself," Severa said warningly without removing her hand.
Elizabeth promptly expelled her dinner before passing out cold in the dirt.
"That was rude," Owain said with a frown.
"I'm surprised we tolerate them at all, seeing how they never appreciate how tirelessly we devote ourselves to being heroes," Odin added, his expression in the exact likeness of his future self.
"I know, right?!" his future self said. "I urge that we convene the Justice Cabal this instant to discuss this crisis! It has been too long!"
"I concur!" the younger son of Lissa declared.
"I'm in!" Celica laughed, causing her sister to mimic Severa.
"Has the world gone completely mad, or is it just me?!" Mako demanded of no one in particular. "I demand an explanation for all of this!"
"Then sit down, kid," Sinon told him as she gestured to the fire behind him. "It's gonna take a little while to fill you in on what's been going on since we left. And I expect that we missed out on a few things, too."
Kirito: So, uh... Where's Mataras?
Asuna: Apparently he's still laughing himself silly from having two different versions of Owain meeting each other.
Kirito: Oh, okay. To be fair, that was pretty funny. the only thing is...
Asuna: You're wondering how this ties in with Fire Sword Fated Incursion, right?
Kirito: Yep. Is it a retcon or what?
Asuna: Not at all. Mataras and N-Sight have collaborated to make sure that there are no continuity errors between the three stories, which does mean that those who read this before reading FI will be getting some minor spoilers.
Kirito: Bummer. At least it seems like Mataras is trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
Asuna: He is, and some of them were already kinda obvious for anyone who was looking, and it's not like he gave away-
Kirito: Looks like we're out of time! Hope to see you all next chapter, where the Shepherds do some catching up with each other and their new enemies!
Asuna: Next time- Black Blade, Stained Soul