Hi everyone, apologies for the lack of updates. Honestly, it's been difficult to keep writing; I feel as though I've lost a lot of the momentum I started out with, in part due to my schedule, and in part due to my increasing disinterest in continuing this particular story. I know it may come as a disappointment to those of you who will still bother to read this particular fanfic, even so long after it's last update, and I apologize for that. This update concludes what writing I had finished up until now. I suppose for now, this particular fanfic is on hiatus, at least until I've uploaded a few chapters of my next focus. I'm planning on writing a fanfiction for Valkyria Chronicles, so keep your eyes out for that/follow my profile if you want to stay on top of it. No idea when that will be up, but it's a safe bet that it may take at least a month or two. Again, thanks to everyone who keeps reading and commenting, I've had loads of fun writing for you and getting your feedback. I'm loath to disappoint you, but perhaps it's best for me and this particular fanfic if I explore some other themes and settings I've been itching to write about and return to this later. Feel free, as always, to share your thoughts, gripes, etc.
A gloved fist slammed down on the large oak table, scattering two half smoked cigars from a crystal ashtray and causing amber liquor in two glass tumblers to slosh perilously close to the edge. "What kind of farce is this?" roared the man to whom the fist belonged in a tone that suggested utter outrage, throwing a parchment letter to his companion to his right. The man beside him casually thumbed the letter open, reading its contents with composure.
"Bold, to demand the surrender of this garrison at this early juncture. What will you do, Braham?" asked the man to the right, flicking the letter back onto the desk.
"That insolent dog, Leonhardt, he is but a boy, playing a man's game. He must think us mad," blustered Braham, gesticulating powerfully.
"If our intelligence is to be believed, his men do outnumber us three to one. Add to that Rigulus's siege engines and the magic affinities of the Syrium… even Zelzagun's walls won't be enough to even the odds."
Braham sniffed derisively, "Riffraff, rabble, and peons. They could never hope to breach our defenses. You shame yourself with your cowardice, Largen."
Largen shrugged, "Of course, if your faith in these walls is so absolute, perhaps we should withdraw behind them like a tortoise in its shell…"
"You will watch your tone, Largen," growled Braham, picking up on the irony of the statement. "What of reinforcements and resupply?"
"Out of the question. This letter clearly confirms our suspicions that Mudus has fallen. As we assumed Frontier Operations would be quick, our provisions were limited with resupply contingent upon Mudus. Gridamas is on the other side of Fuvelmill Lake, even if we were able to send them a message immediately, it would be days before we could count on relief."
Braham gritted his teeth, "Damn you, Largen! Your 2nd Legion was supposed to be defending Mudus with Elaine's 9th regiment. Our precarious defense posture is your fault and I will see to it that the His Majesty learns of your incompetence."
"As you wish," replied Largen with supreme indifference, "There will be more than enough time to appropriate blame once all is said and done. For now, we should focus on this coming battle."
"What would you counsel me to do?" demanded Braham. "I'll hear no more talk of surrender. We have two armies at our command and you know full well that I intend to use them."
"Numbers alone do not dictate victory," said Largen carefully, staring into the amber depths of his drink. "Cut off the head of the snake and the body will die. If Leonhardt were to fall in battle, we may gain the advantage."
Braham's hands tightened on the table's edges, "That cur… Golden Leo's swordsmanship is not to be taken lightly…"
Largen chuckled, raising an eyebrow at Braham, "Don't tell me you fear the boy, Braham? You of all people? Perhaps it would be best if you attended to your duties as Garrison Commander and watched me take to the field. Do inform His Majesty of my courage…"
"Enough if your insults, Largen. Old man, there is nothing you can do that is beyond my own abilities," snapped Braham as he drained his glass. "Ready our men. I will wet the ground with this traitor's blood with the entire garrison as witness to the power that comes with loyalty. It is time that the world recognize Gridamas's newfound power."
Largen arched a single white eyebrow quizzically, but Braham did not elaborate upon his unusual statement. "Shall I send word by courier?" asked Largen after an uncomfortable silence.
Braham smirked, "Don't trouble yourself, Largen. I will have my men deliver the message in a manner he cannot refuse."
The full moon flew high over the forests surrounding Zelzagun fortress, raining soft, silky shafts of light between gaps in the leafy canopy. Below the shelter of the trees, the light gathered in dim pools, scattering gently into the twilight and shadows of the slumbering forest. A soft breeze gently stroked the leaves, rustling them in its wake as it flitted between the trees. The forest Fyuria remembered as a girl had also been filled with the sounds of life; the hooting of owls, crackling of mice rooting through the undergrowth, and a dozen other sounds; joining together into the forest's own concert at night, a shifting, fluid, and beautiful symphony embodying the entire forest's spirit. Tonight, however, as she kneeled in a mossy clearing, her skin glowing in the soft brilliance of the moonlight, the air was still and quiet, as though the entire forest was aware of the calm before the storm.
Three days after departing Mudus Gate, Leonahrdt, the others, and Elaine's remaining battalions had rendezvoused with the bulk of the combined Syrium-Rigulus Alliance forces before marching upon Zelzagun itself. Gridamas' defensive lines had offered significant resistance, although the combined armies had proven too potent a force to more than delay. Rather than face certain defeat on the field, Gridamas' commanders had fallen back to the safety of Zelzagun, where the decisive battle of the campaign would likely be fought.
While some would rest and, others, drink to courage and honor, Fyuria had stolen away from the pre-battle rituals of the soldiers and the rest of her companions, seeking the solace of the forests she had once knew as a girl. Now, as she knelt in the mossy clearing that she had once called home, she felt a tear cloud one of her eyes.
If she closed her eyes, it was not hard to smell the sulfur and ash, to hear the screams and clash of steel, and to remember the blind fear and panic that had pounded through her heart as she ran that day. Taking a shuddering breath, she brought herself back to the present, taking solace in the delicate caress of moonlight upon her bare shoulders.
Tomorrow… she had dreamt of the day for years, the day her people would exact a just vengeance upon those who had sought to obliterate and enslave her entire peoples. And yet, now that the day was upon her, a hollow feeling sat heavily upon her breast. All the blood and death that had led to this moment, the sacrifice and destruction that would follow… was it truly worth it? Casting her gaze downwards, she opened both of her hands, white porcelain in the moon's glow, but utterly deceptive in appearance. Her hands were as red as any of the men whom she sought vengeance upon. How many throats had her knives slit, how many hearts had they pierced? Did those lives which she had taken not have families, friends, and lovers of their own?
Gridamas was the enemy. Kill or be killed. Those were the two rules she had lived so many years by, and yet, here she was, on the eve of the battle she had longed for, led by a Gridamas general who had united men and women from three different nations to do battle and die, side by side. Leonhardt… Fyuria had never met a man as perplexing. A noble of her sworn enemies, a man whom she would have killed with no great regret and significant relish upon their first meeting. A man whom, despite her reservations, had earned her trust, respect, and… Fyruia clenched her fists, balling them into her thighs. Perhaps he had also earned her love as well.
She thought back to the conversation she had shared with Zerva in Rigulus. In many ways, she felt it had been premature then to declare her feelings towards Leonhardt. Perhaps it had been the first time in far too long she had enjoyed a simple day at the market without needing to look over her shoulder or perhaps it had been the emotions evoked with the doll that had reminded her of the childhood she left, shattered and burned with Havos.
If the somber remains of her village were any reminder, Gridamas had cost her more than just her community and family… it had taken her life, stripped away any warmth she had left for the world, and left her empty, with no room for anything save for retribution. And in this void, could she really have fallen for the human? A child of quick blood and kin of her entire race's mortal enemies, no less? To these questions, she barely dared to believe the answer, but the truth was evident as her mind carried her back to the glade in the forest where she had found herself alone with him, with nothing to distract her from losing herself in his eyes to find a sanctuary she had not known since childhood.
A twig snapped behind her, almost inaudibly, causing her pointed ears to involuntarily twitch towards the sound. Someone was coming… someone trying very hard to conceal the sound of their approach, which, in her experience, never boded well. Her heart pounding in her throat, Fyuria unclenched her fists subtly and allowed them to drift ever so slightly towards her daggers. Outwardly, Fyuria remained unchanged, remaining kneeling with her head bowed, her blue hair concealing her face. As the footsteps drew almost imperceptibly closer, Fyuria heard the soft whisper of oiled steel unsheathing from a scabbard, confirming the intruder's hostile purpose.
Carefully controlling her breathing, she took one last deep breath, timing her move precisely as her sensitive ears pinpointed the moment her assailant launch into attack.
The world slowed in the moment she kicked her right leg out, throwing herself to the left and diving out from under her assailant's blade as he tried to deliver a blow to the back of her head. Turning her head as she dove, she felt the blade miss by a mere finger's width, the breaking air ruffling her hair in the blade's wake
Jerking back and spinning to face her assailant, she found herself face to face with a helmeted soldier, his faceless helmet, heavy armor, and royal purple cape identifying him as one of the knights of Gridamas's elite vanguard. Almost appraisingly, the figure cocked his head and tensed his sword and shield before launching himself at her once again, closing the gap between them before she could even draw breath. Impossible... The speed of the swordsman was unreal and her eyes widened in shock as the razor edge of the sword whisked past her cheek, tracing a thin, searing line of pain across her skin. Without missing a beat, the knight swung his blade into an overhead stance, bringing the sword crashing downwards in a show of inhuman strength.
With barely any time to react, Fyuria's right arm snapped upwards, clutching a dagger in a hammer grip, just barely blocking the soldier's overhead swing. Sparks flew perilously close to her eyes and she felt her entire arm reverberate with the impact of the vicious swing. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she drew her second dagger and shifted her balance to throw her attacker off footing. Without hesitation, her left arm flew forward, intending to deliver a deep sting directly into the man's unprotected flank.
Fully expecting to feel her dagger diving into the soft gap between the man's armor, Fyuria was completely unprepared as the soldier's shield slammed into her torso, driving the breath from her body in a single agonizing gasp. As the shield dug deeper, Fyuria felt something in her chest crack as her thin frame was lifted bodily from the ground. Flying backwards, she caught half a glimpse of half amusement, half anger from the mystery soldier's eyes before she felt herself slam into the trunk of a massive oak behind her.
Agonizing pain shot through her limbs and her vision grayed as she slid down, crumpling to her knees. Panting and clutching her broken rib, eyes narrowed through the pain, she struggled to look up. Before her, the strange knight tossed aside his shield, seemingly in frustration. Behind the shield, Fyuria's eyes laid sight upon the strangest gauntlet she'd ever seen.
Ornate, yet crude carvings traced the gauntlet in a series of foreboding and threatening reliefs, completely at odds with the uniform and impersonal finish of Gridamas's standard issue heavy armor. Clearly, whatever the gauntlet was, it was not part of the knight's original armament. Something about the gauntlet drove a strange, irrational fear through her heart as she watched the knight raise it upwards to the level of his heart, clenched furiously. Glaring, thin, red streamers of light burst from the gauntlet, snaking their way up the man's arm in a series of mesmerizing tracings before sinking into the gaps of his armor into his body, an echo of their red glare pulsing through the knight's eye slit before subsiding.
Without a single word of explanation, the soldier rushed her once more, even faster than he'd been in the moments before. Rolling desperately behind the tree trunk and to her feet, Fyuria flinched as the vanguard's sword blasted a storm of splinters across her face as she moved just in time to avoid being cut down by three impossibly fast and strong sword strokes.
In her weakened state, Fyuria realized that only certain death would result from such close quarters combat where the vanguard held the advantage in both speed and strength. Scrambling backwards, she frantically tried to buy herself enough distance to disengage and regroup. Even as she dodged and weaved, she felt the cold kiss of the knight's blade as it stung her arms and legs no fewer than half a dozen times as her attacker continued to press his offensive.
Exhausted, Fyuria pressed her back against the trunk of another tree, using it as a barrier for a moment of respite from the relentless onslaught of her combatant. Whatever font of energy he drew from, the power was beyond anything she had ever faced. As she grew weaker, he only seemed to gain in speed and strength, pausing only to draw from the strange gauntlet he wore upon his armor. As she panted, a red glow from around the tree trunk told her that the knight was gathering strength for yet another attack.
Braced against the tree trunk, Fyuria felt every bruise and cut on her body, her breath ragged and knees threatening to fold, very nearly too exhausted to keep up the hellish dance the two had been locked in. Panting, she bent forward, fists on her knees; a trickle of blood flowed down from a cut on her arm to the hilt of her dagger. Gritting her teeth and clenching the dagger tighter, Fyuria straightened her back. If she was going to die, then she would do so on her own terms.
It would be a simple and all but certain matter to break from her cover and rush her assailant directly in a final show of defiance. Whatever the knight's reasons for confronting her, Fyuria would make him pay as high a price as she could for her life. And yet, her feet remained rooted in place and she found herself staring at the trembling dagger hilt in her hand, unable to look away from the stylized motif of House Raglan's seal. For the briefest instant, she flashed back to her first encounter with Leonhardt off the battlefield when he had gifted the blade to her.
Though the memory faded as quickly as it came, Fyuria felt a warmth from the dagger's hilt. Suddenly, facing her death again became orders of magnitude more difficult. As confusing and conflicted her emotions towards Leonhardt were, there was still too much left unsaid and undone between them. Though she could not say what the future would hold, at the moment, she felt the weight of those unresolved emotions anchoring her down to life.
Throwing herself out from behind the tree to meet her attacker, she rushed at him head on, feinting the attack they had both expected. As she threw her arm forward, however, it was not a dagger which left, but a shot of brilliant white light. The act of casting the spell proved too much a strain for her already spent stamina and Fyuria felt her legs turn to jelly as she crashed to the ground and landed in a crumpled pile on the forest floor, completely exhausted.
The ball of magic energy continued it's path forward, heedless of its master's condition. In the darkness of the forest, it was almost of unbearable brightness. Arcing slightly, the spell hurled towards the knight who slashed at it, intending to deflect the bolt with the flat of his blade. On contact, the ball exploded into a hundred blinding starbursts, completely engulfing the knight in white light.
Diverting her eyes to the ground, Fyuria could do little more than struggle to her feet and stumble sideways as she regained some control of her legs, though she took no small satisfaction her opponent's confused and furious swearing as he was swallowed up by the blinding light of her spell. In an instant, the light subsided, allowing the murk of the night to once again claim the forest. Her eyes, having been cast to the ground, adjusted rapidly to the darkness once more, revealing her opponent's confusion. As the knight reeled and turned uncertainly left and right, Fyuria sheathed one of her daggers and steadied herself on the trunk of a tree with the free hand, trying to find the strength she needed to make good her escape, ragged breaths escaping from between her lips.
A dark laugh, metallic and ringing through the vanguard's helmet, broke the silence in the lull of their battle, cold and merciless, sending a shiver down Fyuria's spine. Still chuckling, the knight marched, slowly and deliberately towards the sound of her pained breaths, his heavy footsteps driving fear deeper into her breast with every stride he took towards her. Knees still threatening to buckle, Fyuria's remaining dagger snapped upwards with her last remaining strength, an expression of her refusal to submit to defeat. With almost insulting ease, the vanguard's gauntleted hand darted forward, catching her wrist and twisting, causing Fyuria to scream out in pain and drop the weapon. As the blade clattered to the ground, the vanguard's head cocked in interest, distracted for the moment from her.
"Curious," commented the vanguard as he drew back his free arm. A heartbeat later, Fyuria's word disappeared into darkness, the taste of blood and steel in her mouth the last thing she remembered.
Leonhardt and Elaine stood at the edge of the forest where the Syrium and Rigulus armies had made camp, a discreet distance from the hustle and bustle of the camp's boundaries. Across the plains, Zelzagun stood, carving a massive outline on the otherwise even horizon. Smoke billowed and lights flickered from inside as the fortress' forges worked overtime to ready their soldier's equipment. Closing his eyes, Leonhardt could almost hear the clanging of hammers on steel and smell the sulfur and coal on the night wind.
Without a formal reply from the garrison commander at Zelzagun, Marquis Braham, Leonhardt feared the worst, resigning himself to the battle that would unfold if Braham refused surrender. If the rumors Leonhardt had heard as a Gridamas general were true, the Marquis held a mostly political appointment with little experience in actual battle. Even so, Leonhardt had little doubt the man had surrounded himself with subordinates who would not dare to act unilaterally without his command. Inwardly, Leonhardt sighed, of all the generals in Gridamas to have field command at this dire time…
"It appears there will be battle after all…" he remarked, a heavy weariness in his voice, unable to conceal his disappointment and bitterness. Although a bloodless surrender had always been unlikely, the inevitability of bloodshed seemed a hundred times more salient with the disastrous conclusion of negotiations.
Elaine's gauntleted hand took his own, its delicate, articulated joints clinking gently. Though the metal was cool to the touch, the warmth of her gesture was obvious. "Leo… there's precious little else we can do… this battle is something we cannot hope to avoid."
"Small consolation to the men who will fall tomorrow," he shot back, more bite in his voice than he expected.
Rather than recoil, however, Elaine's grip softened and he felt the steel of her other hand on the side of his face before tracing down to cup his chin, gently guiding his gaze to her. Moonlight reflected in the dark pools of her eyes, illuminating the warmth and empathy within. "Leo… the care and love you show for others is your defining strength as their leader, the reason why they accompanied you here today. It is your greatest asset, but you can't afford to let it blind you. We have a battle to win tomorrow and those men, your men, need you to lead them to victory, lest their sacrifices be made in vain."
Closing his eyes, Leonhardt nodded wordlessly, accepting Elaine's comfort. Her touch never left him as she pulled him into an embrace, cradling his head to her shoulder. Her scent and presence enveloped him, soothing the ragged edges of his self-doubt and exhaustion. "Elaine…" he started.
"No," she interrupted, whispering into his ear beside her lips, "Don't. You never have to thank me, Leo. I will always be there, whenever you need me."
"All the same, Elaine… Thank you."
Elaine held her embrace as long as she dared and then some before breaking, though Leonhardt made no move to break it himself. As they drew back, the darkness only partially veiled the delight in her eyes, although when she spoke once more, her voice held a note of sadness.
"Leo… Perhaps it is ill timed, but there's something I've been meaning to-"
The sound of rustling and snapping twigs coming towards them tore asunder the moment and both Leonhardt and Elaine spun around to face the darkness between the trees.
"Who-?" started Leonhardt, but his voice caught in his throat. As a figure emerged, her waist length blue hair was unmistakable, but Leonhardt could see something was terribly wrong as she was half pushed, half dragged out into the moonlit field beyond the trees. "What have you done?" Leonhardt demanded at the dark figure who materialized behind Fyuria, struggling to keep his temper under control as he drew his golden blade, beside him, Elaine unslung her lance from her back.
Releasing his grip on Fyuria wordlessly, the nameless knight allowed Fyuria to fall to her knees in front of him, only half-conscious. As Leonhardt stepped forward, anger pounding in his chest, the knight raised a hand for him to halt, his other hand resting his sword on the bare nape of Fyuria's neck in all too obvious meaning.
Warily, Leonhardt took a step back and, with effort, lowered his blade, Elaine following suit.
"When my master sent me into the forest tonight to slay any man or woman who would stand in my way in seeking an audience with you, I could only imagine what tiresome work it would be until dawn… Imagine my luck that I happened upon one of your personal staff in the forest," came the vanguard's voice, thick with satisfaction as he threw one of Fyuria's daggers into the dirt between them, the Raglan family crest an all too obvious statement on his deduction as to Fyuria's significance.
"Luck twice over, having found me without passing the sentries," answered Leonhardt coolly.
"Indeed." The knight stared forward, eyes drilling into Leonhardt as he dragged out the moment, apparently enjoying the tension.
Leonhardt said nothing, anger still etched upon his features, waiting for the knight to reveal his purpose.
"By the law of our fathers and theirs before them, my master hereby challenges you to single combat. Let the Gods decide the outcome of the coming battle, that the blood and life of a single man may spare those of hundreds," declared the vanguard mechanically, clearly bored with the proceedings.
"Your master needed only to state his challenge in plain terms, nothing about this message warranted such action on your part," spat Leonhardt, beyond furious but still keenly aware of the blade pressed to Fyuria's neck.
"Her life is immaterial," stated the knight with a shrug, "I return her to you as neither her life nor death hold value in my eyes." Removing the blade from her neck, the knight began to back away, fading back into the gloom of the forest. "Tomorrow at dawn then, upon your honor and the lives of your men."
"Get Ellis and Vira-Lorr," snapped Leonhardt at Elaine, who nodded and ran back towards the direction of the camp. Sheathing his blade, Leonhardt raced to Fyuria's side, the woman barely managing to remain upright. "Fyuria!"
Fyuria's eyes flickered at the sound of his voice and some indistinct sounds passed from her lips. With effort, she seemed to pull herself back towards a measure of clarity through the haze of pain that clouded her eyes, locking gazes with Leonhardt. "Leo," she said hoarsely.
"Don't move, Ellis and Vira-Lorr are on their way," said Leonhardt, relief washing the anger from his voice. Gingerly, he reached out, putting his arms around her. Reflexively, Fyuria seemed to contract in his embrace, pulling away from contact before apparently giving in, letting her weight slump against Leonhardt.
Wordlessly, Leonhardt kept still, not daring to disturb what comfort he could afford Fyuria as she drifted in and out of consciousness, each minute passing as an hour as he waited for the sound of his companions' return.