Ebb

(The following was paid for by a grant funded by the generous contributions of @moonflowers. Her contributions to the School of Havoc’s art gallery can be found here. If you’d like to sponsor content in The School of Havoc Library, that is, commission me, you can find more details here)


“We should come here more often.”

 

This thought treads a well-worn path through my mind. I think it every time we go on a froyo date. I know that “Colder than a Witch’s…” is her favorite place in town, despite being perhaps the worst-named eatery in the entire manasphere. Which is why I know it’s the best to place to go if I want to discuss something with Stella that she’d prefer not to discuss. If I don’t take her on an actual date here every once in a while, she’s bound to catch on, but I keep forgetting. And every time I’m here I can’t help but imagine how much sweeter the Newt’s Eyes Surprise would taste if I could just enjoy it in peace with my girlfriend, but-

 

“So, what’s the bad news this time? Are you finally breaking up with me?” Stella asks, half-jokingly. “What? No, of course not!” I say, “I love you. I’ll always love you.” “Always is a long time to love someone like me.” Her tone says she’s just joking, but we both know better. “Well, you are pretty rubbish at kissing, but I’m sure you’ll get better at it eventually,” I say. She immediately looks down at her rocky road in a futile attempt to hide how much she’s blushing. “I… that’s…!” she sputters, too flustered to form a coherent thought, “It’s just, some of us haven’t done as much kissing as you have! N-not that there’s anything wrong with that it’s just, I don’t have a lot of practice.” “Then why don’t we practice right now?” I ask teasingly as I lean towards her and pucker my lips. She gives me a quick smooch, clearly self-conscious about how much tongue is usually involved when she kisses. “I only kissed you because I wanted to, not because you told me to,” she fake-pouts, “And besides, you know I wasn’t talking about my kissing.” “I don’t,” I say, “It’s the only thing I can think of that I don’t absolutely love about you.” “Well now you’re just flattering me,” she says, “You can’t really think I’m perfect except for one thing.” “I guess you’re right,” I say, “You’re so bad at kissing that it’s actually kind of cute, so I think you’re perfect except for zero things.” “I’m being serious,” she says, “If you think I’m perfect, you don’t know me at all.” “Well of course you’re not perfect. You may be a witch, but you’re still human. And humans are imperfect, but they are more than their imperfections. To me, someone like you is someone who’s brave, and determined, and cute, and powerful, and so much more. Always isn’t long enough to love someone like you.”

 

“I… wow,” she says, holding back tears. “Thank you, Luna. That was really beautiful.” “No, you’re beautiful!” I retort. She laughs, then leans in and kisses me. Or at least, she does what she thinks kissing is, despite it more resembling her trying to scrape leftover thawed yogurt off the roof of my mouth with her tongue. And I’d love nothing more than to keep kissing her, but it isn’t what I came here for.

 

“Anyway,” I say, after carefully disengaging my mouth from hers, “Why did you think I was breaking up with you?” “Oh, I was just making a really bad joke, because you only ever take me here when you have bad news,” she says, “Sorry.” “I do not only take you here when I have bad news!” I say, half-truthfully. “Or when you need me to do something I don’t want to do,” she says, “I’m guessing that’s the case this time?” “It is,” I admit, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t treat you like a kid who needs to be bribed with ice cream to do chores.” “As long as I’m getting bribed, you can treat me like a kid as much as you want. Should I call you mommy?” She asks, hopefully joking. “You shouldn’t!” I say, indignantly, “I’m not even that much older than you!” “Whatever you say, granny,” she says. “Granny? I’m 28! For a wi-” I suddenly remember that we’re in public, and lower my voice. “For a witch, that’s extremely young.” “It’s six years older than me,” she says. “Which is normal!” I say, “We are adults in a normal relationship.” “I completely agree,” she says, “Anyway, I think that makes us even for you teasing me about my kissing.” “Fair enough,” I say, “So, now that we’re even, no more calling me old.” “What are you gonna do, ground me?” She asks. “I just might, if you keep talking back like that, young lady,” I say. We both laugh, then watch the smile fade from our girlfriend’s face as we remember that we have more important things to do than exchange banter.

“Anyway,” I say, “Have you been thinking about what coven you might want to join?” “Uh, yeah, I looked into a few,” she lied, before immediately realizing that I could easily call her bluff. “Which ones?” I ask. “Yeah, witch ones. Exactly.” I bite my lip to prevent myself from smiling at her dumb joke. “C’mon, you have to admit, that was pretty good,” she says. It was, but I do not, under any circumstances, have to admit it. “Stella, I’m being serious,” I say. “OK, yeah, I didn’t really look into it,” she says, “Is there any way I could just… not join a coven?” “Well, technically, yes,” I say, “It’s not like you’ll die if you don’t join a coven.” “Then I just won’t!” She says, “Problem solved.” “Not doing anything isn’t going to solve anything,” I say. “There’s nothing to solve!” She says, “If you think there’s a problem, you need to explain it to me, because I don’t see it.” “Magical society isn’t very… accepting of witches who don’t join covens,” I say, “You’d be an outcast.” “Who cares?” She asks, “I’d proudly be an outcast of a society that refuses to use their power to help people.” “You know why we don’t,” I say. “Because you’re cowards!” Stella snaps. “They’re cowards,” she adds, apologetically, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you that.” “It’s OK,” I say soothingly, grabbing her hand to try to calm her down, “I know you’re upset, and you have every reason to be. But I don’t think that isolating yourself from everyone is going to help you in the long run.” “I don’t want to isolate myself from everyone,” she says, “Just everyone who isn’t you. You’d still love me, right?” “Of course I would,” I say, “But-” “Then it’s fine!” She says, “I don’t need anyone else!” “That’s not healthy,” I say, “You can’t spend an eternity with just one other person. You’d go mad.” “An eternity?” “Yes. You’re a witch now, remember?” I say, “And besides, other witches aren’t so bad. Most of them won’t see eye-to-eye with you at first, but you changed my mind, right?” “I guess…” she says. “And if you really want to make a difference, it’ll take more than just you and me,” I say. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she says, “As usual. But how do I decide? What if I join one and then later I realize I hate it? I don’t know if I’m ready to make a decision with consequences that I’ll have to live with forever.” “But you are,” I say, “You’ve decided to be with me forever, haven’t you?” “I guess,” she says, “But it’s not like I decided to fall in love with you. It just… happened.” “Maybe it’ll just happen again,” I say, “Er, I mean, like, you’ll fall in love with a coven. But you won’t know unless you try.” “And how do I try?” she asks. “Well, that’s what I’m here to help you with,” I say, “I am a librarian, after all. I can find information on covens you might find interesting.” “That’s a really good plan! It’s a shame we can’t do that right now, though. I guess we’ll just have to enjoy the rest of our date flirting and eating frozen treats.” “Not so fast,” I say, despite how much I want to accept her proposal, “There’s at least one coven I could tell you about while we’re here.” “And here comes the sales pitch,” she mutters under her breath.

“I understand why you’re hesitant to join the Mistresses of the Tide, which is why I’m not asking you to,” I say, “I’m only asking you to hear me out. I personally think you’d fit in great with my sisters. Maybe you’ll disagree, and that’s fine, but if you reject us without at least giving us a chance, you may regret it later on.” “I already gave you – them – a chance, and they blew it the moment I heard the word “Tide” in their name,” she says. “A tsunami is not a tidal wave,” I say, “That’s a misnomer.” “But it’s still the ocean, isn’t it?” She asks, “Would you ask a victim of arson to join the Order of the Undying Flame?” “No,” I said, “Mostly because I’m not in the Order of the Undying Flame, and I’m not sure that such a coven actually exists, but also, The Mistresses of the Tide are about more than just the ocean.” “Really?” She asks, skeptically, “Fine. You got me. What else are you about?” “Well, the Moon is of particular importance to us, obviously, but-” “Obviously?” She asked, confused, “How so?” “I… do you not know what causes the tides?” I asked. “I dunno, magic?” She offers. “Well, you’re not entirely wrong,” I say, “But more specifically, the Moon’s gravity. But even more foundational to our doctrine than the Moon or the Sea is the cycle, the ebb and flow, not just of the sea, or the phases of the moon, but all things in nature. That which rises will surely fall, so that it may rise again. Day and night, summer and winter, life and death. These cycles appear disjoint and unconnected, but like the sea to the moon, they all share an intimate relationship.”

“Intimate relationship? You mean like the sea and the moon are dating?” She asked. “I… don’t think that’s what I mean.” I say. “So it’s more of a ‘friends with benefits’ situation. Gotcha,” She says. “I’m not really sure that you do.” I say. “So then they’re just really good friends? Not that there’s anything wrong with two lesbians just being friends, but I wouldn’t really call that ‘intimately related’,” she says. I know it’s a bad idea to humor her any further. “I… wait, if they’re not going out, why would you still think they’re lesbians?” I ask, humoring her anyway. “Because they are?” She said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, “I already knew that. Did… did you not?” “So you knew that the sea and the moon were lesbians, but you didn’t know they shared an intimate relationship?” “What, do you think I should’ve assumed they were dating just because they’re both lesbians?” she asks, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Because I was clearly the one being ridiculous. “Anyway, I don’t know if you can really call it ‘just friends’ if the sea is always leaning in to kiss the moon. I mean, that’s what the tides are, right?” She asks. “Of course not,” I say, “If that were the case, then only the side of the Earth that’s closest to the moon would experience high tide. But the opposite side also does, because it’s further away from the moon, so the downward gravitational pull on it is weaker.” “Oh, so then it’s like… uh… when you sit down and your thighs do the thing?” “Yes. Exactly,” I deadpan, despite having no clue what “thing” she is referring to. “Wait, but isn’t the thing that she’s sitting on the Earth? That sounds kind of lewd. Does that mean the sea is constantly cucking the sky?” “Stella,” I say, gently but firmly, “You’re getting distracted.” “Oh, right,” she says, “We were being serious. Sorry, it’s just… I don’t care. I’m sorry, I don’t want to say it, but it’s true, and I have to. I know you’re all about the theory of magic, and how it all works, and why, and that’s brilliant. I love that about you. But it’s just not my cup of tea. It’s hard for me to learn and even harder for me to care. And I’ve accepted that about myself So, while I’m grateful for all the time you’ve spent trying to teach me, I don’t plan to continue studying magic.”

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” I ask. “Huh?” “Telling someone you love something they need to hear, even if they don’t want to.” “Huh. I guess it is,” She says, “I’m sorry you always have to be the one to tell me what I don’t want to hear.” “It’s fine,” I say, “And I’m proud of you for making a difficult decision like that on your own. I support your choice 100%.” Well, maybe not quite 100%, but I knew how much she hated quitting, and I didn’t want to make it any harder for her. “Thank you,” she says, “I know you liked our lessons, and of course I liked spending time with you, but I just think there are more productive things we can do apart, and more enjoyable things we can do together.” “Like coming here on an actual date for once?” I ask. “Yeah,” she says, smiling, “exactly.”

“But since we’ve pretty firmly established that this isn’t an actual date,” she says, “I guess you might as well continue explaining your coven.” “Oh, right,” I say, “Well, we mostly use water magic and lunar magic. Especially-” “Are there any really notable types of spells that I haven’t already seen you use?” she asks. “Well… not that I can think of,” I say. “Then what about the Oath, then?” She asks, “I guess it has something to do with how particular you are about what you drink?” “Uh, yeah,” I say, trying to muster the courage to say something I know that she absolutely does not want to hear, “You can only drink water in which someone has drowned.”

Her eyes widen in shock. “I… are you- No, I know you’re not stupid enough to joke about that. But I also didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to think I’d ever be OK with that!” Her face softens, just a bit. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you stupid. But you should have known I would never make that Oath.” “I didn’t expect you to be receptive of the idea at first, but-” “But what? Did you expect to convince me to be OK with being reminded of my parents’ deaths every time I drink anything for the rest of eternity?” She asks, nearly hysterically, “Or maybe you think I’m just overreacting. After all, the force of the wave probably killed them long before they could have drowned. Or maybe it was my magic-” “It wasn’t your fault,” I say, putting my hands on her shoulders and looking into her eyes, “You didn’t know you were a witch then. There was nothing you could have done. None of it was your fault. You know that, right?” “I, yeah, I just…” She breaks into tears. I hold her close and let her cry into my shoulder. I knew that somewhere on the path to eternity, time would heal her scars. And long before then her Oath would be stripped of its meaning, a seemingly arbitrary restriction, rather than a mandate to subsist on death. Just as mine had. The heartbreak she now felt, no matter how deeply, was finite, and would always be outweighed by the infinite regret of choosing the wrong coven. But, as I held her in my arms, trying to console her, I couldn’t say what I knew. I was neither courageous nor cruel enough to do so.

“I’m sorry,” she sobs, “I know I shouldn’t be crying, but…” “It’s OK,” I say, as she continues bawling, “If you have to cry, then you should. It’s OK.” She cries in my arms for several minutes, and I gently whisper “It’s OK,” to reassure her, and perhaps myself. She eventually calms down, or at least stops crying so loudly. “Feeling better?” I ask. “Not really,” she says, “I’m just more embarrassed than I am sad. Are people looking?” “Probably.” I don’t need to look around to know that they are, and that they’re doing a terrible job of hiding it. “You wanna go home?” I ask. “Yeah.“ We make our way outside, avoiding making eye contact with any of the other customers. Once outside, we find a secluded spot and open a portal home. I step through it, and immediately collapse onto the couch, sighing with my entire body. “Stella, sweetie, is something wrong?” “No, yeah, everything’s fine,” she says, as she moves the portal above the couch, “Could you sit up straight at the end of the couch?” “I can.” And I do. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but I want it on the record that I think it’s a bad idea.” “Noted,” she says, “Now, could you take your hands out of your lap?” I sigh and prepare a levitation spell. I cast it on her when she jumps through the portal, suspending her in the air. “Hey, what gives?” She asks. I slowly lower her onto the couch and wrap her in blankets. “Did you really think I’d sit there and let you break your neck against my thighs?” I ask. “Well, I could think of worse ways to go,” she says, smiling playfully. “Well, if it’s all the same for you, I’d prefer if you didn’t go at all,” I say. “Fair enough,” she says, “But the whole point was that I’d have my head resting on your lap.” I sigh and levitate her once more before sitting under her and setting her back down. “Better?” I ask. “Much,” she says, snuggling up against me. “I hope you didn’t have anywhere you need to be, because I plan to stay here forever and you’re not allowed to get up until I do.” “I’ll cancel my appointments, then,” I say, patting her head. It’s nice. I feel like I really could just stay like this forever. Or at least, I certainly wish I could.

“I’m sorry,” I say, hoping she’s fallen asleep and can’t hear me, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.” “It’s OK,” she says, “I know you were just looking out for me. And I wasn’t crying because of what you said, It was because-” “I know,” I say, hoping to cut her off before she can dredge her pain back up, “I know.” “I’ll get better, right?” She asks, “Maybe it’ll take ten years, or a hundred, or a thousand, but it’ll eventually stop hurting, right?” “It’ll get better,” I say. I hope. That was what I’d always heard, but seeing her grief firsthand has made me doubt. “I don’t know if the hurting will ever stop, but it will subside with time.” “That’s what I thought,” she says, “And I keep thinking that it has. But then something reminds me and it’s like it just happened yesterday. What difference will a thousand years make if I haven’t gotten any better in the few years it’s been?” “But you have gotten better,” I say. “I don’t feel better,” she says. “Maybe not now. But you did yesterday, didn’t you? And the day before that?” I ask. “I guess,” she says. “When we first me, you were more likely to cry for two days straight than to go two days without crying,” I say, “Grief, too, is a cycle. It will always have ups and downs. And even if the downs are just as low as they’ve always been, if there are more ups between them, that’s progress.” “So I’ll always feel this bad sometimes?” she asks, “Just less and less often?” “I don’t know. But no matter what, I’ll always be here for you. So if you fall… I’ll be sure to catch you.” I gently boop her nose with my finger. “Wow, that’s the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, OK, Miss ‘If you think I’m perfect, you don’t know me at all’,” I retorted. “I… wow, did I really say that?” She asked, “Yikes. Sorry.” “Yeah, I’ve been waiting to give you shit for it this whole time,” I say. “Good. I deserve it.” We laugh.

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Chroma [WIP]

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH” As I stepped into the bar, I was greeted by a high-pitched shriek that could have easily been mistaken for a banshee’s. I figured it meant I was either in the right place, or a very wrong place. The source of the scream was a woman who would have stood out at a circus, much less a bar full of people desperate not to draw attention. She made eye contact with me and began dashing to the bar’s entrance, clumsily knocking into chairs and tables along the way. I tipped my hat over my eyes in an attempt to maintain a low profile and hoped that her screaming when I entered was just a coincidence. It was not.

“Hi! Welcome! I’m Chroma, I’ll be your server today! What can I do for you? Party of one? Or are you meeting someone who’s already here? Or are you saving a seat for someone who’s showing up later? Or do you have an invisible friend? That’d be so cool!” Her barrage of questions didn’t let up until she had to breathe. “Actually, I am meeting someone,” I say, “But this is our first encounter, so I don’t know what they look like. Would you happen to know anything about-” Her eyes answered my question before I could ask it. There was no mistaking that they were the eyes of a homunculus. I couldn’t believe that anyone could create a homunculus this convincingly human, but if anyone could, it’d be person I was looking for: The Master Alchemist. “Do I know anything about what?” Chroma asks, innocently, “The answer’s probably ‘no’ since I don’t really know a lot of things, but that’s OK! My sister is smart, and I have a lot of other things that I’m good at!” I’ve cut short the dying oaths of men who’ve wronged me, but I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her when she sounded so excited. “What do you know about the Master Alchemist?” “Huh? Who? Me? Uuuuhhhhh, nothing!” she said, staggeringly unconvincingly, “I’ve never heard of them! Er, I mean, them! The singular them. There’s only one of them. Probably! I mean, that’s what you made it sound like, and you’d certainly know better than me.” I can feel the prickling gazes of the other customers. This is attracting too much attention.

“Well, I’m sure I’ll find them,” I said, “In the meantime, could you show me to a table?” “Of course!” She said, “Coming right up! We just had a table open up! Just sit tight while I get it ready!” She bowed and then walked to a table near the back of the room. The customers at the table, still eating, were physically shooed away by Chroma, who then returned hastily. “Follow me!” She said, not seeming to understand that I could see her the whole time. I followed her as she hummed to herself contentedly. “Here!” She patted one of the chairs. “The comfiest seat in the house! Now, what would you like?” She asked. “Actually, I’d like you to sit down and have a little chat,” I said, sitting in the seat opposite the one she indicated. “Really? I’d also like that a lot! But, you’re not sitting in the comfiest chair…” The way she insisted I sit on that specific chair was suspicious. I didn’t detect any suspicious magic from it, but I couldn’t take the chance that it was a trap. “You can sit in it. I insist.” I said. “Really? Wow, you’re so nice! Thank you so much!” She said, as she sat down.

“I’ve cast a concealing spell on the two of us,” I said, “No one can see you, or hear you talk. Or scream, if you want to do this the hard way. So-” “Wait, did you make us invisible?” She asked, cheerfully, “That’s awesome! Does that mean you want to be my invisible friend?” “It doesn’t-” “But wait, can people still see my clothes?” She asked, beginning to take off her jacket, “I’d better-” “You’d better not,” I say, sternly, grabbing her arm, “If you draw attention to yourself, I will make sure it’s the last thing you do. And you’re not invisible. It’s more like we’re difficult to notice. People can still see us, the spell just makes them not want to see us, in a sense.” “So you made us ugly?” She asked, “But you’re still so pretty! I want to look at you forever!” I was baffled. I had quite clearly threatened this girl’s life, but she complimented me like she’d already forgotten. Maybe she never even realized it in the first place. “Did I say something mean?” she asked, sadly, “Er, sorry, I didn’t mean to say you were just pretty, I meant to say you were beautiful! That’s even more pretty than just pretty!” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just sat dumfounded. “Is that still not enough? Then how about stunning? Gorgeous? Um, uuuuhhhhh…. Really really really really really REALLY pretty? I’m real sorry I don’t know enough words to say how pretty you are. But I’m sure you get called pretty all the time, by people who are way smarter than me and use words I’ve never even heard of, so just pretend I’m using those words, OK?” “I actually don’t,” I said, truthfully. This girl had made it quite clear that playing bad cop wasn’t going to get me anywhere, so I decided to try to win her trust. “You’re the first person to call me pretty in, well, a while.” “Shut up,” Chroma said in disbelief, “I don’t believe you. People tell me I’m gullible, but even I’m not going to fall for that.” “It’s true,” I say. “But… how? You’re probably the prettiest person I’ve ever seen! Is it because you keep using spells to make yourself uglier? I mean I guess it makes sense because if you were pretty all the time you’d have to keep dealing with idiots like me falling in love with you, haha,” she rambled. “I don’t think you’re an idiot,” I lied, “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.” “I… wow.” Crimson tears started pooling around her eyes. “That’s really sweet! You’re really nice! Surely people must tell you that all the time!” I laughed bitterly at the irony. “Not really,” I said, “I’m only nice to cute girls like you.” “AAAHHH! YOU THINK I’M CUTE?” She screamed so loud, I feared it’d overcome the concealment spell. Her entire body started blushing, taking on an inhumanly deep shade of red. “Of course. And I think cute girls like you are cutest when they keep their voices down,” I said. “oh sorry,” she whispered, as loudly as possible. “It’s fine. Anyway, why are you so surprised? Surely a young woman as adorable as you must hear that all the time.” “I-I don’t actually. I don’t think it’s because people don’t think I’m cute. I think they probably do think I’m cute because I am very cute. But usually they’re too mad about me messing up to say it. My sister and mom and dad aren’t usually mad at me but I guess it’s kind of weird for them to call me cute.” Mom and dad? Was she maintaining a lie that she was born to human parents, or did she accidentally reveal that there were multiple master alchemists? And who was this sister? Another homunculus? I considered pressing her further, but thought better of it.

“You seem really smart, so I bet you never mess up,” she said. I really didn’t need to be reminded of how untrue that was. “Then why don’t people call you pretty very much?” “Mostly because they’re too afraid of me,” I said. “Huh, I guess that makes sense!” she said, “I think the witch’s hat and the suit make you look really cool and pretty, but I guess I see how they look kind of scary.” “Are you scared of me?” I asked. “Nope!” she said, “I’m actually really strong! Are you really strong too?” “Hmm, I wonder,” I say, coyly. “I bet you are!” She said, excitedly, “But I’m still not scared of you! Because I’m really really strong! I’m so strong that I’m not afraid of anyone! Well, except my mom and dad. And that’s why I can’t fight you right now, because I’m not allowed to fight in the bar anymore.” Her mom and dad forbade her from fighting in the bar? Did they run this establishment? It would explain why someone as ditzy as her would be working as a waitress. And if they were so powerful, they had to be related to The Master Alchemist somehow.

“Your parents must be really really really strong, then,” I said. “Mm-hmm!” She said, “But only sometimes. Most of the time they’re just really strong.” “So you’re stronger than them most of the time?” I asked. “Yep!” She said, proudly. “Wow, that’s very impressive!” I said, “But how do they become really really really strong?” “Oh, they use- wait, I’m not sure I should be telling you.” Damn. I was so close. “It’s OK, sweetie, I don’t want to hurt them,” I said, “I would never do anything to upset my precious new friend.” “I trust you!” she said, “But, still, they’re very secretive about that kind of thing. They told me not to tell you.” They told her that, specifically? Did they know I’d try to interrogate her? I felt uneasy, but I had to press on. “It’s OK, you don’t have to tell me. I think they already know. They use potions, don’t they?” “O-of course not!” She said, clearly lying, “They don’t… they’ve never even heard of potions. What’s a potion, anyway?” “It’s OK, you don’t have to say anything,” I said, “I already know. Your parents are the master alchemists, and you’re a homunculus they created. They’re somewhere I this bar, aren’t they?” “I… no!” Tears started streaming down her face, red at first, then slowly in more and more colors, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, none of that is true! I’m not a honomc- a homnoc- a homoncleus! I’m a real girl!” I gently patted her head as I tried to reassure her. “I never said you weren’t a real girl. Even if you are a homunculus, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re cute, and strong, and nice, and fun. And you’re my friend.” “I… you really mean it?” She asked. “I do.” I said. And maybe I really did.

 

“There, there, everything’s OK now, Chroma.” I heard two voices speaking in unison, and two hands wiping the tears from her eyes. How? “You did a wonderful job. We’re very proud of you.” There were suddenly two people crouched next to Chroma in matching blue and red suits. They hadn’t teleported there, or I would’ve detected their magic. How the Hell did they get there?! “Are you the master alchemists?” I asked, hesitantly. “We are the ones you seek, if that’s what you’re asking,” they said in unison, as they stood up and turned around in one fluid motion. “Pestle and Mortar, at your service,” they said, before bowing, as perfectly synchronized as everything else they did. One had a blue eyepatch with a silver moon emblem, while the other had a red eyepatch with a golden sun emblem. “Those are your names?” I asked, “Seriously?” “Seriously,” They both said. “Do you always talk like that?” ‘At the same time?’ one said, ‘Not always, but usually,’ the other finished. “So how did you get here? What the Hell is going on?” I asked. ‘Really? Not gonna ask us which is Pestle,’ ‘and which is Mortar?’ “I don’t give a damn!” I said, “What I want to know is how you pierced my concealment spell!” “Oh, didn’t Chroma tell you?” they asked, “We’re really, really, really strong.” “You… you heard that? How?” I asked, “How long were you listening?” ‘The whole time!’ ‘We all were!’ “We all?” I asked, incredulously. “Yep, everyone in the bar. Your spell never worked.” I felt a pit in my stomach. They had heard me threaten their daughter’s life. “I-I’m sorry,” I said, “I was never going to hurt your daughter. That was an empty threat.” ‘Of course you weren’t,’ ‘you couldn’t have if you tried.’ ‘She is really, really strong after all.’ “You threatened me?” Chroma asked, innocently. “I… yeah, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s OK!” She said, “I forgive you!” I smiled weakly. “So what’s all this about, then?” I asked, “What’s your end game? Who are you working for?” “Oh, we’re self-employed,” they said, “And this is the endgame. The big reveal that we’ve all been listening to you.” “But why?” I asked. “Why listen to me?” ‘Because it’s funny!’ ‘And in your case, a bit heartwarming.’

Strength – Chapter 5

(To read the previous chapter of Strength, click here)

“Hi Uncle Matthew!” Lilina said, cheerfully, “Just so you know, I’ve practiced magic lots since the last time we sparred! I can cast spells much faster now. I’d like to see you try to dodge them now!” “Then I guess you’re in for a real treat,” Matthew said. “So, what are the rules of engagement?” Lilina asked, “Is it first to get three wounds on the other, or- Waaagghhh!” She cried out in surprise as Matthew pushed her backwards and tripped her with his leg in one fluid motion. “Street rules, kid,” he said, as he drew an iron dagger, “We fight until one of us can’t any longer. I promise not to kill ya, but you should know better than to take my word at face value, by now.” “B-But if y-you hurt me,” Lilina started crying, “D-daddy will be mad at you!” “There’s no one to tattle to on the battlefield,” Matthew said, “If you always rely on him to protect you, you’ll never be strong!” “But my daddy will always be there to protect me!” Lilina shouted, defiantly, “And I’ll always be there to protect him! You aren’t teaching me what it’s like to be on the battlefield! You’re just being mean!” Matthew sighed. “Maybe you’re right,” he said, sheathing his dagger, “I’m sure you’re a clever enough tactician to always have a knight or two like m’lord to protect you if things get dicey. Perhaps I was a fool for thinking you’d need-” he was cut off by an incantation, then an intense wave of heat that knocked him off his feet and singed his flesh. “Huh?” Matthew said in bewilderment, “You… you snake! You just said all that to get me to lower my guard! That’s cheating!” “There’s no such thing as cheating in warfare!” Lilina said triumphantly, as she picked herself up off the ground.

 

“You… I… heh. Hah. Ahahahahaha!” Matthew began laughing hysterically. Lilina took advantage of this opening by casting a thunder tome, which Matthew narrowly dodged. “Oh, it is on now, m’lady,” Matthew said, drawing his dagger once more. He charged and slashed at her with a clearly telegraphed overhead strike. After she sidestepped his attack, he drew his other dagger and slashed her side, leaving a small cut. “Aaahhhhh!” Lilina cried out in pain, clutching the wound. Matthew took the opportunity to retreat and put some distance between them. “You’re at your most vulnerable when you think you have the upper hand,” Matthew lectured, “If you let yourself think you’ve won while your enemy still lives, you’ve already lost.” “Shut up!” Lilina shouted. “I know I said we’d go until one of us can’t fight,” Matthew said, “But since I’m such a nice guy, I’ll let you give up if you say please.” “No!” Lilina said, “Never! I’ll show you that I am strong!” “Well, I’m waiting,” Matthew said. “I’ll show you!” Lilina shouted. She opened her tome and recited its incantation, causing a fireball to manifest over several seconds, which she then launched at Matthew who dodged it easily. “I thought you said you got better at casting,” Matthew taunted, as she prepared to launch another fireball, “If anything, you seem to have gotten slower.” He dodged the next fireball. “Well, it’s kind of hard when I’m bleeding out!” she retorted. “Oh please,” Matthew said, “A cut that shallow should hardly be bleeding anymore.” Another fireball formed over Lilina’s head. “And besides, you’d better get used to casting while injured. Your daddy won’t be able to protect you from every stray arrow and lightning bolt on the battlefield.” He jumped out of the way of the third fireball, then yawned to emphasize how easy it was.

 

“Since you’re not going to end this,” he said, twirling his daggers, “I guess I’ll have to!” He could easily close the distance between them before she got the chance to cast another spell. And then, the fight would be over. Or so he thought. As he charged towards her, she launched another fireball at him with speed rivalling a veteran mage. He was too surprised to dodge – not just by the attack, but by the realization that Lilina had intentionally drawn out her spell-casting to trick him into thinking she couldn’t defend herself. And he fell for it. With no time to avoid her attack, Matthew closed his eyes and braced himself. The fire burned, but he’d been through worse. He opened his eyes, expecting to see Lilina casting another spell, but instead, she was running towards him, hand clenched into a fist. He stepped backward just in time to avoid her most unladylike attack, but she opened her fist to reveal another fireball. But Matthew was through underestimating her; he sidestepped her attack and swept her leg out from under her, knocking her to the ground exactly as he had at the start of the bout. Before she could cast another spell, he kicked the fire tome out of her hand. He pointed his dagger at her menacingly as he stood over her. “It’s over,” he said. Or so he thought.

“You put up a good fight,” Matthew said, “I never would’ve imagined that you’d be able to trick me, let alone twice. I’m proud of you Lilina. I really am. I knew you were smart, but I didn’t know that you were this clever. But now that I do, I hope you’re smart enough to know that you’re not more clever than I am.” “Wh-what do you mean?” Lilina asked, innocently. ” “Being clever is my job,” Matthew said, “and it’s the one thing I’m good at. But even against a fool, you should never try the same trick thrice. You think you I’m vulnerable because you think I think I have the upper hand. Which means that you think you have the upper hand, which makes you vulnerable.” “But if you think that, doesn’t that mean you think you have the upper hand, and are therefore vulnerable?” Lilina asked. “Maybe,” Matthew said, “I guess we won’t know for sure until you try to attack me with that Thunder tome you have tucked away.” “Oh,” Lilina said. He had seen through her plan. “Any last words?” Matthew asked, “Something more dignified than just ‘oh’, I hope.” “Yeah,” Lilina said, smiling deviously, “Just one.” “Well, that’s three words, but-” “Leila”

To Matthew, the name was more powerful than any spell. Even after so many years. A flood of memories paralyzed him for just a moment, but it was all Lilina needed. She grabbed her Thunder tome and recited a shortened version of the incantation, producing a spark of electricity that arced to Matthew’s dagger. The shock caused him to involuntarily drop the blade. Lilina’s movements were faster than her thoughts as she grabbed the knife, stood up, and thrust it into Matthew’s stomach.

 

“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH” Lilina screamed in terror at what she had done. “I’m so sorry uncle Matthew I didn’t mean to I just got caught up in the fight and I’m so sorry I didn’t meant to kill you please don’t hate me please please please don’t die!” “Hah, it’s OK, sweetie,” Matthew said, gently wiping the tears from her face, “I’m proud of you. And don’t worry about old Uncle Matthew. He’s been through far worse than this.” “Are you sure?” Lilina asked, panicked, “What should I do? I’ll go get daddy, he’ll-” “Don’t!” Matthew said, sending a wave of pain through his abdomen, “Your father doesn’t need to know about this. I’ll take care of it, you understand?” “Mmm-hm,” Lilina said, nodding. “Now for the painful part,” Matthew muttered. “SERRA! GET IN HERE, THE FIGHT’S OVER! AND BRING A MEND STAFF, THESE WOUNDS ARE PRETTY BAD!” Serra’s sigh could be heard from outside the training ground. “I told you this was a stupid idea, Matty,” She said as she entered, “But do you ever listen to me? No. So now you’ve gone and gotten Hector’s daughter hurt and he may put up with a lot of shit from you but he will not let this slide! And I may be a damn good healer, but you better pray to whichever gods will listen that I can patch her up well enough so that Hector won’t notice! Not to mention how fucked up it is that you want this girl to lie to her own father about you hurting her. Do you know how fucked up that is Matty? Because it’s pretty fucked up.” “You done yet?” Matthew groaned. “No,” Serra said, “But healing Lilina is more important right now.” She turned to Lilina and changed her entire demeanor, her fire and anger replaced with kindness and concern. “It’s OK, sweetie, you don’t have to cry anymore,” Serra cooed, “Just tell auntie Serra where you’re hurt and I’m make you feel all better, OK?” Lilina silently pointed at Matthew. “Huh?”

 

Serra turned to Matthew and noticed that he was impaled by his own dagger. “I… Ahahahahahahahaha!” She fell to the ground laughing, occasionally managing to point at Matthew and burst into laughter anew. “Sh-shouldn’t you help Uncle Matthew?” Lilina asked hesitantly after a minute or two. “I mean, yeah,” Serra said, struggling to catch her breath, “I probably should, but it’s just too funny. Matthew, Mr. ‘oohh look at me, I’m a scary assassin, except don’t look at me, because assassins prefer it that way’ just got stabbed by a child! Blessed be the name of St. Elimine, who saw fit to reward my many long years of service with this boon.” “Love you too, sweetie,” Matthew said, “But could you please hurry this up? You’re upsetting m’lady.” He gestured to Lilina, who still stared at the dagger with tear-stained eyes. “Yes, of course,” Serra said, “But only for my precious little niece.” She grabbed her staff. “But before I can do that…” She suddenly tore the dagger from his abdomen, causing him to gasp in pain as blood oozed from the wound. “You know, that’s a really good look for you,” Serra said. “Hah,” Matthew said, “Not in front of the poor, impressionable girl.” Lilina was too worried to even listen to what they were saying. Serra spoke a few words, causing a sphere of healing energy to appear around her. With another word, it disappeared, then appeared around Matthew, causing the wound to close before their eyes. “Wow…” Lilina said, “Do you think you can teach me that kind of magic?” She looked to Serra, as excited as ever. “I don’t know,” Serra said, “Your auntie is a very busy woman. And my magic is derived from my faith in St. Elimine, which is rather different from anima magic, so it’d be difficult for you to learn.” “Oh, alright,” Lilina pouted. “I have no objection to you learning the healing arts from the perspective of a cleric or bishop,” Matthew said, “But I have only the strongest objections to you learning from this woman. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single member of the church across all of Elibe more ill-suited to the task than she.” “Well if he’s so against it,” Serra said, “I’d be glad to! Just call me Teacher Auntie Serra!” “Yay!” Lilina cheered. Matthew smiled slyly. “Hey,” Serra said, “You actually wanted me to teach her! You tricked me!” “C’mon, Serra,” Matthew said, “Does that sound like something I’d do?” “Yes!” she said, “That sounds exactly like something you’d do!” “Well there you have it, then,” he said. “Well I’m thrilled to spend more time with Lilly!” Serra said, “So there you have it, then!” “Uh, actually,” Lilina interjected, pointing to her side, “Matthew did cut me here.” Serra sighed and lightly knocked Matthew upside the head with her staff before healing Lilina’s cut.

Strength – Chapter 4

(To read the previous chapter of Strength, click here)

“So…” Lilina said, apprehensively at breakfast the next morning, “Do I still have to fight daddy?” “Not if you don’t want to,” Hector said. “Yaaaaayyyyyy!” Lilina said, “Now I never have to fight again!” “So you admit that your magic is weaker than my axe?” Hector asked. “Wha? I never said that!” Lilina pouted. “Well, if you think your magic is so cool, prove it to me!” Hector said. “Wait… so you’re saying I can fight you with magic?” Lilina asked. “Not quite,” Hector said, “I’m saying you have to. Magic is your calling; I won’t let you waste any more time practicing a weapon you aren’t suited to. And to make your magic stronger, I’ll let you study as much as you want!” “All right!” Lillina shouted, “You better get ready, daddy, ‘cuz I’m gonna kick your ass!” Lyn glared at her silently. She didn’t need to say anything. “S-sorry,” she said, meekly, “I mean, I’m gonna kick your butt.” “Better,” Lyn said. “Wait, so you have no problem with her threatening me?” Hector asked, indignantly. “Should I?” Lyn asked, teasingly, “You aren’t scared, are you?” “O-of c-course I’m n-not,” Hector said, acting afraid. “I-I’m sorry Daddy!” Lilina said, “I didn’t mean to scare you!” “Oh ho ho!” Hector laughed heartily, “Don’t worry princess, I’m not actually scared! I was just pretending!” “Oh really?” Lilina asked, “Well, if you’re not scared, I guess I’ll just have to fix that, won’t I?” “Ah ha ha,” Hector laughed, a bit uneasily, “We’ll see about that. Since you’re so fired up, why don’t we spar right after breakfast?” “You shouldn’t exercise right after eating, Daddy,” Lilina said, “You’ll get cramps.” “Oh yeah, I guess you’re right,” Hector said, “But my schedule’s pretty full today. I don’t know when else I could find time.” “Oh,” Lilina said, dejectedly, “Maybe I could train with someone else? Like Oswin!” “Oh, I’m sure you’d love that, wouldn’t you?” Hector said, “With his heavy armor, he’d be a sitting duck for your magic!” “Th-that’s not why!” Lilina pouted, “I’m just saying that he’s strong, so he’d be good at training me!” “Maybe,” Hector said, “But I’m the only one who can train you.” “What?” Lilina said, “But if I only fight daddy, I’ll only be good at fighting Daddy! And no one else fights like Daddy, so I wouldn’t be strong!” “She makes a good point,” Lyn said. “If she must learn to fight, she would be better suited learning to fight her enemies, rather than her allies.” “Easier said than done,” Hector said, “It’s not like I can borrow some wyvern knights for her to train against.” “W-wyverns?” Lilina asked, timidly. “N-never mind, sweetie,” Hector said, “I see where you’re coming from, but in the end, I have to be the one to train you.” “Why?” Lilina asked, “Is this some dumb masculinity thing?” Lyn smiled. “Yes, kinda!” Hector said, “But more importantly, everyone else is too afraid to fight you.” “Really?” Lilina asked, beaming, “They’re afraid of my magic?” “Don’t sound so excited!” Hector said, “And it’s not really my magic they’re afraid of, it’s me. All my knights know that if they accidentally hurt you while sparring, they’d have to answer to me.” “I could spar with m’lady,” Matthew interjected, suddenly entering the room, “I would never dream of answering to you, m’lord.” “Very funny,” Hector growled, “I may put up with your antics far more than you deserve, but if you were to harm my daughter, neither your quick tongue nor you quick feet would keep you safe.” “Be at ease, m’lord,” Matthew said, “If she’s even half as sturdy as you, m’lord, then I scarcely think I could harm her if I tried.” “Th-that’s not true!” Lilina said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Uncle Matthew! You fought against The Black Fang and Nergal! I bet you can beat someone like me easily!” “Well, probably if I tried really hard,” Matthew said, “But I’d never do that while sparring, much less against m’lord’s precious princess.” “And just what is that supposed to mean?” Hector asked. “Well, nothing fit to discuss in the presence of m’ladies,” Matthew said, “But let’s just say that I picked up a few tricks when we were fighting The Black Fang.” “Oh… OK then,” Hector said, suspiciously, “Well, despite that, I guess I trust you to spar with Lilina. Just don’t use anything sharp.”

 

“I could train her,” Lyn said. “A-are you sure?” Hector asked, “If you hurt her…” “I’d never forgive myself,” Lyn said, “But it’s not like I’d forgive you if you hurt her. And besides, I could use the training myself.” “B-but Mommy,” Lilina said, “I don’t want to hurt you.” “Hah, you sound just like your father,” Lyn said. “M’lady!” Matthew cried out, “No child deserves such a cruel insult, much less your own daughter!” Lyn and Lilina laughed while Hector scowled. “It’s fine, Uncle Matthew,” Lilina said, “I like daddy! For now.” “I do, too,” Lyn said, “But in this case, you could afford to be a bit less like him. I may not be big and tough like he is, but I can hold my own. You don’t have to worry about me.” “Your mother’s right,” Hector said, “If you’re not careful, you could end up a big dummy like me!” “Oh no!” Lilina said, “Anything but that!” They all laughed, even Hector.

 

“So, when are we doing this, m’lady?” Matthew asked Lilina, “I’m free basically whenever.” “Uhhhhh, I guess I am, too,” Lilina said, “Let’s fight right after breakfast, then!” “Hey, wouldn’t you get cramps?” Hector asked. “It should be fine,” Lilina said, “If I’m just doing magic, I’m not really exercising, right?” “Er, I guess you’d know better than I would,” Hector said, “But what about Matthew? Have you eaten breakfast?” “Of course not, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I do not eat. The shadows are my sustenance.” “I… what.” Hector said. “Listen,” Matthew said, “Don’t even worry about it.” “Way ahead of you,” Hector said. “But I still want to spar with you, Mommy!” Lilina said, “Just find me whenever you’re ready! And make sure you’re prepared, ‘cuz I won’t go easy on you!” “Of course, Princess,” Lyn said, “Just make sure you’re ready, too.” “Don’t worry!” Lilina said, “I will be!”


 

“Lilina! Dinner’s ready!” Hector shouted for the third time, “You’ll have plenty of time to study afterwards! Don’t make me come up there!” Lilina came down the stairs, pouting. “I’m not coming because you told me to,” she said, “I’m just coming because I’m hungry.” “Is something the matter, Princess?” Hector asked. “Daaaaaaadddddyyyyyyyy,” she whined, “Mommy and Matthew were cheeeeeaaaaaatiiiinnnggg.” “Oh?” Hector said, surprised, “I can’t say I’m surprised by Matthew, but I didn’t expect that from you, Dear. So, how did you cheat?” “Beats me,” Lyn said, “This is the first I’ve heard of it.” “Same here,” Matthew said, robbed of his usual dramatic entry by Hector allowing him to dine with his family, “I did no such thing. I give you my word.” “Your word is no good here!” Hector said. “Of course, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Then I give you Lilina’s.” “It doesn’t work like-” Hector began. “Daaaaddddddyyyyy, they’re llyyyyyyiiiiiinnnngggg,” Lilina interjected as she sat down and crossed her arms, “Any time I tried to cast a spell on them, they just got out of the way!” “Oh, sweetie,” Hector said, “That’s not cheating, it’s just part of combat. In a real life-or-death fight, you can’t expect your enemies to let you hit them.” “But you never did that, daddy!” Lilina pouted. “Well, I wear heavy armor,” Hector said, “For me, it’s easier to just let weak attacks hit me than it is to try to dodge.” “So you’re saying my attacks are weak?” Lilina asked, sadly. “Well, when you weren’t using magic… kinda, yeah,” Hector said, “But you can bet I’ll try my best to avoid those fireballs of yours.” “But that’s not faaaaaiiiiiirrrr,” Lilina whined. “Don’t worry,” Hector said, “I’m way easier to hit than Mommy or Matthew, even without my armor, so I probably won’t be able to dodge much. But if dodging is cheating, then that means you were cheating when we were sparring before!” “What, you think I should just stand there while you’re swinging your axe around like a madman? I’m not a big dummy like you.” “So it’s only cheating when someone else does it?” Hector asked. “Exactly!” Lilina said.

 

“There’s no such thing as cheating in warfare,” Matthew said, his demeanor as cheerful as ever, “Where I come from, we have a word for people who fight fair: losers. Whether someone bests you in honorable one-on-one combat or sticks a poisoned dagger in your back while you sleep, the result’s the same. So when you’re fighting for your life, you better be ready for every dirty trick in the book, because The Gods will turn a deaf ear to your pleas of ‘unfairness’ in the afterlife.” “Matthew!” Hector said, sternly, “You’re scaring her! Hold your tongue!” “If you are afraid of combat, m’lady,” Matthew said to Lilina, “Then you are wiser than your father. It is not the game that he makes it out to be.” “Matthew!” Hector shouted, “I’m not joking. I am ordering you to shut up!” “No can do, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I’m bound to protect M’lady before I’m bound to obey you.” “And just how do you figure you’re protecting her?” Hector demanded. “Because sparring isn’t the same thing as fighting,” Matthew said, “And if I don’t teach her that, someone else will, and they may not be nearly as nice about it as I.” “I…” Hector realized he had a point, but couldn’t admit it.

 

“Lilina,” Matthew said, sounding as sincere as Hector had ever heard, “I really am sorry for scaring you. But it’s better to be scared now, when you’re safe, then on the battlefield, when your life is in danger, right?” “R-right,” she said. “So… you’re saying I should cheat?” “Not when you’re sparring,” Matthew said, “But in a real fight? Do whatever it takes to survive, and be prepared for your enemy to do the same.” “Like what?” Lilina asked, “How do people cheat in real fights?” “Well, I could show you a few tricks,” Matthew said, “With m’lord’s permission, of course.” “Absolutely not,” Hector said, “I won’t have you teaching my daughter how to kick people in the nuts or whatever.” “Afraid, m’lord?” Matthew asked. Hector only sighed. “I don’t think it’s such a bad idea,” Lyn said. “Huh?” Hector said. “Well, Lilina can cast powerful spells,” Lyn said, “But there’s more to combat than hitting hard. With Matthew’s help, she could learn how to get the upper hand in a real fight so she can hit enemies before they hit her.” “…Fine,” Hector said, “Just don’t teach her anything too unbecoming of a lady.” “There are no ladies or gentlemen on the battlefield,” Matthew said, “Only warriors. And anything is becoming of them, so long as it helps them survive.” “I… wow,” Hector said, genuinely surprised, “That was… kind of eloquent.” “Many thanks, m’lord,” Matthew said. “That said,” Lyn said, “As powerful as your spells are, sweetie, I noticed that it takes you a while to cast them, making them easy to dodge. We should find a proper mage to tutor you.”

 

(To read the next chapter of Strength, click here)

Strength – Chapter 3

(To read the previous chapter of Strength, click here)

Hector took a deep breath as he stood in front of the door, his fist raised to knock. He had fought assassins, a dark sorcerer, and even a dragon, but they all seemed mere child’s play compared to this. He sighed. He knocked on the door. “Go away!” The young girl’s words hurt more than any blade, any spell. But Hector had to be strong for her. “Lilina, sweetie, it’s your father. Please let me in.” “I knew it was you, daddy. That’s why I told you to go away! I’m not sparring with you! Never again!” “I’m not here to make you spar,” Hector lied, “I just want to talk.” “Why?” Lilina asked, “Am I in trouble?” “No,” Hector said, “You’re not in trouble. I’m not mad. I just want to talk to you.” “You’ve never wanted to talk to me about anything!” Lilina said, “All you ever care about is fighting! You love fighting more than you love me!” “That’s not true, sweetie,” Hector said, “I only want to protect you. If it would keep you safe, I’d never touch an axe for the rest of my life.” “You’re just saying that!” Lilina said, “Do you think I’m stupid?” “No, of course not,” Hector said, “I just… please open the door, Lilina.” “No!” Lilina said, “Why don’t you just break the door down, if you’re so strong? Fighting is the only thing you’re good at because you’re such a big dummy!” “I can’t force you to talk to me,” Hector said, “I need you to want to talk to me.” “Well I don’t want to talk to you!” Lilina shouted, “So go away!”

 

“Hey, Lilina,” Hector said, “Do you want to hear a story?” “A story?” Lilina said excitedly, before remembering that she was angry, “I mean, no! I don’t! It’s probably another one of your boring war stories!” “It takes place during the war,” Hector said. “Booooooooorriiiiiiing!” Lilina interjected. “But it’s not about the war,” Hector said. “Then what’s it about?” Lilina asked, trying to hide her curiousity. “It’s about drama,” Hector said. “Drama?” Lilina echoed. “And love.” “L-love?” “And a little bit of… magic.” “MAGIC!” The door suddenly swung open. “I wanna hear the story!” Lilina said, her face beaming. She quickly scowled. “But I still don’t like you, daddy,” she said. “That’s OK, sweetie,” he said, “Even the closest family gets into fights sometimes. It’s impossible to like someone all of the time, but you can still love them all the time, even if you don’t like them. And you love me, right?” “Right,” Lilina said, smiling, “I… I love you, daddy.” She started scowling again. “But I still don’t like you,” she said. “Ah hah hah!” Hector laughed, “You really are too cute. Now, may I come in?” “I guess,” Lilina said, with an exaggerated eye roll. She jumped up on her bed, while Hector sat in a chair that was far too small for him. “Say,” Lilina said, “If it’s impossible to like someone all of the time… does that mean that you don’t always like me?” “O-of course it doesn’t!” Hector said, “Daddies are different. They always like their precious little angel, no matter what!” “And what about mommies?” Lilina asked. “Mommies, too,” Hector said. “Yay!” Lilina said, snuggling up under her blankets, “Now tell me the story!” “Er, it’s not a bedtime story,” Hector said. “I know!” she said, “I just want to be comfy in case it’s boring.” “You better not fall asleep on me, alright?” Hector said. Lilina nodded.
“Once upon a time, there was a young lord of Lycia, a dashing noble who was so handsome and strong that the mere mention of his name would cause the ladies to swoon, and his enemies to shake in their boots. And that young man’s name was, of course-” “Uncle Eliwood?” Lilina interjected. “What? No!” Hector said, “He was Hector! Me!” “Daddy, I don’t like this story,” Lilina said, “It’s too unrealistic.” “It really happened! I swear!” Hector said. “Whatever, dad,” Lilina said, “When’s the magic?” “Fine,” Hector said, “I was going to build up to it, but since you’re in such a hurry…”
“As you know, the sorcerer Nergal took control of a group of assassins called The Black Fang, so that he could use them to gather quintessence. And, I know how much you love magic, but-” “I promise to never practice dark and forbidden arts,” Lilina said, mockingly, “Daddy, you make me promise that every time.” Hector laughed. “Well, after we defeated The Black Fang, we still had to stop Nergal. He was incredibly strong.” “Even stronger than daddy?” Lilina asked. “Yeah,” Hector said, “Even stronger than daddy.” Lilina smiled. “Hey, don’t smile at that!” Hector said, “The man was seriously evil! He wanted to start a war just so he could get even stronger! So to stop him, we had to get stronger.” “With magic?” Lilina guessed, excitedly. “With weapons,” Hector said. “Boooooooooooooo!” Lilina said. “Magic weapons,” Hector said. “Oh?” Lilina said, “Wait, you’ve told me about this before. Durandal and Armads, right?” “That’s exactly right,” Hector said, “I should’ve known you’d remember.” “But magic weapons are lame, daddy!” Lilina said, “That hardly counts! And I’ve heard this story before! You’ve told me about how you and mommy and Uncle Eliwood saved the world a bajillion times!” “A bajillion isn’t a real number, sweetie,” Hector said. “Geez, dad, I know that,” Lilina said, “I was exaggerating.” “Ah, yes, well, anyway,” Hector said, “Since you’re such an expert, why don’t you tell the story?” “Ugh, fine,” Lilina said, “To prepare for your final battle with Nergal, Greybeard teleported you to the resting places of the weapons of two of the legendary heroes. Durandal, wielded by Roland of Lycia, and Armads, wielded by Durban of the Western Isles. You had to fight some ghost soldiers or something and overcome a trial to prove yourself worthy. Once you got Armads and Eliwood got Durandal, Eliwood accidentally hurt Auntie Ninian because-”

 

“Yes, well, we both know how the rest of it goes,” Hector said, “But the story you just told me is wrong.” “Nuh uh!” Lilina insisted, “That’s exactly what you told me!” “I know it is,” Hector said, “But… it’s not the truth. I’m sorry I lied to you.” “Huh?” Lilina said, “Then what is the truth? And why did you lie to me?” “Well,” Hector said, “The truth… is that I never claimed Armads. As for why I lied… I guess I just wanted you to think I was a cool hero, like Eliwood. I’m sorry.” “What else did you make up?” Lilina demanded, “I bet you weren’t even the strongest in Eliwood’s army! Did you even fight at all?” “I did fight,” Hector said, “Your daddy helped save the world. And I was at least one of the strongest.” “So why didn’t you take the axe?” Lilina asked, “Didn’t you want to be stronger so you could beat Nergal?” “I did,” Hector said. “I overcame the trial, and was standing before the axe. It spoke to me.” “The axe was talking?” Lilina asked, skeptically, “Daddy, that’s silly.” “It was a magic axe!” Hector said, “I don’t know how it works!” “So what did it say?” Lilina asked. “It said that if I took it, it would grant me the power I needed to strike down my enemies. But it said that power came at a cost. That axe… was cursed.” “Really?” Lilina asked, “What kind of curse?” “It said that those who live in battle die in battle. It would have cursed me to meet a violent and painful end.” “Are you sure it was going to curse you?” Lilina asked. “Of course,” Hector said, “Axes are the most honest things I know.” “I don’t think a curse like that is possible,” Lilina said, “It may have been more metaphorical. Like you said, if you live in battle, you die in battle. Any time you fight, you risk dying. If you think of it like that, you could almost say that EVERY weapon is cursed.” “I…” Hector had never considered that. “Well, anyway, at the time I thought the curse was real, and maybe it is! We can’t know for sure.” “But still, why didn’t you take it?” Lilina said, “I thought you said you’d die to stop Nergal.” “I thought that at the time, too,” Hector said, “But when I reached for the axe… I suddenly remembered your mother’s face. Neither of us dared to admit it, but we were in love, even back then. It’d break her heart if I died before she had a chance to confess her feelings. She’d regret it for the rest of her life. And I was willing to die… but I wasn’t willing to do that to her.” “So you did it… for mom?” Lilina asked.

 

“That’s not all,” Hector said, “I remembered my brother, whose death I was still struggling to cope with. I remembered my parents. I remembered how sad mommy looked when mourning her own parents. I remembered when Nergal killed Eliwood’s father right before our very eyes. I remembered how cold and lifeless and broken Leila’s body was, so different from how she was in life, and how Matthew-” Lilina began shivering in fright under her covers. “Sorry, sweetie,” Hector said, “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just… I’d seen a lot of death. I’d seen and felt the pain of losing someone dear to you. And I didn’t want to do that to anyone. Not to my wife, and certainly not to my daughter.” “What?” Lilina said, “But this was years before I was born! You and mom weren’t even married yet!” “That’s true,” Hector said, “But I knew I’d marry your mom and start a family with her.” “But how could you know you’d have a daughter?” Lilina asked, “That’s impossible!” “Can you keep a secret?” Hector asked. She nodded her head vigorously. “This is something I’ve only ever told Eliwood, and even that was years ago. Not even your mother knows.” “What is it? What is it? What is it?” Lilina asked, desperately.

 

“The truth is… I had a prophetic dream about you back then,” Hector said. “What?” Lilina said, “That’s silly, daddy! Prophecies aren’t real!” “If only that were the case…” Hector said. “Huh?” Lilina asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Er, nothing, sweetie,” Hector said, “But the dream I had is real. You can ask Eliwood; I’m sure he remembers.” “Whatever, dad,” she said, “It was real!” Hector insisted, “I was there, but I had this kick-ass beard, so I didn’t recognize myself. Oh, uh, ‘kick-ass’ is a grown-up word. Don’t tell mommy I said it.” Lilina nodded. “And you were there,” Hector said, “The cutest girl I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And when I thought about how I might put you through the suffering I’d seen time and time again… I couldn’t.” “So you didn’t take the axe?” Lilina said, “But what if you weren’t strong enough to beat Nergal?” “Well, I was, wasn’t I?” “Eliwood was,” Lilina corrected. “Ah hah hah! You’re exactly right!” Hector said. “I didn’t take the axe because I believed in Eliwood’s strength, and mommy’s strength, and the strength of all of my other friends. And because I love you more than I love fighting.” “Wow,” Lilina said, “If you would throw away that power for me… I guess you’re right. I’m really sorry I said you love fighting more than you love me.” “That’s OK, sweetie,” Hector said, “I’m sorry I lied to you.” “Daddy… I’m sorry I said I didn’t like you,” Lilina said, “I like you again.” “Thank you,” Hector said, smiling, “I like you too.” “This means I don’t have to fight, right?” Lilina asked, beaming joyfully.

 

Hector’s face hardened. “I’m… afraid that it doesn’t, sweetie.” He said. “Wh-what?” Lilina began crying. “B-but you just said! You said that fighting sucks and if I do it I’ll get cursed! I don’t want to get cursed!” “You’re not getting cursed, sweetie,” Hector said. “But why?” Lilina sobbed, “I don’t want to fight. It’s hard and it hurts and I HATE IT!” “That’s life, sometimes,” Hector said, “Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it hurts. And sometimes, you hate it. But you have to keep living it.” “That’s stupid!” Lilina shouted, “You’re stupid, daddy! I don’t like you anymore!” “Do you think I want to do this, Lilina?” Hector asked, losing his temper, “Do you think I enjoy hurting my daughter? Because I don’t. I hate it more than anything!” “THEN STOP!” Lilina wailed, “JUST STOP! NO ONE WANTS YOU TO!” “THE PEOPLE WANT ME TO!” Hector shouted. “THEN THE PEOPLE ARE STUPID, AND I DON’T LIKE THEM, EITHER!” Lilina said.

 

“Lilina,” Hector said, his voice gravely calm, “You can talk to me that way because I am your father, and I will love you no matter what, but you must never speak ill of the people you are sworn to protect.” “If I can talk to you that way, then I will!” Lilina said, “YOU’RE STUPID, DADDY! STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID STUPID!” Hector sighed. She’d been spending too much time with Matthew. “I’m being serious, Lilina.” Hector said, “When you are Marquess, your subjects won’t respect you unless you respect them in turn.” “I DON’T WANT THEM TO RESPECT ME!” Lilina screamed, “I DON’T WANT TO BE MARQUESS! I DON’T WANT TO PROTECT A KINGDOM THAT WANTS MY DADDY TO HURT ME!” “They don’t want me to hurt you,” Hector said, “They just want you to be strong. That’s why you have to train.” “But I don’t want to,” Lilina sobbed, no longer possessing the strength to shout. “I don’t want any of this. I never asked to be Marquess. Can’t you find someone else?” “It’s not that simple,” Hector said, “We’re descendants of Roland, or so the story goes. It’d be tough to get the people to accept a ruler who didn’t share the blood of the legendary hero.” “Then why do I have to be strong?” Lilina asked, “Why do they care? Isn’t it too dangerous for the Marquess to actually fight on the battlefield? Wouldn’t it be better to have a smart Marquess who’s good at strategy to lead her troops to victory?” “Maybe it would be,” Hector admitted, “But that’s not what the people of Ostia expect of their Marquesses. We come from a long line of men of action. Men who didn’t just speak of protecting their subjects, but actually stood on the front lines and risked their lives to protect their kingdom.” “Then we come from a long line of idiots!” Lilina said. “That may be so,” Hector said, “But if you don’t join their ranks, the people won’t trust you. If they revolted, not just Ostia, but all of Lycia would be thrown into chaos. You don’t want that, do you?” “I DON’T CARE!” Lilina shouted, her voice hoarse, “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE PEOPLE, OR BEING STRONG, OR YOU, DADDY! I DON’T LIKE YOU AND I DON’T LOVE YOU! I HATE YOU!”

 

“Lilina…” Hector was holding back tears. But he wouldn’t cry. Not in front of her. “I know you’re upset,” Hector said, “But please don’t say that. You can say any other nasty thing about me you want, even if you have to use grown-up words. Just… please don’t say that you don’t love me.” “YOU’RE A GODDAMNED SON OF AN ASS-BREATHING MOUTH HOLE!” Lilina shouted, “AND I DON’T LOVE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!!!” “I’m sorry,” Hector said, his voice as calm as the eye of the storm, “But you leave me no choice. You’re a clever girl. One day you’ll understand why I have to do this. I can only hope that you’ll forgive me then.” “Wh-what are you doing?” Lilina asked. Hector stood up. “If you won’t listen to words, I guess I’ll just have to use brute force. That’s all I’m good at, isn’t it?” He took a step towards her. “D-daddy, you’re scaring me,” Lilina said, “Are you going to hurt me?” “I’m not your daddy right now,” Hector said, “He tried to talk some sense into you, but you wouldn’t listen. So now, I must do my duty as marquess, and ensure that a strong heir succeeds me. If you don’t want to get hurt, fight back.” “But I don’t want to hurt you, daddy!” Lilina sobbed. “Don’t want to, or can’t?” Hector asked, “That excuse may fly with Eliwood, but it won’t fly with me. I’ve made it too many times to fall for it. You’re not holding back, you’re just weak!” “Daddy… thinks I’m weak?” Lilina said. “I’ve given you plenty of chances to prove otherwise, haven’t I?” Hector said, “Yet every time, you’ve come up short. And it’s fine to be weak, so long as you’re getting stronger, but you’re not! Because you’re too busy with your silly little books to train!” “MY BOOKS ARE NOT SILLY!” Lilina shouted. “One last chance,” Hector said, “I’m giving you one last chance to come with me to the training grounds before I pick you up and carry you there myself.” “No!” Lilina said, “I don’t want to!” “Well that’s too bad,” Hector said, “Because you’re too weak to stop me.” “I’m not weak!” Lilina said, “I’ll… I’LL KILL YOU, DADDY!” “I’d like to see you try,” Hector said, lunging towards his daughter.

 

Before he reached her, Lilina shouted something that Hector didn’t quite understand. There was a flash of light, a loud bang, a wave of heat. Hector was knocked backwards, crushing the chair that he was sitting in as he crumpled to the floor. “Daddy!” Lilina panicked as she rushed to her father’s side. “Daddy, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean any of the bad stuff I said! I love you so much, daddy! So please… please!” “What… what just happened?” Hector asked as he sat up, disoriented. “Daddy!” Hector winced in pain as his daughter hugged him. “What’s wrong?” Lilina asked. “I don’t know,” Hector said, “It almost feels like I got burnt.” “I’m so sorry, daddy!” Lilina sobbed, “I didn’t want to hurt you! But the way you were talking… it sounded like you hated me!” “Wait a second,” Hector said, “You did this to me?” “Y-yeah,” Lilina said, “I used a fire spell. I’m really sorry, I… are you crying?” “I am,” Hector said, brushing the tears from his eyes.” “I… I’ve never seen daddy cry before.” “Because you’ve never seen me this happy before,” Hector said. He hugged his daughter tight, ignoring the pain. “I’m so proud of you, sweetie.” “I… I don’t understand,” Lilina said, “Am I not in trouble?” “No, not at all,” Hector said, “You don’t have to spar today. It’s okay, now. Everything is going to be okay.” “Does that mean I don’t have to be strong anymore?” Lilina asked.

 

“No,” Hector said, “It means you already are.” “B-but you said I was weak…” Lilina said. “And you knocked me flat on my ass, didn’t you?” Hector said, “A weakling couldn’t do that. I only ever thought you were weak because I’m a big dummy. To me, strength has always been about swinging around a piece of metal. But you taught me that it’s more than just that.” “I think I get it,” Lilina said, “Even though I’m not strong with axes, like you, I can be strong with magic?” “Exactly,” Hector said, “You will never truly be strong if you have someone else’s idea of strength forced upon you. You must find your own inner strength.” “My own inner strength…” Lilina said, “It’s not just about using a different weapon, is it?” “Huh? Uh, well,” Hector said, hesitantly. “Like with you and Uncle Eliwood,” Lilina said, “Even when you both use swords, you’re completely different. And even when you’re not fighting, you have different ideas of what it means to be a strong ruler, and a strong person. Everyone does. And I guess I have to find that for myself.” “Ah hah hah hah!” Hector laughed, “Eliwood explained this to me a few days ago, and I’m just now getting it. But in just a few minutes, you already understand better than I do! You really are clever.” “Thanks daddy. And… I’m sorry I hurt you and said all those mean things.” “I’m sorry too, sweetie,” Hector said, “But it’s OK. Because we still love each other. Right?” “Right!” Lilina said, “I love you, daddy!” “I love you, too, sweetie,” Hector said.

 

(To read the next chapter of Strength, click here)

Strength – Chapter 2

(To read the previous chapter of Strength click here)

The oaf you requested, M’lady,” Matthew said, as he and Hector arrived at House Ostia, “Though I suspect the inelegant clanking of his armor already alerted you to his presence.” “Many thanks,” Lyn said, “You’re as timely a courier as ever.” “Hey, I’m right here!” Hector said, “Don’t talk about me like I’m some package to be delivered! And Matthew, if I wanted your opinion on my armor, I would have asked for it!” “Well, I think your armor’s cute,” Lyn said, “It’s like a bell you put on a housecat so you know if it’s getting into trouble.” “I, er,” Hector said, starting to blush. “Bravo, Lady Lyndis,” Matthew said, “I thought myself the master of getting under m’lord’s skin, but it seems I still have much to learn.” “D-don’t say that like it’s something to be proud of!” Hector said.  “Although, now that I think about it,” Lyn said, “Why do you always wear armor? I’ve known you for over a decade, yet I can’t seem to recall or even imagine you wearing normal clothes like a normal person.” “Well, for all his many faults, m’lord is an honest man,” Matthew said, “He would never seek to deceive anyone into believing he’s a normal person.” “Quiet, you,” Hector said, “And the reason you can’t remember me not wearing armor is probably because I look so swarthy and bold in my armor that it overpowers any other memory of me. I’m sure I’ve worn ‘normal’ clothes since we met.” “But can you recall a specific instance?” Lyn asked, “Because I can’t. You even wore armor to our wedding.” “Only after I asked you if you were OK with it and you said that you were!” Hector said. “I was, and I am,” Lyn said, “But I assumed it was some kind of Lycian tradition until we attended Eliwood’s wedding, where he looked far more dashing in his suit.” “Of course he did!” Hector said, “He’s Eliwood! But you must admit, I looked swarthier than he did.” Lyn chuckled. “I must.”

 

“Well, surely there must have been at least one time that you saw m’lord without his armor,” Matthew said, “Lilina’s very existence is testament to that. Unless he keeps his armor on?” “M-Matthew!” Hector said, flustered, “Don’t speak of such vulgar things in front of Lady Lyndis!” Lyn laughed. “If I couldn’t handle vulgar things, I never would have married Lord Hector in the first place,” Lyn said, “Out of respect for my husband’s privacy, I can’t answer your question, but I have no qualms with him telling you himself.” Matthew looked to Hector expectantly. “I… this is ridiculous!” Hector said, “I… I am Marquess Ostia! I don’t have to answer your insane questions! Do you think Eliwood puts up with this kind of tomfoolery from his retainers?” “Y’know,” Matthew said, “If you refuse to answer the question, you’re basically admitting to the more embarrassing answer.” “I don’t admit to anything!” Hector said, “I just don’t want to dignify your question with a response? How would you like it if I asked about your sex life with Serra?” “How would you like it if I answered?” Matthew asked. “I, uh,” Hector stammered. “I know I rarely act it, m’lord,” Matthew said, matter-of-factly, “But the truth is that you are my dearest friend in all of Elibe. I’m not nice to you nearly often enough, but I’m going to try to make up for that by doing something very, very nice for you, right now.” “And what’s that?” Hector asked, a bit frightened by Matthew’s sudden change in demeanor. “I will warn you that you absolutely would not like it if I answered,” Matthew said, gravely serious. “Matthew, I’ve been your friend long enough to know when you’re trying to trick me,” Hector said, “Because you’re always trying to trick me! I won’t fall for your reverse psychology!” “I’m proud of you for seeing through my deceptions, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Next time I’ll have to come up with a more believable lie.” “You’d better!” Hector said, “You’d make a poor spymaster if even a fool like me could see through your lies.” “Hah, yeah…” Matthew said.

 

“Actually, m’lord,” Matthew said, “If you’ll forgive me for breaking character… I just want to say I really meant all that stuff I said. I know my antics can be tiring, even if you know it’s all in good fun. But even so, after all these years, after all the jokes I’ve taken too far… you still put up with me, long after everyone else decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. And it’s… hard for me to be sincere like this, when I could just brush it off with a joke, but you’re worth the hardship, m’lord. You’re a good man, Hector, and I’m honored to call you my friend.” “I… yeah,” Hector said, “Er, I mean… I feel the same way. As Marquess Ostia, everyone has such high expectations of me, and I always have to pretend I’m someone I’m not. But around you, I can just be Hector, the big rowdy idiot I’ve been since we were kids. And you may be a pain in the ass at times, but if it weren’t for you, I’d have gone mad from boredom years ago. And I never tell you how much I appreciate it, but I do. You’re my best fri-” The word caught in his throat. Matthew laughed. “It’s OK, m’lord,” he said, “there’s no shame in coming second to Eliwood.” “Glad I’m not the only one who thinks so!” Hector said. “Hah,” Matthew said, “I had planned to stop making jokes at your expense, but if you insist…” “Bring it!” Hector said, “We’re friends, and friends don’t hold each other back!”

 

“You two really are too cute together,” Lyn said. Hector blushed.  “You are a kinder woman than the likes of me deserves,” Matthew said. “See, isn’t it so much easier to just tell the truth?” Hector asked. “Nicely done, m’lord,” Matthew said to Hector, before turning back to Lyn, “To repay your generosity, I’ll tell you why m’lord always wears his armor. As I’m sure you already know, m’lord is deathly afraid of bears.” “I can’t say that I did know that,” Lyn said, “Why did you never tell me?” “Because I’m not!” Hector said, “Matthew’s just trying to make me angry!” “Then you would fight a bear for m’lady?” Matthew asked. “Of course I would!” Hector said, “I would do anything to keep her safe!” “I apologize for not making myself clear, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Would you fight a bear solely to prove your love, even if she were not in danger?” “I… no?” Hector said. “Because you’d be too afraid, m’lord?” Matthew asked. “No!” Hector said, “Because why would that prove my love? Lyn would hate it if I fought a bear! This whole thing is idiotic!” “Perhaps you are correct, m’lord,” Matthew said, “Suppose, hypothetically, of course, that I could signal a nearby bear to appear at this very moment. How would you react?” “What kind of question is that?” Hector demanded, “Of course you don’t have a bear nearby! That’s impossible… isn’t it?” “I don’t know, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I am rather tricky.” “I swear to all the gods, Matthew,” Hector said, “If you’ve somehow smuggled a bear into House Ostia as a sick practical joke, I am terminating you. And I’m not talking about your employment!” “An excellent barb, m’lord,” Matthew said, “But I don’t think you’d get so worked up if you weren’t afraid of bears. I rest my case.”

 

“He does make a pretty compelling argument, dear,” Lyn said, “You did sound rather frightened.” “Because Matthew’s insane!” Hector said, “I absolutely believe that he would risk life and limb just to play a practical joke on me.” “You flatter me, m’lord,” Matthew said. “So you confess?” Lyn asked. “Yes!” Hector said, “Fine! I’m afraid of bears. Aren’t you? They’re large and strong, with sharp claws and teeth! I have a very normal amount of fear of bears! I’m tired of discussing this, so I’ll just let you say whatever ridiculous lie you’ve cooked up in that devious little brain of yours.” “Many thanks,” Matthew said, “As I was saying, everyone knows that in the event of a bear attack, you should make yourself seem large, right? And that’s exactly why m’lord wears armor all the time.” Lyn laughed. Hector physically bit his tongue to keep from interrupting. “My goodness,” Lyn said, “Why is he so afraid of bears?” “I thought you’d never ask,” Matthew said, “When Hector was young, his brother read him a bedtime story about a cartoon bear. I believe it was called-” “Don’t you dare speak his name,” Hector said, gravely serious. “What’s the matter, m’lord?” Matthew asked, “I thought you agreed to let me tell whatever ridiculous lie I’ve cooked up in this devious little brain of mine. The only reason I can think of why you’d interrupt me is if I were somehow telling the truth.” Hector sighed deeply.

 

“OK, fine, I admit it. When I was very young, I was afraid of a particular bear from a storybook that my brother read me. In all honestly, I’d forgotten all about it until this one,” Hector said, jabbing Matthew’s shoulder, “Brought it up.” “Why was your brother telling you scary stories at such a young age?” Lyn asked. “You misunderstand, m’lady,” Matthew said, “It wasn’t a scary story. I believe it was a tale about how friendship is the most powerful magic of all.” “You’d better hope it is,” Hector said, “Because friendship is the only thing keeping me from striking you down where you stand!” Matthew gave an exaggerated laugh, slapping his knee like he’d just heard the funniest thing in the world. “What’s so funny?” Hector asked, “That was no jest.” Matthew stopped laughing. “Well, then I find your words most troubling, m’lord,” he said, “If you think friendship is all that stops you from striking me down, then you must have forgotten about my lightning quick refl-” He was interrupted by Hector’s armored fist, crashing into his face and knocking him to the ground. “Hector!” Lyn reprimanded. “He started it!” Hector whined, “And I didn’t even hit him that hard! I’m sure he’s fine.” But Matthew remained on the ground, giving no indication that he was fine. “Is he breathing?” Lyn asked, “Maybe I should go get a healer.” Hector sighed. “Matthew, I know you’re fine,” he said, “But you’re scaring Lady Lyndis, so hurry up and-” Before Hector could finish his sentence, Matthew rose from the ground and punched Hector in the crotch with all his might.

 

Hector recoiled slightly from Matthew’s attack, but Matthew himself winced and cried out in pain. “And this, m’lady,” Matthew said, presenting his bloodied knuckles to Lyn, “is why m’lord wears armor.” Lyn laughed. “Is that so?” She asked, jokingly. “I… yeah, pretty much, actually,” Hector said, “Even a run-of-the-mill degenerate like Matthew could best me if he caught me off guard. And since a run-of-the-mill degenerate like him could always be lurking nearby, I have to always stay on guard.” “You wound me, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I’ll have you know that I am in fact quite an exceptional degenerate.”

 

(To read the next chapter of Strength, click here)

Strength – Chapter 1

“Eliwood, be honest with me,” Hector began, “Am… am I a bad father?” “Of course not!” Eliwood said, “You’re a great man!” “Well, of course I am,” Hector said, “But so was King Desmond. Some great men are terrible fathers. And I’m afraid that I’m one of them.” “Well, have you ever hired assassins to murder Lilina?” Eliwood asked. “What?” Hector asked, “Of course not!” “Well, at least you’re better than King Desmond, then,” Eliwood laughed. “Eliwood,” Hector said, “I’m being serious.” “Ah, forgive me,” Eliwood said, “It’s just… unlike you to have doubts.” “I have doubts all the time,” Hector said, “But everyone expects me to be strong. They need me to be. My friends, my people. So I can’t let them see my weakness.” “I know what you mean,” Eliwood said, “Sometimes, as Marquess, I worry I cannot live up to my subjects’ expectations of me. We’re only men, as imperfect as any creature on this Earth, yet we must be seen as something more than our fellow men. Something flawless. Something impossible.” “Hah,” Hector smirked, “You were always better with words than I. I was just going to say that it sucks.” “It does,” Eliwood agreed, “It sucks terribly.” Hector laughed.

 

“Well, since we’re being serious,” Eliwood said, “I’m glad that you trust me enough to confide in me. Know that I’m always here if you need my help, and that there’s no shame in asking for it.” “Yes, of course,” Hector said, “I know that, no matter how strong I am, I can’t take on the world myself. My brother taught me that. If only he’d realized it himself…” “I know you mourn his death anew with each day,” Eliwood said, “I feel the same way about my father. But nothing can come of worrying over your past.” “Guess I’ll just have to keep worrying over my future, then, huh?” Hector said. “You won’t end up like him,” Eliwood assured, firmly, “Your path has already diverged from his. Were Uther in your shoes, Armads’ warning would have fallen on deaf ears. He would have gladly accepted the power to protect those dear to him, even at the cost of his own life. But you didn’t.” “I was a selfish coward,” Hector said, “I just didn’t want to die. I had too much to live for.” “No, you were wise, for once in your life,” Eliwood said, “Sacrifice can be a selfish and cowardly act. For we feel no pain in death; it is the living who must suffer in our stead.” “My brother was no coward,” Hector growled. “My apologies,” Eliwood said, “I have the utmost respect for Lord Uther. He was strong, in body and spirit. But his strength, his need to carry the weight of the world on his own shoulders, is what killed him. It it is a fleeting victory to die protecting your loved ones, for you cannot protect them from the grave.” “So it’s better to live a weak man than die a strong man?” Hector asked. “No,” Eliwood said, “Your trust in your friends is not weakness. Just… a different kind of strength. Just like the two of us. We’re both strong, but in our own ways, right?” “Yeah, you’re right,” Hector said, “Thank you for the reassurance.”

 

“But even if it is in different ways,” Hector said, “I’m still stronger than you!” “Oh?” Eliwood said, “I think our dueling record would disagree.” “Those duels aren’t fair!” Hector said, “Your sword is much quicker than my axe, so I’m at a natural disadvantage! I’ve tried using a sword myself, but it’s just not as suited to my style.” “I think the problem is that a wielding a sword requires a style,” Eliwood chuckled, “You can’t just wildly swing it around.” “Well, with an axe, you can, and it works, damn it!” Hector shouted, “And I’m also at a disadvantage because I have to focus on restraining myself so I don’t accidentally kill you!” “I see,” Eliwood said, “And what about when I use a lance?” “Well, then you’re riding around on that blasted horse, and I can’t keep up!” Hector said, “It’s practically 2-on-1! But, despite all that, I still manage to win nearly as often as I lose. What’s the current score?” “53 wins, 50 losses, 12 draws, 115 total,” Eliwood said. “So I am winning!” Hector said. “No,” Eliwood said, “Those were my wins.” “And how can I be sure that you aren’t making those numbers up?” Hector asked, suspiciously. “Because I’m your most trusted friend?” Eliwood offered. “True,” Hector said, “We’re too good friends for that. That won’t stop me from kicking your ass next time, though!” “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Eliwood said.
“ANYWAY,” Hector said, “That isn’t what I came to you to talk about.” “I apologize for getting off-topic,” Eliwood said, “So, why are you worried? Is something the matter with Lilina?” “I don’t know if I’d say that,” Hector said, “It’s just, well… Roy is such a fine young man, isn’t he? He’s devoted to his studies and his training, he always does as he’s told, and he’s so very polite.” “Well, he’s more rambunctious than you think. I make sure he’s always on his best behavior when he’s visiting Uncle Hector,” Eliwood said, “Is Lilina negligent of her duties, disobedient, and rude? I can’t imagine where she’d get that from.” “What the Hell’s that supposed to mean, you craven son of a bitch?” Hector joked. “I was just saying that perhaps Lady Lyndis has been a bad influence on you and your daughter,” Eliwood said. Hector laughed heartily. “I’ve never heard a more ridiculous jape in all my life,” he said, “But there’s enough good from Lyn in her that she’s not rude. Not like me. Just… stubborn.” “So exactly like you, then?” Eliwood asked. “Yeah,” Hector said, “Too much like me, if I’m being honest. Every time she acts out, I can’t help but regret all the times I put my brother through the exact same thing.” “And how does she act out?” Eliwood asked, “She never struck me as anything other than a fine young lady.” “Well, she has no interest in learning to fight,” Hector said, “It’s a daily struggle to drag her from her studies to spar with her.” “So exactly the opposite of you, then?” Eliwood asked. “Yeah,” Hector said, laughing, “She’s bright, that girl. I tried helping her with her homework, once, but she ended up explaining it to me! I don’t know all that much about books, but even I can tell that she’s gifted. And I know that, as her father, I should be proud of her for that. But…” “But?”

 

“But she’s weak,” Hector said, somberly, “I know she’s just a child. When we were her age, we were also weak. But we fought, and trained, and got stronger. And she hasn’t. And I feel like, if I were a better parent, she would.” “I see,” Eliwood said, “How does Lady Lyndis feel about this?” “Huh?” Hector said, “Oh. I, uh… haven’t talked to her about it.” Eliwood playfully smacked the back of Hector’s head. “You dullard!” he said, “Lyn’s her mother, not to mention your wife. She’d know if you’re a good father much better than I would.” “You’re right, of course,” Hector said, “I… should go talk to her.” “Yes, you should,” Eliwood said, “And send her my regards. But before that… why is it important to you that Lilina is strong?” “What, are you saying my daughter should be weak?” Hector asked, defensively. “Nothing of the sort,” Eliwood said, “I’m just trying to consider your problem from a different perspective. Knowing you, the solution you have in mind is to make Lilina stronger, correct?” “Of course it is,” Hector said, “If the problem is that she isn’t strong enough, what other solution could there be?” “Well, the root problem could be in your need for her to be strong, or in how you define strength. If you force her to fight when she doesn’t want to, she’ll be unhappy; I am simply looking for a solution that avoids that,” Eliwood said. “I still don’t really get it,” Hector said, “But I guess that’s why I came to you for advice. Because you get things I don’t.” He took a deep breath and sighed.
“I really wish she didn’t have to be strong,” Hector said, “I wish I could protect her from ever having to know any suffering or hardship. Some say a life without pain is a life without meaning, but I’d give her a life like that in a heartbeat, no matter the cost. Those people haven’t seen the smile fade from my precious daughter’s face when she’s torn from her books. The excitement I see in her eyes… I think you’d recognize it. It looks exactly how I feel when I’m sparring with a worthy opponent. But I can’t protect that smile. I have to tear it from her face every day, because that is what my people expect of me. The people of Ostia will only respect a strong ruler, so I must have a strong heir. A weak Marquess will be challenged. It’s happened before; some have even been killed. And I can’t let that happen to my sweet Lilina.” “That is a tough situation,” Eliwood said, “I don’t suppose it would be easy to sway the minds of the people to accept a leader who values brains over brawn?” “If it’s possible, it’d take someone with far more brains than I,” Hector admitted, “And besides, that’s not all. I’m also worried about what Greybeard said.” “Athos’s last prophesy?” Eliwood asked. “Yeah,” Hector said, “He said an evil star would rise in Bern, and that all of Elibe would be consumed in war. We need Ostia to be as strong as possible for when that happens. It may fall to Lilina to fight that war in my stead.” “You’re right,” Eliwood said, “I pray this war never comes, but we must pass on our strength to our children, so that they can fight it, if they must.” “So then… what should I do about Lilina?” Hector asked. “It’s hard to say,” Eliwood said, “But I believe that Lilina is strong. She was raised by you and Lady Lyndis, after all. She may not be strong with axes or swords, like you or I, but strong in her own way.” “Strong in what way?” Hector asked, “Strong with books? A war cannot be won with just books.” “A war cannot be won with just axes, or just swords, either,” Eliwood said, “An effective army uses all weapons at its disposal. Each soldier has their own strengths and weaknesses, and by working together, they can defeat enemies that none of them individually would stand a chance against.” “That sounds like something Mark would say, on the rare occasions he’d speak,” Hector said, “And he’d be right. That is how he saved the world, after all. The power of friendship, more or less.” “More or less,” Eliwood agreed.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Hector said, “I’m still not sure I totally get it. But there’s one thing I know you’re right about. I have to believe in Lilina’s strength. She may be faced with challenges in her life, but I have faith that she’ll overcome them, even if it’s in a way I never would have imagined. So thank you, friend.” “You are most welcome,” Eliwood said, “And I’m sure you will get it, in time. After all, you have such a clever daughter to teach you.” “Hah!” Hector laughed, “You’re right. I’m sure she’ll get it through this thick skull of mine one of these days. But before then… I guess I shouldn’t put off talking to Lyn any longer.” “You probably shouldn’t,” Eliwood said, “And I should probably get back to Ninian’s side. She hates it when I’m away.” “I don’t know what that’s like,” Hector said, “Lyn probably celebrates every day she doesn’t have to put up with me!” “I’m sure she doesn’t,” Eliwood said, “She loves you, for some reason.” “Do you know what it is?” Hector asked, “I’d ask her myself, but I’m afraid she’d realize she’s out of my league. Then she’d have to move back to Sacae!” “I… huh?” Eliwood asked. “Well, as Marquess of Ostia, I’m kind of the leader of all of Lycia. So if she moved back to Sacae, she’d be outside of the Lycian League, which-” “Dear Gods,” Eliwood said, pinching the bridge of his nose, “With jokes that bad, you must be the greatest father in existence.” “Matthew would think it was funny!” Hector said.
“It was hilarious, m’lord,” Matthew said, startling them both. “Matthew? How long have you been eavesdropping?” Hector demanded, “Show yourself, you cur!” Matthew entered the room from the door. “As funny as it would be to pretend that I’ve been listening this whole time, m’lord, I actually just got here,” Matthew said, “The wife says you were meant to return from this meeting three hours ago, and would like a status report.” “I can’t help it if the meeting went long!” Hector said, angrily, “Everyone’s always talking so much at these meetings, and nothing ever gets done. And then I had to discuss some personal matters with Eliwood!” Matthew silently waved to Eliwood. “Understood, m’lord,” he said, “I shall take that exact tone with her.” “Don’t you dare,” Hector said, “I’m not angry at her. I’m just angry at… the government.” “Aren’t you the government, m’lord?” Matthew asked. “Oh, shut up,” Hector said, “Besides, I don’t need you to relay a message. I was just heading back.” “Is this true, m’lord?” “Of course it’s true!” Hector shouted, “Unlike you, I’m a man of integrity!” “I was speaking to him, m’lord,” Matthew said, pointing to Eliwood, “Although I guess he isn’t my lord. So how about it, y’lord?” “Hector speaks the truth,” Eliwood said, “We were just saying our goodbyes.” “Yes. I bid thee farewell,” Hector said to Eliwood, “And I bid THEE farewell,” he shouted, pointing to Matthew. “Another knee-slapper, m’lord,” Matthew said, “But this is no time for jests. I shall escort you back home. I am not to let you leave my sight.” “What, does Lyn not trust me?” Hector asked. “Oh, the Lady Lyndis trusts you with her life, m’lord,” Matthew said, “I’m the one who doesn’t trust you. And what must it say of you if someone as untrustworthy as me thinks you’re no good?” “That you’re a terrible judge of character!” Hector said. “Is that why I hold the Lady Lyndis in such high esteem?” Matthew asked. “Hey!” Hector growled, “You can poke fun at me all you want, but leave her out of it.” “Ah, I apologize, m’lord,” Matthew said, with something close to sincerity, “But I thank you for your permission to poke fun at you all I want.” Hector rolled his eyes. “You are impossible to deal with, you know that?” He said. “You know you love me, m’lord,” Matthew said. “Not as much as I hate the fact that I love you,” Hector said. “And I bid thee farewell,” Eliwood said. “Huh?” Hector said, “You’re still here?” “Yes, well, I didn’t want to leave without a proper goodbye,” Eliwood said, “And it’s rather difficult to interrupt when you are conversing so… spiritedly.” “Yeah, that’s a good word for it,” Matthew said, “Spiritedly. Anyway, take it easy, y’lord.” “You too, Matthew,” Eliwood said, “And Hector… I hope my advice helps.” “Me too, pal,” Hector said, “See you around.”

 

(To read the next chapter of Strength, click here)